Category Archives: Student Posts

A question and answer session with the audience: pre-show and comedy

I always try to talk to audience members after every show. I’m curious to see what parts of the performance they didn’t understand and if there is any confusion or lingering questions I can help clear up. Some questions from the audience were expected, others challenged my own preconceived notions of our Uncle Vanya. Through trying to answer these questions I’ve made new discoveries about our production and also reconsidered the audience’s reaction to our performances.

Audience Q1: So what was that part [the pre-show] in the beginning for?

I found it strange that the audience thought the pre-show was a separate part of the play. From our perspective it had been in the fabric of the performance since the beginning of the rehearsal process. I think at the time I answered this person by explaining that the pre-show was a way to introduce the audience to the idea of the doubling and the atmosphere of our world. But after thinking about this question I realized the pre-show did much more than just that. It was the initial wrecking ball for breaking the barrier between the audience and the stage. The choice to not hide our “process” for warming up and preparing for the show was part of creating an atmosphere of intimacy. To me, it seemed as if we were trying to let the audience feel as if they had been personally invited to watch a private rehearsal of Vanya where we would make no effort to “hide” our process. Thinking back, it reminds me very much of the setting and circumstances that inspired Vanya on 42nd Street. As I recall, initially the only “audience” members of Vanya on 42nd Street were friends of the cast who were personally invited to watch their experimental rehearsals. Besides the pre-show I began to see how other choices we made also contributed to creating an intimate atmosphere with the audience. Jaya’s presence as a stage manager, cast members sitting on stage with their scripts all added to the effect that it was a production in its “rehearsal process” and that the audience was invited to go “behind-the-curtain” to witness the performance in its truest form. The presentation of this concept of Vanya as “private rehearsals” for a small audience of close friends created a much more intimate theatre atmosphere rather than a typical “performance” where the wall between the audience and the stage is so concrete.

Audience Q2: I heard that Chekhov was supposed to be funny but this play was really serious.

I had to do everything in my power to keep from punching this person in the face.

Couldn’t they see how hilarious it was? From nanny’s bantering and Waffles first monologue to the professors goodbye there was comedy at every turn. Dark comedy, maybe but hilarious nonetheless. Vanya shot at the professor and missed three times! THREE TIMES!!! I tried to bring up examples to this person of how funny Uncle Vanya was, but they annoyingly changed the subject. Later as I mulled over this troublesome comment I considered the varied reactions from the audience that we had received each night. Some audiences were vocal with they’re reactions. I heard “awwws”, snorts of contempt, and hysterical laughter. Other nights they were silent. But just because they weren’t laughing or making noise didn’t mean they weren’t with us. Uncle Vanya poses some very serious questions and it takes a certain amount of consideration for an audience to fully appreciate the questions Chekhov poses. While Uncle Vanya does have its funny moments, it also presents some heavy themes. A silent audience likely indicates they are asking the right questions or at least thinking about what they’re seeing.  So even if a particular audience only gave a few chuckles, my pestering of audience members after shows has proven that they’ve thought critically about our production- which is altogether a more valuable reaction.

Our version of Uncle Vanya was certainly an experiment. But the fact that I could hold interesting and controversial conversations with audience members after the show is a testament to the success of this experiment. During the performance I watched a mesmerized audience frown in sympathy, gape open-mouthed and lean on the edge of their seats. But even after the applause I imagine the enchantment will still linger. Perhaps in the form of a discussion with friends as they make their way back to Crowell Quad, or as a conversation topic that resurfaces over lunch at ABP…


Cyn-a-bun (Cynthia)

A couple of words: DUENDE AND FARD

When I walked into my audition for Vanya all those months ago, I was gunning for Sonya. I hadn’t even considered Yelena as an option. I had read the play, and had come to several conclusions, including, but not exclusively so:

  • I want a Marina in my life almost as much as I want a Madea.
  • Uncle Vanya reminds me of a bull in a small space
  • Astrov has some growing up to do
  • I hate Yelena.

I hated her. I hated her laziness. I hated the fact that she gave up her one and only talent in order to marry someone she thought was “famous”. I hated that she doesn’t smack Vanya in the face and tell him where to shove his “deepest, truest feelings”. I hated that she stays with the unbearable Professor when she could be frolicking in the fall leaves with the doctor. But most of all, I hated that the first thing we know about her is that she’s “good-looking.” To me, that was the final nail in the coffin. I did not want to play Yelena.

