Directing Chekhov – A Few Words from our Guest Blogger

Today we have a post from guest blogger Jodi Kanter, who served as production dramaturg on THE SEAGULL ON 16TH STREET. Jodi hosted our Artistic Director’s Roundtable Panel on June 18, titled The Russian Soul—Directing Chekhov. We’re thrilled to have her with us!

After Sunday’s matinee, I moderated a conversation with two accomplished Washington area directors, Kasi Campbell and Derek Goldman. Theatre J’s own Ari Roth joined us.

To kick things off, Kasi Campbell confessed: when she first read Chekhov, she wondered what all the fuss was about. It was only much later in her career, when she got “knee deep” in Chekhov—with her own Seagull—that she fell in love with the challenges of his plays.

What were the challenges? Campbell talked about the long stretches in Chekhov where nothing much seems to be happening, followed by huge emotional outbursts in which actors had to “throw their hearts out into the middle of the audience.” Derek Goldman talked about how complex the characters are—“There are no villains and no heroes here,” he said. Goldman also talked about how closely laughter and tears followed each other in Chekhov’s world. He praised The Seagull on 16th Street as both recognizably Jewish and true to the original play.

“I recognized my own Jewish mother in this Arkadina,” said Goldman.

“I take offense at that!” joked a woman in the audience.

My favorite question from an audience member was this one: Why did Chekhov insist that this play that ends in suicide was a comedy? It’s a question artists and scholars have debated for more than a century.

Ari Roth pointed out that in the end, the characters return to playing cards and, by implication, continue their lives. Kasi Campbell said Chekhov’s laughter was quieter than the kind many contemporary audiences are used to. “You laugh a lot in Chekhov,” she said, “but it’s kind of a ‘huh’ laugh rather than a haw haw haw laugh.”

Jodi Kanter is Associate Professor of Theatre at George Washington University and served as dramaturg for Theatre J’s production of The Seagull.