michael chekhov and his approach to acting in contemporary

michael chekhov and his approach to acting in contemporary
MICHAEL CHEKHOV AND HIS APPROACH TO ACTING IN
CONTEMPORARY PERFORMANCE TRAINING
by
Richard Solomon
B.A. University of Southern Maine, 1983
A THESIS
Submitted in Partial Fulfillment of the
Requirements for the Degree of
Master of Arts
(in Theatre)
The Graduate School
The University of Maine
May, 2002
Advisory Committee:
Tom Mikotowicz, Associate Professor of Theatre, Advisor
Jane Snider, Associate Professor of Theatre
Sandra Hardy, Associate Professor of Theatre
MICaAEL CHEKHOV AND HIS APPROACH TO ACTING IN
CONTEMPORARY PERFORMANCE TRAINING
By Richard Solomon
Thesis ~ d h s o rDr.
: Tom Mikotowicz
An Abstract of the Thesis Presented
in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the
Degree of Master of Arts
(in Theatre)
May, 2002
Michael Chekhov was an actor, diuector, and teacher who was determined to
develop a clear and accessible acting approach. During his lifetime, his ideas were often
viewed as too radical and mystical. Over the past decade however, the Chekhov method
of actor training has enjoyed an expansion of interest. The following thesis will examine
who Chekhov was, and what the major points of his technique were. It will also consider
why and where his techniques are experiencing growth in our contemporary perfbrmance
environment.
Chekhov was a student of the great acting teacher Constantin Stanislavski. After
studying with him for several years, Chekhov concluded that many aspects of the
Stanislavski method of creating a role were potentially dangerous and unnecessary. Both
men were constantly searching for new and improved ways to create and direct a role.
Chekhov began to design his own approach which placed heavy emphasis on imagination
and movement. He developed what became known as the 'psychological gesture'. This is
a physical movement or gesture which captures the total essence of a character and is
executed inwardly while an actor portrays a character. Many contemporary actors and
teachers are now acknowledging Chekhov and his development of this 'psychological
gesture'.
Upon parting ways with Stanislavski, Chekhov studied with spiritualist Rudolph
Steiner, a writer, philosopher, and movement specialist. By taking his own ideas and
combining them with some of Steiner's and Stanislavski's, Chekhov developed a fiesh
approach to performance that many contemporary actors and teachers are finally
discovering. This thesis will be an exploration of his ideas and how they successhlly
apply to the present day performer.
The first chapter of this thesis will examine the life of Michael Chekhov and his
two major influences, Constantin Stanislavski and Rudolph Steiner. Chapter Two will
explore the major elements of the Chekhov technique and how they differed fiom
Stanislavski's. The resurgence in interest and usage will be discussed in Chapter Three.
This section will unmask the people and places that are presently working with and
ill the Chekhov technique continue to expand, or is it
teaching the Chekhov techniques. W
just a passing phase in the contemporary performer's search for a reliable and accessible
method of performance? The thesis conclusion will examine how Chekhov's work has
been promulgated over the years. A final analysis of the method and its expansion will
also be formulated in the final chapter.
DEDICATION
To my beloved Karin, and my Mother and Father. Thank you for all your love and
support.
...
lll
TABLE OF CONTENTS
..
DEDICATION................................................................................................................
n
LIST OF FIGURES........................................................................................................
iv
I
Chapter
INTRODUCTION...........................................................................................................
1
CHAPTER 1 : A BRIEF SUMMARY OF THE LIFE OF MICHAEL CHEKHOV........... 6
1 . 1. The EarlyYears.............................................................................................
6
1.2. Stanislavski and Steiner................................................................................ 7
1.3. Life in the United States................................................................................9
CHAPTER 2: THE MAJOR ELEMENTS OF THE CHEKHOV TECHNIQUE............ 13
. .
2.1. Chekhov and Imagmabon..........................................................................1 3
2.2. The Psychological Gesture..........................................................................17
2.3. The Chart for Inspired Acting.....................................................................19
CHAPTER 3: THE CHEKHOV TECHNIQUE IN PRACTICE TODAY...................... 22
3.1. Chekhov Growth in the Professional Studio................................................22
3.2. Academic Interest in Chekhov..................................................................... 25
3.3. Why Chekhov, Why Now........................................................................... 26
CONCLUSION............................................................................................................
-29
BIBLIOGRAPHY..........................................................................................................
32
BIOGRAPHY OF THE AUTHOR.................................................................................35
LIST OF FIGURES
Figure 1.
Chart for Inspired Acting........................................................................ 20
INTRODUCTION
Michael Chekhov was a passionate actor, director, and teacher who was
driven to develop an accessible and ekciting approach to acting. Chekhov grew up
admiring and then working with the great acting teacher Constantin Stanislavski.
The Stanislavski approach to acting was at the time focused on the conscious
training of the senses, leading to the unconscious creative means. As Stanislavski
noted: "The most important aspect of this training was the use of the soul of the
actor as the material for his work and the necessity for the study of the personal
emotions and analysis of simple and complicated feelings."l Unlike the early
teachings of his acting teacher Stanislavski, the techniques that Chekhov developed
did not require delving into one's personal experiences and emotional memories.
Theatre theoretician Michael Kirby explains:
Although Chekhov did not reject all of Stanislavsky's system, accepting for
example, the concepts of action and objective, his approach to creating a
character was radically different than Stanislavsky's. He stressed the
imagination rather than the actor's personal history, characteristics and
psychology. If only for this reason, Chekhov deserves a hearing.'
Chekhov's method was an external and imaginative approach to
performance which did not generate enormous enthusiasm during his lifetime.
Although he enjoyed moderate success as a stage and movie actor, his
'Constantin Stanislavski, Stanislavski's Legacy, ed Elizabeth Reynolds Hapgood (Theatre Arts
Books, New York, 1WS), 52.
2Michaef Kirby, The Drama Revim Michael Chekhov ed., vol. 27 (1983), 2.
performances and his unorthodox performance training techniques were often
viewed as 'over the top' and mystical. When he died in Hollywood Hills,
California in 1955, so did much of the interest in his many teachings about acting
and the theater. As a teacher, he was:successll in tapping into a small, dedicated
core of actors, but never enjoyed the prosperity or popularity of Stanislavski.
Over the past twenty years, however, there has been a notable increase in interest
in the Chekhov Technique by contemporary actors, directors, and learning
institutions.