A more accurate observation would have been: I did not want to be Yelena.

So for this final blog post I would like to say a couple of words. Those words are duende and fard.


DUENDE (doo-EN-DAY): n. from Spanish dialectal (charm), from Spanish (ghost): the ability to attract others through personal magnetism and charm.

When I was twelve, I did my first professional production in the Repertory Players Theatre in my city. I was Hodel in Fiddler on the Roof, and I loved her – tough, brave, runs away from her family and her home to be with the man she loves but has only known for a month or two, ending up in a Russian jail somewhere. Wait, what? Then came Juliet – young, naive, runs away from her family and her home to be with the man she loves but has only known for a month or two, ending up – oh yes, dead. That same year I was to play Barbara-Ann, a “Texan bimbo” whose costume was a tiny waitress dress made for a nine-year old, and  Mary – the sexy main character of a murder mystery whose only three seconds on stage involve falling out of a cupboard with her throat slit open (the blood covered more than the lacy nightgown I was wearing.) It was the beginning of a seemingly endless string of beautiful women who ended up in horrible situations because all they had going for them was the way they looked or their horribly misguided love affairs. This was a trend that I was determined to put an end to. In high school I auditioned for the ugly roles, the old roles, the depraved roles, the male roles – anything but the Pretty Girl. By the time I got to play La Ruffiana – a 73 year-old prostitute whose language was almost as foul as her smell – I finally felt I’d made it. From then on, I played the oddballs and steered clear of the pretty women.

So when it was decided that I would play Yelena, I struggled to come round to the idea of reacquainting myself with the beautiful. But how could I when I had spent so many years stomping Duende out, eradicating it from my physical vocabulary? How could I access the calculated magnetism, the purposeful lure of Yelena when the “sexy” had all but withered away from my box of acting tools? It became even harder upon re-reading the text. Assuming I found my Duende again, where was I supposed to insert it when Yelena’s words speak so much of melancholy and emptiness? Then along came Ashley with her beautiful, easy smile and natural grace.

“Damn it. I can’t do that.”

When one of my professors asked how Vanya was going, I said “It’s great, but I hate my character.” That was when I received a short piece of invaluable advice that will seem intuitive to some. It went something like this: “It’s no good trying to be a character you hate – you won’t last a second in their skin if you despise being there. You have to like Yelena, or she’ll evade you forever.” That got me thinking – how is it that I can like La Ruffiana and hate Yelena? And then it hit me – a formula that I had constructed in my brain:

Beauty = shallow = boring

So I did some rearranging:

Beauty = usually self-defining = perceived as shallow = potentially quite interesting.
This same professor told me a story about a group of monks whose leaders must be killed by their eventual successor who then takes up the role in the knowledge that with his power comes his inevitable murder. So it is with beauty, I think. As the Duke Orsino so aptly puts it:

“For women are as roses, whose fair flow’r,
Being once displayed, doth fall that very hour.”
                                                                          Twelfth Night II.iv.

And so, the coolness arrived. I came to a conclusion about how I felt about Yelena. For me, she is a woman who knows that her beauty is transient, that it will fade, and when it does she will fall to the wayside and join Astrov in the ranks of the “once beautiful,” and another will take her place as the adored. To me, Yelena is not unaware of her good looks. In fact, she is too aware of it. She knows that it marks and defines her in the eyes of the people around her. Which leaves her with the question – “In five or six years, I’ll be old too”. What then? What do I have if I don’t have this face, these eyes? She has given up her musical education for a man who won’t stop bitching about everything he’s had to let go of. She can’t “miraculously heal and teach” people the way Sonya can. “All she does is enchant people with her beauty.” A few people asked me how I feel about Sonya, and I admitted to being thoroughly irritated by her. As Thomas points out in his post – she is good, she is kind, she protects and she nurtures, but she wallows in her plainness. Every time I walked into the window room to hear her lamenting about the fact that she’s “Not Pretty”, I wanted to grab her by the shoulders, shake her hard and scream “No, you’re not! You’re not pretty! You are skilled, resourceful, strong, smart, useful. And you are loved. You are not pretty, and you should thank your lucky stars for it.”

