Before we delve into the brainchild of Michael Chekhov in the field of acting, it would be prudent to get to know a little about the man first. So, let us go ahead and put him in the spotlight, shall we?
Who was Michael Chekhov?
Michael Chekhov was a native of Russia, born and raised in the Great Mother Land. Russia has a running reputation of being tough, with weakness in both genders largely frowned upon. Michael didn’t have it any different. Although he was born to a middle-class family, he was handed tough love.
This made him appreciate that nothing was assured in life and you had to search in order to find. It made him a deeply oriented and solution-based man.
His mother, who was of Jewish origin, wasn’t the only wife to his father. She did her best to raise her children and was a vital cog in the wheel that was their family. His father was a moderately successful writer who always pulled all stops to ensure there was food on the table and that they were generally comfortable.
Above all, his father nurtured Michael from a young age and was his mentor. His moments of reflection and unravelling life with Michael made him the man he would later become – the man we all know today. Michael Chekhov decided that he was not just going to live. He was going to leave a mark.
When I foreshadowed that Michael’s, life was his main inspiration, I meant it literally. The people Michael met in his life all played a part in modelling his dynamic future.
He would go on to develop an interest in several elite fields. He juggled his various professions with ease. He was a writer, actor, author, and he practiced theatre too. Michael was a master of them all. One of his most renown teachers, Konstantin Stanislavski, labelled him the most brilliant student he had ever had. Now Konstantin was a hard man, so believe me when I say comments like those were hard to come by from him.
Michael Chekhov’s other areas of life were blooming too. He tied the knot with his first wife Olga Chekhova, who was an actress. No surprise there. They met at the Moscow Art Theatre. They were blessed with a daughter. She also decided to ply the family trade and became an actress.
It was while working for Konstantin that Michael gained clarity on his future. Konstantin had devised a system of training actors, Michael being one of them. The system was aptly named Stanislavski’s system.
It entailed cultivating the “art of experiencing”. This system required the actors to train their conscious thoughts to work for them. The premise was that, if you could convince your will, your subconscious behavior would follow suit. This would allow you to accurately portray emotions and involuntary sets of movements that are otherwise usually very hard to control.
Putting it more simply, the actor had the exquisite task of justifying his character’s actions and motives to his brain. If he could convince himself that the character’s anger or spite was truly justified, he’d have an easier job representing the said emotion. His lips would twitch, he would become irrational and his body would generally be in tandem with the imaginary emotion. The result would be that the emotions the character is experiencing would be more vividly represented to the audience.
Now, Michael Chekhov had a problem with this. He was incorporated into this system and it affected him adversely. He had a serious nervous breakdown one day while trying to conform to Konstantin’s teachings of adapting emotional memories. This is when he realized that the system had its limits.
Chekhov decided to break away from Konstantin’s school where he was highly revered. He would be starting from nothing, but he was determined. He moved to America and would go on to establish his own studio.
It was there that he invented and demonstrated his own style of performance that we now know of today, as the Michael Chekhov Technique.
The Michael Chekhov Technique Explained
Michael Chekhov was a brilliant man and a pioneer in his own right. He was brave too. When he broke off to write his own story, it was like a stab in the heart for his former teacher. Michael invented a technique that wholly relied on imagination to realize the truth of the moment. His teachings and new-held beliefs left a bitter taste in Konstantin’s mouth. He felt that Michael was betraying the principles he had taught him.
Michael Chekhov was an inspired man who understood acting like a mother understands her own child. He saw the realities that people weren’t willing to accept in their chase for perfection, his former teacher included.
He concluded that actors, no matter how bad we wanted them to become who they were playing, were merely artists. As such, the acting industry needed to let go of the heavy burden of almost photographic representation of the script they placed on their actors. He realized that what we needed was to seek the truth in more inspiring ways.
Michael believed that actors needed to be theatrical and bold in their work. The real thing sometimes is just never good enough. That is why we move to the theatre – to escape realism. So, he encouraged his actors to be expressive and exciting. He wanted to wow and woo the audience, and it was on that note, that he established his now world-renown psycho-physical techniques.
Chekhov discovered a few things that laid the basis for his techniques. One of them was that our bodies and psychologies are undeniably connected. The other was that inner principles and outward movements generate sensations or emotions that are more truthful visually. The last discovery, and the one that gave him the most satisfaction, was that actors found the process liberating. This made them more willing to push themselves.
The following are words Michael spoke to actors
Everything one experiences in the course of their life; everything they observe and think, all things that grant happiness or unhappiness, all regrets or satisfactions, one’s love or hate, all that a person longs for or avoids, their achievements and failures, everything they brought with you into this life at birth – temperament, inclinations, abilities, etc., are all part of one’s subconscious depths. There being forgotten by a person, or never known to him/her, they undergo the process of being purified of all egotism. They become feelings per se. Therefore, purged and transformed, they form part of the material from which an actor creates the psychology or illusory ‘soul’ of a character.Michael Chekhov
Michael Chekhov understood that sharing a personality, certain perspective or experience with a character may create a connection and make you identify with the role. However, he also understood that it may limit your performance and affect you mentally. Thus, he encouraged his actors to boost and rely on their imagination.
The best thing about being creative is that it opens an endless world of possibilities. In fact, most modern teachers agree that trying to identify with a character you are embodying only causes distractions. It was this effort of trying to relate to his character that caused Michael to experience the nervous breakdown I earlier mentioned.
Konstantin Stanislavski later came to see the wisdom in Chekhov’s teachings and accepted his message. His own methods often produced lukewarm results. Although they made the performance more natural, they were flat and a bit too bland for the average theatre-goer’s taste.
The Michael Chekhov Technique had wonderful results. The performances were more memorable and mirrored the actors’ hard work. I personally feel that Chekhov did not wish to see any more stage performers go through what he had to go through in order to reproduce real life reactions and emotions.
Most people get consumed by the roles they are portraying and forget that they are just on stage. The Michael Chekhov Technique helps you to create a separation.
Michael Chekhov technique
Michael Chekhov revolutionized the field of acting. He gave us back the joy of theatre and saved many actors from being crushed under the thumb of expectations. Acting came to life under his guiding hand. There was energy again.
He trained his actors to build a strong relationship with their imaginations and to treat every movement as a work of art. He emphasized that there was no real pressure to blur the stage whenever we stepped on it. On the contrary, we should embrace it and create a clear distinction between our personality and that of the character.
Apart from his history-defining technique, Michael Chekhov left us one more thing. He taught us to be brave. He fled his home country when it did not welcome innovation and persevered. He taught us to choose our own paths.
When he died in 1955, his ideas were largely overshadowed by American psychological realism – beliefs that actors must experience the emotions of their characters. However, his teachings live on, in me and in you.
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