People

Summer splash at Goodman Theatre

VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE, CHRISTOPHER DURANG’S TONY AWARD-WINNING BROADWAY SENSATION, MAKES A SUMMER SPLASH AT GOODMAN THEATRE. AN ALL-STAR CAST BRINGS THE PLAY TO LIFE IN ITS CHICAGO PREMIERE DIRECTED BY STEVE SCOTT.

– Steve, when and how did the idea of directing “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” first come to your mind?

– First the play opened in McCarter Theater, New Jersey. Then it was done at Lincoln Center in New York. And I think right after it opened at Lincoln Center we got a copy of the play, before it moved to Broadway. And I read it. At that point I immediately fell in love with it and decided then that I wanted to do it. Of course, it then became a big success in New York, opened on Broadway and won a number of awards. So it was a while before we were able to get the rights to do it in Chicago. But finally we did. And this is the end of probably about 3 years of my wanting-to-do the play.

– What was it that caught your eye with the play in 2012?

– Well I have always been a great fan of Christopher Durang and his work. I think he is amazingly funny; I think he is a unique voice as a playwright. Nobody else does quiet what he does. But my love for this piece really stands from the themes of the play. Especially the theme of people caught in middle age, who realized that the world has changed around them, and they haven’t really kept up with the changes and then try to figure out what to do next. I think all of us, who are at middle age, have had that. And in particular there is a long speech that character Vanya has near the end of the play. He talks about all of the stuff that he loved as a child and all of the shared experiences that he had as a child, with people around him, and how all of these things are gone now… Reading through this part in the script, I found myself both laughing hysterically and cheering up a little bit because it expressed exactly how I felt about where the world was, and what we lost, and what we, perhaps, haven’t gained, and what I don’t understand necessarily happened with the world today. So I had a real personal identification with a lot of the ideas that Durang is trying to put force here.

– Is it your first sort of collaboration with the work of Christopher Durang?

– It is the first time I have directed a play by Durang. I have taught acting classes for a number of years and I have used a lot of scenes from his plays with my acting students. They are always very very challenging. When you first read them, they are very funny. But as you work on them, you realize that all that humor has to be based on absolute truth. Sometimes it is hard to get down to the bottom of those scenes to give it that truth. So he is the real challenge for actors and for directors. And there is definitely a challenge I have found in directing this play.

– I guess, you like challenges?!

– I do like challenges. There are some days when I think: “Oh, maybe, I am not up to the challenges here”. But it is a fascinating play to work on. As soon as you think you solved it, you understand what is going on, there comes something else and you realize: “Oh, well, no!”… And that adds a different light to it, so you have to reexplore it again. It is very much like Chekhov in that regard. Because in order to really get to what Chekhov’s characters do, you really have to go deeply into their lives and into their backgrounds to understand them. It is really the same process with Durang. The way, in which we worked, as we spent a lot of time with the crew, interestingly for a comedy, talking about the tragedies that are the lives of these characters. And some of our discussions got very dark and intense. We have to find out all of that which makes the comedy really necessary. And now the job is really to fine tune it. You always have that challenge with the comedy: if you say this word this way, you get a laugh; if you take a pause here, you get a laugh and so on…

– In order to watch the play, you don’t really need to know Chekhov, but if you know his work, it will open a different light on his work in this particular play by Christopher Durang. Is it safe to say that together with Christopher Durang you are giving some of Chekhov’s themes a second, a fresh breath on American stage?

– In some ways it is an American look at some of Chekhov’s themes. Certainly all of the themes that Durang deals with in this play are themes that Chekhov deals with. Especially in play the “Uncle Vanya”, but also in the “Seagull” and in the “Cherry Orchard”. That being said, if you know the works of Chekhov, you certainly will see the parallels and you will also have some fun at some of the things that Durang has kind of quoted in “Vanya and Sonya”. But I think, if you have no idea who Chekhov is, you will still enjoy this play very much. The themes are really universal ones and the take on the themes is specifically American. Although it echoes Chekhov, it doesn’t really depend on Chekhov for an understanding of what is going on.

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– Do you favor Chekhov in particular as a writer?