Yelena is not loved. Yelena is desired. A fact which she points out to Vanya. Like the forest that is so beautiful and so temporary, “you don’t actually care about me.” Astrov seems to know it too. He does not love her. “That’s how much I want you,” he says, and proceeds to ask for “just one kiss.” He at least acknowledges the need to take the beauty while it lasts, because one day, no one will give a damn about the gorgeous Yelena Andreyevna. Perhaps this is why she stays with the professor. Because even if there is no love there, he is not likely to leave her once she is old and Not Pretty.


FARD (FAHRD): v. from Middle English farden, from Middle French farder, of Germanic origin; akin to Old High German faro (colored): to paint the face with cosmetics.

For anyone who hasn’t given up on this post yet, I’d like to introduce you to my second word: “fard”. To paint the face with cosmetics.

Once I had understood and even come to like Yelena, I was still faced with a problem: How am I to portray the kind of mesmerising beauty that Chekhov calls for? She has to possess the kind of beauty that stalls a household for a month. She has to be obviously more “beautiful” than Sonya. How to do it? I believe in universal beauty – that everything has it, that it is truly in the eye of the beholder, so the idea of objective beauty was a difficult one for me to grasp. The only way I knew how to achieve that was the way society has always told us: slap on a bit of this here, a brush of that there, a few hundred strokes of this and voila!

You. Are. Beautiful.

A cast member walked in one evening before the show as I was redoing my lipstick for the third time and they told me that I shouldn’t wear make-up, that I was fine without it. This was a compliment, but it grated for some reason. I felt angry. I felt that I had to do everything I could to be as beautiful as I could, because otherwise –   what’s the point of Yelena?


While watching Act Three, I always wondered what Yelena is about to say when she trails off.

“I mean, someone like me, someone who’s…”

Someone who’s what, exactly?




Reddy’s Post

Since I was backstage for the most part, I was never able to see a direct audience response. Still, I was able to gauge a small sample size of the audience opinion from speaking to viewers at intermission and after the show ended. My friends that attended Vanya lauded the performance by the cast, collectively agreeing that all of the acting was superb. Another aspect of the show that my friends enjoyed was the music in between acts and at various points during the play. Going beyond the sensory appeal of well-played music, I think Bart’s compositions helped to set the mood throughout the show and elevated the monologues to entrancing and robust levels. I especially think that during a long performance like Vanya, music helps to keep the audience engaged and entertained.

I felt like an audience member during parts of the rehearsal and production process. So in the processing of analyzing the audience’s reaction I have intrinsically woven in my own opinions and reflections about Vanya. One thing I am curious about is how the audience reaction changes after viewing Vanya the second time around. Nick’s parents briefly mentioned that they were looking forward to seeing Vanya for a second time because they had, after the first view, a firm grasp of the doubles in the cast and the structure of the play. I think it becomes easier to appreciate the humor in Vanya after each successive viewing, because one becomes desensitized to the tragedy and sadness within the play and more receptive to its irony and whim.

From night to night, I think the audience varied with their energy level, responsiveness, and reception to Vanya. However, I don’t think the quieter audiences should be dismissed as uninterested and bored. To parallel Vanya with a film viewing, the initial reaction is comparable to the highs and lows during the movie itself – seating on the edge of your seat during suspenseful scenes, jumping out of your seat during frightening ones, crying like a little girl during sad scenes. For me, a second reaction generally materializes on the drive home, when I reflect on what I have just seen, recollecting the segments that I found particularly poignant or compelling. In one way or another, every performance evokes a reaction from the audience. Even someone in an unresponsive crowd, who rarely expressed emotion in an outright manner, may have privately and intimately had a profound reaction to the performance. I think there is a lot more to gain from any performance art by quietly absorbing it and and musing over what about it was enjoyable/tiresome rather than passing immediate judgment about what could have been done better.

Throughout the semester, I felt like a cog within the production process and it was gratifying to see Vanya come to fruition. I originally enrolled in this class to learn more about theater, and I did – from both an acting and a production standpoint. I felt accepted within Vanya company, and I think this will be an experience that I will look back fondly upon. Thanks everyone.



