Anton Chekhov’s masterpiece takes the stage in a new adaptation from Pulitzer Prize winner Annie Baker. Shortly before rehearsals began, Robert Falls spoke with Goodman Producer Steve Scott about returning to Chekhov following his acclaimed 2010 production of The Seagull, which the Chicago Tribune hailed as “one of the deepest dives into (Chekhov’s) psyche one ever is likely to see.”
STEVE SCOTT: One of the most successful shows that you’ve done in your time at the Goodman was a 2010 production of The Seagull, also in the Owen Theatre. How did that production come about, and how did that lead to this staging of Uncle Vanya?
ROBERT FALLS: Well, I consider my work on The Seagull to be one of the most satisfying experiences I’ve had in my three decades at the Goodman. It climaxed an intensive period of study for me of the directing techniques developed by Konstantin Stanislavsky, the Russian director who collaborated with Chekhov on his major works. I spent months and months reading contemporary analyses of Stanislavsky’s work, and traveled to Russia to study at the Moscow Art Theatre with directors who really knew the revolutionary methods that Stanislavsky developed. These are not the rather watered-down versions that we’ve inherited from American acting teachers, but the highly experimental approaches that he explored in his work with Chekhov, who was himself an extremely experimental writer for his time. In the same way, The Seagull was an experimental process for me, and helped me develop new techniques of my own which I’ve applied in the work that I’ve done since.
SS: We’re now so familiar with Chekhov’s work—or think we are—that it’s difficult to think of him as an experimental writer.
RF: Chekhov was really the creator of modern drama; to an enormous extent, everything that we are as modern theater artists comes from Chekhov and his very complex collaboration with Stanislavsky. He broke tradition with everything that had come before him: the melodrama, for example, or classical poetic dramas, or the highly symbolist works of [playwright] Maurice Maeterlinck and others. Imagine what the audiences of his day felt when the curtain rose on The Seagull: instead of highly wrought declamation in front of opulently rendered sets, Chekhov’s characters were dressed in the same clothes as the audience, performing everyday actions like smoking or drinking or eating in rooms that looked like contemporary rooms, speaking simple dialogue with no poetry or verbal embellishment. It was a revolutionary approach to the making of theater—telling a story about recognizably contemporary characters in which an enormous amount happens without anything really happening. And nowhere is that approach more evident than in Uncle Vanya.
SS: So is Uncle Vanya very similar to The Seagull?
RF: Not really—The Seagull was really a turning point for Chekhov, in which he was trying hard to release himself from the theatrical conventions of the day, and the play itself is about being young, experimenting, flaunting tradition. Uncle Vanya is his first fully mature play—and as such, is his most radical.
SS: And his most difficult?
RF: Well, it’s certainly the play of his that I’ve least understood until fairly recently. It’s about aging, regret, loss, mourning, humiliation—and for many years I had a hard time connecting to it. But I re-read it last year, and suddenly it demanded to be done.
SS: How so?
RF: I think because I’m finally at the age when I can understand it. In the play, Vanya says something like, “I’m 47 years old. If I live for 13 more years, I’ll be 60. What happens then?” I’m very different from Vanya in many ways, but I’m now 62, and in 13 years I’ll be 75. What the hell does that mean? Uncle Vanya is essentially about life— whether you’re 27, 47, 60 or 80. Time is going by, and you naturally start to examine your life and how you’re living it, or have lived it. You may be like Serebreyakov, the retired professor in Vanya who’s constantly complaining about his various aches and pains (which I certainly identify with)— but yet you go on. You don’t give up—none of the characters in the play ever gives up. Chekhov understood that; he doesn’t judge his characters, ever. They’re simply trying to live their lives the best they can, often facing enormous obstacles: sometimes loving the wrong person, or being loved by the wrong person, or making choices that may seem odd or hilarious to the outside eye—but not to them.
SS: Do you have a particular concept for your production, or a particular interpretation?
RF: I can honestly say that I don’t. I love the play, and I have an extraordinary cast—so I want to learn from all of them what the play is about. With Chekhov, I try to resist “interpretation” as such—I don’t think, “I’m going to make this a funny production, or a tragic production,” or whatever. It’s life, and my job is to let the characters live their lives in all of their human contradictions. I haven’t done a lot of pre-planning; at this point in my life and my career, it’s about me having enough experience and maturity to go into a room and make something beautiful.