This increase in interest and in usage of the Chekhov approach began in the
late 19701s,in Los Angeles, California, at the Michael Chekhov Studio. This
studio was founded by Artistic Director Jack Colvin and actress Mala Powers,
both of whom were dedicated students of Chekhov. Actress Lisa Daulton,
President of the Chekhov Studio says: "Today, the Chekhov techniques are
gaining world-wide recognition in an amazing expansion of interest as artists seek
to discover a consistent means to peak states of perf~rmance."~In an attempt to
explain why contemporary performers seem ready to grasp the Chekhov ideas,
Daulton notes: "Current technology can scientifically support the once considered
'too mystical' means of Mr. Chekhov and humanity is now ready to embrace this
inspirational, organic means of accessing one's highest artistic aims."4 Presently
3 ~ i s Daulton,
a
(President) Michael Chekhov Studio West w://chekhov.ndmic-main.htm1,
2001), 1.
there are over one dozen professional Michael Chekhov Studios worldwide and in
recent years the technique has begun to receive academic attention as well.
Contemporary scholars and practitioners, such as Berkeley professor Me1
Gordon and Broadway actress Joanna Merlin, are also currently spreading
Chekhov's ideas and techniques. Both Gordon and Merlin were Chekhov
..
students. In her recent book, Audiboninq, Merlin states:
I studied acting for several years with Michael Chekhov, a great
actor, director, and teacher, considered by Stanislavski to be his most
brilliant pupil. In my search for a simple and accessible approach to
auditioning, I found that many of Chekhov's ideas could be adapted and
used in preparing an audition scene. His techniques allow you to work
quickly and playfully, using your intuition, senses, and imagination as well
as your reason.
In 1980, the Michael Chekhov Studio was founded in New York City, by actors
and former students Beatrice Straight and Robert Cole. In 1983, The Drama
Review published an issue dedicated to Chekhov and his work. Michael Kirby
writes:
This issue of The Drama Review is rather unusual. It is devoted to the
work of one person: Michael Chekhov. Not since the issues of Artaud
(T27), Brecht (T13 and T38) and Stanislavski (T25 and 26) has this
occurred. We do not mean to imply, of course, that Chekhov had the
historical significance or the influence of Stanislavski, Brecht, or Artaud.
He was, however an extremely important actor1 director and, above all, a
teacherltheoreticianwho deserves more comprehensive ~nderstanding.~
It was during this time in the early eighties that the expansion of interest in
Chekhov and his techniques began. Over the past twenty years it has continued to
'~oannaMerlin, Auditioning (Vintage Books, 2001) Intro. xx.
'Michael Kirby, The Drama Review, Michael Chekhov ed., vol. 27 (1983), 2.
grow and is slowly working its way into the mainstream of contemporary
performance.
The first chapter of this thesis will examine the life of Michael Chekhov
and his two major iduences, Constaritin Stanislavski and Rudolph Steiner
Chapter Two will explore the major elements of the Chekhov technique and how
they differed fiom his mentor, Constantin Stanislavski. The resurgence in interest
and usage by contemporary performers and teachers will be discussed in Chapter
Three. This section will unveil the people and places that are presently working
with and teaching the Chekhov techniques. Will the Chekhov technique continue
to expand, or is it just a passing phase in the contemporary performer's search for
a reliable, accessible, method of performance? Will the Chekhov approach
overtake the Stanislavski method, the foremost technique taught in North America
for almost a century? In 1952, Chekhov writes in his book, To The Actor:
To the best of my knowledge, theatrical history records the existence of
only one method expressly postulated for the actor-that created by
Konstantin Stanislavsky (and, unfortunately, much misunderstood and
often misinterpreted). Let this book, then, be another effort in the direction
of a better theatre through better acting. I proffer it as a humble but
nevertheless eager attempt to place at the disposal of my colleagues a few
systematically arranged ideas and experiences for bringing some order and
inspiration to our professional work.7
The thesis conclusion will examine how Chekhov's work has been
promulgated over the years. This often misinterpreted and misunderstood
technique is now being experimented with by performers. Many of these
-
-
'~ichaelChekhov, To The Actor (Harper and Bruthers, New York, 1953), 178
performers have found excellent results while using the technique. Some have
called him a genius with a gift for each and every contemporary performer. Others
have noted Chekhov as a scene stealer and revolutionary, with a curious acting
notion and severe mental condition. Regardless, this thesis will examine his work,
how it has grown, and how his ideas have been split into two different styles of
interpretation.
CHAPTER 1
A BRIEF SUMMARY OF THE LIFE OF MICHAEL CHEKHOV
1.1. The Early Years
Mikhail Alexandrovich Chekhov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia in
1891. He was the son of Alexander Chekhov, and the nephew of playwright
Anton Chekhov. During his lifetime, Michael Chekhov underwent four separate
periods of development. He enjoyed a celebrated acting career in Moscow fiom
1913 to 1928. He then endured a period of wandering in Vienna, Berlin, Paris,
Latvia and Lithuania fiom 1928 to 1934. During this stage of his life, despite
personal and artistic setbacks, he established new techniques in acting and staging.
In the seven years that followed Chekhov enjoyed a period of teaching and
directing in New York City and Dartington Hall in Devonshire, England. In the
final stage of his life, fiom 1942 to 1955, Chekhov developed a Hollywood career
where he combined teaching, writing and film acting.'
As a boy, in his middle-class home in St. Petersburg, Chekhov would
construct elaborate sketches. Encouraged by local teachers, Chekhov entered the
Alexei Suvorin Dramatic School, and in 1910 he was invited to perform at St.
Petersburg's prestigious Maly Theatre. The following year Chekhov met with
Stanislavski and was invited to join the prestigious Moscow Art Theatre. Chekhov
trained and performed at the Moscow Art Theatre fiom 1912 to 1918. It was
el Gordon,,-
Michael Chekhov ed., vol. 27 (1983), 3.
7
there that he not only studied and worked with Stanislavski, but with Boleslavsky,
Vakhtangov, Meyerhold, and his favorite teacher, Sulerzhitsky, who died in 1916.
1.2. Stanislavski and Steiner
After Sulerzhitsky's death, the Bolshevic victory in 1917, and seven years
of working with Stanislavski's techniques, Chekhov became very depressed.
