Tag Archives: Stanislavski

Composition under Culture Ministries and Culture Monies

Has anyone been following moves in Russia’s parliament over the summer, passing regressive anti-LGBT legislation? With the Winter Olympics in Sochi approaching in a few months, there’s been greater visibility and push-back regarding these laws from some in the international community and many in the LGBT community. LGBT citizens and activists within Russia have had a difficult if not impossible time recently in a country that has never been welcoming or liberal where LGBT rights were concerned. The reason I mention this is that there’s a new film about one of Russia’s favorite musical sons — Peter Tchaikovsky — being financed, in part, by the government. One of its main goals appears to be to refute or at least deny evidence about Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality. This weekend, The Guardian [London] ran this story about the effort to straight-wash Tchaikovsky’s biography.

Russia’s culture minister has denied that composer Peter Tchaikovsky was gay, discarding what has long been regarded as historical fact. Vladimir Medinsky claimed that there was no evidence to suggest the 19th-century composer was anything other than a lonely man who failed to find a suitable woman to marry.

Medinsky was asked about the composer’s sexuality after news emerged that a film biopic of Tchaikovsky being made with Russian government funding would ignore the composer’s sexuality. The script was apparently revised to remove references that could have made it vulnerable under Russia’s controversial new “gay propaganda” laws.

The film’s screenwriter, Yuri Arabov, denied that Tchaikovsky was gay, and told the newspaper Izvestiya that the composer of Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty was “a person without a family who was stuck with the opinion that he supposedly loves men”.

“Arabov is actually right – there is no evidence that Tchaikovsky was a homosexual,” said Medinsky, when asked by the Interfax news agency if the climate of homophobia in Russia was forcing film-makers to censor the issue.

Historians, however, say there is a mountain of evidence to the contrary.

“In the case of Tchaikovsky his homosexuality is so well documented by his own writings and the writings of others that it is simply ludicrous to suggest otherwise,” said the author Konstantin Rotikov, who has written a history of gay Saint Petersburg. “It’s a historical fact. History doesn’t change just because we are trying to push a certain agenda today.”


I bring this story to your attention for a few reasons. One, because of the great affection (though no love affair) that existed between Tchaikovsky and Chekhov. Chekhov engraved this portrait of himself to the composer and dedicated a collection, Gloomy Stories, to a man who he regarded second only to Tolstoy in genius, an admiration he described in a letter to Modest Tchaikovsky (the composer’s brother). Chekhov even invokes Tchaikovsky’s music in Act III of Three Sisters, when Veshinin hums the melody from the opera Yevgeny [Eugene] Onegin. They even discussed collaborating on an opera, Bela, with Chekhov serving as librettist, based on Lermontov’s novel, A Hero of Our Time (1839-41). Unfortunately, Tchaikovsky died from cholera (1893) before that project could begin.

Two, because last night Queer Nation staged a protest inside and outside New York’s Metropolitan Opera where a production of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin starring two Russian performers opens the season. This choice of action drew this response from the Met’s general manager, from which I thought this quote was particularly telling in any discussion of art and social justice:

But as an arts institution, the Met is not the appropriate vehicle for waging nightly battles against the social injustices of the world.

Three, I turn to Tchaikovsky’s often disputed (and not just in Russia) personal life and the required revisions, absences, refusals in the new film as an example of state censorship that Chekhov dealt with (though under different historical circumstances) when writing plays. Before the [Moscow] Art Theatre was created as a private company, Chekhov had to submit his work to the Imperial Theatre Committee, which functioned as a government censor that would evaluate work, submit recommended and required changes, and assign it a state-subsidized public theater/company for performance. (The Lord Chamberlin’s Office served in this capacity in British theatre until 1968 and you can find out more details about other nineteenth-century theater censorship systems in the The Frightful Stage: Political Censorship of the Theatre in Nineteenth-Century Europe edited by Robert Justin Goldstein, Berghahn Books, 2009.) By the time he had to decide whether or not to “give” Uncle Vanya to MAT or send it through the regular state system, the decision, according to his biographer Donald Rayfield, was made for him by the censor who “took umbrage at the play’s aspersions on a professor and demanded changes.” (Anton Chekhov: A Life 487).

