David Zinder*

David Zinder. Copyright: Nicu Cherciu, Romanian National Theatre, Cluj, Romania, May 2011

The eye of the artist concentrates on his pencil, the point moves, and the line dreams.

Paul Klee

ImageWork Training is a comprehensive form of image-based psycho-physical training which I have been developing for the past forty years. The seed was sown in 1963, during a virtually accidental encounter with Michael Chekov’s Psychological Gesture, taught to me by one of Chekhov’s students, Peter Frye.[1] This was followed by a thirty-year trajectory of learning and teaching, marked by mentors, insights and revelations, until this circular journey culminated in a reconnection with the Chekhov Technique, in 1993, through another accidental encounter—with Mala Powers.[2] This is the story of that journey and of the remarkable connection between ImageWork Training and the Chekhov Technique.

The aim of ImageWork Training, as set out in the introduction to my 2009 book, Body  Voice  Imagination : ImageWork Training and the Chekhov Technique, is as follows:

[This is] an attempt to deconstruct the process of creativity and the phenomenon of presence in actor training, to reveal what can be revealed about the way they work, and then suggest ways of learning their components through a detailed training procedure. . . . By making the actor’s creativity visible and trainable, the ultimate aim of this book is to help actors develop their creative individualities step-by-step to the point where technique is forgotten and becomes one with the talent it supports. (xii)

Starting from this premise, I hope to be able to illuminate the Chekhov Technique from an unusual vantage point: the retroactive connection between the Chekhov Technique and a fully-formed method of psychophysical acting training which developed independently, out of a virtually identical understanding of the creative process of the actor. A brief survey of the trajectory of this synergy reveals the texture of this connection, the interplay between the two techniques and the way in which ImageWork Training can provide a comprehensive preparation for the effective application of the basic principles of the Chekhov Technique.

Peter Frye, the Psychological Gesture and the Four Qualities of Movement, 1962-63

Peter Frye (1914-1991). Tel Aviv, 1997,
Copyright: Haramaty Photos; 1963

Peter Frye, the founder of the Theatre Arts Department at Tel Aviv University, studied with Chekhov in New York in 1941, and was my first acting teacher. In 1963, in no particular context that I remember, Peter introduced my class to the Psychological Gesture. For me, the concept was electrifying, and I was on the floor immediately, attempting to create a Psychological Gesture for Richard III. Years later, I realized that the gesture I had made as the character (hunched back, deformed fist, marked limp), rather than as the actor, was “wrong,” but, to this day, I remember the profound insight it provided me into the character of that devilish king.

Peter taught us only one more element of the Chekhov Technique: the Four Qualities of Movement. In the studio, he asked us to sing a simple children’s song and, then, he put us through a physical improvisation using the Four Qualities of Movement: Molding, Flowing, Flying and Radiating. He, then, asked us to hold hands in a circle and sing the song again. As I recall the experience, the children’s ditty transformed into a heavenly passage from Beethoven’s Ninth. Although I have never seen the exercise done like this, it may have been the way Chekhov taught it in 1941.

Steven Joseph and Image Work, 1963-66   

Stephen Joseph (1921-1967), The Stephen Joseph Theatre Scarborough, 1957, Copyright: Scarborough Theatre Trust / Stephen Joseph Theatre

Stephen Joseph, the founder of the first professional theatre-in-the round in England—the Library Theatre, in Scarborough—was the most inspirational of my teachers at the Drama Department of Manchester University. In rehearsals for a production of Marlowe’s Edward II, which he directed, a scene between the king’s favorite, Gaveston, and the stern Young Mortimer took off only after Stephen had put us through a series of physical improvisations: “being” bouncing balls; then, concrete walls; and, then, twisted wires. The imagistic key was crystal clear: Gaveston comes in like a “bouncing ball,” hits Young Mortimer’s “concrete wall” and slinks away like a “twisted wire.” The scene worked like magic and the concept of working with images now joined the PG in my modest acting tool box.

Theatre Games and Jacqueline Kronberg, 1968-70

Jaqueline Kronberg, private photo by Molly Kronberg, Santa Barbara, 1988

Peter Frye and Stephen Joseph each gave me one important tool in this journey toward the Chekhov Technique. Jacqueline Kronberg, with whom I studied and worked for two years in Jerusalem, provided me with a major stepping stone toward my re-embracing of the Chekhov Technique many years later, by giving me my first systematic form of training: improvisation technique.

Jackie had studied and worked with the doyenne of American improvisation technique, Viola Spolin, in the famous, Chicago-based, Second City Theatre Games Company. In 1967, she came to Jerusalem and founded the first professional improvisation company in Israel, at the Khan Theatre. The two years we worked together gave me a solid grounding in improvisation technique and important insights into the creative mechanism of the actor.

