My Ties to Russia
The show is over, the curtain lowered. Drinks were had among the cast and crew. Goodbye hugs. Many in the Three Sisters company would be seeing each other the next day in class and again later that night (rehearsals for Christmas Carol were beginning). But for Lily, Ezri and I: a drive back North. We departed Knoxville on another scorching "fall" morning, bidding farewell, with some regret, to Knoxville. That fair city and her people had been good to us.
Back home now in the great Northeast, with fall at it's rainy zenith, there is a moment for reflection. Here are a few short essays looking back on the incredible experience of doing Chekhov's Three Sisters at the Clarence Brown Theatre.
Maybe It Needs to Sit With You
Anton Chekhov. A search of the man's name in any University library will yield volumes of literary criticism and theory to rival those volumes written about Shakespeare or Dickens. Chekhov was a doctor, an epistolarean, and oft-credited as the "inventor" of the modern short story (whatever that may mean, though I must have read some version of that statement in at least three different books). But he was also (and perhaps foremost?) a dramatist. In his hands Naturalism had its first expression onstage and this new form of theatre- "slice of life," as some call it, but that's far too reductive- changed the way people thought about stories. He challenged the idea that the story-telling in the theatre had to focus on the stories themselves. What if the human characters living their lives on stage were the story? This revolutionary concept sent countless critics to their desks to analyze and debate what this new form of theatre meant to the world of art.
This new form also frustrated practitioners of the craft. It is hard to square Chekhov's importance and genius with the practical demands of staging his plays and making them sing. Possibly because in working with a form like Naturalism on stage, which eschews the traditional Aristotelian structure of drama, you come to realize how heavily dependent (and I would go so far as to say brainwashed) we all are on the Aristotelian form of narrative. Oh how we all want to see the action, we want it to rise and crescendo. We want to tag a clear beginning, middle, and end. We want that pity and fear purged right out of us so that... what? we can go home clean and leave that mess of introspection at the theatre?
"Is he" -referring to Chekhov- "really worth all this praise that's heaped on him?" my cousin Allison asked me after seeing Three Sisters at the Clarence Brown Theatre. "I think he is." I said. But through out the run I began to notice that the theatre novice, the first time audience member, was not satisfied with a Chekhovian production as their first theatrical experience. Why is that? Because films- popular films- are so steeped in plot structure and story arc? Anyway, I could see that my cousin was perturbed. "It was good," she said, "you were great..." (this was said more as a way to ease the blow of what she would say next) "...but I really didn't get it at all." "Maybe there's nothing to get?" I offered, not necessarily believing that this was a helpful rejoinder. "Then what was the point of the play?" "To show us how pointless life can seem as it races by." "I didn't really get that, either," she said. I could tell the play had frustrated her somehow. "Maybe it needs to sit with you," I said.
The more the play sat with me, and it sat with me for a while- over the course of prep work, rehearsals, the run- the more I found in it that rang true about life and living. I love the play more every day, even now. It was hard to leave this story behind at the end of the run. I think I could have kept at this role for a while, maybe a long while, still. But I admit I do find it hard to write about, harder to talk about. I can fully appreciate that it may seem, at first, off putting. Nothing happens. There's basically no "character development," in the Aristotelian sense. No one sets out on a quest and no one really makes any great discovery about themselves or their world (they proclaim that they've discovered this or that grand truth, but we see that they are only toying with ideas and in no way making practical changes to their lives). They just live. Their lives just go on. And we see a few of their days. Is that enough for a story? Maybe not one that satisfies the plot-hungry audience member right away. But maybe it needs to sit with you before you see the genius of what Chekhov is doing- showing us real, complicated, messy people in real, complicated, messy and maddening situations.
And down I step from my soap box.
"Every happy man should have an unhappy man in his closet," wrote Chekhov, "to remind him, by his constant tapping, that not everyone is happy and that, sooner or later, life will show him its claws." Against Chekhov's recommendations, I kept no unhappy man in my closet. Perhaps I'll rue this later. Who knows? (I did continue to listen to NPR, which is kind of like keeping an unhappy man in your podcast que.) I was startlingly happy throughout the process, considering the story of my character (and let's face it- the story of the play) was one of utter despair.
Ezri in the Picture
Three Sisters marked the first time I had split time working as an actor and as a father. My wife Lily and my then six week old daughter Ezri traveled down to Knoxville to live with me in the (spacious, comfortable) actor housing provided by the Clarence Brown (Thank You, Shelly).
My wife achieved saint hood through those weeks- performing miracles on a daily basis. Neither she nor I slept well, though by the time of opening, Ez had begun to snooze through the night, from around midnight to 6 am. Her day time naps, though, were short, and Lily and I used the spare 45 minutes here and there to get other work done. So I was a bit ragged.
But what can you say? I was happy. Happy at work. Happy at home. The play didn't come easily, but that's not a bad thing, necessarily. Parenting is rough going in the early weeks (always?), but again- there's something savory about it. Savory? As in: to be savored. Lily and I were (are) basically in charge of keeping a small human being alive. These are magical days.
I like to think that I'm becoming a little less selfish. And I also like to think that seeing the world in a less myopic way has helped me grow as an actor. Who's to say if these things I wish to be true are in fact true. I definitely felt more open in rehearsal and performance. I was seeing and hearing and perceiving things in a... what? deeper? more easy? way. And I think I have Ezri to thank for that.
Really it was a dream. And having my mother (and Vern!), father, step mother, brother, sister in law, and new baby nephew around in Knoxville made it so much more of a dream that I can't even express. Lily and I could not have pulled this gig off without all the help from the McGranaghans.
A Word About the Cast and Crew
They were amazing. To a person.
The University of Tennessee acting programs, undergraduate and graduate, are doing so many things right- in my humble estimation. The graduate students who CARRIED the show- including the three sisters themselves- were phenomenal actors. Well trained but still intuitive and willing to take risks. And they were just good people. That's no small thing. The undergrads in the production were confident, talented, professional and so much fun. It's good to have a laugh in the face of crushing Chekhovian misery.
I would need several paragraphs of space to properly praise the actors Cal McLean brought in from out of town. I was back in class just watching them work.
Keeping a piece of Naturalistic theatre running is no small feat (the number of props is staggering, the wholesale set changes are murderous) but the undergrad crew made it look easy.
The unhappy man may have been tapping away in my closet, but my God, I never heard him when I was at work!
Still Sitting With Me
or: Selections From the Journal
"The Russians are a critically thinking people. Except when it comes to alcohol."
"He's a baron. Sure he may have grace. That's upbringing. But he has zero charm. That's personality."
"Tuzenbakh must grow up through the play. That is the arc. Such a hopeful child in the first act. A drunken adolescent in the second act, pushing against boundaries. He's a worn down adult in the third act- beaten, making a final plea. Maybe a sage and resigned old man in the last act. Dead before his time maybe, but he's seen the full scope of life now."
"Always be thinking: oh God, I'm ugly."
"I entered loose. Began the play loose. Too loose? A flow of words, but was there need underneath? I heard Irina's questions about Vershinin, at least. That is the key to the entire play- hearing those."
"Despair. Hope. It might be ok to play both at the same time. But how?"