They’re Gone

Audience  reception to our performance was markedly positive, I thought. Everyone I talked to enjoyed the show. (Actually, it’s more appropriate to say that they said they enjoyed the show. Sometimes you don’t really know, because people will most likely tell you they liked it, or it was good, etc. etc. However, most reactions seemed to eagerly express more satisfaction than is obligatory, so I assume their responses were more excited and genuine than the generic obligatory validation of the show.).

I count this alone as a great accomplishment for a show, as perhaps the most important accomplishment. If a show garners other achievements, if it offered other benefits to its viewers, how significant are they if audiences didn’t enjoy the experience? It’s even hard for me to think of examples that may qualify, but perhaps we could compare to the highly controversial Measure Back. Though I remain the only person I know who will admit to having enjoyed this show’s experience, it certainly provoked discussion among its audiences, and it can consider that one success; however, one could argue that these discussions would have been much more productive, had certain elements of the show been, to use this more as a catch-all term, “more enjoyable.”

Most friends and family that saw our production were also eager to discuss it, and multiple facets of the show, I should add. The doubling, in particular, offered plenty of material for discussion. I found very few people react to this element with distaste, and it quite effectively appeared to serve the Brechtian purpose of provoking detached thought. Even the least critically-inclined of my family, for example, had a good many thoughts to share about it. Generally, the doubling provoked audience members to compare the characters depicted from act to act. I found, however, that audience members differed in what they made of this comparison; some where more likely to compare in the more competitive terms, asking themselves, “who do I like better?” while a more sophisticated comparison came to others more easily: “what do these choices, and my tastes for these choices, say about the characters and the variable methods of portraying them?” My family members got to see the show multiple times, and quite interestingly, the responses they reported appeared to move toward the more sophisticated end of the spectrum as they saw more shows, though they always began seeing the doubling primarily as competitive. This could be due to their relationship to one of the performers, and the (at least initial) disappointment that they wouldn’t see me do more.

People also seemed to follow the action of the show surprisingly well, the doubling posing few challenges to their understanding of the play and plot. Even when it did, the challenges didn’t seem to be so great as to hinder someone’s enjoyment of the show. A couple members of one of my classes were actually confused only by the mixing that happened in the doubling; it seems they thought the casts were to remain separate, and were thrown off when Nick and I separated from the others we had played opposite.

Sonya’s final monologue has always puzzled me a little, and I wish I would have questioned more people about their opinion of it. I was somewhat surprised that so many people came out of the show uplifted, as I think there’s something horribly dismal in Sonya’s prescription to wait for any kind of after-life salvation. One might understand it as advice that the audience should not take, or something more complex yet, hence my desire to know what our production evoked in people. I’ll prod the few remaining friends who have yet to share their thoughts.

Having been on stage to watch the equivalent of one-half of the show, I suppose even my perceptions as a pseudo- audience member are somewhat valuable. Considering how many damn times I had to watch acts two and three, it was remarkable how often I was enraptured by the moments on stage (exclusive from the moments that interested me because of their “difference” from the standard run). There were always moments in which the right energy and timing had me at the edge of my seat, and my colleagues always recreated beautiful moments that I could enjoy and appreciate, even though I knew exactly what was supposed to happen. So here’s to you, your talent, and your beauty, friends!

It’s been such a pleasure working with all of you. I eagerly await our next theatrical encounters!

Mike Myers

I’m on Team Sonya

“Who did you root for?”

It’s a question I try my best to only ask after the production has finished, but one that means quite a lot to me. If these “Scenes from Country Life” are Chekhov’s way of teaching us how NOT to live, and I think the tragi-farcical elements in Uncle Vanya do just that, then it seems proper to ask, “Who’s the “hero” of this story?” Who wants the “right things” and who is trying to get what they want in the “right way?”

Of course, Chekhov most likely didn’t present one single “right” way to live one’s life.  Maybe the seemingly “contented” servants/workers are a reflection of some Chekhovian ideal… But does Chekhov explore the inner psychology of Marina and Waffles enough in Vanya to make them realistic examples of a life worth living? And maybe they aren’t so content after all (Waffles: “I lost my happiness a long time ago.” and Marina: “Old people just want a little pity…they never give us enough of it.” OK I take it back, even if we don’t see as much into the private life of the working class on the estate, what we still see is equally complex enough picture (in proportion to their stage exposure) to make them competitive candidates for a “right way to live.” Or perhaps he wanted us to pick and choose the virtues from all characters.

