Yana Meerzon* (Canada)
Nephew of Anton Chekhov and a disciple of Konstantin Stanislavsky, the Russian actor, director and pedagogue Michael Chekhov (1891–1955) created one of the most challenging and inspiring acting theories of the twentieth century. For Chekhov, an actor’s body and his/her imagination were inseparable. Inspired acting, according to Chekhov, took root “not as an image in the head, but as an act of engagement of the entire bodymind” (Zarrilli 13). Envisioning a psycho-physical model of acting that would be both liberating and cathartic, Chekhov’s life’s work was engaged with the mysteries of the Actor/Character or, what Mikhail Bakhtin described as, the Author/Hero dialectical relationship (1994). His ideas on actor training are inextricably linked to theatre practice and theory of the time, but continue to influence theatre practitioners, teachers, students and audiences today. However, the journey of Chekhov’s ideas to his today’s audiences and followers has not been easy.
Born in 1891, Michael Chekhov was a typical representative of his generation. Confronted with the complexity of the historical and aesthetic challenges of the time, the artists of that generation were pessimistic and “held diverse attitudes toward death and immortality in art and life” (Williams 21). They survived the First World War and the Revolution of 1917, and, in their work, they “provided a metaphor for the revolutionary events around them” (21). As one of the leading actors of the period, Michael Chekhov became the poet of “the humiliated and the downtrodden” (Markov 302). He saw theatre as a tool of spiritual transformation. He was a “one theme-actor,” wrote Pavel Markov, an influential Soviet theatre critic (302). “Chekhov justified the nearly pathological, always strange images he played by suffering, pain, focused joy, hidden ‘ideas.’ The epoch spoke in him thus. He represented the best of what the intelligentsia had to offer . . . ethically” (302).
From an early age, Chekhov’s major passion was acting. Commencing his professional studies at the age of sixteen, he began his acting career at Suvorin’s Theatre in St. Petersburg, in 1907. In April of 1912, Stanislavsky invited the young actor to join the Moscow Art Theatre (MAT) and its First Studio. Chekhov’s early repertoire included Friebe in Hauptmann’s The Festival of Peace (1913), Caleb in Dickens’s The Cricket on the Hearth (1914), Frazer in Berger’s The Deluge (1915), Malvolio in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (1920) and Erik XIV in Strindberg’s Erik XIV (1921). In 1921, he also performed Khlestakov in Gogol’s The Government Inspector, directed by Stanislavsky for the MAT.
In 1918, Chekhov opened his first actor training school, Chekhov’s Studio, and, in 1922, he became the artistic director of the First Studio, which later was re-named as the Moscow Art Theatre II. There, Chekhov directed and performed, among other roles, Hamlet (1924), Ableukhov in Bely’s Petersburg (1925) and Muromsky in Sukhovo-Kobylin’s The Case (1927). Chekhov’s interpretation of Hamlet “had shaken the public and annoyed Stanislavsky because of what appeared, in the eyes of the old master, to be an excess of artificiality and the grotesque” (Barba 72).
At the same time, in the aftermath of the Revolution, Chekhov embarked on a deep philosophical and religious journey. He became a member of the Russian Anthroposophic Society and began developing his acting technique in accordance with the spiritual and aesthetic ideas of Rudolf Steiner, his view of the tripartite structure of the human self, consisting of spirit, soul and body, all connected with reality and the cosmos. Chekhov saw his inspired actor functioning as a medium, envisioning the spiritual world and expressing its messages in the world of reality. This actor was to embody “two” personalities: his everyday “I” and his higher “I.”
The company did not welcome Chekhov’s spiritual tutelage and a series of conflicts ensued. By 1928, Chekhov considered it too dangerous to stay in Russia and left the country. In his years of exile, Chekhov acted, directed and taught in Germany, France, Latvia, Lithuania, England and the United States. He never stopped working on his technique, seeing acting as a messianic activity that embodies not only the actor’s professional training, but also his/her personal purification. Chekhov’s exilic experience contributed largely to his work. His encounter with different languages and cultures gave him the idea of creating an international theatre language, based upon a type of acting comprehensible to all spectators, regardless of national or linguistic origins.
Chekhov’s personal acting career in the West, however, was subject to language limitations. Although he started his exile as Max Reinhardt’s actor and performed three parts in German, later even pursuing a career in film, he was unhappy with the work and moved to Paris where he opened his own theatre company for the Russian émigré audience. When the move proved to be less than successful, Chekhov went to Riga to act in Russian and to teach Latvian and Lithuanian actors. It was there that he prepared the most celebrated roles of his émigré repertoire: Ivan the Terrible in Alexei Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan the Terrible (1932) and Foma Opiskin in Dostoevsky’s Village of Stepanchikovo (1932).
