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Contemporary Theatre Review

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‘The actor imagines with his body’ – Michael

Chekhov: An examination of the
David Zinder
Published online: 31 Jan 2007.

To cite this article: David Zinder (2007) ‘The actor imagines with his body’ – Michael
Chekhov: An examination of the phenomenon, Contemporary Theatre Review, 17:1, 7-14, DOI:

To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10486800601095966


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Contemporary Theatre Review, Vol. 17(1), 2007, 7 – 14

‘The Actor Imagines with his Body’ – Michael

Chekhov: An Examination of the Phenomenon
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David Zinder

‘It’s a mystery’, says the theatre owner (Geoffrey

Rush) in Shakespeare in Love whenever he is asked to
explain something totally improbable. Shrugging his
shoulders and giving a weak, apologetic smile he
easily explains the inexplicable, totally confounding
his interlocutors. Michael Chekhov’s somewhat
enigmatic statement above raises a number of
difficult questions that tempt one to resort to the
same shrug, the same smile and the same disarming
cop-out. What does it mean to imagine with the
body? After all the imagination, as far as we know,
occurs in the mind. Assuming that this kind of
bodily imagination is possible, how is it done? What
are the necessary conditions for its appearance?
When it appears, what is the nature of the discourse
between the imagination and the body?
Just before we succumb to the temptation to
sidestep these difficulties by employing Rush’s
simple answer, ‘It’s a mystery’, we should bear in
mind one important fact: everything Chekhov
wrote about the technique of acting was the result
of a painstaking and extraordinarily detailed in-
vestigation into his own – by all accounts brilliant –
creative processes. This being the case, this idea of
the body imagining, or the actor imagining with his
body, is undoubtedly one of the practical results of
his investigation into the actor’s creativity, and this Image 1 Melinda Kantor as ‘The Figure in the Bag’
in itself might be reason enough to look into the from The Bacchae which I directed at the Hungarian State
enigmas raised by his statement. What is more, my Theatre of Cluj, Romania in December 2004. Photo
own thirty odd years of empirical/experiential courtesy of András Peltán
research into this phenomenon as actor, actor
trainer and director have provided me, I believe, symbiosis exists and, more importantly for our
with a great deal of practical indications that this purposes, that it can be trained and turned into a

Contemporary Theatre Review ISSN 1048-6801 print/ISSN 1477-2264 online

Ó 2007 Taylor & Francis http://www.tandf.co.uk/journals
DOI: 10.1080/10486800601095966

