What's So Special About Chekhov?

Scott Fielding

“The true creative state consists precisely in that the actor who is experiencing inspiration switches off his own self and allows inspiration to work within him.  His personality is surrendered to the power of inspiration, and he himself admires the results of its effect on his personality.  Every artist, every actor, who has experienced true inspiration knows this.  Such objectivity saves the actor from coarsely cerebral influences interfering with his creative work.” - Michael Chekhov

Michael Chekhov’s method – the product of his lifelong passion and genius for research into the creative process – is a practical means by which artistic inspiration can be summoned at will. 

He often gave the following picture:      

“When we look upon [that] which we call the creative process and inspiration, we must look upon this point as though it were the center, and on the periphery there are so many doors through which to look [in]….  All the points of our method are these doors.”

 “Opening” one or another of these “doors,” the talented actor crosses into the world of creative inspiration.  There – suddenly, effortlessly – the inspired performance:  the actor’s ultimate aim and deepest joy. 

This process is a natural one.  It is inherent to the actor’s nature, which covets and seeks the spark of inspiration.  But what if the doors are found, as they frequently are, to be locked?  The various techniques of the Chekhov method are “keys” to these doors.  The period of actor training is a time of fashioning the keys to the doors of inspiration.  As such, it is for the dedicated actor time well spent.

“All the points in our method are keys that open our own nature for us.... Everything we need in order to develop [our] technique is already there in us if we are born as actors. That means that we have only to find out which sides of our own nature have to be stressed, underlined, exercised, and the whole technique will be there…." 

The foremost requirement of the actor’s art – and therefore the primary goal of actor training – is the harmonious development of the actor’s instrument.  That means the whole human being, including body and voice, feelings and emotions, and thinking and imagination.

To meet this condition, Chekhov developed an original and dependable method founded on a system of psycho-physical exercises.  Understanding that the actor is himself the instrument for his art, he emphasized that both an outer and an inner transformation is demanded of the actor. The Chekhov method fosters a highly developed facility for concentration that permits the imagination to unfold and, at the same time, a soft and flexible body that allows the unhindered expression of feeling. 

"The way to develop our own nature takes time. We have to use a certain amount of time and effort for training ourselves. But after this period of training, which may be a long one, we will find it a real economy of time. Sometimes this period of training is mistaken in our profession for a loss of time, when we have to produce plays in four weeks. We think that if this training takes years there must be something wrong. No. It is a long one, but when it is accomplished it is such an economy of time. When you can laugh, cry, sing, be happy at once – when you have trained your imagination so that you can see the whole of Othello at once – that is real economy of time….  So really it is the greatest economy of time to spend a long period of time in training. When everything is there, after a long period of training, then I will believe that the performance can be done even in two weeks.” 

The method is distinctive with respect to contemporary acting techniques in other ways, too. One of these is the demand for objectivity.  Chekhov stressed that an actor’s training should develop the capacity not merely to think, but to think pictorially.  Whereas in many approaches the actor is taught to see himself in the circumstances of the character he is to play, Chekhov taught actors to see the character as an objective and living being, before incorporating their image into their acting.  To illustrate the idea, Chekhov points to examples like Goethe and Dickens, who actually saw as independent beings the characters they created and then simply wrote down what their imaginations had revealed to them.

Another distinguishing hallmark of the method concerns the approach to feelings and emotions.  Whereas Stanislavsky once taught the often difficult and, for some actors, unhealthy technique of affective or emotion memory, or whereas other teachers stress substitution or personalization, Chekhov makes use of always dependable atmospheres and qualities and sensations as a means to awaken the actor’s inner life and coax his feelings to the surface.  In fact, by virtue of its very essence, which is holistic and objective, all the points of the Chekhov method serve to lead the actor to the full and healthy expression of feelings and emotions in his professional work.

The value of the method for the actor is evident not just professionally, but also personally. Mastery of the dynamic interplay of imagination and body encourages the healthy development of human capacities and frees the actor-artist’s deepest talent. The Creative Individuality, guided by a Higher Self, takes on a continuous life of its own, to the benefit of society and the world at large.