As for myself, I’ve had for so long rooted for Sonya, because I felt she doesn’t appear to “wrong” anyone, she works hard to keep the estate life together, and my heart breaks for her when Astrov brushes her off. Of all the characters, she seems to be getting the least amount of what she wants while putting in the maximum of effort. When I asked audience members and friends who they rooted for while watching Vanya,  I assumed they would all answer that Sonya was the “crowd favorite.” I was shocked and pleasantly surprised to hear a variety of responses. Here are a couple of [heavily] paraphrased responses:

“The doctor. He’s got so much going on, with the forest and his job and all. I really wanted him and Yelena to get together.”

“Yelena. I feel for her. Been there. I mean living with the Professor must suck. And it’s terrible to be trapped like that.”

“Hard not to root for poor old Vanya. Although I thought your Vanya was too angry and cynical to like. I felt for Sam’s Vanya much more. He was sadder, more depressed.”

“Sonya. That scene with the doctor in Act II, awww.”

I’ve completely enjoyed playing the role of Vanya. And I mean something very specific when I say so: I have enjoyed stepping into his shoes, making his choices, liking and disliking (re: hating) what he does, interacting with the other characters through the filter of his circumstances. But would I ever want to make the choices he makes in real life? No. Would I be disgusted with Vanya, were I to meet him in real life? Probably.

I believe that part of the task of playing a character means empathizing with their wants and “taking their side” in grand scheme of the play’s arc. Because I struggled so much to empathize with Vanya, I was really interested to know whether anyone else took his side. I’m glad a few people did. In fact, it made me proud that responses were so spread across the board; I think the fact that there was no one audience “favorite” is a testament to 1) the strength and diversity of Chekhov’s characterizations and 2) the honesty and depth with which we all brought our roles to life onstage.

How I Learned to Vanya/Sam

So Ist Das Leben

I was once told that the best way to write something was to write backwards. Get a good strong ending and work your way back. During the last weekend, I went through a lot. The fever. The dislocated shoulder. The grappling with the fact that everyone that saw Vanya couldn’t help seeing how similar we are.  But for the first time, relinquishing a character wasn’t difficult. Of course, it’s impossible to fully eradicate the character from me. When you put on someone else’s scope, you yourself gain a new life lesson. A lesson that was a lifetime in the teaching. But to give up the burden of Vanya, is a blessing. As much of a blessing as having the opportunity to play the part. I think back to one rehearsal when we were rehearsing the scene where Vanya is told that the estate will be sold. After doing the scene three times, I went to Thomas relieved to get a break. Upon giving an sigh of relief, Thomas gave me a perplexed judging look. As if I wasn’t happy or greatful to be doing what I was doing. I was of course happy to perform, but I was not happy as I transitioned back into being Sam. I operate under a few key assumptions. Everyone at some point has considered suicide of some form; everyone is pursuing an objective at all times and is therefore after something; and, important to this situation, the amount of grief a four year old can experience at the loss of ice cream can be of a similar vein as a man losing his wife based on proportional life experience. When I was taking off that bathrobe and getting ready to sit down, I was walking away from my Sam equivalent of the time my house was being taken from me. I was walking away from my own personal baggage at some level. Because although I was not thinking of that time in particular and nor was I embodying some sort of method acting technique, my body’s shape and movement held that same tension.

I also hated being a good person for so long. One of the big acting teachings I got from the O’Neill that I would have never picked up at Duke was the idea that the best actor was the best person. That your interpersonal relationships within the cast and with every one of your acting partners is dependent on your not holding judgement or criticism or spite. All of these elements can make the rehearsal space (a place where freedom and creativity must reign) toxic and murky. There were many times where I wanted to blow up at people or storm out of rooms or push the exact buttons I knew to make someone cry. But I didn’t. And I grew because of it. This terrible experiment of making college students work on a show together for a period ranging from 8-4 months has made me realize that thinking before I speak is essential. That their are two sides to every opinion and that I have no right to assume that I am not in the wrong. This wasn’t a characteristic that Vanya had unfortunately. But I was smart to avoid absorbing his temperament. I would even go to say that Vanya acted like an anti-idol for me in some categories. His inability to see the situation he was in and push forward was the motivation for many of the decisions that I have made through this rehearsal process. His combination of Sloth, Misogyny, and Self-hatred are all aspects that I actively try to avoid in my day to day life. But when I was on stage I did feel, from time to time, that I had the right to indulge in these horrific mannerisms. I would, if only for a second, sit in my chair and feel true laziness before snapping back into being an actor playing Vanya with an activated spine, flexed abdominal cavity, and fixed relaxed shoulders.

