Yale undergraduates frequently grapple with the tradeoff between pursuing careers in the arts and giving up these dreams for potentially more pragmatic careers — and Adela Jaffe ’13 believes Anton Chekhov might have some answers.
Jaffe is the director of an all-undergraduate production of Chekhov’s “The Seagull” — the second staging of the play at Yale in 2012 — which opens tonight in the Afro-American Cultural Center. Set in the Russian countryside at the tail end of the 19th century, the play brings to life various existential tribulations facing an eclectic cast of characters.
Perhaps the greatest of these trials is looking at the reality of an artist’s life, said Jaffe, who does not plan to be involved in theater professionally.
Carmen Zilles DRA ’13, who acted as Masha in last semester’s graduate production, said that “The Seagull” is a great catalyst for exploring questions in the arts.
“This play looks at two generations of actors — of artists — and on the one hand Chekhov makes clear what is so special about literature, about theater, but at the same time he doesn’t romanticize what it means to be an artist,” Jaffe said.
Both she and Zilles said they believe that this may be why Chekhov is so popular among actors. This is the third Chekhov production at Yale in less than a year. Chekhov has been popular on the national and international stage as well, with several celebrity renditions including the Classic Stage Company’s current production of “Ivanov” with Ethan Hawke and 2011 version of “Three Sisters” with Maggie Gyllenhaal, in addition to the Sydney Theater Company’s recent “Uncle Vanya” starring Cate Blanchett.
Inculcated though he might be in the canon of theater and literature, it nevertheless appears that there is some sort of Chekhov revival happening. In the past, the playwright has been thought of as “boring,” Jaffe and Zilles explained.
“The characters talk about being depressed, they sort of philosophize, sit around and talk a lot, and people interpreted that literally,” Zilles said of earlier productions.
Zilles said she believes that the current interpretations are more alive — sometimes to the point of slapstick, like in the Sydney Theater Company’s production.
For her part, Jaffe said she is aware of the difficulties in bringing the characters’ inner emotions to light. Often when they discuss a seemingly mundane topic, such as the weather, the lotto or a book, they are really conveying a wealth of underlying anxiety, she said.
“The biggest thing I’ve tried to do is to have this be an emotionally honest play and encourage the actors to be present in the moment on the stage, and let those emotions come through, because letting the characters feel things fully, even if they aren’t saying it fully, is the most important thing,” Jaffe said.
The ensemble nature of Chekhov’s work lends itself to a group conversation about how to interpret these many emotional layers, Toni Dorfman, an associate professor of theater studies who directed an undergraduate production of Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard” in 2009, said in a Tuesday email.
“The challenges of Chekhov’s late, great plays include the fact that they are ensemble pieces; many scenes have almost everyone on stage, and what happens underneath the dialogue among these characters can really only be discovered in rehearsal, with lines down cold and everybody alert and receptive,” Dorfman said.
The undergraduate version of “The Seagull” comes at the heels of the graduate production. Though Jaffe admitted she saw the graduate interpretation and was inspired by it, she emphasized that she had wanted to put up a production since she read the play in high school, precisely because the idea of trying to live an arts-related life struck a chord with her. She explained that she is not trying to reproduce the graduate version, partly due to a lack of time and money. But, Zilles said, this weekend’s show will still provide a unique perspective since undergraduates have a different point of view and are at a different point in their lives.
“The Seagull” opens tonight at 8 p.m. in the ground floor auditorium of the Afro-American Cultural Center and runs through Saturday.