Photo by Daren Scott
Chekhov can be intimidating for so many reasons. People always say that it is either terrible or phenomenal and not much in between. So the pressure begins, you feel you have to live up to the bar that has been set and the stigma that surrounds “these plays” or “those roles”. There is a voice in the back of your brain that might (did) become obsessed with getting it right, or doing it justice. But you have to start to accept the idea that the life of this play, like real life, is fluid and we move forward constantly adjusting how we get what we want. We don’t always listen to the people around us. We don’t push through life so why push through the play.
An enormous part of our work on The Seagull consisted of filling in backstories, offstage events and onstage problems with great detail. So much of what you say, how it’s said, and what it means is informed by those circumstances on and off stage. I still don’t know if I can fully explain this yet but it seemed that in rehearsal when a scene became about finding a lighter or organizing a trunk (something that was often an accident) all of a sudden the scene became a living breathing event and not a dramatic construct of a story and it worked. You would realize what you are REALLY talking about and that what you’re saying is less important than some other circumstance you are trying to deal with. Our director, Brenda DeVita, would often say “actually, actually” look for the flower or fix the chair which sounds simple, but it’s not.
Most people would agree that a lot of acting work is about listening and connecting. As actors we concern ourselves with action, verbs; what are you doing, what are you trying to get, how is something active, and that’s a great, useful, and important thing. But during this process we had to DARE TO BE BORING. We had to stop acting and live (more so than any other play I have worked on) which might be difficult because that voice inside you that has been ‘acting’ for the longest time keeps saying: “but I’m not DOING anything”. It feels wrong at first but it is ‘actually, actually’ so right. Brenda said that working on Chekhov can be the best acting training in the world, and I would agree that this process has brought to my attention a whole new group of ideas about how to bring life to the theatre and how to bring the theatre to life.
It wasn’t until the day before opening that I accepted there isn’t anything I can ‘get right’, nothing I can plan for in the play. I just have to discover and live. I have to work through the ideas and events of the play the same way the character has to work through the events of their life and thoughts in their head.
We are always discovering, always learning, and this will be a journey we experience the rest of our lives as actors. There is no endgame, this is it. The experience of working on Chekhov was similar to the description of the characters Brenda gave us in her first email, months before starting rehearsals. “Messy, complicated CONTRADICTORY, sexy, lying, funny, petty, scared, ANGRY, ironic, compassionate, SELFISH, funny, blind, DEEP, shallow, BEAUTIFUL, HUMANS.”