Michael Chekhov on The Ideal Actor

Michael Chekhov

“The actor in the future must not only find another attitude towards his physical body and voice, but to his whole existence on the stage in the sense that the actor, as an artist, must more than anyone else enlarge his own being by the means of his profession.  I mean the actor must enlarge himself in a very concrete way, even to having quite a different feeling in space.  His kind of thinking must be different, his feelings must be of a different kind, his feeling of body and voice, his attitude to the settings – all must be enlarged.”

“…[T]he real task of the creative artist is not merely to copy the outer appearance of life but to interpret life in all its facets and profoundness, to show what is behind the phenomena of life, to let the spectator look beyond life’s surfaces and meanings…. 

For is not the artist, the actor in the truest sense, a being who is endowed with the ability to see and experience things which are obscure to the average person?  And is not his real mission, his joyous instinct, to convey to the spectator, as a kind of revelation, his very own impressions of things as he sees and feels them?”

“The illusion that we must fix things on the stage is one of the wrong ideas.  Never.  We can get many conditions and exact things from the director and author, but if we know certain things, we shall see that nothing can stop our ability to improvise or deprive us of our freedom as actors…. To be free means to rely upon our ability to act constantly….  By this I am aiming at the process of improvisation…. We can go on indefinitely, with nothing except our actor’s nature, which is the basis for everything.

The actor is the theatre.  The actor who believes in his constant ability to act.  Then the play, even such plays as those of Shakespeare, is for the real, true actor only the pretext to express himself.  We cannot express Shakespeare, because we do not know what he was aiming at.  We can only express ourselves.  Whoever the author is, we are always expressing ourselves… or we don’t act at all and are like puppets.  If we are full of clichés or other disturbing things, then there is no theatre.  But if we are real actors, we are acting ourselves, from our youth to our old age. 

If… we take the conception that we have sometimes to act when we get a job, but when we are not acting we are passive and idle, that is not true.  If the actor allows himself to believe for a moment that he is an idle person, it really kills something in him and makes his abilities even smaller.

We must never stop.  We are always going on, and if we know it, our inner life, and power, and beauty as artists will grow, will show itself, and we will use our means of expression better and stronger than if we are under the impression that sometimes we are active as artists and sometimes not.  If this seemingly simple and not very important idea is digested, you will see how much it will give you and disclose for you, and in yourself things may arise from within which you cannot get in any other way than to change your point of view and get new conceptions of yourself and your art.

This is what our nature desires:  [to be] constantly acting – and [we] cannot do otherwise because if we are actors, then we are actors.”

“There is always a certain “what.”  [For example,] the play is “what,” [and] we have to deal with our parts as “what.”  There are two ways in this “what:” one is leading to “why,” and that is pure science.  When we take a play and try to discover “why” the author has done this or that, we will never be able to act it.  The other way is “how,” and that is our way as actors. 

For instance, if we know how to become jealous on the stage without knowing why, then we are artists.  The more the materialistically minded world forces us to go the way of “why,” the less we are able to develop our abilities and talents.  This “why” is very widespread in art in our present life. 

If you ask how can I know “how” if I don’t know “why,” I would say that it is a very materialistic question, because “how” is the mystery of art.  It is the secret of the artist who always knows “how” without any explanation, any proof, any analysis or psychological abilities. 

Quite simply, the actor knows Hamlet. Why?  Because I am an actor.  If we are unwilling to accept this point of view about “how” – because that is our life – then all the “whys” will never help us.  “How” is our business.  “Why” is the business of scientists. 

Everything in our method has the tendency to break the boundaries of our bodies, our voices, and [our] other abilities – leading [us] to this ‘how.’”

– Michael Chekhov