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Marjo-Riikka and her actors have founded a new international theatre group:
Helsinki West Theatre Ensemble
We believe that the best work comes when actors are truly an ensemble, and that theatre is a craft to be respected. We are deeply committed to the vision we have for this company.
To learn more go to our website: http://www.helsinki-west.com
This project report consists of a discussion about the benefits that an actor derives from the spiritual and disciplined approaches to their craft. The close integration of conscience in lifestyle and stage practices supports creativity and frees us from egoistic fears that can contaminate actors’ work. The philosophies of spirituality, discipline, and attitude put forth by Michael Chekhov, Jerzy Grotowski, and Viktor Frankl complement one another, providing practical tools for life both on and off stage. This paper introduces aspects of the theories of these three men and my practical application of them in the creation of my two roles as The Gipsy man and his daughter in California Repertory Company’s production of The Cannibals presented in September, 2006.
Chapter I addresses some of the aspects of the techniques that serve the psycho-physical development of a character; the necessity of properly caring for an actor’s instrument through diet, exercise, and sensory awareness; and the cultivation of a generous attitude toward the work, the company, and the audience. Chapter II relates my experience of putting theory into practice in The Cannibals. I conclude with a call for actors, directors, and teachers to accept the responsibility for the kinds of legacies they wish to leave behind.
CHAPTER I : THEORY AND PRACTICE ………………………………………………………………..
MIKAIL CHEKHOV JERZY GROTOWSKI VIKTOR FRANKL
CHAPTER II.: PRACTICAL APPLICATION ……………………………………………………………
CHAPTER III.: CONCLUSION ………………………………………………………………………………..
I believe that the very foundation of any creation that rises beyond the mundane lies in its spirit. Without spirit it remains clinical, no matter how technically perfect. We’ve all seen productions in which the spirit and enthusiasm of the performers let us forgive some lack of technique. Shows that change our lives, and echo in us strongly afterwards, have both of these elements in their service – the radiance of spirit and mastered techniques.
Nourishing the joyful spirit of creation is the first discipline in my actor’s technique, and I believe it to be the most crucial one. One could ask, what does all this idealistic talk have to do with acting? It has everything to do with the fact that the discipline of spirit in acting is not only important but an absolute necessity. It increases faith, and focuses and releases an enormous amount of energy for the work, freeing the actor from fear. When I talk about faith, spirit or spirituality in acting, I don’t mean religion. I talk about a group of human beings letting go of fear and defensiveness in order for a shared creation to take place in the present moment.
I believe that when an actor develops a higher sense of purpose for his work than to simply serve his personal egoistic needs, his work will rise to another level, and can rise to the level of fine art. In other words, it serves the work to serve the work.
I see acting as I do life, they are both often a question of having talent in attitude. We can choose to be personally responsible for both, our attitude in our daily lives and in our acting careers.
Michael Chekhov, Jerzy Grotowski, and Viktor Frankl are three theoreticians who had a profound effect on my work as an actor in the California Repertory Company’s production of George Tabouri’s play, The Cannibals. Chekhov’s techniques offered an infinite number of psycho-physical exercises for character transformation and atmosphere work, and provided the foundation for my entire acting process. As further support, Growtowski’s principles reminded me of the importance of discipline for a theater artist, and Frankl’s experiences as a holocaust survivor and a therapist helped me gain an understanding of the psycho-physical conditions in the concentration camps; it gave me insights to the remarkable attitude, faith, and the power of visualization that we are capable of as human beings.
All three men offer a spiritual approach to living. They all believe in the importance of serving something higher than the self as critical to an artist’s quest. By incorporating the techniques and philosophies of these three visionaries, my work as an actor benefits from their spirit and discipline.
TEACHING THEORY AND PHILOSOPHIES
Born in Moscow in 1891, Mikhail Chekhov was the nephew of playwright Anton Chekhov. As the “most brilliant” of Konstantin Stanislavsky’s acting students (Gordon 117), Chekhov expanded on his teacher’s realistic and autobiographical approaches to develop a technique in which Imagination serves as the actor’s primary source for creation and inspiration. Chekhov agreed substantially with Stanislavsky about the importance of an actor’s search for emotional depth and spontaneity, but felt it necessary to further develop the super-imaginative and intuitive sides of acting. He believed this approach offered infinite creative possibilities especially when compared to the autobiographical approach, which narrows not only the actor’s choices but also his faith in his own abilities to transform into a character. He believed that an actor “can go beyond the playwright or the play” (Gordon 119) in his creation of the character. He saw the importance of Stanislavsky’s text analysis as a starting point in the creation of a character and in establishing his “super objective” and “objective” (Gordon 239-240), but instead of intellectualizing around the table (as Stanislavsky did at the time), Chekhov sought to find the character with his entire psycho-physical being right from the beginning of a rehearsal process. In order to do this he also developed a new way of speaking about the work. He spoke as a performer, not as a director. For example, Chekhov found that the response to the authoritative
Stanislavskian command to “relax” often caused the actor to become more mentally and physically aware of tension, which actually increased it or changed its location, instead of relaxing the actor, or it made the actor so relaxed that they became less alive, and boring to watch on stage. Chekhov’s substitution for Stanislavsky’s word “relax” was to tell the actor to execute his or her stage business with “the feeling of ease.” This had a more successful result: the actor would become both physically energized and free. Similarly, whereas Stanislavsky might have instructed students to stand straight, Chekhov suggested to them that they let their bodies “think up” (Gordon 126). While the distinctions are subtle, Chekhov’s discovery about the effects of language on the teacher, director, and actor make a great difference, not only intellectually or emotionally in the acting process, but physically as well.
