With Randall Tosh and R.S. Stewart
photos by Michael Swanson Bluecatz Studio
Anton Pavlovich Chekhov (1860-1904) was a Russian doctor and a highly influential playwright and author. He is considered one of the foremost playwrights of the 19th Century and among the greatest writers of short stories of all time. Chekhov practiced as a physician throughout most of his literary career and created classic plays that are remain influential to this day.
This spring, The Verona Studio is bringing one of Chekhov’s greatest works, Uncle Vanya, to Salem.
On March 6, 2015, just one week into rehearsals for the production, director Randall Tosh sat down to discuss the play and playwright with Salem Weekly’s R.S. Stewart.
SW: So, Randall, where do you place Uncle Vanya in the Chekhov cannon? Why did you choose it for Verona Studio.
Tosh: I guess the first thing is, I’ve had experience with Chekhov before, this will be the third production, I’ve done. One of the things about people who even know a fair amount about Chekhov often don’t know, that he wrote a number of funny one act plays, very funny.
But when we started looking at the for major plays, The Cherry Orchard, The Seagull, Uncle Vanya and Three Sisters, we thought that our stage was small, and we were looking at one of his plays that we could actually do in a small space. Vanya is the one that has the small cast and probably the one we could do in our space effectively.
The other things is that of the four major plays, Uncle Vanya is my favorite play. It seems to me that if you look at Chekhov, it’s the most Chekhovian of his plays, the one that most embodies his vision of humanity.
So part of it was practicality and part of it had to do with looking at the plays and trying to find one that really is the truest to what Chekhov had to say.
SW: In a New York Times article from the summer of 2001 Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline were featured while rehearsing The Seagull for the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park. Both said that they would rather perform in a Chekhov play than in one by Shakespeare because Chekhov demands more from them as artists. What do Chekhov characters demand of actors that Hamlet and Lady Macbeth do not?
Tosh: Well, that’s an interesting question, because Shakespear and Chekhov are very different writers and they present very different challenges. In some ways, Shakespeare, I think, presents much more profound technical challenges to an actor; you have his diction and how to convey meaning to the audience in an Elizabethian language that probably even the most educated theater goer can only catch parts of.
Also, Chekhov is closer to us in time; he presents to us characters that are a mess, are complex. He presents us with modern quandries. There’s so much in each of his characters that’s unsaid, and for an actor that’s the challenging thing; how do you bring those deeper currents that motivate the character onto the stage and present them to the audience. Chekhov’s characterizations are deeper, they’re more complex and at the same time they’re more accessable to modern audiences.
SW: In his lifetime Chekhov was dismayed that his plays were considered to be tragedies by critics and audiences. He called them comedies. What is there about his four major plays whose themes are unbearable loss, misguided and unrequited love, attempted and successful suicide, great unhappiness, and portrayals of boring, tedious lives that make them comedies?
Tosh: There’s so much to that question. Chekhov didn’t think of Uncle Vanya as a tragedy. It would seem that it’s always how you treat the scene that makes it tragic or comic. You can turn it into a tragedy or a comedy depending on how you approach it. One of the things that I’ve always felt about Chekhov, is that it’s best when his vision is both tragic and comic at the same time.
And it’s a very fine line that you walk. There are three recent major film productions of Uncle Vanya, and one, August, with Anthony Hopkins really hits the Chekhovian most clearly. Let me give you an example of the approach; in Act 3 of Uncle Vanya, Vanya attempts to shoot someone. In the Hopkins version he turned it into physical comendy; he has Vanya going into the room with the gun, he attempts to shoot the professor and the professor runs out of the drawing room and he catches himself on a drape. And the concluding scene is Vanya chasing the professor across the lawn, while the drape is flowing out in back of him, a completely plausible take but it is also great physical comedy. Its that kind of insight that can turn something that is ponderous, possibly tragic, and turn it into something funny.
Another thing with Chekhov is that there is a cultural component to his humor that his specific to eastern Europe, and in those short comedies they had some of those same things.
For example, in the Tragic Hero, which is probably my favorite of his short comedies, you have a play about a man who has decided to kill himself. He goes to his best friend and asks to borrow a gun. The friend immediately knows that he wants the gun to kill himself. He begins to tell him about his marital woes; how bad his wife is and how bad his daughter is, how she wants to go buy these things in shops and it’s the contrast between the triviality of what he thinks is making his life misearable and that he wants to kill himself because of it, that creates the comic tension.