Viola Spolin, 1990, details unknown

Teaching at the Drama Department, University of California at Berkeley, 1971-76

In 1971, I decided to change course, leave my acting career and turn to directing. To pursue this, I enrolled in the Ph.D. scholar-director program at the Drama Department of UC Berkeley. As a Teaching Assistant for acting, I began developing my concept of “training” with the help of Theatre Games, the PG and basic image-work. This was expanded by my growing acquaintance with the world of image-based physical theatre through distant mentors such as Jerzy Grotowski, Richard Schechner and Joe Chaikin.

Eugenio Barba, 1979 to the Present

Eugenio Barba, Copyright: the Odin Theatre,
Holstebro Denmark

Returning to Israel, in 1976, I began teaching acting at Tel Aviv University’s Department of Theatre Arts, and, in 1979, I met with my fourth, and perhaps most influential, mentor: Eugenio Barba.

Eugenio Barba was a disciple of Jerzy Grotowski and the founder of the famous Odin Theatre in Denmark. To this day, Barba is one of the most influential theatre practitioners of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. His concept of Theatre Anthropology is a standard of performance research, meticulously set out in his monumental Dictionary of Theatre Anthropology: The Secret Art of the Performer.

Eugenio came to Jerusalem in 1979 with the vision—and the visuals—of his work with the Odin Theatre. Listening to him describe the Odin Theatre’s training and watching the group’s training film, everything that I had been garnering in bits and pieces from many different sources over so many years suddenly blossomed into a fascinating theatrical reality. Reading Eugenio’s extraordinary books, spending time in Holstebro, Denmark, watching the Odin actors train and perform, strengthened all my inclinations toward image-based physical theatre.

Mala Powers (1993)

Mala Powers, ca 2005

Lisa Dalton

In 1993, after a workshop I gave on The Physical Approach to Theatre at the annual conference of the American Association of Theatre in Higher Education, two women approached me and introduced themselves as Mala Powers and her student, Lisa Dalton. They asked me if I had ever heard of Michael Chekhov. I answered that I had, but asked them, completely ingenuously, why they were asking. Their reply floored me: “Because that’s what you’re doing!” Lisa told me to come to their workshop the following day, and then I would understand.

Mala and Lisa’s workshop was an extraordinary experience for me. Describing the elements of the Chekhov Technique, and explaining his “Chart for Inspired Acting,” they simply connected all the dots between my form of image-based physical theatre and improvisation training, and the Chekhov Technique. Following that wonderful encounter, Lisa invited me to teach at a huge Chekhov conference she helped organize at Emerson College the following summer, and from that moment on, my conception of the art of the actor and the way to train it, fell into an amazingly fecund context. I felt as if I had come home to where my understanding of the art of the theatre had been slowly maturing for thirty years.

Michael Chekhov (1891-1955),
Unknown photographer, in public domain

ImageWork Training—“Pre-Chekhov”

After five years of studying and working with the Master Teachers of the Chekhov Technique—Joanna Merlin, Ted Pugh, Fern Sloane, Lenard Petit, Joerg Andrees, Jobst Langhans, and the late Mala Powers and Jack Colvin, my ImageWork Training finally evolved into its present form as a highly detailed and comprehensive form of actor training. Concentrating on the creativity/improvisation tandem and body/imagination symbiosis, it serves, I believe, as a solid “pre-Chekhov” training, not preceding or supplanting the Chekhov Technique, but providing, rather, a comprehensive preparation for the creative organism of the actor, enabling him or her to derive the fullest benefit from Michael Chekhov’s technique for character work.

The idea of Imagework as a preparation for the Chekhov Technique is, perhaps, best illustrated by the difference between the two techniques in the use of the term “image.”

In Chekhov’s work, the term “image” relates primarily to character: it is the image of the character, Chekhov maintains, that the actor brings to the audience in performance. In ImageWork Training, the fundamental concept of “image” is “pre-character,” referring to any visual image which appears in the actor’s imagination in the performance space—an object, a color, a form, and which is, then, moved into the body and informs his or her performative behavior. This is a form of “basic training” for working on Chekhov’s concept of Centers, leading ultimately to the image of the character that is so central to the Chekhov Technique.

