• Jeff Thomakos

Expansion: Your First Step Into Psychological Gesture

Hi, Jeff here from M2C2 and today we are going to talk about another one of the foundational elements of the Michael Chekhov Technique and that is the Psychological Gesture.

Now, one thing that can’t be denied is that the Chekhov technique is a physical technique and it’s a good thing too. Acting is called “ACT”-ing not “Sittin-Around-Talk”-Ing. Acting requires us to use our bodies, to move around, to fight, to kiss, to dance…all that stuff.

One of the tenets of this approach to acting is that the Chekhovian actor takes a psycho-physical approach to the work. In other words all action is psychological and all psychology is physical.

Here, I’ll prove it to you:


Just smile.

A smile is a physical response to a psychological cause. We are happy, therefore we smile. In fact, it is hard not to smile when we are happy. Sometimes, we have to force ourselves not to smile or show that we are happy in certain situations. The cast list just went up and we got the role we wanted, but our friend didn’t get cast at all. Uh oh, we better not smile or we might make our friend feel even worse.

But inside: ecstasy.

Science also tells us that smiling sends a whole bunch of endorphins to our brains which have the effect of making us feel happy. Did you ever have anyone tell you to “Smile, you’ll feel better?” That’s because smiling actually does make us feel better. We CAN fake it until we make it, because the physical act of smiling creates a psychological response.

This is one of the basics of the Chekhov Technique. It is not an “outside-in” technique in that doing the action causes a psychological response. It is not an “inside-out” technique where we have to really feel it before we are ready to act. Chekhov surmised that there is no real difference between inner or psychological action and outer or physical action.

It is all connected.

We know this to be true.

When we are sad, our body reacts in certain unmistakably physical ways. The bottom falls out of our stomach, water comes out of our eyes, our breathing becomes more labored, and so on.

When we are angry, out blood-pressure rises, our face flushes, sometimes we get shaky. All psychological data is met with a physical response.

Chekhov sought a way to harness this to create authentic and true emotion on the stage and in film. And this is the goal of any technique: accessing truthful emotion for the actor’s work.

By becoming sensitive to how our physical movement and, in particular, the directionality, resistance, tempo, rhythm, and quality of that movement affects our psychology, the Chekhov actor can easily and effortlessly access emotional truth for his or her use in the work.

Let’s begin with an exercise which will illustrate my point.

  • Find a spot in the room you are in where you can freely move your arms while standing still. Let’s call this your circle of concentration.

  • Now, I invite you to stretch out your arms and legs like this.

  • Think of your energy, beginning in your Ideal Artistic Center located in your chest. [1]

  • Now let this energy flow through your arms and out through your fingertips.

  • Let it flow out through your legs and through the bottoms of your feet

  • Let it flow out through the top of your head.

  • Imagine yourself in a state of constant expansion.

  • Your physical body is fully expanded and the energy that you are made of is extending out through your physical limits moving in a steady, outward direction.

  • You are a fully expanded and expanding.

  • Note how this physical movement has an effect on your psychology.

  • Note how the imagined state of continual expansion has an effect on your physicality.

  • Note any sensations or feelings that occur for you during this exercise.

I want to emphasize that it’s ok if you don’t feel anything at all at this point. It’s important that we not push ourselves to feel something that is not authentic. Think of yourself as inviting the sensations to occur rather than forcing yourself to feel anything.

Through repetition, openness, and concentration, the actor will begin opening themselves up to the power of psychological gesture.

Many of my students, on doing this exercise report a feeling of power or control. Some feel a positive feeling like love or awe or generosity. Some feel vulnerable or exposed. Some love this gesture and a few dislike it. But whatever, feeling is awoken by expanding note it for yourself and put it in your toolbox.

Again, there is no right or wrong here. Your creative individuality will provide the roadmap for whatever each gesture does for you.

  • Now, while continuing to hold the image of your expansion, slowly put your arms down and come back to your home form.

  • Your arms are now coming to rest by your side and your feet are moving to shoulder width apart.

  • Continue to imagine that you are expanded and expanding even as you appear outwardly in a natural state of standing at rest.

  • Begin to walk around your space.

  • Feel your expansion in your step.

Remember that expansion happens in all directions and that you are taking up a space much larger than the limits of your physical self.

  • Pick up an object while in this state of expansion.

  • Try sitting down.

  • Standing up.

  • Find things to do in and around the room that you are in right now and note how Expansion affects your movement and how you interact with things psychologically.

  • Now, I invite you to pause, unwrap the expansion, and put it away above us.

Congratulations, you just made your first step into Psychological Gesture. This technique has been used and appreciated by actors like Jack Nicholson, Johnny Depp, Anthony Hopkins, and many, many more.

What I like about expansion, personally, is that allows actors to experience emotional states quickly and easily. For example, I’ve had actors express frustration with expressing love in their work. One actor, in particular, complained that she never felt romantic love before so how can she be asked to express it truthfully on stage. After trying out a few different things, I finally coached her to imagine expanding every time she saw her scene partner. I think of love as a constant state of expansion so it’s easy for me to access that emotion through this particular exercise.

Again, we are using our physicality and imagination to access AUTHENTIC emotional states on stage. These emotional states are no more or less truthful than using any other acting technique, so I want to make sure that it is clear that we aren’t FORCING anything or trying to mimic emotion in a way that does not feel truthful.

That being said, using Psychological Gesture helps eliminate much of the stress and work of finding truthful and appropriate emotional qualities in our work by easing our access to these qualities.

Additionally, we can use expansion to build characters. An expanded person would walk, talk, and think in a certain way.

Let’s try this:

  • Go back to your circle of concentration and find your home stance (how you stand normally).

  • Now, we’re going to expand again but this time I invite you to expand slowly and imagining a moderate amount of resistance to your expansion.

If it helps, think of yourself as encased in jello (while still being able to breathe) and that you are molding your body through the jello as you expand.

  • Now, walk around your space in this expansion and continuing this molding quality as you move.

Does this expansion feel differently than the first time you tried it? How so?

  • When you are ready, stop unwrap it, and put it away.

  • Now, go back to your circle of concentration, find your home stance, and get ready to expand again.

  • This time, though, I invite you to imagine that you are going to expand as if there is a small explosion in your ideal artistic center.

  • Your arms and legs fly out into an expansion and it is continually propelled through your body nonstop.

  • Now, move through the space in this expansion while keeping the quality of flying and explore.

  • Note how this expansion feels and when you are ready, stop, unwrap it, and put it away.

I hope to explore expansion more in the future.

Let me know, what if anything, you got out of these exercises.

Do you think love is a constant state of expansion?

Let me know your thoughts in the comments.

Don’t forget to like, subscribe, and share this Blog with your friends.

See you guys later.

  1. [1] For more on the Ideal Artistic Center check out the link:

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