So it’s not the scene, but it’s the way the scene is treated by the playwright. Certainly you can play Vanya as a tragedy, you know, but I think there are other elements in it that are truly comic. I want to explore these things, and find out how humor is changed by the text of the overall play.
SW: Chekhov died in 1904, and his stature both as a playwright and a writer of fiction has grown steadily stronger over the last century; our society has grown steadily more fast-paced, hectic, and unsettled. How do you explain the great appeal of plays and stories in which very little happens with a world in which things are happening at a furious pace?
Tosh: I think you have to look at what the artist brings, and it’s the tremendous humanity that you find in Chekhov’s short stories and his plays that contemporary directors and actors and audiences find appealing. The wonderful thing about his work is that he has a clear-sighted, non-judgemental, compassionate view of humanity. He presents people to the reader and the audience and allows you to come to your own conclusions.
It’s that compassion for humanity that people still find compelling.
SW: In the modern theatre, where both Ibsen and Chekhov revolutionized dramatic art, many critics say that Chekhov’s influence is so far reaching that without him there would be no Tennessee Williams, Harold Pinter, Samuel Beckett, or Edward Albee. Do you agree with this claim?
Well I’m not a scholar (laughs) but I’ll take a stab at that. Usually Ibsen and Chekhov are considered the two giants of 19th century theater. And they certainly set the stage for everything that happens in the 20th century.
That being said, you know, there are lots of influences that make a cultural moment. And without Chekhov we still would have had a playwright Tennessee Williams and a playwright Edward Albee and a playwright Samuel Beckett.
Would they be different? That’s really hard to say. You know, Chekhov, he expands the range that others are given. And he presents his characters in a way that is new, and definitely sets the stage for those playwrights that follow.
SW: What do you see as the future of Verona Studio? Do you have other plays in mind to direct here?
Tosh: We’re at the end of our first season, and we’ve settled on – well I don’t want to reveal the titles yet. But what we’re focused on is presenting work in Salem that won’t fill a 120-seat house, but will fill a 60-seat house. There is interest here in some of the smaller cast, generally contemporary plays that are going to have a more limited audience. We think there’s an audience in Salem for what we want to do.
R.S. Tell me, Randall, what is the draw that live theatre provides that movies and T. V. lack?
Tosh: Well it’s the immediacy of live theater that you cant get in the others. You’ve got human beings, on a stage, in front of you, presenting their emotions. And, when live theater is good, it is very good. It is better than anything you can get in T.V. or the movies.
It moves you in ways that only it can. You know, a number of years ago in Ashland, I saw a production of Death of a Salesman. And at the end of the performance, there were a number of people who were weeping, and they couldn’t get up and leave until they had processed their emotions.
And you know, I thought about the long tradition that we have in the west that goes back to ancient Greece, in which the tragedies they would present had the objective to create this catharsis in the audience. And I saw those people sitting there, and I realized there was a direct line from that to ancient Greek theater. And something like that is only possible with real people in real time showing those emotions to a live audience.
SW: Yes, the very real portrayal of the way human beings are. While directing Uncle Vanya, what is the most intriguing thing you’ve learned about Chekhov as a playwright or as a doctor and human being?
Tosh: You know, I had read plays and seen some productions of Vanya and other works, but I didn’t really know about Chekhov as a human being.
I think there were two things that really stood out for me recently. One was the extent to which he was a celebrity in Russia in a way that writers aren’t any more. Before he contracted turbulocosis he was a very handsome guy, and there were stories of him being followed around by troops of young women
The other thing was the journey that he took to Sakhalin Island, which was a penal colony. Most people don’t know that Chekhov went to this penal colony and spent months there, and after he came back to Russia he wrote a book that was about those prisoners. It became a basis for reform in Russia.
He was a complex, compassionate man who used his talent and his career to advance the lives of the Russian people. And one of the things I didn’t know about him, that really says a lot about his personaility ,was that he made more money off of his writing than he made off of his medicine. And used some of the profits from his writing to pay for medical care for some at no cost. That humanity informs all of his works.
SW: Today he would be on the team of Doctors Without Borders.
Tosh: Oh yeah. He would win the Nobel prize.
By Anton Chekhov
Translated by Paul Schmidt
Directed by Randall Tosh
The Verona Studio
Suite 215, The Reed Opera House
189 Liberty St NE, Salem
May 7, 8, 9, 15, 16, 22 and 23 at 8 p.m.
Matinees on May 16 & 23 at 2 p.m.