While basketball teams across the nation are battling it out in March Madness, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Department of Theatre is giving its students their own kind of ultimate test: Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters.
Chekhov, a Russian actor and playwright, flips conventional dramatic action on its head in Three Sisters, instead offering a ‘theatre of mood’ and a ‘submerged life in the text.’ Since the play does not highlight rising action or intense dialogue, the actors themselves must unearth the action of the play and find the motivation behind their characters’ conversations.
“[Three Sisters] is rife with subtext. You must have a clear point of view of the other characters in the play, and be extremely present to how and why you are changing the other actors on stage – much more so than in other realistic plays,” says MFA Acting Candidate Justin Gordon, who plays Colonel Vershinin.
Three Sisters is a story about the decay of the privileged class in Russia and the search for meaning in the modern world as seen through the eyes of the Prozorov family. The three sisters, Olga, Masha, and Irina, and their brother Andrei, aspire to return to their native Moscow, a place that represents happiness and the perfect life. Yet, Moscow ultimately proves to be a dream and the family is forced to seek out meaning in life for themselves.
Director Brant Pope finds a deep and rich humanity in Chekhov’s plays. Pope feels a great sympathy for the characters in the story as their whole way of life is blown away by the forces of the modern world. “Like a wonderful poem, [Three Sisters] is the story of how people survive and find a way to go on no matter what they face,” Pope says.
Pope approaches the play both as a traditional director and as an educator. He says Three Sisters is an excellent training vehicle for actors and production designers.
In rehearsal, the cast read through the text in-depth and worked to find the needs of individual characters. They then moved to rough blocking, cultivating a deep understanding of individual actions and breaking down scenes moment-by-moment.
Pope wants all of his actors to understand how to play action in a Chekhov play; he sees it as the most challenging type of work for an actor. “[Chekhov] is the ultimate test. It’s the big game. It’s the ultimate opponent… I wouldn’t give this to younger actors,” Pope says.
BFA Acting Candidate Elisa Lutz, who plays Irina, says that the text work for Three Sisters was more difficult than any other text work she has ever done, but that she has greatly enjoyed the rehearsal process: “I have loved watching my classmates and teachers work during this rehearsal process. I think they are doing very specific work, and I am always learning from them.”
MFA Acting Candidate Liberty Leeds, who plays Masha, agrees. Her favorite part of the show is watching as the cast discovers new things about the text, about their characters and about how they all relate to one another. She says, “So much goes into the process to create what the audience finally sees in the end, and it’s amazing to be a part of that.”
Will the cast triumph over Chekhov in the performance? You be the judge.
Three Sisters performs Thursday-Saturday, April 2-4 at 7:30pm; Sunday, April 5 at 3:00pm; Wednesday-Saturday, April 8-11 at 7:30pm at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts.