What Is the Chekhov Technique?

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Michael Chekhov is a towering figure in the craft of acting. His teachings, which still influence many successful performers working today, are integral to the overall history of drama. Keep reading for details on the Chekhov Technique, its overlap with other acting methods, and its numerous creative benefits.

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Who was Michael Chekhov?

Michael Chekhov was born in 1891 with theater in his blood. Nephew of “Uncle Vanya” playwright Anton Chekhov, he first studied stagecraft at the Moscow Art Theatre under legendary director Konstantin Stanislavsky, the mastermind behind the Stanislavsky system

Chekhov’s own innovations began in the 1920s as director of the Moscow Art Theatre II, where he worked alongside theater luminaries like Yevgeny Vakhtangov and Vsevolod Meyerhold. His original ideas put him at odds with Russia’s communist regime, forcing him to take his studies to Germany and, eventually, the United States. Chekhov’s unorthodox approach to stage technique caused a rift with his mentor, Stanislavsky, whose own formulas focused on naturalism. He became a thought leader in his own right, eventually developing a system that was adopted by many Hollywood stars of the 1930s and ’40s. Eventually, the world simply called it the Chekhov Technique.

 

What is the Chekhov Technique?

The Chekhov Technique is a “psycho-physical” approach to acting; it seeks to ground emotion through physical gestures, a process specifically outlined in Chekhov’s five guiding principles. The Michael Chekhov Association (MICHA), which calls itself “the heart of the international Chekhov community,” defines the artistic goal of the Chekhov Technique as “a connection between the inner response evoked by a physical action and its outer expression.” 

In simpler terms, the Chekhov Technique links physicality and movement to emotion, so an actor can stay completely present—and be free to experiment—while onstage or in front of a camera.

What are some key principles and exercises associated with the Chekhov Technique?

The core tenet of Chekhov’s teachings is that actors are artists, and every choice they discover onstage is crucial to the story. “All true artists bear within themselves a deeply rooted and often unconscious desire for transformation,” he said.

Actors studying Chekhov’s philosophies focus on physical action, imagination, and the exchange of energy:

  • The Psychological Gesture: Derived from the Symbolist theories of writer Andrei Bely, this vital aspect of the Chekhov Technique involves physicalizing a character’s internal want, need, or impulse as an external gesture. The actor practices a physical movement until it’s incorporated internally. Gradually, the actor can minimize the exaggerated gesture, drawing upon the emotions that emerged from physicalizing it. (It’s helpful to use kinetic or “gesturable” verbs rather than passive ones: “push” and “pull” or “shrink” and “grow,” for instance, rather than a vague “want” or “feel.”)
  • Movement: In many Chekhov exercises, students think about expressing themselves physically. Yoga and other aerobic warm-up exercises that help a performer feel in touch with their body—their instrument—are key.
  • Radiating: One of the primary goals of the Chekhov Technique is sharing your internal essence—your intentions, choices, and performance—with your scene partners. This idea, called “radiating,” is designed to attune an ensemble of actors to each other’s energy. 
  • Improvisation: Many Chekhov Technique classes rely on group improvisation, either verbal or nonverbal. One exercise, for example, can be completed individually: Invent two different moods, one to start a scene and one to end it, and act out a story that takes a character from one to the other.

How does the Chekhov Technique compare with other popular acting techniques?

Like most modern approaches to acting in Western culture, the Chekhov Technique both draws inspiration and diverges from its predecessor, Stanislavsky’s system. Chekhov diverges from his mentor’s teachings in his avoidance of finding naturalistic performance through personal experience. This technique of harnessing your own memories and background to create a character, or affective memory, became one of core tenets of Lee Strasberg’s Method, which was inspired by Stanislavsky’s teachings. However, Chekhov came to see this as a self-defeating and even psychologically dangerous strategy. 

Instead, practitioners of the Chekhov Technique invest in their senses and subconsciousness in the moment, exploring both physical and intellectual choices to deliver something truthful onstage. Because the technique is rooted in physicality, movement-based acting methods like Alexander Technique and Viewpoints overlap with Chekhov’s teachings.

What are the pros and cons of the Chekhov technique?

Actors should gain experience in a variety of techniques to determine which ones work best for them. You can then use them as building blocks to help understand and unlock your performance.

Students of the Chekhov Technique learn to apply their mind, body, and five senses to different acting roles and mediums. Movement and improvisation exercises are helpful components of any character-building tool belt. If an actor has created a character through a psychological gesture, they need only perform that gesture to get straight into that person’s emotions and desires. On set, for example, switching in and out of character—between “Action!” and “Cut!”—becomes easier. 

Focusing solely on the Chekhov Technique, however, means ignoring the potential benefits of the Stanislavsky Technique and the Strasberg Method. Actors who want to make compelling choices by drawing on their own memories and personalities can do so without extensive psycho-physical exercises. Blurring the lines between the self and the character is a tactic Chekhov devotees don’t explore.

Where can I study the Chekhov Technique?

While not as common as the Stanislavsky, Sanford Meisner, or Stella Adler schools of acting, Chekhov Technique is taught at organizations and workshops around the world. The Chekhov Studio NYC, MICHA in Connecticut, Michael Chekhov International Academy in Germany, and Michael Chekhov UK all offer classes and workshops informed by the Chekhov Technique. 


The quickest—and cheapest—way to access Chekhov’s musings is to read the man’s own words. The instructor has expounded upon his acting style in several books—most essentially, “To the Actor: On the Technique of Acting” and “Lessons for the Professional Actor.”

What successful actors have used the Chekhov technique?

The following actors studied under Chekhov himself:

  • Yul Brynner
  • Gregory Peck
  • Ingrid Bergman
  • Leslie Caron
  • Patricia Neal
  • Marilyn Monroe
  • Anthony Hopkins
  • Jack Nicholson

Helen Hunt, Johnny Depp, and Clint Eastwood have also cited the technique as a key ingredient in their work. Beatrice Straight—who invited Chekhov to launch his own acting studio in the 1930s—went so far as to thank him when she accepted her best supporting actress Oscar for “Network” in 1977. 

The Chekhov Technique changed the course of stagecraft and helped elevate acting to the art form it is today. As his teachings continue to resonate and evolve, actors who choose that path are participating in a long tradition of innovation, ingenuity, and artistry; so study up.