Born in St.Petersburg in 1891, Michael Aleksandrovich Chekhov died 64 years later in the United States (1955 in Los Angeles). A nephew of the playwright Anton Chekhov and a member of the Moscow Art Theatre’s First Studio where the Stanislavsky system was forged, Chekhov had a celebrated acting career in Moscow. The Russian Revolution of 1917 and evolving communist cultural policy, however, forced him to leave his homeland. As an exile in Germany, France, Latvia, Lithuania England, New York and Los Angeles, he established a series of acting studios in which he tried to bring to artists in other countries and in other parts of the world new insights into the system developed by his own master, Konstantin Stanislavsky, along with a range of approaches to acting that was clearly his own. The adventures he had communicating this Russian style of work in English to artists working with him from across Europe, the United States, Canada and from as far away as Australia at a time when the Stanislavsky system was just becoming known was a source of linguistic frustration for him over the years as well as a source of linguistic frustration. What follows is a look at Michael Chekhov’s life and work across these many borders written by Chekhov specialist Liisa Byckling of Finland.
While operating his own acting studio in England in 1936, Russian-born Michael Chekhov tried to communicate to his students the very Stanislavskian notion that “We must learn to control our bodies by our feelings. To be an actor means that I must be the master of my body; my body is the instrument of my will, of me. I am. And my body is the instrument by which I can present myself to my audience. I givemyself to my audience. Without me, my body is a corpse; for what purpose am I on the stage? To radiate my spiritual being. I am, and my body obeys my will.”
One of the most genial and knowledgeable actors and acting teachers of the last century, Chekhov himself embodied the complete synthesis of inner feeling and outer form, which the American director Robert Lewis would later call “total acting”. The concept of Chekhov´s method was clearly based on the Stanislavsky system and especially the work at the Moscow Art Theatre’s First Studio (including Vakhtangov´s productions). Chekhov expressed the spirit of turn of the century Russian culture, symbolist poetry and non-naturalistic theatre. His favourite writer was Dostoevsky. Another of his spiritual fathers was the symbolist writer Andrei Bely. His other sources of inspiration came from philosophy, legend and fairytales.
Chekhov conducted classes on his own for the first time between 1918 and 1921. He wrote: “I will never permit myself to say that I taught the Stanislavsky system. Much of what Stanislavsky gave us was assimilated by me on a permanent basis and formed the foundation for my subsequent… independent experiments in the art of theatre.” As in the classes of Stanislavsky, Chekhov’s teaching was based on Stanislavsky’s term “etudes” referring to a non-scripted scene performed by actors (in American usage it is called improvisation).
He wrote: “Often a study etude would grow into a complicated and long stage performance. We would play it for several days on end, and for that purpose would use the whole of the flat in which I lived, and often even went into the yard and the street. We loved space and did not restrict ourselves in it.” Other exercises consisted of concentrating on inner objects, seeing the role as an image, activating imagination with questions. Chekhov found ways to induce a mood that allowed for creative work using various techniques, anything that triggered the actor’s imagination or enticed the subconscious out of hiding. Chekhov warned that all devices must be imbued with inner content and meaning; they should not become mere technical exercises. In his studio, the actor aimed at creating a feeling of truth and inspiring imagination.
Among the many sources for his work was the First Studio (founded in 1912) at the Moscow Art Theatre and led by Stanislavsky and Leopold Sulerzhitsky. In this early work, Stanislavsky sought means to focus the actor’s inspiration and to do this he turned to yoga and other spiritually-related disciplines. These exercises were directed toward the development of what had been called a higher consciousness. Not surprisingly, Chekhov later found similar ideas in Rudolf Steiner’s anthrosophist philosophy of teaching and Chekhov clearly incorporated Steiner’s own Germanic concept of the “Higher Self” into his acting method.
In the first Chekhov studio there was also intensive work on fairytales. As he put it, “I am convinced that the fairy tale, as a form of artistic work, contains deep and powerful possibilities for the development of the gifts of young actors…. It stimulates creative imagination, it raises the consciousness … above naturalism, it miraculously interweaves tragedy and humour, it develops a sense of artistic style, it demands clear and exact form and does not admit of internal artistic falsehood which so easily penetrates on to the stage.”
