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What Is Acting

April 1, 2012 | By

Michael Chekhov, a great Russian actor, teacher, director, seemed to have an interesting approach to these challenges and emphasized the art in acting.

A process of discovery !

what is acting

The old style of acting training laid a heavy emphasis on codified pantomime and a set of gestures (Pic: Oorvazi Irani)

A yearning to look within oneself and an opportunity to experience the world within your own being.

If acting as a profession, as an art form can offer you the opportunity to self discovery and knowledge what better place to be in then here.

But the history of acting has not been so fortunate and it still continues till the present times. Many actors are not true artists and are not being enriched but are suffering due to a wrong approach or a limited point of view.

Tracing the history of acting , the old style of acting training laid a heavy emphasis on codified pantomime and a set of gestures which if perfected created the replication of the emotional state and it was only geniuses who in these parameters went beyond the framework and reached the soul in inspired moments of truth.

Aristotle  defined acting as “the right management of the voice to express the various emotions.” And  Romans were famous for their oratory skills and it is from the practice of these actors ancient orators borrowed the principles governing voice and gesture in public delivery.

On the other hand, the power of an oratory like Hitler can be seen who controlled the masses like an actor holds sway over his audience.

Ingrid Bergman and Chekhov in Hitchcock’s ‘Spellbound'

Ingrid Bergman and Chekhov in Hitchcock’s ‘Spellbound’ for which he received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor (Pic: michaelchekhov.org)

A major breakthrough in the history of modern acting is the “The System” introduced into the world with the great Russian actor teacher Constantan Stanislavsky in the early 20th century. He defined acting as “Living truthfully in imaginary circumstances”.

What was radically different here was the shift to the focus now on the inner truthfulness of an actor and that the body would follow, it was an ‘Inside Out’ approach.

However, it was Lee Strasberg who was a key figure in introducing to America the Stanislavski System which he redesigned as “The Method” which emphasizes the ‘internal process’ and the use of the personal emotions of an actor to act.

This method became very famous in Hollywood (and all over the world) and was popularized by the use of it by stars like Marlon Brando among others. This technique is used till date but it puts to question the inner state of an actor as a human being and is acting being used an art form in its true sense. Many actors have suffered from this method and face mental trauma when playing characters that have shades of negativity in them.

The challenges an actor faces are the demands to transform himself into other characters, to bring them to life by emoting truthfully. The point remains –

* Can an actor emotionally participate and remain detached?
* Can an actor immerse himself emotionally into playing several different characters and yet not lose his own identity?
* Can this process be fun instead of being painful?

Going back to the roots of ancient art forms provides the wisdom and a modern framework provides the way. Ancient art forms ranging from Japan to India (Natyashstra) view art to be treated and not naturalistic but the actor as an artist along with other artists involved in the process treat the raw emotions in their final work and elevate it to a state of being higher and above the mundane where even a negative emotion enriches the actor and audience. The personal ego is lost and the actor is operating from a universal higher self which is creative and enriching.

Michael Chekhov in the 20th century a great Russian actor, teacher, director, the nephew of Anton Chekhov the famous playwright  and a student of Stanislavsky, seemed to have an interesting approach to these challenges and emphasized the art in acting.

Chekhov being a student of Stanislavsky when he joined the Moscow Art Theatre owed a great deal to him but slowly developed his own theories and techniques of acting. Michael Chekhov devoted his whole life to developing and perfecting a revolutionary acting technique that did not rely on memory recall for creating emotions.

At the core of the technique were the use of the actor’s ‘Imagination’ and the actor’s ‘Body’. Michael Chekhov believes that the approach to acting should be as a creative artist, that the actor’s identity is distinct from the character’s identity, and that the actor’s emotions are not to be used or confused in the creation of the character’ emotions.

Chekhov used the psycho-physical approach to acting and put to powerful use the power of  imagination rather logic and rationality to create artists of the true kind. Chekhov developed tools like the Psychological Gesture, The Imaginary Body, Imaginary Centre, Sensations to equip the actor to set himself free and expand his consciousness.

Every character has a Center. This is an area inside or outside the body where the character’s impulses for all movement originate.  (Pic: Oorvazi Irani)

Every character has a Center. This is an area inside or outside the body where the character’s impulses for all movement originate.
(Pic: Oorvazi Irani)

Imaginary Body:

The actor creates an imaginary body in his imagination which is different from his own body. He collaborates with the imaginary body and then incorporates that in his own body.

Imaginary Center:

The actor for the character selects a centre and determines its quality and then places that imaginary center in his own body and transforms from his limited personality to the character. 

Every character has a Center. This is an area inside or outside the body where the character’s impulses for all movement originate. The impulse from this centre initiates all gestures and leads the body forward or backward, and to sit, walk, and stand etc.

A proud character for instance can have his Centre in his chin or neck. The centre may be any shape or size, colour or consistency. A single character can have even more than one centre.

Psychological Gesture:

The Psychological Gesture can be understood as a movement that embodies the essence of a character. It gives the actor the basic structure of the character and can put the actor into the various moods required by the script.

Sensations:

The actor recreates the body sensation of balancing, falling and  floating to effect his feelings and transform to a character.  

By 1928, as head of the Second Moscow Art Theater, Chekhov’s innovative directing and teaching had provoked such severe criticism by the Communist government, he was forced to flee the country for safety. There followed ten years of wandering through Europe, with sojourns in Germany, France, Latvia, Lithuania and finally England.

There, with the support of Beatrice Straight and the Elmhirst Family, Chekhov established his first acting school in English. The onset of World War II inspired the Elmhirsts to move the school to Ridgefield, Connecticut in 1938. Here and in New York, Chekhov trained numerous actors from the Group Theater and the Actors Studio before moving to Los Angeles in 1942.

In 1942 he was invited to Hollywood, where he became an acting coach to the stars, acted in many films, published his book, To the Actor.

Prominent actors in Hollywood who studied with him were: Gary Cooper, Marilyn Monroe, Gregory Peck, Clint Eastwood, Anthony Quinn, Ingrid Bergman, Yul Brynner and many more. Michael Chekhov died in Hollywood, California in 1955, before his work became widely known.

“As Michael’s pupil I learned more than acting…Every time he spoke, the world seemed to become bigger and more exciting…Acting became important…an art that increased your life and mind. Acting became more than a profession to me. It became sort of a religion.”
~ Marilyn Monroe

Oorvazi Irani – Michael Chekhov Acting Technique

 

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Oorvazi Irani is a freelance film educationalist, acting trainer, filmmaker and director of her home production company SBI Impresario Pvt. Ltd., (incorporated in 1975). She has introduced the Michael Chekhov Acting Technique to India, she conducts courses on the technique and has created and produced the Michael Chekhov Acting Technique dvd, the first of its kind in India which is a step by step guide to the technique.
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