The Book Project

“The Michael Chekhov Diaries”

with Ted Pugh & Fern Sloan
written by Danielle Carter


Drawing from nearly 40 years of work with Michael Chekhov’s legacy, Fern Sloan and Ted Pugh are sharing their life’s work as practitioners, performers and teachers of the Michael Chekhov Technique. The book is being written by Danielle Carter, actress & author of “Racing Against Time”.

 (Audio-Podcast: Danielle Carter is speaking about The Michael Chekhov Diaries. Subscribe on iTunes)

EXCERPT from The Michael Chekhov Diaries

with Fern Sloan and Ted Pugh, written by Danielle Carter.
This is a sample taken from the rehearsal room chapter

What is the entry point with this work when you are about to venture into rehearsals?  You have all the tools but how do you know what to leave in and what to take out? True of any acting technique but especially of this one. 

After we had finished our work together I was able to digest what I had learned and come back a year later for round two. Now the questions were more specific and in particular, aimed at what we as actors needed in the rehearsal room. These were some of my most pressing questions.

What do you both find is the best way into this work when you are rehearsing as an actor? What works best for each of you?

Ted: “I don’t have a system that always works for me. It varies with each role and play. I simply need to read the words out loud. I may also come into the first rehearsal with an idea or two, but I am always looking at rehearsals as the place to find out. A (thorough) physical warm up is essential for me—to rid myself of those places of resistance where my physical and inner life are not two separate entities—then I feel able to be creative and can do the Chekhov work more fully.  If there is one element that most usually comes first, it would probably be the character’s center—but, of course, each day is different as is each play. But rehearsals are always a hunting ground for me.”

Fern: “I inch my way in, taking all the time necessary to find how present I can be to myself, and my environment, and to the fullness of my body.  For me there is no one way in. I may begin with ease and movement, incorporating more and more of the physical body. I may start with softening the body and sensing its weight. To state a process that goes step by step is misleading. What is essential is to start with where I am and be led by needs, wants, desires, that may arise.

Gradually I move into being receptive to the character, listening to what is in the space around me of that character so they can begin to inform me.  I seek to allow the character to play around me and suggest a quality of movement, a gesture, an imaginary centre.  An imagination and images may present themselves and the decision has to be made at some point, which of the images need to be taken seriously and followed.  I’m constantly seeking a meeting with the character to discover who that person is. Because I have trained in this work for so many years, suggestions and choices begin to present themselves.  Since we are working out of our humanity, never is it necessary to call upon my personal biography.  The older I get, the more the actor’s process is a mystery to me. The last several characters that I have played spoke loudly and clearly as they began to reveal themselves to me. It appears to be the gift for having been in training and on the stage for many years.  With these characters, I found the invitation to step into their world fairly easy.  What this is, how it engages the creative imagination, the artistic being, is all a mystery to me.  It’s learning and trusting to get out of the way. In no way am I implying that there wasn’t an awful lot of conscious work to be done, it is just that the revelation of who these women are, wasn’t kept as a secret from me.”

Ted: “I think every creative art is a mystery and I agree, getting out of the way may not always be easy, but it, of course, is essential.”

Fern: “You don’t have to work so hard. With Mrs. Penniman in Washington Square, I don’t know where she came from. I didn’t have to work to find her. She found me. More and more often you begin to recognize that there is a part of you that just knows what is needed. This goes back to the question, what is our starting point when we venture into rehearsals.”

Ted: “That’s why a fixed starting point is never a good idea—it stands as a barrier and obstacle to what may come of itself.”

Fern: “That’s why it’s really hard to state what the starting point is as it’s different all the time. I know I have to come to myself, and I know I have to become very conscious in my body, and I have to be conscious to the space I’m working in.”

Ted: “If there is a starting place that allows for creative input, it’s starting from where I am.”

Fern: “It takes time and years to really recognize that.”

Ted: “In working on Long Day’s Journey into Night, we rehearsed the play in the O’Neal house in Connecticut where it actually took place. That house, that space had its influence on us.”

Fern: “Even when we talk about it now I feel like that world is around us. I felt that with many characters that I have experienced, you step into their world. You allow yourself to step into their life, their relationships, situation and circumstance.”

What you just spoke about when you mention mystery, seems to go against a certain contemporary approach of technique which has to do with controlling the event.

Fern: “A technique frees one’s creative potential. Michael Chekhov suggests that there are “secret chambers in our inner castle” waiting to be accessed, to be made available. Thus, we seek to expand our capacity, to go beyond our ordinary feelings. A solid technique enables the actor to be free and make available his/her creative being to transformation, to inspiration. Michael Chekhov states, “I believe the more gifted one is, the more one needs the technique to avoid accidents. If we are gifted, we may not find the last thing which makes us so happy onstage and each day, each year, we will lose more and more our ability to be always spontaneous and creative”.