In 1923, the First Studio became an independent theatre , essentially a Second Moscow Art Theatre with a performing style close to Expressionism and with Chekhov as its director. He resumed classes to develop methods of acting for the new theatre. Rehearsals for him were more like explorations. “Each new production gave us the opportunity of researching and developing new methods of acting and directing”.
Certain aspects of the studio work were set out by Chekhov in his autobiographical memoirs The Path of the Actor (1928). He speaks clearly of feeling dissatisfaction with the customary methods of working with words and gestures. Chekhov described how new exercises were practiced under his leadership.
“We approached the script…through movement…..During our work on Hamlet, we endeavoured to experience the gestures of words in the way they sounded and to this end we selected corresponding movements to fit the words and phrases. We imbued them with the force we required, added the particular emotional colouring and executed them until our inner feeling began to respond to them fully.” The results of the experiments in the studio left their mark on the production.
Later, Chekhov set out his method of acting in his American books To the Actor: On the Technique of Acting (1946 in Russian) and To the Actor (1953). One of the main requirements was complete integration of both body and psychology. In the first nine exercises (Chapter One) Chekhov laid the foundation of his acting technique. “By means of the suggested psychophysical exercises the actor can increase his inner strength, develop his abilities to radiate and receive, acquire a fine sense of form, enhance his feelings of freedom, ease, calm and beauty, experience the significance of his inner being, and learn to see things and processes in their entirety.”
Chekhov offers excellent exercises for awakening, opening and contracting the sleeping muscles. Exercises aim at achieving the sensations of freedom and increased life. Then follow exercises with the imaginary centre as a source of power within the actor’s body; exercises with different kinds of movements with the whole body for creating strong forms; exercises of sending rays from body into the space around; exercises utilizing four kinds of movements – what he called moulding, floating, flying and radiating — reproduced in the actor’s imagination only. Again, Chekhov revealed clearly his emphasis on the harmony of the actor’s body and mind.
Chekhov writes about another rehearsal method, the working gesture or psychological gesture. “We cannot directly command our feelings, but we can provoke them by certain indirect means….The key to our willpower will be found in the movement (action, gesture)…. The strength of the movement stirs our willpower in general; the kind of movement awakens in us a definite corresponding desire, and the quality of the same movement conjures up our feelings.” Psychological gesture is therefore being used for creating the character as well as giving a condensed version of the character.
The principles of Chekhov’s rehearsal work had elements in common with the “biomechanics“ of another well-known Russian director, Vsevelod Meyerhold, particularly in the way that the actors went from movement to feeling. Meyerhold taught actors to focus on gestures and movements as a way of expressing emotion physically. In some respects, Chekhov’s methods also anticipated Stanislavsky’s own “method of physical actions” in the 1930s. It was a rehearsal technique with which Stanislavsky himself experimented in the last part of his life, by means of which the actor develops a logical sequence of physical actions for his or her role. This method assumes that emotional life can be more easily aroused and fixed for performance through work on the physical life of the role than through emotional recall.
It was Chekhov’s aim to have his actors acquire a grasp of their roles in the practical sense of finding the profound connection that movement has to words on the one hand, and to emotions on the other. This served as an expression of Stanislavsky’s demand not to utter the author’s words until the inner stimulus to do so arises.
Eugenio Barba has written of this work noting its special characteristics. “Michael Chekhov attaches great importance to the performer’s interior life. His ‘first days’ show, however, that everything he calls ‘sensation’, ‘feeling’, or ‘psychological state’ is innervated through precise physical attitudes. For Chekhov…, the work on the body-in-life and the thought-in-life are two sides of the same coin.”
After the October Revolution of 1917, Chekhov struggled against the ideological tendencies that led away from the ideals of spiritual values that had been established by the founders of the Studio. Chekhov wrote later in Life and Encounters, “The quality of acting started to deteriorate, and the elements of creative imagination, theatrical invention and originality were relegated a secondary role. The external influence was strong.”
Chekhov, as director of the theatre, wanted to preserve its artistic life. “First and foremost I prohibited anti-religious tendencies and the theatre of the streets and decided to stage Hamlet as a counterbalance.” In his productions of Hamlet and Petersburg in the Second Moscow Art Theatre, he created performances which used both symbolic and formal means of expression. Unfortunately for this work, his ideas were not compatible with Communist ideology and he left Soviet Russia in 1928.
