Interview with Anna Kohler on Dramashop’s “My Uncle”

This is the full interview I did with Music and Theater Arts Senior Lecturer Anna Kohler, the director of Dramashop’s new production My Uncle. Three performances remain (this Thursday the 16th, Friday the 17th, and Saturday the 18th, at 8:00pm, in Pritchett Dining in Walker Memorial), and I strongly recommend that you attend this immensely rich production!

D.: The e-mails back months ago about auditions for this Dramashop production at the time said Uncle Vanya. Did you plan to make My Uncle, or was it originally intended to be Uncle Vanya?

A.: It was originally intended to be My Uncle. Basically, since I was making plans to slightly adapt it and effectuate certain changes upon the script, putting in a different setting. I had other plans. The reason why it became My Uncle was because at the very beginning of conceiving the play I was planning to make the main focus of the play Sonya, the young woman who is telling the story of her uncle. But then it started to transform, pretty much informed by the fact that I worked with the people that I was working with. It pretty much came about from what the ensemble turned out to be. It actually came to revert back to a more original version of Uncle Vanya. But also, the idea of basing it in a mental institution or something came from starting to read the play with the students, because one of the first observations that happened in class, was that people were saying, “God, these people are so depressed, they all have one psychological malfunction or another. It would make sense if they were in some kind of… in treatment, some kind of therapy.” Somebody said, “they should be in therapy,” somebody said “they should be on meds,” because that’s what we think nowadays. But when Chekhov wrote the play, there was no such thing, as…

D.: As a mental asylum?

A.: Mental asylums, yes, but no therapy, no mood enhancers, no medication of that kind. So it became a very interesting concept, because to me, the most interesting aspect of making plays is not to bring the people who work on the play close to the play, but to bring the play to the people, so that there’s a connection being made, between who the people are who are actually performing the play, as in MIT students, and what the play is. So to me it’s not interesting to try and pretend that, because one of the things that people could say is “why on earth do Uncle Vanya with a cast of twenty-year-olds because it’s all about getting –

D.: Or the professor, who’s sixty-five?

A.: Yes, who’s old and getting disillusioned, exactly. Everybody is so much older than the students are. To me, it’s of absolutely no interest: we all work on walking like old people, and act like old people, put on beards and gray hair wigs and stuff like that – to pretend to be old. That would be doing the play a disservice. What’s really interesting is to find a way to make the play about the people who are making it, and about the people who are actually watching it. In that way, I brought it close to us, which made the fact that the professor is actually a graduate student, he’s thirty, about ten years older than a lot of the students that are in the play, makes him the old one! He’s actually age-old in comparison to everybody, who’s still currently [an undergraduate] at MIT.

D.: You said when you were talking about it in the class. Was there a class that put this on?

A.: No. We didn’t put it on. We started working on it in a class called “The Actor and the Text” that’s part of our theater curriculum. I teach that class, like I teach a number of other classes: I also teach “Intro to Acting,” “Acting for the Camera” which is very popular.

D.: I think that’s very interesting, that the idea of having it take place in an asylum with all the medications sprang up naturally, because it’s an unnatural idea to impose on a Chekhov play.

A.: Well, I don’t know if I agree completely, but – yes, in that way, to see how it came as a completely natural comment on the play, from a person who is a contemporary, who is living now, in the twenty-first century, as opposed to then, when Chekhov was alive. As I said before, there are really two different schools of thinking. The one thinks you have to historically recreate plays, make them be how they were when they were first written. The other says that the author’s intention is really that you refresh the play, bring it to the present, because that’s why he wrote it when he wrote it. Honestly, the traditional theater scene in Russia when Chekhov wrote this play was very much against him, they thought he was way too modern, and only when he found Konstantin Stanislavsky and the Moscow Art Theater – but Konstantin Stanislavsky was an avant-garde and very progressive theater director for his time. And he was the first one who actually brought out Chekhov’s plays with success. So he was an extremely modern person for his time. So it stands to reason that Chekhov wanted his plays to be modern, to be relevant. Hence my feeling that it is absolutely necessary to make Uncle Vanya relevant for now and for here.