I realize that the term “pre-Chekhov” is a tricky concept. However, it proceeds directly from my own eclectic development as an actor, a director and a teacher, influenced by the work of brilliant theatre practitioners, such as Jerzy Grotowski, Eugenio Barba, Peter Brook, Joe Chaikin and Anne Bogart, among others. This led me, initially, to develop a system of “instrument-training” belonging to the same family of image-based physical theatre as the Chekhov Technique. It was from there—through Mala Powers’ observation about my work—that I went on into a seamless, profoundly rewarding return to the Chekhov Technique. In the following, I will try to point to the special relationship between the two techniques.

The Connections

While elaborating brilliantly on all the aspects of the actor’s creative instrument, the Chekhov Technique is focused, for the most part, on character work. ImageWork Training, on the other hand, leads up to character-work, but does not go into it per se. It is a pure training technique aimed at developing elements in the actor’s creative work which, I believe, are crucial to the subsequent work on character within the Chekhov Technique.

The following are the main elements of ImageWork, which are at the core of what I refer to as “pre-Chekhov training”:

  • Structured training trajectories, moving from body to voice to imagination, and from physical, to physical-vocal, to physical-vocal-verbal;
  • A thorough training in improvisation technique based almost totally on abstract, non-vocal, non-verbal physical improvisation;
  • Expanding physical expressivity;
  • Developing a highly detailed, active, sense of the form of the body in space;
  • Training the fundamental connection between the imaging function of the actor’s body and his/her creative organism;
  • Developing the realization that in the performance space, the moving body creates images;
  • Developing the ability to seize and use images as an “on tap” tool for creative work;
  • Developing, through exercises, an embodied understanding of the quality of Radiation as Chekhov suggests.

These are the overlapping points of contact between ImageWork Training and the Chekhov Technique. Below are few examples of the synergy between the two techniques.


Describing an exercise involving the repetition of a simple action twenty or thirty times, Chekhov has this to say about the Creative Individuality:

By doing this exercise you will develop your originality and ingenuity, and with them you will gradually awaken the courage of your individual approach to what you do on the stage. As a result, you will later be able to improvise on the stage quite freely at all times. This means that you will always find new, individual ways to fulfill old business. . . . You will discover gradually that the real beauty of our art, if based on the activity of the Creative Individuality, is constant improvisation. (Chekhov 91, 19)

ImageWork Training and the Chekhov Technique join hands here in the fundamental understanding of the primacy of improvisation as the basis of the creative individuality of the actor. However, Chekhov himself gives only a few examples of exercises directly aimed at training improvisation technique. In ImageWork Training, improvisation technique is a central element.

Based on the work of my mentors, years of teaching, and with the help of generations of students, I formulated a set of Rules of Improvisation, all of which are directly in line with the basic precepts of the Chekhov Technique. Each of these elements is trained individually or embedded in multi-leveled “seminal” exercises, that is, exercises dealing simultaneously with different aspects of the technique, depending on how they are side-coached. Here is the complete set of rules:

The First Rules of Improvisation Technique

  1. Soft Focus (see below)
  2. Openness/Availability (the French disponibilité)
  3. ZeroPoint/The Moment Before
  4. Readiness/Action in Stillness
  5. Creative imbalance (“Foot in the Air,” or Eugenio Barba’s “precarious balance”)
  6. Stepping into the Unknown
  7. Creative Flow: Recognizing, Seizing, Managing the Creative Moment
  8. Initiating/Yielding (Give and Take)
  9. Exhausting (Squeezing) the Moment
  10. Initiating the Next Creative Cycle

This is how these rules are trained in specific exercises:

The Walk (Zinder 64-74): Developed long before I re-connected with the Chekhov Technique, The Walk is very simple: the actors stand in the space and create for themselves a “soft focus,” that is, a kind of staring or relaxation of the eyesight which greatly enhances peripheral vision. They are, then, asked to generate a desire to walk, to “send out walking energy,” move into that stream of energy and begin walking. Making random changes of direction, they begin from an unnaturally slow walk and continue to a very fast walk, just short of running. They gradually slow down until all that is left is the desire to walk. The rules are: keep your pace at all times, do not stop or walk backwards, do not make little adjusting steps if there is an obstacle of any kind and do not  touch or make eye contact with anyone.

The objective of this exercise is to acquire a physical experience of Readiness—the fourth rule of improvisation. Since the space is chaotic, the actors have to be totally ready, in a split-second, to change direction or turn around on the spot, in order to avoid collisions or contact with the other actors—all this without losing their pace. Done well, this is an exhilarating exercise which generates a sense of heightened consciousness and provides actors with a physical—in-body—experience of being ready to seize a creative moment when it presents itself. At the same time, given the initial “sending out” of walking energy and its final “drawing in,” this exercise also introduces the actors to the concept of Radiation. Later, this exercise also becomes a platform for training the Four Qualities of Movement, as the actors work through the different paces defined as Molding, Flowing, Flying and Radiating.

