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Michael Chekhov Biography

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Mikhail Aleksandrovich Chekhov (August 29, 1891, Moscow – September 30, 1955, Beverly Hills), was an actor, director, author, and developer of his own acting technique used by the likes of Clint Eastwood, Marilyn Monroe, Yul Brynner, and Robert Stack, just to name a few.

His father was Aleksandr Chekhov (brother of famed Russian playwright Anton Chekhov) and his mother was Natalya Golden, the eldest of three Jewish sisters. Chekhov was considered by Constantine Stanislavski to be one of his brightest students. In 1915, he married Olga Knipper, who would later make a remarkable film career in the Third Reich cinema.

Michael Chekhov was one of a handful of proteges of Stanislavski who both embraced and rebeled against the theories and practices of Stanislavski. After the Revolution in Russia, Michael Chekhov had split with Stanislavski and toured with his own company. He believed Stanislavski’s techniques led too readily to a naturalistic style. He illustrated his own theories in such stunning parts as Senator Ableukhov in the stage version of Andrei Bely's Petersburg.

In the late 1920s, Chekhov emigrated to the United States and set up his own studio, teaching a physical and imagination based system of acting training. He advocated the establishing of scenes’ atmospheres in order to create the tones of the play, from which the actor could then draw personal inspiration. He also established the use of the “Psychological Gesture”, a concept derived from the Symbolist theories of Bely. In this technique, the actor physicalizes a character’s need or internal dynamic in the form of an external gesture. He then mutes the outward gesture and incorporates it internally, allowing the physical memory to inform the performance on an unconscious level.

Much of what Chekhov explored was the question of how to access the unconscious creative self through indirect non-analytical means. Chekhov also taught a range of movement dynamics such as molding, floating, flying, and radiating which actors could use to find a physical core of a character. His techniques, though seemingly external, were meant to lead the actor to a rich internal life. In spite of his brilliance as an actor and his first hand experience in the development of the Moscow Art Theatre’s groundbreaking work, Chekhov as a teacher was overshadowed by his American counterparts in the 1940s and 1950s and their branching interpretations of Stanislavski's work.

Modern teachers in New York have extended Chekhov's work with "Archetype Work for Actors" and "Dream Work for Actors."

Chekhov's description of his acting technique, On the Technique of Acting, was published in 1942; an abridged version appeared under the title, To the Actor. The English translation of his autobiography "The Path of the Actor" was edited by Andrei Kirillov and Bella Merlin, and was published by Routledge in 2005, marking the 50th anniversary of his death on 30th September 1955.
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