His years of exile in Europe and later in the United States (from 1939) followed. Indeed, he never returned to Russia and his legacy came to depend on his own work abroad and the teachings and writings of those who worked with him in other lands.
In general, Chekhov’s foreign work can be divided into a) a period of directing, acting and teaching in Berlin, Paris, Riga and Kaunas (1928-34); b) a period in England and the eastern United States where he developed his anglo-american Theatre Studio (1936-42); and, finally, c) his Hollywood period, working in cinema and teaching film actors in Los Angeles (1943-55). All three were artistically rich.
Chekhov’s European dreams were first realized in the foundation of the Chekhov Theatre Studio at Dartington Hall in southern England. For two years (1936-1938), he sought to train a troupe of young actors capable of creating a new standard for the theatre. The Studio prospectus stated that its goals were 1) to train young people as actors and actresses capable of creating a new standard for the modern theatre, and, 2) to form a permanent touring company to introduce the work of the Studio to the outside world.
Chekhov’s exploration was founded on the Moscow Art studio model — its organization, its spirit and principles — which he tried to implant first on English, then on American soil. The chief aim of the Studio was “to struggle against the absence of the ideal in the contemporary naturalistic theatre.” In England, students came from across the UK as well as from the United States and as far away as Australia. The work was comparable to the later laboratory of Jerzy Grotowski in Poland. In 1939, as World War II began, he transferred the studio to the United States where the Chekhov Theatre Players (1939-1942) became a professional theatre with a permanent acting company that presented plays on tour as well as on Broadway. In this Anglo-American period, Chekhov introduced his students to the principles of his own method, specifically in areas such as concentration, imagination, incorporation of character, atmosphere, and inspiration.
In the unpublished notes of the Dartington Studio work, one can find Chekhov’s basic ideas. He considered the actor’s imagination and body as primary instruments. “His face can radiate, but it is his body that must experience and express. The training of the body is therefore a training in awareness, in learning how to listen to the body, how to be led by it, in believing in its own strange and wonderful powers….
“We are trying to develop a new type of actor with a technique [which enables him] when he appears on the stage to have his whole being … in a state of radiating(… burning with archetypes, moving easily, concentrated. … When we master the technique then we will begin to create.” Chekhov outlined a fundamental process of stimulating creative imagination. He used elements of the Stanislavsky system as parts of his own method and developed them further. The teaching staff at Dartington numbered eight. Chekhov believed that all actors should have some knowledge of scene design, costume making, technical production, music, and even playwriting. Peters Vasaraudzis from Riga was an assistant teacher. George Shdanoff and Henry Lyon Young were resident playwrights. Others taught gymnastics, music, singing, sculpture and speech.
In the beginning, students did both improvisation and self-written sketches which were built up into playlets. Then scenes from Don Quixote, Balladina by Slowacki, Peer Gynt, Joan of Arc, and Shakespeare were rehearsed. One fairy-tale rehearsed in the first semester was The Golden Steed, an adaptation of a play written by a Latvian poet Jan Rainis.
Later texts by Dickens, Dostoevsky and commedia dell’arte were rehearsed.
Chekhov helped students become sensitive to their bodies in space and use their bodies so that they could make an audience feel the space around them. Chekhov outlined a fundamental process of stimulating creative imagination. He believed in the “wise” body of the actor. “Words are so clever but movement is simpler. Therefore we begin our work with movement, with psychological gesture, and we let words come on the movement. In this way we shall be less afraid of words when we come to them. Your body must say the words. “Movement is an essential part of the actor’s art not only because he must learn to trust his own body implicitly as an instrument, but because movement and feeling are inextricably related. We must learn to use our bodies with joy, with power, with the knowledge that we are artists in all we do. We must acquire the psychology of the juggler. The actor’s body [shows} the road to emotion.” Chekhov helped students become sensitive to their bodies in space and use their bodies so that they could make an audience feel the space around them. “You must master the space with music and with your body.”