Mel Gordon illustrates the effectiveness of the emerging technique with its reliance on the imagination as he relates the story of Chekhov’s expulsion from Stanislavsky’s acting class. In his performance of a particular Affective Memory exercise, developed by Stanislavsky, in which students were asked to recall sensory images from true dramatic situations, Chekhov recreated his wistful presence at his father’s funeral, and drew Stanislavsky’s emotional praise of its fine detail and sense of truth. Later, Stanislavsky discovered that Chekhov’s ailing father was, in fact, still alive. Chekhov’s performance was based not on recapturing the experience, but on a feverish anticipation of the event (120). Gordon says:
More than anything else, Chekhov’s work became associated with the power of the imagination. Since the theater’s strength lies in its ability to communicate through sensory imagery, rather than through literary ideas, Chekhov sought to uncover appropriate actor training devices that would heighten his students’ imaginative awareness (127).
Furthermore, Chekhov makes the insightful observation that, in those performances that were magically different from others, “the scenic space could have a special, almost bewitching aura filled with evanescent or intoxicating Atmospheres” (127). In order to create these Atmospheres, the actor must develop the ability to “receive” and then “radiate” these Atmospheres to the theater space. (Chekhov On the Technique xli)
Actor’s body is his instrument and therefore all actor-training must strive for developing this instrument to be sensitive and obey all artistic impulses. In Lessons for the Professional Actor, Chekhov says, I understood that if it is so that the actor cannot have a musical instrument or a brush, or paint, then he must have a special kind of technique which he must find inside himself (24).
What I really appreciate about Chekhov technique is that it integrates the whole psycho-physical actor. Next, I would like to focus on the theory behind the following aspects of this technique: The Higher Self, Concentration, Atmosphere Work, Imaginary Body and Centers, Qualities and the Psychological Gesture.
The Higher Self (or the Higher Ego)
Chekhov claims that, “the usual, every day feelings are adulterated, permeated with egotism, narrowed to personal needs, inhibited, insignificant, and often unaesthetic and spoiled by untruths. They should not be used in art. Creative individuality rejects them.” (To the Actor 88-89). Instead, Chekhov argues, creative individuality “has at its disposal another kind of feelings – those completely impersonal, purified, freed from egotism and therefore aesthetic, significant and artistically true. These [our] higher self grants [us] while inspiring our acting (To
the Actor 88-89). The use of the higher self assists the actor in releasing egotistic fear and grounds her work in artistic truth. A highly spiritual person often is both very strong and extremely open at the same time. This is an ability that we want to have as actors, teachers and directors, and it is gained by overcoming one’s own egotism. The actor must first discover her own egotism and then try to fight it. (Lessons for Teachers 71-72).
The first step in any creative process is concentration. The active state of concentration is reached by focusing the five senses (some times one at a time) of sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste to a specific object of attention. It is important for the actor to realize this with his or her whole being, rather than just with the head. Actors should have the ability to direct and focus their concentration and always choose objects from those associated with the character’s circumstances. The objects of attention must change in an unbroken sequence, along with the five senses, according to the play’s imaginary changes in circumstances. This aids in maintaining focus and strengthening the play’s Atmosphere. Chekhov reminds us:
When you really concentrate, you will get a sense of expansion. You will feel that you are a larger person than you are physically, as if you become a person two or three sizes bigger than your ordinary physical self, and that you are flowing with all your being toward the object of your concentration. Whether it is a physical thing or an image that you are concentrating on, your whole invisible person will be in movement (Lessons for Teachers 25-26). This inner movement of concentration in the actor will often lead way to the discovery of the Psychological Gestures and Atmospheres.
On stage, unfocused energy is wasted energy; it makes the work sloppy, destroying any possibility of Atmosphere work. Chekhov insists that the world of illusion can only be maintained through disciplined concentration (On the Technique xxxvii, xliii-xliv).
Chekhov believed that the audience should feel the presence of the play, its atmosphere, from the very first moment they enter the theater space. Atmosphere is the “soul” of the play and a vital tool in creating a feeling in an audience (Lessons for the Professional 29).
The actor must be sensitive and open to the play’s Atmospheres; she must allow herself be filled with them. The actor first receives and then radiates the atmosphere out to the audience. Atmosphere creates reciprocity between actor and audience, and allows actual feeling to take place in both. Chekhov explains:
Atmospheres are sensory mediums, like fog, water, darkness, or confusion that permeate environments and radiate from people. On stage, the heightened mood of Atmospheres fill the theatre; both performer and spectator are unconsciously affected by an Atmosphere’s unseen waves and are absorbed by the actor and radiated out to the audience. Although they cannot be seen, Atmospheres can be felt strongly and are a primary means of theatrical communication (On the Technique xliii-xliv).
Every scene has its own Atmosphere and each character will respond to it differently. In every scene, there is an overall Objective Atmosphere of the imaginary space, and then there are character-specific Personal Atmospheres. As actors, we must always live in harmony with the Objective Atmospheres of the specific space and event in order to strengthen them, but our characters might “fight” these with their Personal Atmospheres being opposite. This conflict creates great dramatic tension in the scenes and is extremely useful for creating movement and dynamics on stage. The conflict between two Atmospheres will always result in one winning over the other. What can prevent us as actors from successfully creating Atmosphere is our fear of and shame about authentic emotional vulnerability.