Moving With A Center: In Chapter 4 of On the Technique (91), Chekhov outlines a number of exercises relating to physical improvisations. In Exercise 22, he suggests that the actor concentrate on a Center in the chest “from which living impulses are sent out into your arms, hands, legs and feet” (Chekhov 85, 44). In Exercise 23, he suggests making “abstract movements with your hands, arms, legs and finally with your whole body. Your task is to fulfill all these movements with inner power and awakened activity” (45).

In the ImageWork exercise Moving with a Center (Zinder 129), the actors are asked to begin from a Center in the abdomen (Chekhov’s Will Center or the Japanese hara) and create abstract movements similar to those Chekhov suggests. However, in order to enhance the concept of “constant improvisation,” they are coached to avoid repetitions, that is, every form they make in the space, using and radiating energy from the center, must be totally different. To do this they are taught to employ many different elements of variety: direction, level, pace, rhythm (staccato/legato) and quality of movement, such as molding, flowing, flying and radiating. Doing this exercise repeatedly and abiding by the rule of “no repetition,” this approach becomes an ongoing training in constant improvisation. This exercise is fundamentally multi-leveled: it includes training the idea of an active center of energy, the idea of the center as being an image of some kind and the concept of Radiation.[3] In line with Chekhov’s important statement “the actor imagines with his body,” it is clear that the actors cannot do this exercise without inviting some sort of image into their center: a warm sun, a flame, a red hot ember, the image of an atom, anything that implies vigorous movement.

Body/Imagination: In many actor training manuals, imagination is taken for granted and little attention is given to actually training actors in the mechanism of the imagination as such. Chekhov is different in this respect and opens On the Technique with a chapter entitled “Imagination and Concentration” (1-13), in which he refers to the imaging function of the actor in a number of evocative ways:

Developing and assuming new conceptions concerning the creative process in art is the way for the artist to grow and understand his or her talent. One of these new conceptions is the objective existence of the artist’s creative images. . . . The inner life of the images, and not the personal and tiny experiential resources of the actor, should be elaborated on the stage and shown to the audience. . . . (Chekhov 3, 5)

Chekhov, then, goes on to give a few exercises in the development of the creative imagination. In ImageWork, an entire section of the training is aimed at helping actors understand the automatic, associative mechanism of the imagination as it relates to the moving body in the same way Chekhov refers to it. By learning how the creative imagination works, actors gain an important insight into the body/imagination symbiosis that is central to the Chekhov Technique. Here is one such exercise:

Statues: In this partner exercise, one actor closes his or her eyes while the other “sculpts” his or her body. The sculptors are asked to regard their partner’s body as “a random collection of limbs” and fashion their sculptures in a totally random, intentionally non-narrative way, that is, without creating cliché storytelling positions. The actor with his/her eyes closed is asked to follow the sequence of images that flow through his/her imagination as his/her body is being shaped. When the sculptor is finished, he/she proceeds to ask the “sculpture” a series of factual questions: who he/she is, where he/she is, what he/she is wearing or sees around him/her, all this without relating to psychology, emotions or feelings. There should be no leading questions, for instance, “what kind of shoes are you wearing?” because, in his/her imaginary body, the sculpture might not be wearing any shoes. An alternative can be: “do you have anything on your feet?”

The results of this exercise are quite amazing: the sculpted actors invariably come up with infinitely detailed answers to all these questions and, consequently, acquire a clear insight into the workings of their imagination as it relates to physical changes of their body. In the advanced version of this exercise, the sculptors make multiple creations with the same partner but are instructed to make quicker and quicker, smaller and smaller changes, so that the sculptures barely have time to answer any question, but still have a totally different body image in all its details, with each minute change, even if they do not get a chance to describe it. This becomes an object lesson in “manipulating” or “pushing” the imagination.

Based on a Theatre Games exercise, the advanced version of Statues relates to an exercise on page 74 of Chekhov’s book. There, Chekhov suggests making smaller and smaller variations to the PG “until you feel that even the slightest idea of a possible change makes you react to it inwardly” (74). Given the absolutely natural connection between the body and the imagination in a state of performance, the Statue exercise provides actors with a heightened sense of active concentration and readiness (Rule 4 above), and an extraordinary sensitivity to the power of the body/imagination symbiosis even in the tiniest changes to the body.

Images: Training actors in the multiple uses of images leads them directly into the form of character work, the main emphasis of the Chekhov Technique. This training is intense and highly detailed, so here I can offer just a brief look at a few examples.

