by Linda Lombardi, Literary Manager
You can't say Chekhov in DC without also saying Aaron Posner. From Stupid Fucking Bird at Woolly Mammoth to Life Sucks at Theater J, Aaron has a unique approach when it comes to bringing Chekhov to a modern audience. So when we decided to do Christopher Durang's Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, there was no question as to who we wanted to direct. Shortly before rehearsals began, Aaron talked with us about his approach to Chekhov, his vision for this show, and which Chekhov character he's most like.
What attracted you to Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike?
I’ve been reading Christopher Durang’s work since high school. I had a chance to meet him two years ago at the Outer Critics Circle Awards. He won for Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, and I won for My Name is Asher Lev. The most fun part of the whole day was meeting him. I’ve never directed one of Durang’s plays—except for An Actor’s Nightmare which I directed a gazillion years ago in a school production. I’ve always loved his sense of humor and his sense of play. I got the call from Arena not long after I had done Stupid Fucking Bird at Woolly Mammoth. So I was in a very Chekhov mode. Interestingly enough, I’ve also done an adaptation of Uncle Vanya called Life Sucks, or The Present Ridiculous, which I directed at Theater J. It’s a very Vanya kind of year for me.
All things Chekhov are interesting to me. People have been playing in Chekhov’s playground for years—Tennessee Williams has The Notebook of Trigorin and The Nina Variations, Donald Marguiles has The Country House—but I didn’t have any idea that, as a playwright, I was sitting in this zeitgeist of people. So to get the invitation to do this was like “How perfect! What a delightful thing to play in somebody else’s Chekhov playground!”
I love that phrase, “Chekhov playground.” You brought up the zeitgeist. What are your ideas on why Chekhov is back in our lives in such an immediate, relevant way?
People are trying to figure out how to tell stories. People in theater are trying to engage with the questions of “Where is realism going?” and “How does the theater work these days?” Doing Chekhov is always interesting and worthwhile. A hundred years ago Chekhov was radical. His plays were radical realism. It was a whole new form, it was breaking all of the rules and all of the boundaries. In Chekhov you have a playwright whose energy, on some level, is that of a radical re-inventor. And then, since Chekhov has influenced everyone ever since, the whole world has moved to Chekhov. So the plays are not so radical anymore. But at the core of his plays are human beings—how we get through life, who we love, how we survive. So the reason everyone wants to play in the playground is because he’s asking the same questions that we’re all most interested in.
Christopher Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is incredibly Christopher Durang, it’s famously Christopher Durang. The house is based on his house, he played Vanya in the production at Bucks County, the play is his vision of Chekhov. Like with Stupid Fucking Bird, I’m entirely in the writing. While no character is exactly me, it is all based on me. That’s probably what Donald Margulies has done with Country House. I feel like that’s what people do—the Chekhov playground allows you to put all your own stuff onto the table.
What is your vision for the show?
In the design process and certainly in the casting process I was looking for the truest, most complex, most human actors. I cast it like a Chekhov play, and not a wacky comedy. Durang’s work is very human and has a really sweet heart at the center of it, and a really smart perspective. I certainly want it to be funny. I would say though, as a director of comedy for the last ten years—and this is an interesting thing that happens—when I started directing comedy I think my goal was to just get every laugh I could. At some point I realized, once I had the right cast, I could get X amount of laughs, but I didn’t have to get them all. If you’re willing to trade off a third of your laughs in the first half hour of a comedy, if you’re willing to leave those on the table, you can get X amount more of humanity and connection and you can come to really care about the people. Then there’s plenty of funny left, and you have a more human experience. We’ll be tipping towards the human, towards the broken, towards the hopeful, towards those things you associate more with Chekhov.
Out of all of his characters, which Chekhov character are you?
Unquestionably when I was in my 20s I would have said Konstantine from The Seagull. And when I wrote Stupid Fucking Bird it was certainly channeling me in my past. Something interesting playwrights do that I’ve been discovering more lately—and I don’t know if this is gender specific—but a lot of male playwrights, at least, write plays as a way of beating up on themselves. I find it is a really interesting phenomenon. We create characters with all of our flaws, and then flog them, in one way or another. Like it’s a way of working out what you hate about yourself, what you’re frustrated about yourself, what you’re trying to change in yourself.
Having spent all of this time with Vanya, there are certainly places where I can relate to him, more so than I would probably be comfortable admitting, although I just admitted it. Uncle Vanya hits a very core chord with most of us in that who doesn’t feel that life is too hard sometimes? Most of us have moments of our lives when we think “I haven’t achieved what I wanted,” and “Who knew that life was going to be this hard?”
An accomplished playwright yourself, what inspires you?
I’ve been writing plays for 25 years but I think of myself as a brand new playwright. I’ve done adaptations of literature, from Ken Kesey and Chaim Potok to Dostoyevsky and Kurt Vonnegut—translated and reimagined for the stage, but my goal was to preserve their point of view, which sometimes meant radically new writing and whole other structures, but that was the way to serve the work. That’s what I’ve done for 20-something years up until Stupid Fucking Bird. I do believe it went to the center of things Chekhov was interested in, but it was much more about my own point of view. And so this is my new strain of irreverent adaptations. I’ve always been engaging with the things I’m most interested in or troubled by or trying to figure out about myself. I have the incredible luxury of getting to try to work that out through my work.