D.: I know that Stanislavsky was extremely precise in his directing – he would choreograph things even down to a sigh or a blink. How much improvisation was there your production? For example, when you walk in past the mental patients and you’re being seated, I imagine that was improvised. And there was so much throughout the show that seemed spontaneous.

A.: The hospital parts were mostly purely invented by the students, by the actors. Also, when I worked with actors, I like them to bring to the table what they think a scene should be like, and only I start to direct, to bring it to have the right impetus and the right intention. But the point of departure is always what the actor brings to the scene. In that way, I think – even though I would never take it as far as Stanislavsky – I think it is relatively similar to what Stanislavsky was looking for, because he also took the actor – was the first one, as a matter of fact – who took the psychology of the actor into consideration as a point of departure. Hence the method that Strasberg afterward started to teach that became enormously popular, at least in America, because all movie actors act, at least in the 60’s through 80’s, started to act according to the method, and Strasberg was pure Stanislavsky adapted to the screen.

D.: I wanted to return to what you said: what the actors bring to the scene is what you base the scene on, and how that relates to the doubles, because the doubles are the most obviously avant-garde aspect of this production. I did a double-take, actually, in the beginning, when I saw what was going on -

A.: That’s good! Double-take, yes!

D.: You reminded me of the multiple parts where the two sets of doubles are split apart and saying the same scene, but at different times and with totally different emotional intentions. Did you plan it like that? Did the actors come with different ideas? For example, in one, Vanya is yelling and the other is speaking almost at a whisper. It’s a very different approach to the exact same dialogue.

A.: For me, the doubling effect was interesting because I see the characters in the play as archetypes. They are, simply, all of us: Uncle Vanya is reflected in all of us. It’s a side of myself that I don’t like very much, but I know it very well, my Uncle Vanya side. Or my Sonya side. So to me it was interesting to have two actors, and sometimes more, play the same character, to show how many different facets an interpretation of the same character can have. Charlie Brown is also Uncle Vanya to me, only for children. You could put it on with children and use Charlie Brown as a template for directing a version of Uncle Vanya. The way that Charlie Brown talks like “oh well, it’s not going to work out anyway,” he always gets rocks instead of Halloween treats in his bags, – it’s just so much Uncle Vanya! But yes, for me, when I went through the audition process, it was enormously important to see who would actually resonate with who else in the cast, which made me see that Stephanie and Hanna are two perfect flip sides of Elena, or that Sal and Julian are two opposite Vanyas, the one hysterical, the other like Tim Curry, disgusted with it all.
So I did let them. I said, “this is a moment that is extremely cinematic, and the reason we can do it is because we have this spacial setup: we have the swivel chairs, so the audience can choose if they’re watching in here or in there. It’s as if they get their own private performance. You can go completely apart and do your own thing there. Just make it very intimate, and very authentic.” So that’s what happened in all of those scenes.
And I don’t know if you saw another thing I was trying to emphasize was the inner voice in the monologues: that you actually have the inner voice represented by another actor -

D.: Like with Elena – she actually has two inner voices.

A.: It also happens once with Vanya, and once with the Sonyas, when they’re talking about being ugly, and one sits apart in the dark, and the other one is lit at the table. The one is the physical aspect, the other is the vocal aspect of that same person. I was trying to look into the duplicity of each soul in this play.

D.: Elena switches into Russian near the end. Why?

A.: It was a nod of the hat to: first of all, that it’s Chekhov; second of all, because she is an actress who is Russian, so it just stood to reason; and third of all, I like the juxtaposing music of the Russian and the English going at the same time, and how different that sounds, how different the music. They were saying the same text, yet it sounded so different. Our language can color what a text actually is. I was very specific about which translation I picked for this production. I used the one by Paul Schmidt, who was an old friend of mine. I used to be in a company called the Wooster Group, in New York; we did a production called Brace Up! that was based on the Three Sisters by Chekhov. The work of the Wooster Group is very different than what I do now, especially with the students. But still, I got an opportunity to work with the translator on stage, and he had adapted his translation of the Three Sisters, according to what we were doing in the show, and what the ensemble needed. So I knew that his translation of Uncle Vanya would be the most appropriate for us, because it was extremely flexible, as far as language is concerned – very hands-on language, not very -

D.: Not too elevated?

