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.