Chekhov calls the closing of our hearts to each other in life or on the stage a “disease,” a self-consciousness that is characterized by a “devil who will laugh at all our feelings if we dare show them” (Lessons for the Professional 29). Without the expression of real feeling by the actor, we cannot create any Atmosphere on stage, and we are reduced to mere imitations of the “personal ‘I Am’ feelings, and ‘I Am’ is not an interesting person,” Chekhov says. He continues:
… “My personal feelings mean nothing when shown from the stage. It has to be something higher than ‘I Am.’ Atmosphere gives us the air, the space around us. It coaxes our deeper feelings and emotions, our dreams … Without Atmosphere, we are imprisoned on the stage … The Atmosphere, ‘the soul’ of the performance, the realm of the feelings, is what our present time needs more than anything else (29).
As Chekhov points out, we need theater today because so many people suffer from disconnection from their own bodies, ideas, beliefs or feelings, not to mention those of others. In other words, as a society we lack empathy.
We all are psycho-physical beings and sometimes it seems that we, as theater artists, do not trust the core essence and possibilities of theater: confrontation and communication. Being alive is indeed a little miracle itself and life is always as fragile as it is powerful. The difference between being alive and being dead is clear-cut. Chekhov says,
As actors and actresses, we must rejoice in the possession of our physical faculties. We must experience joy in the use of our hands, arms, body etc. Without this appreciation and realization of the body and its many possibilities, we cannot perform as artists. Compare the body without life and the body with life. Meditate on this. See how helpless the dead person is, then contrast that with a living person. You should feel a flow of joy because you are alive. Your body will feel full of life. That is what you must give from the stage. Your life. No less. That is art; to give all you have. And what have you? Your life – nothing more. And to give life means to feel life throughout your whole being (Lessons for Teachers 27).
And in theater, this life is concentrated in space, time, and in circumstances. Therefore, it can raise awareness of what it is to be alive, fully and whole-heartedly. And isn’t that reason enough to do theater? We never know how deeply we might touch some one, if we allow our selves to do that. But it takes courage, authenticity and faith to do this kind of work.
Chekhov notes that the intellect “cannot stand feelings.” It attempts to control and limit the expression, because it knows that “its knowledge and convictions mean nothing at the moment when we allow our heart to produce its values” (29). The creation of a particular Atmosphere requires intense emotional connection on the part of the actor (the heart ruling the head, valuing feelings over reason). In Chekhov’s view the intellect gets nervous because it is no longer in control; it wants to minimize or prevent the actor’s full experience of feeling because feeling = vulnerability = danger.
Imaginary Body and Centers
According to Chekhov, in order to transform into a character, “the actor must first visualize an ‘Imaginary Body.’ This imaginary body belongs to his or her character, but the actor can learn to inhabit it” (On the Technique xxxviii). Chekhov indicates that the actor should especially look for the differences between herself and the character, keeping herself open to any images that come to her from the very first reading of the play and throughout the rehearsal period. She should let these images guide her in her inhabitation of the character.
Every character also has a “Center” – an “imaginary area inside or outside the body where the character’s impulses for all movement originate. . . . The center can be of any shape or size, color, or consistency. A single character may even have more than one Center” (On the Technique xxxviii). Finding a character’s center often reveals the yet-hidden parts of her psychology and personality.
As actors, we cannot force our feelings, but we can invite them. Chekhov advices us that: if we allow our bodies to move with a certain quality, for instance with the quality of tenderness, it will automatically evoke the sensation of tenderness in our bodies and we will soon experience tender feelings and emotions. In our work, these feelings are not be general demonstrations of “feeling” but are to be made specific by always relating them to the character’s circumstances and objectives. I believe that great acting moment equals behavior that is growing out of an experience where as bad acting (indicating) is behavior without the experience. And what is experience then? I believe that we experience things as sensations that run through our body. With out the body, we cannot feel sensations. We cannot feel emotions without experiencing the sensations related to that specific movement in our whole being. The mere idea of sadness or joy touches no one. Great actors are those brave actors, who are willing to experience with their whole being, over and over again, for the sake of increasing empathy in their surroundings.
The Psychological Gesture is a full-bodied movement that embodies the needs (super-objective and/or objective) and the psychology of a character. The actor can choose to have as many gestures as she finds helpful in discovering her character’s objective, relationships, and attitude toward the other characters in the play. The actor knows that she has found the right gesture when it fills her with the objective (the wish/want) of the character and evokes strong inner sensations in her body, which will often come out as emotions appropriate to the character’s situation. It is also helpful to try out the chosen gesture in different qualities in the movement and tempo-rhythm, in order to find the most inspiring one for that particular objective or relationship on stage. An actor is to speak with and through the body. The gestures we make with our hands transform into our speech. Chekhov says:
All languages use idiomatic expressions related to physical activity and gesture to describe complicated psychological states. These imagined movements, which have become enchanted in our speech and thought, are gestures of every day life. But as applied to our psychological life, we produce them in our minds instead of in our bodies. This is the only significant difference between the two kinds of gestures, since their actual nature remains the same. We “grasp” the idea just as we grasp a physical object. We “touch” upon a problem just as we touch upon an unknown surface in our physical surroundings (On the Technique 58-59).
In Psychological Gesture, the actor physicalizes a character’s need or internal dynamic in the form of an external gesture. This seemingly outward gesture is done with the actor’s whole being (whole body, energy etc.) and it will generate strong sensations in the actor’s whole body. The actor rehearses his part with the whole bodied gestures of any chosen stage moment, but in performance uses “veiled gestures” also called “inner gestures”. The outer gesture becomes an inner gesture when the actor chooses to veil the outer gesture, allowing the inner sensations to inform the performance on an unconscious level.
