The Rhythm of Space and the Sound of Time: Michael Chekhov’s Acting Technique in the 21st Century


by Cynthia Ashperger
Rodopi, Amsterdam and New York, NY, 2008
368 pp. Paper, $112/€ 80
ISBN: 978-90-420-2387-1.

Reviewed by Franc Chamberlain
University College Cork
Cork, Republic of Ireland

Franc.chamberlain@gmail.com

Divided into five chapters plus an introduction, a short conclusion, and appendices, The Rhythm of Space and the Sound of Time commences with an exploration of the philosophical and spiritual influences on Michael Chekhov’s technique, before moving into an extended consideration of recent developments in Chekhovian pedagogy. Focusing on the work of the Michael Chekhov Association (MICHA), Ashperger examines the practice of eight key teachers of the technique: Joanna Merlin, Fern Sloan, Ted Pugh, Slava Kokorin, Sarah Kane, Lenard Petit, David Zinder, and Per Brahe. By cross-referencing the work of these teachers to the work of each other and Chekhov’s own instructions for teachers, as well as to her own work as a teacher, Ashperger provides a valuable insight into current practice. The inclusion of critically reflective documentation from both her own experience as a student of the technique and that of her students provides an important dimension to the discussion, ensuring that the student experience is kept in mind throughout. The appendices include descriptions of, and reflections on, eighteen key exercises from the technique and variations, some of which are published here for the first time.

The book is clearly written and is accessible, for the most part, to undergraduates and the general reader interested in the contemporary actor-training in general and the work of Michael Chekhov in particular. As the first book to attempt to investigate contemporary approaches to the Chekhov technique, it provides an important resource for researchers in a growing field.

The first part of the book, the Introduction and ‘Philosophical and Spiritual Influences of Michael Chekhov’s Acting Technique: A History’, raises a number of issues which would need a volume of their own to untangle. Ashperger clearly articulates the relationship between the work of Goethe, Steiner, and Chekhov but when she’s discussing the links between Chekhov’s thinking and that of Tibetan Buddhism, Hinduism, and Schopenhauer’s philosophy, it’s not always clear whether the links are those made by Chekhov and his contemporaries or whether they are being made from a twenty-first century perspective. For example, Chekhov is quite clear that he progressed from a Schopenhauer inspired pessimism, through an exploration of yoga and Theosophy, to Steiner’s Anthroposophy. Yogic philosophy had given Chekhov a way out of pessimism, but he was disturbed by the ‘extreme orientalism’ of Theosophy and felt that it underestimated ‘the significance of Christ and the Mystery of Golgotha’ [1]. Anthroposophy, in contrast, offered a meaningful interpretation of the Christ event and this is a key reason why Chekhov was drawn to it. Neither Steiner nor Chekhov self-identified as Buddhists, but Ashperger suggests that the ‘Buddhist idea of individual enlightenment remained the primary source of the kind of contemplative wisdom embraced by Anthroposophy’ (p.32). It is unclear why, when Steiner and Chekhov emphasize the contemplative approach of Goethe, Ashperger stresses links to Buddhism in this section. That there were Buddhist teachings and practices impacting on early twentieth-century theatre that haven’t yet been fully investigated is almost certainly the case, but Ashperger’s approach is more to show how Steiner and Chekhov’s work can be interpreted in a way that is compatible with some forms of early twenty-first century Buddhism. I don’t disagree that such an interpretation may be possible and fruitful, indeed, Ashperger cites one of my own articles where I offered a (superficial) comparison between the spirituality implicit in the Chekhov technique and Buddhism [2]. In the context of a history of philosophical and historical influences on Chekhov’s technique, however, it obscures what Chekhov and Steiner considered the differences between Anthroposophy and Buddhism. In contrast, when references to contemporary Buddhist practice are made in the context of the discussion of current teaching practice, they are useful and instructive.

The bulk of The Rhythm of Space and the Sound of Time is made up of a study of contemporary Chekhovian pedagogy and provides a description and analysis of current teaching styles, the effectiveness of the approach, the impact of the work on selected participants, and a consideration of introductory and advanced-level classes in the technique.

References

[1] Michael Chekhov, The Path of the Actor, edited by Bella Merlin and Andrei Kirillov, Routledge 2005 p.133.

[2] Franc Chamberlain, ‘Michael Chekhov, Pedagogy, Spirituality, and the Occult’ Toronto Slavic Quarterly 4 (2003).


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