Character Research or How Do You Have a Cup of Coffee and Chat About Your Character with a Dead Playwright?
In the early days of the rehearsal process, character analysis and research are integral to forming the creative world of the play. For this play, I've gone all out. I've watched a Woody Allen Chekhov parody to pick up on subtle humor, I've made a character playlist (Pattie Lynn and I have this in common), I've written out what each character has said about my character Sasha ("Phantasmagoric" might just be my favorite), read and compared various translations...but the one thing I have discovered in the early research phase of the process that has helped the most comes directly from Anton Chekhov himself.
IVANOV was Chekhov's first play, commissioned by the owner of the Korsh Theatre in Moscow and it was written in 10 days. While the first performance was successful, Chekhov was disgusted by the production. He then sat down, made significant revisions to the play, and then wrote a lengthy letter to his publisher friend venting about it all. And it's a treasure trove of information for the actor.
Hey Anton, thanks for laying the Super Objective right out there for me.
Some of the best rehearsals I've had are for new works when the playwright gets to sit in on the table read, and the curious cat in me gets to ask a bunch of questions that normally would either end up unanswered or sourced from my imagination. So, I ask the most detailed questions then, because the person who wrote what I'm supposed to say and do is thankfully sitting across from me. However, with classic plays, you never get to go through that sort of collaborative process. You can't go, "Hey, umm Mr. Shakespeare, does Juliet really love Romeo?"
And it doesn't help that Chekhov's plays are like solving the New York Times' Sunday crossword puzzles - they are full of covert clues with definite answers that you have to dig and mine for all the objectives and emotions for the play to come together. And that's the total beauty of his plays! It's what is not said exactly, but what lies underneath that unfinished sentence or pause between actions. It is frustrating initially though, and sometimes I wish I just could sit down with Anton and a cup of coffee (or in his case, probably vodka) and ask a couple questions.
But finding this one letter of Chekhov's has settled so many of those initial questions for me, creating a strong foundation for the world of the play and particularly for Sasha. I can sort of have this conversation with Chekhov that I'd always dreamed of and move on to embodying her on my feet more quickly. This personal letter is so unlike the formal voice in his plays - it is so frank and fresh, that it has inspired that sort of rhythm for my Sasha. The letter is also so detailed that it has become the keystone to go back to if I start questioning the reasons for Sasha's devotion to Ivanov, or I begin to judge Ivanov's own insistence on boredom. My favorite section is when Chekhov, failing to describe the play's characters in words, draws this:
\ / \ ~~~~~~
\/ \ / \ ~~~~~~
\ / \/
My fingers ache, and so I'll conclude....this type of research is priceless to character development. And to have it in Chekhov's own words is gold.
As an ensemble, we not only have Chekhov's play to use as a communal vocabulary, but we also have these delicious insights to help create a detailed and emotionally honest world of the play.
Dear Past Anton,
Thanks for the help.
Future Actress Britannie.
"Ivanov! Are you kidding? My goodness, of all the plays in the world, this is what your theater company has decided to open with!"
I think these are the exact words I used when Emily told me that this is the play HTTC had selected. Not having a degree in performance or anything related to theater may be the reason. However, an effort on my part has been made to learn all I can about the work my own children pursue. My feelings were based primarily on the other Chekov work I already knew about .... mainly The Three Sisters (of which I have very much of an opinion) and a little about The Cherry Orchard. So, I got a copy of Ivanov and went at it.
The more I read the more perplexed I became. What is so great about this play? I actually could not stand the characters and I'm not sure I can now. I also learned that HTTC was presenting this as a comedy! My Gosh! I didn't see it. I would definitely have to read the play again! I didn't want to read that play again! For heaven's sake!
I expressed my feelings to Emily and discussed the play with her. Emily's sister had to listen to me rant and rave as well as my own siblings. But it gets worse, anybody that would give me the time of day I would talk to about this play. I even made a deal with a friend that I would read Fifty Shades of Grey if they would read Ivanov and then discuss it with me. Everybody but Lisa (Emily's sister) shared my opinion that Ivanov was just a whining play about a bunch of men not getting their way.