All of this to say that it is easy to see how government imposed control on artists constrains, coerces, and sometimes radically, sometimes incrementally changes the how, what, and why of an artwork (even of an artist’s own history). Commercial interests operate in much the same way though their networks of influence are less visible and, one might argue, more insidious. We usually reserve the cry of “censorship” for government imposition of value(s), for a public entity’s or official’s intrusion on an artist’s process or product; however, the marketplace itself (and all the structural components of that marketplace, which includes people and capital) shapes who makes and the what, how and why that gets made. Certainly we decry the market’s influence when we see sequel and sequel or remake after remake cranked out of Hollywood; however, theater seasons make their programming choices based on similar calculus. Even in the non-profit world, money and patronage drive the production machine. Don’t forget, the MAT was able to offer Chekhov a free(r) space for dramaturgical invention but that freedom was made possible by the wealth of patrons and fellow artists particularly Stanislavski who had significant income from cotton mills, a fact that would later come to constrain his own freedoms after the Russian revolution.


File under “theater has known this for years”

An article in my Twitter feed today caught my eye: “How Posture influences mood, energy, thoughts,” Kristen Brown for the San Francisco Gate.

We start in a Holistic Health class where the professor intersperses his lectures with time for students to “get up and wiggle.” Professor Erik Peper ties this tool to his behavioral science research on the mind-body connection. Immediately, I was hooked in. Surely someone is going to mention theater at some point. How could they not? I read on.

The article mentions the stir psychologist William James made in the late 1800s when he ruminated on the connection between physiological and emotional responses. Which comes first, the bodily experience or the mental feeling? A chicken or egg kind of situation. Then the Gate article author jumps to early 21st century research about the influence of bodily action on mental state: a 2003 study on nodding or shaking heads that showed how the action influenced group opinions, a 2009 study showing sitting up straight improved confidence. There’s even a mention of “embodiment” —

Scientists who study the influence of the body on the mind, a subdiscipline of social psychology called embodiment, are only now beginning to understand the physiological underpinnings behind it.

— but instead of a turn to theater, the article moves further into the scientific domain, neuroscience, to illustrate emerging physiological evidence that appears to link physical action to emotional states/moods (and vice-versa).

Now, I’m not surprised. For this to be “news” it has to be illustrative of the “real world” connections and that equals scientific inquiry. I bring it up here not to chafe at the neglect of performing arts like dance & theater whose artistry is dependent upon unique strategies of connectivity between mind and body but to illustrate how certain scientific fields are studying the kind of connections you are exploring in your movement work with Kali. As we look for ways to access greater paths of connection between the physical worlds you all have been exploring in workshop and the textual landscape of the script, it seems important to recognize how these psychology and neuroscience studies are searching for some similar kinds of connections just in a different domain.

“If I do a power pose, that sends signals up to the brain, and it says ‘I’m feeling powerful,’ ” said [Dana] Carney [social psychologist at UC-Berkeley]. “It starts as a neural impulse and then ends up acting a little bit like a drug.”

In the study, those signals, for example, triggered the production of testosterone and decreased levels of cortisol, making a person feel more confident and less stressed. What is still unclear is the exact pathway those signals take.

“We are just defining now what those pathways might be,” said Carney. “The knowledge will come … but science is slow.”

Peper, the SFSU scientist, readily espouses his philosophy to any available ears – including the reporter, who he instructed to put down the phone and stretch “toward the sky” for a few minutes.

“Just get up and do some active movement for a moment, then observe yourself,” he said.

Philosophy and religion have long debated the nature of the mind-body relationship.

James, the 19th century psychologist, inspired a wave of criticism that lasted long after his death. Since James’ era, what has emerged is a picture of emotion that is much more complex. Sometimes, a mood is perhaps tied to the physiological. Sometimes perhaps it’s not. Scientists still disagree.

