Yana Meerzon*

In A Dead Man’s Memoir (A Theatrical Novel), Mikhail Bulgakov describes writing a novel as being possessed by one’s nightmares, a process of registering in words the world of fiction appearing in the author’s mind (6-7). He compares it to the process of adapting this novel into a play as turning this phantasmagorical world into a three-dimensional environment of a theatre stage (40-42). In my pedagogy of textual adaptation, I aim to do exactly this: to teach my students to recognize the richness of the chosen literary material and to transform it into the 3D world of a theatre play, to become this new theatre world’s maker: its director, designer, actor and first audience. In this, I follow Michael Chekhov’s acting pedagogy, who taught his students to seek vibrant, live, three-dimensional characters emerging in their imagination as inspired by two-dimensional dialogue on page (To the Actor 208-09).

I work predominantly with representational literature. It provides readers with the fully furnished worlds of imagined characters and places, without, however, forcing adaptors to opt for writing their own plays in the style of realism. In my classes, I foster creative thinking and nourish theatrical imagination; I nurture students’ ability to create coherent fictional worlds on stage, regardless how bizarre, improbable or impossible they can be. I insist, however, my students working with the examples of high-brow literature, which would teach an aspiring playwright useful lessons in character development, conflict building and resolution, and constructing suspense. In the process of moving the chosen material from one context to another, students need to make their own work articulate, accessible and artistically engaging. Whether they end up loyal to the original text and whether their work will be representational is the least of my pedagogical concerns. The students’ objective is to produce a fully fletched dramatic play: a 2D textual record of a 3D theatre production as it appears in their imagination. To teach this technique, I use the elements of literary and performance analysis, developmental dramaturgy and acting pedagogy. My work is influenced by Elinor Fuchs’ theory of fictional planets, Linda Hutcheon’s work of literary adaptation, Vincent Murphy’s adaptation guide for theatre, and Susan Jonas’ practice of collaborative dramaturgy.[1] However, no single theory of adaption can truly explain one’s creative process; practicing textual adaptation in classroom becomes an effective pedagogical, “conceptual and practical model for developing [students’] critical and creative skills simultaneously” (McKinnon 55). Inspired by Michael Chekhov’s thoughts on playwriting (To the Director and Playwright35), I invite my students to work on the characters’ psycho-physical make up, action/event interdependency, sense of rhythm, atmosphere and suspense, and the Psychological Gesture (PG) of the play’s conflict, imagining the play in its entirety, and developing on page, through dialogue, the three-dimensional universe of its future production. I work with my own 8 steps model of textual adaptation, such as:

Step 1. Learning Your Short Story—Devising Point of View;
Step 2. Creating a Story Board: Understanding the Essential Scene;
Step 3. Staging Dramatic Character in 3D;
Step 4. Speaking in Tongues: Monologue vs Dialogue;
Step 5. Building Suspense: Creating Atmosphere(s) on Stage;
Step 6. Constructing Dramatic Chronotope: On the Time/Space Interdependency;
Step 7. Editing: Understanding the Workings of Rhythm and Pause on Stage; and
Step 8. Staging the “Boom Effect”: On the Play’s Opening Scene and its Final Image.

Michael Chekhov. Courtesy to Yana Meerzon, Private Collection.
Michael Chekhov. Courtesy to Yana Meerzon, Private Collection.

Six components of this model reflect Chekhov’s acting method. They are:

1. working with imaginary audience and feeling of form in devising the adaptor’s point of view;
2. using principles of composition in creating a story board and writing the essential scene;
3. treating character’s imaginary body and imaginary centre as the principle elements of dramatic characterization;
4. creating atmosphere as a form of suspense in drama;
5. understating the role of on-stagepause as the means of constructing rhythmical patterns and rhythmical waves; and
6. searching for Psychological Gesture as the essence of dramatic conflict and final image in the play.

As my example, I refer to the work of the fourth year Practice of Dramaturgy class at the University of Ottawa, who, in the winter 2015, collectively adapted Nancy Huston’s novel Fault Lines. Constructed in four sections, the novel tells a story of one family, full of secrets and failed relationships. Starting in 2004, it unfolds backwards to take the reader across continents, into the Germany of 1942. Each section presents a seven-year-old narrator/protagonist, who through his/her own observations and life experiences, reveals a part of this family drama. The secrets, however, are never fully discovered, so the novel relies on the active work of the reader who is forced to fill the narrative gaps. An ideal pedagogical material, this novel provides aspiring writers with an opportunity to re-imagine the fifty years of world history in application to the lives of one ordinary family.

