Long ago, when I was just beginning my acting career, I was convinced that I would never want to teach. Now, 2016, forty-five years after I first began teaching as a Teaching Assistant at the Drama Department of UC Berkeley, teaching has become my passion, second in importance only to directing in my creative life.
My son, Ariel, once told me that if he had to choose between giving a seminar to five avid students in the esoteric area of his expertise, Medieval Hebrew liturgical and laic poetry in Spain, and teaching literature to 30 high school students – if he had to choose between these two he would choose the high school class. When I asked him why, his answer was simple: because, he said, I want to be able to help shape many minds, to teach large numbers of students and influence the development of their understanding of literature. (Now he is trying to do both – he is teaching Medieval Spanish/Hebrew poetry at Tel Aviv University and searching – and finding – ways to make this esoteric area available and attractive to as many students as possible.) My own passion for teaching is very similar. My greatest pride, beyond most of my productions of which I am very proud, is the fact that in the past 42 years (since I first began teaching at Berkeley in 1973), I have taught hundreds, if not thousands, of students all over the world – in Tel Avi, from LA in the west to Singapore in the East, via countless workshops and teaching appointments in the US, the UK, Denmark, Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain, Serbia, Croatia, Germany, Romania, India, and Taiwan. Here is the story of this journey.
Phase I – 1971-76: The Drama Department at the University of California, Berkeley.
In my second year of my PhD studies at the Drama Department at UC Berkeley I was asked by the Henry May, the Chairman of, to become a Teaching Assistant, and to teach first–year acting, I panicked! I said yes, because my wife and I needed the money, but I was totally at a loss as to what to do. I felt as though I had no technique that I could actually teach. I had never studied how to use the Stanislavsky Method, I had only academic knowledge of the American offshoot of Stanislavsky, The Method, I had only barely heard of the Meisner Technique, let alone studied it at any time, and what I had learned about the Michael Chekhov Technique from Peter Frye was a wonderful, but distant memory that did not add up to a technique.
There was only one thing in the entire corpus of acting techniques in which I had had a thorough training, and actual professional practice: the Viola Spolin Theatre Games technique of improvisation which I had learned in my two years with Jacqueline Kronberg in Jerusalem. Having no other tools in my box, this is what I began to teach, learning all the time about what it was like to teach it, and, more importantly, what it was really all about: the creativity/improvisation tandem.
I counted on the fact that the two other acting teachers in the department, Marty Berman and Debbie Sussel, would give the students mainstream acting techniques so that I was free to do my thing, and besides – I had nothing else to give my students.
Accident, panic, and a need to rely on the only part of acting that I knew well, led me into the exploration of the world of images and gave me the first insights into the body/imagination syndrome which is, to this day, the core of my understanding of the creative mechanism of the actor.
Phase II: 1976 – 2004: The Theatre Arts Department at Tel Aviv University
Returning to Israel in 1976 with my PhD in hand to a job promised me a year earlier at the Theatre Arts Department of Tel Aviv University, I agreed to come on to the “Parallel” tenure track according to which my promotion would be based on my creative work and my teaching, and no written research would be necessary. Despite some of the administrative disadvantages of that track, it was clear to me that what I wanted to do was to teach acting and to direct, and that the university framework, with its repertorial leeway and freedom from box office anxieties, would be the ideal platform for my avant-garde leanings in theatre.
During these first 15 years at the department, I directed many unusual plays, the first of which was Apollinaire’s The Breasts of Tiresias. This was followed by Roger Vitrac’s Surrealist drama Victor, and later Ubu Roi and The Marat/Sade (for a full list of my productions, see CV and Productions). At the same time I continued developing my teaching, which, for lack of anything more substantial, I simply called “Images”. I was highly eclectic in the exercises I introduced, creating what eventually turned out to be a not altogether consistent mix of training formats. I used the Psychological Gesture that I had learned from Peter Frye; I adopted some of the exercises that interested me in Chekhov’s To the Actor without understanding it then as part of an overall technique; I applied exercises dealing with the use of images in physical movement that I had learned from Joe Chaikin and Eugenio Barba; and created some of my own in the same vein. Still, there was no technique. Asked from time to time what it was that I was teaching, my answer remained definite but not defined: Images. And I was constantly questioning myself on the applicability of these exercises to actual professional work. After all, Joe Chaikin and Eugenio Barba developed their concepts of performance with very specialized theatre groups of their own. I was trying to take part in a process of developing actors for the professional stage in Israel – a very different creative constellation.
