I've always thought that acting in plays by Anton Chekhov tests your mettle as an actor. You need to be filled to the brim with confused internal life every second, and painfully truthful, too. So what specifically are the elements of a Chekhovian role?
Let's dispense first of all with Chekhov's famous complaint to Stanislavski: that the master director wasn't treating his plays like the comedies they in fact were. However Chekhov preferred to label his work, we know that he has created a world in which humor and tragedy exist simultaneously, the humor emerging from human behavior and the ironies of life circumstances, not out of jokes. "Beckett said, 'Nothing is funnier than unhappiness,'" American Conservatory Theater artistic director Carey Perloff reminded me. (Her funny and heartbreaking The Three Sisters is currently on the boards at A.C.T. in San Francisco.)
Certainly Chekhov's characters are unhappy. Robert Cohen (in Advanced Acting, McGraw-Hill, 2002) writes that Chekhov's characters struggle to meet life's challenges: "That they are defeated on most occasions is Chekhov's genius; that they try to win, however, is his—and his actors'—glory." Cohen refers to the Chekhovian "will to transcend despair." Laughter through tears, he writes, is the way actors latch on to the demands of Chekhov.
Beyond that understanding, I think it's the director's problem, not yours, to achieve the proper balance of light and dark. You have enough to deal with.
For example, you will want to identify the social class that Chekhov wrote about. "These people are military people, landowners," explained Perloff of Three Sisters, "caught between the rising [pre-Revolutionary] peasant class and the aristocracy. They are filled with longing and have no role to play." Cohen lists other attitudes prevalent at that time and place that aid understanding of the milieu: admiration of military officers, polite disdain for the working classes, appreciation of the art of philosophizing, etc.
You also need to understand the Russian temperament. Chekhov's people are flamboyantly passionate—"fighting and drinking and loving… filled with huge desires," remarked Perloff. In The Actor's Chekhov (by Jeanie Hackett, Smith and Kraus, 1993), Christopher Walken describes Chekhov's Russians as "capable of big mood swings… a little bit larger than life"; and elsewhere in the book—a fascinating compilation of notes and actor interviews based on the teachings of the late Williamstown Theatre Festival director Nikos Psacharopoulos—it's mentioned that in Russia people tend to talk about the soul and suffering quite naturally and with ease.
It is those "huge desires," that sense of longing, that permeates every Chekhov play—the search for gratification for the soul, for meaning, for a better life. Austin Pendleton put it this way (in The Actor's Chekhov): "All the characters… want things… badly. And in pursuing their want for these things they interact with other people and are provoked into an even greater want."
It goes without saying that each actor must identify and deeply personalize that driving, overpowering sense of yearning for his or her own character. Perloff told me that it's sometimes hard for actors to hang on to the scale of that longing—to remember that all the time these people are seizing all that life has to offer, that they have an incredible will to live.
Which leads us to objectives. Jeanie Hackett told me that actors tend to have trouble finding scene-by-scene objectives when playing Chekhov. Psacharopoulos told his actors that their acting should be informed by an underlying need (some call it a super-objective) in lieu of smaller, concrete objectives. In her book, Hackett quotes Olympia Dukakis' succinct comment: "The reason you're onstage is to seek your happiness, in some way."
Hackett added, "Chekhov gives actors a chance to stop thinking, stop calculating, and just live." She pointed out that Chekhov supplies so many given circumstances—exhausted late-night drinking, storms, fires—that if you fully immerse yourself in the circumstances, you can't help living your character's life onstage. And that fully lived life will inevitably lead to what Hackett calls "emotional freefalls": characters' deeply emotional confessions and outbursts. "The actor's task," she observed, "is finding and heightening the particular circumstances that allow you to be thrown off"—that is, that keep you alive and responsive in the moment, impulsive, unpremeditated, acting from the heart, not the head.
