I am working with a terrific group of actors in my advanced class at the moment. We are doing scenes from Chekhov’s plays. I absolutely love working on Chekhov. Part of that is the difficulty and the mystery. His writing is enigmatic, surprising, not at all obvious, but with a little effort whole new realms of experience and perception become surveyable. It’s a little like opening a wooden wardrobe, pushing past the coats that smell of mothballs, and stepping into a brave new world, lustrous and covered in snow.

One of the things that we do in class is inspired by a process called The Booth, which I encountered when I took some great writing classes at the Gotham Writer’s Workshop in New York some years ago. A writer would distribute work to the class to be read ahead of time. Everyone would read the work, and identify something that was working well about the piece of writing, and something that could be improved. We were asked to pick just one of each, which forced us to make decisions about what cried out most urgently for discussion. In class, everyone would be invited to share the thing they had identified that worked, and the thing they thought should be worked on. But as they did that, we were told to imagine that the writer of the piece was inside a glass booth. The writer could hear everything that was being said, but she could not say anything herself. This forestalled any inclination to defend what she had written, which actually made it easier, I found, when I was in the booth, to listen to. After the class and participants had completed their observations, the teacher would then weigh in with a longer review of the work. It was a very illuminating and satisfying process, whether you were in the booth or not.

We do something like this with our 5 Questions document, aka “The Who-am-I”. This document is a kind of blueprint for the role, an attempt to capture and organize the information provided by the writer about the character, and then to expand upon and imaginatively develop that material. It is not a free-ranging character bio; there is a complex set of strictures involved in answering the questions posed by the framework. Developing a Who-am-I is an art in itself, and an indispensable one, as it helps the actor to become oriented towards his world and the other people in it.

My twist on the booth is that as students share their Strong Point on Point for Improvement on the Who-am-I document at hand, I write these points up on the board, for all to see. Then, once each participant has weighed in, I go over each of the observations offered, both the Strong Points and the Points for Improvement, and I respond to each, essentially either agreeing and amplifying a point offered by the student, or invalidating it, and explaining why. In each case, my response is based not on my subjective response to the observation offered about the Who-am-I, but on whether the observation in question was a constructive and useful application of the principles of Who-am-I building. So the student is being given feedback on whether their commentary demonstrates a full understanding of the criteria that make up a strong, functional Who-am-I. They also receive such feedback when I comment directly on their own Who-am-I, but in that context, they are focused on the practical problem of how to make the Who-am-I that they are working on better. In the situation where I am responding to their commentary, they are not so focused on a practical problem they need to solve to be able to do their work well, so they are more able to absorb the principle in question. Or so it seems to me. They seem to find it very rewarding as well.

A couple of themes that came up in discussion of Who-am-I’s recently:

story vs background: Both are important. In the Astrov-Sonya scene in Uncle Vanya, you will not find something to pursue as Astrov unless you recognize that (1) Sonya has been in love with you for a while, (2) she has hoped to become your wife for a while (3) she has burdened you with these expectations, silently. (1) and (2) are made clear in the unfolding of the story, but (3) only becomes clear with some work. We see how later in the play, when Astrov is asked to stop coming to the house, because Sonya is suffering, he readily acquiesces. There is no surprise or discussion, in spite of the fact that he says the nanny, Marina, is the only person he loves, and he clearly has a deep bond with Vanya, and a fondness for Sonya, for that matter (he just doesn’t want her for a wife). But he is willing to give them all up to alleviate Sonya’s suffering. He knows this is the decent thing to do. This means that the suffering is evident to him. So that in turn means that he knows it, and has lived with it, with her expectations which he cannot possibly meet, for some time. This recognition gives the actor a compelling thing to pursue in the scene: he must get Sonya to prove her love for him by setting him free, which includes apologizing for imposing on him with her expectations. However, we have not had any evidence in the story prior to this point that Sonya is behaving in this way. There is no plot point that displays it. It is a part of the background up to this point: a part of the experience of the character, but not on display in any particular plot point. This demonstrates the need for the actor to imaginatively project himself into the routine life of the character, what I am calling the background, or what some screenwriting books call the stasis that exists prior to the inciting incident of the story, as well as to explore the events that appear as past plot points in the story.

the lives of others: Things that happen to people you know are things that happen to you, and belong in your Who-am-I. In Vanya, prior to the start of the play, Sonya’s mother has died, and her father marries Yelena. Since we know that Astrov has been visiting for eleven years, he was aware of these events, and he certainly would remember the first time he saw Yelena. So even though these events don’t involve him as a principle player, they still belong in his Who-am-I as events he witnessed or was aware of at some level. The same with the marriage of Andre to Natasha in The Three Sisters: Masha is not getting married herself, but her brother got married, and his wife has moved into the house, between Act I and Act II of the play. These events belong in the Who-am-I of the actor playing Masha.

Will share some more insights as they emerge. Having a wonderful time. Can you tell?