In my research, I found an amazing American Theater piece from March of 2005 curated by Todd London (Artistic Director of New Dramatists) who has interviewed Andre Gregory over the course of some years. The piece is titled “Gregory on the Non-Making of Uncle Vanya.” I’ve referenced another portion of Gregory’s “non-making” in another post and I’ll post the full text of London’s article on our Course Materials page, but I wanted to quote just a smidge here on the open blog. It’s part of a conversation Gregory had with Ruth Nelson the original actress to play Marina in the rehearsal/staged version of their Vanya (Phoebe Snow plays Marina in the film) before she died in 1992 (a death that came on the heels of a stroke she suffered the night before the Vanyastage performance’s last run-through). As you will read in the full article, much of the process of gathering the group of actors for the Vanya that we see in the movie was tinged with loss and many examples of the fragility and fleeting nature of existence but the insistence to create even (especially?) in the face of mortality.
Ruth Nelson said something amazing when I went to visit her a few days before she died. I said to her ‘Are you afraid, Ruth?’ And she said, ‘No. Dying is like our work. You just go moment to moment, and you don’t think of the end.’ “
Not only did it just choke me up immediately upon reading it, I found it an interesting contrast/compliement to Sonya’s final words about the rest and peace from toil that comes with death.
The pared-down setting and the rehearsal props are reminiscent of Our Town, but 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.
As promised, a list of the parameters of our experiment that I read aloud at our Friday, Aug. 30th class meeting.
Theater is a space of imagination, thoughtfully informed by worlds, times, and experiences outside its space.
Within Uncle Vanya characters’ realities are driven by feelings and their ability/inability to be articulated through language and action.
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.
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.
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.