About a month ago, I gave a sermon about some of The Michael Chekhov Technique at our church. It was a bit of a shock because my family and I just started going to the local Universalist Unitarian Church less than a year ago, but I am always game for new experiences and I agreed to do it. Below is a copy of the speech that I gave. Please note that I neither endorse or condemn any religion, nor do I feel Michael Chekhov or The Chekhov Technique should be used for religious purposes. When Chekhov talks about the "spirit", he is primarily talking about the actor's Artistic Spirit which is something that isn't talked about a lot and I feel could and should be explored. But that's neither here nor there. I do want to take a moment to thank my many mentors and colleagues in the Chekhov Technique who I'm sure will recognize the effect they have had on me in this sermon; particularly Lisa Dalton who is quite simply, an amazing person and teacher.
Hi, my name is Jeff Thomakos. I am a professional actor, director, and teacher. My first lead in a play was in the 6th grade and I never really stopped so my involvement in theatre spans 35 years of my life. I hold an MFA in acting from Wayne State’s Hilberry program, I am the former Artistic Director of Water Works Theatre in Royal Oak. And currently I run an acting studio, Michigan Michael Chekhov Classes, out of Troy.
My family and I have been attending this church since February of this year and I was deeply honored that I was asked to give the sermon for you today. To be honest, I’ve never pictured myself giving a sermon in a church…like ever, but I was talking a bit about myself to our friends Kelly and Mark, that I’m an acting teacher, and how I feel that the style of acting that I teach can help everyone, even non-actors and they were kind enough to recommend that I tell everyone a little more about it.
So first of all, I believe that everyone is in their heart an artist. I’m not just talking about the accountants who do improv or the history teachers who can sing you the entire Gilbert and Sullivan Songbook. I’m not just talking about the incredibly talented painters, sculptors and writers whose co-workers know nothing of the secret artist sitting beside them.
You don’t have to pick up a paintbrush to be an artist. You must simply possess creativity and a willingness to use it. Without creative thought, how could anyone start a business, become an entrepreneur, or have an original idea? Without possessing the soul of an artist, how can one simply appreciate a beautiful day or a piece of music or the color of our lover’s eyes.
The world needs artists, the world needs art to function. Artists bring light to the human soul. And art is as natural to us as anything we do. Look at any baby or toddler and one of the first needs they express right after food, sleep, and diaper changes is the need to take something that makes a mark and put it up against something that will be marked. In our son’s case, it was a sharpie and the entirety of our hallway, but the point is valid. The need for self-expression is right up there with food, sleep, water, and air.
Why? Well, finding that artist within ourself just plain feels great. We don’t have to be great artists to feel it either. What is great art anyway? “Great” art sits in museums. Cold and isolated, it’s appreciated but rarely loved. And that’s a shame because art is love.
The great 20th Century acting teacher, Michael Chekhov said that all art is an act of love. And it’s true. Any parent can tell you that. When your child draws you a picture, I defy anyone not to look at it and know this is true. Your child has this need for you to see it. Not only to see it, but to cherish it. Not only to cherish it, but to keep it forever. It’s practically unthinkable to them that you would throw it away. It is love. A tangible expression of love.
That’s the way any good actor feels about their audience. We love the audience. We need for them to see our art, to appreciate all the work we put in for them, so that we can show them that we love them and so that we can get their love in return. Ah, the applause. We need it so.
Finding the artist within ourselves is tantamount to opening ourselves up to a higher love. We become better listeners, because we learn how to listen. We become better at loving others, because we learn how to love ourselves. We become better at loving everything because we look for the beauty, form, and ease in every moment, and we begin to see the ever present connection all things have with ourselves and each other.
So how do we find the creative artist within ourselves? Well, the first step is learning how to listen. This sounds easy, but most people don’t really know how or with what we listen with. So, the first exercise I want everyone to do is go, “Who Me?” And point to yourself. [They do]. I see that most of you pointed to this area [indicated chest and IAC]. You did not point to your head, your belly, or any other part of yourself. This is because, and you know this whether you know it or not, this part [IAC] is where you’re at most of the time. It IS you. It is the very center of your will-force.
Most people believe we listen with our ears. But how do we show we are listening? Is it like this [cups ears]? I’m listening. When you’re telling your best friend about your dying dog or your true love or your hopes and dreams do they go: [cupping ear] I’m listening? Or do they go [opening arms] I’m listening? This [indicating the IAC] is called our Ideal Artistic Center. This is where we listen from. This is where all of our energy radiates from and all of our listening or what Michael Chekhov called “receiving” happens. To him, receiving meant to draw towards oneself with the utmost inner power, the things, persons, or events of a situation. To draw towards one’s self.
We know this is true innately. When we speak to someone with folded arms, what does that tell us about the person we are talking to? Doesn’t it feel like they aren’t listening? We know they are covering up and hiding from us in some way, don’t we? But when someone says “talk to me” with arms open wide, we know they want to receive us. To bring us into them. Incidentally, this [opening arms] is also the beginning of a hug. A hug is an expression of love, isn’t it? So listening is also an expression of love.