The Work of the Adaptor: Chekhov’s Imaginary Audience and Feeling of Form

Chekhov’s work on imagination in acting helps my students shake off their TV and internet induced creative choices. Following Chekhov’s theory, the class teaches them that our imagination contains all creative impulses and ideal images needed for our work in theatre. First, imagination transfigures dramatic images into the imaginary objects of the actor’s consciousness. Then, it transforms those images into the unique beings, which the actor incorporates on stage with the help of his/her psycho-physical apparatus (Chekhov, To the Actor 21-34). Working on textual adaptation has similar traits. First, the writer’s imagination transforms the original environment and the characters into the imaginary forms of his/her consciousness. Then, the adaptor records the life of these imaginary figures in dialogue, creating a blue-print of a production.

This process begins with Step 1, “Learning Your Short Story—Devising Point of View,” of my model. It consists of students identifying potential venue for presenting their adaptations and analyzing their imaginary audiences. As Chekhov explains, when rehearsing his/her part, the actor “must see the theatre filled with an audience of today, which comes from the whirl of life, from its offices, newspapers, radios, from private life, colleges, factories, political affairs, and so on” (“Chekhov on Acting” 59). Having an imaginary audience in mind as one’s ideal addressee will help an artist better articulate the personal, social and political urgency of this work. Theatre adaptation rests exactly with this objective: the adaptor must make sure the chosen material speaks to its new audience with the urgency of their own time and place. It must reveal something deeply personal about the adaptor him/herself. In this, however, I’m not looking for autobiographical testimonials, but for the sense of agency, the students’ clearly identified need to use their new texts to change something in themselves or in the world. This agency is revealed through the adaptor’s conceptual framework of his/her play.

The work begins with students’ recording—in words or visually—the fantastic images they encounter when they read their source material for the first time; the images that can reveal something personal about the adaptor/actor (Chekhov, “Chekhov on Acting” 54). I ask my students to commence their dramaturgical research by studying the fictional world of the novel, immersing themselves into the material world, cultural and artistic environment, and the historical context that created it. After they become familiar with this given context, students can enrich it by adding new material to it from their own life experiences. Most importantly, I tell them to tightly hold on the initial emotional response they felt when they read their material for the first time. This response (whether positive or negative) would always inspire the work of imagination. The stronger the emotion we feel when we choose our material, the more engaging the result, the play itself, will be. This emotional response will not only instigate one’s imagination, it will dictate the ultimate point of view, the adaptor’s position toward the chosen story. This approach also stems from Chekhov’s exercises in acting, which begins in the actor’s work with the sense of entirety and culminates in him/her producing a Psychological Gesture of his/her part, corresponding with his/her first impression of it (To the Actor186). This exercise teaches students focusing only on the essential features from the primary material and helps them reveal their own artistic voices. Step one finishes with writing Field Report, which presents the conceptual framework of the adaptation, something that closely resembles feeling of form, seeing role in its entirety of Chekhov’s teaching (To the Actor 17). Making sure the actor’s role is engaging, comprehendible and aesthetically pleasing is at the centre of Chekhov’s thought. The actor must grasp the sense of the whole of his/her character, i.e. to be able to imagine its form and development, right from his/her first encounter with it:

If in the beginning or from the very first entrance you already have a vision of yourself playing (or rehearsing) your last scenes—and, conversely, remembering the first scenes as you play (or rehearse) the very last scenes—you will better be able to see your whole part in every details, as though you were viewing it in the perspective from some elevation. The ability to evaluate the details within the part as a well-integrated whole will further enable you to play each of these details as little entities which blend harmoniously into the all-embracing entity. . . . you will intuitively stress essentials in your character and follow the main line of events, thus holding firmly the attention of the audience. (Chekhov, To the Actor 17)

If, in this quote, we simply exchange the word “actor” with the word “adaptor” and the word “character” with “story,” we will get a clear description of what makes the first step of the adaptation process. The adaptor must visualize his/her play as a finished entity of actions and events, from its beginning to its end, including its essential moments and major players, before the writing begins. Using diagrams, pictures, and short descriptions, students present the layout of the major events and actions as they unfold in the original story, and comparatively as they will appear in their future adaptations. The difference in these diagrams reveals the adaptor’s point of view in its entirety.