Whenever Chekhov was asked a question about Stanislavsky, he’d say: “I cannot answer that fairly. I haven’t been in contact with him for several years and he was always changing.” This pupil of the Russian master would not commit himself at all to the particulars of Stanislavsky’s system because he knew how dynamic and ever-changing it was. Even if Chekhov used many exercises from the First Studio, he hardly mentioned Stanislavsky’s name in his classes and did not ask his students to read Stanislavski’s writings. In Chekhov’s opinion, Stanislavsky’s method was covered only partly in his own much more complicated method.
Continuously Chekhov would remind his students that acting was a calling, demanding complete devotion, that there were no short cuts, only hard work, and more hard work. Memoirs by Chekhov’s students and in my interviews with them show how his pedagogy fed a receptive but often unsophisticated student body.
Deirdre Hurst du Prey said: “I think quite frankly that we were very inhibited at times, both by the Method — some of which seemed strange at first — and because it was so demanding. We felt we would never achieve the standard that Chekhov wanted. We loved and believed in him. We wanted to create “the Theatre of Future” with him.”
Felicity Mason writes: ” We were often completely transported outside our normal selves. We were expanded into new dimensions, where embarrassment did not exist. Because of our exercises in empathy and team spirit, there was singularly little sarcastic criticism, envious competition, or a negative approach to the work. We felt free to laugh at each other.”
“The ideas which Chekhov set for the group were high,” Dorothy Elmhirst wrote in The Drama Review in 1983). “They worked long hours with him every day. The first year of the studio was designed to lay the groundwork, with speech and movement classes, gymnastics, improvisations and exercises,…The weekly schedule shows how the classes were planned. Speech in the morning, followed by a movement class, and then class with Chekhov or rehearsal of certain scenes. After lunch and rest, more rehearsals, tea, more rehearsals, supper, and right on into the evening with lessons or rehearsals. Constant work. If you weren’t taking a lesson or rehearsing , you were working on your own because you had to do a great deal of work on your parts, a scene you might be directing, writing a play, or creating settings or costumes. He often scolded us because we did not do enough preparation work.”
Christopher Martin, head of the Arts Department at Dartington, wrote: “I should like to describe to you a class I witnessed just after the Studio had opened. You must imagine a bare studio, a few chairs, a piano and a group of some twenty students. They were asked to leave the Studio and then come back in ones and twos, imagining that they were entering a cathedral. Their first efforts were clumsy and ill-conceived. Later, as they became more practised, they succeeded in evoking for the spectator the atmosphere of a cathedral, even to the existence of pillars and chairs.
“On another occasion, I remember, they were asked to imagine that they were joining a crowd at a football match. Again, with practice, they made the spectator feel the excitement of a large crowd about to watch some thrilling game….From such simple beginnings students pass to improvisations which are more complicated. They come, in time, to the portrayal of definite types, definite characters. At these they work till the assumption of character ceases to be imitative and has become second nature. They must create for themselves not only the voice and movements, but the makeup and even costume. In this way the character to be assumed becomes, in time, part of themselves.” (C. Martin 1936. Dartington Hall Records)
Visitors came to classes almost every Saturday. Among them were American actors from the Group Theatre — Stella and Luther Adler, and the director Robert Lewis. Robert Lewis wrote about Chekhov’s work in his book Slings and Arrows. He spent a weekend at Dartington in June 1938 studying Michael Chekhov’s teaching methods.
“Chekhov himself was a devout man, and all his pupils seemed to absorb something of the master’s spirituality. As I walked over the beautiful grounds, I saw a girl sitting alone on the grass looking at the classroom building with worshipful tears in her eyes.” Lewis visited a class on improvisation with excerpts from The Deluge by Henning Berger. Lewis wrote: “But since there was no emotional sense of fire — or danger — it seemed to me it could have done simply by assigning space relations in the beginning. The crystallization, I felt, could not be found truthfully without the essence. If the movement could have been added to, or derived from, the psychological groundwork, they would then have approached the acting style of their master, Michael Chekhov, who was always overflowing with true emotion….