So, yes, the first step in listening is drawing towards your self the world and people around you. But what is your “self” anyway. Being an acting teacher, this is something that we think about a lot. Are you always “yourself” when you are onstage playing a character? Where is the line between who you really are and the character you are playing? How do you make the distinction?
Chekhov says that our Artistic Natures have two aspects: one that is merely sufficient for our ordinary existence and another of a higher order that marshals the creative power within us. In other words we have our Lower self which is basically our conscious self, the person driving the bus. Our personality, our likes, our dislikes, our basic human drives are all part of this lower self.
Across many, many systems of belief there is the theory of the higher self and the lower self. Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, and others all put forth an idea of the higher self as that which connects us to the higher consciousness or God or whatever you want to call it. I am an actor not a theologian, so I can’t speak to this as pertains to our soul necessarily, but what I can say is that this presents a way to think of ourselves in terms of our imaginations that is very helpful to the creative artist.
The artist-within-us must simply have a higher sense of self-awareness than everyone else. They must be conscious of all these things that are playing around with our sense of self as much as possible. They must be honest with themselves, seeing their true strengths and weaknesses for what they are, being careful not to be over-confident or to sell themselves short.
The artist must tap into their Higher Selves to find their Creative Individuality. Michael Chekhov teaches that the Higher Self is the Real Artist in you. It takes the building blocks of your lower self, your experiences, your genealogy, your personality and uses them to create something inspired, your artistic masterpiece. It allows you to be flexible, sensitive, and receptive to all creative impulses; it stirs your imagination and it makes you original and inventive, awakening and maintaining your ability to improvise, to live moment to moment.
Again, the Higher Self is the artist within us that stands behind all of our creative powers. It is the world of objective imagination that both inspires us and creates distance between ourselves and our creations. From this Higher Self we are able to break the cliche’ of invention and give birth to something that is uniquely ours, uniquely us. It is our higher judgement from which we are able to discern the battle between good and evil that lies within all works of art, our feeling of what is true and what is false, and how we develop a sensitivity to the audience that must exist in order for art to reach its highest potential. The higher self is where our sense of humor comes from because it is from there that we can attain a sense of detachment from ourselves and see ourselves at a distance. Additionally, it facilitates a sense of objectivity which allows us to see ourselves and others in a more compassionate light.
So where does this higher self reside? In my classes, I call this space: “DUH”. As in <<DUH>>. It’s the place where inspiration comes from and goes to. It exists in the air above us and, once more, we seem to know it by instinct. When we have a great idea, we go “EUREKA” and point to the sky. When we forget something we slap ourselves on the head and gesture to the sky. When we describe someone who seems absent of ideas and thoughts, we describe them as “air-headed” or “He has his head in the clouds” When we describe ourselves having a great idea, we show a lightbulb over someone’s head. Our ideas “Take flight”. We think up something not down. Sometimes our ideas are pie-in-the-sky. We need to get up to speed so we’ll be up to snuff. I’m sorry, I’m just trying to get you up to date on the up to the minute details of the Higher Self.
I mentioned before that all art is a battle between good and evil and here is what I mean by that. Objectively every play, every movie, every book or story that you read represents the battle between good and evil. Oscar Wilde once said, “The good end happily, the bad unhappily, that is what fiction means.” And this is true to some extent. Although the good guys don’t actually always win in the end, we root for them usually in every play. We want Hamlet to do right in the end, because he represents the good intentions of all of us, no matter how badly he ends up mucking things up in the end. We need Luke to defeat Darth Vader and Harry Potter to defeat Voldemort. Whether or not Scrooge learns the true meaning of Christmas or not is irrelevant, what matters is that in most cases the author or playwright or creator desires us to sympathize with the powers of good and root against evil.
This applies to other forms of art as well. It was Keats who said “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.” Joy is happiness and the pursuit of happiness is something we can all agree is a noble and worthy goal. Who can not say that when looking at and appreciating gratefully a sunset, a painting, a beautiful building. Is there not an atmosphere of reverence in any museum? A feeling of touching something greater than ourselves? Finding the beauty both on the surface and within is a sacred act. It is not only our pleasure but our duty.
That said, many works of art (Michaelangelo’s David, Davinci’s Last Supper, Washington Crossing the Delaware) are intended to glorify something that the artist felt was worth celebrating. Other works of art (The Scream or the more disturbing works of Heironymous Bosch or Francisco Goya), one could argue, are meant to bear witness to the darker side of the human experience. Speaking for myself, I never feel inclined towards evil or darkness after experiencing these works, but I am taken by their sublime power and drawn to appreciate the beauty still in the work. It’s feeling of form, the ease of line and color, the entire experience as a whole.
