Michael Chekhov Actor Studio Boston, or MCASB, has been one of the leading New England acting training institutions for over a decade. While the name of Michael Chekhov is in the title and DNA of the studio, MCASB offers year-round classes on a variety of training techniques. The pandemic has intensified the uncertainties around contemporary approaches to Acting training, with respect to distant learning and social distancing. Scott Fielding, the founder and the master teacher of MCASB found that, in fact, challenges and rewards of acting training online are near identical to the in-person studio experience. Fielding shares his insights about creative freedom and the craft of Acting in this conversation with The Theatre Times.
Irina Yakubovskaya: Many stage and screen educators find it challenging to repurpose their curricula to fit this new unavoidable format of online education. MCASB has been offering classes online since the pandemic unraveled in March 2020. How did you first react to this need for a new online format?
Scott Fielding: We’re grateful to have very dedicated and loyal students who haven’t allowed the pandemic to become an excuse to stop training. For us, that was a big advantage at the start of this unanticipated transition. The mainstay of the work at our studio are our year-long training programs in Michael Chekhov and Meisner techniques. When the March shutdowns hit, our season was already well underway – about halfway through, in fact – and people mostly stayed on as we shifted our training online. When our annual Summer Intensives had, under the circumstances, a surprisingly good turnout, I must say I felt pretty good about getting through this. Next year may be a different story, I don’t know. At this point, we’ve started the new season online, and we’ll see how it unfolds, so far so good. Maybe come spring a hybrid training model makes sense, or something else. One clear upside to the pandemic is that we are able to offer our training to a much broader field of new, as well as former, acting students. I taught a spring session of Chekhov, for example, where I had a good number of studio graduates who had moved away from Boston, and also students from Europe. And that was fantastic.
IY: When done right, online theatre education has undeniable advantages: accessibility, the versatility of multimedia approaches, global collaborations. Is digital theatre a strong alternative to live theatre experiences that are largely on pause due to the pandemic?
SF: With respect to the theatre, notwithstanding the mass of creative virtual efforts we’ve seen, I do think that the pandemic is a dreadful thing for the theatre. The experience of theatre is people coming together and experiencing an event in the same real space. That’s my view. Virtual space is a space, to be sure, and remarkable things can happen in a virtual space, but that’s an entirely different thing from meeting in a real theatre space, even if it’s as small as someone’s living room. Of course, the opportunity in the virtual theatre of creating larger and more geographically, economically, socially diverse communities of people to share and discuss productions together – that’s wonderful. There’s really something precious and exciting in that. But it’s not a substitute for live theatre. Making good live theatre is hard. Making good virtual theatre is maybe even harder! This much I know, like everybody, I am much more than ready for getting back to being present again, in the sense of sharing real space, in theatre and studio work. In every aspect of life that we’re missing right now.
IY: Have you had exceptionally positive or revelatory experiences from teaching online?
SF: When the pandemic hit and I had to pause in-person classes, it was a devastating moment. Around that time, together with some of my colleagues at the Michael Chekhov Association, we started having meetings to talk about transitioning to teaching online. There was a brief period of groping to find the way and adjusting, but before long it was working beautifully. We moved our whole studio curriculum online, and have been teaching five nights a week online ever since. I have to say it has been both successful and satisfying. If it hadn’t been, we’d have lost students. People could have left at any time. They didn’t.
IY: This is one of the ways in which MCASB differs from an institution like a conservatory or a college. In a higher education setting, when students enroll in acting classes, they don’t really have a choice to leave, due to the fixed-term nature of formal education. Students don’t really have the agency to choose whether to leave once they’re enrolled. Your studio provides freedom of flexibility, no one is required to stay for a credit or a grade.
SF: There is no creative work without freedom. The two go hand in hand. It is impossible to enter a creative state without a sense of freedom. If people are not free to choose to study or not study, if the teacher is not free to choose what and how and who to teach, it’s a recipe for failure. Students must be free to leave school for whatever reason without fear of repercussions. Likewise, I can also ask people to leave if that’s what I feel is in the best interest of the student or the class. I am always straightforward with people, and when necessary, I can be very demanding when it comes to active participation in the creative learning process. I insist on students being fully present. Acting is an ensemble art, and if people don’t absolutely want to be there – please, goodbye. Why does someone go to college or university to study theatre with an attitude that they don’t want to be there? That’s always been a mystery to me.
At MCASB, we set up our main programs on a one-year basis. Sometimes people want to pay the year in advance, but I don’t allow it. I want the freedom to say to somebody: listen, it’s not working anymore. I almost never do that, but I also want the students to have the freedom to manage their sometimes-hectic circumstances. Freedom in creative work – and I might add, in social or human relations – is absolutely essential.
IY: What are the challenges of teaching acting online?
