Chekhov Does Vaudeville

Posted June 2, 2020

Chekhov One Acts Web

APT’s Out of the Woods play reading series debuts on the PBS Wisconsin website this Friday, June 12 (postponed one week from the original June 5 premiere date) at 7:00 pm CDT with three one-act plays by Anton Chekhov: The Bear, On the Harmfulness of Tobacco and The Proposal. These plays were first staged at APT in 1985 – the year APT was nominated for a Tony Award for Outstanding Regional Theatre. We didn’t win.

These short plays, along with a few others, are known as Chekhov’s vaudevilles, featuring a different brand of dialogue and humor than his other comedies such as The Seagull or The Cherry Orchard. In other words, the vaudevilles are more “funny ha-ha,” and less “funny sad.” Chekhov was himself rumored to have once quipped “I don’t like the theater – I quickly get bored. But I do like watching vaudevilles.” Be that as it may, even his vaudevilles feature echoes of his signature deep-dive into the nature of humanity, and the beauty and heartbreak and loneliness people endure – even when they’re being funny. Maybe he liked theater after all.

From his basement home office, beneath a sign that says “Do Good,” director Aaron Posner is currently working with another theater company on a Zoom performance of Shaw’s Man and Superman. His office, affectionately referred to as his downstairs snug, is also where he directed these Chekhovs with APT, and where he pondered for the first time the pros and cons of staging these truly wonderful plays in a way they were never intended to be seen: via Zoom virtual meeting software. Aaron said the thing that may have been most surprising is that it worked. “The story still comes through. The humanity still comes through. A great actor is a great actor, even if you only have their voice, or they are in a little box on a screen. And great writing is great writing. So those things remain intact.” 

Two of those actors were Core Company members Colleen Madden and Marcus Truschinski, who played Natalya Stepanova and Lomov, respectively, along with Sarah Day playing Stepanova’s mother, Chubukov (did we mention Chekhov is Russian?). Being the first reading, these actors were APT’s guinea pigs for this new Zoom stage we’re all finding ourselves immersed in. And the experiment started with learning to rehearse in a completely new way. 

Though it’s not the same as those first rehearsals at APT each spring, Colleen said the Zoom rehearsals remind her of the intimate play readings in the Touchstone, “but scaled down to Spartan-like simplicity.” Colleen continued, “I really enjoyed those first rehearsals, and because they were one acts with very few characters, the process wasn’t too very complicated.” She added that handling her own technical needs was a bit challenging at times. “We did have to learn how Zoom sound works, and that two people can’t speak at the same time, or really even make big movements at the same time.” In fact, when asked what her favorite part of those first readings were, Colleen said “Oh, probably all of my wobbles with technology, making my cast- and crew-mates either laugh or roll their eyes at me. I find embracing my ridiculousness very freeing.”

Rehearsal was just the first challenge to be conquered. The technology of the actual performance – live streamed and recorded by our partners at PBS Wisconsin – comes with its own set of first-times, with stage managers handling the actors’ virtual exits and entrances, and making sure they’ve got their cameras and microphones on. Even so, from the directing side of things, Aaron said, “Other than the basic weirdness of the whole thing, it is actually not that different when you are exploring text and character… and fortunately these pieces are mostly driven by text and character. Movement and connection and relationship are harder, but again, we were fortunate that we had actors who already have deep and rich and complicated relationships, so much of that was taken care of for us.”

That relationship comes in handy, especially in comedies like these Chekhovs. Comedy is always hard to play, and without the audience laughing along (or, perhaps even more telling, not laughing along), it’s exponentially harder. As these plays were, of course, written to be performed on a stage, with actors physically interacting and verbally sparring, there were some challenges translating to working with a laptop, out of reach of scene partners. As Colleen said, “you have to become your own partner.” Marcus agreed, saying, “Playing off of each other is essential, but nothing beats the real thing. And it’s different because you don’t have immediate feedback through audience response. Aaron was our audience and guiding hand as our director. He’s a really funny and smart guy who has the ability to make this new abnormal feel comfortable. We all laughed a lot, which was really helpful. He was really wonderful and a calming presence for our first go at it.”

The rehearsal process seems to have paid off. The “live” audience seemed thrilled to see their favorite actors, regardless of platform. Though the actors didn’t know how it would all go until it happened, the experience ended up being more satisfying than they'd expected. 

Marcus said, “I didn’t think it would be as thrilling/exciting/terrifying in the way it normally feels, but I was wrong. I got the same feeling on a lower scale. That made me feel like it was truly an APT play! You can’t feel the audience like you can up the Hill, but it’s wonderful to know they’re there.” Colleen added,  “It’s so different from live theater! But still a good feeling that people were watching, communing with us.”

Aaron summed up this first experience with virtual play readings neatly. “I was thrilled to be in even a virtual room with the wonderful actors and staff of APT. I enjoyed everything about it, imperfect as it was, and it only makes me all the more eager to get back next summer and get up that dang hill and get back to telling stories together in the way I most love—live, sweaty, mosquito-bitten, mildly uncomfortable and in sheer, total heaven."

The Details:

Chekhov One Acts
By Anton Chekhov
Directed by Aaron Posner
New premiere date: June 12, 7 pm CDT

The Bear, featuring Tracy Michelle Arnold, Brian Mani and James Ridge
On the Harmfulness of Tobacco, featuring David Daniel
The Proposal, featuring Sarah Day, Colleen Madden and Marcus Truschinski