      An actor needs an instrument which is open and available to be played by the creative imagination. Going into the unknown is the joy of being an actor, by opening, releasing, uncovering, making the depth and scope of humanity available. Who wants to be stuck with their everyday feelings when the possibility exits to expand into inner forces previously unknown and therefore unavailable.  It is a terrible misunderstanding if technique is viewed as control. The opposite is the case. A technique frees one’s creative potential.”

Ted: “When you see a young actor travelling on a God given talent, given at birth, if he hasn’t developed anything in the way of technique, I believe that talent ultimately diminishes.

We actors have a performing instrument as an athlete has. When we are watching the Olympics, we are watching and marvelling at those athletes doing what we could not possibly do. In every art there is also form, method, technique. But every true artist goes beyond his training, his technique for the result to be truly artistic. It is, however, this combination of technique, ability, and spontaneity that the artist relies on to create something artistic.”

(Video-conversation between the creators at the beginning of the project)

EXCERPT from The Michael Chekhov Diaries continued….:

I know that Michael Chekhov said that every role requires its own technique in lessons to the professional actor. However, is there an aspect of the work, of the technique that you usually use as a tool when entering a role?

Ted: “As I mentioned earlier, I would be hard put to suggest that I always start in the same place, with the same choice. Of course, we are always looking for where the life is, where the truth is. Some roles are much more of a reach for me, in which case finding him physically—perhaps through image, through imaginary body, his walk, his stance, mannerisms, any of the transformative elements of this work that Chekhov gives us. If it is a role I relate immediately to, I may want to work off of my acting partners in which case, radiating and receiving connects me right from the beginning to that relationship—or to consider what might my gesture toward them be—and from there begin to develop it through quality, tempo and such. Then there are other elements I love working from as an opening: circumstances, for instance, or certain moments which attract me, where I might engage in a slow change of center, or strong changes perhaps. I am often drawn to these moments in the course of a play which can engage me on the first reading. I might say to myself ‘That would be a great moment to engage in an inner play of expanding and contracting’. I can be rather sanguine and somewhat undisciplined in my first responses to the play I’m reading. There’s no rigid plan I work from. I’m afraid that’s my temperament.”.

Fern: “To open and allow myself to say it’s okay to flounder, to not know, to be willing to stay with the not knowing. I’ve found over the years, if I force a choice out of fear that nothing is happening, it won’t get me anywhere. This doesn’t negate trying out different choices. There is a difference between experimenting, exploring, investigating a choice and demanding it be the right one. I can try something and see how far it takes me, if it informs me of something. Actually, I don’t have a set method. It’s mainly living with the instrument I have and seeing what it has to say to me about a particular situation. Here presence comes into play. What is it to be present, to be fully conscious in every part of your being, to both yourself and to your surroundings?  Maybe that’s the starting point for rehearsal and for classwork– for everything, being present. What is it to truly grasp the fullness of that? And we are players. We forget, because we are serious about what we do. We are very intent in our work, but we are still players. We have this amazing body that we have been given and our soul, spiritual being that we can play with. I think that goes back to the technique. If you have a solid technique you have more tools to play with and more access”.

How many Michael Chekhov tools can you use when prepping for a part?

Ted: “I think you could use as many as you can manage. I would certainly, however, not suggest to a young actor to arrive at too many choices. Sometimes in my case, I land on one choice. Perhaps just a center. Of course, that choice can bring others forward. You certainly don’t want to burden yourself with so many choices that you are paralyzed by them.”

Fern: “You are initially encountering your character. Then you can play with many different elements of the work, and say does a certain quality of movement give me anything or take me anywhere? Or does an imaginary centre? An imaginary body?   A gesture? You can go though many different aspects or elements of the work in your investigation, in the seeking of your character, and eventually one of those, maybe two are going to start speaking to you, and are going to take over. In your investigation feel free to go wherever your imagination may take you. You might think you are going to start working with a centre and you end up working with an archetype, this can happen.  Something in you is beginning to open to the world of your character, and something will come to meet you in that investigation. Of course, the joy is when you are fumbling around and all of a sudden you have an “ah ha” moment and something in you knows, that’s what I was looking for. This may be after you have spent some time exploring. Finding what is asked for in the play, seeking choices, is most enjoyable to me. I love the unveiling, the discovery. I thoroughly enjoy rehearsing. I also find invaluable the pain which is elicited when the character is eluding me.”

Ted: “The answer is to explore as many avenues as you can. It’s not impossible that one could use a centre, a quality of movement and a gesture. That is not impossible for one that is really trained in this work.”

What are the most amount of Michael Chekhov tools you have used for a particular role? And the least amount?

