MINOR CHARACTER: Six Translations of Uncle Vanya at the Same Time is an uber-adaption, if one could call it that, of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. As its title suggests, the performance took six translations, ranging from the 1916 version to the peculiar version spit out by Google Translate, and had them spoken simultaneously by an ensemble cast of sixteen performers, many of whom played multiple characters. A total of eleven actors, for example, played Uncle Vanya. The production took place from June 17-25, 2016 and transformed the ground floor of the The Invisible Dog—a former factory building now a sprawling interdisciplinary arts center located in Brooklyn, New York—into The Professor’s half-vacant and dwindling estate. With scenic design by Kristen Robinson, we sat on couches that surrounded the action from all four sides, looking out towards the characters’ “bedrooms,” complete with window air conditioners, spilling over to all corners of the space. The result was an exhilarating evening of chaotic, wild, and invigorating theatre.
New Saloon Theater Co. is made up of Madeline Wise, Morgan Green, and Milo Cramer, all of whom met as students in the theatre program at Bard College, which is known for its focus on devised performance and housing resident artists who develop work with undergraduates. Along with their dramaturg, Elliot B. Quick, the company developed the piece collaboratively over a number of years through Mabou Mines and Lower Manhattan Cultural Council Artist Residencies.
Since their inception, New Saloon has created a number of works, ranging from original performances including Buster Keaton’s Ride Buster Keaton Rides Again: A Sequel and William Shakespeare’s Mom, to short film and videos.
I spoke with Milo, Madeline, and Morgan about their recent production of MINOR CHARACTER, their love for Chekhov, their contemporary vision of theatremaking, their open-minded approach to casting, and their unrelenting passion for all things human.
Our conversation took place via Skype on June 30, 2016.
Bertie: Why Chekhov, why Uncle Vanya, and why now?
Milo: We love Chekhov! We love this text! But how can we do it? How can we, young people, approach this? It’s overwhelming and terrifying.
Madeline: We wanted to take on this challenge. So much of Chekhov that’s done now feels really awful and the translations are so wooden. We wanted to do a production of this play that made us feel so many things... This is the first time we have done an established playwrights’ play. We really wanted to engage with Chekhov and his work but it wasn’t our usual wheelhouse.
Morgan: It started out more formal and the deeper we got into the play, the more it began to resonate as characters who are alive right now, in terms of their sense of purposelessness, or feelings of despair and melancholy, things like not living up to your potential and unrequited love. This kept us going.
Milo: One day we started reading multiple translations at the same time and that felt very contemporary. It had a kind of neurotic quality to it.
Bertie: Is that how you got to the multiple translations idea?
Morgan: Before we settled on Uncle Vanya, we wanted to make a new Chekhov play out of all his texts: his plays, his short stories, his letters. We would mash together our own play using his writing.
Bertie: Wow, you wanted to write a new play from all of Chekhov’s work?
Morgan: We referred to it as “a new play by Anton Chekhov.”
Madeline: We didn’t get that far.
Morgan: No we didn’t! We made a thing. It was a blob. And the most exciting part was doing a monologue episode using different translations at the same time. That was the spark. It made sense to our contemporary ears and sensibilities. We were like: “What if we do a whole play that way?” And that is how we started.
Bertie: I had a feeling of oversaturation watching the show. And yet I was able to follow it clearly. There was a strong sense of focus amidst the information overload. How did you manage that balance?
Milo: We are all moved by reading Uncle Vanya. And yet the experience of watching people do it, is often not the most satisfying unleashing of the text.
Morgan: It is really about theatre in general. You see a play and there is one thing the audience is supposed to focus on, but based on what we are now accustomed to in modern life, that one point of focus is actually not going to fly.
Milo: It is underwhelming.
Morgan: So we are trying to make theatre that can speak to audiences that are used to being on Facebook, while watching TV, while eating a sandwich.
Milo: That seems like a lot.
Bertie: How did you develop this project? Were all the cast members present from the onset?