Along with a severe alcohol addiction, he developed acute paranoia and became
suicidal. His first wife Olga divorced him, taking with her their newborn daughter
Ada. Stanislavski was very concerned about Chekhov and sent a team of doctors
to diagnose his psychological ills. It was during this period that Chekhov became
interested in spiritual scientist Rudolph Steiner, a man who would greatly influence
his life.
More than the advanced therapies of Stanislavsky's physicians was his
encounter with Hindu philosophy and especially with Rudolph Steiner's
Anthroposophy that altered Chekhov's psychic condition. In fact,
Chekhov's passionate investigation of Steiner's 'spiritual science7filled a
dangerous void in his creative world.g
Anthroposophy is a meditative science that attempted to discover the
archetypal and universal emotions that Steiner believed were inherent in every
human being. He thought that the spirit and soul of most people was buried and
must be unearthed in order to achieve enlightenment and creativity.
Anthroposophy receives its mighty task from the voice of the human heart
itself, and is no more than what humanity is longing for today. Because of
this Anthroposophy will have to live. It answers to what man most fervidly
%el Gordon, On the Technique of Adinq (Harper Collins 199I), Intro. xv.
longs for, both for his outer and inner life . "Can there be such a world
conception today?'one may ask. The Anthroposophical society has to
supply the answer. It must find the way to let the hearts of men speak fiom
out their deepest longings; then they will experience the deepest longing for
the answers.1°
It was this Anthroposophical study, ahd his work with Steiner's Eurhythmy, the
science of movement and visible speech to the rhythm of musical compositions and
color, that Chekhov credited for his mental and physical rejuvenation.
Although Chekhov did not meet with Steiner until 1922 during a central
European tour, his contacts with local Russian Anthroposophical groups
were frequent and productive. More important they stimulated Chekhov's
ideas for an ideal theatre. Marrying the inner truth and emotional depth of
Stanislavsky7ssystem with the beauty and spiritual impact of Steiner's
work became Chekhov7sobsessive quest."
Combining what he learned fiom Steiner7seurythmics and Stanislavski7s
method, Chekhov designed his own 'psycho- physical7approach to performance.
During the late 1920's his approach became the subject of severe governmental
criticism. He was denounced by Bolshevic officials as an 'idealist7 and 'sick
in 1927, were seen as alien and
artist7,whose productions like The,
reactionary. In 1928, Chekhov was forced to flee Russia and the Moscow Art
Theatre to avoid arrest. Upon leaving the Moscow Art Theater, Chekhov, like
Vaktangov and Meyerhold, began to develop and teach his own new method.
Constantin Stanislavski, Evgeni Vakhtangov, Michael Chekhov and Vsevelod
Meyerhold were four tireless workers and visionaries who created the modem
'?Rudolph Steiner, Anth-hy:
An Introdudion (Rudolph Steiner Press, London 193I), 66.
el Gordon, On The Technique of Acting (Harper Collins, 1991), Intro. xvi.
style of acting.12 The Stanislavski system was being challenged, changed and
expanded by his core of artistic students.
Vakhtangov, Meyerhold and Chekhov were three artistic children of
Constantine Stanislavski. Individuals as different fiom each other as they
were fiom their artistic father.' But even as they extended, challenged and
rejected his ideas, their love for the man and his accomplishments never
wavered. And no matter the disagreements, Stanislavski loved them
back.l3
Over the next ten years Chekhov wandered throughout Europe, with
sojourns in Austria, Germany, France, Latvia, Lithuania and finally England. He
developed his first English speaking training school in Europe, with the assistance
of student and actress Beatrice Straight and the wealthy Elmhirst family, who
owned Dartington Hall in Devonshire, England.
1.3. Life in the United States
In America at this time, the Group Theatre in New York City was
flourishing. Actors like Stella Adler and Morris Carnovsky were being taught
Stanislavski's method and director Lee Strasberg's new method. ccStrasberg's
method was another derived fiom Stanislavski's. It placed heavy emphasis on
concentration, improvisation, and the use of the remembered feelings of the actor
12~ichard
Brestoff, 'The Great Acting Teachers and Their Metho& (Smith and Kraus, 1995), 76.
131bid.,75.
or 'affective memory' as he called it, to create a character."14 In 1935 the Group
Theatre was searching for new directors and Chekhov was invited for an interview.
Lee Strasberg was not happy about this, however, the other members of
the Theatre were excited to meet him and be introduced to his ideas
directly. Strasberg was not impressed with Chekhov's external directorial
and acting techniques and was pleased when the Group members
concluded that his style was so personal to him that it could not be taught
or used by others. In this they were probably mistaken. It was an historic
opportunity that was left unrealized.l5
During his time in America, Chekhov appeared on Broadway in a four
week, four play repertory of Russian classics which included Gogol's
Inspector General and Ostrovsky's Punishment Is No Crime. He then went on to
tour Boston and Philadelphia with the Moscow Art Players. He played to full
houses and received favorable reviews, gaining recognition and respect among his
peers in the United States. In 1938, the onset of World War 11inspired Chekhov
and the Elrnhirsts to move the Chekhov Training School fiom Devonshire to
Ridgefield, Comecticut. The Ridgefield based company played on Broadway in
1939 with an adaptation of Dostoyevsky's The Possessea. The show, written and
co-directed by George Shdanoff, Chekhov's assistant, was considered a disaster by
leading theatre critics. In 1941, Chekhov began teaching professional acting
classes in New York City at the New Chekhov Theater Studio. He then directed
the enthusiastically reviewed Broadway production of Twelfth Night.
In both Connecticut and New York, Chekhov trained numerous members
of the Group Theater and the Actors Studio before moving to Hollywood in 1942.
Between 1943 and 1954, Chekhov starred in nine Hollywood films. In 1945, he
received an Academy Award nomination for his role as the psychoanalyst in Alfied
Hitchcock's Spellbound He continued to teach his technique in Hollywood to
such well-known actors as; Jack Palance, Gregory Peck, Clint Eastwood, Elia
Kazan, Yul Brynner, Beatrice Straight, Anthony Quinn, and Marilyn Monroe, until
his death in 1955. Monroe, who also studied under Lee Strasberg, displayed her
gratitude for the guidance Chekhov had given her by willing an annual sum of
money to be disbursed to his widow Xenia and the Chekhov estate.
