4. Ensemble Building: Approaches
Work on process, on the ‘ how ’of each moment alongside the ‘ what ’ of each moment, is a foundation of much ensemble practice. Josef Albers, quoted above, though not writing specifically of ensemble, asserted: ‘ Art is concerned with the HOW, not the WHAT ’ .
Peter Brook describes the shift of perspective from concern with product to attention to process thus: It takes a long time for a director to cease thinking in terms of the result he desires and instead concentrate on discovering the source of energy in the actor from which true impulses can arise.
Developing a sensitivity to ‘ true impulses ’and the ability to react authentically to each moment have been at the heart of creative exploration for many ensemble practitioners. If performers are to be truly ‘ alive ’to one another, not simply ‘ reproducing ’ something rehearsed previously, they must react spontaneously and appropriately to the ebb and flow of impulses between them. Although it is rehearsed and structured, ‘ live ’performance needs to be alert to its ever-changing inner dynamic. For many, enhancing and training this alertness and sensitivity is the heart of the creative process.
Ultimately, a rich process, one that generates an authentic, reactive sensitivity, deepens the experience an audience has when they encounter ensemble. Toporkov, who worked with Stanislavski in the last phase of the latter ’ s life, notes the relationship between the quality of attention between performers and the attentiveness of their audience. He describes the first presentation of scenes from Moliere’s ‘ Tartuffe ’to colleagues from the Moscow Art Theatre: The first moves, the first lines, when no one was doing any “ acting ” , only “ adapting to each other ”, “ forming up with each other ”, produced great concentration in the audience and that couldn ’ t but be reflected in the way the actors felt. We came together even more, and concentrated more. [Toporkov, Vasili Osipovich, “Stanislavski in Rehearsal”].
Toporkov suggests that the nature of the attention between the actors, the quality of their interconnectedness, generated, in the audience, an enhanced quality of watchfulness
I. MEYERHOLD AND ENSEMBLE:
Bringing the actor to a position where he or she works and feels as part of the collective, or ensemble, is embedded at the heart of the Meyerhold aesthetic, incorporated not just in rehearsal and performance, but also in training. Meyerhold ’ s understanding of acting as a craft makes the reasons for his commitment to performer training evident:
It is a vital condition of the theatre that the actor manifests his art through his technique alone; through his acting he interprets the material placed at his disposal by employing those means which are consistent with the properties of the human body and spirit. Therefore, we should note that as well as refining his material (by achieving maximum bodily flexibility) the actor must discover as soon as possible his own identity as an artist-histrion.
Thus, as Meyerhold notes, the development of technique is vital, both in the sense of physical control over the body and voice, and in terms of understanding one ’ s purpose and function as a performer. Meyerhold ’ s desire for an actor who can ‘ think ’ indicates his interest in performers who do not just copy physical forms, robot-like, but engage intellectually, bringing these forms to life. Meyerhold ’ s thinking actor also embodies an understanding of the wider aesthetic of the production, consciously engaging with the style of Meyerholdian theatre. It is this combination of physical skill and cognitive understanding which formed the basis of Meyerhold ’ s actor training programme, biomechanics.
Formalized in the early 1920s, biomechanics combines basic training exercises with set patterns of movement termed é tudes, or studies. The exercises develop basic skills, and include work with sticks and balls, an analysis of specific movements (such as running) and the development of the actor ’ s responses, for example, changing the direction of movement on demand. The é tudes are serial movements, following a very loose narrative structure reflected in their title ( ‘ Throwing the Stone ’ , ‘ Shooting the Bow ’ ). Performed by individuals, pairs or groups, they are striking in their rhythmic construction: each é tude is broken down into a series of distinct movements or phrases, with each phrase constructed according to a tripartite rhythmic structure, the Acting Cycle. This cycle begins with the preparation to move, what Meyerhold calls the otkaz or refusal, intended to emphasize the movement by withdrawing slightly in the opposite direction. This is followed by the movement itself, the posil, tormoz (literally - the brake) and then by the stoika, Russian for ‘full stop’ , which functions as both the end of one movement phrase and the transition into the next. The result of this rhythmic structure is the distinctive pattern of stops and starts which defines biomechanical movement.
Meyerhold places biomechanical training at the core of his theatrical programme: “Physical culture, acrobatics, dance, rhythmics, boxing and fencing are all useful activities, but they are of use only so long as they constitute auxiliary exercises in a course of “ biomechanics” , the essential basis of every actor ’ s training”
If you are unfamiliar with the Meyerhold “Theatre Biomechanics”, we suggest watching this comprehensive documentary: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eoq8_90id2o
Biomechanics facilitates the transition of individual performers into a performing group. This is achieved through a combination of linguistic and rhythmic means to create a sense of group identity.
Balancing the individual and the group:
Biomechanics is a complex balance of person and group that reflects both the need for individual training and skills, and the need for a functioning collective. Meyerhold’s concern with the integration of individuals and his commitment to developing a group with a unity of thought and function is apparent throughout the system. This is most evident in the structure of the training, which balances the individual’s work on the self with the development of their group or collective consciousness.