practical, on-tap tool for actors working in any style on any given day (e.g. state of mind and body,
of theatre. All of this provides a strong incentive to workshop space, etc.), and with the actor in that
look into these issues again, however briefly. If all state of performance that Chekhov defines as
else fails, we can, at the very least, try to apply Jean ‘beyond the threshold’ and Eugenio Barba refers
Cocteau’s wonderful follow-on to Rush’s cop-out: to as ‘extra-daily’ – given these basic conditions,
‘Since these mysteries are beyond us, let’s pretend the moving body creates and excites up into
we’re organizing them’.1 consciousness an endless series of images, and these
The quote from Chekhov’s On the Technique of images in turn reverberate into the actor’s body
Acting reads as follows in its entirety: creating new movement which excites further
images, and so on ad infinitum – or as long as
The actor imagines with his body. He cannot avoid the actor can stay on his feet. The nature of these
gesturing or moving without responding to his images is of course virtually impossible to define,
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own internal images’.2 (Emphasis mine). but they are comprised for the most part, as in
dreaming or daydreaming, of remembered, ‘histor-
Chekhov says little beyond this single sentence ical’ images, false memories (i.e. things we think we
about the necessary or unavoidable nature of the remember but may not have actually happened)
relationship between this all-important faculty of and pure abstract fantasy, as well as any combina-
the human mind and the body that contains it. tion of these that may possibly exist in our
Nevertheless, reading his books and listening to his imagination. After all, the vicarious experiences
lectures3 it seems implicit in the entire range of his acquired when reading a book or seeing a film –
Technique that it is the moving body and its both totally ‘imaginary’ activities – send as much
profound connection to the creative imagination material to our visual memory as ‘real’, factual
that make up the basis of his understanding of the events such as a wedding, a road accident or a
actor’s art. Clearly, the examination of his own graduation ceremony. And since the human repo-
creative work led Chekhov to make a claim for the sitory is immense – we actually remember every-
‘oneness’ of the body and the imagining function thing, real, secondary (the book or the film) or
of the mind, according to which the reason why an imagined, that we experience – the range of
actor cannot ‘avoid’ the body/ imagination con- available imagery is virtually inexhaustible. This is
nection is because these two elements of the human particularly true if we take into account the simple
organism are in fact not separable, but exist in some fact that our storehouse of images grows infinitely
reciprocal, mutually supportive relationship within as long as our mind is active and supple.
a single organizing principle of human existence – To begin pulling out a few threads from this
the bodymind. And it is here, in this virtually complex skein, let us have a look at a brief moment
automatic connection between action and image of training from Keith Johnstone’s seminal book on
that the issue of the actor ‘imagining’ with his body improvisation, IMPRO!4 In the chapter on Spon-
resides. taneity, Johnstone records this conversation with
While the concept of the inseparable tandem of one of his students:
the ‘bodymind’, or the body schema, is often related
to the daily functioning of the human organism, ‘Be sad,’ I say.
the question I am asking here is highly specific and ‘What do you mean, be sad?’
related to certain general aspects of creativity and in ‘Just be sad. See what happens’.
particular to the concept of the moving body as a ‘But what’s my motivation?’
catalyst for the creative imagination in perfor- ‘Just be sad. Start to weep and you’ll know what’s
mance. In order to set up the argument in its upset you’.
simplest form, let us begin from what my experi- The student decides to humor me.
ence in acting training has taught me to be virtually ‘That isn’t very sad. You’re just pretending’.
axiomatic in this context: given the right conditions ‘You asked me to pretend’.
‘Raise your arm. Now why are you raising it’
‘You asked me to’.
1. In his brilliant Surrealist play Les Mariés de la tour Eiffel
‘Yes, but why might you have raised it?
2. Michael Chekhov, On the Technique of Acting (New York: ‘To hold on to a strap in the Tube’.
HarperCollins, 1991), p. 95. ‘Then that’s why you raised your arm . . .’
3. In On the Art and the Technique of Acting, produced by
Applause Theatre Books in 1992. This is a re-mastered series
of lectures given by Chekhov in Hollywood in 1955, shortly 4. Keith Johnstone, Impro, Improvisation and the Theatre (New
before his death. York: Theatre Arts Books, 1979), pp. 81 – 82.

