restricted access The Importance of How: Directing Shakespeare with Michael Chekhov’s Technique
In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

The Importance of How:
Directing Shakespeare with Michael Chekhov’s Technique

In this article, Tom Cornford reflects on his experience of using approaches derived from Michael Chekhov's artistic technique to direct Shakespeare's plays. His account is contextualised with references to Chekhov's own writings and illustrated with examples of exercises developed specifically to address the challenges of finding a contemporary performance-vocabulary for Shakespeare. Cornford argues that, 'by concentrating our attention on the importance of how we work, Chekhov's technique is a means both of liberating and expanding the art of performance as well as of appreciating Shakespeare as a complete artist of the theatre.'


Michael Chekhov, Acting, Directing, Actor training, Hamlet, Psychological gesture

“What’ is important, but ‘how’ is much more important.’

Michael Chekhov (cited in Hurst du Prey 1977, 191)

Michael Chekhov was an actor, director, teacher and philosopher of the theatre. He trained with Stanislavsky before developing his own studio in Moscow and rising to become Artistic Director of the Second Moscow Art Theatre. Political disagreements forced him to leave Russia in 1928. After a period of moving around Europe and America, he created the Chekhov Theatre Studio, first at Dartington Hall, south Devon (1936–1938) and then in Ridgefield, Connecticut (1939–1942). When war forced the Studio to close, Chekhov went to Hollywood, where he taught and acted until his death in 1955. His was a life devoted to the practice and evolution of an artistic technique for the theatre.

I first encountered Chekhov’s technique in 2002 in a workshop at Shakespeare’s Globe led by the actor Michael Gould, who had been playing Edmund in the Globe’s 2001 production of King Lear. While playing Edmund, Michael had been struck by a distinction made by Chekhov in his book To The Actor:

I don’t think it is erroneous to say that two different conceptions exist among actors concerning the stage [ . . . ] To some of them, it is nothing but an empty space which from time to time is filled with actors, stage-hands, settings and properties; to them, all that appears on the stage is only the visible and the audible. To the others, the small space of the stage [End Page 485] is an entire world permeated with an atmosphere so strong, so magnetic that they can hardly bear to part with it.

Chekhov rejected the materialism of the former group and advocated an approach to performance that embraced the intangible:

We lay great stress in our method upon the so-called intangible means of expression [ . . . ] for instance, the atmosphere [ . . . which is] absolutely intangible but strong, often much stronger than the lines the author gives us.

(Chekhov and Powers, Disc 4)

Michael Gould used his workshop to address atmosphere, beginning by reading aloud the following extract:

The actors who possess [ . . . ] a love and understanding for atmosphere in a performance know [ . . . ] what a strong bond it creates between them and the spectator. Being enveloped by it too, the spectator himself begins to “act” along with the actors [ . . . ] If the actors, director, author, set designer [ . . . ] have truly created the atmosphere for the performance, the spectator will not be able to remain aloof but will respond with inspiring waves of love and confidence.

We laughed: obviously it couldn’t be so easy, but as we worked on the atmosphere at the beginning of Hamlet, I quickly recognized the feeling of a performance going well, of jointly achieving a creative state. A hitherto elusive condition was suddenly accessible through simple, practical means. This was, for Chekhov, the only purpose of technique: ‘to invoke our inspiration and get into a creative state [ . . . ] by our own will’ (Chekhov and Powers, Disc 4). The value of such a technique became increasingly apparent as I started to direct and to teach acting, and I began to use and teach it gradually, dropping other approaches or re-framing them in dialogue with the principles articulated by Chekhov.

My earlier training had fallen mainly into two areas: verbal and psychological. The verbal approach is based on the assumption that the text contains codified authorial instructions so that, for instance: “Shakespeare...