I’m currently rehearsing for a show called Nothing & Everything: Improvised Anton Chekhov Plays, which opens in a couple of weekends at The Hideout Theatre. After two months submerging myself in Chekhov’s play and turn-of-the-century Russian history, let’s see if I can extract a few insights. And then let’s see, when the show closes at the end of the year, how much alignment I feel with these ideas …
1. Chekhov is funny.
Joe Schmo doesn’t know who Anton Chekhov is. Of the people who do vaguely recognize the name, I’d guess half think of him as a short story writer, not a playwright. And finally, of the people who are aware that Chekhov wrote plays—five plays total—most think of them as two things: gloomy and Russian.
No doubt, Chekhov’s plays are exceedingly gloomy and hyper Russian.
But gloomy can be funny, especially in a modern American culture where schaundenfreude dominates. Americans love watching sad bastards. Chekhov’s plays are full of Eeyores bemoaning the pointlessness of life with such earnestness it’s irresistible.
When a Chekhov character wails with existential dread, it’s as when a white person complains about a scratch on their Prius—i.e., the rest of roll our eyes. #whitepeopleproblems #chekhovproblems
Chekhox uses the stage direction “(wailing)” generously. People weep one moment, then criticize the size of a bookshelf the next moment. The mundane, workaday world is contrasted sharply against the ever-present sense of ennui, the result often being a safe way to laugh at death. How bad can the Grim Reaper be? I mean, he can’t be worse than a Russian winter or a soldier who isn’t in love with us!!!
2. Chekhov is Woody Allen.
This is nothing new, but noticing the similarities is fun. Allen has spoken before about Chekhov’s influence on his own work as a writer. (And as a director: Allen is as close as anyone in modern cinema to an auteur, while Chekhov was highly involved in the original productions of his plays—their casting decisions, the set design, even the volume of a character’s voice.)
Chekhov’s plays are dominated by a similar motif: family and friends sitting around, talking about how terrible everything is, doing little to change it, and ultimately shrugging their shoulders and soldiering on. Chekhov’s Russian countryside is Allen’s Upper West Side, stuffed with self-aware intellectuals who fetishize suffering, who have the freedom to sip booze and wax depressing about life.
It’s no surprise, then, that Nothing & Everything is being directed by Jon Bolden, who made his directorial debut with 2012’s Manhattan Stories: Improvised Woody Allen. In fact, here’s a video promo for that show. You can Bolden-as-Woody lingering in the background:
3. Focus, then Unfocus.
I started rehearsing with supreme confidence. After all, I’d read each play twice and carefully. I’d done some light studying of the time period and of Chekhov’s life. I was going to make Chekhov my prison girlfriend.
But once we began doing actual scene work “in the style of Chekhov,” my confidence drained. Most of my castmates—many of whom have played in genre-based improv shows with each other before—seemed to get it instantly, more or else, while I most definitely did not.
They sounded like Russians from 1895. I sounded like a John Cusack playing Edgar Allen Poe, drunk and wielding gun in a forest:
So I freaked out. And then I re-read the plays. And then I re-read some info about Chekhov. And at the next rehearsal, my work improved only marginally. I was in that most terrible of places for an improviser: my head. I was focusing intensely on using a heightened vocabulary and walking around the stage with perfect theatrical posture.
My freak out continued: Would I, after killeing it when I was in Manhattan Stories, be the albatross—the seagull?—around this show’s neck?
But then, like a Chekhovian epipany, it occurred to me:
Just be real.
Don’t make “improv moves.” Don’t even think about a fancy vocbulary.
Just be real. Be Andrew.
This show is called Nothing & Everything because, in Chekhov, each line can mean both nothing and everything at the same time. And Chekhov’s brilliance is often attributed to the mirror-like quality of his plays, i.e., the audience sees in the play what they want or disposed to see. That quality comes from a dedication to reality—to stuffing all the vagaries of human existence into every moment. Sadness, despair, humor, lust, jealousy, awe, aggression, tenderness—all of these exist within us all the time.
Just be real.
I reminded myself that I have enough raw improv chops to get myself through any scene. I didn’t need to fight for it. Instead, I could relax. R-E-L-A-X. Be real. Listen. Connect.
Let whatever I, Andrew Buck, am thinking or feeling be my guide. Filter my words and actions through myself. And once I did that—once I made the conscious decision to do that—I got pretty darn good. In fact, at our last two rehearsals we’ve done shortened run-throughs of the entire show, and both times I’ve done some solid work. As has the remainder of the cast.
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Nothing & Everything: Improvised Anton Chekhov Plays opens on Saturday, November 8, and runs every Saturday in November & December. 8:00 p.m. at The Hideout Theatre. Click here for info and tickets.
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