We experience these works through our higher understanding and our lower impulses. Much like the eating of food, we appreciate the taste while understanding the physical benefits. We are connected to the artist through our higher selves. We understand the intent of the work and let it speak to our best selves as a result.
How can any actor hope to play a murderer or a rapist without understanding this on some level. I have played my share of very bad people on stage. That doesn’t make me a bad person necessarily, nor does it imply that I, the actor, am rooting for evil over good. The better I play the bad guy, the better the story. This understanding of my place in the whole story is essential to my being able to fully understand my part in it, The Feeling of the Whole.
This is one of what Michael Chekhov calls, The Four Brothers in Art. This is the first step to Artistic Awareness. It is vital for the artist to get a sense of the whole play, the painter to understand the whole canvas, the singer to get a feel for the whole song. Otherwise, the artist can get lost in the little details of the work and never really understand how to find the balance and form of the entire artistic product.
Of course, this Feeling of the Whole is easily translatable to our everyday lives. Yes, living moment-to-moment is important, but it’s equally important to understand that each little moment makes up the entirety of our days. And those days make up the whole years of our whole lives. The artist within us, understands that we are one part of a whole planet of a whole universe. This Feeling of the Whole let’s us gain perspective and accomplish our goals. Without a Feeling of the Whole, how can we find empathy within ourselves? How do we not get lost in the endless small stuff that fills up the tiny moments of our lives?
Another Brother in Art is The Feeling of Beauty. Now, we are not talking about superficial beauty, how someone looks or dresses is not the beauty the artist seeks. True beauty has it’s roots inside the human being. True beauty is truth itself. It is something authentic that resonates with our higher self. As actors, Chekhov recommends that we especially focus on beauty in scenes of pain or violence, because it helps to remind us that what we are working on is art, not real life.
But in life as well, true beauty is a part of everything, even things that are superficially ugly. Finding the beauty in the world is something that the true artist practices every day. It requires work and objectivity. It requires openness and bravery. It is harder than finding ugliness because finding what is ugly requires less from us. This is not to say that we do nothing in the face of injustice or the world’s ugliness. It just means that seeing the beauty allows us to not get lost. It allows us to find love and act lovingly towards others. It allows us to forgive.
The third Brother in Art I would like to talk about is the Feeling of Ease. Chekhov describes this as a kind of lightness of touch. He felt heaviness or forced effort was an uncreative power. He created the concept because he felt saying “relax” to his students had the opposite effect of what he was going for. Think about it. When someone says “relax” to you what goes through your mind? What does he mean “relax”? I thought I was relaxed. I’ll try harder to relax then. Wait I’m now more tense and in my head than before. Aaaggghhh! But saying to his actors, try to do this thing with a feeling of ease made a huge difference. Suddenly they were using ease as a tool rather than trying to change a state of being that they felt they had no control over.
For the average person, this approach can have many benefits. So many times we say to ourselves just relax or are told to relax in impossible situations. A job interview, a big date, a sermon. How can we ask ourselves to relax under such conditions. We are only human after all. But, when you say to yourself, I am going to give this speech with a feeling of ease, suddenly everything opens up. You are making the intangible tangible and whether you are “pretending” or not, the end result is the same. You are breathing again.
Finally, the fourth Brother in Art is the Feeling of Form. In what I teach, this is a kind of recognition of the compositional structure in each moment. It forces us to reject vague or shapeless movement or action and allows us to concretely play each moment with specificity of intent. This is important for artists because the artist needs to know exactly the kind of effect he or she wishes to produce and how to accomplish it. Not only that, but for performers, they need to be able to repeat the form at will every night. All art has to have this feeling of form. Not only to the artist creating it, but to the audience or observer. Otherwise, the impact is lost.
In life, we have to know and be aware of the beginning, middle, and end of things. We need this to set our tasks and accomplish them. We need to know the beginning of the beginning, middle to the beginning, and the end to the beginning. It would even be helpful to know the beginning to the beginning of the beginning. The middle to the beginning of the beginning. And the end to the beginning of the beginning. And so on. Being aware of form is an essential life skill. It makes seeing the whole beautiful picture so much easier. Without it, we are in a muddle. Not knowing where to begin is one of the biggest roadblocks keeping us from what we want in life. Not knowing when to stop is what keeps us from connecting from others. We are called life forms for a reason.
Which brings me to the end of my sermon here today. I wanted to leave you with Chekhov’s vision for a Theatre of the Future. Michael Chekhov felt that those who create Theater must take responsibility for the impact their productions have upon their audience. They must be willing to ask if what is being presented to the spectators has any value for them as human beings. The more brilliant the artists, the more they must develop a certain moral imagination that will lead us into a more positive future. This moral imagination, he felt, would open the hearts of our fellow men. My belief is that that is precisely what our job is on this earth. To forever attempt to open people’s hearts. Because I believe as Chekhov did, that doing this we can create miracles. Thank you. Have a wonderful day.