I felt like these moments where I was just letting myself be him felt good. Not because of the obvious reasons, but because it alleviated the tension I had when I first got the role of Vanya. The apprehension at the thought of playing a huge character in such an iconic show. The apprehension went away within the first week of rehearsals in September, but I can’t say that the casting didn’t play into mindset. Being originally cast as Professor and then having to re-audition to get the part I wanted made me feel unworthy at some level. The constant thought of being “Another Vanya” instead of being “One Vanya”. But that was before I thought about the summer I had experienced. The summer that, in my opinion, was the only reason I was able to sky rocket in talent and be able to play Vanya. The summer where I had worked and sweat and cried. The summer where I shadowed a cast of Broadway actors on a production of a developing play where a key phrase from the play echoed in my head. The last lines of the play.

So Ist Das Leben

Audience- Maddy Pron

Every night, my first feel of the audience would be when Rory and I were sent onstage for the pre-show. In the few actions that allowed me to cross the set, check in with people, and set up a part of the stage, I was able to take in some of the energy provided by the seats slowly packing up and the sometimes still buzzing conversations. This always served as the initial way to excite me and get me pumped and ready for the show. Simply the presence of the audience—the basic fact of them physically being there was enough to get me started. We had people there who were willing (and hopefully eager and excited themselves) to watch this story unfold.

After the initial moments in the play, (i.e. the beginning scenes), the role of the audience in our production became more important. I felt dependent on their involvement and on their reactions in order to propagate the story. I don’t mean that on nights when they were more unresponsive I felt like throwing in the towel and saying “BYE” to the ingrates, but it definitely was somewhat disheartening. I think we all lived and shined more as characters when the audience was engaged and alive with us, consistently feeding us back with responsiveness.

Most nights, I made a final judgment on the audience based on how they received my “you’re such a special, special man…” line as I escort Phil offstage. It was almost always met by laughter, but I was always measuring how much laughter. There was one show where they didn’t laugh at all—the first Saturday matinee— but in general, people tended to be pretty receptive to it, which I liked. Overall, I think this play was pretty great and well received, and I am proud to have been a part of it.


Special Thanks

One of the reasons why I love the theatre is because it is, at its core, a collaborative experience. This collaboration exists in many forms including the director and designers, the director and actors, and among the actors themselves. Each of these combinations is integral to creating a work of theatre and yield beautiful, magical results that are sometimes unexpected and often greater than the sum of their parts. However, a collaboration that I think is often overlooked is that between the actors (or rather what is on stage) and the audience.

I have heard people say that technically theatre can take place without an audience. While this may be technically true (the key word being technically), I just can’t seem to wrap my brain around the concept. In my opinion, the audience is another character, no more or less important as the characters cast from the beginning. The audience breathes life into a play, bringing a palpable tension, excitement, and spark to the piece. Without the audience, the piece would ultimately become stale.

In regards to Uncle Vanya, I have heard that some found the doubling to be a bit confusing and hard to follow at times. While it is important to think about how the doubling concept may have been made clearer, I think that challenging the audience to think critically and differently is one of the best things a piece of theatre can do. The audience is smart and should be treated as such. To spell everything out for the audience would, in my opinion, be boring and a bit rude. Additionally, in asking the audience to take part in figuring out what is going on, the collaborative aspect is heightened and as a result, the feeling that we’re all in this together (a feeling that I refer to as “the happiness”) fills the space. “The happiness” creates an unbreakable bond between everyone at each specific performance and everyone who has ever seen the show – a bond that lives on, way past when the curtain comes down.

You can’t predict this.

Watching the play that first night with the audience – it felt like I was seeing it for the first time.

I don’t know what it is about having and audience siting out there, watching you… But it’s like everything comes alive in a way it hasn’t before. There is an energy in the room that wasn’t present. You become more alert; hyper-vigilant, even: watching for their reactions, trying to see what moves them, what makes them burst out in laughter, recoil in disgust, gasp in shock. What moves them to tears.

