Michael Chekhov’s Technique
Who was Michael Chekhov?
Michael Chekhov was the son of Alexander Chekhov (brother of Anton Chekhov, the famous playwright) into a middle-class family. Raised in St. Petersburg, Michael Chekhov was regarded by Stanislavski as one of his greatest pupils and studied under him at the First Studio of the Moscow Arts Theatre. To work under one of the most influential dramatists of the 20th Century left an incredible drive for Chekhov to understand the nature of acting in new ways. Later in life, Chekhov led the company he was first employed by, who he renamed the Second Studio of the Moscow Arts Theatre.
Touring with his own company after the October Revolution in 1917, Chekhov looked to utilise his own system of acting, which included a physical and emotional aspect to it. Further into his own life, he taught in the Kaunus State Drama Theatre (Lithuania) and The Chekhov Theatre School (England), which allowed him to hone his teachings into something that has affected drama well into the twenty-first century.
As he was taught by Stanislavski himself, Chekhov’s approach also follows the idea of accessing an emotional response in the actors’ work. Becoming the character takes on a slightly different light though, as Chekhov uses physical techniques to find the character. ‘Psychological gestures’ is a concept designed by Chekhov to help the actor find his/her particular role. This involves the actor externalising an inner want or trait from the character in a gesture which will then affect the performance on a subconscious level later via the physical memory. If you’re playing the hero, maybe externalising “brave” or “kind” in one fluid motion before your performance will snap your mind-frame into the character. This can also be done during the performance to inspire you into greater depths, before your creativity wanders away from the role. These can be varied and different throughout the production and gave actors a way of focussing on the matter of hand on stage.
But, at the cornerstone of this method, an actor must learn to diminish himself so far away from the character that nothing remains. The idea that you are using only your life as a means of exploring the drama unfolding onstage seemed untruthful to Chekhov. The creative mind is allowed to properly flourish when using psychological gestures and actors can benefit from the disengagement of themselves from the work. This is called the “inner life” of the character and shows the different elements from which the character has come from. Externalising these feelings is the role of the actor and, debatably, his/her hardest and most creative segment of the work.
The power of words
One of the more useful elements of the Chekhov technique is the change in language used to garner the right emotions from the performer. Using visceral images, Chekhov hoped that the actor would imagine and feel something in a creative way. As opposed to the abstract terminology used by other coaches (think about when someone’s told you to “relax” on stage, Chekhov might say “feel serenity”). Powerful words that were looking to create different frames of mind for anybody hearing them, and something that Chekhov took very seriously when directing and teaching.
Symbolism in acting
Chekhov’s idea was to perform something different to Stanislavski, who was far more concerned with keeping things naturalistic or ‘real’. The primary aim was to push the boundaries of human experience to a new level of understanding. He didn’t want to watch someone make a cup of tea, he wanted the audience to understand what the tea signified in a symbolic manner. Stanislavski himself even opted to explore the use of physicality when finding the role after Chekhov’s successful use of this popular acting technique, and when the great grand-daddy of drama gives your idea a go for its merits, you know you must be onto something.
A technique still relevant today
Today, it stands among other established techniques such as Meisner's or Stanislavki's. Chekhov’s method has had a lasting legacy in performance and that legacy, perhaps, cemented itself into dramatic history because of its wayward stance regarding how loyal you need to be when laying out the foundations to become the role. Chekhov realised that there is no ‘set’ way to act and various methods offer their own benefits to different actors. Limiting yourself to just one means you might throw away the opportunity to embrace the essence of the character, which might have become clearer from approaching him/her in a different manner. Flexibility was something that wasn’t allowed across the different methods, but Chekhov was keen to push the boundaries and allow artistic talents to blossom using different lighting.
So much so, the art of acting can be approached from many different angles and the key is to find what suits you best when determining the right course of action to pursue a character. Many famous actors such as Johnny Depp and Anthony Hopkins agree with Michael Chekhov’s thinking, and these actors regularly state how imperative to their craft the Russian’s method has been.