Although much biomechanical training requires the actor to work in unison with others, Meyerhold’s system was conceived not to force uniformity, but to facilitate unity. This can be seen in the exercises and études which allow the performer to function in two frames at once: first, as an individual executing his or her own movements, and secondly, as part of a larger group, that is, in relationship to others. Although this is evident in exercises performed in unison, the frames are more clearly established when the actors must differentiate their movement from those around them. Biomechanics develops three models of movement which contribute towards this end: coordination, canon and counterpoint.
Coordination is developed through biomechanical exercises where the actor’s ability to understand the actions of a partner is essential, for example, in throwing and catching exercises using sticks or balls. Pitches claim that these activities ‘generate a strong feeling of ensemble’, particularly as they are often one of the earliest stages at which the student of biomechanics encounters the rhythm of the acting cycle (i-raz-dva, meaning and-one-two). The aim is the establishment of a group sense of awareness, an ability to locate the self in relationship to all the other elements within a space, particularly against other performers, and, ultimately, to learn to trust one another to realize their collective goals.
Canon movement generally utilizes the biomechanical é tudes for the individual, where movement is performed in pairs with a staggered start. Individuals are required to focus on their execution of the étude to the normal high standard of accuracy, while working alongside another performer whose movements are a step ahead or behind their own. The potential for distraction is higher, but so is the need for a collective approach –the rhythm of the performers must remain in synchrony, and the actor must move from perceiving their partner as a distraction to perceiving them as a compliment. Counterpoint movement builds on this basis, usually developed through études for pairs or groups, in which the actors will perform different movements which are related to one another within the frame of the exercise’s loose narrative. Here, the emphasis shifts from a strong focus on the individuals working side by side to a clearer integration, with the performers developing a reliance on each other’s movements, working together to maintain the ever-extant frame of the rhythmic structure.
Auteurs and actors: Meyerhold’s contribution to the ensemble
Coordinated, canon and counterpoint movements place the relationship between the individual and the collective at the heart of Meyerhold’s training. As actors learn to think through the biomechanical frame, they not only share an aesthetic and rhythmic common ground, but they also learn to control and value their interaction with one another. Neither the individual nor the collective is neglected in biomechanics: the individual is acknowledged as the building block of the collective, but collectivity itself is also a legitimate aim of the work, not a by-product of the training.
Through a training system which aims to develop actors who can think about theatre as a collective process, Meyerhold created a theatrical aesthetic which privileged the performing group, and both the principles and practices of biomechanics have much to contribute to the study of ensemble theatre. Beyond the literal contribution of his training system, however, Meyerhold’s work also challenges the function of the ensemble at its most fundamental level. Located within an era of political development which foregrounded the role of the individual within the collective frame, Meyerhold uses his individual position as auteur to construct a theatrical model in which systematic training shapes the actors ’attitude towards individual and collective roles in performance. Rather than mutually exclusive categories, the theatrical ensemble and the auteur director function as complimentary in Meyerhold’s practice. It is, arguably, in this provocative combination of seemingly oppositional ideas that Meyerhold ’ s theatre has the most to say to those striving to create ensemble performance today.
II. Michael Chekhov’s ensemble feeling
Michael Chekhov is, perhaps, best known for his advice to individual actors in To the Actor, yet he had been a member of The Moscow Art Theatre ensemble under Stanislavski and Sulerzhitsky, and had formed ensembles under his own direction in Moscow, Paris, Riga, Vilnius, Dartington and Ridgefield.
Chekhov and Vakhtangov were both inspired by the life and work of Sulerzhitsky who believed that the director ’ s role was to: create the most advantageous conditions for every individuality in such a way that this not only does not disturb the ensemble, but also does not contradict the idea of the play and, on the contrary, helps to reveal it with all distinction.
Both Sulerzhitsky and Vakhtangov were of the view that theatrical ensembles had their own ‘ individuality ’but, at the same time, considered that the best ensembles needed to be comprised of outstanding individuals. In other words, as Chekhov was to put it in To The Actor, ‘ the creative ensemble consists of individuals and must never be considered . . . as an impersonal mass ’ .
Chekhov ’ s theoretical and practical knowledge of a theatrical ensemble, therefore, was firmly rooted in his participation in the First Studio and his work with Stanislavski, Sulerzhitsky, Vakhtangov and Boleslavsky.
When Stanislavski does mention ensemble work, though, he is unequivocal as to its importance: Teamwork, which is the basis of our acting here, calls for an ensemble, and anyone who disrupts it is guilty of a crime not only against his colleagues but against the art he serves. [Stanislavski, Konstantin, An Actor ’ s Work]
Harold V. Gould, in an early review of Chekhov ’ s To the Actor, wondered why ‘ Improvisation and Ensemble ’came ‘ so early in the book –long before all the methods for evoking the creative imagination have been presented ’ . Gould misses the point that not all of these methods can be practiced alone, some require collaboration with other people. In the To the Actor, Chekhov isn ’ t presenting an ideal process that begins with the individual and moves to the group. It is more the case that Chekhov is writing for the actor who does not have a regular ensemble with which to work. The actor always has individual work to do, either alone or in the presence of the group, but that work can be done alongside the ensemble work. As Chekhov wrote in To the Actor: ‘ Simultaneously with the group exercises, it is highly advisable to continue with the individual exercises, because both complement but do not substitute for the other ’ .[Chekhov, Michael, To the Actor on the Technique of Acting]
The concept of the ensemble was always a central one for Chekhov and the enhanced interpersonal receptivity, which was essential to the formation of an ensemble, was extended into further dimensions.
