Theater In Dialogue
6 Translations, 4 Acts, and 11 Vanyas
New Saloons Minor Character
I first saw New Saloon’s work when I attended a reading of Milo Cramer’s at BAM in a rehearsal studio. Morgan directed it. Maddie acted in it. I came across New Saloon again during a Mabou Mines Resident Artist Program in 2014, which I was also participating in. The first piece they presented was the earliest iteration of Minor Character, their adaptation of Uncle Vanya. In their first showing, they recited Chekhov phrases—phrases that they found repeated over and over again throughout Chekhov’s plays—while continuously chopping onions. Then they added in translations of those phrases. During their early presentations, I had two epiphanies. For the first time, I was able to clearly hear Chekhov’s characters’ collective fixations, the ones that pop up over and over again throughout Chekhov’s body of work but that are often hard to name—feelings of worthlessness, anxiety about wasting time, and despair about the tedium of daily living. As these themes popped out during New Saloon’s presentation, I began to feel very cool. I thought to myself, “Yup, I’m a Chekhov expert,” and “How very satisfying it is to hear and confirm what I know to be the essence of Chekhov’s work.”
But before I could settle into the complacency of feeling smart, proud, and learned, I was bombarded with second and third translations of an exchange between characters—there was suddenly new language for what I thought were clear, singular Chekhov truths. Though the words were nearly the same, the second translation changed the essence of the moment at hand and thus changed everything about what I thought I understood about Chekhov’s themes. When third translations of the same exchange surfaced, I was reeling.
For instance, one translation has Astrov saying, “It’s too late for me. My life is over.” Another translation says, “My time is up, it’s too late for me, I’ve lived too long,” while still another states, “My time’s long gone.” Each translation tells us something different about how Astrov categorizes the disparate parts of his being in relation to time and life.
Chekhov’s work is full of existential crises of this nature. But with each translation comes a very different kind of existential crisis. In hearing multiple versions simultaneously, I felt for the first time the anxiety of being a reader trapped inside the wrong language. And suddenly, what I thought I fully understood about the essence of Chekhov’s writing became what I fully did not understand and likely will never understand about his work. I was grateful to have heard versions of these characters’ crises, or at least multiple sincere attempts at giving an English voice to the feelings that come with these crises—feelings that perhaps can only be written and felt in Russian. My naïve self hoped that maybe in hearing multiple versions, I could get closer to hearing the essential one. But the newly enlightened me realized that great writing cannot be whittled down to a singular message, sensation, or feeling. Nor can a legitimate existential crisis be reduced to a single framework through which we, as entities, should fathom our selves in relation to life and time.
After New Saloon developed Minor Character with Mabou Mines, they went on to produce the first two acts of Uncle Vanya last yearat Invisible Dog. I left Invisible Dog that day in a state of euphoria because what had happened was unlike anything I had ever seen in the theatre. Later in the evening, I was able to recall that in New Saloon’s production, some characters were singing, someone was in a bed, and someone was by a window or on the threshold of a doorway. There was a garden outside and the sun was setting. And multiple Yelenas were at turns arguing, at turns holding each other, and perhaps caressing. At some point a majorly funky dance party broke out led by Hannah Mitchell, who in last year’s rendition played Waffles [the pockmarked tenant on the family’s estate].
In June, New Saloon will present the entire play of Uncle Vanya, acts one through four. The first and second acts contain three translations, the third act contains five, and the fourth act is an adaptation written by Milo Cramer, who with Morgan Green and Madeline Wise make up this three-person company.
New Saloon writes and devises the material together. Then, when they go into production, Morgan helms the project as director and Milo and Maddie step into the roles of actor—though they both weigh in on choices during the rehearsal process. Outside of New Saloon, Madeline is predominantly an actor, Morgan is a director, and Milo is a playwright—though he performs often. All of this moving between roles is quite fitting because, as New Saloon demonstrates in the interview below, our identities are complicated, as are our relationships to them.
Ari Stess (Rail): Which translations are you using in this epic piece?
Madeline Wise: The three foundational translations are Laurence Senelick, Paul Schmidt, Carol Rocamora. And then [for Act 3] we added in Google Translate and Marian Fell. Marian Fell was the first English translator of Uncle Vanya in 1916, and it’s really weird and very, as you would expect from 1916, dated. And [it] sometimes censors out particularly salacious things, which—there aren’t even very many salacious things in this play. But there’s like one pretty vague romantic encounter between Yelena and Astrov, which is referred to as an embrace in most stage directions, but the Fell translation doesn’t even include that [the embrace]. There’s a line missing in that translation that implies that he’s touching her.