SF: Probably the most challenging thing is simply screen fatigue. So many people are on screen all day long. Most of our classes meet in the evening. I have quite a lot of students who work a daytime job in some kind of tech or business environment. So they are on a screen from nine or ten in the morning until five or six o’clock, and then they come to class at seven. My colleagues at large have been shocked when I tell them that my classes are almost never less than three hours, and I have done even four- or five-hour classes online. Maybe we take a ten-minute break. That is what I typically do in the studio. So that’s what we do online. And it works. It works for me and my students. But I can’t speak for anyone else.
The other kinds of challenges are exactly the same as they would be in a real reality studio environment. Although they’re usually at home, I won’t allow students to become too comfortable in the room. If we’re sitting, I have people use a simple chair. I don’t want people working from their sofas or their beds. I am thinking mainly of Meisner classes where there’s a lot of sitting. (I teach a two-year Meisner training, as well, the one-year Chekhov Training.) You don’t want to have people lounging in comfy chairs while watching their peers work, much less in their own acting exercises. Students must always be active and focused. In a class where there is a lot of sitting, the problem is the potential for inactivity. Comfort encourages passivity. That’s got to be avoided.
The other challenge is a distraction. At the beginning of the year, I tell students they’re to take copious class notes but they must use a notebook and pen. They’re not to take notes on their phones. In the studio, phones are off. Acting class is a place to untether. Training online from their homes, the potential distractions are naturally much compounded. We deal with it by discussing in advance and putting into place strategies to eliminate household distractions as far as possible.
IY: The Michael Chekhov approach to acting is very reliant on energy work and is built around live interactions between performers. How do you manage to achieve the lively creative energy flow while working with actors online?
SF: The first condition is that the environment has to be optimized. That’s inarguable. Next, you have got to bring the student to a state of concentrated attention. You can’t begin to work with the consciousness of what you’ve called energy, never mind moving or manipulating energy, if there is no concentration. Concentration implies stillness, outer stillness, and inner stillness. Of course, when we begin to move, we must speak about the quality of stillness in movement. Stillness facilitates concentration, which in turn facilitates the densification of life- or emotional- energy. From there, everything is possible.
It’s remarkable to be working with energy and atmosphere virtually. In a shared real reality space, we can feel the atmospheres actually tangibly once we create them, even by accident. In a virtual space, you think at first that it’s not possible. We could be maybe hundreds or thousands of miles away from each other. But it is actually possible to create feeling in the energy of the space. The atmosphere is a quality of feeling. The space holds the energy of those feelings. With a group of people working virtually, provided the right tools and the know-how or skill to make use of them, we can establish all kinds of things.
Related to concentration, as Stanislavsky pointed out, the two pillars of any legitimate technique are concentration and relaxation. You want to be sure that people are physically as well as mentally free, free of unnecessary tension. I don’t use the word relaxation so much because it implies a passive approach. Instead, I say ease. We work consciously with ease. This is a term by Michael Chekhov that better describes what Stanislavsky was indicating. We can experience the feeling of ease in movement. And we can and should perform all actions or gestures along with other qualities from a foundation of ease because it’s foundational.
IY: Is it fair to say that despite the pandemic you still manage to find the ease with which you practice your craft?
SF: I think one has to. One remarkable thing about Michael Chekhov’s work is this: the inner muscles that Chekhov training develops are always with you. Through the practice of Chekhov over decades, I have a certain powerful and reliable muscle. And it’s always with me. It’s something I bring naturally by now to all my work, either with students or with professional actors in a production context.
We’re speaking about ease. Chekhov says it’s one of four essential qualities that are evident in every real work of art. Teaching is an art. Acting and directing are, too. Ease corresponds with creative freedom. It’s a primary condition. It’s impossible to imagine true creativity, true freedom, absent ease. During the activity of teaching or directing, I am exercising ease, and all the essential four qualities, all my artistic inner muscles. Even now, in this conversation that we are having, I am exercising and experiencing a, let’s say, the nuanced feeling of ease.
SF: In the Chekhov work we talk about radiation. It is the intangible movement of energy that has its source in the actor and rays out into space where it is received by another actor or the audience. There is the exchange of radiating and receiving, or giving and taking. That happens naturally in effective teaching, pandemic, or no. It must be so, because it’s naturally or psychically lawful. In fact, I couldn’t teach minus it. Certainly not well. I would be a failure as a teacher, my students would become unresponsive to the idea of intensive training, our studio would close. But that’s the opposite of our experience in the studio. People typically come out of a class feeling healthier, more relaxed, at ease, more prepared to move forward with their lives, to head into tomorrow, than they did prior to class. It sounds fantastic, I know, but there really is a holistic effect, something healthy, about studying and practicing acting in this way.