In Chekhov ’ s view, if the actors are not in contact with each other, the space and the audience, they will not be present in the performance. Contact, open-heartedness, atmosphere, creative improvisation, character, imagination and presence are all bundled together in Chekhov ’ s sense of ensemble feeling, which requires a conscious choice and a commitment from the actors in order to develop effectively. In other words, Chekhov doesn ’ t assume that an ensemble feeling will be naturally present, nor emerge as an inevitable by-product of working together, but requires the conscious development of a collective ethos.
Opening the heart
The feeling of the ensemble, for Chekhov, could be generated by an open-hearted contact with one ’ s partners and a willingness to put aside any personal differences and be open to the ‘ creative impulses ’ of the other actors in the room. This open-hearted connection, according to Chekhov, would lead organically to a positive atmosphere in which the actors would be able to play together even within the confines of a well-rehearsed production.
The first exercise in To the Actor that is explicitly directed towards a group is Exercise 13 which Chekhov calls a ‘ preparatory exercise designed to develop . . . the ensemble feeling’ [Chekhov, Michael, To the Actor on the Technique of Acting].
Exercise 13 (for a group)
Each member of the group begins by making an effort to open himself inwardly, with the greatest possible sincerity, to every other member. He tries to be aware of the individual presence of each. He makes an effort, figuratively speaking, “to open his heart” and admit everyone present, as though he were among his dearest friends. This process is much the same as that of receiving, which was described in Chapter One. At the beginning of the exercise each member of the group should say to himself:
“The creative ensemble consists of individuals and must never be considered by me as an impersonal mass. I appreciate the individual existence of each and every one present in this room and in my mind they do not lose their identity. Therefore, being here among my colleagues, I deny the general concept of ‘They’ or ‘We’ and instead I say: ‘He and She, and She and I.’ I am ready to receive any impressions, even the subtlest, from each one taking part with me in this exercise and I am ready to react to these impressions harmoniously.
Download the book and Read The Whole Exercise here: https://www.nipai.org/library/to-the-actor-
The exercise is ‘ preparatory’ for Chekhov in the sense that it helps to generate the conditions necessary for group improvisations. In the first phase, each actor is invited to ‘ open [his or her] heart ’ to each member of the group.
By this, Chekhov means that each individual must adopt a positive attitude towards each person in the room and put aside any negative feelings. Chekhov points out that this does not mean that the actor adopts some vague and generalized sense of being open to the group as a whole, but a precise inner action in relation to each individual. This inner action is explicitly linked to the process of actively receiving which Chekhov considered to be a key aspect of the actor ’ s work. For Chekhov acting was a ‘ constant exchange ’of giving and receiving and the latter was not to be confused with simple passivity.
The actor doesn’t wait to be impressed by the actions of others but inwardly supports them. As Chekhov explains: ‘To actually receive means to draw toward one ’ s self with the utmost inner power the things, persons or events of the situation’ , which, in this exercise, means making an inner gesture of drawing towards oneself the presence of one ’ s partners. Such an inner gesture is related to Chekhov ’ s concept of the Psychological Gesture and is more than a simple silent affirmation of intent.
Chekhov warns against wallowing in sentimentality; the exercise is to generate an appropriate professional relationship for the work. This doesn’t mean that Chekhov wanted a kind of cold, clinical relationship where feelings are ignored; rather he was looking to establish a warm atmosphere which would support creative exploration and experimentation. The aim is to generate a supportive network of affective bonds where each individual is able to be in (inner) contact with every other individual while the work is in progress.
After reading the materials and researching the additional materials. Write an essay where:
1. Describe your approach to ensemble building. Is it an inner (emotion) or an outer (physical) process?
2. How do you understand Vsevolod Meyerhold’s approach? What are the pros and cons in Meyerhold’s approach to ensemble building?
3. How do you understand Michael Chekhov’s approach? What are the pros and cons in Chekhovs’s approach to ensemble building?
4. Noting that both Meyerhold and Chekhov were practitioners in the 20th century and the approaches were relevant for that “era”, how can you adapt their methods and exercises to modern rehearsals?
In the publicly available resources (YouTube/Facebook/Magazines/Articles) find 2-3 exercises for actors training in ensemble which you think would fit to Meyerhold approach, and 2 exercises which would fit Chekhov’s approach.
In your essay, add the links to the exercises and add your brief description and explanation why you chose particular exercises.
Encountering Ensemble by John Britton (page 84-87)
"To the Actor" by Michael Chekhov, Mala Powers
“Theatre Biomechanics” documentary: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eoq8_90id2o
The Physical Actor: Contact Improvisation from Studio to Stage (2)
Physical Dramaturgy: Perspectives from the Field
Deadline: May 28