Fern: “There was one play, For the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again, where everything was approached through image, actually physicalizing the image in the space.  We brought the images to life in the space through movement, so that they didn’t remain an idea.”

Ted: “When playing Creon in Anouilh’s Antigone I worked with a number of choices. Even in performances trying different choices on different nights. I would try finding centers of authority, having a high center gave him a sense of haughtiness. There are moments when Creon tries to be reasonable and tries to reach Antigone, and my center was then in the center of my chest, and was a center of light.

I used lots of different gestures, one of penetrating, one of dominating, of trying to open. I found in the last performance, something that just came to me right before my first entrance, my hands in relationship to the space – ‘I am the king of Thebes’. Somehow that relationship to the hands in the space did it for me. What it gave me was ‘I’m in charge here. I own this space.’ I felt there was a real change for that performance.

After the news comes that Haemon, my son, has killed himself, I worked with a sense of emptiness—I wasn’t going for the sorrow, although there were times when the tears came. I wasn’t going for that. I really had to work constantly to find what it is to be empty. I was, however, very much in the present.

There were times in the play when I had to put that imaginary crown on my head, as an image—working for authority and presence. I came at it from many different ways, sometimes with center and quality, sometimes with psychological gestures, and with a number of images.” 

Fern: “In playing the chorus in Anouilh’s Antigone, I primarily stayed with the archetype of the ringleader. It gave me the gesture so that I could dominate the space and surround and gather in the other actors on stage. In addition, I connected strongly to the centre in the chest.”

Ted: “We did a bit of work with costumes in Washington Square. We realized once we were on our feet with this piece, we were going to have to work with 19th century costumes. It was revelatory in terms of what it would bring.  I worked a lot with the doctor as a gentleman and he was a very prominent figure in New York City back in the 19th century. I tried to work with what was around the wrists. How high was the collar? I tried to work with it in a way like an imaginary body. It helped me enormously.”

Fern: “In Mrs. Ripley’s Trip, a story we have dramatized and put on the stage over the course of 30 years, the choices keep evolving, more and more layers are added.  Initially the gesture gave me everything I needed.  Then I found the flat feet, the aching joints, the stiff fingers, the heaviness of fatigue, protecting the secret in my heart and Mr. Ripley’s size, which caused me to contract into a prune, the imaginary centre in the belly. In other words, possibilities continue to emerge each time we seek to bring it back to life. These which are touched on, examined, explored in rehearsal, come and go in varying degrees of intensity when in performance.

I played a mermaid in one of Thornton Wilder’s Three Minute Plays, and she was soulless.  An interesting challenge.  In a rehearsal it hit me, she neither radiates nor receives, and I found a place within that felt soulless. This was particular to my experience. It worked for me, but might not necessarily work for anyone else.

Often in seeking to recall choices I’ve made in various productions, I cannot remember them.  This intrigues me.  Choices seem to be so private, intimate, and particular to the moment.

A set of rules doesn’t exist as to how many aspects of the work you choose to embody.  How can there be, when you are seeking, desiring transformation, and are engaged with movement and the imagination”

Chekhov talks a lot about images and what I would like to know is how do you incorporate those images into your work? Into your performance as an actor?

Fern: “Michael Chekhov says ‘Our images are free of inhibitions’. The actors’ life is built upon an active imagination, playing freely with images, allowing these images to live within you and influence you.  The more specific an image is the more it has the possibility of opening otherwise hidden channels of expression.  Many times, images have given me life for a character which would otherwise have been inaccessible. In Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury, I had a very long list of things, and I gave each of those things a clear image, which intercepted the fear of not being able to remember each item, and instead replaced it with pleasure. In The Ripley Stories, we have only two chairs on an otherwise empty stage. Our image life creates an indoor space with a kitchen, table, wood burning cook stove, a working cabinet.  In addition, there is an outdoor space, cold winter weather, a cornfield, horses, a road leading to town, and a snow storm.  We worked a great deal with the contrasting atmospheres of indoors and outdoors and with the horizon.

Carrie Watts in The Trip to Bountiful, spends a considerable amount of time recalling long ago memories for which I formed an image for each. Images provide an avenue to enter which are filled with riches. Being specific in the choice cannot be stressed enough. An image has an independent life and can lead you.  You aren’t necessarily in control of an image.  But an image can guide you and bring you to unknown places. You can go through your script looking for images.  Maybe it’s not specific in the text, in the written word, but it calls up an image within you.

An image may create an atmosphere, or the atmosphere may evoke an image. Likewise, both image and atmosphere can awaken the life of gesture.