In spite of this success, Chekhov gradually shifted his focus to directing and teaching. In 1930, he directed The Twelfth Night at the Habima Theatre, in Berlin; in 1932, he taught an acting course at the Kaunas National Theatre and prepared the first version of his book on acting in German. The happiest period of Chekhov’s life in the West was between 1935 and 1938, when Dorothy and Leonard Elmhirst invited him to lead an acting school at their Dartington Hall estate in England. In 1938, together with his studio, Chekhov moved to the United States. The American Michael Chekhov’s Studio functioned until 1942 and put on several productions, among which Dostoevsky’s The Possessed (1939) was the most successful. In 1942, the studio was closed due to the war mobilization.
Chekhov spent the last fifteen years of his career in Hollywood, where he played in approximately ten films (he was nominated for the Academy Award in the category of Best Supporting Actor for his role as Brulov in Hitchcock’s Spellbound 1945), directed several productions and taught celebrities including Marlon Brando, Marilyn Monroe, Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck. He published his major book on acting—O tekhnike aktyora—in Russian, in 1946. To the Actor—its English version—was published in 1953. Chekhov died in 1955, in Los Angeles. His students, among them Beatrice Straight, Deidre Hurst du Prey and Mala Powers, continued to develop his ideas.
Today, there are numerous acting schools and teaching practices—from Russia to Brazil, from Canada to France, from Germany to Japan, from UK to Israel, from America to Taiwan—based on Chekhov’s method. Theatre scholars, practitioners, students and teachers not only practice his work, they also write extensively about it. The last two decades witnessed the upsurge of publications dedicated to reviving and promoting Chekhov’s method, including new translations of his Russian writings, contextualizing his work historically and theoretically, and interpreting it for today’s theatre students. Among many articles, books and special issues dedicated to Chekhov’s work, Liisa Byckling’s Mikhail Chekhov v zapadnom teatre i kino (St Petersburg: Akademichesky proekt, 2000) remains the most prominent source on Chekhov’s work in the West in Russian.
There is also a number of influential studies in English, such as L.C. Black’s Michael Chekhov as Actor, Director and Teacher (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1987); Franc Chamberlain’s Michael Chekhov (London: Routledge, 2003); Charles Marowitz’s The Other Chekhov: A Biography of Michael Chekhov, the Legendary Actor, Director and Theorist (Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, 2004); and Yana Meerzon’s historical and theoretical contextualization of Chekhov’s ideas, The Path of a Character: Michael Chekhov’s Inspired Acting and Theatre Semiotics (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2005).
The leading teachers of Chekhov’s pedagogy today have also offered their personal readings and applications of his work. These contributions include David Zinder’s new system of acting training based on Chekhov’s method, as described in his book Body Voice Imagination: ImageWork Training and the Chekhov Technique (London: Routledge, 2002 [1st edition] and 2009 [2nd edition]); Leonard Petit’s The Michael Chekhov Handbook: For the Actor (London: Routledge, 2009); and Cynthia Ashperger’s The Rhythm of Space and the Sound of Time: Michael Chekhov’s Acting Technique in the 21st Century (Amsterdam; New York: Rodopi, 2008), among others. The edited collections dedicated to Chekhov’s work include: Mikhaïl Tchekhov. Du théâtre au cinéma. De Moscou à Hollywood, edited by Marie-Christine Autant-Mathieu (Montpellier: L’Entretemps, 2009) and Michael Chekhov: Critical Issues, Reflections, Dreams, edited by Jessica Cerullo (MICHA, 2009).
In July 2013, the journal Theatre, Dance & Performance Training published a special issue dedicated to Chekhov’s teaching, co-edited by Franc Chamberlain and Andrei Kirillov. It contained the newly translated 1924 rehearsal protocols of Moscow Art Theatre II staging of Hamlet, to which Chekhov contributed as co-director, educator and interpreter of the leading part (“Rehearsal Protocols for Hamlet by William Shakespeare at the Second Moscow Art Theatre,” July 2013, Vol. 4. Issue 2. 243–79). It also featured articles and interventions by many leading teachers of Chekhov’s method, each proposing “a particularly inflected examination of the efficacy of Chekhov’s work in the studio, with a strong emphasis on what his ideas lend the director” (Pitches 143-44). Stressing wide interest to and influence of Chekhov’s pedagogy today, the editors attributed this phenomenon to the special role “creativity and imagination” play in Chekhov’s acting method and the drive for “collaboration and interdisciplinarity” that characterizes his approach (145). The editors claimed the significance of their publication as “the most important journal-based examination of Chekhov’s practice, since the TDR special edition on Chekhov exactly 30 years ago (1983)” (145).
