On Chekhov, comedy, and fear
Here are the top three thoughts that have been bubbling in my little world this week.
1. Beautiful Chekhov
Thanks to PBS, this week I watched Ian Rickson’s gorgeously filmed production of Uncle Vanya (in an English version by Conor McPherson). Similar to Simon Godwin’s Romeo and Juliet film, which wouldn’t have been filmed had the Covid-19 pandemic not shut down the theatres and diverted their plans for a stage production, this Uncle Vanya is a similar endeavor of artists coming together to release a project via film, during the pandemic pause of live theatre. It was just what I needed. Rae Smith’s scenic choices were bewitching, and the cast had already delivered a masterclass on ensemble power within the first half hour.
I’ve been hankering for a few years now to direct a production of Chekhov’s play The Seagull. So of course, the experience of watching Uncle Vanya got me all fired up and daydreaming about that once again.
I have yet to direct a Chekhov play. There are scholarly experts who study Chekhov, and I am no such expert... But I do think it’s unfortunate that, from what I’ve noticed—similar to the way Shakespeare’s writing has a reputation for being difficult—Chekhov’s plays seem to have a reputation for being dry, or boring.
My experience reading them is that they are layered, un-judgmental glimpses of humans being humans. I find the Chekhov I’ve read insightful, heart-wrenching, and just as often, startlingly funny.
Which leads me to…
2. Please don’t try to make me laugh
This past week—and many times before, it’s not new—I’ve had to confront questions about my awkward relationship to comedy. Putting it as simply as possible:
There are things I find funny. Apart from the delightful spot of wit or verbal sparring, what I find funny is almost always unexpected, human, and truthful. It will surprise me, I’ll be amused, and I’ll laugh. Sometimes I guffaw.
What I seem to fail to connect with, however, is something (or someone) trying to be funny with no other aim than to be funny. Or worse, trying to embellish something that is naturally funny on its own. For me, it does not work.
I accept that comedy and I have an awkward relationship, and I feel fine about that. But what I have paused to consider is my own barometer for gauging light versus dark material.
What draws me to theatre—both watching it and making it—is the opportunity to look closely at humans being humans in emotionally extreme circumstances. I suppose it is my prejudice that people don’t have too difficult of a time finding ways to be entertained. There’s a wide world of strangeness to delight in; we need only open our eyes. What I do believe is that lots of people do have quiet difficulty processing things they’ve experienced in their lives. For me, that is the chance theatre offers... An opportunity to feel less alone, to learn more about humans, and perhaps—if we’re lucky—strengthen our empathy, or enthusiasm for life.
3. Let it be scary
It is that time again. I am inching closer to another birthday and—ehrmm—I’m taking stock. I regret very little…
The moments I do regret, are the moments I was afraid, and let fear get in the way and stop me. (Stop me from action. From taking a risk. From taking part in something. From listening to my heart. From trying something I wanted to try.)
Many brilliant motivational people have, in their turn, taken a run at dressing down fear.
I’m not sure we can actually outwit fear by pretending it isn’t real. Whether we like it or not, fear is there, part of the journey, and we’re going to feel it now and again whether we like it or not.
What gives us agency, though, what makes humans powerful, I think, is that we can feel afraid, and still choose to say “fuck it”, and try the thing we want to try, even though it may be terrifying.
I also believe that sometimes scary things become less scary over time, through exposure. For instance, walking…
I wish I had said “fuck it” more often, earlier on in my life. It wouldn’t have made the fear less real, but it certainly could have made little old me feel braver in the face of what scared me.
So, whoever you are reading this, as we tiptoe into the new week, I invite to try one of those things you’ve been wanting to try. If it is scary, let it be scary. I invite you to acknowledge that fear is there, and let fear be fear… just not your reason for not trying.
4. Before we go…
Words to be considered that put some wind in my sails this week:
“Better was it to go unknown and leave behind you an arch, a potting shed, a wall where peaches ripen, than to burn like a meteor and leave no dust.”
Until next week,