ACTORS OFTEN IDENTIFY with the characters they play. Perhaps they share a perspective, an experience, or a personality trait. These connections may enhance their performances but also limit them.

An actor using the Michael Chekhov acting technique would argue there’s far more to embodying a character than relating to him or her. In fact, this technique teaches actors that drawing on the personal distracts them from a world of creative and intellectual possibilities.

The Michael Chekhov acting technique draws on a century of innovation from performers and teachers, and it’s still evolving today.


Michael Chekhov

Michael Chekhov

Born in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1891, Michael Chekhov was the nephew of playwright Anton Chekhov, who wrote The SeagullUncle Vanya, and The Cherry Orchard. At 20, Michael Chekhov began studying under director and teacher Konstantin Stanislavski at the Moscow Art Theatre, remaining there for 16 years. Stanislavski considered Chekhov exceptionally talented and appointed him director of the Second Moscow Art Theatre in the early 1920s.

Building on Stanislavski’s interest in the actor’s personal process, Chekhov continued to create innovative theatre. In Soviet Russia, however, innovation was not always welcome. Chekhov fled that country in 1928 and spent years touring Europe as a performer and teacher.

In 1936, actress Beatrice Straight was so impressed by Chekhov’s performance in a New York City production of The Inspector General that she invited him to start an acting studio at her alma mater, Dartington Hall, in England. With World War II on the horizon, the studio relocated to Ridgefield, Conn., in 1938 and disbanded in 1942, when most of its male actors were drafted into the military.

Chekhov took his technique to Hollywood, where he taught film stars including Ingrid Bergman, Clint Eastwood, Marilyn Monroe, and Gregory Peck and appeared in films, earning an Oscar nomination for his role in Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound. When he died in 1955, his acting approach had become largely overshadowed by methods that drew more heavily on psychological realism — or the idea that actors must experience their characters’ emotions.

However, Chekhov’s dedicated students did not stop teaching his technique, and its popularity steadily grew. Today, organizations such as the Michael Chekhov Association and the Michael Chekhov Acting Studio continue to train artists in the technique and impart Chekhov’s five guiding principles.


Stanislavski helped actors create more naturalistic performances, or performances that mirrored real life. For part of his career, he taught actors to draw on their personal experiences to illicit an emotional response, a process known as affective memory. For instance, if your character loses a loved one, you would think about a time you lost someone close to you and channel those feelings to portray the emotion of the scene.

Although Stanislavski eventually abandoned this approach, concluding that it can lead to nervous actors and flat performances, many techniques (most notably Lee Strasberg’s Method) still encourage actors to draw from their daily lives to inform the actions of their characters.

Chekhov, on the other hand, taught his students to find truthful moments onstage in a “psycho-physical” approach that nurtures imagination while grounding emotion in physical action.

Creative Individuality
Lenard Petit, artistic director at the Michael Chekhov Acting Studio in New York City, said this process begins with an understanding that acting is, foremost, a performance. “A lot of acting methods deal with the nature of truth. But there’s a separation for us,” he said. “We know we’re on a stage. I think that’s one of the issues with Method acting. Actors become consumed by the character.”

In that way, Chekhov’s perspective redefines the much-sought-after “organic performance.” There is no pressure for actors to forget they’re onstage or blur the line between their character’s personality and their own. In fact, Chekhov encouraged his students to draw on their imaginations and higher creative minds — or creative individuality — to create believable characters, rather than their personalities and experiences, which he considered low-hanging fruit.

A character’s inner life is not the only thing Chekhovian actors must imagine. They also visualize the exchange of energy among players on stage. This skill is called radiating.

In addition to imagination, the mind-body connection is an essential element of Chekhov’s technique. “The body is the instrument, or the thing being played in the performance,” Petit said. “For many people, the first thing that happens when you become an actor is the body becomes an enemy. It won’t do the things you want it to do.”

By training the body and connecting it to emotions, just as a musician trains his instrument, an actor can learn to move and emote with virtuosity. “Their performances appear easier and more beautiful,” Petit added. “Everything onstage must be done with what we call a ‘feeling of ease’ — even murder.”


Petit’s advice for young theatre practitioners is threefold.

Don’t forget why you started acting
According to Petit, some acting methods put so many demands on the actor that they forget to encourage what drew most people to theatre in the first place: the joy of artistry and the gift of creativity.

Teachers using Chekhov’s technique treat their students as artists. Even the most basic movement, like lifting the arms, is considered a work of art. That is, it is performed with purpose and influenced by the student’s unique perspective.

“The number one idea we have when we begin performing is, ‘I’m a creative artist,’” Petit said. “A lot of techniques use the word ‘craft.’ We don’t talk like that. We are artists. We get a completely different picture of ourselves this way.”

Build a strong relationship with your imagination
If you want a great relationship with a friend, you must spend quality time together. The same is true of your imagination.

One way to exercise your imagination is to develop an appreciation for other art forms, such as visual art, music, or dance. What commonalities do you see? What do you find beautiful or compelling?

Since your imagination is different from anyone else’s, it has the potential to lend unique, interesting, and truthful elements to your performances. If you take time to build your imagination outside the rehearsal room, you’ll be better prepared to draw from it during a creative process.

“When we start acting and learning lines, sometimes our imaginations can disappear,” Petit said. “What’s wonderful about Michael Chekhov is it’s a nonrational way to look at the world. It’s not irrational — it’s nonrational. Most other techniques are involved with analysis. We don’t really do that.”

Continue to study
“Don’t trust in your talent,” Petit said. “Trust in your technique.”

Many actors rely on their instincts to make choices onstage. While talent and instinct are valuable assets, the only way to improve as an actor is to build your collection of useful tools. In other words, you must develop your technique.

“The technique is there to incite talent,” Petit said. “For example, feeling sad is much more than remembering when your dog died. There’s a process to getting there. Your imagination coupled with your body forms the technique.”

Ultimately, the Michael Chekhov technique urges actors to use the tools that support their talent and discard the ones that don’t. According to Petit, both students and teachers are encouraged to leave a creative mark on each step of the process.

“We all teach it a little differently,” he said. “It has allowed the artist in all of us to blossom.”


To the Actor: On the Technique of Acting, by Michael Chekhov
Michael Chekhov Acting Studio
Michael Chekhov Association

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