Michael Chekhov & the Chart of Inspired Action
A Playground for the Craft
by Lisa Loving Dalton
National Michael Chekhov Association Master Teacher
Would you like to be able to get Inspired on-cue? Any time you want? Great! All you need is Michael Chekhov’s Chart for Inspired Acting! It’s in Mala Powers’ Preface to On the Technique of Acting by Michael Chekhov, published in 1991. You might even pretend this Chart is the blueprint for an amazing playground where you experience the kind of imaginative activity where time flies, space transforms and joy fills you and your playmates to the brim. If you discover where the entrance gate is and what keys unlock the hidden treasures within each box, you can play there any time you wish!
BUT it’s in a circle with no start and no end! How can I start at the beginning? And there are arrows in weird places? What do they mean? And so many boxes — do I have to do all those things at once?
Whaaaaaaaa! Says the little voice inside who is terrified of “not knowing” and clings to a process-oriented life. Please tell me what the first step is, and then the next, and then the next until I reach the final step to success. Pleeease!
Maybe actors have the cry of “Tell me what to do” genetically encoded in their DNA? After all, we have to “get it right” according to teachers, directors, writers, et al, in all of our careers! Or maybe actors aren’t so different from the general public. How many of us think someone else is “getting life right” but not us? The overwhelming number of people who respond to “process orientation” is evident in trending titles: 10 Tips for …, 7 Habits of Highly Effective…, Three Keys to …. Take any success training and you will be promised at least one if not all of the above numbers.
Note also the flurry of education bills in the past decade that required step-by-step measures of science and math and eliminated many arts that can’t meet quantitative evaluation. By and large, at least speaking of the US public, we want recipes that tell us to within 1/8 of a teaspoon the amount and timing of adding each ingredient. An amorphous pinch of this and dash of that can send us into the trauma of doubt.
Forget the act of not knowing – I’m going to my step-by-step recipe that at least gets me through the day, even though it never surprises my playmates or me.
Whoa!!! Isn’t Surprise an element in all inspired moments? (And to the artists who have known all along the vast value of creativity, it is no surprise that those quantitative assessments are now showing so much value of the lost arts that budgets are taking a turn in our flavor. Yummy! Arts = a recipe to improve science and math grades!)
AND, as our science sharpens and all of the adjacent theories begin to interweave, the non-linear nature of life is becoming increasingly evident. This scientific evolution begins to cast new appreciation of ancient symbols, cave drawings and other non-linear representations of the mysteries of life offered by geniuses of the past. Michael Chekhov, whose appreciation is now on the rise, is among these folks who sought to convey the non-linear sequence of creative activity.
Oops, did I digress from the Art of the Chart? Or perhaps you can now better understand the most obvious aspect of the chart – IT IS NON-LINEAR because ART (like life) is NON-LINEAR. It’s a Circle! Surprise! And it’s brilliant because there is no set start and end. The structure represents the holographic nature so frequently bandied about in quantum circles today. Are you willing to operate under those terms? I hope so because it means you get to create your own playground entrance anywhere you want! And you can spin the arrows to make your point anywhere on the circle!
If you know why he created the chart, might it help you understand it?
Michael Chekhov’s techniques for acting, directing, writing, and living are so multilayered, interwoven and intuitive that to make them fall into a step-by-step linear process seems impossible, regardless of what science says. From an historical perspective, it makes sense why this is since he developed his approach over a lifetime on three continents through extraordinary socio-political-technological change. His writings, recorded lectures and the notes taken of his live teaching are so extensive in scope, context and possibility that they can overwhelm anyone seeking to know them.
It’s so big, how can you put it all together? Like the famous story of the blind men describing an elephant, if you go to random Chekhov workshops you may have a very limited experience of what the larger whole truly is. The elephant’s trunk and tusk are quite different from its tail or ears. You may have pearls of Chekhov gold with no thread to string them into a wearable art. The Art of this Chart is it’s awesome ability to summarize the individual elements and unite them into a solid and fluid technique.
As fate would have it, the tenacious search for understanding from a young and extraordinary woman, Mala Powers, inspired Mr. Chekhov, in his last year of life, to draw this chart. It was his ultimate gift to her and from Mala, as Chekhov Estate Executrix, to us – those who seek intuitive mastery and those want to know a step-by-step process into Inspired States. This image is a treasure map for anyone who wants to be happy on the stage, as Mr. Chekhov says. It came about, as all of Mr. Chekhov’s ideas did, when he was presented with a question that wanted an answer. His imagination was lead by questions, an approach that became a fundamental concept in his work and that you will want to adopt.
The Chart is Sun-like in its image. The Sun is a frequent source of images for Mr. Chekhov as a representation of the feeling of light, sizzle, star quality and radiance we experience in states of inspiration. The sun’s power is ever-radiating, even when it is out of view. It doesn’t work harder to reach the valley than the mountaintop. It has effortless power just like we do when inspiration lights us up. If we want to light our inner sun, we can do so through the power of concentrated focus on a single point. Each box on the periphery is a tool, concept or universal law representing one or more elements that are present in all Inspired States.
The Arrows in the original chart, randomly pointing in or out and not perfectly aligned with the boxes, suggest the duality of the current of energy flowing back and forth between all points of the periphery and the center. It might have been drawn more literally to show each box with its own line with an arrow on either end, directly pointing to the center and to the box. This, for a hand drawing in 1955, would likely have been excessively busy and cloud the image. The original hand drawn layout was also altered through the publishing and graphic duplication limitations and editorial misunderstanding. (I was Ms. Power’s teaching partner when she published On The Technique of Acting, making this chart available to the public for the first time in 1991. I was witness to the struggle to fix some of these publishing challenges.)
The central premise of the image is that each outer element is also present in the center and vice versa. Mala shares in On The Technique how Mr. Chekhov used the idea of light bulbs. The boxes are like light bulbs, anyone of which can be switched on by the power of your concentration. You concentrate on the Atmosphere and the Atmosphere “bulb” lights up, sending a spark through the arrow into the Central Sun, the fiery core. Suddenly and effortlessly, the central sun sends sparks out all the other arrows into all the other boxes and bingo! All the bulbs are lit like a Broadway Marquis. You are in the Zone! The Gap! The Flow! You have “IT!” Inspiration shines through you and radiates with lightness and ease to all who are there.
Which bulb, box, or part of the jungle gym, using our Playground metaphor, you want to focus on can vary depending on your familiarity and confidence in a tool, instinct or an intellectual structure you craft through trial and error. Remember how asking questions became a great research tool? One glance at the Chart reminds you of questions you can ask to stimulate your creativity: What does the Imaginary body look like? What is the psychophysical life of the character like? What is the Psychological Gesture underlying my character’s personality? How does this scene fit into the whole? Your focus on just one of those can be the entire key that unlocks your inspiration. Once you find inspiration – go with it. Remember, there are no techniques listed in the center. Why? You only need technique when you are NOT in the Center.
Because of the holographic nature of the concept – the whole is in each part and each part is in the whole – Mr. Chekhov invites us to use his 5 Guiding Principles to train in all points of the method. This will increase the numbers of functioning light bulbs, so to speak, which you can focus on strongly enough to generate the spark. Some points are mastered through practical exercises, some through meditative journey, and others through grasping universal laws. Yes, it does take practice to master the ones outside your everyday repertoire.
To help motivate our practice, we are invited to understand how each point can free our talent. This gives us incentive to master the point. If we don’t know why we should “get good at it,” then we most likely won’t bother with it. If we know that it will fix a big problem in our acting – then we will want to practice it, observe it and apply it often. We will play on the parts of the playground that interest us-that are the most fun. So your job is to discover “What is fun about this point?” (Brings me to another favorite Mr. Chekhov’s quote “If it isn’t fun, it isn’t Chekhov!”)