Johnstone then continues to work with the idea of lay dead, giving her the answer to Johnstone’s
‘being sad’: second query. In both cases it was a physical
movement that sparked a visual image, either totally
‘. . . Trust your mind. Take the first idea it gives imaginary, or based on a memory that provided the
you. Now try to be sad again. Hold the face in a sad answer.
position, fight back the tears. Be unhappier. More. There are three more ingredients here which are
Now tell me why you’re in this state? important to note before we leave this example, all
‘My child has died’. of which, I believe, play an important part in this
‘Did you think that up?’ process. The first of these is ‘incentive’ which is a
‘I just knew’.5 powerful catalyst for the appearance of images; the
second is ‘openness’ or disponibilité and ‘vulner-
Between the act of ‘raising an arm’ or ‘being sad’ ability’, which invite them to make their appear-
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and the explanation provided by the actor, ‘reach- ance, and the third is what I have come to believe to
ing for the strap on the Tube’ or the ‘dead child’, be an automatic human reaction – particularly in
something happens that Johnstone does not any state of performance – to any external stimulus:
elaborate upon, not because he is unaware of the the appearance of images. In this case, the work-
process but because, I believe, it is so clear to him shop situation where the actor was fairly bluntly
that he feels that it doesn’t require any explanation. asked to perform before her colleagues must have
The only indication we have of this understanding certainly rendered her vulnerable and as a result
on his part is his exhortation to the student ‘Trust open to her images, and, by the same token,
your mind’. Despite Johnstone’s apparent separa- Johnstone’s direct and uncompromising manner
tion of the student’s ‘body’ from his ‘mind’, it must have created a strong incentive for the actor
seems to me that what he was referring to was the to demand results from her imagination in order to
way in which the imagination is aroused and come up with a solution to the questions put to her
activated by physical action, leading in the first by the highly respected teacher. Finally, being
instance to the ‘strap in the Tube’ and in the questioned like this by Johnstone, she just ‘knew’
second instance, to the student’s certain knowledge the answer because, without any visible effort,
that her sadness was the result of her child’s death. images simply popped into her mind, there for the
This, I believe, is what Chekhov is referring to taking.
when he talks about the ‘imagining body’. Apply- This analysis of Johnstone’s exercise brings us to
ing some conjecture after the fact to this example the next question in this enquiry. If this oneness of
from Johnstone, I would like to suggest that the body and imagination is a natural, virtually
process that took place in the student’s mind unconscious process that goes on in the human
followed this trajectory: since there was no present, organism all the time, then a) how can it be honed
logical, or ‘historical’ answer to the question put to into a technique for professional use in perfor-
the actor about the source of an event taking place mance, and b) is there a difference in the way it
at that moment – raising an arm or being sad – the functions in training and in performance? In order
only thing the actor could resort to was the ‘logic’ to examine this phenomenon on both of these
of her imagination as it presented itself to her upon levels let us look first briefly at a sequence of
raising her arm, or upon going through the motions exercises that I use in workshops and acting classes
of sadness as Johnstone suggested (‘Hold your head which are aimed at giving actors a conscious
in a sad position, fight back the tears’). As I experience of the phenomenon and a first indica-
understand this symbiotic mechanism of body/ tion of how it can be harnessed for performance.
imagination, the raising of the arm excited into the Transcribing living exercises into writing is always
actor’s mind’s eye, however briefly, the imagined or tricky, so I would like to suggest that you seek an
remembered image of herself in a subway train opportunity to try out these exercises for yourselves
raising an arm to the strap, thus providing her with in order to get a much clearer, experiential grasp of
an adequate answer to Johnstone’s first query. what they offer. They require no props, very little
Along these same lines, creating the physical space and offer virtually immediate satisfaction.
attributes of sadness – head off to one side, mouth Early in my own experience as an actor I began
drooping as the chin wrinkles upward, tears barely to be aware of certain processes that later became
held back – must have fleetingly excited the image the basis for all of my training. Chief among these
of a room, a morgue, or a roadside, where her child was the fact that even in daily life all aural, tactile, or
olfactory stimuli arouse visual images (actual visual
5. Ibid., p. 82. stimuli are excluded from this list since they are – by

