Anton Chekhov Acting Scenes

“Knowledge is of no value unless you put it into practice.”
- Anton Chekhov

I’m currently teaching a sophomore acting class in the Contemporary Theatre program at The Boston Conservatory at Berklee in Boston, Massachusetts. The class is structured around the tenets of realistic acting presented in such books as A Practical Handbook for The Actor with the students rehearsing and presenting three scenes throughout the course of the semester. The students are wrapping up their work on realistic modern scenes they have chosen to work on, and now we’re moving into a worthy challenge for any young actor; Anton Chekhov scenes.

I figured taking a historical step back, so to speak, would give the students a good footing in both the development of their individual artistic processes, as well as a brief glimpse into the initial steps of modern acting theory that partially developed out of Chekhov’s work with Konstantin Stanislavsky. Also, initially I felt well versed enough in Chekhov’s writing that I figured choosing and assigning scenes would be a breeze. After all I’ve acted in three separate full productions of his plays (The Seagull once, and The Three Sisters twice), done extensive scene study on all of his four major plays, seen numerous student and professional productions of each one, and even watched film adaptions from various countries and eras. I’ve long admired the richness of his writing, and the nuanced depths an actor can keep finding in each and every moment.

Assigning scenes should be a breeze, right?

I have two actors in my class whom I wanted to assign the Irina and Solyony scene in Act II of The Three Sisters. The characters are so vastly different from these two actors as real people that I believed it would be a great challenge for them to undertake in a practical scene study. Having played Solyony myself at Constellation Theatre Company in Washington DC, and really having enjoyed taking on the challenge of the character, I thought it would be perfect. However, when I opened my Laurence Senelick edition of Chekhov’s whole canon I was stunned to see just how short the scene was. Textually it barely takes up a page, and in Senelick’s edition it probably takes up more than usual consdiering the font is larger than in most acting editions. Also, the scene is very heavily weighted toward Solyony. Although it is a powerful moment in the play, and a great scene for the development of Irina’s character in total, it doesn’t provide much in terms of material for an acting class unless we were specifically working options for physical struggle and/or evasion in a realistic scene. Overall, I was simply stunned at how much my memory of this play had betrayed me.

I had a similar moment of dejection when I was planning on using another scene I thought would be absolutely perfect for another pair of actors in my class. The opening scene of The Seagull between the affable Medvedenko and the acerbic Masha was a great challenge for me when I played the buffoonish school teacher years ago at Theater J in Washington DC. However, I think I mistook the hours of work Tessa Klein Harber and myself had put into that scene with the guidance of director John Vreeke. A scene that in my mind seemed to be an endless fever dream of one character reaching out across an emotional void for another person who could only push him away in favor of focusing on her own hopeless love was really only on the page maybe a page long, and perhaps two minutes in length for a scene study.

Both scenes are still valuable for any actor to undertake in any play, as I can attest to from personal experience. However, in an acting class one does require a bit more proverbial meat on the bones of a scene to be able to work on not just individual moments, but disciplined rehearsal work and prioritization, text study, voice and movement integration, and so forth.

This is when I took to the supposedly reliable internet and tried finding a decent list of scenes from Chekhov’s plays that most instructors use in their acting classes. There was next-to-nothing out there, save for a few crackpots who would write vague generalities like, “Uh…check out Three Sisters. There’s LOTS of great scenes in there.” You’ll forgive me if I don’t cite that particular chat room where I found that quote.

After going through Laurence Senelick’s full Chekhov canon I have compiled a list for myself that I wish to share with the theatre world at large. From Chekhov’s four major plays I find there are only about 16 scenes that are adequate for use in an acting class, based on age, time (about 4+ minutes), ability to get some real depth and exploration, and the fact that they are pure duos. The Three Sisters seems like a great choice for female scenes until you realize almost all of the female only scenes are of 3 or more characters at any given moment. This was another surprise my memory had to accept as present fact. The deep well of material was a bit shallower than I thought, even if the quality of the material was incredibly rich.

The numbers broke down in the following way:

13 are male/female scenes.
2 are female/female scenes.
1 is a male/male scene.

Am I missing any? I don’t know Chekhov’s early comic play Ivanov well enough to consider any from it (but if anyone knows a great one…), don’t want to use Platonov (or the untitled play) because of its open-ended structure and lack of structure, and I think the one acts are a bit more geared toward being comic vignettes suited for other kind of work, and not university level acting study.

Each play provides the following opportunities. I’ve made loose notes about some scenes that seem great, but might be just a touch too heavily weighted toward one character

Trigorin & Masha (m/f)
Treplev & Arkadina (m/f)
Arkadina & Trigorin (m/f)
Act IV
Nina & Treplev (m/f)
* This is ignoring the Act II scene with Trigorin & Nina where Trigorin endlessly talks about himself.

Act II
Vanya & Yelena (m/f)
Sonya & Astrov (m/f)
Sonya & Yelena (f/f)
Sonya & Yelena (f/f)
Yelena & Astrov (m/f) — This scene is very long, and is Astrov heavy, but does give Yelena plenty to work with for a rehearsal period.
Act IV
Vanya & Astrov (m/m)
Astrov & Yelena (m/f)

Act II
Natasha & Andrey (m/f)
Masha & Vershinin (m/f)
Act IV
Irina & Tusenbach (m/f)

Act II
Anya & Trofimov (m/f)
Trofimov & Ranevskaya (m/f)

Going back to The Cherry Orchard also broke my heart. I loved doing scene study in a theory class on that brief scene between Lopahkin & Varya in Act IV, but, again, it’s just too damn brief. The depths of it are simply much longer than the moment it takes to perform.

Don’t worry though. There’s plenty of depth in the previous scenes. Now the only challenge is having enough of a ratio of males to females, but that’s a topic for another blog post.