– I love Chekhov as a writer and I think all theater people love him. He demands such rigorous work, and analysis, and truth, and honesty in his work. When I was a student, all of us found Chekhov to be fascinating, and mysterious, and illusive. He was a real poet who expressed certainly some of the ideas that we had then. I have always loved the plays of Chekhov and found them incredibly difficult, because they are so layered and contain so many different things. As a theater artist, I think there is no writer more challenging and more satisfying to work with than Chekhov. But Durang I think is a close second.

– Have you ever experienced with interpreting any Russian pieces on American stage throughout your career?

– It is interesting, but I don’t think I have ever directed any Russian pieces in my career. When I was a student at school, I acted in several Chekhov’s plays in student productions. But for various reasons my career hasn’t taken me in that direction. I have done mostly various American and some British plays. But I would love to explore not only Chekhov, but some of the other great Russian writers. As I am getting older, I feel like I understand them more. I have more ammunition to be able to interpret them…

– Russia is a different soul, right?

– Very much so!

– Do you have any talent with east European roots involved into creative process of the play?

– Not really. We certainly have a dramaturge on stuff here that found a lot of information about Chekhov and certainly decoded a lot of the references in Durang’s play that referred to Chekhov. I did work with mister Durang on this play. I talked with him A LOT about the play. And he feels very strongly that although it pays homage to Chekhov, that the take on it should be very American. It is sort of an American version of what Chekhov wrote.

– That pretty much resembles in the title of the play: “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and… SPIKE”…

– Yes! Exactly that is why he called the play that. He wanted to get that eastern European feel that kind of runs though the play, but Spike is not only a very funny name, but it slams very much in the American way. And it is also just very funny. That is what he was intending.

– Steve, you are a director and an actor. What fascinates you more and why?

– I started as an actor many years ago. Then I learned that I was a much better director actually. I realized, when I started directing, that as an actor I had been kind of directing myself. And I always had a challenge as an actor of getting lost in the role. Instead I sort of stood outside by myself and watched myself act. That is not good for an actor. But it is a great quality for a director to have. What I like most about directing actually is being able to work with actors and lead them through the process, so they can find the truth, and the honesty, and the courage to express on stage. For whatever reason I am much better at that process. I vastly prefer directing to acting. I admire actors enormously and I am awe of great actors. I consider it is a privilege to be able to work with actors to allow them to find the things that they need to find in order to bring characters to live.

– If you are to take on the role, will you still be trying to direct yourself?

– Yes. The last time I was on stage was about ten years ago. And I found myself directing myself, when I was doing that. I haven’t acted in a long time. I found it difficult to do simple things like memorizing lines… My mind just doesn’t work the same way as actors’ works now. So I don’t know, if I ever want to go back to acting right now. I don’t think I could do it very well.

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– If I am not mistaken, you started working at Goodman in the summer of 1980.

– I did indeed. I was a mere child when I started in 1980.

– This summer you are about to celebrate your 35th year with the Theatre (CONGRATULATIONS!!!). How was that ride for you and what does the future hold?

– I have spent over half of my life at the Goodman. I have watched the theatre grow, and change, and become the major force that it is becoming in the American theater and I am very excited to be a part of. It is a very special place and I am very proud of my long-term association with Goodman and I have enjoyed a great deal and hopefully we will be here for many years to come. 35! It is an anniversary and a very nice one. Sometimes it is difficult for me to realize that I have been here that long. It doesn’t seem like that long. Until I start looking at all the productions that I have been involved with, and then it seems that I have been here for a 100 years. It has been really a fascinating journey.

– How excited are you for this Broadway hit making its Chicago debut?

– I am so excited that we are able to do this for Chicago. I have a really wonderful cast. Some of finest actors in Chicago are doing this play. I think our audience is really going to love it. I think that they are going to laugh at all of the hysterically funny stuff. They are going to be very moved mainly by the challenges, and the problems, and the resolutions that these characters find through the course of the play. It is really a very satisfying evening. And I think audience is really going to respond to that. I am very excited for people to see it.

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike appears June 20 – July 26 (Opening night is June 29) in the Albert Theatre. Tickets ($25-$86; subject to change) are on sale now at GoodmanTheatre.org/Vanya, by phone at 312.443.3800 or at the box office (170 North Dearborn).

Viktoryia Bulakhava
All photos: Goodman Theatre