It was during this first phase of my teaching that I also went to Holstebro to the Odin Teatret, where I spent two weeks watching their training, their rehearsals (bringing in a new actor to replace Tony Cots in The Million) and a performance of Brecht’s Ashes. Everything that I had heard from Eugenio about the Odin when he was in Israel in 1979– it’s company, it’s form of Training and its imagistic theatre language, became profoundly clear and strengthened my resolve to develop something similar in my own work.
One immediate result of this development was my insistence on teaching one class for two years consecutively. In this way I could approximate the kind of Training process that I had learned from the Odin. The first year was devoted entirely to training in physical expression, improvisation/creativity, and the use of images. There was use of voice, but no use of text, except for the final project which was a “choreography” of a Japanese haiku, based on the technique that had taught the students in the use of images, in the connection between the body, the voice and the imagination. The second year was devoted to work on texts, with a final, devised, project – a joint creation with the students, usually an adaptation of a classic into an unusual format (among these were BloodWedding, Hamlet, and Macbeth – for more on these see DIRECTOR)
1992, Saintes and Bratislava – Finding the Through-Line
In 1991 I attended a conference organized in the city of Saintes in France by the Conservatoire de l’Art Dramatique, from Liège in Belgium. The conference, called Beyond Stanislavski included workshops by the famous Russian movement teacher, Andre Drajnin, by a Laban teacher, and by Tony Cots, who had just left the Odin Theatre (and from whom I learned the sticks exercises that have become almost a trademark of my training). During the conference I learned about a bi-annual students’ theatre festival, ISTROPOLITANA, that takes place in Bratislava (then still Czechoslovakia), hosted by the local theatre school, VSMU. What is more, because of the radical changes that had taken place since 1989 in the formerly Communist countries, for the first time in its history the 1992 version of the ISTROPOLITANA festival would be opening its doors for the first time to Western theatre schools.
Toward the beginning of 1992, I had secured an invitation for the Theatre Arts Dept. to participate in the Festival, and managed to raise the funds to make it happen. A minor part of this huge effort was my offer to the Festival of a workshop gratis for their “day program”. This was the beginning of the most momentous change in my professional career as a teacher, and as a director.
In the middle of June 1992, I flew to Vienna in advance of my students, arriving there on a Friday, and arranging to leave by bus for Bratislava on Sunday for the opening of the Festival. On Friday night, I went out for a meal, then came back to my hotel room, sat down at the table and set myself a task: since, for the first time, I would be teaching students from twenty different theatre schools from around the world, Brazil to Australia, I was determined to teach differently than ever before, i.e. not use any of the exercises I had worked up over the previous six years. At around 19:30 I returned to my hotel room, took out a writing pad and began writing. What guided me was a desire to find some other way of teaching, and to solve, once and for all, my unease about exercises that I had been using that were either fun or enjoyable or both, but could not be clearly translated into professional theatre work. I continued writing virtually without a break until 8 o’clock the following morning, at which point I went out for breakfast and then came back and continued writing. What emerged from this marathon process was a wholesale “house cleaning”: based on this criterion of “what can’t be explained as being useful on stage – goes,” I had re-examined and then rejected nearly 75% percent of everything I had been teaching up until then. I felt very confident that in all those years of eclectic training I had done no damage to my students, and had inculcated in them important insights into the function of images in the actor’s creative work. What was missing was clarity and structure, so the process I went through that night was a kind of clearing away of the “underbrush” to reveal the through-line. When I finally emerged into the daylight, the river, which had been choked with weeds was now flowing freely and the stepping stones crossing it were finally visible. What I was going to teach from now on had a name, a form, a clear structure, and – to the best of my ability – total applicability to any form of theatre, not just the kind practiced by unique groups like the Odin or the Open Theatre. This was the birth of ImageWork – a complete training, based on:
a) The expansion of the actor’s physical expression – the improved ability to take on the physical attributes of the imagined character’s body.
b) The development of a highly sensitive facility of physical awareness (what do I look like at any given moment on stage, and what it means)
c) The development of the actor’s creative instrument through the connections between body and imagination;
d) The discovery of the connections between the body, the imagination and the voice.
Exhilarated by the discovery, I flew into my workshop at ISTROPOLITANA and, as I had planned, did not use a single exercise that I had been using before. This was just a first step. The next momentous development was not long in coming.
1992-1994, ATHE and the Chekhov connection.
