The Books: The Actor’s Chekhov: Interviews with Nikos Psacharopoulos and the Company of the Williamstown Theatre Festival, on the Plays of Anton Chekhov, edited by Jean Hackett

Daily Book Excerpt: Theatre

Next book on the acting/theatre shelf is The Actor’s Chekhov : Interviews with Nikos Psacharopoulos and the Company of the Williamstown Theatre Festival, on the Plays of Anton Chekhov , edited by Jean Hackett

Amy Irving, Kate Burton, Roberta Maxwell in “Three Sisters”, Williamstown Theatre Festival, 1987

Nikos Psacharopoulos was the co-founder and artistic director of the celebrated Williamstown Theatre Festival which is still going strong (I saw Sam Rockwell do Stanley Kowalski there this summer). The Williamstown Theatre Festival from the get-go wanted to be different from other regional summer stock theatres. It attracted luminous stars to its ranks (still does), and put up a dozen plays a summer. From the start, the material was the thing about Williamstown. They did Chekhov, Shaw, Brecht, Thornton Wilder, Jean Anouilh, Tennessee Williams. Heavy-hitting playwrights. There was an ensemble of actors who worked there year after year, and many of these productions are still remembered and celebrated. I wish I could have seen some of those Chekhov productions. Blythe Danner, Austin Pendleton, Christopher Walken, Kate Burton, Olympia Dukakis … these are the people who were always there, in production after production. It was like a repertory company. Gwyneth Paltrow spent her summers as a child cavorting around the Williamstown Theatre Festival, and also did a production of The Seagull, playing Nina against her mother’s Arkadina (Blythe Danner had started out there doing Nina, one of her most celebrated parts). It was a big messy chaotic passionate family, led by the crazy Greek, Nikos Psacharopoulos.

This wonderful book, then, is interviews with many of the main players at Williamstown during the Psacharopoulos years, and it focuses on who he was as a director and dramaturg, and also on how invested he was in the actors’ process. Some really great stories.

I have read this book again and again.

Psacharopoulos seems to, above all else, to have abhorred neatness and, in some ways, professionalism. He didn’t like actors who were “obedient” and who planned things out and knew what they were going to do beforehand. He liked spontaneity, he liked inventiveness, he liked people who were afraid. He would shout at actors, “Fall down!” He wanted people who were on the edge because often, at least with Chekhov, the characters were on the edge too. He didn’t like reverential attitudes towards these plays. He didn’t treat them as though they were “great”. He liked to mess them up, to add chaos to the brew, to allow the actors to play and invent and do things that might not make sense in the first moment, but then make total sense as you thought about it more. He liked gestures that ran counter to the lines. He liked people to laugh when they were saying lines about how sad they were. He liked people to be frustrated, and then explode. Polite professional actors had a difficult time at Williamstown under Psacharopoulos’ reign. At least that’s the impression I get from the book.

Without being too intrusive, he would cast people whom he thought needed to work on certain things. This sort of psychological direction can be very dangerous if it’s in the wrong hands. You know, who are YOU to tell me what I need to work on? Austin Pendleton is very eloquent about this in the book, how he played a certain role and as he worked on it he realized WHY Psacharopoulos wanted him to play it, and the reasons ran very very deep. They were all so close. They knew each other’s issues, struggles, what was going on in each other’s lives. Disappointments, hidden failures … all of these things can be utilized when you are acting, they MUST be utilized … and Psacharopoulos would gently cast people who were already going through something similar. The results were often explosive.

I have too many favorite excerpts to even count. Psacharopoulos leaps off of these pages as an often hilarious and passionate and committed man, who really knew his Chekhov. I treasure this book.

Chekhov fans certainly won’t want to miss it, because the interviews, as a whole, end up being one giant script analysis class, seen from the point of view of actors (often the best script analyzers around because they’re the ones who have to get up and do it). I love the interview with Olympia Dukakis. I love the interview with Austin Pendleton.

Amy Irving, Christopher Walken, “Three Sisters, 1987

But today I’ll go with an excerpt from the great interview with Christopher Walken, who worked there summer after summer. All interviews done by Jean Hackett.

