When I think of Chekhov, I think of going to the museum and looking at a Vermeer. I look at the paintings and I think, how can that be so alive and so present? The depth of Chekhov’s understanding of thehuman condition allows actors who approach his characters to spring to life if they bring themselves to it truthfully and specifically. And that is what inspires me about this work, and keeps me coming back to it year after year.
Sometimes when I sit down to write this blog my first thought is “where do I even begin?” Hell, who am I trying to kid? Most times. The thought also comes when I see the moment in class that I know I’ll be writing about. People like to say live theater doesn’t translate well onto film. Those people have never tried translating it into WordPress. Here is what I wrote while watching the actors participating in Melissa Smith’s Chekhov workshop warm-up yesterday:
‘How do you explain to someone who has never seen it what a room full of adults clapping at each other yelling “zib” and “zab” looks like? Or the joy of watching as they, like a toddlers taking their first shaky steps, stumble through the claps and gibberish with stutters, laughter, and occasional frustration? And what is it that, like the toddler managing several mighty steps in a row, is so magical about the moments when these actors do manage to meet on the same level, and suddenly it is not Paul’s game, or Maggie’s game, but everyone’s? All working in pursuit of keeping the energy, not breaking the claps, synced up into something larger than themselves as individuals, even if it is just the words zib-zab. Like those steps, these moments are temporary, and the briefest lapse can and does bring them tumbling down. But those who participated remember what it felt like to be a part of a larger something, and those who sat in the audience remember what it felt like to be invited into that larger something.’
The quote from the top of the page is something that Melissa said that stuck with me. As a person who has had trouble accessing Chekhov in the past, Melissa’s explanation struck a chord in me. Here was someone putting into words, words that I could understand, both the importance of Chekhov to actors and how to approach it.
She opened this year’s Art of Personalization workshop by talking to the participants about the things that need to be taken into account when specifically working on this material.
“You have to consider the realities of the world these people live in. Part of that is the vastness of Russia, the feeling of remoteness. When I had the opportunity to visit Russia I was struck by the sheer size of it. They have 11 time zones! Think about that, in the U.S. we have 4. There is more land, and within that land more humans, than any leadership would know what to do with. Then there’s the transitory nature of the plays. You, the characters, all knew a better time. But it’s gone now. Chekhov was writing at a time when the country was moving away from a Feudal system. The serfs are all gone and nobody knows how to actually do anything, how to keep these massive estates running.”
Cay jumped in with a few points, “What Melissa is talking about are circumstances that are common to all the characters, that you all share, and then moving into the specific circumstances of the character. I want to add also that everyone in the play lacks something. Some people know what they are lacking better than others. And almost nobody talks about what they lack in the plays, but it’s always there.”
“What’s beautiful about Chekhov,” added Melissa “and his understanding of the human condition is everyone is struggling to get something, hope, or love, and some are better fighters than others.”
After their warm up Melissa dimmed the lights low and asked everyone to take a chair and sit anywhere on the stage. “What you are doing is going to back to an evening you treasure. It should be an evening associated with a specific person. And I want you to think about that evening, recreate it in your mind’s eye. What is the physical world like? What do you hear, what’s said? Is it indoor or outdoor?”
In a few minutes everyone had settled in. Paul sat near the back looking serene and joyful. Ross was just off of his left shoulder. Elyse first gave off a playful, intimate energy, but after a few minutes she and Pam seemed sad. Both Maggie and Sawyer sat very still. When the everyone had ample time to finish their reminiscence Melissa broke them up into pairs and asked each group to choose the letter A or B.
Paul, sitting across from Sawyer, said loudly “I’m A.”
Melissa made sure everyone was well situated across from a partner, “So the A’s will begin with telling the B’s their reminiscence.”
“Oh, you know what, you be A” said Paul in an abrupt about-face, eliciting laughter.
Melissa continued her explanation. “B’s, I want you to listen to their reminiscence while holding onto your own. Don’t let yours go because when they are finished you are going to repeat back to them what you heard, and then you are going to tell them your own reminiscence and they are going to repeat it back to you.”
The pairs began whispering their memories to one another. At one point Maggie, after hearing Elyse’s story, sighed in relief. “I kept waiting for something horrible to happen!” They shared a laugh. When the pairs had finished they were instructed to break up and sit in a loose circle. Each person repeated their reminiscence for a second time to the group.
Once each had been told and repeated, Melissa gave the final instruction to the exercise. “Now sit with your reminiscence and I want you to find the things you feel like you have to explain and edit those out so you just have the key details left. And some of those things you’ll say, and some you’ll just see and feel. Treat it as if you are in it and living it. You are going to go around, on impulse, and say those key details, or moments, or whatever comes to you. You are going to be listening to one another, but the thing is you’re going to be living in and speak from yours.”
The things that were said between the actors, one story recounting an old lover, one a birthday party, and one an incredible moment of triumph on stage, were personal stories shared with trust during an intimate exercise, and as such I decided not to include their specific details. But everyone’s reminiscence’s held their moments of humor, moments of sadness, and everything in between. It naturally came to a close with a line that Ross had said both during the full telling of his story and this impulse round table.
“It should always be like that” he said, and then Paul repeated after him, “It should always be like that.” One by one they would each say that final line until it finished with Sawyer.
“How did that feel?” Melissa asked.
“Deep. Real.” was Ross’ answer.
“Personal.” said Sawyer.
Elyse chimed in with an observation, “I felt like a member of a Symphony.”
Cay leaned forward. “You’re in two tenses” she said speaking for the first time during this exercise, “both at the same time. You are here, and you were there. People say it’s impossible for an actor to be in two places at once. Nonsense.”
Melissa nodded, “It has to do with how you listen. Some people would say these characters don’t listen to each other, but that’s a negative action. They live a rich inner life, and inner life is such a cliche’ now, but it’s true. The audience won’t always know if it’s not truthful, but they won’t be as turned on by it. When I feel uncomfortable I know I’m working well, because that’s where the risks are taken.”
“Don’t mistake being truthful for being sentimental,” warned Cay. “There’s a regret to these characters that a time has passed and you can’t get it back. Getting sentimental with this material is death, because it’s funny, it’s hilarious! But it has to have the weight of reminiscence.”
“The two tenses at the same time,” said Melissa.