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.

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