IY: As a professional actor, you have been trained in a variety of acting techniques. Why did Michael Chekhov’s methodology impress you so much that you made it part of your career in teaching?
SF: I spent a solid ten years, and then some, as a more or less full-time student of acting. First in LA, and then, New York, I was always in a class, even while I was working professionally. So yes, from those early years alone, I can say I have a pretty broad experience in different approaches. But Michael Chekhov is home for me. Has been from my very first encounter with his work more than thirty years ago.
In Boston, back when I got here, there were few options for actors to study, much less really train outside of the colleges and universities. That remains so. But now, there are a lot of short-term classes being offered by the casting studios and elsewhere. And, frankly, that’s what a lot of people want. So it’s smart business, I guess. People are taking two-week, four-week, classes, and putting it on their resumes under “training.” Many resumes I get from people asking about class are just like that. And I hear shockingly often: “I’m looking for a new class to sharpen my skills.” I mean, well… What to say?…. It does not interest me to teach that way. People who have that level of ambition simply don’t interest me as students.
If you are serious about acting, you invest in really learning the fundamentals of the craft, you continue to train at an intermediate level, and you master the art with still more training and practical experience. This takes time. Not forever, but a good while. And why not? Would you study violin for a couple of years, let alone a couple of months, and expect to have a career? The question is absurd, right? It’s an illusion to think the case is fundamentally different for an actor. You know, it’s possible to study acting for a lifetime and never come to the bottom of the well. And how great is that! I teach my students to view acting as a creative art. I encourage them to delve deep into their curiosity. To fan their passion for learning, for growth, and mastery. To nurture the seed of love for the art in themselves, rather than themselves in the art, as Stanislavsky said.
I take the role of mentor-coach perhaps as much I do the teacher. People stay with me sometimes for a long time. As long as they keep growing, I welcome them to stay. Sometimes they leave after a time and come back a time later, or between jobs. The way I came up was like that. People studied and trained with their teacher for years. And you saw people get better. No matter what level they started from. People worked hard. People had an interest in learning deeply. You don’t master acting from a weekend workshop or a once a week, once in a while class. If it’s a serious workshop or a serious class, you can learn something about what it’s like to train. But if you’ve got a real ambition, if you want to be an actor-artist, or let’s say you just want a real-life in acting, you have to commit yourself to developing your talent. And that’s simply going to take some time, let’s be honest. So, there is a wonderful bottomlessness to the craft of acting. And nowhere more so than in the work of Michael Chekhov.
I came to Boston following an intensive period of a couple of years in Europe, where I’d been directing and teaching. I came out here without any kind of long term commitment. I thought I’ll teach a couple of classes, stay for a few months, maybe six, and see what happens. Now suddenly we’re into our eleventh season. The reason I am still here is people keep knocking on the door. I always say that when people stop knocking, I’ll move on! My intention for Boston was to teach Chekhov to professional and professionally-oriented actors. That was the idea. But soon the word got out that I also had a big background in Meisner. I trained for three years with Bill and Suzanne Esper in New York City. So people asked me to teach Meisner, too. Also, it quickly became apparent to me that people here really needed Meisner maybe more than Chekhov. Meisner is more elementary than Chekhov in some ways. Chekhov is more fundamental than Meisner, in others. At the same time, there is something very advanced about Chekhov. He said of himself, and I believe it is correct: “If Stanislavsky is high school, my method is a university.” Something like that! Maybe that sounds immodest, but I don’t believe he meant it like that. In fact, Chekhov was always incredibly respectful and even reverent toward his teacher, Stanislavsky. Anyway, I’m convinced it’s true. Chekhov’s work is at another, higher, level.
Back to your question, the truth is I never chose Chekhov. Chekhov chose me. There’s nothing else out there, as far as I am concerned, that has the depth and artistic value and integrity and potential of the work of Michael Chekhov. Meisner, on the other hand, is essentially a systematic, two-year training. Don’t misunderstand me. It made all the difference in the world to me, having done the Meisner training. Meisner played a crucial role in my professional development. But Chekhov made me an artist. Meisner to me is more about the nuts and bolts of acting, while Chekhov is about mastering the actor’s whole psychophysical instrument, creative principles, and the art of acting. There’s a galaxy of possibility there for an actor. There is just no limit to how much inner muscle building, that is, muscle for creative work, that you can do by training, by immersing yourself, over time, in the Chekhov work. Plus, the immediacy and joy of the work is remarkable. After all these many years with Chekhov, the work never fails to open my heart and my sense of wonder. It never fails to satisfy my sense of beauty, never fails to open my artistic soul to new questions. It is this huge and ineffable source and path. Notwithstanding my substantial experience, I often have the feeling that in the face of Michael Chekhov, I am Trofimov, the eternal student. And ever happy to be! I never stop learning from him. Chekhov is where my heart is.
This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.