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An Actor’s Guide to the Michael Chekhov Acting Technique

The Chekhov acting technique brings realism to performances by teaching actors how to experience roles without filtering them through the lens of their own personalities. Imagination and physical movement are key to the Michael Chekhov acting technique which challenges actors to draw on subconscious knowledge rather than conscious will and memory. Hence, it encourages us to “be” more than we ever were or could be when we interpret roles, expanding the depth and range of our acting abilities. 

Who Was Michael Chekhov?

As the nephew of one of Russia’s greatest playwrights, Anton Chekhov, it was fitting that Michael Chekhov chose a career as an actor. Studying under Stanislavski himself, he was recognised as an extremely talented actor and was appointed as the director of the Moscow Arts Theatre in the early 1920s. In 1928, however, he left Russia for personal and political reasons, touring Europe as an acting teacher and actor before settling in the USA.  

Here, he taught many of the greats, including Clint Eastwood, Ingrid Bergman, Marilyn Monroe, and Gregory Peck while also achieving an Oscar nomination for his own acting. His work did not disappear following his death in 1955. Instead, adherents to his technique continued to teach it, and it is still one of the most important acting techniques taught to today’s actors. 

What is the Chekhov Technique?

According to Chekhov’s philosophy, all human experiences are stored in each person’s subconscious mind, and interpreting roles realistically means accessing this subconscious resource. The “memories” can be activated through physical movements and gestures. In other words, the Chekhov Technique is an exploration of the connections between physical expression and internal emotions. 

As you can imagine, it’s a topic with enough complexity to fill a book – or several of them, and there’s no shortage of further reading for actors interested in Chekhov’s technique. If you’d like to explore it in greater depth, begin with Michael Chekhov’s On the Technique of Acting. Reading this work would be a great place to start your journey, and acting schools, workshops, and courses can expose you to the practical application of his technique. 

Key Principles of the Chekhov Technique and Examples of Exercises

Chekhov’s technique is summed up in the five principles that underlie it. 

  1. As an actor using the Chekhov Technique, your work is based on a psychophysical body-mind connection.
  2. The most potent means of expression are intangible, for example, creating atmosphere. 
  3. The work is spiritual and connected with the unconscious and the higher intent. It is based on synthesis rather than analysis. 
  4. One aspect of the technique triggers all other aspects automatically and effortlessly. 
  5. As an actor, you have artistic freedom. You access the technique to achieve inner inspiration. 

In classes where you’ll learn the Chekhov technique, exercises to help you master these principles include the “imaginary centre” exercise in which actors perform movements powered by an imaginary centre. Improvisation, on your own and in groups, is an important part of Chekhov training. You will be called upon to work with “psychological gestures” that you use to express a quality, combining each one with a verbalisation before changing the gesture and noticing how the change affects your emotions even when the words you say remain the same.

What are the Pros and Cons of the Chekhov Technique?

There are several advantages to learning and implementing the Chekhov technique. Specifically, it teaches you how to activate your imagination and creativity. In contrast to method acting in which you’re encouraged to “become” the role, there is disengagement between your “self” and the roles you play. Nevertheless, the technique aims to create realistic interpretations, but without the need to “live” your role. 

Will this work for you? If there’s one disadvantage that’s applicable to any technique, it’s that each actor is different, and no single method or approach will suit absolutely everyone. Nevertheless, as an aspiring actor, gaining exposure to various acting techniques will help you to synthesise them into something that works for you. 

Chekhov’s recognition of the link between mind and body was ahead of his time but this connection is widely accepted today and is even supported by research into human psychology. In this sense, Michael Chekhov was a true pioneer, not only as an actor and acting teacher, but also as a philosopher within his field. 

“Soft” Skills Can be Learned

So-called “soft skills,” the ability to get along with and influence other people, are often seen as being rooted in personality. But by using Chekhov’s approach, you’re able to reach beyond your personal experiences and your own psychological makeup, applying imagination to the roles you portray throughout your working life.

This doesn’t only mean bringing your skills to the stage or screen. The ability to create atmosphere and turn ordinary interactions into extraordinary experiences for your audience is something that should also be valued in the business world. The ability to influence an audience is a valuable skill that’s often overlooked or seen as having its roots in immutable character traits. 

At RSVP, a London-based business-with-a-difference, we value acting skills in a very businesslike context: customer communications. Do you have the ability to step in and out of roles with ease? Can you adjust pace, delivery, and atmosphere based on a role and an audience’s needs? These are the skills we’re looking for!

But what about your acting career? We support that too! Join our community of actors and aspiring actors, be valued for your skills, and enjoy the benefits of flexible employment while you reach for your dreams. Get started by visiting the RSVP Careers Page now. We’re looking forward to having you on board. 

 

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