To the Actor – Discovering the Michael Chekhov Acting Technique

To the Actor – Discovering the Michael Chekhov Acting Technique

Pictured: Michael Chekhov

In PerformInk’s series “The Craft”, we invite professionals in the educational field to discuss the benefits and/or the history behind the craft they teach. To read past blogs click here.

By Dawn Arnold


Michael Chekhov (nephew of playwright Anton Chekhov) wrote one of the best books on acting you can read, To the Actor. There is another edition, On the Technique of Acting. Read these and you will find inspiration for your art and practical, effective tools for your craft. Chekhov understood the path an actor takes to fulfill their desire to be the best actor they can be and found ways to help actors develop and improve their work.

“The actor should never worry about his talent, but rather about his lack of technique, his lack of training, and his lack of understanding of the creative process.”

–Michael Chekhov, To the Actor

Chekhov’s technique engages the whole actor physically, psychologically, and imaginatively through improvisational exploration. It is creative and inspiring, allowing actors to focus on and expand their natural ability. The technique is also efficient and once learned, actors can find it immensely practical, meeting them where they are in their acting and taking them to where they want to be.

To the Actor (or On the Technique of Acting) is full of exercises that guide this improvisational exploration. It’s difficult to figure them out at first from the book. You need to do them with a Chekhov teacher in a class situation. These exercises (and others like them) form the basis for Chekhov classes and workshops. Once you get a feel for the modus-operandi of Chekhov’s approach a whole actor-practice is opened up for you.

The technique begins with an acknowledgment of the interconnectedness of mind and body.

“In our technique there are no purely physical exercises, all exercises are psycho-physical.”

–Michael Chekhov, To the Actor

In every Chekhov class actors are up on their feet working the entire class, sometimes playing as an ensemble, sometimes working with partners, and sometimes exploring an idea with solo concentration. There is time for discussion, but that follows the work. What actors learn is that the physical engagement enables them to find inner connections. In another book, Lessons for the Professional Actor, Chekhov summarizes his approach,
“All the points of the method can be understood from the point of view of transforming the outer thing into the inner life, and changing the inner life into the outer event.”

Chekhov training is organized to start with essentials of human experience and then progress to relating these essentials to the specifics of the script. The first lessons in Chekhov Technique develop awareness of the actor’s instrument, the psycho-physical body. Some actors have had some actor-movement training, so they might be familiar with the types of movement involved in a Chekhov class: free-form shape/flow (similar to Laban), playing with rhythms and tempi, moving with different qualities, etc. If that kind of movement is not familiar to you, you will soon discover that it is liberating. More than that, it is informing you, leading you to realizations of what you have within yourself waiting to be expressed.

Every class begins with focused giving and receiving, learning to do this with the whole being truthful, to listen fully, to respond organically. Continuing the essentials, actors become aware of their own thinking, feeling, and willing abilities. They learn to embody human qualities and sensations. They discover the vocabulary of archetypal actions that are the raw material of scenes.

You might say that all these essentials are working on yourself. Chekhov, however, makes a distinction between the everyday self and what he calls the ‘creative individuality.’ Working out from this actor-artist perspective, you can find an objectivity that allows you to interact with your ensemble without your social mask and create your characters freely from your artistic perceptions.

Each session is devoted to exploring one or two particular points of focus or ‘tools’. In his book, On the Technique of Acting, there is a chart illustrating these tools. The most foundational of these is the psychological gesture. The psychological gesture brings the mind, imagination, and physical experience together. Actors work with the psychological gesture at first as a discovery process to understand a character and a moment, then later as a way to make contact with it again, and finally, feeling its impact on them in performance.

As actors explore what the tool offers them and develop their skill, they arrive at realizations about themselves and about the characters they play, like a light bulb being switched on. As Chekhov described it to his student, Mala Powers,

“We soon find that we have only to consciously illuminate two or three light bulbs before a chain reaction begins and several more light up without our ever having to give them special attention. When a sufficient number of these light bulbs are shining brightly, we find that inspiration strikes with greater frequency than before.”

– On the Technique of Acting

One of the things that actors love about the Chekhov approach is the work with imagination. Chekhov saw actors in his time losing their ability to imagine and to transform themselves by means of their imagination. Working with the imagination expands our creative and expressive options. Merged with the essential work on presence and responsiveness, actors can play beyond the boundaries of the everyday self and be truthful.

Exploring a script this way and developing a part is not work but what acting was intended to be, play. Text analysis is engaging as we try different tools to create a world, inhabit a character, and find the meaning in our script. We may only work on a short bit of a scene at a time but each session is satisfying in itself if we feel we have arrived at a genuine moment of acting. This is what we often long to do in rehearsal, but never have the time. As rehearsal processes become shorter, the Chekhov studio becomes the haven for the actor to really do their work.

When Chekhov was developing his technique and writing his book, he assumed that he was speaking to actors who had been acting, studying, rehearsing, performing, and still found themselves looking for more in their work. He calls them, “my colleagues,” and invites them to explore with him. Some famous actors such as Anthony Hopkins and Johnny Depp have done just that and found that Chekhov’s technique opened doors for their creations of memorable characters and successful careers.

A Chekhov class is a lab for actors who are seeking and working on their art. As organized at Chekhov Studio Chicago, there are essentials classes to learn (or refresh) the basics of the technique and then options of continuing classes and workshops for actors to explore the many advanced ‘light bulbs’ to take their acting to new dimensions.

No longer the best-kept secret, the Michael Chekhov Acting Technique is fast becoming well recognized as one of the most significant acting approaches. The last decade has seen studios pop up all over the country and more faculty bringing this approach into theatre and film programs in high schools and colleges. In Chicago, Chekhov Studio Chicago offers year round classes and workshops.

Chekhov Studio Chicago is affiliated with MICHA, the Michael Chekhov Association. Actors from Chekhov Studio Chicago also go to train at MICHA. When they return to Chicago, the studio is the place to keep working on their art and craft, for as Chekhov proved in his own life and work, the art of the actor is a lifelong journey.

About author

Dawn Arnold

Dawn Arnold is Artistic Director of The Moving Dock Theatre Company and Chekhov Studio Chicago. With The Moving Dock she has directed/created "Unsung Stars," "Celestial Mechanics- or the Questionable Attraction of Entities," "Savage/Love," and "The Anton Chekhov Book Club," and co-directed/adapted "Galway Bay," "Einstein’s Dreams," and "Ocean Sea." She is a certified teacher of the Michael Chekhov Acting Technique, trained by the Michael Chekhov Association (MICHA). She appears in the documentary "Master Classes in the Michael Chekhov Technique" produced by the Michael Chekhov Association. Along with her teaching at Chekhov Studio Chicago, she is on the faculty of the Michael Chekhov Association (MICHA), the Michael Chekhov Acting Studio New York City, and Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Opera Center. She is a guest teaching artist at colleges and theatre companies around the country.