Working on Nancy Huston’s novel, I divided my class into several groups of four, each group devising a collective take on the text with every member in each group responsible for adapting only one part of the story. A group of five, however, was forced to use “a meta-dramaturgical approach” and created the additional, fifth section of their adaptation. Kristina is the central and the most developed character of the novel. However, we meet her as the narrator/protagonist only in the last section of the original, in 1942, so we never have a chance to see the rest of the story from her perspective. In order to fill up this narrative gap, my students used devices of re-focalization and created the fifth section of their adaptation, told from Kristina’s point of view. Chekhov’s principle of seeing one’s character in its entirety or one’s story as a whole helped this group better understand the narrative principles of the novel.

Principles of Composition: The Laws of Triplicity, Polarity, and Transformation

Step 2, “Creating a Story Board: Understanding the Workings of the Essential Scene,” consists of the adaptor’s work in identifying the story-forming actions and events in the source material and re-arranging them in adaptation. It reflects Chekhov’s views on composition in performance; based on the laws of triplicity, polarity, and transformation as the major dramaturgical mechanisms to manipulate the audience`s emotions (To the Actor 94-110). In my classroom, the students practice these laws of composition to create a story-board of their adaptations and to write their essential scenes.

Speaking of the law of triplicity, Chekhov suggests breaking up dramatic text into three equally important sections: “the plot generates, unfolds and concludes” (To the Actor 94), reflecting three meaning-forming steps or three climaxes of dramatic action (101-05). The actors should begin their rehearsals with these three climaxes because they “express the gist of the play. . . . It is an erroneous impression that rehearsals of a play should start with the very first scene and continue in undeviating succession,” Chekhov says; “it is prompted by habit and not inspired by creative necessity” (105). If determined correctly to the logic of the play’s conflict, these three climaxes will immediately take the adaptor/director into the heart of the play’s structure. They will provide one with “the key to the main idea and to the basic dynamic of the play” and help recognizing “the essence of that unit which [each climax] represents” (104).

Similarly, I advise my students breaking the plot of the novel and each individual scene into three sequences of action, as it fits their points of view or artistic preferences. Drafting the essential scene, moved later into any other section or even discarded from the play, is the focus point of this step. Having the essential scene written and linear sequence of actions and events outlined teaches a young writer identifying the important steps that make up the story. Chances are that whatever changes the adaptor will propose to the source text, putting in or getting rid of the essential scene will tell us more about what the adaptor has to say about the significance of the chosen material for today’s audience.

Creating story-boards and writing the essential scene helped my students recognizing the compositional undercurrents of Fault Lines. For example, the first part of the novel finishes with the reunion of two sisters after fifty years being apart. The scene functions as the factual ending of the novel: the adopted, stolen by the Nazis, Ukrainian girl Kristina returns to Germany to discover the truth about her sister, Gretha. The sisters’ reunion reveals the darkness of human nature and the irresolvable jealousy that often marks the siblings’ relationships. One of the students, who worked on the first section “Sol,” in which this scene takes place, felt that it does not add much to his play or to the development of its principle character. He wanted to cut the scene. His co-writer, who was working on “Kristina” section, insisted that the scene must stay. Without it, Kristina’s story is incomplete and the novel’s overall message is lost. Without doing the exercise in composition, I am convinced, the students would not be able to grasp the significance of this moment. At the same time, including this event in the adaptation did not prevent them from experimenting with the inner structure of their play. The students moved this scene into the opening sequence, which now functioned as its foreshadowing.

In Chekov’s teaching, the law of triplicity is tightly connected with the law of polarity, which suggests that in performance “the beginning and the end are . . . polar in principle” (To the Actor 94). Polarity, Chekhov explains, will “save the performance from monotony and give it greater expressiveness, as contrasts always do” (95); transformation will reveal its greater meaning. Seen simultaneously as the story’s beginning and end, transformation foreshadows the story’s ending at its beginning and reflects its beginning at the story’s end (99); hence, the ending of the play evokes its beginning in the eye of the spectator, providing him/her with the sense of the entirety and contrast as the inner workings of the action (98).

