As an associate dramaturg at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, Neena Arndt researches the background and text of a play to ensure that the cast and crew understand the historical context of a production and the purpose for why they’re performing it today. Arndt shaped this version of Uncle Vanya, playing now through March 19 (read my review here) with Robert Falls, who is celebrating his thirtieth year as artistic director at the Goodman and whom the Chicago Tribune has called “Chicago’s most essential director.” Uncle Vanya, the first collaboration between playwright Anton Chekhov and director Konstantin Stanislavsky, premiered at the Moscow Art Theatre in 1899, and ushered in a new wave of realistic storytelling.
After opening weekend, we spoke on the phone with Arndt about dramaturgy, Annie Baker’s adaptation, and how to interpret a play where very little happens.
BIZ HYZY: You’re a dramaturg at the Goodman. What does that mean, exactly?
NEENA ARDNT: I have a variety of jobs. One of them is script reading, script evaluation and. . . working with playwrights to develop their plays. I also do writing and research for all of our publications. In a broader way, I do audience engagement.
[Dramaturgy] can entail doing background research for the production of the play. . . the setting or the idea that the director’s trying to get at.
I work with Robert Falls in the rehearsal room, helping him through a rigorous process of text analysis and exploring the work with the actors.
For Uncle Vanya, you had so much information available to you. Where did you begin your research? How did you figure out what’s worth filtering out?
It is tricky with classic plays that have a lot written about them. . . I try to not do too much with critical interpretations unless there’s a particular one that seems really useful. With this production especially, we wanted to allow the text to reveal itself to us. That said, I did a lot of research on. . . the basic, everyday lives of the characters and what those [lives] would be like in the last decade of the 19th century.
I start by looking carefully at the text. . . and asking questions. I try to not assume. For example…Yelena is the daughter of a senator, and I try to not assume that I know what a senator is in this context.
You also worked with Robert Falls on Chekhov’s The Seagull. Did you approach Uncle Vanya similarly?
The same playwright [means] there are certain similarities in terms of the world that the characters live in, and obviously the style of the writing. [But The Seagull] is also a very different play. On the surface, more things happen. . . and on the surface of Uncle Vanya, less happens. There’s the attempted shooting in the second half of the play, but a large part of it is people talking about life. It was important to find the subtext or the undercurrents of what’s going on in order to help the actors find an aliveness that allows them to [act] in a way that, frankly, isn’t boring.
[They need to be] clear on what’s going on with their characters emotionally, because there’s an immense amount going on. We’ve got unrequited love. We’ve got requited love that can’t happen due to people being married to someone else. . . [But] I don’t think it feels as alive if you don’t excavate that subtext.
In the playbill, you said that Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Annie Baker didn’t actually translate this play from the Russian, but she adapted a translation to make it sound contemporary. Out of all the translations available to you, why did you choose this one?
[Robert Fall]’s always interested in. . . making sure that [Chekhov] sounds contemporary. There are a lot of translations of Chekhov that I think are quite good, but they were done 100 years ago and / or they’re British. That doesn’t mean they’re bad, but I think it’s odd to present to an American audience.
I think [Annie Baker] is an artistic descendant of Chekhov. He’s one of her great influences. In some ways, she’s a natural to render this text in a faithful way. If you line up her text with the original Russian, the length of the lines are similar.
There’s a video where Robert Fall says most people perceive Chekhov to be a gloomy, depressing, writer, yet he finds him, exhilarating. Where do you fall on that spectrum?
I spent time studying in Moscow when I was in graduate school, and I’ve seen a lot of Chekhov. I’ve seen him done poorly, and I’ve also seen him done very well. I find Chekhov endlessly fascinating, and I love working on his plays. I love working on him, and I also love when I get to see a production that’s just really beautifully done.
I don’t know that Uncle Vanya is laugh-out-loud funny, although there are moments that are humorous in their absurdity.
I have to ask: Have you read any books recently that you’ve enjoyed?
I got a book recently called Apollo’s Angels by Jennifer Homans that’s a history of ballet. I found it fascinating and well-written.