It cannot be said of him that he is merely a gifted artist and director who is capable of staging the most varied repertoire. He simply breathes art. – Margot Klausner, on Michael Chekhov
While the name Chekhov doubtlessly brings to mind play upon brilliant play you’ve read or performed, the Chekhov this technique is named for is not Anton; it’s his nephew, Michael.
Michael Chekhov was Stanislavski’s favourite student, which should endear him to you. Along with two others – Eugene Vakhtangov and Vsevolod Meyerhold – these people helped naturalistic theatre to blossom, and actors to be recognised as artists; not serfs.
Chekhov was celebrated as one of Russia’s most brilliant actors and directors. Unlike his mentor Stanislavski, however, he didn’t subscribe fully to realism in art; this was anti-government. He was forced to flee under threat of arrest by the USSR’s government in 1928, at the age of 37. He was recognised in particular for his character work, which emerged from pioneering a ‘psycho-social’ approach that we now term The Chekhov Technique. It’s largely due to his exile that we know about this technique; had he stayed, it would have died with him in Russia.
Chekhov’s belief was that truth could be inspired; that on the stage, an actor must be bold and traditionally dramatic whilst maintaining a realistic element. His ‘psycho-social’ take was based on the connection between the body and psychology.
His technique allows actors to be free from limitations on their character’s personality; he has an imaginative approach to truth. In this way, Chekhov’s technique shares more similarities with later iterations of Stanislavski’s system, or Stella Adler’s techniques.
Imagination is what sets Chekhov apart. While still a student of Stanislavski, he was exercising affective memory (still a highly valuable tool for method actors). He recalled his father’s funeral in great detail and to great effect in performance; but his father was still alive. Chekhov’s vivid inner life and imagination would become the core of his technique, and inspired Stanislavski in later years to incorporate imagination into the method.
The Chekhov technique emphasises a holistic attitude: the actor’s “inner life” should be a complete collection of the character’s imagination, intellect, and emotions. The second step is to express this inner life with the body. This inner event and outward expression are called “creative individuality” because the inner life of the character is imaginative, and separate from the actor.
The actor must divorce his own personality and mannerism from those of the character, and give himself over completely to the will, feelings, habits, and appearance of the character. – ‘To The Actor’ by Michael Chekhov
Unlike other forms of method acting, creative individuality is about much more than working small details of an actor’s life into a role to make it more realistic. Chekhov thought it was necessary to also allow the subconscious and its archetypes to flow into characters:
“[Past experiences] being forgotten by you, or never known to you they undergo the process of being purified of all egotism. They become feelings per se. Thus purged and transformed, they become part of the material from which your Individuality creates the psychology, the illusory “soul” of the character.””
Because creative individuality is such a complete union between the actor and the character there is little chance of the personalities of the actor and the character being muddled during performance.
The Psychological Gesture
This is one type of outward expression. It’s a particular movement that conveys your character’s psychology; its complete inner life. It captures the whole personality in one movement, like a logo for your character.
The psychological gesture expresses personality to the audience, but more importantly it helps the actor to awaken the inner life within them. It is performed before a performance to help you embrace the character, and during it, before your inspiration begins to fade.
Finding the right psychological gesture for your character is sometimes simple. It will come to you spontaneously as you read a script or watch a performance. If this doesn’t happen for you, there’s another option: Leading Questions. In this exercise, you ask yourself to express outwardly various aspects of the creative individuality until you find the right expression.
If you’re playing a villain, you’d ask yourself to physically express power, malevolence, domination, hysteria, or any other trait you feel the character has. When you find an expression that makes you feel fully villainous, you’ve found your psychological gesture.
You don’t have to stick to one psychological gesture over the course of an entire play or film. It can help to come up with one to embody each scene or emotional moment. Characters, like people, can change over time. Embodying those changes is useful to the actor’s psychology, but also helps the audience to recognise the character development.
The Legacy of The Chekhov Technique
Why be narrow-minded, why cut ourselves off from any of these rich heritages when…we have the freedom to make the most of the best in all techniques? There are no prohibitions against it. All it takes is a little wisdom, imagination, and courageous experimentation.
One of the reasons so many actors use Chekhov’s technique is that he did not require total dedication to it. He believed many acting techniques offered great value – he and his mentor Stanislavski remained close and inspired by one another even when their methods differed. You can use Chekhov even while being a method actor as according to Strasberg or Meisner.
His books on technique are still recommended to actors, writers, directors; anyone in a position even vaguely related to the theatre. More than that, some of the most acclaimed method actors – including Jack Nicholson, Johnny Depp, and Anthony Hopkins – have acknowledged the power of his technique in lifting their art to new heights.
If you, too, want to lift your art to new heights then the Ultimate Acting Programme might be for you. It offers complete training in method acting, including affective memory – which can only be improved by incorporating the Chekhov Technique.