In my classroom, the students apply these laws to macro- and micro-structure of the dramatic action, built on the contrasts between characters’ outer and inner tempo. To Chekhov, outer tempo concerns the character’s “speech, movement and business—all that we can see or hear”; whereas inner tempo is “the speed with which all that is not visual or aural—our feelings, emotions, desires and will impulses of every kind, our thoughts and images—can appear and disappear, change and follow one another with greater or lesser rapidity” (To the Director and Playwright 90). Chekhov advises his students to always start their scenes in one register (fast) to finish them in another (slow), regardless what genre the play or the scene is (91-92). Similarly, dramaturgy students learn that every scene must have a definitive turning point and all the characters must leave it in a different mood and tempo to what they arrived. The writer must be able to show this change through the characters’ speech patterns, playing with the length and intensity of their lines. A good example of how students worked on this technique comes from the section “Kristina” of Huston’s novel. In the scene “Run Away from Home,” one student depicted a seven-year old girl feverishly packing her backpack while carefully listening to what is going outside the room, impatiently waiting for the right moment to steal the money and run away from her adopted family.

Transposition, as moving events from one context to another, is another dramaturgical device of working with outer and inner tempo and intensifying the action. In the same section, “Kristina,” there is a scene that takes place on the Christmas Eve of 1942. It begins in a festive mood, the sisters are getting presents: Gretha a beautiful doll and Kristina a bear with cymbals. It ends with Kristina feeling unloved because of her unworthy present. Many students felt that the action was not engaging and searching for the ways to intensify it. One person opted for merging this scene with another one, when the family receives tragic news about the older sibling, Lohar, killed in the war. The contrast of the events—from the characters’ celebrating Christmas to being shocked by the tragic news—created more intensity. The outer tempo of the characters’ stage life changed from fast to slow; whereas the inner tempo of their reactions altered from slow to fast. This change created a new focus in the action and helped the adaptor make it more passionate, approximating this scene to the one of no-return.

Character: Imaginary Body and Imaginary Centre

Step 3, “Staging Dramatic Character in 3D,” is inspired by Chekhov’s technique of actor visualizing his/her character. It includes: the actor’s psychophysical method of imitating an ideal image/character in his/her imagination; and transformation, as putting on mask on stage. Working on character, Chekhov suggested the playwright/actor carefully studies contrasts between him/herself and a character in three spheres of “mind, feeling and will impulses” by asking three dramaturgical questions: “1. What is the difference between my way of thinking and the character’s way of thinking? Or how does his mind contrast with mine?; 2. What are the difference between the feelings and emotions of the character and myself?; and 3. What is the nature of my will and inclinations as against those of the character?” (To the Director and Playwright 58). This process involves figuring out the essence of the character`s “psychological qualities and peculiarities” (60) as revealed through his/her physicality or imaginary centre, a “symbolical feature of the character it personifies” (61). To Chekhov, finding imaginary center of the character’s imaginary body helps the actor determine its essence, because one’s physical mannerisms can open doors into one’s psychology and behaviour (“Chekhov on Acting” 77).

My students practice imagining their future characters using Chekhov’s technique. They begin looking for information about physicality, emotions, thoughts and behaviour of their characters in the source material. Their objective is to visualise and record these imaginary constructions on page, through dialogue and stage directions. This task requires concentration, long-term attention span, and well trained muscles of imagination. To help my students “get the game going,” I also invite them to imagine these characters as played by their favourite celebrity actors. I ask them to look for the imaginary centres in the bodies of these actors and consider their physical mannerisms, such as walking, holding bodies, making gestures and facial expressions, as the foundation for their own characters’ psycho-physical idiosyncrasy. The ninety percent of this work is done in the students’ heads, only ten percent of it appears on page. I do not expect the “provable” results on page: such expectations are naïve. The proximity of the written dialogue to the imaginary constructs in the adaptor’s mind will depend on the writing skills and dramaturgical talent of each student, their willingness to go on with the game and vividness of the images they are able to see. The process, the game, is more important than the result: it teaches students the freedom of creativity and it gives them poetic license to move away from the original, to invent something of their own. As Chekhov once said, when an actor tries to see his/her character in his/her imagination, the effort must be made: “By making such efforts every day, you will come to a point when your images will appear before you with such power and strength that you will be forced to stop your inner life and follow your image, not because you force it, but because it forces you to follow it” (“Chekhov on Acting” 57). The novel Fault Lines proved very useful in this aspect as well. The four narrators are children close to my students in age; so they could easily relate to the described family dynamics, such as being spoiled or rejected by one’s parents, finding oneself in the middle of the siblings’ rivalry, and being a victim of the events taking place outside the family unit. Imagining characters’ physicality helped students recognize and reveal through dialogue such strong emotions as the protagonists’ feelings of isolation, depression, fear, anxiety, distrust and longing to be loved. Once betrayed by the adults, the child would always seek the love of his/her absent parent, the sentiment that the class decided to make central in each of their adaptations.