One day I was continuing the discussion with Emily on the phone and she said to me, "Mama, if it evokes this much emotion from you it must have meant something." Well, it took a lot of thought and consideration but I finally came to the conclusion that maybe there was something to that. Was it that I just didn't want them to open a new theater company with that play or what?
Since that time I have decided to agree with the theory that Chekov's work has stood the test of time. This play could easily have been set in today's time anywhere in the world. I am actually visualizing a rendition of Ivanov in south west Georgia. It could be done, I'm sure! What's more, it would probably be a great comedy!
Apparently, I don't know anything because a prominent classical theater company in New York has also decided to open with Ivanov in October. This is just another example of my lack of knowledge with plays. I probably will not attend that production but I don't have to because I have kept up with HTTC and all the work they have done. There is no doubt in my mind this will be the BEST Ivanov ever! All the emotion that has been evoked from this brief study will guide me through the production. Perhaps my views will change. Regardless, of how I view the characters I will love every minute of the play. I can't wait!
A Mother’s Blog
The title of this blog was my first reaction after reading Anton Chekhov’s Ivanov. I imagined Anna walking around in the evening singing, “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone”. In particular, singing “Why don’t you stay the evening” at the top of her lungs!
My daughter is Patricia Lynn, the director of HTTC’s production of Ivanov. Her interpretation is that Ivanov is a comedy. A comedy?!? Really? My God…what a group of characters! My character descriptions would be:
Ivanov: Woe is me!
Anna: Sometimes love just ain’t enough
Lvov: My middle name is “Holier than thou”
I must be missing something. So I read it again. I actually bought the Monarch Notes and read them, followed by reading the play a third, fourth and fifth time, as well as highlighting key scenes. And I called on those old skills I never reallyused when doing assigned reading and writing papers back in high school and college. I needed to read the play not as I saw the characters, but as they would be portrayed on stage.
More importantly, I needed to pay better attention to those characters in the background - the Count, the mix of personalities that the Lebedyev family bring to the stage, the sad but sweet Martha. I found that as I read it the third, fourth and fifth time, I didn’t pay as much attention to Ivanov, Anna or Lvov. I slowed down when reading the card game and related it to some of the crazy card games my family has had. I chuckled at the thought of someone shouting “Fetch some jam! Gooseberry or something!”--a line I missed the first couple of reads. I imagined the character reentering with the jam not as one would expect. My favorite aunt would do something like that. With that, I started feeling better about the play. It is about life and we all have a little of Ivanov, Anna and Lvov in us.
I have the advantage of knowing some of the fine actors who will be playing these roles. I have met many in person, socialized a bit with several, and have been marveled by all of their acting in numerous productions. My conclusion: I’m sorry, Ivanov, Anna, and Lvov. I judged you too quickly and too harshly. I have sympathy for Ivanov because like all of us at times, life is not the way we imagined. I hope he found some happiness while in the company of the other characters who are charmingly fun and entertaining. My feelings toward Anna are bittersweet. We all have known and loved someone like Anna. I take comfort in knowing that Ivanov truly loved her, but will let you come to your own conclusions about that. As with Ivanov, we all have a little Lvov in us. He is young and in love, so we need to give him a break as well. And I like to think that a few years after the play ends, Lvov did finally become a cowboy.
So do you agree? Does Ivanov need a few more cowboys? Comment and let us know!
We’ve reached a pivotal point in our rehearsal process for Ivanov. Actually, not just pivotal--that’s not a strong enough word. I’ll go ahead and say it: we’ve reached a scary point in our rehearsal process. I was actually scared walking into rehearsal today--my stomach physically ached at the thought of what lay ahead of us.
We have to stand up.
For those who don’t know, we started the first 5 days of rehearsals at the table, meaning that we sat in the safety of a chair, hidden behind the comfort of a table, and spoke the play aloud, analyzing certain moments of the text, clarifying the choices that we wanted to make, and indulged in the fascinating conversations we can have about this play. As an actor and director, I love tablework. I could spend hours and hours discussing plays, characters, and scenes. Not to mention, my butt is safely in a seat and I don’t have to stand on my own two feet.