Excerpt from The Actor’s Chekhov : Interviews with Nikos Psacharopoulos and the Company of the Williamstown Theatre Festival, on the Plays of Anton Chekhov , edited by Jean Hackett

Jean: What was the process with Ivanov?

Chris: I loved doing that. I’d like to do that again, actually. It’s a much better evening than it’s given credit for.

Jean: What happens with that man? It seems like he starts from a place of complete despair and then just goes lower and lower.

Chris: Yeah, but I mean, he’s so funny. There’s a scene in it where I think he stands on stage and doesn’t speak for about fifteen minutes. The party scene in the second act. He says nothing, he just stands there and watches everybody. And I used to get a lot of laughs in that scene! He’s so ridiculous. I saw it once, and I won’t say with who, he was a very famous actor. Well, it was a very long evening. And I don’t think it should feel that way. There’s all these crazy people, like that guy with the firecrackers, and, of course, Ivanov himself, his depression. I always felt that suicide – unless you’re really sick, unless physically you’re incapable of sustaining life – that a suicide for a young, healthy, strapping man with everything to live for, is really an example of narcissism taken to its absolute limits. The selfishness of an act like that, the self-centeredness of such misery – when the guy should really be thanking his lucky stars! I always thought that was kind of Chekhov’s joke, that the play itself is a rebuke of Ivanov, and that Ivanov is a ridiculous character. And I felt that, too. I thought he was ridiculous. And I think that’s why he’s so funny.

Jean: He seems to have a great deal of sanity, too, that the other people around him don’t have.

Chris: Yeah, he’s a very smart guy. He’s just miserable. [Laughs.] He’s a very intelligent man, and everybody likes him, and he has no reason to feel that way, he just does.

Jean: There’s no real hope in this play, is there, the way there is in others.

Chris: No, Ivanov is really just the study of a suicide.

Jean: When a Chekhov production goes wrong, what do you think is the mistake?

Chris: One of the best productions I ever saw of a Chekhov was Uncle Vanya in Hebrew at the Habebin in Tel Aviv. I knew the play so well that it didn’t matter that it was in Hebrew, I knew every scene and the actors were really superb. And, being mostly Eastern Europeans and Israelis, they had a real sense of that part of the world. They were very robust and spirited, passionate people. They were big actors, the men were big, heavy guys and the women were big, heavy women! And they all had huge voices and they were really – out there! I think those characters in Chekhov really are right, as they say, in your face. They are big people, they are the kind of people that you notice when they walk into a restaurant. They are life loving and fun loving and they love to eat and drink and fight and cry. As Americans, it’s a little bit difficult for us to do that, even though, in many ways, we’re closer to the Russians certainly than the English. I think American people are a working kind of people, and I think Chekhov’s Russians are like that, too. And passionate, capable of big mood swings, and a little bit larger than life. Any kind of reticence, I think, doesn’t serve Chekhov well.

Jean: Nikos often talked about the best acting being sort of “messy” or “unfinished”. “Unfinished” meaning never fully accomplishing the task, that once you accomplish the task you give yourself as an actor, something gets “set” in the performance and then the spontaneity is lost. Can you speak to that?

Chris: Absolutely. I mean, I’m a big fan of chaos. I operate off it in my life and in my acting. One has to have a kind of trust in chaos. I believe, you know, that chaos is a real fact at the center of many things that we think we control and that we think we have the strings on. One of my favorite feelings, before walking on stage, it’s something that happens to me only in the theatre: I’ll be in the wings waiting to go on, and there’s a sense of – “I have no idea what’s going to happen now as I step into the light.” I don’t know what’s going to happen, and I don’t care! If I forget my lines, I don’t care. If the whole thing gets screwed up, it doesn’t matter! All that matters is what’s happening, and is it interesting. And if the audience senses that, they’re going to be looking at you, they’re going to be paying attention, they’re not going to be thinking how maybe that they should be someplace else.

In other words, I guess we’re talking about something dangerous. Which I think is a very important aspect of watching acting, especially on the stage. And that, for me anyway, comes out of a surrender to the notion of chaos. And I rehearse that way, too. I trust that I’ve done my work and when I go out there, it’s there. Once I walk on I don’t think about anything. And it’s a dangerous thing for me, too, because it doesn’t always work. But by taking that chance you can make some sparks. And audiences appreciate it, too. An audience doesn’t want to watch an actor being careful. One can make mistakes in that respect and be criticized for it but I’ve always thought that the other side of it, the part that balances it out, is much more valuable. For me, connecting to something deep inside is really allowing that – what I think of as sort of a higher intelligence in me – to take over. I always reach a point where Im just not smart enough to think about it anymore, so let something else do it for me. I guess that’s what they call intuition of whatever.

