Commedia Acting Tip: The Ghost of Chekhov

The Ghost of Anton Chekhov

This is what the ghost of Chekhov looks like.

When I studied at the Dell’arte school of Physical theatre, our Commedia teacher (Michael Fields) would be coaching a scene or an improvisation and then suddenly say “Ah– the Ghost of Chekhov has entered the room.”

This was a short hand way of saying he meant that your performance had descended from a heightened state into naturalism or traditional acting, and that (to use a traditional acting term) you were playing your subtext.

Michael was also saying “We can see the playwright in your work.”   Commedia is centered on the actor, not the playwright.  In many ways, it is not the situation that you are in that makes great commedia– after all, the situations are common– it is rather the way the actor reacts to the situation that makes the “play” compelling and interesting.  In commedia, the eloquence of the playwright and the details and the foreshadowing and the “themes of the play” are not the important part.  It is the extreme character reacting to the situation that he is in that makes it compelling to watch.

Michael Fields

The non-Chekhovian Michael Fields, master teacher at the Dell'arte School

Another word Michael would use would be pedestrian.  For him (and for me also) commedia actors can not and should not be pedestrian.  If you were walking by and saw two commedia actors working on a scene– you shouldn’t think it was part of the everyday street life.  You’d stop and take a look, and maybe call the cops about two weirdos acting kind of crazy.

I like to tell my students that if they were to walk in to McDonalds as their character (or to the library, or to work)–  if they don’t get arrested, they aren’t doing something right.

It’s not that Chekhov’s ghost (that poor maligned creature) is a bad thing to have in the room– just not when you are doing a commedia show.

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