"There’s this Mary Oliver quote, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” This quote feels like it’s at the centre of my understanding of the play." We chat with director Bronwen Coleman about Anthropocene Play Company's upcoming production of 'Uncle Vanya', playing at Theatre Works 7-17 June.
Q: What drew you to directing this Chekhov classic?
A: I first saw what Chekhov could “do” to an audience back when I was doing my MFA at the Actors Studio Drama School in New York. We worked on Chekhov’s plays in our second year, and I remember watching a scene, you know, just another scene of many in a three hour acting class, when suddenly everything clicked for the actors and the scene came to life in this magical way. Chekhov’s writing is made up of a kind of moment-to-moment reality that is profoundly recognisable as human experience. And when actors can find it, find the embedded psychological truth of the character, something amazing happens that challenges an audience to think about what it means to be human. When that scene “clicked” back in acting school – the life between the actors was so vivid, everything in the room became part of the scene, in a strange way. I remember a plane flew overhead, and that, somehow, became part of the scene. This is what I’ve seen Chekhov do to an audience – unite them in the present moment - and this what I want to give to the audience of Uncle Vanya.
Q: Tell us about your involvement with Anthropocene Play Company.
A; Back in 2015 I was commissioned by the City of Casey Department of Sustainability to make a play with local young folks, about issues facing the Westernport catchment. When we were thinking of a name for the play – we came across the word ‘anthropocene.’ From ‘anthro’, meaning human, and ‘cene’, meaning new, the word has come to be used as the correct name for our current geological age (think Pleistocene, or Jurrassic, as other examples from other ages) – an age in which humans have the most impact on the natural environment. Later on, when Pia O’Meadhra, Clare Larman and I were talking about forming an ensemble based theatre company – that word came back to me. We’re a feminist, sustainable, culturally inclusive theatre company – and that name, the Anthropocene Play Company – felt right for us, a reminder of what we’re trying to do with the theatre we make. I’m the artistic director of the APC, and with the company I’ve directed plays such as Daniel Nellor’s Ignis and Tennessee William’s Something Unspoken, and as a co-production with Wil King and Patrick Livesey the premiere of Angus Cameron’s Cavemen at Chapel-off-Chapel last year.
Q: What appealed to you about this new translation of Uncle Vanya?
A: This translation is wonderful. When I’m directing a scene, I’m trying to draw out the action (and drama!) in the text. This translation, which was made in collaboration with theatre director Richard Nelson, is very active. The characters always seem to be trying to do things to each other – seducing, bullying, enlisting – which means the text is suggesting a certain vivid kind of life. This translation of the play was very well received in New York, where it premiered. The New York Times said something like it was like seeing Uncle Vanya for the first time – a whole new experience (forgive my paraphrasing).
Q: What has been a highlight of the rehearsal process so far?
A: As an ensemble company, when I’m casting one of our plays I send it out to the company and ask people which roles they’re interested in. One of our members, Catherine Morvell, put her hand up for Dr. Astrov – a traditionally male role. This was super interesting to me as a declared feminist theatre maker. What would it mean to have a woman in the role? I combed through the text, and thought yes, we could definitely do this. A couple of weeks ago it was IDAHOBIT day. My son’s school had a visit scheduled from Dolly Diamond which the school had to cancel after being warned by police of threats made against the school. The day we learned the visit would be cancelled, I went to rehearsal and we worked on a scene between Astrov and Elena – a love scene. Our central love triangle, because of our casting choice, is now queer. The actors’ work was beautiful, and I remember thinking – this is what we can do, as a company, offer this narrative.
Q: Why do you think this play will resonate with a modern audience?
A: The play is about a dysfunctional family. It’s about getting to a certain point and thinking, damn, is this all there is? What the hell have I done with my life? We’re a Method acting company, and I think we’re kind of becoming known for our performances. As an actor myself, the actors’ performances are really important to me! The actors have to work extremely technically – do technical back flips – to appear as if they aren’t working at all, but are just talented, inspired. That’s what we’ll be bringing to the play – the combination of Chekhov’s classic masterwork, and our acting “A” game.
Q: What kind of conversations do you hope this production of Uncle Vanya will ignite amongst theatregoers?
A :There’s this Mary Oliver quote, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” This quote feels like it’s at the centre of my understanding of the play. I’m thinking about it in terms of the design, in terms of the music, everything. Chekhov himself was dying when he wrote Uncle Vanya. He had TB, and he was a doctor, so he understood what was happening to him, and how it would likely end. The play is funny, and full of life, but there are references to mortality throughout. The characters wonder how they’ll be remembered, how people in a hundred years will judge them. One character, Astrov, really thinks about this. She is working to save the forests near her house, because she can see how important they are to the quality of life of the people that live nearby, and she has a sense of them as a legacy she can leave for future generations. That she’s morally obliged to leave. I hope that with this play, we ask the audience, “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” UNCLE VANYA by Anton Chekhov
7-17 June | Theatre Works
Photo credit: Alex Vaughan