“What the company seemed to be acting were the ‘qualities’ without the psychological underpinnings of the deluge. I realized that this principle of design was great for a director’s guide, but without the actors being trained for the inner experiencing of the nature of the situation for each character, it made for effective groupings but poor individual acting.” (Lewis, Robert. Slings and Arrows. New York 1984, p. 96)
Chekhov certainly felt those difficulties as a cultural transplant, as is evident in his letter to Dorothy and Leonard Elmhirst at the end of the summer term of 1938: “The longer I am out of Russia the more I begin to think that my devotion to this fire is not at all Russian as I thought before — it is a human thing and I am sure that…perhaps the form in which I express my personal fire sometimes is Russian but not the fire itself, and this is not the point which I could not explain to my dear and beloved children, but it is the point without which we will not find each other to the last depths. So I am looking toward the fire next term. ” (Chekhov to D. Elmhirst, August 16, 1938, Cornwall. Dartington Hall Records.)
Events in Europe prevented Chekhov from fulfilling his plans for the Studio in England. After the Munich crisis of 1938, the lengthening shadow of tyranny became insupportable for Chekhov; and at his request, the theatre studio was transferred to the United States to continue the work in a less threatening atmosphere. A farewell performance was given by the students in Dartington in December 1938. Two years was, of course, too short a time in which to demonstrate positive results, but there is every reason to suppose that had political events taken a different course, the Studio would have consolidated its position in England.
Chekhov believed that in America there would be more interest in Russian training and students would be more eager for the method. His new Studio was opened in January 1939 in Ridgefield, Connecticut, a few hours north of New York City. For the next 13 years, the large estate was his home, his studio, and his theatre. Substantial financial backing was secured from the Elmhirst Foundation and Beatrice Straight. New students were auditioned for the Studio. Among the 22 members of the permanent company, 17 were American-born; others were Canadian, Australian, English and Austrian. In Ridgefield, Chekhov trained an acting company and dealt with specific problems that were part of the actor’s experience. For this Russian-born actor this meant reconsidering his methods and facing the harsh demands of the commercial theatre in the US.
In the US, the Chekhov Theatre Players became a producing theatre with a permanent acting company presenting plays on Broadway, but mainly on tour. Produced by Beatrice Straight and Alan Harkness, they played in numerous American universities to sell-out crowds and enthusiastic audiences. The first tour took place in 1940. For two months, the company travelled by truck, bus and car and performed in 15 states. This tour included Twelfth Night by Shakespeare and The Cricket on the Hearth by Dickens. Directing them, Chekhov brought to the American stage Russian and continental ideas and his own interpretations. The Chekhov Theatre Players were finally able to demonstrate a way of playing the classics that seemed relevant to contemporary audiences.
Chekhov wrote to Dorothy Elmhirst that he was thrilled and encouraged. “The success which they have had they deserve completely and fully. Their maturity which begins to be seen is of such a kind which can never be compared with the cliched-maturity of so-called professionals. They remain fresh and young in their spirit in spite of the experience which is being so quickly accumulated. It gives me also the greatest joy and proves to me certain principles which I believe in and confirms certain points of the method.” (October 25, 1940. Complete text of the letter is published in Byckling 2000, 343- 345. Dartington Hall Records).
The following year the troupe toured a second time with King Lear. Clearly obsessed by the idea of transforming material values into spiritual values, his production was set in abstract space, a geometrical system of planes reminiscent of Gordon Craig. In December 1941, the company brought Twelfth Night to Broadway. Brooks Atkinson in the New York Times praised the production calling it “a pleasant little holiday from the routine of hit-and-flop playgoing”. In the winter and spring of 1942, the company toured to Florida, Texas, Oklahoma and the midwestern states.
It is certainly hard to assign a place to the Chekhov Theatre Players within the American theatrical pattern. On one hand, it was an itinerant organization; on the other, because it continued to operate a school from which new talent was continuously enlisted into the company, it could also not be compared to the commercial theatres on Broadway.
Chekhov had certainly integrated the American work experience into his teaching. In this sense, it could be argued that a branch of the Moscow Art Theatre was in the US. Indeed, when his company opened on Broadway, it was a genuine revelation of Russian theatre methods.
During this same period, Chekhov also conducted drama courses for professional actors, among them many from the recently expanded Group Theatre. (See Lessons to the Professional Actor edited by Deirdre Hurst du Prey, 1986.) But once again, his fondest hopes were shattered by political upheavals. America’s entry into World War II meant that most of the leading actors were leaving for military service. In 1942, the theatre was forced to close.