definition – visual images and cannot serve our popping in the heat of the flames. As soon as they
purpose here except in a very advanced form of arrive at this satisfying detail, they are instructed to
learning) and that with practice, this can be turned ‘clear the screen’, in other words, having satisfied
into a conscious technique. This is of course their curiosity about the image, they must now
particularly true of ‘extra-daily’ life when we are remove the entire picture from their imagination,
involved in creative work. If we add to that the and thus make themselves available for the next
understanding that in the absence of visual stimuli – aural stimulus and the next image it arouses. Going
as in ‘blind’ or ‘eyes closed’ exercises – then this back each time to a blank screen ensures that each
image-producing faculty is enhanced a hundred- sound will excite a brand-new image and not pick
fold since it serves as a virtually animal-like defense up the ‘story’ of the previous one.
mechanism. Touched by something in the dark, This is a very basic exercise which is aimed at
our imagination strains to protect the organism by expanding and rendering conscious the mechan-
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sending a stream of images racing before our isms of what is usually simply taken for granted: the
mind’s eye in order to give us, if necessary, ample associative capability of the imagination. In order to
warning of imminent danger. The same applies to have a totally focused experience of this, all
sounds or smells in the dark. This process, like extraneous body ‘noise’ is silenced. But theatre
many other capabilities of the mind, goes on at implies motion, and in order to take this awareness
lightning speed, moving from the wildest, most into the next level we have to examine this
fantastic imaginings to a calm identification of the experience in the body, using the same basic
source of the stimulus, all of this within seconds. assumption: just as aural stimuli in the previous
The first of these assumptions defines our area of exercises excited up visual images into the actors’
inquiry, and the second gives us a useful tool for consciousness, so tactile stimuli provided by
intensifying the body/imagination experience for physical adjustments to the actors’ bodies will have
learning purposes. a similar effect.
The first exercise in this sequence, then, works as This exercise involves two actors, a Sculptor and
follows. Having ‘crossed the threshold’ into the a Sculpture. One actor – the Sculpture – stands
workspace and thus, by definition at least, being relaxed with his eyes closed and ‘centered’; a
disponible, the actors sit in the space with their eyes second actor – the Sculptor – waits until she feels
closed and listen for sounds. Having been given the that the first actor is centered and has achieved a
above explanation about the defensive function of state of relaxed concentration, and then proceeds to
our imagination, they are asked to pick out single ‘sculpt’ him by arranging his torso, head, limbs,
sounds that may be heard in the workspace, and try hands and fingers, even his facial expression, in
to catch the very first image that comes to mind as a some random position. The randomness of this
result of the stimulus. In other words, what they are sculpting – i.e. not consciously seeking to create a
being asked to do is not identify the source of the story-telling pose (praying, begging, threatening,
sound with the help of their imagination, e.g. etc.) – is extremely important because that leaves
hearing the sound of a plastic bottle being the imaginational ‘interpretation’ of the body
squeezed and then seeing just that, a small, plastic totally up to the Sculpture. To help the actors with
water bottle being squeezed, but rather to catch the this I side-coach the Sculptors to regard the bodies
first raw, uneasy image that the sound may arouse of their Sculptures as ‘a random collection of
in the first millisecond after its perception. For articulated limbs’, i.e. that they can be put into
example, frantically searching its database for an endless physical combinations. What this means for
identification of this sound, an actor’s imagination the Sculptors is that they must form and adjust the
might suggest, with a highly detailed visual image, actor’s body without thinking about what the final
that the sound comes from the rapid progress of a result will look like or what story or situation the
fire racing through a wood-lined study – the Sculpture might be involved in or represent. When
popping sound being ‘seen’ as the popping of the the Sculptor completes her work she now questions
wood consumed by the flames. The actors are also the Sculpture about his identity (‘Who are you?’),
asked to try and ‘manage’ this raw, first image by location (‘Where are you?’), dress (‘What are you
moving around in the picture that comes into their wearing?’), time of day, etc., taking care to refrain
consciousness until they arrive at what is for them from any psychological/emotional descriptions
the ‘affective’ detail of the entire picture – the detail (e.g. ‘What do you feel like’) or suggestions that
that satisfies them in relation to the original sound might add extraneous details into the Sculpture’s
stimulus. This might be, for example, a ‘zoom in’ in imagination. Asking him, ‘What colour shoes
their imagination on a single pinewood knot are you wearing?’ might instantly attach to the