Jerzy Grotowski, a Polish theater director, theoretician, educator and one of the leading figures in avant-garde theater of the twentieth century, studied at the Lunacharsky Institute of Theatre Arts (GITIS, where, coincidentally, I also studied) and was “brought up on Stanislavsky.” He went on to develop his own approach to acting and theater, which he called “poor theatre”: it avoided all machinery and spectacle not created by the actors (Grotowski 15, 41). His performers were not allowed to use any make-up or costumes to indicate changes in character, and all music was to be produced by the actors themselves. The actors were left to draw from their own creative resources. His system required that actors gain absolute control over their instrument – voices included – so that they were able to transform themselves in order to meet the demands of any character in any production. He believed that “actors should arouse a sense of wonder because of their ability to exceed what the spectators can envision ever being able to do” (Brockett 546-47). One of the principles in his actor training is called “via negativa,” which means that instead of collecting skills, the most important thing for an actor is to get rid of his psycho-physical “blocks” and “social masks,” and rather than asking how to do something, to pay attention to the question, “What must I not do?” (Grotowski 17). I interpret this to mean for instance that Grotowski wants/expects the actor to avoid artificially imposing pre-conditioned ideas on his work. In other words Grotowski believes that rather than trying to layer new tricks in an actor, one should be getting rid of the old habits and associations that can limit actor’s expression and inspiration. The goal is to eliminate the resistance caused by the actor’s own habitual psychology and physicality (128).
Another of Grotowski’s tenets calls for the “holy actor” to achieve a “total act” in his art (34). This is not to be interpreted as a religious calling, but one of a spiritually-disciplined artist. Grotowski says that the highest form of theatrical creation, the “total act” cannot exist if the actor is merely concerned about personal success, his salary or the favor of the audience. In his view this kind of acting is border-line prostitution (33, 262). Grotowski continues offering actors his insights for the alignment of spirit and discipline, further supporting the notion of acting as sacrosanct:
An act of creation has nothing to do with either external comfort or conventional human civility; that is to say, working conditions in which every one is happy. It demands a maximum of silence and a minimum of words. In this kind of creativity we discuss through proposals, actions and living organisms, not through explanations … even during breaks after which we will be continuing with the creative process, we are obliged to observe certain natural reticences in our behaviour and even in our private affairs. This applies just as much to our own work as to the work of our partners. We must not interrupt and disorganize the work because we are hurrying to our own affairs; we must not peep, comment or make jokes about it privately. In any case, private ideas of fun have no place in the actor’s calling (258).
Like Chekhov, Grotowski calls for full concentration and requires the whole lifestyle of a theater artist be in service of the work. He reminds us to daily take care of our bodies so that we are always ready for our work both mentally and physically:
We must not go short of sleep for the sake of private enjoyment and then come to work tired or with a hangover. We must not come unable to concentrate. The rule here is not just one’s compulsory presence in the place of work, but physical readiness to create (260).
There is a complete discipline required in order to abandon one’s egoistic and hedonistic needs in this kind of work. According to Grotowski, the actor must have courage to be defenseless and willing to reveal himself (257).
Grotowski found interest in the moment two (or more) human beings connect to each other at a deep unconscious level. In his view this “surmounting of our solitude” can take place after shedding the masks, opening ourselves to other human beings, and trying to understand them (130). This effort to understand each other is also an attempt to understand oneself through the other; the result will enrich both. Grotowski’s way of teaching and directing actors was based on this principle of revealing one another and sharing the experience.
An Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist, as well as a holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl was the founder of logotherapy and Existential Analysis, therapeutic approaches developed from his observations of human nature during his imprisonment in three Nazi concentration camps. His book, Man’s Search for Meaning, details the revelations of his years spent as a prisoner of war, exploring the potential for man to choose his own attitude under even horrific conditions or circumstances. His particular interest in depression and suicide led him to develop a psychotherapeutic method of helping patients find meaning in their lives and reasons to continue living, an art he would bring to bear in service of his own survival as well as helping to ensure that of others during and after the war.
His wisdom and first-hand experience of the holocaust made Viktor Frankl important to my thesis. Man’s Search for Meaning gives many remarkable examples of concentration camp life. These were useful to me in several ways: first, they helped me gain an understanding of the psycho-physical conditions in the concentration camps through his very detailed descriptions of daily routines, facilities, relationships with guards and fellow inmates, dehumanization through various methods, constant states of sensory deprivation, fear, and loneliness. Second, they gave me insights to the remarkable attitude, faith and the power of visualization in a human being’s struggle to survive while maintaining his humanity under these extraordinary conditions. Frankl notes:
We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms –to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way… Even though conditions such as lack of sleep, insufficient food and various mental stresses may suggest that the inmates were bound to react in certain ways, in the final analysis it becomes clear that the sort of person the prisoner became was the result of an inner decision and not the result of camp influences alone. Fundamentally, therefore, any man can, even under such circumstances, decide what shall become of him – mentally and spiritually. He may retain his human dignity even in a concentration camp (86-87).
A third effect Frankl’s work offers is related to his advice about the importance of humor in life. “Humor was another of the soul’s weapons in the fight for self-preservation. It is well known that humor, more than anything else in the human make-up, can afford an aloofness and an ability to rise above any situation, even if only for a few seconds” (63). Frankl says that finding humor under any conditions is “some kind of trick learned while mastering the art of living,” possible even if that living goes on behind the walls of a concentration camp where “suffering is omnipresent” (64).