Madeline: We did a series of workshops. We had a week working with students at Barnard College. There are a few people who have been a part of this project since the very beginning, and then we went through this extensive casting process, where we did an open casting call and we had two full days of auditions, which is how we got our full cast of sixteen actors, then we started our final, five-week, rehearsal process.
Morgan: But there has always been a lot of people in the room.
Madeline: We had an email list of actors who were interested in working on this project and there was no commitment. It was like, rehearsal is happening on this day. Whoever can come, come.
Morgan: We would have a random assortment. “Okay, today you are Uncle Vanya.” We worked really freely and not all of those people were in the production, but they were all part of the process.
Bertie: I was struck by the gender fluidity in the casting. I’ve seen pieces where it seemed forced. Here, it was natural.
Morgan: We got to know the four main characters very well. We had very different feelings about each of them in a way that you do in Sex and the City. So when we were casting we were thinking, which one are you? We were trying to find the people who were technically skilled actors but who were also open to experimenting and collaborating in the rehearsal room and also who, some part of them, had the essence of the character that we have grown to know so well.
Milo: The opportunity to cast so many people is part of what made the idea of doing multiple translations so exciting.
Morgan: Every character has male and female within them. There was not actually much of a discussion about gender fluidity. It was just an obvious choice to us.
Bertie: Did age play a role in the casting at all?
Madeline: A problem that we have because we are a young company is that the actors that are available to us are, by and large, our friends, who are also at the beginning of their careers. In an ideal world we would have had even more age diversity, and the Vanyas would have been older. The Sonyas, for example, were around the correct age.
Milo: The play itself is about age and aging. And a big question of the production was “How can young people approach Chekhov?”
Morgan: We have Hannah Mitchell, a woman in her twenties, playing Vanya in Act IV, and it feels emotionally truthful. Obviously playing Vanya at this age is a different experience than being forty-seven and in despair about your lost life. I don’t think we presume that we have certain experience that we don't, just that there is something within that anxiety and despair and fear that we resonate with as well.
Bertie: What about the choice to hire three actors older than the rest? David Greenspan, a veteran performer, for example. Was this a deliberate choice?
Morgan: Yes. We did feel that the patriarchy needed to be an older white male. And David Greenspan is a national treasure!
Madeline: He is a character whose ideas exist on a different plane of reality.
Bertie: The whole action centers around him.
Morgan: Yes. And so it was important that he was not a villain. He is just an academic. And the way that David commands the language, and manifests it physically is super human.
Bertie: Chekhov and his work are associated with frustrated hopes, a longing for better a life, as well as a self-obsessiveness in many of his characters. But your Vanya was quite uplifting, even hopeful. Was this the effect you were going for?
Morgan: I think people see it through different lenses because some people I talked to after the play thought it was so sad. My mom was weeping forever.
Milo: I don’t think it counts if it was your mom.
Morgan: I think the play is depressing but also very funny. I think you're trying to harvest all the humor.
Bertie: Sad and hopeful are not necessarily opposite though. At the end of the show there are people in YouTube videos that take the place of actors, reading Chekhov monologues, talking through computers as if into a void.
Milo: Yes. We found all the monologues on YouTube—and they are sad. And we know that in 100 years nobody will care about us, just like the characters in Chekhov know. Yet a hundred years after Chekhov, people are still reacting emotionally to his characters.
Bertie: The emotion remains. Hopefully something human will remain.
Madeline: This is the lovely thing about theatre. We can continue to have these impulses century after century to create and to sit in a room with a bunch of strangers and share an emotional experience. I think certainly that was the intent behind those YouTube videos, to say that there is a certain comfort in knowing that you can be alone in this room repeating this mantra, and across the world are all of these other people uploading this same monologue, who are also alone in a room who also believe that sentiment. There are all these lovely little webs of Internet that tie us to these people... So there is loneliness. But there is also solidarity. That is also something that we really liked about having multiple people playing multiple characters. It’s like a physical manifestation of all these truths, which is that you can be singular and have all of these opposing and conflicting feelings and personalities.