Morgan Green: And the fourth act Milo translated. It boils down to just Milo’s translation and one actor per character in the most streamlined naturalistic play version. It’s actually more of an adaptation than a translation.
Wise: Although it is naturalistic, it does have that signature Milo Cramer whimsical vocabulary.
Milo Cramer: And it’s formatted like a new play in that there are line breaks and slashes.
Rail: Why does overlapping and a multitude of voices and translations seem to suit the story of Uncle Vanya or achieve something that you cannot achieve with just one translation?
Green: What we discovered working on Act Two was that when people are speaking simultaneously it fills out the experience of both being in it and watching it in a way that feels more truthful to the play. And when it’s just one English translation, it somehow doesn’t reach the fullness of emotion that it needs to, there’s something about the overwhelming sensory overload of multiple strands of speech that to our ears now is achieving what it seems like the play needs to be achieving. In Chekhov plays, the characters have these really dramatic emotional experiences that then switch and contradict themselves like mid-stream, so there’s a lot going on.
Cramer: Yeah, in Chekhov there’ll be a long line and it’ll be like, “Oh my heart,” and then it’ll be like, “but I’m moved by the sunset,” and then in the same line it’ll be like, “give me some vodka.”
Green: In Chekhov, everyone is as contradictory as humans really are versus this idea in more contemporary theater which is like, “in this moment, I have an objective and I want to seduce you, and that’s all there is, and it’s just me and you and the thing that I’m saying and the thing that I want from you.” And it just feels much messier in Chekhov—something about the simultaneous translations in Chekhov helps us get there.
Rail: So in act three, there are three actors for each character and five translations, and they are overlapping somewhat?
Green: Yes, they’re simultaneous or they’re consecutive or they’re taking turns but they’re echoing or people are singing two versions and one person is speaking one version or, you know, there are moments where three people have the exact same translation and they all say, “No” at the same time, or whatever it is.
Cramer: Also that let us cast three different actors for one character body, which was a really exciting thing.
Wise: Yeah, and so satisfying.
Rail: Can you talk a little bit about why getting to cast three different actors for one character body feels satisfying?
Green: It’s this notion of fractured identity that we’ve clung onto as a crux of the project. That at any given time, we are multiple people talking to ourselves, trying to negotiate which version we are in that moment and reading Chekhov’s plays and feeling empathy for Uncle Vanya. In our play, a young woman plays Uncle Vanya—as do, ya know, two other people. But so, allowing each character to be—
Cramer and Wise: —Complex.
Green: Complex, yeah.
Cramer: Also, casting—
Rail: What are your thoughts on casting?
Wise: Well, we were particularly interested in not having an all-white cast because that feels, first of all, unrealistic and second of all irresponsible.
Green: Diversity in race, age, and gender felt essential to this idea of identity being plural, and so that’s why it feels important to this project in particular and to making theater in general.
Wise: It seemed like we had created such a nice opportunity for ourselves. Like if you can have three actors playing one character, why wouldn’t you try to get the most different—like the three people playing each character—why wouldn’t you try to get sort of the broadest net cast? Haha “cast.”
Green: But then together they create this—
Wise: —Pretty coherent identity.
Wise: I hope.
Green: We call them “team.” There’s like “Team Astrov” or “Team Sonya.”
Rail: How did you first go about writing this text, getting the language onto the page?
Wise: When we were going through it at first, we sat there with the three texts open and we would go through line by line and read them aloud, and we would experiment with them in different orders. It was predicated upon the rhythm.
Green: I think also Beckett is an influence because of the repetition. We all have that sort of in common.
Rail: You all studied together at Bard. How does having come from the same school and having studied under the same teachers affect your work and your aesthetic values?
Wise: Morgan and I both took JoAnne Akalaitis’ Beckett survey class. Anything that JoAnne insisted we learn made its way into our theater.
Cramer: The focus [at Bard] was on big group theater. [It was] also very director-driven and very design driven, and also we were so encouraged to work on old texts. And I feel like I know people from other schools who were more focused on new play development. I feel like we’re excited to keep the flame going.
Green: The approach that we’ve taken to this play and to this text and the ability to examine it for something that is not obviously there—we wouldn’t even know to try to do that were it not for JoAnne and Mabou Mines, both historically speaking and practically speaking because they [Mabou Mines] hosted us at the residency.
Rail: Milo adapted Act Four. What do you feel like Act Four can do, as translated by Milo, that the previous acts don’t do?
Green: There’s this true and piercing voice coming out of you [Milo] that feels so distinct. And there’s also something very exciting happening now where you’re playing Waffles [nicknamed for his pockmarked skin, an impoverished landowner who now lives on the estate and is a dependant on the family] in Act Four and therefore performing in your own adaptation. And something about the overlaying of those two things is very exciting. The project itself has become such a mash-up, pulling from this 1916 translation, having multiple translations at once, having music, having rapid-fire monologues, it’s definitely structured in this way that when we land in Milo’s translation at the end where people can say, “suck my dick,”—I think that line was cut.