Frankl’s insights remind me of a task my grandfather charged me with when I was a little girl: to be a better person than he. It was his main goal in life, he said, to help his children and grandchildren take one step toward a greater humanity. I have always taken this duty and his legacy seriously. It is challenging, and often I feel like a failure, for my grandfather was such a great man, a great humanist, and also a great comedian. He saw humor everywhere. Another thing my wise grandfather said was, “Self pity is one of the most dangerous diseases in the world.” As I embrace these words, I allow myself no excuse to dwell on any failures, but to strive onward in my quest for artistic and personal integrity. As a result, I do not believe in the myth of the suffering artist. Self-inflicted suffering is not artistic. Frankl says:
It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life -daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.
With these various and perceptive teachings by Chekhov, Grotowski and Frankl, I felt physically, mentally, and spiritually prepared for my roles in The Cannibals.
The preparation process for the California Repertory Company’s production of George Tabori’s play, The Cannibals, began during our summer break prior to the start of the fall semester. Our director, Anne D’Zmura, assigned pre-rehearsal homework: first, to read the play several times; next, to research the holocaust as subject matter; and then, to prepare a fifteen-minute theatrical presentation of our personal response to our research and reading of the play, including the construction of a collage of images that inspired or, in this case, more likely horrified us.
I was both humbled and terrified by the subject matter. I had been haunted by the incomprehensibility of the holocaust since I was a little girl.
I was to play three different characters: the Actor, in the beginning of the show, preparing to play the two other characters; The Gipsy’s Daughter, re-embodying her father; and The Gipsy man in the camp. I knew that there were a lot of discoveries to be made. For two of these characters, the obvious things – despair and pain – were there. I needed to look for the less obvious: the life sparkle and humor.
In my earlier training as a psychiatric nurse, I had come across Viktor Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning. I picked it up again in my holocaust research. Frankl’s outlook on life was filled with hope and expressed an attitude of choice. I felt these two elements would be important for me in building my character in a play that, in my first reading, seemed to offer neither hope nor choice. I wanted to make sure that my character would have both. How else would there have been any play at all if there had not been something to strive for? After re¬reading Frankl’s account of life in a Nazi concentration camp, I decided to make his work the foundation for my character research. Though my character definitely was not written to be a heroic person I wanted to investigate that possibility as one of his potential choices. Other than that, I decided to remain present and open for everything, and to listen to my intuition, my fellow players, and my director.
While I was mentally and emotionally preparing myself for my role, I performed psycho-physical exercises daily in order to keep my acting instrument free, flexible, and ready to be at service when rehearsals started three weeks later. I also paid attention to my diet in order to keep my instrument sensitive. Diet affects one’s ability to radiate and to use one’s senses. Being sensitive to impulses provoked by images, imagination and sense memory is the very tool used in building Atmospheres. Therefore, if one constantly shocks the body with sugar, salt, and fat, it will not be sensitive enough for the finer nuances demanded by the work. Similarly, smoking is harmful to the circulation and voice, and it affects the ability to radiate and expand. My experience as an actor has taught me that I need to eat in order to live greatly on stage, instead of living to eat greatly off stage. To be a great artist, it is wise to be attentive about what one puts in one’s mouth.
I arrived at the first rehearsal psychologically and physically ready to work. The presentations by my acting colleagues were inspiring, informative, and as emotionally loaded as one could imagine. We started building the common consciousness of our cast right away, spending time on various ensemble exercises. One of our early exercises included exhausting ourselves by jogging the “Auschwitz Trot” (Tabori 1) together in a circle in order to let our bodies imagine the weight on our characters’ shoulders, in the space where time had ceased to exist. We also did some Chekhovian “Center” and “Psychological Gesture” work, investigating with our bodies where our character’s centers might be located and what their Psychological Gestures might be. These were helpful for finding the differences among the Imaginary Bodies for each of my three characters.
In order to find my characters’ Centers, I first looked for my Ideal Center – my Higher Self – which Chekhov teaches us is located physically in the solar plexus and is the place where all the artistic impulses rise from. My practice involves imagining a bright, warm ball of energy radiating in every direction from my chest and generating my artistic impulses. This liberates my body and my mind so that imagination can step in.
In The Cannibals, when I played The Gipsy – a man who essentially survives by pure willpower – I found that most of his impulses emanated from the pelvic center. Only at times when he cared for others or remembered his family did I allow his impulses to rise from the center of his chest. There were also moments in the play when this character needed to quickly calculate what to do, and then I would place his Center in his head. But these instances occurred only for short moments; his dominant Center lived in the will. There were also times when The Gipsy was dreaming of his family kitchen and his wife’s cooking; then, I placed his Center outside of him. This created an expansion in his energy body and was a starting point for my psychological gesture for him: a reach.
These Centers also have a different substance that affects the rhythm and quality of the movements and voice of the character. This helped in finding the differences between the three characters I played. The Gipsy spoke from his pelvic Center, which organically lowered my actual speaking voice. In placing Gipsy’s Daughter’s Center in the heart, her struggle to understand what had happened to her father became more than just an intellectual process; she wanted to understand with her heart and with her whole being. By shifting her Center frequently, I was able to make her appear quite out of balance. She would try to intellectualize (from the head Center), to willing herself to understand (from the pelvic Center), to finally letting herself understand with her heart. The heart Center was the place where she found connection with her father. Technically, this was achieved by allowing the character to be influenced by the Atmosphere of the concentration camp room in which she arrived, experiencing with all of her five senses her father’s old prison clothing. By touching the clothing and inhaling the Atmosphere, she became her father. This was an easy and viscerally fulfilling way to transform from her character to her father. Later, when I needed to make quick shifts from The Gipsy to his Daughter and back, I would let my Center drop or rise, and inhabit the imaginary body I had built for each character.