Marilyn was introduced to Chekhov in 1951 by one of his devoted
students, the American character actor Jack Palance. Marilyn opened
herself like a sponge to water to Chekhov's approach to theatre, which was
so deeply iduenced by Steiner that Chekhov left Stanislavsky's method
behind.I6
Three books by Michael Chekhov were published in his lifetime: his
autobiography, The Path of The Actor, in 1928; Lessons For the Professional
Actor, in 1946; and To The Actor, in 1953. In the preface of his book To The
Actor, famous Chekhov disciple and Academy Award Winner, Yul Brynner writes:
As I have said before, everything I have learned fiom you I have applied,
through the years, in every medium in which I have worked, not only as an
actor, but as a director, not only in the theatre, but also in television, in
camera work, in scenery design, in coordination of the complex thing that
'%xn Mellett, Nashville, @~:llwww
.southemcrossreviewew~g/
13-
10121101).
is live dramatic television production. To my mind your book, To The
Actor, is by far the best book of its kind.17
When Chekhov died of heart failure in Hollywood Hills, there no longer
was a creative master to proliferate his techniques. The interest that he had
generated while alive began to dissolve. Conversely, the Stanislavski approach
continued to grow during the latter part of the twentieth century.
here remained
a few fervent Chekhov disciples, but many performers were not interested in taking
a chance with Chekhov's unorthodox approach. In 1962, seven years after
Chekhov's death, student and long-time secretary Diedre Hurst Du Prey and writer
Charles Leonard compiled and published Chekhov's notes on playwriting and
directing. The book received little attention over the next twenty years. Despite
his dedicated core of students, the Michael Chekhov approach to acting and
performance endured a period of stagnation.
17yul Brynner, To the Actu (Harper and Brothers, New York, 1953), preface, x.
CHAPTER 2
TEE MAJOR ELEMENTS OF THE CHEKHOV TECHNIOUE
2.1. Chekhov and Imagination
Chekhov developed a technique for acting and performance that was
centered around imagination and movement. His approach did not focus on
emotional memory like Stanislavski's, but on imagination and movement.
Admittedly, Chekhov employed many of Stanislavski's ideas in his teachings,
however his stress on imagination, imagery, and physicalization were different than
anything being taught at the time.
Michael Chekhov, a great acting teacher, stressed image work in his
teaching. The student was to seize some image in his imagination, then let
it change and develop.'*
Chekhov felt that Stanislavski slighted the imagination and he was determined to
bring it to its primary place of importance. Where Stanislavski put stress on using
personal emotional memory to stimulate feeling, Chekhov placed it in the
imagination. Chekhov believed it was wrong for the actor to be restricted to using
personal and emotional memories from his own life to understand and create a
role. He did not understand why the actor could not use imaginary events and
images to stimulate feelings.
He felt that using one's own experiences exclusively would soon exhaust
the actor's emotional resources, and that after a while, actors would begin
imitating themselves. Stanislavsky's response to this was that the actor
-
--
18KchardHomby, The End of Acting (Applause Books, 1992)' 90.
must always be closely observing others so that an inexhaustible source of
emotional life was always available.19
To Chekhov, imagining a feeling was as justifiable as using emotional
memories. This idea contradicted the methods of Stanislavski. In his book
Creatinga Role, Stanislavski explains:
The more an actor has observed and known, the greater his experience, his
accumulation of live impressions and memories, the more subtly will he
think and feel, and the broader, more varied, and substantial will be the life
of his imagination, the deeper his comprehension of facts and events, the
clearer his perception of the inner and outer circumstances of the life in the
play and in his partB
Stanislavski's point that one must have some experiences to be able to imagine at
,all is one that Chekhov differed with. He felt that one could imagine and create
realistic environments without having experienced them personally. Stanislavski
goes on to say:
With daily systematic practice of the imagination on one and the same
theme everything that has to do with the proposed circumstances of the
play will become habitual in his imaginary life. In turn these habits will
become second nature.21
Chekhov believed that Stanislavski was focusing on memory not
imagination, and he was driven to bring what he considered to be the proper use of
the imagination to the forefiont. Richard Brestoff explains:
For Chekhov this was not enough. Why not give imagination the
importance it deserves? Why can't an actor search for emotional
stimulation fiom things that never happened to anyone, or are impossible,
'%chard Brestoff, The Great Acting Teachers and Their Methods (Smith and Kraus, 1995), 63.
%nutantinStanislavski, Creating a Role meatre Arts Books, 1%1), 40.
211bid.
but suggestive? Why not imagine walking on the surface of the moon with
its one-sixth less gravitational pull? Wouldn't a feeling of giddiness and joy
result? Why must the actor go into his personal past in order to stimulate
such a feeling?22
Chekhov felt that the imagination was a reliable tool that could be exercised with
less difficulty and more success than the emotional recall process. He questioned
the validity of using one's emotional history to stimulate the feelings needed for
creating a character. He shared with Stanislavski a belief in developing the actor's
source for inspiration, but felt that the stimulus should come from outside the
private world of the actor. Chekhov believed that Stanislavski understood
imagination in the following way: to prepare the part of Don Qulxote one must
I
imagine his surroundings and he himself, and consider himself as Don Quixote. In
the Chekhov method one has to imagine Don QuYrote, enjoying him in the
imagination and gradually becoming inspired by him.
Stanislavsky and I have discussed this point but have never agreed on it.
He thinks that almost everyone can act anything, but to get this ability I
must consider myself from the beginning as Don Quixote. Whereas my
idea is that I have to see him @on Quixote) fighting, as long as I need to,
until I get the feeling that I want to fightz
The substitute Chekhov used for emotional recall and sense memory was
the creation of Atmospheres and Qualities. These were external expressions with
movement, which provoked the feelings they mimed.
%chard Brestoff, The Great Adinrr Teachers and Their Methods (Smith and Kraus, 1995), 63.
zMichael Chekhov, from class notes taken by Deidre Hurst Du Prey at Dartington Hall, June
1938, The Drama Revim Michael Chekhov ed., vol. 27, no. 3 (1983), 2.
What about 'qualities7? Chekhov used this word as a substitute for
emotion. He realizes that asking for a feeling directly is often the best way
to make it run and hide. So instead of saying 'be more happy here7,says
'add a quality of happiness to what you are doing7."
