3 Things About Improvising Chekhov

I’m about halfway through playing in the two-month run of Nothing & Everything: Improvised Anton Chekhov Plays. Here are three quick top-of-my-dome impressions at the mid-point of this show…

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1. No Heroes

Chekhov’s four major plays don’t have protagonists. They have assemblages of characters who are all, more and less, stymied by life. There’s not a “hero” who’s trying to accomplish a “goal” but who faces “challenges” before finding his “inner strength” and “succeeding.”

Meanwhile, my experience and training is primarily in narrative improv, in which you work to identify a story and tell it effectively. 99% of stories — or at least the ones we enjoy hearing — involve some sort of protagonist.

But not Chekhov. His plays are all about ensemble. Every character gets her moment, but no character takes over. The audience shouldn’t find themselves preoccupied with a single story line, but instead should be pulled into a family and just witness those folks go through some shit.

Which means I’ve had to develop a new sense of what “success” is …

2. Defining Success by Tone

Right now, I’m defining the success of Nothing & Everything by how Chekhovian it is — which is to say: Could a particular show reasonably be mistaken for an actual, scripted, original Chekhov play? If so, then bam! We nailed it.

So far, we’ve had five shows (including a preview show) and by my admittedly strident standard, I think one of the shows was a roaring success. The other four were high-quality theatrical improv productions, but they drifted enough from the milieu to come up a bit short on that Chekhov Meter. 

That’s a 20% success rate, which I consider a rip-roaring success, because let me assure you, this tone is hard.

Plenty of challenges exist: We have a 90-minute runtime. We have 11 improvisers onstage. We’re giving each other Russian names — e.g., Irina, Mikhail, Gregor, Paulina, etc. The stage is full of actual props; no miming or space work allowed. We’re in stuffy costumes.

And then, on top of all these practical challenges, we improvisers have to eschew our improv training, which is narrative and encourages us to find the plot of the story and support it. There’s no hero! There’s only that unique Chekhov tone — at once mundane, repressed, emotional, bizarre, hopeful, confused, and adoring.

It’s true: not much happens onstage in a Chekhov play. But there’s a universe happening inside each character and offstage. As our director points out, using his hand in the air in front of him to illustrate: “A Chekhov plays just kind of plods along, with things getting slightly better, then slightly worse, then slightly better, and so on … until the end, when things are just about as repressed and bleak as they were in the beginning.”

One last note about tone: This is why I love genre-based improv shows, because they offer a unique challenge to the actor within each improviser. With genre improv, you’re attempting to so fully immerse yourself in what makes a particular universe a particular universe that you can make a new version up on the fly. You try to understand what makes Firefly Firefly or Mamet Mamet or romantic comedies romantic comedies.

3. A Single Big Lesson: Be Likable

My personal improv challenge in this show is not always playing a nasty jerk. In the first four shows, my character ended up being generally disliked by every other character in the show, mostly because I was playing drunken, pompous assholes whose main character move is: walk onstage and tell everyone else why they suck. Once our director pointed this out to me, things cleared up.

John Windsor Cunningham is this old British acting coach from NYC who put up this great video about how to act in a Chekhov play. One of his two main points was: Be polite and kind to your fellow characters. Show affection. Display proper manners. As Lord Cunningham says, the bulk of George Clooney’s acting career is predicated on his sheer charm. In this sense, I’m pretty much a more handsome version of George Clooney.

At last weekend’s show, I went in thinking to myself: Tonight, my goal is to like and be liked. And despite the fact that my character ended up trying to leave his new wife for a hot young tart, I think he was liked by most everyone (even his spurned wife!). I achieved this by smiling more, being less biting in my endowments of other characters, and listening a bit more than normal.

Little tweaks like this, and suddenly I’m having more positive — and more importantly, more Chekhovian — interactions in the show. It’s more fun and more accurate.

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