Building Suspense: Creating Atmosphere

Suspense, a device of character’s development, long term suspense, and a technique of moving action forward, short term suspense (Pfister 1991), is a difficult concept to grasp. Chekhov’s thought on atmosphere as a form of dramaturgical suspense (To the Actor 52), and his teaching on changing rhythmical patterns in action, using musical forms as the play’s structure, as well as building and destroying repetitions on stage (110-20) come very handy in this work.

To Chekhov, every spatial or temporal environment, “every phenomenon and event has its own particular atmospheres” (To the Actor 48), which has a power of organizing or enveloping force. When creatively constructed by the actors on stage, atmosphere can establish a special bond between the stage and the audience, and can inspire spectator to “act along with the actors” (48). Atmosphere “deepens the perception of the spectator,” provides profound insights into the action, and stimulates feelings. A field of energy, atmosphere is a clash between characters’ objectives, actions, desires, and the mood of the space in which these actions take place. When atmosphere is tangible and felt by the entire ensemble, the scene’s action can reach metaphysical symbolism; so spectator might receive revelation. The scenes deprived of atmosphere create “a psychologically void space”; they can be self-destructive by causing wrong reactions to the wrong actions (To the Actor 49). Secondly, the atmosphere of each scene can acquire its independent will, distinct from “the individual feelings of the characters” (51). Each fictional environment is defined by the juxtaposition between the collective atmosphere of the scene and the individual atmosphere of a single character (53); the most interesting dynamics of on-stage action, the basis of performative suspense in theatre. Chekhov’s actors are the makers of on-stage environments; not only they are able to experience atmosphere, they can create it in visual forms. They establish the atmosphere of the chosen scene in their imaginations first, then they reveal it on stage through the power of radiation (60-61). In order to do this, they have to function as an ensemble studying the objectives and the rhythms of their partners.

Creating competing atmospheres on page rests on similar principles: imagining each new character bringing his/her atmosphere into the scene and contrasting this atmosphere with what has been already established can keep spectator in suspense and reveal adaptor’s vision of the play. In my class, I ask my students first to determine and describe conflictual atmospheres that make every chosen scene in the source material, then search for appropriate dramatic devices to convey both the general atmosphere of the scene and the particular atmospheres carried on by each character. To illustrate how this point works, I turn to the section “Sadie” of the novel Fault Lines, depicting a seven-year-old girl growing up with her grandparents. Sadie is lost between an unconditional love for her mother and a fear of never being reunited with her. So, her personal atmosphere always conflicts with other atmosphere(s) around her: feeling sad and anticipating disaster marks Sadie’s actions. Adapting this section to the stage, my students constantly sought contrast between Sadie’s mood and actions and the mood and the actions of the people and the places around her. Instead of writing Sadie’s grandmother as cold and restrictive, for instance, I suggested thinking about her as carring and lonely. The grandmother takes Sadie to school, she preparers her breakfast, takes her to the music lessons and ballet classes, but she is strict; hence, when they share a scene/a space, Sadie sees/feels her grandmother as a threat.

