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Actors - Creating Atmospheres

Appeared in Backstage, the national performing arts weekly, on July 10, 2007 By Jean Schiffman When some colleagues and I formed a theatre company, we rented a basement that had been, over time, a speakeasy, a club, and a legit theatre. To make the space our own, we staged an exorcism. Playful as our ritual was, I now think that we did, in some instinctual way, alter the atmosphere in the little place, which in the following years was a home to me and many others. I thought of this recently as I read master teacher Michael Chekhov's comments about the necessity to create atmospheres when acting. "Atmospheres for the artist," he wrote in On the Technique of Acting (Collins, 1991), "are comparable to the different keys in music. They are a concrete means of expression." Atmospheres exist everywhere on the physical plane and are layered and dynamic, not static. Just as actors need to observe human behavior, they must also sensitize themselves to the atmospheres through which we continually move so they can re-create them for the theatre. Chekhov explains that by creating in the playing area the atmosphere called for by a scene, and then allowing that atmosphere to affect speech, movement, and feelings, the actor "reveals the content of the performance." When creating an atmosphere for a scene, you might begin by thinking of the given circumstances and your character's backstory (including some of the significant places your character has been), but it's important to go much further than that and to do so experientially, in rehearsal, and sensorially, not just intellectually. In real life, we're always affected by the atmosphere in our environment, whether consciously or not. It influences our mood, actions, and objectives. A moonlit beach, a cemetery, a greasy-spoon diner all these offer different atmospheres. They smell, look, feel, and sound different. The weather, the season, the hour of the day these also contribute to atmosphere, asserts Chekhov. Say you're happy because you just got good news from your agent (given circumstances), but you're rushing because you're late for an audition (objective). It's a balmy day; the birds are twittering (atmosphere). Suddenly you're waylaid by a ghastly traffic accident (obstacle). Instantly, the atmosphere has changed. You may still be happy from the good news, you're certainly still determined to get to your appointment, but now you have to deal with the street congestion. All these elements swirl about and coalesce to affect you in some way or another. In acting, the atmosphere deepens and enriches the scene and elicits organic emotions. To perform within a specific atmosphere, you need to know how to whip one up through your imagination. Chekhov writes that this is "no more difficult than imagining the air filled with light, dust, fragrance, smoke, mist, and so on." Practice by doing exercises at home, in class, and out and about: Conjure atmospheres such as festivity, mystery, or lethargy whatever

those qualities mean to you creating a catalogue of atmospheres for future use. I remember my own teacher had us working within an atmosphere of champagne bubbles for an Oscar Wilde scene. From there, suggests Chekhov, become aware of how that atmosphere affects you. Then move and speak text "in harmony with the atmosphere." After that, imagine you are radiating the atmosphere back into the surrounding space. Because atmospheres can be amorphous Chekhov calls for an atmosphere of "love" for the Romeo and Juliet balcony scene the way to approach the concept is through specificity. One of Chekhov's suggestions involves the scene from Hamlet in which Hamlet, Horatio, and the soldiers wait for the appearance of the ghost. Chekhov recommends playing it with three different atmospheres: foreboding, fiery, and solemn. Allow each atmosphere to affect your performance. "Let the characters develop their own reactions to the subtle nuances that you make in the atmosphere," he wrote. Sense and Sensibility New York teacher Jason Bennett uses a series of exercises that sensitize actors to their environment and help them avoid generalizing or indicating. He regards atmosphere as a form of energy with which we continually interact in a dynamic loop. He believes inanimate objects emit specific energies of their own that infuse the atmosphere like the monuments in Washington, D.C. Bennett also believes that work with archetypes is essential in helping actors create atmospheres. Archetypes are "universal ways of being and seeing the world, energy patterns hard-wired into the brain," he says. Examples of archetypes include killer energy, sexuality, vulnerability, magic energy, and spiritual energy. Your personality, he says, comprises archetypes. Having access to a whole range of archetypes will help you experience atmospheres in the real world and create them in your acting. It's important to develop sensory awareness so you can be fully stimulated by your surroundings, Bennett advises. He sends students out into the field to observe and absorb the atmosphere in places as diverse as a karaoke bar, a subway platform, and a black gospel church. They're instructed to "observe and experience the archetypal interplay among people, situations, and places." Bennett also teaches them how to use their imagination stimulated by dreams, daydreams, imaging, fantasies, improvisation to create atmospheres in the classroom, atmospheres in which they then move, gesture, interact, vocalize, and deliver text. They endow the atmosphere with meaningful objects that radiate energies. Bennett comments, "A trash can, a stone floor everything affects us.... Does the wall of a castle give off a different sort of energetic vibration than the modern counter in our home? Chekhov believed so. I believe so. I know I can sensitize actors to the phenomenon, but whether it's coming from the objects or from their brain...I tend to believe it's a little of each." In one of Bennett's exercises, synthesized from the work of Chekhov, Stella Adler, Lee Strasberg, and Eric Morris, actors prepare "tours" for classroom presentation. That is, at home they create an imaginary place laden with a specific atmosphere, then present a tour of that

place in class, leading their classmates throughout the space while describing it. Bennett remembers one student who conjured a strip joint. When he thinks of her presentation, he remembers disco lights. Did she bring disco lights to class? "Of course not," he says. "When actors are really acting from their imagination and their work is specific, the audience gets mental imagery and has a physical, visceral response." In a group exercise, students imagine they're animals in a jungle. "Move in harmony with the emerging atmosphere," Bennett instructs. "Let the atmosphere take you more deeply into this world." They vocalize, then shout out words impulsively "Murder! Green! Mist! Safari!" and crawl, leap, wrestle, cower. Finally, they randomly speak any text, their entire beings suffused with the energy, or atmosphere, in the room. "The atmosphere is the result of certain ingredients," Bennett reiterates. Naturally, in actual rehearsal you'll be experimenting to find the right atmosphere for the scene. Chekhov suggests that directors choose an atmosphere; otherwise the actors in an ensemble can appear to be acting in different plays. But if the director doesn't mention an atmosphere, you have to trust that he or she will tell you if you've chosen the wrong one. Are atmospheres as important in film work as they are onstage? "On location, much of your work is done for you," Bennett says. "But if you're in front of a green screen, you must have a specific process for creating [atmosphere] or your acting will almost certainly be shallow and indicated." Chekhov wrote that without atmospheres, performances are "cold and heartless." Bennett adds, "Audiences can immediately sense when actors are connected to their unconscious world, and [the audience] will begin to spontaneously experience their own images and atmosphere." Chekhov put it this way: "The performance is in reality a mutual creation of actors and audience, and the atmosphere is an irresistible bond between actor and audience, a medium with which the audience can inspire the actors by sending them waves of confidence, understanding, and love."