To create despair in a character, a student would be asked to add the quality of
anger to his gesture or movement, rather than search for a personal motivation.
Former student Mala Powers describes: "Once, in an acting class at the Moscow
Art Theater, Michael told a story of his father's death which was very emotional
and believable. The class cried, as did Stanislavski, and Chekhov was given
,
comforting hugs by all. During the next class Chekhov explained to his teacher
that his father was still alive and well and that the story was made up in his
imagination. Stanislavski was very angry and he kicked Chekhov out of class for
two week^.'"^ Chekhov often tried to explain to Stanislavski that he saw delving
into one's emotional memory as tiring and potentially dangerous, causing both
anxiety and depression in the actor. Both he and Stanislavski struggled with bouts
of depression early in their careers. Later in his life Stanislavski renounced his
stress on the emotions as he acknowledged its tiring and sometimes hazardous
results.
It is not that Stanislavski, after years of working from the inside, suddenly
reversed himself and decided to work from the outside in some cold,
mechanical way; instead, he recognized that inner and outer work together,
feed off each other.26
e
(Sand
&
and b u s , 1995), 66.
"Richard Brestoe Th
2 5 ~ a lPowers,
a
American College Theatre Festival, Universm of New Hampshire, January, 200 1.
26RichardHomby, The End of Acting (Applause Books, 1992), 197.
Method actors such as Group Theatre actress Stella Adler also began to
see the dangers of using emotional memory, and she was gaining interest in the
Michael Chekhov approach.
Adler focused on imaginatio* circumstances, actions, justification and
character just as Stanislavski did, and like him later in Me, she rejected
affective memory as ultimately more destructive than helpfi~l.~~
Chekhov developed a technique that incorporated elements of Stanislavski and his
work with spiritual scientist Rudolph Steiner. By adding his personal touches he
created a method that became known as 'psycho-physical7
The Michael Chekhov Acting Technique consists primarily of work with
the 'imaginary body'. By manipulating and working with the 'imaginary
body', the actor is able to affect both physical and psychological changes.
This is neither a 'physical7 approach to acting, nor a 'psychological' one.
Chekhov referred to his work as 'psycho-physical'.28
2.2. The Psychological Gesture
The development of his 'Psychological Gesture7was another major
Chekhov innovation. This was a movement that would embody the psychology and
objective of a character, executed inwardly during performance. This was an
external way of achieving an internal state of understanding and developing a
character. Chekhov believed the key to the actor's will was through his
movement.
27RichardBrestoff, The Great Acting Teachers and Their Methods (Smith and Kraus, 1999, 127.
28~avid
Lind, @ t t p : l l w w w . t & . o r ~ d c o a ~ c h a e l e o v - q 2001).
.,
You might know only too well what the feelings and desires of your
character are, but that knowledge alone would not enable you to hlfill the
desires truthfblly or experience its feelings sincerely on the stage. It is like
knowing everything about a science or an art and ignoring the fact that this
intelligence per se is far removed fi-ombeing proficient in it. Of course,
your mind can and will be very helphl to you in evaluating, correcting,
verifjing, making additions add offering suggestions, but it should not do
all these before your creative intuition has asserted itself and spoken h l l ~ . ~ ~
Chekhov believed the psychological gesture technique was the nearest
thing to the actor's creative individuality, possessing spiritual power and enabling
the actor to renounce all sorts of pushing and forcing in his acting. By consciously
working the gestures an actor would be rewarded with a rich flow of inspiration
fi-om his subconscious.
Michael Chekhov's psychological gesture is based on nothing but
indicating, but as the first step in a carehlly planned journey, rather than as
an end point. The goal of the psychological gesture technique is the feel of
the emotion, in the intuitive sense. Such feeling is essential to good acting;
Such feeling is also perfectly observable because it is inherent in the action
itseK30
Certainly, the great acting teacher Stanislavski did not attack his roles in
this way. He delved into his personal library to discover a character's appropriate
gesture, placing primary importance on internal emotional discovery. Chekhov
took his objective theory and made it into a psychological process, using active
verbs to produce feeling on the stage.
Many active verbs project an image of a movement or gesture. If such a
gesture is projected by your defined objective or action, try to make the
gesture physically, at home, in the largest way possible, to bring the
W c h a e l Chekhov, To the Actor (Harper and Brothers, 1953), 73.
%chard Homby, 'Ihe End of Acting (Applause Books, 1992), 129.
objective into your body. Find a sound or word that arises fiom that
gesture. After making the gesture several times, try saying some of the
lines while making the gesture. Then imagine yourself making it inwardly
without moving. The gesture will resonate in your work as an impulse for
whatever your objective or action may be. It will help connect your body
and mind.31
2.3. The Chart for Inspired Acting
To facilitate the understanding of his technique, Chekhov developed a
Chartfor Impired Acting. This chart (see Figure 1) contained the previously
mentioned concepts of imagination, qualities, and psychological gesture, along
with the other main elements of the technique. In many of the elements on this
chart, such as Radiating, Receiving, Objective and Atmosphere, one can see the
Stanislavski influence on Chekhov. These concepts were taken directly fiom the
teachings of Chekhov7sformer teacher. There are seven elements on the chart that
include the word feeling. Instead of asking his students to relax, Chekhov would
ask them to sit with a feeling of ease. He believed this to be a more accessible and
immediate direction that could be carried out by the actor. He purposely wrote
'feeling of in fiont of each of these elements in order to make them attainable. He
wanted his students to imagine that each of the various elements were like light
bulbs on the circumference of a circle, and when inspiration struck all the light
bulbs would become illuminated. This chart serves as a complete summary of the
Chekhov technique. One can take a closer look at each element of the chart in the
3
1
~Merlin,
~ aAuditioning. An Actor Friendly Guide (Vintage Books, 2001), 58.
Figure 1.
Chart for Inspired Acting
Characterization
Imaginary Body and Center
Psychological Gesture
Feeling of Beauty
Feeling of the Whole
Sensations (means)
Feelings (results)
I
Body
1
I Psycho-physical exercises
i
21
book On the Technique of Acting which is the Mala Power's reprint of Chekhov's
To The Actor. Chekhov believed that consciously working each aspect would
create a chain reaction that would lead to inspiration and quality acting. The
Chekhov technique consists of more than just the use of imagination and
psychological gesture, however, those two have been singled out as major
elements and illustrations of how the technique differed fiom Stanislavski's.