Sculpture’s feet a pair of bright yellow, long- stream of body/characters that he embodies, even
pointed crocodile-skin shoes that weren’t there in for a few seconds at a time. However magical this
the original image, but once mentioned are greedily phenomenon may seem, it is in fact hard work.
incorporated. Phrasing the question differently – More often than not at the end of a brief session of
‘Do you have anything on your feet?’ – leaves much this active sculpting, the Sculpture/actor is drip-
more freedom of choice to the Sculpture and would ping with sweat, drained by the sheer effort of
probably produce the real, un-suggested answer: actively engaging his or her imagination so
‘Yes, a bloody bandage.’ intensively.
These two exercises are essentially static and can The practical results of this exercise are almost
only provide some initial data on the body/ always fascinating. Within a very short range of
imagination symbiosis. In the first exercise the time, and with nothing to go on but increasingly
body is cancelled out by the sitting position and the tiny, increasingly rapid physical changes to their
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only thing that’s ‘moving’ is our imagination, and bodies, the actors being sculpted ‘see’ themselves in
in the second exercise we are using our bodies, but an almost endless sequence of different bodies or
ultimately applying our imagination to an unmov- characters, every change in their physical position,
ing ‘statue’. In order to try and arrive at a more however minute, creating in their imaginations an
elaborate understanding of this symbiosis and how entirely different body and character. What is more,
it conceivably works in live performance, we have to the actors also actually touch on what might be
add movement and change – which brings us to the regarded as solid ‘proof’ of the body/imagination
next exercise in the sequence. Using the same symbiosis: that every change to their body, even as
Sculptor/Sculpture format, we now change the they are being sculpted, and not just in the static
rules a little: as long as there is physical contact statue pose they arrive at when the sculpting ceases,
between the Sculptor and the Sculpture, i.e. as long gives rise to many more body/characters, so many
as the ‘sculpting’ is still going on, the actor with his in fact that they simply don’t have time to share
eyes closed must just follow the images that appear them all with us.6
in his imagination; as soon as the sculpting stops, Given the rapidity of the changes wrought on
the Sculpture must begin immediately, of his own the body of the Sculpture, it is not at all surprising
accord, to relate out loud all the details of the to find men or women discovering suddenly that
particular body/character that he finds himself in at for a moment they are a member of the opposite
the moment the contact was stopped: who and sex, small children, giants or ancient crones –
where he is, what he is wearing, the time of day, the because that is what their imagination gave them in
people or objects in his immediate environment, response to a particular adjustment of their bodies.
etc. When the Sculptor renews contact to continue What is no less surprising is the amount of detail
sculpting – which she is allowed to do at any that attends each of these bodies: dress – down to
moment – the Sculpture must instantly stop earrings and shoelaces; location – down to a
speaking and concentrate again on the images particular crack in the sidewalk on a busy corner,
sparked up by the new movements imparted to his not to mention detailed descriptions of all the
body. In this way, if the Sculpture has allowed his people passing within his or her ‘view’. And, given
imagination to free-float, then every time the the axiomatic contention that the moving body
sculpting stops he provides us with a verbal automatically excites images, what is most surpris-
description of a totally new body/character. An ing to me is that almost invariably, when I
important element of this exercise is the gradual demonstrate this exercise for the first time with a
reduction of the dimensions of the changes made
to the Sculpture’s body, ending up perhaps with no 6. Note the following from Chekhov’s On the Technique of
more than a tiny shift of the top section of a Acting in relation to the Psychological Gesture: ‘The more
forefinger from a straight 180 degrees to a slightly you become sensitive to such alterations in your Gesture, the
more imperceptible changes you must make. The position of
curved 150 degrees, and the gradual increase in the your head and shoulders, your arms, hands, elbows. The turn
pace of the changes being worked on the Sculpture. of your neck and back, the position of your legs and feet, the
In this way, within a fairly short time the Sculptor direction of your glance, the position of your fingers, all will
call up in your creative spirit corresponding Qualities and
should be making some kind of infinitesimal Feelings. Go on exercising in this manner this way until you
change to the Sculpture’s body every 10–15 feel that even the slightest idea of a possible change makes you
seconds or so – in between which the Sculpture is react to it inwardly. You will also awaken in yourself the sense
still asked to acknowledge the effect of these rapid- of harmony between outer and inner expressiveness in your
acting’, p. 79. It seems to me that ‘creative spirit’ can easily be
fire and absolutely minute changes that appear in changed to read ‘imagination’ without doing any injustice to
his imagination by reporting back to us on the Chekhov’s meaning here.

