Many moons ago, I was a directing intern under Artistic Director Jon Jory of the Actors Theatre of Louisville. One morning a week, Jon would hold an acting class for the young, college-aged actors who worked in servitude for ten months at ATL to learn The Craft and tread the boards with the professionals.
Jon didn’t really subscribe to one acting style; he stole from everybody, mashed it up, and made it his own technique (Tips for Actors, in case you’re wondering. That’s his book). Anyway, growing up in the theatre himself with parents who were Hollywood actors, Jon was a keen observer of timing, energy, and creativity – elements that contribute substantially to sustaining an audience’s attention in a performance. But Jon was also a master of the art of psychology, nuanced characterization, and subtext that made performances substantive and real.
One morning, Jon put a pair of actors mercilessly through the acting ringer. He nonchalantly had given these actors just little over a half of page of dialogue from Chekov’s Three Sisters, the scene where Tuzenbach and Irina talk amidst the trees in Act Four. The scene begins with Tuzenbach musing on the soliders’ departure, abruptly turns to Tuzenbach’s proclamations of love for Irina, and then come to a virtual screeching halt when Tuzenbach says:
Tuzenbach: Tomorrow I’ll take you away from here, we’ll work, we’ll be rich, my dreams will all come true. You’ll be happy. There’s just one thing wrong; you don’t love me.
Irina: I can’t. I’ll be your wife, I’ll … I’ll do what I’m supposed to do, I’ll be faithful, but I don’t love you. I’m sorry. I’ve never been in love. I used to dream about love, I used to dream about it all the time, but now my soul is like a piano that’s been locked up and the key’s lost. (Pause). You look upset.
Tuzenbach: I didn’t get much sleep last night. I’ve never been frightened in my life. I’ve never been afraid of anything, yet now I can’t sleep – I’m tormented by the thought of that lost key. (Pause) Say something. Say something to me…
Irina: What? It’s so quiet here; these old trees just stand in the silence.
Jon made the pair of young actors read these same lines over and again easily 10 times or more. He’d let them start, cut them off, make them start again, cut them off again – over and over again — because they just weren’t getting it right. The actors were completely exasperated after about 20 minutes as they had absolutely no idea what Jon was looking for. Finally, he took mercy on their young, naïve souls, and said, “Don’t focus on what are saying, but what you’re not saying. That’s the point of the scene.”
They still didn’t get it.
But I’ll spell it out for you, since we don’t have all day and the Stanley Cup playoffs are quickly approaching.
The point of the scene is about all the things that Tuzenbach and Irina won’t say to each other, about how they really feel, what they are really going to do, and what they really think about themselves and about each other. It’s a scene about deception, ignorance, and heartbreak. And it’s about the loneliness and bitter disappointment in being so close to having everything you’ve ever dreamed of, and yet not.
In short, the point of the scene is about all the things not said, that should be said, that need to be said — that’s the heartache. That’s the bitterness Chekhov is showing us.
But as I think about it more carefully, I think Chekhov is also making a point about one of the root causes of chronic unhappiness: the inability to be grateful for what’s right in front of us, to be grateful for the possibilities of a life different then we imagined it would be. It’s the ingratitude that comes with thinking that if this life, or that person, isn’t exactly as I imagined it or they would be in my dreams, that somehow I have been wronged by them, by life, by the universe.
The tragedy of Tuzenbach and Irina is that neither of them are satisfied by what’s being offered, and instead are disappointed by the fantasies they have concocted in their imagination. However, instead of living a life of disappointment, Tuzenbach promptly gets himself killed in a duel within the next six pages of dialogue. And Irina, instead of mourning the sudden passing of her betrothed, pledges herself to a life of work as if she had just had gotten wind of a bad weather report.
Thank you, Chekhov, for the comedic relief.
In any event, why, you might ask, am I musing on Chekhov and not on the affordances of virtual learning, or serious games, or hand held devices? I suppose because as I sit here on my couch having been holed up in my home like a tepid Trappist this Palm Sunday weekend, I’m trying to practice gratitude for the people in my life who do indeed tell me the things perhaps I’d rather them not say but that should be said — that need to be said. I’m grateful for the honest and substantive relationships that are indeed imperfect, as I am imperfect, but are courageous and loving in spite of all our imperfections. A far better thing, I think, to sustain the real and imperfect then turn one’s back and have all that potential turn to dust.