If Chekhov's characters are passionate, yearning, emotional, facing difficult life circumstances, struggling for happiness, they are also complex and often contradictory. "Everything [a character does in Chekhov] is specific to that instant," said Perloff. "That character might behave totally differently in other circumstances. For example, you think Olga [in Sisters] is the good-hearted one, but she's also cruel. You can't say, 'This is the person who behaves like this.' You can't connect the dots." Added Hackett, "When you suspend judgment of these characters, then you can make them human. In their humanity you find their foolishness and tragedy." And their inconsistency, their irrationality. Chekhov's characters are wonderfully inconsistent—just like real people.
What about that old standby, subtext? Los Angeles actor Susannah Schulman discovered, when playing Nina in last summer's The Seagull at California Shakespeare Theatre, that Chekhov's characters, unlike Shakespeare's, are often saying something different from what they mean—but the thing is, they don't necessarily realize that, "which makes them so vulnerable and honest in a way," she said. "Even if they're talking about how miserable they are, they're still trying to be happy. It's a less self-conscious subtext than in contemporary scripts. Chekhov's characters are not manipulative even when they're being manipulative. They're coming from an instinctual, visceral place rather than from calculated manipulation. They believe they're acting truthfully."
Psacharopoulos' viewpoint is that it's not about subtext per se in Chekhov; it's about "an abundance of life underneath."
What about the text, the language? "The language in Chekhov isn't all that important," said Hackett. "The behavior is." She explained that the scenes are never about people talking; they're about people living. She also said that every Chekhov character has about a thousand things to say, but about 10 will surface.
Perloff, whose Sisters teems with life, noted, "When the characters are having a philosophical argument, it's not about the ideas—it's not like Schiller, let us say, a playwright of roughly the same period. The ideas are less important than the emotion. Feelings are everything…. Actors get into trouble if they try to figure things out intellectually." For example, when Vershinin, in Sisters, argues about what the future will be like, it's because he needs to believe he can be happy someday. It all goes back to those deep, passionate longings—not brainy posturing.
Also on the subject of language, Chekhov often provides signposts for the actor rather than detailed maps. "In a single line he gives you the essence of a person—no exposition, no drama," said Perloff. What a challenge for the actor, to fill in the gaps!
Challenges can lead to traps, and there are many in Chekhov. First and foremost is the boredom factor. Michael Shurtleff (in Audition, Bantam Books, 1980) says an actor must dig deep to find out what motivates a character who appears languid. If an actor plays boredom, he warns, the actor himself will be boring. The Three Sisters, he observes, is not about three women who didn't make it to Moscow; it's about them "fighting like hell to get there all through the play."
Psacharopoulos differentiates between the French sense of ennui and Chekhov's Russian sense of boredom, in which the characters may be depressed, languorous, seemingly inactive, but in fact want to do something yet are constrained by circumstances. Maria Tucci, in The Actor's Chekhov, describes a character as being bored the way a caged, pacing tiger is bored. The action is always, explained Perloff, to chase boredom away. "When you're bored, you can't relax," she said.
Uta Hagen notes, in A Challenge for the Actor (Scribner, 1991), that it's important for actors not to anticipate the play's ending: The sisters mustn't, at the beginning, play with the knowledge that they'll never get to Moscow. The characters in The Cherry Orchard shouldn't "drench themselves in nostalgia" early on, because they don't know until the end that they will lose their beloved orchard.
Avoid sentimentality, stepping over the line of impassioned expression into histrionics, being overly poetic.
"If you don't really learn how to do Chekhov, there are things about emotion and behavior you'll miss," concluded Hackett. "I think an actor's work is complete if they really do Shakespeare—and Chekhov."
A few tips: Schulman found it helpful to read many different translations of The Seagull. There are endless translations of all the plays. Chekhov's short stories and letters also fed her imagination. Other books worth looking for, some out of print: The Cambridge Companion to Chekhov (Vera Gottlieb and Paul Allain, 2000); Acting Chekhov (Michael Earley, Applause Books, 1987), and Stella Adler on Ibsen, Strindberg, and Chekhov (Adler & Barry Paris, Knopf, 1999). BSW