Uncle Vanya ("the experiment")
Wow, what a week. Last Sunday was our first run-thru of the entire show from start to finish. That's only one week before opening night, already a scary position to be in, especially doing something as complex as a play by Chekhov. The director set our version in modern times rather than in the late 1800s as indicated in the text, and we were performing in a studio which was essentially a large, open room with no stage. The first three acts had been staged with minimal furniture but in a more traditional fashion with the audience in chairs on risers on one side of the room. We would then have an intermission. The fourth act had been staged as if the characters' lives were left in a "void". Translation: no furniture, the actors seated and scattered around the studio space, leaning against walls, no movement, just communicating to each other across the empty space. And the audience, they would be allowed/encouraged to sit anywhere they wanted in the room. (Talk about switching gears...)
On Thursday, after some encouragement by the faculty (this was being done at Columbia University), our director made the decision to restage the first three acts using the concept of the fourth act. (Yes, Thursday, with the play opening on Saturday.) We managed to get through that adjustment phase and then... "the experiment". Add an audience, and let them sit anywhere in the space rather than using chairs in a formal seating arrangement. They could sit in the middle of the playing space, against the walls, next to the actors, wherever they wanted. (See where this is headed?)
Even though cushions had been placed on the floor to encourage an even distribution of audience members throughout the room, on Saturday night (our opening night), the majority of the audience sat as a group against the wall in one corner of the room. The challenge... do the show but at the same time readjust the blocking (we had just created 2 days prior) so that the audience could see each scene... while also trying to maintain character and relationships (in other words, the acting).
I will be the first to admit, it did not go so well (at least for me). Please picture this. All of the actors are in the room from beginning to end. My character begins the play by being asleep on the floor in the middle of the room, and I'm there from before the audience even enters. When I am woken up in the first scene, this is my first opportunity to see where the audience is sitting, while all of the other actors have slightly prepared themselves by having watched the audience enter and seat themselves. My mind switches immediately to "director" mode and starts thinking about sight lines and necessary adjustments to blocking. Act II was lit entirely by two lanterns so not being seen is already a concern there. The acting? Well, the words were coming out of my mouth but completely on auto pilot, and there were even some hiccups there. (NOT the way to approach most plays, let alone Chekhov.) We managed to get through the show but lesson learned: DISPERSE the audience in a setting like this. And also, regardless of what happens, the acting MUST come first. THAT was my job. The audience was free to move, and the director could take notes on any changes needed. It's always important to remember your purpose, in art and in life. :-)
For the two performances on Sunday, adjustments were made to better disperse the audiences, my focus went back to being an actor involved in the scenes, and "the experiment" went surprisingly well.
While not the ideal way to mount a show (EVER, in my opinion), it certainly was a learning experience in many, MANY ways. Who says theatre is boring??
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My first performance on a stage was in grade school playing the Ace of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland. (I still remember my song!?!) Living in upstate NY, I continued to perform at a very young age in my church choir and youth group, all the way through high school.