Don’t worry scientists. Artists disagree too.

“It’s complicated.”

Professor Erik Peper talks about stress in his holistic health class at San Francisco State University. Much of his work focuses on how posture can affect mood. Photo: Liz Hafalia, The Chronicle

Professor Erik Peper talks about stress in his holistic health class at San Francisco State University. Much of his work focuses on how posture can affect mood. Photo: Liz Hafalia, The Chronicle


The pared-down setting and the rehearsal props are reminiscent of Our Townbut Thornton Wilder used those devices to keep the audience aware that they were watching a play; Gregory and Malle use them, paradoxically, to show how little the details of setting matter when the details of character are worked through and profoundly right. At some point in the first act, we stop noticing that we’re not watching a fully designed production—or if the thought does occur to us now and then, it’s as an emissary from the real world pinching us to remind us that this is a movie of a rehearsal of a play, before we forget again and are swept up in the emotional turmoil of the characters’ lives. The key item in the movie for exploring this notion is the “I  New York” coffee cup on the dining room table, an anachronism that becomes merely part of the fabric of the setting, imbued like everything else with the indolent, unsettled atmosphere of this Russian country estate. This interaction of late-twentieth-century New York actors with a turn-of-the-century Russian text acknowledges both and celebrates the tension between them as well as the overlap. That’s why the music we hear behind the opening and end credits isn’t, say, a balalaika melody but a marvelous jazz score by Joshua Redman. The point is that Uncle Vanya speaks as powerfully to contemporary Americans as it did to Russians at the sunset of the age of the czars. The magnificence of the performers, perhaps the most extraordinary group of actors ever gathered to bring Chekhov’s play to life, confirms it.

From Steven Vineberg’s review of Vanya on 42nd Street “An American Vanya” as packaged by Criterion Collection for DVD release. The bolded section reminded me a bit of our conversation after the viewing of Gregory’s film last Friday and how this production seeks to invest the audience deeply in the complex inner worlds of these characters paradoxically (perhaps) as a way to open a window into the very constructed process of making those characters. To be both transparent and immersive … that is our challenge.

Experimental Parameters

As promised, a list of the parameters of our experiment that I read aloud at our Friday, Aug. 30th class meeting.

    1. Theater is a space of imagination, thoughtfully informed by worlds, times, and experiences outside its space.
    2. Within Uncle Vanya characters’ realities are driven by feelings and their ability/inability to be articulated through language and action.
    3. The purpose of character teams casting is to offer actors a chance to unlock a shared, yet separate, understanding of complex characters by making specific, detailed choices born in the space where language and physicality meet. This approach offers an audience the chance to pay close attention to character construction through actor performance.
    4. We seek to disrupt our audience’s nostalgia about historical realism by focusing their attention on our fabricated world within the walls of Sheafer. We are offering the audience a glimpse into the process of constructing theatrical reality — just as the characters seem to be processing the notion of “how did I get here?” in their lives. Everything is transparent and open but not improvisatory, simplistic, or unprepared.
    5. Baker writes of her approach to the text,

The goal was to create a version that would make Chekhov happy; to create a version that sounds to our contemporary American ears the way the play sounded to Russian ears during the play’s first productions in the provinces in 1898.

We seek a similar, lofty goal: to create a version that appears as something new, unseen before and yet ultimately recognizable and relatable to our contemporary Duke University audience.

And a few of the items Jeff mentioned about performance conventions:

  • We will be thinking about Chekhov’s vaudevilles and the swing of the pendulum in his major works between farce and trageey; laughter and tears.
  • Some characters will be broader in their performance than others based on their actions and given circumstances.
  • Audience members (both on and off-stage) are always aware that we are watching a rehearsal/performance of the play (as in Vanya on 42nd Street).
  • Music is used for transitions and, in vaudeville terms, interludes (possible song & dance moments).
  • Character teams work together, helping each other prepare for their chance to tell the story.
  • Age will be achieved with costume, props, movement, voice. Not makeup.