Tuesday, July 24, 2012

theatre notes. chekhov: vanya and the seagull.

Quite recently I watched Louis Malle's VANYA ON 42ND again for the first time in over a decade. I'd seen it when it first came out, in 1994 or perhaps on video in 1995, and again in college, when I was 20 and studying Russian literature. What I didn't know until I saw the accompanying documentary included with the Criterion edition (released earlier this year) was that the film was really the culmination of a continuous, long-running rehearsal. The director André Gregory had been gathering together a group of actors to workshop Chekhov's UNCLE VANYA over a period of three years, without any intention of actually performing it before an audience.

The idea, for Gregory, was for the actors to keep working on a play, this masterpiece, so intently that its language, every breath and every emotion, would become a part of themselves. It would never be produced in a theatre (although they did, eventually, perform it for a series of very small audiences of "loved ones"). It would be for them alone, for the sake of dismantling the text down to the last molecule, until it came alive in a way you don't ever achieve with the few weeks of rehearsal you normally have. Instead of marks and directions that must be hit the same way every night for the month of a theatrical run, VANYA would become something organic, something that changed each time they met. The filming of this is unforgettable, because it captures a moment in time, and the extraordinary intimacy and beauty of both the language and the emotional connection between the actors.

VANYA ON 42ND was very much on my mind as I have been gearing up for The Seagull Project, which kicked off recently with the first of a series of readings at ACT Theatre. Unlike André Gregory's VANYA, THE SEAGULL is working towards a theatrical run at ACT next January. This months-long rehearsal they have committed to - fitted in between other projects as many of the actors are in current productions around Seattle - will ideally give them that same profound connection to Chekhov and his characters. They won't be words on a page anymore, but real, living, breathing people, who pull us into their world for a single night.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

a theatrical memory.

In the program notes for the wonderful ONE SLIGHT HITCH at ACT Theatre some weeks back there was a conversation with the playwright Lewis Black and Marianne Owen, who starred. They'd been in New Haven, at Yale, in the late 70's and early 80's, and it recalled to me an era of my parents' life, from before I was born. Lewis and Marianne mentioned another member of their group, the playwright/director Bob Sandberg, and here our stories overlap. Bob knew my parents, as his wife Ginger Zakian was a colleague of my father at Yale in the mid-70's. Ginger and my parents were and are scientists, but in the late 70's my parents left New Haven for St. Louis, where I spent my early years. By the mid-80's we were all in Seattle, and this is where my story takes place.

I remember vividly a Thanksgiving dinner at the Sandberg-Zakian house in 1987. It had to have been that year because I recall intently describing a film I had just seen to Megan, the eldest daughter of the house. This film was Louis Malle's Au Revoir Les Enfants. I was embarrassed to look up from discussing this film to realize that the grownups had fallen silent and were listening to us, too. I was also mortified to be the only girl wearing pants, or rather black jeans, and my favorite dress-up sweater with the pattern like jewel-toned stained glass. All the other girls were in skirts and dresses, but my pants-wearing turned out to be rather handy when we started rehearsing our Thanksgiving play.

Ah, yes, the Thanksgiving play. As this was a theatrical household, of course there would be a Thanksgiving play, rehearsed before dinner and performed before dessert. Megan, dark-haired and pretty, about four years older than I, scripted and directed our skit. Some 25 years later she looks much the same and is still, like her father, a playwright and director. As I recall our play was about a village invaded by a giant monster turkey which gobbled up everything in its path and was eventually blown up by the remaining villagers who daringly threw sticks of lighted dynamite down its greedy throat. I played the monster turkey, swallowing up villagers who crawled between my legs (remember those pants!) and then ran off to plot my demise.

My ventures onto the stage were few and far between, ending altogether by the time I was in 7th grade. Perhaps that's why I remember them so vividly. But the love of the theater, of what happens in a room of people who have a grand passion for what they do, who give their souls over to art for a precious few hours so that you, too, can step inside their heads and hearts, this has stayed with me all my life. It always will.