At the weekend I took part in a Embodiment and Performance workshop led by actor and Michael Chekhov specialist, Gretchen Egolf, organised by Aller Park Studios at Dartington. It was my first time ever going to a workshop like this, but I was interested in finding out more about Chekhov, since the office where I work every day in the Barn at Dartington is pretty much exactly where Michael Chekhov founded his studio, the Michael Chekhov Studio from 1936 – 39. It was here, you will read, that he really began to develop his unique form of actor training, which is famous for it’s focus on the imagination, the inner and outer body, and a broad psychophysical training, as well as the so-called “four brothers”, and much more. Not being a trained actor or dancer, I had always found these concepts quite difficult to grasp, and was really pleased when I had heard there was going to be this workshop and the opportunity to experience it first hand and in practical terms.
I enjoyed this workshop throughout, but there was one poignant moment midway through the afternoon session which really made me think there was still something universally interesting about the Chekhov approach. We were doing expansion and contraction movements, developing the idea of an inner body. Chekhov teaches how this inner body can to a great extent be controlled by the imagination, and we were exploring the value this has for performers. It seems particularly useful in the way that if you imagine your inner self to be full of happy excitement, your outer body and the way you act will, or at least can, follow suite.
Gretchen said something like: “imagine yourself to be very contracted and insignificant in your inner body, how does that make you feel?” And although this was probably a rhetorical question, someone replied: “That’s just how I feel all the time” and quite a few others made noises in agreement. It was a funny moment with a serious layer underneath it. I think a lot of people probably feel like that, a lot of the time. I do, especially in the current world where computers and phones are encouraging us to become more cramped and hunched over, and we face an increasing number of crises, from environmental to economic to social, which it is easily to feel pretty powerless about.
Anyway, I picked up from what Gretchen had been saying that it followed that a contracted inner body influences how you act on the outside. You become more reserved, less willing to make eye contact with others, less definite with your movements, less confident altogether in fact. And the same goes the other way. It you imagine the inner body to be open, you will find your movements with the outer body act accordingly. What was amazing about this was how real it felt. It felt like my mood was really lifting when I imagined the expansive, joyful inner body, as if an actual physical change was going on in my body, and the atoms were vibrating with pleasure.
It made me think that using that inner body idea to imagine a more expansive self when you are feeling down, or insignificant could be very useful. And through practice I suppose it is possible to become accustomed to inhabiting that ideal joyful state, with all the expansive warmth and confidence that comes with it, not to mention the additional effect of making you feel better about yourself. Obviously there will be contexts where either the expanded or contracted self are more appropriate, and a balance between the two is best; a constantly expansive person could get very annoying very quickly! But there are plenty of times I can think back to when it would have been so good to know there is this free and easily accessible path to joy – and I’m looking forward to being able to unleash it’s power in the future.
You can find out more about Michael Chekhov’s approach to acting technique on the Michael Chekhov UK website here.