The Key to 21st Century Acting
To say I am an actor but not familiar with Michael Chekhov is to say I am a fighter, but who was Muhammad Ali? Michael Chekhov was so influential, such a visionary, so ahead of his time, that it is one of the greatest artistic injustices of the 20th century for his work to have been overlooked by the media, taking a second place to that of Lee Strasberg, Sanford Meisner, and Stella Adler. Certainly the former three Americans from the Group Theater were influential visionaries in their own rights, but 21st century scientific and creative advances are without a doubt confirming that it was Chekhov who saw beyond his time, his psycho-physical acting exploring and defining processes that weren't just effective training for the actor, but mind-blowing ways of accessing energy itself. It has taken discoveries in the fields of modern quantum physics to actually show that what Chekhov described and put into practice in the 1930's was more than theory, it is now proven fact.
One reason may be that Michael Chekhov was insatiable in his quest for understanding what made actors tick. He didn't stop with the field of psychology or the observation of actors' processes, he looked to the mystics of the East, he looked to the anthroposophic movement, he looked to his own self destructive nature and found answers that are still ahead of their time.
Given the fact that he lacked the knack for self promotion that his American counterparts had, he remains somewhat obscure. There are a couple of Michael Chekhov teachers, a couple of conferences here and there, but it is not a predominant force in the field of 21st century acting - a shame, because there is much to be learned from Michael Chekhov.
Sanford Meisner himself, observing the luminescent quality of actors trained by Michael Chekhov observed that this was something that he himself would like to know how to do, but he never took the trouble to learn it. Part of the problem is that all of Chekhov's contemporaries were concerned with naturalism, playing things realistically and believably. Their techniques were really meant for the kitchen sink realism of the New York theater of the 1930's. And while their work can still help actors learn realism, performances can also be dull, commonplace, and often full of self centered emotion, which is only there to show the audience or the camera that the actor has the ability to feel everyday feelings.
Chekhov was far more courageous, saying it is an actor's job to bring not just himself to the part, but his imagination, and to create characters and performances that transcend and change people's lives, the way his performances did. People would line up in the blistering Moscow winter and wait hours and hours to see a Michael Chekhov performance, this kind of devotion doesn't happen because an actor is "truthful." It happens because the audience gets to enjoy, for the price of admission, a life changing experience.
Go figure, maybe Spider Man 4 is a life changing experience for some, and maybe that's all we need today – special effects to take the place of actors taking us to another place, transcending the ordinary and creating the extraordinary, actors looking at what is, and creating what could be, actors going beyond the limits of simple reality.
But Johnny Depp, Anthony Hopkins, Ben Kingsley, and many others would disagree. These artists quietly use Chekhov's tools to bring to life every part they play, paying homage to the humble, diminutive, unassuming Master through the quality of their work; we should be inspired to do the same.