Wise: Maybe we want it back again.
Green: And they can say, “Fuck.” They can speak in the way that we speak and have sentence fragments and interrupt each other, it feels very integrated into what the rest of the project is.
Wise: And I think part of the idea behind having all the translations happening concurrently was this desire to [demonstrate what it feels like to keep trying to] get at one perfect form of articulating. Like for the three acts, these characters are trying to land on the perfect way to word what they’re feeling and they’re not getting it and they’re doing all these perambulations around how to get there. And then in Act Four, it feels sort of like we’ve done this splash ending in an oasis of a pretty clear—
Green: But not to say that what they are able to articulate in Act Four is the best possible version, especially given that what happens in Act Four is deeply devastating and terrible. They still can’t quite communicate and have to grapple with feelings inside that aren’t matched by words. I don’t think in any way landing in the one translation [at the end] is solving the problem that was set up at the beginning of the play.
Green: It’s just like cutting away some of the noise.
Wise: It feels momentarily like you have solved it.
Green: Right but then it’s like, “should I kill myself?”
Rail: What are a few things that drew you to Uncle Vanya?
Green: The play is considered to be less political than The Seagull or The Cherry Orchard, less explicitly political, and something I connect to emotionally is this anxiety of making something of my life that it seems like everyone in this play grapples with whether they have given up or settled or are endlessly striving. And so that felt very emotionally potent. And the play is so beautiful and sad, and the two women characters [Sonya and Yelena] feel like these two examples of how women can exist in society. They’re just two very different kinds of women. [. . .]The driving force of the project has been much more about communication and identity than feminism, but it keeps this emotional connection to the play for me.
Wise: When we started the project we were pretty recently graduated from college, and we were all grappling with having office jobs where we were not artists—and in many cases were supporting artists and wanting to establish ourselves as artists and hoping that we could make any kind of lasting impression upon that world. Uncle Vanya, specifically, felt like it was speaking to those feelings that we were experiencing. And it felt amazing or sort of bizarre that we could connect to a play that’s like a century and a half old and has purportedly a main character who is a forty-seven-year-old male, although he’s not really the main character.
Cramer: The play is called Minor Character now, which took us a long time to figure out. Yelena at one point, in Act Two, described herself as a minor character in the play so it’s taken from there.
Rail: We spoke earlier about qualities in Chekhov’s work that you didn’t understand or see before working on this three-year project. You mentioned his humor. What would you say makes Chekhov’s work funny?
Wise: There are a lot of instances of people allowing themselves to be really pathetic in front of other people. We just had these open studios for LMCC [Lower Manhattan Cultural Council] over these past two days. One of the scenes that we presented has Vanya’s big mental breakdown in Act Four, and he’s like, “Oh my God, I’m forty-seven, what if I live to be sixty, that’s thirteen more years, how do I fill the days?” And we were performing it, and many of the people in the audience were also LMCC resident artists, and a lot of them had, in the weeks leading up to these open studios, been experiencing intense anxiety. And when Hannah Mitchell, who plays Vanya at that moment, was doing that monologue, having a full blown anxiety attack, all of these artists were giggling, and I could hear them, and they were like, “Oh my God, too real oh my God, stop”.
There’s something hysterical about someone who has the guts to say out loud that ugly, ugly fear that everybody has, like, “Oh my God, I haven’t amounted to anything, and I have to live with myself for thirteen more years—if I’m lucky, that I live only thirteen more years, like what if I live to be eighty?” In a sort of sick way, I loved hearing them respond that way, because it was totally inappropriate. It was like getting the giggles at a funeral, which I think is actually a common thing. The feeling in your muscles of laughing versus the feelings in your muscles of crying are pretty similar, and I think that what Chekhov is really good at is activating those muscles, and sometimes you don’t always know what’s going to come out.
MINOR CHARACTER: Six Translations of Uncle Vanya at the Same Time runs June 17 – 20 and 22 – 25 at 8pm at The Invisible Dog (51 Bergen Street, Brooklyn). Created by New Saloon; Text by Anton Chekhov; Directed by Morgan Green. For further information and tickets, visit: http://newsaloon.org/.
IN DIALOGUE was created by Emily DeVoti in October 2001 as a monthly forum for playwrights to engage with other playwrights in print. Since then, over 140 playwrights have been featured. If you are a playwright and would like to write a column, please contact Emily at email@example.com.
ARI STESS is a Brooklyn-based playwright and director originally from Santa Fe, New Mexico.