In 1992 I applied to give a workshop at the annual conference of the Association for Theater in Higher Education (ATHE) in the US. This time, I had a much clearer idea of how I was going to teach my ImageWork, and the workshop was very well received. Excited by the reception of the workshop, I felt it there was a clear enough structure to try and put it down in writing as a book. I began outlining the new format of my teaching, putting it all together in a draft named CONNECTING. In 1993, on my way to another workshop at ATHE at the invitation of the Acting Forum, and with half the book written, I began literally walking around New York trying to find a publisher. Eventually, I knocked on the door of a small publishing house called Limelight Editions, where I was met by the publisher Mel Zerman, who decided to give my draft a try and told me that I would hear from them. Later that year, I was contacted by Joanna Roté who, at Limelight’s request, had read my draft of the first half of the book, and suggested some extensive revisions and corrections. This was not altogether disappointing because it meant that Limelight was still interested.
The workshop at ATHE, in 1993 was a double one – and hour and a half and entitled The Physical Approach to Acting |(the name ImageWork had not appeared yet).Starting with Tony Cots stick exercise (which prompted one observer to ask me what kind of insurance coverage I had!), I went through the basic elements of the Training that I had developed on the use of images. Sitting in the first row were two women, one older, quite beautiful, and the other a much younger redhead. They both rushed up to me after the workshop, and without any introduction the older woman asked me excitedly, “Have you ever heard of Michael Chekhov?” To which I answered, “Yes, but why are you asking?” Her reply was the source of the second most important revelation of my professional life, “Because that’s what you’re doing!” Astonished I said to her, “You have to explain this to me,” and she proceeded to mark out my future: “Come to my workshop tomorrow and you will find out.” As I later learned, this was Mala Powers who had been a student of Chekhov’s in Hollywood and a close personal friend, who, in 1985, brought out a new version of Chekhov’s To the Actor (1953), entitled On the Technique of Acting. The younger woman at her side was a future colleague in the Chekhov work, Lisa Dalton.
The following day I went to Mala’s workshop and it was there I discovered, to my absolute, and totally genuine, amazement that all the many sources of my work, Shubi Olsvanger, Peter Frye, Stephen Joseph, Jackie Kronberg, Eugenio Barba, Joe Chaikin and Tony Cots – all these had guided me to the literally unwitting development of a training technique for actors which was almost pure Michael Chekhov Technique. This was an astonishing discovery, so much so that I put aside my draft of CONNECTING, and spent nearly five years attending conference/workshops and learning the Chekhov Technique from the Masters, Joanna Merlin, Jack Colvin, Ted Pugh, Fern Sloan, and Lenard Petit, all of whom had been teaching the Technique for years. They were also the leading teachers in a new, international, Michael Chekhov connection which, in 1999, turned into the Michael Chekhov Association (MICHA).
1998-2002, Routledge and BODY VOICE IMAGINATION: A Training for the Actor.
In 1998, after having clarified for myself the way in which my Training dovetailed with the Chekhov Technique, I returned to the book and began setting down the new format. In January 1999 the Center for Performance Research, based at that time in Aberystwith, held a conference in Cardiff in honor of Grotowski. By a cruel twist of fate, the conference began shortly after his death, so it turned into a “Past Masters” conference instead of an honorary one. Attending that conference was the theatre editor or Routledge in London, Talia Rodgers. I had met Talia for the first time in Holstebro a few years earlier at the Odin’s 35th anniversary party, at which time I asked her if Routledge would be interested in a training manual for actors. Her answer was brief: she told me that they don’t do things like that. At Cardiff in 1999, I reintroduced myself, and to my surprise, when I asked her if she would now be interested in the book, she asked me to send it to her.
This was the beginning of a wonderful friendship that has lasted to this day. Talia read all the, admittedly, somewhat tedious drafts that I sent her, and finally put me on the right track when she told me that I had written a Training manual, a philosophical treatise on the art of acting, and an autobiography, and that I should choose which one I want to actually write. CONNECTING finally went to peer readers pared down as a training manual, came back with universal approval, and the book, renamed, at the request of Bill Germano, the theatre editor for Routledge New York, and finally appeared in the bookstores in June 2002 as:
BODY VOICE IMAGINATION:
A Training for the Actor
A few years later, when the first edition sold out, Talia encouraged me to write a second edition with a special chapter on the Chekhov Technique. The influence of Michael Chekhov on my work was very prominent in the first edition, but only as an influence, not as specific techniques that I elaborated on in the text. In the second edition, after making some cuts – deleting exercises that no longer used – I added a complete chapter on the profound connections between my ImageWork Training and the Chekhov Technique, and on my way of teaching three of the major elements of the Chekhov Technique: Imaginary Body, Images and Centers, and the Psychological Gesture. Accordingly, the subtitle of the book was changed:
BODY VOICE IMAGINATION:
ImageWork Training and the Chekhov Technique
The book, still in print, still guiding me in my research into ways of teaching creativity, presence, character work and radiation, has been translated into Hungarian and recently (2016) into Turkish, and a Hebrew translation – finally – is on its way.