Because somehow, when you stand up in an empty space, everything changes. What do I do with my hands (that is, what do I do with my hands once I get rid of the stupid script I have to hold onto)? How do I stand? How do I sit? Do I look at this person in this moment or should I look away? Oh wait, I should really cheat out, shouldn’t I? Because that does feel physically honest and real for this moment, but the audience won’t be able to see me, right? And wow, this space is way smaller than I anticipated so how do I get out of everyone’s way? How do I get out of my own way? And oh wait, I still have to actually speak text and communicate with my fellow actors--how on earth can I accomplish that?
Those nagging, unhelpful questions spill endlessly out of my mind during these first few days of blocking. And those are just if you’re only acting. Now that I’m acting and directing. I have to the be the one who not only has the insight to say, “no, that doesn’t work. Try something else.” --I have to be the one to offer a solution. I have to say, “Try this instead.” or “What if this happened?” or “Explore this.”
And in my opinion, that is the key word that helps everything in this point in the process: explore. Yes, this is scary. Yes, we are in uncharted waters. Yes, we now not only have to speak, we have to move and sit and stand and physicalize these characters we are working on bringing to life. And yes, the first few days may be a little bit wonky. We will not figure everything out in the first few rehearsals. That’s okay. That’s not only okay. That’s good. That’s necessary. The only way we are going to discover this play is to find how it stands on its feet together. We have to make a few mistakes so we can go “this is a mistake--what can I do to correct it?” And then we can build the play from there.
I’ll be the first to admit it: I’ll probably be making most of the mistakes. I’ll watch a scene I helped block a few days later and think to myself “What was I thinking? Why did I tell him to do that?” And then we’ll fix it together. We’ll explore the play together. Just like you have to break a few eggshells to make an omelette, you have awkwardly block a few scenes to find the physical life of a play. It’s the only way we will learn how Ivanov lives in the space.
Granted, I will say that we just successfully blocked all of Chekhov’s Act I in less than three hours, so we can’t be making too many mistakes. But I know as we continue to move forward, there are bound to be more than a few bumps in the road or hiccups along the way.
Well, here’s what I say to that: bring on the mistakes! I can’t wait to see what they will guide us to discover about our wonderful play!
I’ll keep you posted how it’s going. Thanks for reading!
The jumble of emotions an artist feels on the day of the first rehearsal is very similar to what a child experiences on the first day at a new school: anticipation, excitement, giddiness, joy, exhilaration, impatience for the day to finally begin, and a twinge of nervousness (okay, maybe more than just a twinge). The day of a first rehearsal for an actor/director/producer such as myself--well, let’s just say I’m feeling a lot of things right now. I’m so excited that it’s actually difficult to sit still and try to coherently type out my thoughts for you.
Simply put, this is a dream come true. I’ve wanted to produce/direct/act in a New York theatre production for a few years now. The thought of specifically producing Ivanov has been formulating in the back of my mind since November 2011. It was secret wish I kept to myself for a few weeks before I had to give in and tell someone. Fortunately for me, that someone was Emily. Brian eagerly jumped aboard a short time later, the three of us tackled all of the required pre-production work and before I knew it, here we are: eager and ready to get into the rehearsal room and breathe life into this play.
I won’t lie--it’s been overwhelming. I will admit that several tears have been shed at certain points in the process thus far (and I’m sure there are more to come) but tonight, it’s not about all of the hardships and difficulties that are bound to arise or stressing out about all of the work that still needs to be completed. It’s about celebrating the beginning of a fulfillment of a dream, the start of an achievement of an artistic vision, and the excitement of creating a theatrical work that we can share with our community.
So to that end (checking the clock): 18 hours until the start of Ivanov rehearsals. If I wasn’t about to go to bed (even though, let’s face it, I’m going to be a tad too excited to sleep), I would raise a glass of vodka to you all and thank you for reading this and supporting us as we begin the start of a new Ivanov-rific adventure. We can’t wait to share our work with every single one of you (draining imaginary glass). Woot!