Actor-Dramaturgs and Atmospheric Dramaturgies: Chekhov Technique in Processes of Collaborative Playwriting

Cornford, Tom (2020) Actor-Dramaturgs and Atmospheric Dramaturgies: Chekhov Technique in Processes of Collaborative Playwriting. In: Michael Chekhov Technique in the Twenty-First Century: New Pathways. Methuen Drama . Bloomsbury, London. ISBN 9781474273213 (In Press)


This chapter builds upon an analysis of the close connections between Chekhov’s practices and those of collaborative play-writing that were developed later in the twentieth-century, as well as the ‘new dramaturgy’ that has emerged in the early twenty-first. It proposes, in brief, a new pathway for Chekhov’s technique in the training, study and practice of dramaturgs and collaborative playwrights and the theorising of dramaturgy that underpins their work. In order to achieve this, I seek ways both of breaking open Chekhov’s practice to reveal some of its essential dramaturgical principles, and of fundamentally transforming it by challenging some of the cultural assumptions that shape both his techniques and the language in which they are articulated. I aim, thereby, to effect a kind of Hegelian sublation of Chekhovian practice, so that it is both negated and carried over in the creation of the new pathway that I seek to establish with and for it.

This process unfolds in three phases in this chapter. The first asserts the basis for this new pathway for Chekhovian practice by analysing significant points of intersection between practices developed at the Chekhov Theatre Studio between 1936 and 1942 and those of twenty-first century dramaturgs and collaborative playwrights. The second section develops a proposal for the development of practices in this new pathway by exploring the application of Chekhov’s technique to the dramaturgical training and development of theatre-makers for collaborative playwriting. This section draws upon the materials gathered in the Michael Chekhov Theatre Studio Deirdre Hurst Du Prey Archive and the findings of my own practice research. This was principally undertaken from 2014-2016 in collaboration with playwright and performer Hannah Davies and our company Common Ground Theatre, based in York. During this period, we made four new productions, written by Davies in collaboraton with me as the director and their performers. Of particular relevance for this study is our 2015 production of Demons, an adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s novel, which was created using some of the same techniques used by the Chekhov Theatre Studio in their adaptation of the same novel as The Possessed (1939). I also draw, here, on the findings of the 2016 New Pathways Practice Symposium on Michael Chekhov, Collaborative Playwriting and Dramaturgy (led by me and attended by a variety of playwrights, dramaturgs and collaborative theatre-makers). Following this proposal for a neo-Chekhovian dramaturgical training, the chapter’s third section elaborates a theoretical basis for this new pathway: a conception of dramaturgy rooted in Chekhov’s understanding of atmospheres. The material covered in this exploration of the phenomenon of atmosphere is, in fact, no less practical than the previous section, but my exploration of it here is framed as a neo-Chekhovian account of the theory of dramaturgy, to be read in partnership with the proposal for dramaturgical practice that precedes it.

In sum, this chapter argues that the excision of dramaturgy from accounts of Chekhov’s technique has crucially limited our understanding of its potential and that, by bringing the two together, some crucial limitations of Chekhov’s approach can be overcome. Furthermore, the discipline of dramaturgy stands to gain a great deal from both practical interventions and theoretical insights grounded in a reappropriation of Chekhov’s technique for a form of dramaturgy that reflects not only the shifts in aesthetic tastes in the sixty-five years since his death, but the political and cultural specificities of twenty-first century performance.


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