A.: Yes, no highfalutin theater. Which is what we needed to bring it to our understanding, bring it close to us.
How did you like Pritchett being the place?

D.: That’s what I was just going to ask. Did you decide that? What does that do for you?

A.: I’ve been dreaming of doing something set-specific with the students, and this particular place seemed to be perfect for that. I can’t tell you how excited I was when I had just talked about this mental institution idea with the students, and then started to look around campus for a place. CAC was showing me around. There are many places available, but I saw Pritchett and I immediately thought – One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – it was a real flashback to that milestone movie, in 1975. I knew that a connection was being made between that insanity aspect and that depression – not really insanity, I’m really talking about mood disorders, that are being addressed in the play. Practically every character in Uncle Vanya suffers of one mood disorder or another, mostly depression. There’s also manic depressive: Telegin is a hilarious character, with his complete mania and then deep depressiveness on the other side. And to have the space resonate on that level with that One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest idea made it so exciting to me because a proscenium theater is very limited. You can only tell one kind of story. And, particularly, you cannot tell a story that you can really be in, as an audience member. I wanted to create something that was almost like a Surround-O-Rama. And you even get to go to another room, where you are almost part of a scene because you’re sitting all around it.

D.: And the swiveling chairs.

A.: And the swiveling chairs, exactly. So it was more of a total theater experience, as opposed to a proscenium theater, where something happens there, and we are seated here, and we are separated from it. In Pritchett, you’re really part of it, you’re in it. That’s why during the welcome, I want orderlies who walk up and down the hallways as the audience is walking up the stairs, in their white stockings, and they’re kindly introducing the audience to all the aspects of the show, and telling them that they’re checking into the hospice, and not coming as audience, in a way, but they’re checking in, like they’re patients. It’s supposed to be very condensed; the audience is not supposed to be trickling in like it was last night. They’re coming in downstairs, paying up and whatever they have to do. They can do their preparations to sit through an almost two-hour show, which is Chekhov, simply. You can’t make it any shorter. They pretty much enter the scene at the same time, and the show begins with them being surrounded by this mental clinic atmosphere, for a much briefer period [than last night], then sliding into the play.

D.: In the failed homicide scene at the end: I was curious about the paper bags. If you want that to remain a mystery, that’s okay, but if there’s anything you’d like to say?

A.: What the purpose of it is – and I’ll let you choose whether it remains a mystery or not. Basically, it’s Uncle Vanya’s vision: the entire bloodbath is really what’s going on inside Uncle Vanya’s head. They look around and all these people who are so familiar to them are turning into these caricatures, these monsters – not completely not themselves, but monsters of themselves. And that’s what really makes him [Vanya] so scared and so hysterical. And then they have this huge vision of this bloodbath, with a Kalashnikov, and another gun, and everybody dying. We had lots of these blood patches. I think last night nobody really used them. But they’re supposed to put them on so that you see streamers of blood shooting out. It’s really that big because, to me, truly it’s about Uncle Vanya wanting to do this because he so angered by this point, he’s so disillusioned, that he snaps. So afterwards, he causes this huge bloodbath and it turns out to be just in his imagination.

D.: Right, because he doesn’t even shoot the professor, which is what he intended!

A.: That’s my interpretation of the shooting. There are many different ones throughout the ages. Basically, the “why does Uncle Vanya miss the professor?” has been the theatrical question throughout the ages, left to interpretation by the director. To me it’s just eminently interesting to try and distort something – there were also supposed to be huge puppets (but again, that didn’t work) that would rise up in between, just to create a real nightmare situation.

D.: It was nightmarish.

A.: Oh, good.

D.: That was what I felt like.

A.: Good, that’s the intent. That’s why it doesn’t last very long, because it’s really supposed to be scary, to think that that’s what – we never know what’s really going on in somebody else’s head! You have no idea how big the images of horror are I have right now in front of my inner eye. And it is as if to try to expose Uncle Vanya’s inner vision, his utmost fears.

D.: Thank you for talking to me.

A.: My pleasure.

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