randomly chosen actor, his or her capacity for rapid of exercises is followed by increasingly complex
and seemingly endless changes of character elicits work based on the reciprocal nature of physical
an enthusiastic response from the observers as if the movement and the imaging function of the actor.
other actors were congratulating the actor for Eventually, given the right circumstances (‘crossing
giving them all a taste of his superior imagination, the threshold’, concentration, relaxation, disponi-
and congratulating me for choosing the one actor bilité and a high level of training in physical
in the group who, endowed with such an unusually expressiveness), the dialogue becomes extraordina-
rich and responsive imagination, could give the best rily fertile, with actors able to create 20 to 45
demonstration of the exercise. But on the basis of minute-long abstract physical improvisations based
my experience I am convinced that had I chosen on a chosen ‘anchor image’ (a visible physical
any other actor from that group he or she would object – a ball, a rope, a shoe – or a created image –
have performed equally well, because the body/ anything the imagination may provide) which
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imagination connection is universal, an integral part opens out into myriad sub-images excited into
of our psychophysical structure, and as such, as their consciousness by their physical movement,
Chekhov suggests, the endless stream of imaginary which, in turn, move the body into a multitude of
bodies arising from physical stimuli, however different physical expressions, which excite yet
minute, is indeed unavoidable. more images, and so on in an infinite whirligig.
There are a few other aspects to these exercises The duration of all this is determined only by the
that are not directly connected with the body/ measure of the actor’s physical stamina, or by the
imagination tandem, but are important byproducts extent of his or her ability to remain in a
of the overall examination of the actor’s practical concentrated state of creative response to images
imagination, and can serve to enhance our under- and movement.8 After 45 minutes of intense
standing of the processes at work here. First of all, in physical work an actor may simply run out of gas
these and many other related exercises, one of the and be physically unable to continue, or, for many
most important lessons to be learned is the fact different reasons, she might momentarily lose
through training we can learn how to develop, concentration and thus ‘interrupt’ the fecund
control and use our imagination consciously for our dialogue between the body and the imagination
creative work. For example, in the first exercise with bringing her out of her depths into self-conscious-
the sounds, looking for the ‘affective detail’ involves ness that will bring the exercise to an end. Further
consciously ‘moving around’ in the picture excited development of these exercises in body/imagina-
up by any individual sound. Secondly, when, tion training become even more demanding once
through training, this becomes a habit, we actually voice and text are added, and the entire concept of
learn how to encourage or ‘push’ our imagination to the ‘imagining body’ is put to use in performance.
provide us with images to fuel our creative work. In Two examples, one from an exercise and one
the last exercise, when the Sculptures’ physical from a performance, might illuminate this further.
positions are being changed every few seconds, they In the course of a workshop I gave to a mixed
tend to discover that they are endowed with an group of acting students and professional actors
unusual power: the ability to ‘demand’ and get from Zagreb in 1999 in a picturesque little
results from their imagination. Transformed Croatian village called Groznjan in the northwest
through training into a technique, this can provide area of Istria, we were working through what is
actors with a highly important tool for developing a described in my ImageWork Training as the
creative approach to character and to moment-to- ‘Creative WarmUp’ which leads, at the end, to
moment existence in the performance space. what I call ‘plastiques’: complete movement
Once a basic understanding of these phenomena phrases that the actors pluck out of a sequence of
is achieved through exercises such as these, it is only abstract movements, and then repeat precisely – as I
a short step from there to the realization that in explain it to them – for as long as the movement
performative circumstances, the body/imagination interests them. The training issue here is to prolong
symbiosis is working all the time, and that there is the active connection between the body and the
almost no end to the way in which it can be imagination, in order to make every repeat of the
developed further as a conscious tool. In my
ImageWork Training7 this fundamental sequence 8. A truly extraordinary example of the kind of stamina
demanded by physical exercises of this kind can be seen in one
of the Odin Theatre training tapes in which Ryszard Cieślak
7. This training is the subject of my book: Body Voice works with Tage Larsen in a totally abstract movement
Imagination. A Training for the Actor (London: Routledge, exercise for the better part of an hour and a half with only one
2002). brief pause.