It’s vital to acknowledge that an image is not necessarily visual. Trust that it may be a sensation, a sense of something, an intuition. Never lose sight of the fact that the image, the imagination, is intangible and in a mysterious process called the creative imagination, it becomes a tangible intangible. At a certain point in the story, I move through a powerful snowstorm in Mrs Ripley’s Trip. It’s a strong experience for me to move through that storm. How much of that is image, imagination, gesture, quality of movement? The gesture arrives out of the storm I’m in. The storm arrives out of my imagination. Again – specificity of image cannot be stressed enough. It doesn’t have to be immediate. It might be something you have to cultivate. It is a genuine pleasure, allowing the image to live within you. You can’t give an image away until you’ve really honed it and made it your own.“

Ted: “A major part of Chekhov’s work relies on image, image and the physical body. Imaginary center, imaginary body, any of the images we have of the character’s physical presence. Chekhov suggests we put them on—the images—like an article of clothing—we wear them.

One can sit with closed eyes and envision an image, or simply have it in our mind’s eye – in our imagination. The process itself would be difficult, if not impossible to explain, but if you say to an actor ‘Just imagine the king as an eagle with a broken wing,’ the actor, putting that image around himself, or simply having it inside, will certainly be strongly affected by such a strong image.”

Fern: “You can go through your script looking for images. Maybe it’s not specific in the text itself, but it calls up an image, it’s what rises within you.

We haven’t mentioned colour. How do we live into a colour? Is colour an image? You can decide for yourself what the colour is, and explore and investigate that element to see what effect it has.”

When you are reading a play – what are you looking for?

Ted: “When I read a play I’m not necessarily looking for anything except for the story itself, out of which, of course, arises images.”

Fern: “Upon a first reading, I’m looking for basic information as to the story being told, how it is being told, and by whom.  Attention is given to sensations, images, and questions that may arise.  Listen to what is stirred in you, and don’t ask too much of yourself.  Seek to enjoy what the playwright has to say, free of judgment. I think what you are looking for in your initial reading is noticing what is stirred in you, and to not ask too much of yourself or the play.”

What is the biggest discovery that you’ve made in exploring and experimenting with the Michael Chekhov method?

Fern: “I had an immediate response to the work.  It was as if I already knew what it was and my body and my being were available to it, and it was available to me. Moving through the body with different aspects of the work, I felt like I had died and gone to heaven. The consciousness that was required in the attempt to fulfill, to embody various aspects of the work, was deeply satisfying, and new worlds were made available. At the same time I was brought into being more in tune with the essence of my own being. Chekhov makes it possible to truly experience the body-mind connection, and seeks to allow the imagination to alter the physical, emotional, and soul life. Through trusting the body and movement to take you where you want to go inwardly, freedom and surprises make themselves known, and can be realized.  Chekhov has given us tools to access different aspects of our being, enabling them to be uncovered, digging ever deeper, always expanding more possibilities to be available. These are exercises which enable one to build capacities which would otherwise remain unknown, and thus unavailable.”

Ted: “The thing that was so immediately apparent for me was that I could do it. When I took myself to the Michael Chekhov Studio I had already had a twenty-year career so I wasn’t a beginner. I also had in these past years two extraordinary teachers in Uta Hagen and Michael Howard. I did, however, struggle with certain aspects of my method training. I wasn’t keen on emotional recall or personal moments. What I longed for was an availability to my emotional life which wasn’t so invasive and emotionally disturbing. That door flung open to me through this medium of psycho-physical, and freed all the better aspects of my abilities. I think that was the thing that was so surprising to me even in the beginning.”

Fern: “One of the first plays the ensemble did was Nobodaddy by Archibald Macleish. I remember going into rehearsal, and I was used to being very analytical about everything. We didn’t do any analysis, we just started working, moving through the body with different aspects of the work. This was a totally different world for me. That of movement, that of consciousness, the consciousness that was invited into the attempt to fulfill, embody some aspect of the work. It was deeply satisfying. It opened up new worlds. I always return to the wholeness, to the health-giving aspect of the work.”

Ted: “In returning to my method training, I must also add that the most lasting gift I received from Uta and Michael Howard was specificity in executing one’s choices, saving you from acting in general.”

Fern: “There is a living aspect to this work which means you are always in process. You are always seeking, you are always investigating, you are always exploring. Ted and I remember years ago working with younger actors, and I think they were rather amazed to learn that we are still seeking. We are still investigating and exploring and discovering and asking questions and wondering – always.”

Ted: “You’re just not finished. You’re hopefully always learning, you are always in the process of becoming. Once we can take that in and have that to be a goal in and of itself, I think the happier and healthier we are going to be. As actors and as human beings.”

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Video from a recording session for the book. View additional glimpses from the recording sessions with Fern and with Ted. Watch more videos of Ted & Fern addressing questions on teaching.