The Forgotten Acting Technique
By Scott Rogers
Ok, it isn't actually new. In fact, it's just about a century old! And I actually "discovered" it back in the '80s. Although I quickly dismissed it at the time, because I felt it caused an actor to "Indicate" and it seemed outdated to me. I didn't think it worked well for acting-on-camera. But Michael Chekhov's "Psychological Gesture" (or PG) is a basic part of his acting technique and it really is making a comeback - even for me!
|Michael Chekhov in 1929|
First, a clarification. Michael Chekhov (not to be confused with his uncle, famed writer Anton Chekhov) was considered by most (including Stanislavski himself) to be Stanislavski's greatest student. He created an acting technique based around the premise that physical movement/gesture/poses can actually cause you to feel emotion. Interestingly enough, this has only recently been proven to be true by scientific means, that were not available in Mr. Chekhov's day.
In fact, there's an excellent Ted Talks lecture by Amy Cuddy, that deals with the newly found scientific evidence that essentially backs the thinking that Chekhov's theories are based on. Through measuring people's Testosterone and Cortisol levels in the brain, it's now been proven that physical poses can actually make us feel different emotions! This can affect your acting but it can also affect how you go in to an audition or job interview! When you finish reading this post you MUST click the link above and watch the Ted Talks video! It's 20 minutes that can change your life!
Now to be clear, the Ted Talks lecture is NOT about Chekhov or his Psychological Gesture. In fact, they're not even mentioned. But it does provide some compelling evidence for the thinking behind Chekhov's claims. Namely that body movement/poses can cause us to feel different emotions. If you have any doubts that this is true, try this…
Thrust both your arms so that they are fully extended above your head and make your hands into fists and hold them there a moment. Now take note of how it makes you feel. Do you feel happy? Even just a little? Victorious? Did you want to smile? What Amy Cuddy proves in her lecture is that, in as little as two minutes of holding that pose, your body increases it's testosterone level by about 20% (which give you a felling of power) AND lowers your cortisol level by about 15% (which lowers your stress level). What a cool thing to do just before you go in to audition or any stressful situation!
Soooo, moving on to Chekhov's technique, you may be wondering; What exactly IS this "Psychological Gesture" and practically speaking, how does one use it in their acting?
Lisa Dalton, President of the National Michael Chekhov Association, sums it up nicely:
"If we define gesture to mean a movement that has intention, we could say that the Psychological Gesture (PG) is a movement that expresses the psychology of the character. Chekhov defines the psychology to consist of the thoughts, feelings and will of a human being. Hence, the PG is a physical expression of the thoughts, feelings and desires of the character, incorporated into one movement…"
"...So, in one movement, the PG awakens the essence of the character in you thus aligning your thoughts, feelings and will (objective) with that of the character. When this happens, your walk, your expressive mannerisms, your voice and line delivery are all inspired by one moving image. You perform the gesture prior to your scene to trigger your artistic nature. While in the scene, if your inspiration weakens, you simply envision the gesture in your imagination as you are acting and it will revitalize you."
Simply put, the PG is one definite movement that awakens in you, the essence of the character. Once perfected, it can be done internally (in your imagination) instead of physically, to make you feel like you are your character. In my classes, I advocate using PG in what I call "the moment before", that is, in the moments before the director says "Action". It makes you feel as though you are the character instead of yourself. It's like a shoe-horn to help you slip into your character.
The PG doesn't replace the way I teach creating "the moment before" in my technique, rather it 's an additional step that can be taken BEFORE creating a moment before.
Chekhov's own students included Marilyn Monroe, Anthony Quinn, Clint Eastwood, Yul Brynner, Jack Palance, Elia Kazan, Paula Strasberg, and Lloyd Bridges. Moreover, noted actors such as Johnny Depp and Anthony Hopkins and Jack Nicholson have cited Chekhov's book as highly influential on their acting. Beatrice Straight also thanked Chekhov in her acceptance speech after winning her Oscar for her performance in Network (1976).
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