Following this work, in the summer 2015, a collection of scholarly articles dedicated to Chekhov’s life, practice, philosophy and pedagogy The Routledge Companion to Michael Chekhov (co-edited by Marie-Christine Autant-Mathieu and Yana Meerzon) was published. Among its historical and theoretical contributions, the book also featured a special section dedicated to the testimonials of today’s theatre practitioners and pedagogues who practice Chekhov’s technique. Unfortunately, in the framework of just one section in just one book, it was not possible to cover all diverse and multifaceted pedagogical experiments based on Chekhov’s teachings. It became clear that another publication dedicated to this issue is necessary.
The journal Critical Stages has kindly offered space to host this new project. The special section consists of six articles documenting six different pedagogical approaches in actor training, highlighting the wide geographical scope and interdisciplinary application of Chekhov’s thought. The section opens with David Zinder’s summary of his pedagogy “ImageWork Training and the Chekhov Technique” and is followed by Lisa Dalton’s introduction, analysis and demonstration of practical applications of teaching acting using Chekhov’s Chart of Inspired Acting. Designed by Chekhov and developed through the work of National Michael Chekhov Association (NMCA), the chart presents a carefully crafted pedagogical sequence of actor training, which includes Five Guiding Principles found in his final lectures. In the following piece, Ulrich Meyer-Horsch, from Michael Chekhov Europe Society in Germany, discusses the importance of listening in actor training and practice. He specifically focuses on the concept of gesture as the act of listening on stage, as proposed by Chekhov and developed in his own work.
James Haffner comes to Chekhov’s work from the field of music and opera. In his article “Musical Synthesis of the Michael Chekhov Technique: Integrated Training for the Singer-Actor,” he demonstrates the benefits of working with Chekhov’s system for opera singers. Lenka Pichlíková proposes a historical detour: she discusses the importance of Chekhov’s work on character for teaching corporeal pantomime and Commedia dell’Arte techniques to contemporary actors. She emphasizes special points of encounter between Chekhov’s work on character—physical and psychological traits—and her own methods of teaching the Commedia, to which she arrived via her personal encounter with the training of Marcel Marceau.
The section closes with the article by Sol Garre, who discusses the importance of introducing Chekhov’s notions of presence, radiation and atmosphere as part of regular conservatory curriculum in actor training in Spain. Most importantly, this publication allows the contributors to share their work and teaching methodologies not only in words, in the form of the short “know-how” interventions, but also through video and sound excerpts. Although there is a number of video and audio materials illustrating Chekhov’s work and available internationally, this special issue is particular in this sense: it invites its readers to become students and practitioners of Chekhov’s method while watching and listening to the international experts.
Michael Chekhov as Dr. Brulov in Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound, 1945
Bakhtin, Mikhail. “Author and Hero in Aesthetic Activity”. Eds. Holquist Michael and Liapunov Vadim. Art and Answerability: Early Philosophical Essays. Bakhtin M.M. 1895-1975. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press. 1994. 5-249.
Barba, Eugenio. The Paper Canoe. A Guide to Theatre Anthropology. Trans. Fowler Richard. London & New York: Routledge. 1995.
Chamberlain, Franc & Kirillov, Andrei. (eds.) “Rehearsal Protocols for Hamlet by William Shakespeare at the Second Moscow Art Theatre.” Theatre, Dance and Performance Training. 4.2 (2013): 243–79. Web. 6 May 2017.
Chekhov, Michael. To the Actor: On the Technique of Acting. New York: Harper. 1953; Revised and expanded edition: New York: Routledge. 2002.
Markov, Pavel. “Mikhail Chekhov”. O Teatre. Vol. 2. Moscow: Iskusstvo. 1974. 298-307.
Pitches, Jonathan. “Editorial.” Theatre, Dance and Performance Training. 4.2 (2013): 143-5. Web. 6 May 2017.
Williams, Robert, C. Artists in Revolution. Portraits of the Russian Avant-Garde. 1905–1925. Bloomington and London: Indiana University Press. 1977.
Zarilli, Phillip. B. Acting (Re)Considered. A Theoretical and Practical Guide. London, New York: Routledge. 2002.
*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.