To better reveal Sadie’s devastation, one student invented the character Chorus, which consisted of the voices of devils/Fiends living in Sadie’s head: the happier Sadie was the least number of lines the Chorus got; the more wrecked Sadie felt the more voices the Chorus acquired. This device demonstrates that an adaptor can evoke, intensify, and change the competing atmospheres within a scene by engaging with the length of the characters’ speeches. Imagining each new character bringing his/her atmosphere into the scene and contrasting this atmosphere with what has been already established through dialogue will keep the reader/spectator in suspense and reveal the adaptor’s vision of the play. Rhythm, its patterns and ruptures, its changes and continuity, is the key in the work of any theatre artist: from a playwright to an actor. A device of creating atmosphere; rhythm is one of the central techniques of Chekhov’s teaching and the next point of this article.

On Rhythm and Pause

The greatest challenge of writing for theatre is composing dialogue that, similarly to a musical score, can contain the residues of a future production. As Chekhov said, “No matter how fresh the playwright’s theme, or novel his plot, or unusual his action or scenic inventions, dialogue is still the greatest brush and canvas of his creative equipment” (To the Director and Playwright 35). Step 7 of my adaptation model, “Editing: Understanding the Workings of Rhythm and Pause on Stage,” teaches some techniques of working on rhythm in dialogue. Chekhov’s view of rhythm as the heartbeat of the play, something that creates its mood, emotional tension, and atmosphere, as well as manipulates spectators’ emotions, is indispensable for this work. Chekhov recognizes rhythm as a means to “stimulate the spectator’s attention and compel him to be more alert than he already is” (To the Director and Playwright 97), so to approximate the rhythmical structure of a production to music. He speaks of rhythmical repetitions (To the Actor 100-12), rhythmical waves (116), and on-stage pause (97-98) as the primary devices to influence audience’s emotions. To Chekhov, there are only two types of repetitions that the actor/writer/adaptor should use in theatre:

First, when phenomena repeat themselves regularly in space or time, or both, and remain unchanged; second, when phenomena change with each successive repetition. These two kinds of repetition evoke different reactions in the spectator. In the first case, the spectator gets the impression of “eternity” if the repetition takes place in time, or of “endlessness” if it occurs in space. . . . The effect produced by the second repetition, when phenomena do change, is a different one. It either increases or diminishes certain impressions, making them more spiritual or material; it increases or diminishes the humor or tragedy or any other facet of situation. (To the Actor 110-11)

Rhythmical repetitions create rhythmical waves expressed through the working of inner and outer actions of the actor (118). They dictate the pulse of the production, its musical patterns (119). A more traditional play has its action unfolding as crescendo, rushing toward its catastrophe; the more experimental structure engages with different patterns of rhythmical waves and repetitions, their larger and smaller forms (119). The on-stage pause is the tangible expression of these rhythmical waves. The pause that precedes the action “prepares the audience to receive the forthcoming action, forecasts its content and sometimes even preconditions the effect which that action will have on the audience” (Chekhov, To the Director and Playwright 97); the pause that follows the action “serves to summarize and deepen the impression which the audience received from the action just completed” (98). Often the two pauses merge; in this moment of void or conflict the new action originates. Such combined pause has the strongest effect on a spectator, it can “relentlessly hold the audience’s attention” (To the Director and Playwright 98).The on-stage pause functions as the device of radiation, the actors’ sending out emotion to the audience (Pfister 137).By either abstracting or distracting the audience’s focus, Chekhov’s pause becomes the actor/adaptor’s strategy to focalize the audience’s attention; it makes spectators co-experience the events together with the characters.

I consider working with rhythmical repetitions, rhythmical waves and on-stage pause essential steps for adaptation. Rhythm determines not only the workings of fictional worlds; it functions as the author’s signature style, making, for example, the process of literary translation challenging. I ask my students to listen to the “music” of the original text and find rhythmical equivalents of the inner workings of a source material in their newly composed dialogue. The adaptor’s task is to re-invent the original text’s harmony, tempo and rhythm in adaptation.

