Sunday, August 14, 2016

Chekhov's Yelena

Inquiry: 
I have an audition coming up for the Annie Baker Uncle Vanya, this time for Yelena. Just wondering if there would be some time to chat with you about it, it's just a great review to go over Chekhov with you.  

Response: 
My sense of Chekhov's Yelena (and who knows? it may not be Baker's--I haven't read Baker's translation/adaptation) and what you would most want to work on to create her is the woman of privilege who has never really had to do anything for herself (as opposed to Sonia, who spends her life doing for others what must be done). "Studying piano at the conservatory" is something that a few of the women in Chekhov’s stories have in common and it's always an indication that they lack purpose, grounding, sometimes even substance. (As you know, he's really pretty big on "We must work" as a key to a worthwhile life.)
Yelena has never truly had the depths of her being engaged or assaulted or uplifted or…or…or.... She sees/experiences Sonia's direct, deep engagement with Vanya, with Astrov, with the Professor (Sonia’s father and Yelena’s husband) and it's as if she recognizes that there are strings deep inside her that have never been played or even touched, or--something she doesn’t confront--that may not even exist. So she kind of wills herself to experience the passions she sees. "I'm going to play the piano and I'm going to cry." "Oh, now I’m crying, too" -- that sort of thing.

The caution here is to be sure not to judge her needlessly or to minimize her. She just hasn't had to live deeply or elementally to any extreme--and she may not have the capacity to. (We're all fully human, but some of us have more depths than others; some of us greater or lesser capacities for certain kinds of experience, etc. I think it's destructive to interpretive creativity in the name of "agency" to give every character the capacity for every kind of human response.) Yelena senses this reality when she says "I live like an ornament" or some translations say something like "I'm a minor character." Note: she doesn't envy Sonia or resent Sonia’s emotional capacities; she views them more with awe and wonderment—the way we view those youtube videos of things like artists creating portraits out of string or dancers doing lyrical acrobatic moves inside those huge DaVinci-like hoops—and then takes a further step of trusting that after she sees Sonia in action, she can jumpstart herself into the kind of engaged passion she observes in Sonia. She’s like one of the many young women with little experience and lots of “good upbringing” who read Wuthering Heights or just about any Brontë novel and want so very much to run on the moor in the rain and to experience the depths and breadth of Cathy's passions; or who want to fling themselves at Mr. Rochester as they walk along a garden path. (“I think I could fall for the doctor myself.”) Or even any of Jane Austen's women who maintain the social graces while still revealing the passionate heart beneath the conservative dress.
But she doesn’t. Why? She says it’s because of morals, ethics, duty. What does Vanya mean when he says her philosophy is lazy, shallow?

One of the things about you that will always come to your rescue in life is the Sonia part of you--the grounded down-to-earth workhorse part of you that will just roll up your sleeves and do what has to be done in order to get on with it.
That's the part you have to put aside when you create your Yelena.
There is a Yelena in you--surely the capacity to become a Yelena. Find ways to allow her to come out and play. Lift your spine (hers is a spine that has worn beautiful clothes all its life) and choose a dress of uncluttered lines that reveals your lovely figure. Let yourself do some classical ballet moves that emphasize balance, grace, flow. Then try a sweeping waltz. Enjoy the feel of heavy fabric moving about your ankles. Maybe walk with a book on your head until you can climb stairs or stroll in the garden or sit on the garden swing with ease, with grace, and with no sense of stress about the book balancing on your head. (Paris Hilton said you learn to walk as if you're always wearing a tiara. Eliminate the vulgarity of Hilton from this and it's a good image to add to your Elena.) 
Let yourself sit relaxed and erect at the piano and let your hands be lovely, delicate, manicured hands that play the piano with grace, with precision even—but not with much depth and little emotional understanding. Play until you tire of it, until it bores you. (Something that shouldn’t take too long—why?)
Then let her go to the door of Vanya’s room and hear Sonia’s voice pleading with him to shake off his depression and to get back to simple, one-foot-in-front-of-the-other work; perhaps she sneaks a peak and sees Sonia standing behind Vanya, leaning with her face next to his, her arms crossed over his chest. Let Yelena see, absorb this until her heart wants to be able to feel that deeply about something.
Note: If the production has a contemporary setting, the realities still apply--you just adapt them to contemporary dress. Since I do not know Baker's translation, I rely on your good judgment to take these ideas and let them help you where they can. 

Why do Vanya and Astrov bring their lives to a halt for Yelena? When Yelena comes into their world, what exactly comes in that makes these two men fall in love with her? To answer this it will help to widen your view a bit and take a look at Vanya's and Astrov's lives, worlds. What is it that is utterly lacking and that Yelena brings into it in full human embodiment? (Imagine you were going to get an acting class to create the world that Astrov and Vanya live in. Come up with a few illustrations of the daily realities of their lives and then they improvise them--At the end of a long day Astrov rides in the mud to a peasant hut and on the kitchen table (there are pigs snorting in the corner) lies an unwashed little girl whose appendix has burst; Vanya exhausts himself helping to bale hay in the hot sun and one of the peasants punches his adolescent son with his fists; at home in the evening Astrov starts to read a favorite Pushkin poem, there's a knock at the door, there's been an accident in the village, he downs a shot of vodka, maybe two, before he leaves; Vanya sits at his desk at night entering the week's receipts into the estate log book; he looks up into the mirror and sees what? etc. etc. You devise more; let the play guide you)--until the class experiences the great lack/need/emptiness/longing at the heart of it all. And then Yelena steps into that dreariness. And they respond. The irony is: What they fall in love with is the very stuff that Yelena wants to escape from.)
When Sonia asks Yelena why she doesn't get off her butt and do something--like go into the village and teach--her response is "People do that sort of thing in novels but not in real life." If she had the capacity to roll up her sleeves and do something worthwhile for others...ah well, but she doesn't.

Yelenas live among us. They live up in the Hollywood hills or maybe in Malibu colony and when we think of them—though who can blame us for not thinking of them what with “The Real Housewives of…“ distracting us—when we think of them we think they must live full, glamorous lives. (I always thought there was a Yelena in Princess Diana--only it was a Yelena who decided that dammit, she was going to have a meaningful life, so she made herself go to Africa and visit with AIDS patients. But even there--"It must be hot in Africa"--she was still Yelena.)

Anyway, enough. Lucky you, to get to work on Chekhov--for whatever reason!

4 comments:

  1. Remember Nancy Wildberger? She had greater depths, but if you were just a step back, observing without knowing her well. Her long engagement that guy we never really knew ( maybe Nealla did.) who seemed a complete fish. But I remember at the time, sometimes Nancy seemed utterly adrift in an ocean of privilege. (I have a faded photo of her visiting me in my first studio apt., the year after graduation, or so. I should scan it.

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    1. Yes! Nancy Wildberger is a great example: smart, funny, creative, but as you say "adrift in an ocean of privilege" that allowed her to float just a bit above it all--even when her passions were aroused.
      Please find that photo and post it.

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    1. It was a duplicate of the first comment.

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