“In 1812 it was Moscow that was on fire. God bless us weren’t the French surprised!” Three Sisters. Anton Chekhov. Act 3.
Chekhov’s Three Sisters is one of my favourite plays. I was first introduced to it at LAMDA decades ago where we used it for scene study, and the infectious enthusiasm of the teacher opened me to the feelings and complexities in the play.
One of the first things I did when I started to explore the Michael Chekhov work (Anton’s actor/director nephew) was to watch the amazing set of Michael Chekhov Association DVDs in which they used pieces of the Three Sisters to develop and reveal the work with an exciting group of actors, many of whom are now Chekhov teachers themselves. I remember two particular moments; one when the Doctor (Mel Schrawder) is criticised for giving Irina a samovar for her birthday, and another when Anne Gottlieb worked on Masha’s confession in act 3. The revelation of the kind of depth the Chekhov technique gave to the Chekhov play made me realise there was another play underneath the one I had seen several times, and taken part in.
So now with my MA Chekhov group many years later we are working on a work-in-progress of act 3 of Three Sisters, where a fire has raged in the town and the house in which two of the sisters live is acting almost as a hospital. For me the principal pervading atmosphere here is fire/chaos/destruction, but within the ‘set’ itself there are different atmospheres within the space which augment and support the action. These atmospheres, as in life, give direct influence to the way the characters behave.
Whilst the most powerful atmosphere is the one I described above, this is at its most powerful offstage right, where the rest of the house is full of people, suffering, exhausted and stressed. I imagined that stage left is the secret place, the servants stairs, the back way, darkness, death, the place where you try not to be seen and, more realistically, the stairs to Chebutykin’s rooms, the character who heralds in the real darkness of the act. It’s where Natasha goes to leave the house in secret. The room itself which makes up the set has the atmosphere of a makeshift shelter, a place where you are still aware of the chaos but to some extent are free of it. As soon as you start to consider and use these atmospheres, the play begins to transform itself into something deeper. It is a way I had not considered using Chekhov technique in an apparently realistic play, and yet it makes perfect sense. If I consider my living room, there are different atmospheres if you sit in a different chair.
When I think back to a professional production I did of The Glass Menagerie many years ago, I considered how strict I was about the entrances and exits, about how many stairs there were to the fire escape, and I wonder in retrospect how much it served the characters’ offstage lives, and how much more relevant it might be to consider the atmosphere of the various exits and rooms off the main room of the house. What is the atmosphere of Laura’s bedroom? This is not to decry the realistic circumstances, (what does it look like etc?) but they will surely fill your imagination once you understand the atmosphere.
One of the most exciting things about the Chekhov technique is around the composition of the performance and the feeling that together with design and the actors we are creating a score for the play. This score has climaxes and a beginning middle and end. Some other techniques explore this mode of looking at art I know, but with Chekhov it appears to come as much from a deep understanding of character and the intangible, the unseen energies moving around what is happening in the play as with a piece of music.
Like an orchestra, each actor needs to accommodate this score with the journey of their character. This I know can appear an anathema to some people, but ideally the director does not come with this all worked out, or at least is able to change things as the group works on the atmospheres and journies with the cast which run like motifs through the play. Nor is it a primarily intellectual exercise. Curiously this ‘developing a score’ makes the work of the actor more focussed but in a strange way more free.
Directing through Chekhov (Michael) is one of the most satisfying discoveries I have made artistically, and something I want to teach and explore more in order for the technique to thrive.
In the Spring, I will be running weekend workshops in Galway, Ireland, particularly with this focus. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org