Living Pictures’ production Diary of a Madman will be part of the British Council showcase of Welsh theatrical talent at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival. This searingly intense one-man-show, based on the classic short story by Nikolai Gogol, is directed by Olivier Award nominee Sinead Rushe and features an acting tour-de-force from Robert Bowman, who won the Wales Theatre Critics’ Award for Best Actor in an English Language Production 2014. Diary of a Madman was first performed at Chapter Arts Centre in 2011 before embarking on a tour of Wales in 2012-13. In this unique insight into an actor’s journey, Robert Bowman details how his performance was first rooted in the ideas of acting teacher Michael Chekhov, then later shaped by his experiences of performing the role in Armenia and working with a number of key collaborators.
When you are dreaming of what is possible for your life, you should know that anything is possible. You may not always feel it or see it, but you never for a single moment lack the capacity to change course. Your life is subject to infinite revision…
From the book The Heart is Noble: Changing the World from the Inside Out by 17th Karmapa
I start with this quote, because this is very much the Diary of a Madman experience.
I started thinking about the project back in 2010, when I met Sinead Rushe at a Michael Chekhov course in Galway. Our meeting was brief and it was my first introduction to the techniques of Michael Chekhov, the Great Russian actor, director and teacher. It was at this workshop that I asked Sinead to work with me on the techniques of Michael Chekhov using the text of Gogol.
What intrigued me about Michael Chekhov was a story that is told about the differences between himself and Stanislavski. Stanislavski had set an improvisation one day and had asked the students to bring in something from their real lives to present in class. It was during his ‘Affective Memory’ phase, the phase that was later taken on/over by Lee Strasburg and called ‘Emotional Recall’.
Michael Chekhov brought ‘a piece’ about when he attended his father’s funeral. The atmosphere in the room was electric and the ‘reality’ of this young man attending his father’s funeral was palpable. Chekhov’s work was hailed in class and no doubt Stanislavski was feeling pretty good about his ‘Affective Memory’ having such affective results.
It was only after this class that Stanislavski discovered that Chekhov’s father was still very much alive. Michael Chekhov had only ‘imagined’ what it would be like attending his father’s funeral. The young Chekhov was duly kicked out of Stanislavski’s class for possessing an ‘overheated imagination’.
For many years, this was the main difference between these two theatre makers. Stanislavski felt it had to come from a reality, a truth in life and Michael Chekhov was happy to delve into his imagination to find the ‘truth’. Stanislavski later came to agree with Michael Chehkov, but they are still interpreted to have this division to this day, whereas I think they have more in common than most people realise.
Up to this point, I had always been a Stanislavski actor, but I knew I wanted to understand Michael Chekhov better and find out what he could teach me. I was inspired by the stories of his powers of transformation.
So it was that in September 2011, armed with an individual development grant from the Arts Council of Wales, Sinead and I set off working on Diary of a Madman. We were joined by a number of creative people and also, with the financial help of Cegin productions. After three weeks of intense work and me showing run-throughs to, what felt like at the time, a panel of bored invigilators, we opened the show at Chapter Arts Centre and performed it three times.
It was nervy and to honest, I probably relied on my past experience as an actor to get me through those performances rather than fully immerse myself in the techniques, but the goal of transformation was still there, some of the techniques had sunk in and the bug that is Diary of a Madman had bit.
We took a year off to think about and plan our next phase. After some interesting times regarding producing a tour of the show and armed again with another Arts Council of Wales individual grant and support from Sherman Cymru we were able to begin phase two of the Madman Odyssey.
The next phase saw a new set design (Sarah Beaton) and because of that some new lighting cues (Katy Morison), we worked with a sound designer (Tom Raybould) to see what he could add to the music already composed by Roland Melia, a wig made a brief appearance (borrowed from my mother’s collection and worked on vigorously by Julia Thomas) and we toured the show in Wales finding ourselves finishing up at Venue 13 in Edinburgh supported by a great bunch of students from RWCMD in the summer of 2013.
In terms of audience, the Edinburgh show wasn’t a great success, but that wasn’t really the point. I had wanted to do a long run of the show to really get a feel for it. Up till then it had been a date here and there with breaks of sometimes a year. And as I hoped, new possibilities emerged from doing the run in Edinburgh that are still part of the show.
After another year’s break, and being joined by producer Kate Perridge, we were asked to tour it to Armenia by the British Council and had a wonderful time in a country, those of us touring, knew very little about. There was something about Armenia and hearing a street performer playing a clarinet that really seemed ‘right’ for the show and in preparation for Edinburgh 2015, Roland Meila has composed some new music especially for the clarinet to try and capture some of the ‘feel’ of the Armenian connection.
In March 2015, I went to North Carolina in America to work with a professor Denise Gabriel on Sensory Awareness/Mindfulness practice. It was with her that I started to realise the full extent and the subtly of some of Michael Chekhov’s work.
And that, in relation to the quote I began with, is what Madman has been all about for me. It is always in a state of constant revision. There have been changes in personal, changes in music, lighting, set design, costume, wigs or no wigs!, and most fundamentally for me, (being an actor), performance. It is a cliché to say that no two performances are the same, but I can attest to the truth of that statement. For me it is probably the nearest I will get to being a stand-up comedian. You’ve planned it, you’ve rehearsed it, but the magic happens (or it doesn’t!) on the night and with that audience. And that is all.
To finish on a story from Armenia, the second performance was due to start, the music at the beginning was coming to an end and I could get no sense from the auditorium, as I lay on the wooden pallets, that they were ready to begin. After the beginning music had been replaying for a good 10 minutes, I thought, ‘I’ve got to start!’ I stood up and with the house lights still on; I observed the chaos of the situation. The audience were still very much talking and finding their seats, but quietened as I stared at them. A Russian camera crew was rushing in and out of the auditorium finally deciding to march across the front of the stage to get to a good vantage point from which to film the show. I observed all this and looked at the audience and made a gesture of ‘this is mad’. They laughed and from that moment on we were together on the Odyssey that is the Madman.
The Madman is still on his travels and has yet to reach home…
Diary of a Madman is previewing at Neath Little Theatre (July 30th), Pontardawe Arts Centre (July 31st) and Chapter Arts Centre (4th and 5th of August) before playing at ZOO Venues Aviary Theatre in Edinburgh (7th -30th of August).
(Photo credit: Sinéad Rushe)