In order to inhabit my characters, I begin each rehearsal as Chekhov advises, by “crossing the threshold” to the work space:
The threshold is an imaginary boundary that marks the division between everyday life and the world of the Creative Spirit. It is symbolized by a line or a circle. Once the actor crosses it, he steps into a magical environment where any thought or action is possible. His artistic and spiritual energies can become fully liberated (Gordon 134). According to my tradition, entering the theater building, dressing rooms, or stage demands the respectful and intentional crossing of a threshold, a practice that helps the actor rise to offer the highest quality of his or her work. By making conscious note that I am entering a performance space, I channel my energy toward the show. In the spirit of Chekhov technique, according to Grotowski’s principles for actors’ work, as well as based on my own experiences as an actor, I believe that it is extremely beneficial to shed the pedestrian role as I enter the theater building. This means taking the role of an artist and focusing all my energy on increasing enthusiasm, joyful anticipation, and heightened energy flow toward the rehearsal or show. This is the first part of this actor’s everyday discipline and, in my opinion, as important as any other.
I have experienced that if the whole cast and crew channels and focuses their energy toward the show from the very moment they enter the work space, it increases the energy, starts the momentum and works as part of the warm up by preparing the actors psycho-physically. It also establishes the Atmosphere of the play, even before the show starts, and will be there waiting for the audience. Audiences will feel the difference. There will be “something” in the air. This is how, as actors, we create the kind of show people experience viscerally and will remember with their whole being, though they might not be able to explain it afterwards intellectually.
On the other hand, the lack of awareness of the threshold results in lack of concentration. This may come out as pedestrian socializing in a work space. Certainly, the life of a theater artist requires the cultivation of friendships and opportunities to socialize. However, it is important to separate these from the work so that no matter what happens in social settings, the performance remains unaffected, pure. It strikes me as curious how much energy is sometimes spent on “chatting” during rehearsals, and even before and during shows. This seems wasteful and it saddens me. It is unnecessary and, in my opinion, is one of the most significant factors in bad theater. It seems to me that the much deeper and more meaningful connections between the members of an ensemble come out of the common concentration toward a shared goal to serve the artistic needs of the play. I believe that our connections on stage as well as in the dressing rooms can either support or harm one another. Not everyone shares my view: a colleague once challenged my approach to acting as being “too serious.” In a way, my friend was right. But I am equally serious about laughter and joy.
Laughter is something that opens the gates in the chest and gives direct access to the human heart. For me, laughter is sacred, both on and off stage. In my private life, the people I love most dearly and want to keep close to me are those with whom I share uncontrollable, deep gut laughter. These are the people I miss terribly when they are gone. My characters also know the depths of happiness and sorrow, so for each of them I look for the things that bring them joy, because those are the things they most fear losing. Good performances, then, I believe, should awaken the most important muscle in our bodies – the muscle of laughter and weeping. Deep down, in that place, lies the foundation of humanity and possibility and infinite strength for greatness. Bringing joy to others is a fundamental human quest. We must nourish it in our theaters if we are to legitimately claim the artistic importance of our work.
After being conscious about entering the rehearsal or performance space, and even participating in ritual socializing (which I find charming, if distracting at times), the next step for me to be fully conscious of my work is a change of clothing, whether warm-up work clothes, or into costume. The change of clothing gives yet another possibility and opportunity for me to actively concentrate on focusing my energy. I use it as another “threshold” toward the character. In this way, I further harness my energy for the work.
Another part of my everyday discipline as an actor involves trying to keep my mind focused on things that enrich me as an artist, rather than those that drain me. For instance, I do not read gossip magazines or watch much television. I find interest in fine arts, the philosophies of great minds, and the company of people who are inspired by what they are doing in their lives. As a daily exercise, I pay attention to both man-made and nature’s architecture around me. I try to notice something new even in the familiar surroundings at school and home. I train myself to see the world through “newborn eyes” in order to increase the creative flow of energy in my body. The “awe” creates energy and opens the door for infinite possibilities and perspectives. This can become one’s second nature after some disciplined practice. During The Cannibals, my daily confinement in the surroundings of a concentration camp made it all the more critical to immerse myself in nature and the beauty of living things between shows. It became my rejuvenation. It also helped me feel The Gipsy’s profound longing for the simple things that we take for granted every day.
I believe that the more integrated the ways I live my personal and professional lives, the richer my path will be as an actor and a human being, for these two are inseparable. If my life principles and practices are in conflict with those of my work, energy is wasted and both suffer. In this way, Chekhov’s notion of “the Higher Self” can be viewed as a practical tool for developing greater ability and freedom on stage. The Higher Self is freed from the fears of Ego and personal, pre-conditioned judgments of one’s abilities. Choosing my own attitude under any kind of circumstances determines the quality of my work. The more I exercise my Higher Self in my everyday life, the easier it is to bring it to the work, and vice versa. Moreover, cultivating a loving attitude toward myself and my co-workers can only benefit the work. With The Cannibals, we had the great benefit of a cast that had done a lot of ensemble-building in our physical acting class.
Attitude also informs our feelings about particular roles. An actor with an inspired attitude realizes that there are no “small parts” and therefore can serve as an inspiration to others as well. The Gipsy I played in The Cannibals had very few lines, yet I was on stage for the entire show. I was excited by the opportunity to explore expressing my character’s essence and condition with a minimal use of words. This was a choice, to be inspired, instead of longing for “more lines” or doing something equally unhelpful.