Stanislavski and Steiner were two accomplished creative influences in the
twentieth century. Both of these two men had a profound influence on Michael
Chekhov and the development of his acting and directing technique. Chekhov
,combinedelements from their creative methods, developing his own method, in an
attempt to open the doors to an actor's creativity.
CHAPTER 3
p
Y
3.1. Chekhov Growth in the Professional Studio
Interest in the Michael Chekhov performance technique has grown
considerably over the last twenty-five years. One can study the Chekhov
Technique at a studio and read a Chekhov book or a republished and re-edited
book about Chekhov. It is now possible to become Michael Chekhov Certified as
a teacher of the technique by taking certain intensive studies in both Maine and
Connecticut. The Connecticut courses are sponsored by the Chekhov organization
MICHA, and the Southern Maiie classes are endorsed by Mala Powers. Much of
current attention given towards Chekhov can be attributed directly to Chekhov
disciple, actress Mala Powers, who is most well-known for her role of Roxanne in
the 1950 Marenga Films Academy Award-winning production of Cyrano de
Bergerac. In 1970, Chekhov's wife Xenia named Powers executrix of the
Chekhov estate. During this period, Powers began to teach the technique in an
attempt to regenerate and broaden the interest in the Chekhov techniques. She
began by teaching workshops across the United States and Europe and soon
opened the Michael Chekhov Studio U.S.A. West, with actor Jack Colvin. In her
teachings Powers focuses heavily on Chekhov's use of the actor's imagination.
Over the past twenty-five years the Michael Chekhov Studio West has grown into
the largest Chekhov school in the world.
The studio offers seminars, intensive acting workshops, classes, showcases,
play and video production and networking opportunities. Emphasis is on
balancing internaVexternal acting technique through physicalization of
emotionaVpsychological
The studio is presently run by Artistic Director Jack Colvin and Studio President,
second generation Chekhov student Lisa Daulton. When integrating Michael
Chekhov's ideas with Lisa Daulton's guidance, actors have experienced excellent
results. "Our students are booking more acting jobs and have greater joy in life as
an a~tor.'"~
In 1985, the Michael Chekhov Acting Studio opened in New York City.
This studio was operated by former Chekhov student and fiiend Beatrice Straight.
Today the studio is under the direction of Artistic Director Leonard Petit. The
New York Studio runs independently of the Hollywood Studio and has not
enjoyed as much growth and consistency as its predecessor. The New York
Studio is smaller and has had more struggles. University of Southern Maine
Professor Wi Kilroy, a former student at both the Studio West and the New York
Studio, says of the New York Studio, "It's still running. It's sort of gone though
ebbs and flows. As far as I know they are back on track."34
By 1991, Mala Powers succeeded in her long time project of republishing
Chekhov's classic acting book, To the Actor. Powers reorganized the book in an
--
-
32~isa
Daulton, Michael Chekhov Studio West, ~://chekhov.net/mic-main.html,
2002).
33(http://chekhw.net/mic,2002).
34Mr.Will Kilroy, interview by author, Tape recording, Portland, Maine, 6 March 2002.
attempt to make it clearer and more accessible for the contemporary actor.
Throughout this process she continued to give Chekhov workshops at professional
and collegiate theatre festivals worldwide. During this time in the early nineties,
Director Floyd Rumohr opened the si.xcesshl Michael Chekhov Theatre Ensemble
in Brooklyn, New York. This group focuses heavily on the movement aspect of
Chekhov's work. Actor Peter Swander says: "The Chekhov Theatre Ensemble
Intensive was a privilege and departure fiom my typical experience in this country.
The combination of spirit and precision were rare.'"5 This group, which formed in
1994, has taken the Chekhov word and made it accessible for young people. Their
,concentrationhas been on developing interest and confidence of young people.
Using Chekhov's imagination techniques, they teach and perform Shakespeare and
other classics. The Ensemble has developed a program called Stages of Learning,
described as a 'model' by teachers.
This program is charged with inspiring children who do not respond to
traditional methodologies. Stages of Learning has reached 14,000 children
and 400 teachers since our inception in 1994 in New York City,
Westchester and Nassau counties, Fort Myers (Florida), and most recently
in Philadelphia in a partnership with Temple ~ n i v e r s i t y . ~ ~
The Theatre Ensemble also offers classes for adults which culminate with ensemble
productions. The Ensemble often travels throughout Europe and the United States
with its productions and workshops.
2002).
35~eter
Swander, ~://www.chec~ovtheatre.org/patel9.html,
36~loyd
Rumohr, Chekhov Theatre Ensemble, New York, fiq:/h.&ekhovtheatre.org, 2002).
25
In Birmingham, United Kingdom, there is a recently developed Professional
Training School which offers short courses, evening classes and workshops.
Classes are taught by European actress and University of Plymouth Professor Sara
Kane, and actresdmime Marjolein Bdars. Baars has also formed her own theatre
company called 'Tiny Heroes' which combines clowning and the Michael Chekhov
Technique.
Tiny Hero Productions is a theatre group specializing in tailor made theatre
performances based upon the combination of the Michael Chekhov acting
technique and clowning.37
Members from all the above mentioned groups have recently collaborated to form
the Michael Chekhov Association, called MICHA. This is an organization that
links the artistic vision Chekhov created with the work of actors, directors and
teachers of today.
An international collective of teachers leads the Association and provides
classes, workshops and conferences for those who wish to study
Chekhov's technique. Using this approach, we believe artists will find a
new impulse for their work, add exciting tools to the methods, and
revitalize their craft.38
3.2. Academic Interest in Chekhov
Michael Chekhov is beginning to receive academic attention as well.
Chekhov acting workshops have recently been given at the Kennedy Center
American College Theatre Festival, and more universities are experimenting with
3 7 ~rjolem
a Baars, Tmy Hero Productions ~ : / / w w w . p h a r o . ~ ~ m ~ &2002).
e&~~,
3 8 M I ~ [email protected]~:/hvww.michael&e&ov.or~orkshopshorkshops.html,
A,
2002).
26
and researching the Chekhov technique. Broadway actress Joanna Merlin teaches
the Chekhov technique at New York University. Berkeley Professor Me1 Gordon
directs classes which concentrate on the technique. University of Southern Maine
Professor Wil Kilroy teaches classesiwhichimplement Chekhov's styles of acting
and directing. Kilroy notes: "We also offer a Summer Chekhov intensive for
interested teachers and
student^."'^ The Southern Maine Summer Program is
taught by Kilroy, Mala Powers and Lisa Daulton.
