Michael Chekhov and the cult of the studio

Authored by: Marie-Christine Autant-Mathieu

The Routledge Companion to Michael Chekhov

Print publication date:  May  2015
Online publication date:  May  2015

Print ISBN: 9780415710183
eBook ISBN: 9781315716398
Adobe ISBN: 9781317506867


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Stage productions are not the whole of theatre. Theatre is not simply an artistic form, but also a form of being and reacting.

(Barba 1999: 17)

The appearance of the cult of the studio (studiynost) in the history of Russian theatre was a natural development […]. Studios appeared as centers of new theatre. They developed new acting techniques and set out to solve a series of philosophical and ethical questions. […] Because they included in their sphere of action experimental goals that were foreign to mainstream theatre, they became the site of heated debates and unbridled innovations.

(Markov 1974–77: 1.347, 348–49)
While a member of the First Studio of the Moscow Arts Theatre (MAT), Michael Chekhov acquired a taste for collaborative work and a way of making theatre that throughout his career drove him to found studios, whether in Russia, Germany, Czechoslovakia, France, Lithuania, and Latvia, or in England. He returned to the cult of the studio after becoming an exile on the East coast of the United States in Ridgefield and Manhattan and while on summer tours with his troupe in many American states. The studio is not really a school nor is it a theatre or a rehearsal space, but rather something that combines the researcher’s laboratory and the painter’s atelier, giving rise to a notion, the cult of the studio (studiynost). It refers back to a form of being and acting in art at the margins of the institution, in cells in which the process counts more than the result and where the relationship to authority is displaced. It is no longer a question of a director working with actors, but rather a master’s exercises with his disciples. For Chekhov, as for Yevgeny Vakhtangov, Richard Boleslavsky, and other actors of the First Studio, the theatre was more than a profession: it was a mission. The utopia of the studio sought to change humanity and society, not just impart a reproducible acting technique. A collective ethos, involvement in artistic research, contempt for self-centered interests, and self-denial formed the basis of a group conceived of as an organic whole bound by rules and its history. This spiritual dimension, which was so essential for a studio in order to effect a total transformation of the actor in the stage practice and art of living in art, was to prove incompatible with the ideological materialism of the USSR and the pragmatic realism of the United States. When Chekhov arrived in Hollywood and was confronted with the “star system” and the requirements of return on investment and profitability, he abandoned the fraternal theatre as he saw it, but nevertheless tried to convey this “aura of love” to the students who enrolled in his private courses.

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