To teach students the power of rhythm on stage, I propose several exercises: such as rewriting a scene from a well-known play using different tempo, transposing it into a new stylistic setting, or expanding and cutting characters’ lines. I ask students to avoid long if any stage directions, putting all creative efforts into dialogue. The patterns of characters’ speech, the relationships between this dialogue and other sounds indicated by the script, as well as the use of on-stage pause become the defining factors of the play’s rhythms and action. I ask students to begin their scenes in “mid-action,” “mid-sentence,” or “mid-dialogue,” a device that will allow them seizing their spectators’ attention. Working with syntax takes a crucial role in this process. In the section “Randal,” we meet a seven-year-old boy living in the shadow of his career oriented mother, Sadie. This section is constructed on the juxtaposition of two atmospheres that “cannot coexist” (Chekhov, To the Actor 61): the relaxed atmosphere of the family bondage established by Randal’s father is destroyed by Sadie’s rhythms of self-destruction. When Sadie hits her car, the intensity of the conflict reaches its climactic point. In order to illustrate this point, one of the students wrote the final scene “Getting News” as a musical number. She imagined Randal as a conductor of the toy-soldiers’ orchestra. When Randal learns that his mother’s car crashed, we see the toy-soldiers growing out of proportion and the polka-music turning into Shostakovich’s war symphony. Such change in the “musical pattern” of the scene suggests two things: the re-enforcement of the rhythmical pattern that the student has established in the previous scenes (from harmony to anxiety) and the escalation of the dramatic tension.

Staging the “Boom Effect”: On Psychological Gesture of Adaptation

Psychological Gesture (PG) constitutes the most enigmatic element of Michael Chekhov’s pedagogy. It originates in the actor’s mind, transforms into his/her movement or action, and is manifested in time and space. Never produced for the audience, PG embodies both the character’s archetype as imagined by the actor and the audience’s expectations of it. It “stirs our will power, gives it a definite direction, awakens feelings and gives us a condensed version of the character. . . . It must be archetypal, strong, simple and well-formed, it must radiate and be performed in the correct tempo” (Chekhov, To the Actor 76). In its essence, PG is the “language of gestures”; a “focusing mechanism, allowing the performer to attend to a particular set of feelings that link the actor’s emotional life to that of the character” (Lutterbie 100). PG has its own rhythm and form: it presents the outer dynamics of the character’s body that expresses its inner efforts. Chekhov’s PG can be created for the role as a whole (To the Actor 186); separate moments of the role (188); separate scenes (190-91), the score of atmospheres (195-96), and a monologue (200-01). Conceived as a physical image through movement, PG can help an actor visualizing the space-time continuum of the play. In this capacity of bringing up, through the highly concentrated physical and visual form the essence of the scene, PG becomes an invaluable pedagogical tool in teaching textual adaptation. As Chekhov explains: “with the help of the PG, you will be able to see the predominate will and emotion of the scene clearly” (To the Actor 190); the PG of a scene will present it “from the perspective of the author, the director, or perhaps the theatre, and not from the point of view of any particular character in the scene” (194). It will help an adaptor/director express the essence of the play’s conflict and the quintessence of the play’s spatial-temporal continuum:

Imagine the space around you as having some definite quality: contracting or expanding, dark or bright, wide or narrow. Perform the Gesture within this imaginary space. Discover certain inner rhythms that belong both to the Gesture and to the space. Imagine that the Gesture transforms the space around you. Create numerous combinations with the PG, imaginary time and imaginary space. (Malaev-Babel 215)

In my class, students imagine spatial-temporal continuum of their plays as Chekhov’s four qualities: ease, form, beauty and entirety (To the Actor 13-17). They search for a gesture that can better express their scenes’ spatial metaphors, which later could be reflected in the architectural arrangement and designs of the staging. Working on the section “Kristina,” one student visualized its PG as the figure of a child with her hands thrown up into the air. The gesture articulated Kristina’s love for music and her desire to use her singing, her beautiful voice, to connect with the universe beyond her family. The student imagined a string quintet engaged in the heighted emotion of their piece as the PG of her adaptation, whereas each of Kristina’s family members as musical instruments. In this version, Kristina sees herself as the first violin; her mother as the second; her sibling Greta as viola; her grandfather as cello; and, finally, Janek, another adopted child and Kristina’s best friend as a guitar, the instrument out of harmony to the rest of the family. The student immersed herself into the sound qualities of this PG she imagined for Kristina, which then helped her visualizing the spatial-temporal arrangement for the play’s action. Imagining Kristina’s section as a string quintet also determined the style of dialogue, with characters speaking to the music.