Many universities and professional studios now offer classes that specialize
in movement, which is another reason that the approach has grown in popularity
over the last twenty years. This increased awareness of the importance of the
actor's body blends well with the Chekhov approach, which places heavy emphasis
on movement. Yoga and Tai chi, body awareness, and the connection between the
mind and body are elements that are becoming more and more important in the
contemporary actor's life. By attacking roles fiom a more physical and external
approach the contemporary actor is beginning to realize the potential of Chekhov
and his actor training techniques.
3.3. Why Chekhov, Why Now
Currently there are also some well-known, contemporary, professional
actors who have employed Chekhov's techniques, and who are also beginning to
spread the Chekhov word. Noted actor Jack Nicholson, while receiving his
'%lr. W
ill Kilroy, interview by author, Tape recording, Portland, Mame, 6 March 2002.
Golden Globe Award, and Anthony Hopkins, on "Inside the Actor's Studio," have
both acknowledged the power of Michael Chekhov's Psychological G e s t ~ r e . ~
Broadway actress Joanna Merlin dedicates her book, Auditioning; "To Michael
Chekhov, whose teaching and spirit hntirme to inspire me.'d1 Actor Spaulding
Gray states: "The main influence, the book that I remember as being very
Will
influential, was To The Actor, the Michael Chekhov b ~ o k . ' " Professor
~
Kilroy notes: "Academy Award winning actor Clint Eastwood and Academy
Award nominee Julianna Moore have acknowledged Chekhov for his use of
imagination and psychological gesture."'"" Students, teachers, actors and directors
are taking a look at the technique that was once thought to be unworthy.
During his life, however, Chekhov was often viewed as an eccentric. His
innovations became a threat to the Soviet government, and he was denounced in
1927 as an idealist and mystic. Moscow newspapers referred to Chekhov as a
Chekhov was often perceived as a scene
'sick artist' and 'alien and rea~tionary'.~
stealer by his peers and early in his career, a difficult person with whom to work.
His external approach seemed fake and ineffective to many actors. He was an
outsider who had the drive to develop his own method of performing which was
40ht$:lh.chekhov.net/mic-main.html, 3130H)l.
41~oanna
Merlin, Auditioning. An Actor Friendly Guide (Vintage Books,2001), pref.
42
Spaulding Gray, Acting:Now (Rutgers Universxty Press, 1997), 103.
4 3 ~ i lKilroy,
l
Interview by author, Tape recording, Portland, Maine, 6 March 2002.
%elly Ellenwood, @~:lhvww.chekhovtheatre.orgtpage4.hbnl, 2002).
hndarnentally different from the one which he was taught early in his career by
Stanislavski.
It was against the excesses of both internal and external approaches to
acting and emotion on the stage that Constantin Stanislavski,
unquestionably the most influkntial acting teacher of our time, rebelled.
The purely external approach was called 'mechanical acting' by him. You
will understand this better when you come to realize the origins and
methods of mechanical acting, which we characterize as rubber stamps. To
reproduce feelings you must be able to identifj.them out of your own
experience. But as mechanical actors do not experience feelings they
cannot reproduce their external results.45
Later in his life, however, members of the Group Theatre began studying
Chekhov's approach and even Stanislavski himself renounced his stress on
personal emotional memory, realizing that a performer could experience feelings
without delving into their personal library. "Stanislavski had moved on to his
'Method of Psycho-Physical Actions', which emphasized actions and
circumstances far more than emotional memory.'* This in no way nullifies the
many brilliant ideas that Stanislavski developed. He was the most influential actor
and teacher of his time and his writings still dominate the academic and
professional environment. Nevertheless, over the last twenty years, the writings of
Michael Chekhov have infiltrated the academic and professional performance
world and the interest and usage continues to grow.
45
Stanley Glenn, The Complete Ador (Allyn and Bacon, Inc. 1977)' 50-51.
?tichard Brestoff, The Great Actine Teachers and Their Methods (Smith and Kraus, 1995)' 88.
CONCLUSION
The Stanislavski technique has been used as a basis for development of
many different acting approaches. Mmy of his own students, such as Boleslavsky,
Meyerhold, Vaktangov, and Chekhov, all branched out to develop their own ideas
in an attempt to broaden and develop Stanislavski's concepts. There have been
many American visionaries as well, including Lee Strasberg, Sanford Meisner, and
Uta Hagen. Every one of these artists is in debt to the great Stanislavski.
However, each artist has made the technique his own by changing and developing
ideas and concepts that he believed would improve and facilitate the already
existing method. The same can be said about the Michael Chekhov technique.
The fist generation of Chekhov students have taken the work and divided
it into the areas of concentration. The emphasis of the Mala Powers work is on
the spiritual and imagination side of the technique, and in New York, at the
Theatre Ensemble, the focus is on the movement side of the Chekhov technique.
As with the Stanislavski method, performers are taking specific elements from
Chekhov, not necessarily the whole thing, and employing it to fulfill their needs.
Will the Chekhov technique become the foremost method taught in this century
and expand into as many different branches as Stanislavski's did? Its present
growth in interest and usage indicates that the proliferation of this approach will
continue for many years to come.
During the last years of Chekhov's work, he fiequently called upon each
actor to develop clear concepts and visualizations of what an ideal theatre should
be for the future. He envisioned a theatre that did not confuse 'Naturalism' with
'Realism' and that could entertain the public with diverse theatrical styles. His
vision of a future theatre also called for a sense of moral responsibility on the part
of producers, directors and writers, as well as actors. He said they must be willing
to ask:
What will be stirred up within the spectators? Wi what we are presenting
have any positive value for them as human beings?...Those who have
worked seriously with Michael Chekhov's technique know that each
aspect, when exercised sufficiently, becomes a gift to the actor, not only as
an artist but also as a human being - a gift that can become nourishment for
the human spirit, given through the actor to the
There are presently eight professional studios where one can study the Chekhov
approaches to acting. They are scattered throughout the United States and Europe
and are all identitied in this thesis. A student can now also study the techniques in
universities throughout the world. There are presently two Chekhov certification
programs available and many workshops and intensive studies throughout North
America.
