Outside-In or Inside-Out? Chekhov’s Technique says “Nope to both”
One of the biggest misconceptions about the Chekhov Technique is that it takes an Outside-In approach to acting. What this typically means is that the actor performs some physical gesture and from the gesture derives or shows an emotional response based on that gesture. An inside-out approach means that the actor feels a certain emotion and from that emotion is moved to physicalize their emotion in some way.
Another way of looking at this is in terms of characterization. In this sense, Outside-in might mean that I put on a costume and from seeing myself in that costume, I allow some kind of transformation to happen within myself. Inside-out might mean that I create my character inwardly and from that inward transformation, I can choose what costume best fits my creation.
Stanislavski is famous for his inside-out approach to the craft in which he emphasized finding the inner life of the character using oneself as a kind of anchor. He created his “System”, in fact, because he was dissatisfied with the mode of acting that was being used worldwide at the time in which the acting was largely superficial and exterior with any kind of truthful emotion by the actor on stage being frowned upon.
In America, his System morphed into Method Acting, made famous by actors such as Marlon Brando and Dustin Hoffman under the tutelage of instructors such as Stella Adler and Lee Strasberg. Method Acting makes even more use of the actor’s own psychology in creating a role and uses a technique called “substitution” which calls upon the actor to substitute events from his or her actual lives for use on stage. (PS. This is super dangerous. More on that in a future blog.)
Many teachers have since voiced their opposition to this approach. Meisner, for example, felt that actors should take an outside-in approach meaning that the actor should fully immerse themselves in the given circumstances of the role and concentrate on their scene partner in order to “Live truthfully under imaginary circumstances.”
However, Chekhov takes a far more pragmatic approach to the outside-in/inside-out dilemma. He believed that neither approach was sufficient for the actor’s work. Moreover, since Chekhov believed that humans are an integrated system whose physical bodies are tightly and conjointly intertwined with their thoughts, feelings, and imaginations, any approach that focuses on such a methodology is inherently flawed. Chekhov believed that we are multi-leveled beings and the characters we create are therefore also multi-leveled. As such every physicalization the actor undertakes has the potential to elicit an emotional response and every emotion has the potential to elicit a physical response not through cause and effect but because they are one and the same.
Chekhov further expands on this process through what he called The Four Stages of the Creative Process:
Atmosphere: The Feelings or Quality of the energy around a scene or play that affects everyone and everything in that place.
So, to put it another way: Using his/her imagination, the actor both receives & supplies the Atmosphere of the scene, character, play, etc. The atmosphere, in turn, affects the character and is incorporated into the character’s being which is then sent out or radiated from the character. The actor is then inspired to internal (quality and feelings) and external (physical) action. This is all happening simultaneously throughout the performance.
In sum, we are constantly using our body and mind at the same time in an inseparable way. Just because we are focusing on one, doesn’t mean that the other is not in use. Trying to focus only from the inside-out tends to create “heady”, minimalist performances that are either devoid of strong characterization or simply fail to reach the audience through a radiated performance. Focusing on the outside-in can create superficial performances that are not grounded in the truthful psychology of the character. This is not to say that other techniques or approaches to acting don’t work, just that Chekhov tends to embrace the polarity of both the interior of the actor’s psyche and the exterior physicalization of the performance, filling the process with a sense of ease and wholeness. This is essential to the artist’s work.