The farewell performance of the Chekhov Theatre Players took place on Broadway in September of that year. Chekhov himself appeared in two one-act plays at that time based on his uncle’s short stories. He was hailed as an extraordinary performer “who has hitherto been known to New Yorkers only as an uncomfortably Slavic director” to quote John Mason Brown. However, Chekhov’s own acting career did not continue. Though he was offered parts by Elia Kazan and many other American directors, he declined them all because he was uncomfortable with his own Russian accent, something most international exiles have to face at some point in their careers if they are actors.
Many of his American actors from the school, however, ended up with huge and successful careers in Hollywood and New York. Hurd Hatfield became famous in the film Portrait of Dorian Gray; Ford Rainey had a substantial career in cinema and TV in Los Angeles. Chekhov’s assistant George Shdanoff opened a very successful acting school in Los Angeles. Other students included Terence Morgan, Ronald Bennett and, the most famous of all, Yul Brynner, who was also of Russian origin. Beatrice Straight formed Theatre Inc. in New York and also won an Academy Award in Hollywood.
In 1980, some of his former students – including Beatrice Straight — his most consistent sponsor — opened the Michael Chekhov Studio in New York City. There the Chekhov training method was resumed. Straight argued long and hard for the Chekhov technique and spoke often of it as suiting the needs of contemporary actors who must pick up ideas quickly and use them instantly. She argued that it freed actors from the problems of over-intellectualizing, and of separating their minds from their bodies.
A new generation of Russian-influenced teachers was, in this sense, trained in New York in the 1980s. One of them, Leonard Petit later brought the approaches to Finland where for many years he conducted master classes at the Theatre Academy in Helsinki. In this same decade, Michael Chekhov’s artistic legacy was rediscovered in Russia, and he once again became a major figure in his native country.
As for his Hollywood work, Chekhov was certainly interested in applying his teaching to the fast pace and fragmented nature of film and television. From 1948 to1955 he taught improvisation and gave lectures on acting and the creative process at The Drama Society in Hollywood. He also gave private classes to film actors at his home in Beverly Hills until his death.
During his exile years, he published his memoirs Life and Encounters (Novyi Zhurnal, 1944-45) and O tekhnike aktyora (1946). In 1953, his text To the Actor was published in English in New York. In these books, Chekhov argues that the body of an actor must undergo a special kind of development, extreme sensitivity of body to the psychological creative impulses. In his opinion, this could only be achieved by psycho-physical exercises. (Chekhov 1953, p. 2). He argues that the actor must not think of himself as a photographer of life, but as an interpreter, who “lets the spectator see beyond life’s surfaces and meanings”, to convey to the spectator a kind of revelation. (Chekhov 1953, p. 3) For Chekhov, the work on the body-in-life and the thought-in-life were two sides of the same coin.
Indeed, Chekhov’s psycho-physical exercises are still used today in American practice. Joanna Merlin’s, the author of the popular acting training book Auditioning, herself studied in Chekhov’s classes in the fifties in Los Angeles, and in later years she worked in many international workshops. Her exercises include the use of numerous Michael Chekhov “psychological gestures.” Even now, they blow a fresh and invigorating breeze into the heritage of Stanislavski and the career of the great exilic artist, Michael Chekhov.
 Chekhov writes about his studio in Literaturnoye nasledye (Moscow, 1986), pp. 98-107.
 Chekhov (1986), vol. 1, p. 103.
 Ibid., p. 105.
 Chekhov, Zhizn i vstrechi (Life and Encounters), (New York: Novyi Zhurnal, 1944 – 1945), op.cit.
 Chekhov (1953), To the Actor, p. 20.
 Ibid, pp. 63 and 65.
 Barba, p. 78.
 Chekhov (1986), p. 202.
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—-, Literaturnoe nasledie v dvuh tomah. 2 vols. Maria Knebel et al eds., Moscow: Iskusstvo 1986. 2nd ed.: 1995.
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*Liisa Byckling is an Adjunct Professor at the University of Helsinki, Finland and a specialist in the study of Michael Chekhov.
Copyright © 2011 Liisa Byckling
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