The set design for The Cannibals was very supportive of the overall Atmosphere of the show. We all, including the audience, were made to feel that we were inside a concentration camp hut. Everything was built in off-white wood, dirtied by ashes. There was a long wooden table in the middle of the stage, facing the audience. Behind the audience’s backs were the simple two-story bunks belonging to the inmates. Four rows of barbed wire spanned the ceiling. All I needed to do was lie in my “bunk” and look up at the barbed wire to get chills. Each night as I lay there, I felt emotionally raw and stirred up. I also felt deep gratitude for sharing this experience with the ensemble and the audience. It was an honor to share the journey with my character, for the factual historical elements of the play affected me on a very deep level, causing me to miss my own family terribly. In order to serve the story, I had to make, as Chekhov advises, a conscious effort to transform my personal feelings into artistic feelings.
Having already read the play in advance of the first rehearsals, my creative imagination had started sensing the Atmosphere of every scene in the script. There was, however, one very different Atmosphere that was not written in the script: that of the pre-show. As the audience entered the theater space, we, the actors, were already in the theater doing our warm-ups as part of the pre-show activity. This created an Atmosphere of curiosity and anticipation of the unknown; the audience was suddenly integrated into the world of the actors’ preparations. My Psychological Gesture was to invite and embrace the audience, and welcome them in. One by one, we actors then left the stage in order to change into our first character costumes. After this, the Atmosphere changed drastically.
One at a time, the actors re-entered the space as the children of the concentration camp inmates. They arrived to replay what had happened to their parents. Before it was my turn, I took a short moment in the wings to do my Psychological Gesture of opening my heart center. This was done in order to let the Atmosphere of the terrifying memories that had occurred in this space, the concentration camp, to affect my character’s psycho-physical being. I simply opened myself up for the journey she was about to take. I stepped on stage and let my character breathe in the Atmosphere. There was a certain amount of curiosity and anticipation, for my character wanted to suck everything in and to understand how it had been for her father.
After observing the surroundings and the other actors/characters, I quietly found my way to a box that contained my character’s father’s (the Gipsy Man’s) belongings from the camp: his prison uniform, a box of ashes, and a piece of chalk. With a quality of tenderness in all my movements, I used all my five senses to explore the props with my hands and the skin on my face. I made each prop to be highly personal to my character and gave specific importance to the sensory experience of touching and smelling, which resulted as psycho-physical sensations and further emotions in me. Then I started the ritual of transformation into The Gipsy by slowly removing my high heels, skirt, and blouse, and changing into the prison uniform. As an actor, I let the Atmosphere affect the quality of my movements. They became specific, almost ritualized, as if sacred. I experienced the awe of moving under water or of a strange dream where the space lightly resisted my movements. The Imaginary Body of The Gipsy’s Daughter was a young female body. It was healthy and upright and a little bit stiff and nervous. By the time I had my uniform on, I had written a number on my left arm and rubbed ash on my face, hands and feet (I was to remain barefooted). I had become The Gipsy. Now, I had a broken foot, a lung condition and severe stomach pain. Sadly, I watched the guards take away the recognizable part of my individuality – my belongings. The Atmosphere of the ritual was so quiet and concentrated that it really drew the audience in and also helped the actors to transform into their characters. By now, we had all crossed the threshold.
From that point on, one of the challenges for us as actors were the quick shifts from one Atmosphere to another. The structure of this play was conventional in that we often jumped from one onstage reality to another – from the reality of the concentration camp, to the dream world of the inmates, and yet to another reality of the children of the inmates and the two survivors, re-playing and commenting on the play – so, we had three parallel universes to build; four, if we count the reality of our being in a theater. The Gipsy would often be the one who distracted himself and the others from the misery of prison life though his vivid imagination, creating visions of feasts and freedom.
Frankl’s own power of visualization served him as a survival strategy. He explains: I forced my thoughts to turn to another subject. Suddenly I saw myself standing on the platform of a well-lit, warm and pleasant lecture room. In front of me sat an attentive audience on comfortable upholstered seats. I was giving a lecture on the psychology of the concentration camp! (95). Frankl also notes: All that oppressed me at that moment became objective, seen and described from the remote viewpoint of science. By this method I succeeded somehow rising above the situation, above the suffering of the moment, and I observed them as if they were already of the past (95).
In my research I discovered that Frankl had successfully used visualization in a very similar way that I do; it was yet another proof for me of the power of imagination and intention. If Frankl, under those horrific conditions, was able to focus his creative energy and create an Atmosphere filled with hope, and furthermore radiate it to his fellow men, then I, a trained actor, should have no excuse of doing my job well. Another important message from Frankl was, “The prisoner who had lost faith in the future – his future – was doomed” (95). It was very important for my character work to have The Gipsy hold onto hope of his future. This gave my Gipsy a very interesting inner movement; he was constantly fighting against the Atmosphere. Whereas I, as an actor, supported the Atmosphere of despair, fear, and hopelessness of the camp life, my Gipsy fought that fiercely. This struggle gave me something from which to work physically at every moment. I made an acting choice in not letting my character give up hope. I wanted to show a man who would fight until the very end. I believed this to be a more active choice, and also a choice that the audience would wish me to make. The Gipsy was not written to be the hero of the play. He was not written to be a very brave man, but I wanted to find the braveness in him, and found out that it was even more interesting to find these hidden qualifies in a character that seemed, at the first reading, to be nothing but a selfish man caring only for himself. I found out that it actually took a great deal of bravery to go through one day under these circumstances, and not to give up hope.