Qualities and Centers: Throughout the initial part of the training, the actors are told to “go to their center” without indicating any specific quality for that center, even though it is suggested to them that it is impossible to “go to a center” without the appearance of an image in that nexus of energy. In an exercise called “Qualities and Centers” (Zinder 211-15), the basic platform is the Moving with a Center described above, but, this time, the actors receive their qualities for the center through the approach of side-coaching: “thin,” “round,” “shiny,” “jagged,” etc. The ongoing side-coaching is crucial: each quality is the only quality they have in the center and it informs every move they make. They have to explore the physical, gestural possibilities of each one. They are also encouraged to explore what Chekhov calls, albeit in a different context, “polarities,” that is, if the quality of the center is “hard” or “sharp” they are told to try to make soft, flowing movements with a sharp center. Even if this exercise seems to be impossible, the actors should keep doing it, while remaining absolutely faithful to the given quality. Exercising one’s imagination in this physically incorporated way gives the actors an embodied understanding of how they can work on all the many details of their character using Chekhov’s concept of the Imaginary Body.

Plastiques and the Psychological Gesture

Perhaps, the most surprising connection that grew out of my retroactive encounters with the Chekhov Technique was an exercise I developed called “Plastiques,” which references Chekhov’s Psychological Gesture and his “repetition” exercise mentioned above. Starting from the Moving with a Center abstract movement exercise, the actors now have to become aware of the forms they create in space. When they find a gesture or a form that intrigues them, they stop creating new forms and repeat what they have discovered. The process involves “plucking” the form from the continuum of abstract movement; experimenting with variations until the best, most pleasing one is found; “perfecting” it so it can be repeated precisely; and, then, repeating it for as long as possible.

This exercise is closely related to Chekov’s repetition exercise and has the same training concept: making every repetition a “first-time” so that the actor can develop his/her ability to improvise. However, as Chekhov states, in the repetition of a single movement, the actor acquires more and more strength, direction and, most importantly, a radiating Will. Running closely in parallel to the basic outlines of the PG, the Plastique—the repeated gesture—often turns into a powerful expression of will. In this case, it becomes an exercise that fully resides within Chekhov’s own definition of the PG: “. . . a Will impulse colored by Qualities” (91).


This series of exercises presents a technique, I believe, that prompted Mala Powers to tell me that what I was doing “was Chekhov.” ImageWork Training is a form of training which, after years of developing parallel to the Chekhov Technique, finally merged with it through the shared understanding of the creative organism of the actor; how it can—and should—be trained, and the recognition of the inexhaustible, infinitely powerful and inspiring world of the body/imagination tandem.


David Zinder on ImageWork Training and the Chekhov Technique
with students and the faculty of the Theatre Department of Exeter University, UK


[1] Peter participated in Chekhov’s seven-month workshop in New York in 1941. He is the only participant mentioned by name in Deirdre Hurst du Prey’s chronicle of that workshop in Lessons for the Professional Actor , ed. D. Hurst Du Prey, New York: Performing ArtJournal Publications (1985).
[2] Mala studied with Michael Chekhov in Hollywood in the fifties as a young actress. She later became a close personal friend of both Michael and Xenia Chekhov. After Michael’s death she became the executrix of his intellectual property and published the second and third versions of To the Actor, which was renamed as On the Technique of Acting (1991). Mala died in 2007.
[3] The actors are side-coached to imagine every movement they make, with every part of their body, as reaching out far beyond their bodies.

Works Cited

Barba, Eugenio, and Savarese, Nicola. A Dictionary of Theatre Anthropology: The Secret Art of the Performer. 2nd Ed. New York and London: Routledge. 2009.

Chekhov, Michael. On the Technique of Acting. New York: HarperCollins. 1985.

Du Prey, Dierdre Hust. Lessons to the Professional Actor. New York: Performing Arts Journal Publications. 1985.

Zinder, David. Body  Voice  Imagination. ImageWork Training and the Chekhov Technique. 2nd Edition. New York and London: Routledge. 2009.

*David Zinder, born in Jerusalem, 1942, holds a BA in theater from Manchester University (1966) and a PhD in theatre from the University of California, Berkeley (1976). A professional actor (1966-71) and a teacher of acting and directing with a major international reputation, Zinder is the author of the book Body Voice Imagination: A Training for the Actor (Psychology Press, 2002). He is a Master Teacher of the Chekhov Technique.

Copyright © 2017 David Zinder
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN: 2409-7411

This work is licensed under the
Creative Commons Attribution International License CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

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ImageWork Training and the Chekhov Technique
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