chosen plastique absolutely precise and at the same The story of this play involves the possession of
time a completely new experience. In this instance, young woman’s body by the spirit – dybbuk – of her
the organizer of the workshop, a highly talented dead beloved, and the climax of the play is a brutal
Croatian actress by the name of Suzana Nikolić, exorcism that rips the young man’s spirit out of her.
found an extremely simple plastique: sitting on the The exorcism scenes are enormously difficult to
floor, her legs drawn up underneath her and her left play convincingly, and were perhaps particularly so
arm on the floor, palm down, to support her upper at more or less zero distance from the audience on
body, she repeatedly, and with the utmost preci- the transverse space designed for the production
sion, put her right thumb under her short blond by my colleague Miriam Guretzky. Prior to the
hair and lifted it over and behind her right ear. By beginning of rehearsals I had the extraordinary
the time the rest of the workshop group noticed good fortune to find a brilliantly talented actress for
this – after they had all completed their plastiques the part of Leah, Imola Kézdi, who, together with
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and sat down – Suzana had already been doing this one or two other actors of the company, I trained
plastique for about ten minutes. From that moment in the ImageWork Training. In the course of the
on, alone in the workspace, as we watched her in rehearsals, and based on the ImageWork Training,
absolute fascination, mesmerized by the powerful Imola developed a series of images – a physical/
emanation of her intense concentration, she pro- imaginational score – that made it possible for
ceeded to repeat this simple gesture for about 25 her to move through the frightening exorcising
minutes more, until, worried perhaps that she was process in increasingly difficult stages. Some of
holding up the workshop, she stopped – and there these images emerged from her body/imagination,
was a spontaneous round of applause which I others emerged out of the dialogue we had in the
joined in gladly. Questioned about the process, she rehearsal sessions, but all of them shared the same
told us that the dialogue between this minimal source: the imagining body.
movement of her body and her imagination One of these images will serve our purpose here.
was so intense that every time she began the At the height of the play, the exorcising rabbi, Reb
plastique she was in a different world, doing the Azriel, brings to bear the ultimate weapon of
action for a different purpose in a different context excommunication on the dybbuk, Hannan, by
with different images informing it every inch of proceeding in stages through three different forms
the way. The result was an extraordinary 25-minute of the blowing of the shofar, the traditional Jewish
‘performance’ of a single physical action, which ram’s horn, t’kiah, shevarim, t’ruah. For the second
drew us into her work in an enormously powerful stage, shvarim, the image that emerged out of this
way. dialogue in rehearsal was of a window that has been
The techniques of body/imagination that are hit by a stone and, with cracks snaking out rapidly
employed in rehearsal and performance function on all over it, is about to disintegrate. The stone in this
two different levels, the first leading seamlessly into case was the first note of the shvarim tone of the
the second, and both dependent on the Training shofar. Since Leah is trying with all her strength
that forges the body/imagination symbiosis into a to keep Hannan inside her, Imola’s acting task was
powerful performative tool. In rehearsals, these to hold the glass together and not allow it to
techniques are brought to bear on the search for disintegrate. What transpired then, and does to this
the inner score of the performance, as the actor day,9 is a stunning, draining battle in which the
remains disponible throughout the rehearsal pro- image of the disintegrating glass, and the need to
cess, responding instantly to images produced by exert superhuman strength to keep it from falling
his or her body in the performance space in order to away into dust, moves Imola’s body in the most
discover the imaginational keys to moments in the heart-wrenching way, as her Leah struggles in vain
play, or vice versa: instinctively moving independent to prevent Hannan from being torn out of her.
images into the body to see how they affect the Despite the extremity of the demands on her as an
moment. By the same token, the entire rehearsal actress in this scene, Imola used the Training to
process may become an ongoing exchange of apply the physical and imaginational elements of
body/images flowing from actor to actor, actor the moment with enormous precision, leading to
to director, or director to actor, images that will an application in performance of the body/
ultimately be set as the notes in the performance imagination symbiosis which is simply breathtaking
score. To demonstrate this, here is an example from to watch. To the best of my knowledge, the ‘anchor
a production of the great Jewish play, The Dybbuk,
which I directed at the Hungarian State Theatre of 9. At this writing, August 2006, the play, which opened in May
Cluj in Romania in 2002. 2002, is still in repertoire.

