The Michael Chekhov Acting Technique
The Michael Chekhov acting technique is a powerful method for actors that is less known than it should be. Many acting schools don't even teach it, although many aspects of the Chekhov technique, such as the use of the psychological gesture, are very useful to modern actors who must be ready to get into character at a moment's notice on a film set.
Michael Chekhov worked with Stanislavsky at The Moscow Art Theater, but he really took the work on imagination and psychology to another level, helping his students create truly inspired performances.
Numerous Oscar-nominees and winners have used the teachings of Chekhov to work on their roles, from Anthony Hopkins and Johnny Depp to Helen Hunt and Marisa Tomei, to name a few.
1) What is the Chekhov Technique?
For Chekhov, actors are not here to imitate life but to interpret it, to bring out its hidden meaning to the audience. For this, they must be able to act with ease, bring form and beauty to their creative expressions, and see the big picture so they can convey it in their performance.
Sensitivity of the Body
The actor's body must be trained to be receptive so it can convey creative impulses to the audiences. Through psychological exercises, the actor's body can be developed from the inside. The actor must learn to radiate the inner life of its characters and to create an imaginary center within his body that will allow him to connect to the various energies of many different characters.
The actor must penetrate the psychology of its characters. He can train by observing others and figuring out why they act or feel a certain way. Unlike method actors, Michael Chekhov firmly believed that drawing from real feelings from one's life kills inspiration and should be avoided. Creative feelings on the stage come from the actor's ability for compassion.
Our creative imagination constantly draws pictures in our mind. We can learn to collaborate with these images by asking questions from them and sometimes ordering them to show us what we are looking for. For example, you can ask your character, "show me how you would approach this part of the scene" and keep asking questions until the answer you get stirs you up emotionally and helps you start to enter the inner life of the character. Once you have a very clear inner vision, you can start incorporating it by copying one aspect of your vision at a time.
Similarly, the actor can use his imagination to create an imaginary body for his character. This allows the actor to really feel like another person and to start exploring his character's reality, movement and speech from the inside.
Atmosphere, quality and sensations
The atmosphere - whether it is happy, sad, calm, hectic, nervous, etc. - has a tremendous impact on the way we act. An actor can create an atmosphere, imagine it "in the air" and submit to it. He can imagine at outer atmosphere for a scene and an inner atmosphere for his character, contrasting them. These atmospheres will permeate his body and psychology when he acts.
Similarly, he can choose to give a quality to his movements. For example, if he chooses to move calmly, the physical sensation that results from his movements will attract similar emotions without any effort at all. This could be called working "from the outside in", except in this acting technique, the actor doesn't fake anything, he just lets atmospheres and sensations inspire his performance.
The Psychological Gesture
Just like we can access our emotions through atmospheres and sensations, we can access the will to pursue objectives through a gesture that encompasses all the needs and wants of the character. The actors starts with his first guess of what the character's main desire may be and from there, develops a gesture with his hand and arm that encompasses this desire. He gradually expands this gesture to the entire body, changing it until he feels satisfied as an artist. The psychological gesture should be strong but not tense, simple but definite, and archetypal in nature.
2) What can you expect?
A new approach to training
Michael Chekhov believed that the actor's greatest tools, aside from his body, were his intuition, imagination and artistic vision. As such, you can expect to rely on your instincts much more than you ever have in more traditional training.
A lot of exercises
One of the strength of the Michael Chekhov approach is that he had acting exercises for every aspect of an actor's training. These exercises help the actor not only work on a part, but grow as an artist by building long-lasting stage presence, creative imagination and inspiration.
Michael Chekhov believed that in order to be free, the actor must be an expert improviser who is able to take the words of the play and the director's vision and from that freely interpret how the character acts and delivers the lines. You will be doing some improvisations on your own and some as part of a group, learning to give and receive within the ensemble.
3) Sample Michael Chekhov Acting Exercises
The Imaginary Center Exercise
The actor imagines a center in his chest, a center of power from which all his impulses to move come from. He then performs a series of movement from this center, from simple gestures like lifting an arm to actions like closing a door or sitting down. The energy from the center always precedes and follows the movement, creating both a strong impulse to move and an energy field after the movement is created. The exercise greatly develops an actor's presence on stage and diminishes feelings of stage fright and self-consciousness. Later on, the actor can move that center around as he creates different characters.
Individual Improvisation Exercise
Pick in advance two contrasting moments to begin and end the improvisation. You can improvise everything in between. There is no set plot, only a mood to start with and a very different mood to end with. As you get more comfortable with the exercise, you can add more signposts along the way, like a mood to hit in the middle of your improvisation or a certain tempo. This teaches the performer to improvise within the necessities of the performances (lines, stage directions, pacing, etc.)
Psychological Gesture (PG) Exercise
Practice a body position (the Psychological Gesture) that suggest a single quality along with an accompanying simple sentence. Practice the position and say the words until you feel them permeate your psychology, then start making slight changes to the gesture, noticing each time the changes in how you feel and deliver the line. Then try to change the tempo, going from a slow to a fast tempo, noticing each subtle change and changing the sentence with each tempo.
4) Is the Michael Chekhov acting technique for you?
The Michael Chekhov technique really resonates with very intuitive and creative types who like to get in character by experiencing the part rather than figuring it out through script analysis and reasoning. For the same reason, it's also helpful for actors who are too much in their head. Chekhov wrote that the more we knew about a character, the less we could perform it, meaning that our analytical minds kill imagination.
Michael Chekhov warned against trying to squeeze feelings out of you. If you think you are forcing yourself to feel on the stage, a good teacher of the Chekhov technique will show you how to surrender more to the work and trust what you create with your imagination.
5) Famous Actors who studied the Chekhov Technique
Johnny Depp, Clint Eastwood, Anthony Hopkins, Helen Hunt, Anthony Quinn, Marilyn Monroe, Jack Nicholson and Marisa Tomei, to name a few.
The must-have Michael Chekhov Acting book
To the Actor
by Michael Chekhov
This inspiring book is a must have for actors, from beginners to seasoned veterans who need a new perspective on their art. It is filled with the visionary insight of a fantastic actor and teacher, along with practical exercises that bring real solutions to acting problems like how to prepare for a part, find presence on stage and inhabit a character.
To learn more about how to work on a role using the Michael Chekhov technique, read
this article in our newsletter.
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