It was so interesting to see what the audience reacted to; and it was even more interesting to notice my reaction to them. I laughed at parts I knew were coming up because the audience laughed at them. I held my breath because I knew a tense scene was approaching and I waited with bated breath to see what they would do. In a way, I felt that those of us on stage became an audience in our own right; us watching them, watching us, doing the play.

After that first week I felt I had figured out what our audience would be like on any given night. Thursday nights are slow because it’s not the weekend; Friday nights are good; Saturday night’s were even better; and Sunday matinees felt like death. But I realized after that second week that this didn’t hold. Because that second week our liveliest audience was the Sunday matinee, and the least reactive one (to me) was the Saturday night. I wasn’t complaining – how wonderful it was to end the show run with such a lively audience! – but still, it challenged my convictions, and so I had to go back and think about it some more.

And I came to the conclusion that you just can’t predict what your audience will be like. (I know to some of you who have done this for a while this might seem obvious; but it was a very interesting thing for me to learn.) I was (in a way) disappointed by them on nights that they were quiet when I expected them to be louder; when they missed jokes, when they let moments slip by without so much as a gasp of surprise. And I was elated by them on nights that they were so responsive when I thought they would be silent as the grave; when they laughed at things I myself hadn’t even picked up, when they cried out at parts I was sure they would miss. Every night the audience surprised me; and every night, I learned something new about Uncle Vanya – even this far into the process, even after months of watching it over and over. And still, there were things I hadn’t yet known.

– Jaya Z.

Audience Breath

Theatre people say funny things in funny ways.

The idea of the audience “breathing with us” was I believe imparted by our Illustrious Jules (honestly Jules, Illustrious has become your official title/first name at Duke).
Theatre jargon has a lot to do with breath, because theatre has a lot to do with life. Organic, resonant, spatial, experimental, meta-life, as a theatre person might say. And though I knew that “breathing with us” may have been metaphorical, I found myself listening for the audiences’ breath. In that fantastic humming silence, in those painful pin-drop pauses, between teardrops or chuckles, I listened for breath.

I heard.

Some nights I heard it from the audience truly, that cavern of eyes; some nights they sighed and gasped, “ha!”ed and “huh”ed, “aww”ed and “hmm?”ed. Some nights they fell asleep in the front row but some nights they breathed. But every night we breathed. Every night I heard the life-air of this pulsing aggregation of human beings pumping in and out of every act, an assemblage of cells forming this body, taking turns being the heart, a living, breathing thing. Vanya Lived. And the Others? Most nights Lived too, another force breathing back at us, exhale for inhale, or perhaps even in tandem, perhaps one body together, feeling the same hurt and bubbling up with the same laughter, breathing the same breath.
Maybe one of the unintentionally wonderful things about having watchers onstage was that while we watched ourselves, we also watched ourselves watch. I mean that in act 3 as I (somehow, still) gasped at the gunshots, I could see in the dark the earnest alarm, or at least concern, of the people watching us watch. I watched them laugh, and laughed myself. All eyes and eyes, mouths and mouths, breath and breath. When in theatre can you sit and watch it happen? But I saw my friends laughing at Thomas, sighing for Cynthia, covering hands with mouths when Nick and Ashley kissed or when they thought it was the end for Phil, I saw my parents and my friends’ parents and complete strangers watch and listen, as I watched and listened.

Everything about this experience has been so corporal and fundamentally human for me so I can’t help but say this funny thing in this funny way. I won’t project that every person every night was with us in such a spiritual way, or even with us at all. Some were confused about the doubling, or about the time period, or didn’t really like either. Many were depressed or unsatisfied, or at least emotionally exhausted, which in itself is good feedback. In many cases even if the show wasn’t completely digested, a solid appreciation for the incredible work, talent, design and music was reliable. We heard floods of good things, especially from people whose opinions at least I respect and whose admiration I crave.

But I have to say, no matter how organic-visceral-absurdist-meta-theatrejargon it may sound, that even on nights when the audience didn’t breathe with us, Vanya’s heart kept beating, and the breath of the show and the people breathing life into it

took my breath away.


–Faye G.