image’ of the disintegrating window still works for translated into creative work by establishing the
her four years after the opening night. However, conditions for their arrival: preparing through
watching how her performance of the role has training a highly expressive, responsive body,
deepened over these past four years, I have no ‘crossing the threshold’, concentration, relaxation,
doubt that in order to create that greatest of all and disponibilité; c) through training we can both
theatrical paradoxes – the first-time repetition – become aware of the symbiotic connection between
Imola responds to myriad new images every time the body and the imagination and learn how to
she goes into that scene, keeping the form of the explore and exploit it as a permanently available and
score absolutely precise, but allowing these new practical performative tool. In other words, the
images to infuse her performance with deeper concept of the actor ‘imagining with his body’,
reverberations every time. however mysterious, is first of all absolutely natural,
Observing the results of performances like these and secondly absolutely trainable.
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by actors I have trained, or the performance of Training of this kind – which is not a one-time
exercises in class or workshop situations, with event and must be regularly reinforced – eventually
actors and students from very different theatre leads to what I believe was the source of Michael
cultures, literally from around the world, has Chekhov’s brilliant achievements as an actor, and
brought me to these inescapable conclusions: a) the key element in the Technique he bequeathed to
the vast repository of images that lies just below us: an endless capacity for responding on one’s feet
the surface of our consciousness is a practical to images excited into the imagination during
resource of enormous importance for creative work rehearsal or performance by one’s physical actions,
in the theatre; b) these images can be accessed and and shaping them into the form of one’s art. It is
perhaps this capacity, more than any other that
enables an actor to make every moment onstage a
unique, first-time experience since it is fed by new
and surprising images in every performance, re-
gardless of the strictures of mise en scène, light cues,
music cues or relationships between the characters
in the play.10
Creativity indeed involves many mysteries, as
Geoffrey Rush keeps reminding us in Shakespeare in
Love , but Cocteau’s suggestion that, in the absence
of any other recourse, we should pretend we’re
organizing them is, as I see it, a call to explore the
mechanisms that sustain this powerful connection
between the body and the imagination in perfor-
mance in order to enrich every moment of
performance and engage the audience on a truly
profound level.

10. Chekhov was known for his tendency to change his

performance, sometimes even radically, from one evening to
the next – often to the exasperation of his fellow actors. His
explanation for that was that if he received different
vibrations from either the spectators or his partners on any
given night he could only respond to those energies and not
to any remembered energies from the night before.
Exasperating it must have been, but this ability to live in the
Image 2 Imola Kezdi as Leah in The Dybbuk, the moment of every performance – not just in the moments of
Hungarian State Theatre of Cluj, Romania. Photo the written play – was undoubtedly part of his brilliant
courtesy of Szabó Péter achievements as an actor.

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