Despite the seemingly prescriptive manner in which my class works, the results are rarely realistic, melodramatic and TV-like sitcoms. The purpose of the two initial steps of my model is to help students quickly grasp the whole of their creative project, and clarify their vision, objectives, and impulses generated by the source text. The rest is designed to aid students freely approach the source material’s structure. In this, I follow Chekhov’s teaching again. Aiming at training actor’s imagination and teaching him/her transforming these images into tangible forms of their acting figures on stage, Chekhov intended to lift the actor above “naturalistic plane” (Malaev-Babel 185). He spoke of the Fantastic Psychological Gesture(s) as “abstract, inanimate objects and fantastic characters,” helping his actors “discover that they too can approach universal issues and ideas, no matter what kind of character or play they are performing: a realistic, or a fantastic one” (185). Similarly, my dramaturgy students learn the major secret of creative writing: no matter what text or source they choose to work with, by engaging in active dialogue with the chosen material and by training one’s imagination, they can discover something profound about the world around them and their own position in it. The pedagogue’s task is to show that the adaptor’s creative impulse can be revealed in his/her ability to capture a unique moment of a character’s life in the spatial-temporal continuum of one’s imagination, on page in dialogue, and eventually on stage in performance.


[1] Fuchs (2004); Jonas (1997); Hutcheon (2006); Murphy (2013).

Works Cited

Bulgakov, Mikhail. A Dead Man’s Memoir (A Theatrical Novel). Trans. Andrew Bromfield. New York: Penguin Books. 2007. Print.

Chekhov, Michael. To the Actor: On the Technique of Acting. London: Routledge, 2002. Print.

—. “Chekhov on Acting: A Collection of Unpublished Materials (1919-1942).” The Drama Review: TDR 27.3 (1983): 46-83. Print.

—. Michael Chekhov’s To the Director and Playwright. Compiled and Written by Charles Leonard. New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1963. Print.

Fuchs, Elinor. “Visit to a Small Planet: Some Questions to Ask a Play.” Theater 34.2 (2004): 4-9. Print.

Huston, Nancy. Fault Lines. New York: Grove Press, Black Cat, 2008. Print.

Hutcheon, Linda. A Theory of Adaptation. New York: Routledge. 2006. Print.

Jonas, Susan. “Aiming the Canon at Now.Strategies for Adaptation.” Dramaturgy in the American Theatre. A Source Book. Ed. Jonas and Geoffrey S.Proehl. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College Publishers. 1997. 244-65. Print.

Lutterbie, John. “The Dynamics of Psychological Gestures.” The Routledge Companion to Michael Chekhov. Ed. Marie-Christine Autant-Mattheu and Yana Meerzon. London: Routledge, 2015.96-110. Print.

MalaevBabel. A. “Appendix—A Practical Guide to the Application of Psychological Gesture.” To The Actor: On the Technique of Acting. Ed. Michael Chekhov and Mala Powers. Fwd. Simon Callow. London: Routledge, 2002. 183-217. Print.

McKinnon, James. “Creative Copying?: The Pedagogy of Adaptation.” Canadian Theatre Review. 147 (2011): 55-60. Print.

Murphy, Vincent. Page to Stage: The Craft of Adaptation. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2013. Print.

Pfister, Manfred. The Theory and Analysis of Drama. Trans. John Halliday. Cambridge: Cambridge UP. 1991. Print.


*Dr. Yana Meerzon is an Associate Professor, Department of Theatre, University of Ottawa. Her research interests are in drama and performance theory, theatre of exile, practical dramaturgy and adaptation, cultural and interdisciplinary studies. Her book publications include A Path of the Character: Michael Chekhov’s Inspired Acting and Theatre Semiotics (2005); and Performing Exile – Performing Self: Drama, Theatre, Film (Palgrave, 2012). She has also co-edited Performance, Exile and ‘America’ (with Dr. SilvijaJestrovic), Palgrave, 2009; Adapting Chekhov: The Text and Its Mutations (with Dr. J. Douglas Clayton), Routledge, 2012; History, Memory, Performance (with Dr. David Dean and Dr. Kathryn Prince), Palgrave, 2015; and Routledge Companion to Michael Chekhov (with Dr. Marie-Christine Autant-Mathieu), 2015.

Copyright © 2015 Yana Meerzon
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN: 2409-7411

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Michael Chekhov’s Theatre Theory and Pedagogy of Theatre Adaptation