Anyone who believes there is more than one way to develop a role, anyone
looking for an alternative to the omnipresent Stanislavsky system and
American Method, anyone interested in non-realistic acting, anyone
concerned with analyzing the entire spectrum of performance possibilities
may find something extremely provocative andlor sigdcant in Chekhov's
approach.48
4 7 ~ a lPowers,
a
On the Technique of Acting (Harper Perennial, 199l), 172.
The Drama Review, Michael Chekhov ed., vol. 27, no.3,(1983) Intro. iii.
4 8 ~ & a eKirby,
l
31
Many students of acting, both professional and academic are searching for
reliable and accessible acting approaches. Like Michael Chekhov, some have had
difficulty using the early Stanislavski emotional memory approach, finding it at
times arduous, draining and stifling. The Chekhov technique is being unveiled as a
new and approachable way to immerse oneself into a role and the creative process.
For almost a century, well-known successfid professors and performers, directors,
and actors have had much success with the Stanislavski approach. Undoubtedly,
Stanislavski was a master teacher who opened many doors to performance and
creativity. He once said: "An actor must work all his life, cultivate his mind, train
his talents systematically, develop his character; he may never despair and never
relinquish this main p u r p o s e to love his art with all his strength and love it
~nselfishly.'~~
He laid the ground work for Michael Chekhov to attempt to
improve his method. Many students and professionals are now discovering that
the Chekhov approach to performance and actor training is at least worthy of an
investigation. It may not replace the Stanislavski system of acting, but it is now
being accepted as a viable, invigorating approach to performance training.
We aim to be actors and more than actors- artists. What does this mean?
It means that we are going to study, to learn how we can have our
inspiration at our command. That is our most difficult task, but we shall
have a method that wiH make it p o s ~ i b l e . ~
49~onstantin
Stanislavski, Creating a Role (New York Theatre Arts Books, 1961), 40.
Wchael Chekhov, from dass nates taken by Deidre Hurst Du Prey at Dartington Hall, June
Revlew,chaelChekhov ed., vol. 27, no. 3 (1983), 6.
1938, TheDrama
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Brestoe Richard, The Great Acting Teachers and Their Methods, Smith and Kraus, Inc.,
1995.
Brynner, Yul, To The Actor, Harper and Brothers, New York, 1953.
Chekhov, Michael, To the Actor, Harper and Brothers, New York, 1953.
. To the Director and Playwright, Harper and Row, Compiled and Written by
Charles Leonard, 1963.
-.
Lessons for the Professional Actor, Performing Arts Journal Publications, Edited
by Diedre Hurst Du Prey, 1985.
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Afterword, by Mala Powers, 1991.
Chekhov, Michael, from class notes taken by Deidre Hurst Du Prey at Dartington Hall
June 1938, The Drama Review, Michael Chekhov ed., vol. 27, no. 3, Fall 1983.
html).
Chekhov, Michael, F.A.Q.s, (http://www.tctfa.org/thirdcoast/Michael-Chekhov-faq.
Chekhov Theatre Ensemble, New York, www.chekhovtheatre.org.
Cole, Toby, Directors on Directing, Bobbs-Memll Publishing, 1953.
Daulton, Lisa, (President) Michael Chekhov Studio West (http://chekhov.net/rnicmain.htrnl) 200 1.
The Drama Review, Michael Chekhov ed., Vol. 27, No. 3, Fall 1983.
Ellenwood, Kelly, (http://www.chekh0vtheatre.org/page4.htrnl) 2002.
Funk, Lewis, Actors Talk About Acting, Avon Books, 1961.
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Glenn, Stanley, The Complete Actor, Allyn and Bacon, Inc., 1977.
Gordon, Mel, The Drama Review, Michael Chekhov ed., vol. 27, no. 3, Fall 1983.
Gray, Spaulding, Acting Now, Rutgers University Press, 1997.
Hagen, Uta, A Challenge for The Actor, Scribner and Sons, 1991
Hornby, Richard, The End of Acting, Applause Books, 1992.
Kilroy, Wil, Professor, University of Southern Maine. Interview by author, 6 March 2002,
Portland, Maine. Tape recording. Portland, Maine.
Kirby, Michael, The Drama Review, Michael Chekhov ed., vol. 27, no. 3, Fall 1983.
html) 200 1.
Lind, David, (http://www.tctfa.org/thirdcoast/Michael-Chekhov-faq.
MacKenzie-Wood, Barbara,
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(http://www.dramal.cfa.cmu.edulweb/actinglbioslwood.
Mellett, Tom, (http://m.southerncrossreview.org/l3Aetters.html).
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The Michael Chekhov Acting Studio, (http://[email protected]).
Michael Chekhov Association, (Micha) www.michaelchekhov.org.
The Michael Chekhov Center U.K., www.pharo.codchekhov
The Michael Chekhov Studio, U. S.A. West, www.chekhov.net.
Moore, Sonja, The Stanislavski System, Penguin Books, 1960.
Petit, Leonard, (http://[email protected]) 2002.
Powers, Mala, American College Theatre Festival, University of New Hampshire, January
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Psacharopoulos, Nikos, Toward Mastery, Smith and Krauss, 1998.
Roberts, Tracy, (http://m.latimes.codnews/obituaries/la-000010778feb12.story).
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(http://www.85.homepage.villanova.eddjoanna.rotte-acting) March 200 1.
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Shurtleff, Michael, Audition, Bantam Books, 1978.
Stanislavski, Constantin, An Actor Prepares, New York Theatre Arts Books, 1948.
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. Creatins a Role, New York Theatre Arts Books, 1961.
-.
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Steiner, Rudolph, Anthro-po~pphy:An Introduction, Rudolph Steiner Press, London,
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BIOGRAPHY OF THE AUTHOR
Richard Solomon was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in September of 1961. He
was raised in Maine and graduated fidm Presque Isle High School in 1979. He attended
the University of Southern Maine and graduated Magna Cum Laude in 1983 with a
Bachelor of Arts Degree in Theatre. After performing statewide in both academic and
professional productions, Richard returned to school in the Graduate Theatre Program at
The University of Maine. Mr. Solomon is a three time Irene Ryan Acting Competition
Nominee and an undergraduate and graduate high honors student. Richard is a candidate
for the Master of Arts degree in Theatre fiom The University of Maine in May, 2002.
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