Frankl spoke about the relationship of mind and body to one’s chances of survival:
Those who know how close the connection is between the state of mind of a man – his courage and hope, or lack of them – and the state of immunity of his body will understand that the sudden loss of hope and courage can have a deadly effect. The ultimate cause of my friend’s death was that the expected liberation did not come and he was severely disappointed. This suddenly lowered his body’s resistance against the latent typhus infection. His faith in the future and his will to live had become paralyzed and his body fell victim to illness (97).
Frankl recalls Nietzsche’s assertion that “[h]e who has a why to live can bear with almost any how” (Man’s Search 97), clearly articulating his position that survival of prisoners may be extended by showing some future goal. He illustrates this with the story of two men who intended to commit suicide. Both claimed they had nothing left to live for, but Frankl and some of his fellow inmates were able to convince the would-be suicides that “life was still expecting something from them; something in the future was expected of them.” For one, it was a child awaiting his return in another land (100-01). And since it is written in our play that The Gipsy had a child who later comes and re-enacts what happened to her father, I chose this family connection to be the incentive that kept The Gipsy fighting for his life. Even though at the end of the play The Gipsy chooses to walk into the gas chambers rather than eating one of his fellow inmates, it becomes a question of his retaining his dignity and humanity, rather than a question of giving up hope. Frankl recalls “a comrade who, on his arrival in camp, had tried to make a pact with heaven that his suffering and death were meaningful; his was a sacrifice of the deepest significance. He did not want to die for nothing. None of us wanted that” (105).
I kept in mind Frankl’s words, as a lot of The Gipsy’s inner monologue had to do with bargaining with God. And in a moment of the play when a young boy dies, I allowed the otherwise rough character of The Gipsy to have a complete meltdown. His bargain with God to keep a child alive in his hut, in hope that someone would do the same for his child, had failed. This was not written in the play; I took a Chekhovian step and went beyond the playwright because it gave me an inner movement and justification to care for someone and something as a character. This, I believe, is essential. If my character does not care, why should the audience? I personalized every stage moment in the life of my characters; there were nothing but personal moments. Even when the moments were about someone else in the play, my character would react from his personal point of view and with his whole psycho-physical being. I look for faith and truth in everything that happens to me on stage, in every second of the stage existence, with the help of the right focus of attention in my characters’ objectives. I obtain an absolute inner conviction of the necessity for everything I do on stage (“I need it or I’ll die!). I also justify everything that happens on stage. Justification is the way to truth. In applying the psycho¬physical Chekhov techniques and disciplinary elements of the Grotowski system with Frankl’s insights about attitude, my faith in experiencing the possibility of magic was realized.
An actor is a storyteller. Storytellers can also be seen as leaders – leading the way for us to see and experience the story, the inner life, the soul and visceral experience of the characters. An actor is a leader in the service of his ensemble. Ideally, every one in the ensemble is a leader for their character’s story and responsible for its whole creation. When the actor feels like a leader she instantly becomes aware of her responsibility for her ensemble, story, character and the audience. As said by one of my acting teachers, Valentin Tepliakov, “An actor is holding the life of the character in his hands.” This means that I have a responsibility to find a way to bring my character to life. I will be a leader and let myself be led; I will sacrifice such egoistic feelings as fear of success or failure, and focus my energy for bringing alive the story.
While doing my research for this thesis project I came across a book called The Leader’s Legacy by Kouzes & Posner. The book introduces the idea that a good leader is, in fact, in service for his purpose, his staff and must be willing to sacrifice himself for greater good. A good leader also knows what kind of legacy he wants to leave behind.
This made me think about the legacy that I want to leave behind as a human being, actor and teacher. One could question how an actor could possibly leave any legacy behind, since her work is only alive in the present moment. I believe that a great theater show is recorded in the hearts of the audience. An actor’s legacy, for me, has nothing to do with being famous, but everything to do with the wish and ability to expand empathy in the world.
Abdicating one’s role as a leader allows one to blame someone else for a bad show – the director, the other actors, the audience. Running away from challenges and one’s responsibility makes bad leaders, bad actors and bad theater. It is cowardice, which is as unattractive as it is uninteresting – both on and off stage. We need brave actors and directors. This creates brave ensembles and brave audiences. And in time, hopefully more brave empathetic political and financial leaders.
My experience as an actor in The Cannibals was a rewarding one both artistically and personally. I learnt more ease as an actor and I fully enjoyed the spirit of our ensemble. We had a wonderful director and a vigorous group of theater artist working for the common goal; to convey the story of these 12 men and create a meaningful experience for the audience. I felt privileged to be part of this. I am authentically fulfilled with gratitude for being able to work as an actor. I am an idealist who has faith that I can have effect on the quality of my own life and of others by doing this work and following my bliss.
Brockett, Oscar G. History of Theatre, 8th ed. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1999.
Chekhov, Michael, Lessons for Teachers of his Acting Technique. Trans. Deirdre Hurst du Prey. Ottawa: Dovehouse, 2000.
—. Lessons for the Professional Actor. Ed. Deirdre Hurst Du Prey. New York: Perf. Arts Journal, 1985.
—. On The Technique of Acting. Ed. Mel Gordon. New York: HarperCollins, 1991.
—. To the Actor. Revised and expanded ed. London: Routledge 2002.
Frankl, Viktor. Man’s Search for Meaning. New York: Pocket, 1984.
Gordon, Mel. The Stanislavsky Technique: Russia. New York: Applause, 1987.
Grotowski, Jerzy. Towards a Poor Theatre. New York: Routledge, 2002.
Tabori, George. The Cannibals. London: Davis-Poynter, 1974.
Kouzes & Posner. A Leader’s Legacy. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass A Wiley Imprint, 2006.
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