I don’t believe most people are capable of figuring out, let alone articulating, complex human situations. How can you? You can’t explain your own life! The person you’re married to, your mother and father, your brothers and sisters, what do you really know? All you know is that when you see them, something happens. That’s why sitting down and saying, in this scene you realize that’s what this is, that this is what the playwright’s doing, is pretty much useless. I think it is important for an actor to know what he wants – you know, where am I, what am I doing, what do I want in the scene. It’s important to think about those things, but only to get your foot in the door. Once that’s established, it’s useless. It’s a hindrance, really. Because if you lock yourself into that, you can’t surprise yourself, and if you can’t surprise yourself, you’re never going to surprise the audience. I believe that. i think that one of my most valuable assets on stage is that I’m never quite sure what I’m going to do next, so how could anyone else be? Because you do telegraph that, if you know exactly what you’re doing the audience knows it. You know, some actors are very good at that, but that’s not my strong point. You don’t know what’s going to happen next in the play itself, you know? What’s next?

When I played Astrov in Vanya, we had that scene between the two of us, Vanya and Astrov, toward the end of the play. And some nights we’d be laughing and rolling on the floor, other times he’d cry in my arms, sometimes a combination of those things, sometimes I’d run off the stage and come back on my hands and knees –

Jean: The scene where Vanya wants the medicine –

Chris: — Yeah, he wants the morphine and I’m hiding the bottles, and the whole thing was ridiculous but it was right, too. And it never was the same from night to night, I know that.

Jean: A lot of actors I talked to felt like Nikos allowed them the permission to do that for the first time. But it kind of sounds to me that you’ve always felt that permission –

Chris: It’s the only way I know. But, you know, I’ve run into directors who did not encourage that. And that’s difficult for me.

Jean: It must be.

Chris: As a matter of fact, some directors don’t like that at all. But usually they don’t hire me in the first place.

Jean: Nikos was always so elated after a day of rehearsal with you. I think because he was always happy when he discovered another actor who liked to work the way he did.

Chris: Yes. And he was fun. He was fun to be with. To me that’s important in a director. I think rehearsals should be fun, even if it’s the biggest tragedy ever written, if you’re rehearsing Medea, the rehearsals should be fun. And I think the actor’s position too always has to be one of being in a play. I think that the illusion that what one’s doing is really happening is something you sort of give up once you’re ten years old. There’s a quality of the experience of a show that’s participatory, and everyone knows whats going on: we’re all there for a purpose which is to put on a play. And let’s use this word “entertainment”. No matter what it is, it’s got to be entertaining. Nikos was aware of this. He was aware of the fact that people were going to be sitting there and, in addition to being moved, enlightened or whatever you want to call it, in addition to seeing a great masterpiece of literature, they also had to be entertained. And that is a mighty responsibility. That’s probably why I’ve never directed anything.

Jean: Because?

Chris: I can entertain as an actor. I’m not sure I could put the whole machinery together and make it entertaining. Nikos could. Nikos loved it. He liked being a cook, you know? Putting it all together like some fantastic meal.

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4 Responses to The Books: The Actor’s Chekhov: Interviews with Nikos Psacharopoulos and the Company of the Williamstown Theatre Festival, on the Plays of Anton Chekhov, edited by Jean Hackett

  1. Kent says:

    !!! LOVE IT !!!

  2. sheila says:

    Kent – isn’t it great?? You might be interested in this excerpt from the book, too, from an interview with Olympia Dukakis.

    THAT is script analysis. THAT is a thinking actor.

    No line is irrelevant. No line is to be tossed off.

  3. Jeanie (aka Jean) Hackett says:

    you really understand my book, and Nikos. Thanks.

    • sheila says:

      Jean – I feel honored that you would make a comment. Your book means so much to me and has really helped me when I have played Chekhov myself. Thank you so much for putting it together! I recommend it all the time.

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