We are invited to give credence to the human being’s power of concentration to change invisible things – such as the energy in the air, the flow of energy to or from the periphery, the power of an image to transform the physical body and the ability to magically coax the audience into experiencing a complete fiction as more real than life-seeing things, feeling inwardly transformed and uplifted.
Some of the tools address the psychological and the spiritual nature of the human being. Mr. Chekhov wants us to always feel the same holographic multidimensionality of our humanness – the whole of creation within you and the individuality of one part of that same larger whole. When we focus on the light bulb called “I,” we spark the “I” in every audience member. These less tangible concepts historically caused a great deal of concern in days past and to some, may still. Some consider these as less important or less practical as well. So there are cases where these kinds of tools and concepts are under-taught.
It is however, my contention that all artists know these states and all audiences do as well. They may not dare to quantify them but they pay big bucks to experience them. Scientific data can now validate nearly every single mysterious thing Mr. Chekhov offers us. For example, they have identified where in the body this mysterious spark between the actor and audience happens, in structures called mirror neurons that fire when a motor-function is observed. Watch the action of an actor being hit by a car and we “feel” the pain. Our mirror neurons in our motor-cortex, for example, cause us to flinch unconsciously, as if we were also hit by the car. This process works across the spectrum of human (and animal) actions down to the subtlest level. It is thought to be the process that creates empathy in us all.
The Chart is more than a playground for evoking questions like “What’s missing from the performance?” “What would the Character do?” “How would the Character take this direction?”
Sometimes, the most important and practical thing we can do is ask questions of the deeper intangible realms of our being.
- Mastery of elements such as the Four Brothers of Art can help us with the Guiding Principle of the Creative Spirit as a Uniting force.
- Mastery of Ensemble can heal many a relationship problem on and off the set, freeing the artist to behave well and get and deliver brilliant work.
- Rich connection with our creative individuality can sustain an artist in a far superior way to drugs, alcohol and other self-destructive behaviors that lurk in the shadows of every artist’s path.
Overlook these seemingly less-practical tools at your own risk. Embracing these ideas as the cornerstones of your life might be the fastest track to inspired acting and living.
Mr. Chekhov’s boldness to include these intangible elements in his technique, and on his chart, was a most courageous contribution to humanity. If you study his biography, you will know the high price he paid to bring you this teaching, to offer you this playground of free play. I hope you treasure it.
The freedom to start anywhere on the Chart is gracious for sure. I, however, was one of those actors described in the beginning – please give me the recipe! As a result, in 1988, Mala and I began hatching a structure that, with Professor Wil Kilroy and the National Michael Chekhov Association, has grown over 25 years into an approach to training with a specific starting point on the chart. We also expanded the chart. It still allows for complete flexibility when Inspiration leads me. And when Inspiration fails, I have an intelligent structure to follow.
To use this chart fully, you want to know what each point means, how to exercise it, recognize it in life and apply it while acting. That process forms the basis of the National Michael Chekhov Association’s Pedagogy for applications to training, auditioning, live performance and in media, directing, writing and design. It is also the basis for NMCA’s recommendations for healing and human development in alignment with Mr. Chekhov’s goal of “helping people become better human beings.”
Our motto of Bringing the Spirit of Michael Chekhov into the 21st Century has led to a more evolved multi-colored graphic chart with clear arrows connecting each point in both directions and more details in some of the boxes. We now call it the Chart of Inspired Action. With this choice of using Action instead of Acting is done with the aim of supporting these broader applications for humanity.
There is one word that was curiously absent from Mr. Chekhov’s original Chart-Concentration! I have always said it’s because Concentration is so fundamental to the chart that it really is the very paper upon which the chart is drawn. Without it, there is no Chart. Concentration underlies every exercise in the Chekhov cannon. It is represented in the box called Focal Point and it is cultivated in every moment of play. On our new chart, it is subtly embracing the rays of the sun. To Mr. Chekhov, Concentration was so central, he made Concentration and Imagination its own special Chart. That’s another article.
Lisa Loving Dalton
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