September 28, 2021
Minor Character is a new production of a play that took New York by storm prior to the pandemic.
A remix of six English translations of Russian playwright Anton Chekhov’s classic play Uncle Vanya, Minor Character was originally created over many years by the young New York Company New Saloon.
New Saloon was co-founded by the Wilma’s new Co-Artistic Director Morgan Green.
Wilma Theater Dramaturg Kellie Mecleary recently spoke to Morgan about the show’s creation, and what it’s like to have it re-staged by the Wilma’s HotHouse Company in 2021.
Kellie: I’m so excited to have this conversation with you. I’m so curious about the journey of this play. To start, I’d be curious to hear you talk about your relationship with Chekhov and Uncle Vanya before the inception of Minor Character.
Morgan: I worked on Chekhov scenes in undergrad as an actor and found them really challenging, like really hard, and I didn’t understand how you could go from laughing to crying to laughing in a moment. But when I read the plays I felt so emotionally connected to them. And then honestly the Chekhov plays I would see in New York, I felt there was a kind of disconnect. it wasn’t even just that the translations were bad, it was somehow distanced, it felt sort of styrofoamy, in the way that when I just simply read the play, I was to the moon, like really blown away by it.
Kellie: Tell me more about what blew you away about your reading experience.
Morgan: Specifically with Uncle Vanya, there’s this anxiety about failure, or about not living up to your full potential. As sort of an angsty millennial I felt that in my community this energy to make something of myself. But I really related to Vanya’s anxiety and this mad swinging between grandiose and like really self-deprecating self-hatred. So there was something existential about it that rang true.
Kellie: So the feeling that the play was far away from you, what do you think that was about? That’s also been my general experience when seeing Chekhov.
Morgan: I think that when it gets translated into English it doesn’t hold the emotion in the same way. And there were really cool productions of Chekhov in New York that I saw that did something with the translation. Like Annie Baker’s translation [of Uncle Vanya] and Target Margin did a sort of collaborative translation project, and those I felt I could get into. But when it’s straight-up period all white Chekhov, it’s boring. Or that’s what I felt.
Kellie: And so did that all feed into your desire to approach Vanya in this way, with multiple translations?
Morgan: Yeah, so actually I think it started as Untitled Chekhov Project. We hadn’t landed on Vanya, and we were looking at all of Chekhov, and we made a piece called Tropes where we experimented with reading three different translations of the Vanya speech when he’s complaining about the professor and he’s like, “naturalism, realism, naturalism.”
So that kind of popped off. We stumbled into a kind of humor with language that we hadn’t anticipated. I think Chekhov really should be funny. A lot of the problems with those styrofoam productions was that they weren’t funny at all. But so that moment of discovery was like, “oh it’s three old people grousing about this person who they feel cheated by, but they’re doing it in slightly different ways and correcting each other!” So then I think it was our dramaturg at the time who said, “well what if we did the entire play like that?” and we were like, “Oh my god, that’s a crazy idea!” We found out really quickly that you can’t listen to that for more than five minutes. So that’s where we started to iterate the idea. If the task at hand is multiple translations of Uncle Vanya at the same time, how many different ways can you do that?
And the decisions were based on what’s happening in the story. For example, when Sonya says, “you know, you’re being a brat, and maybe they like it but I don’t like it,” you don’t really need to know what she’s saying. You can get the tone of it and you’ll understand. And so that was an opportunity for three people to speak at the same time over each other. But then when there’s a more crystalized unique idea like Astrov talking about walking into the forest and seeing the light, then just one voice comes out by itself and the other people play support or back up. We started making decisions about, I guess I call it the orchestration of the text based on the story. We used the orchestration of the text like it’s choral music to amplify or hush different parts of the story. Pushing a little bit beyond that, we found that it was about the multiplicity of identity. That each of these characters have multiple contradictory thoughts and feelings at any given time and that’s just human, and also the thing that’s so good about Chekhov is how he explores contradiction.
Kellie: So is that notion something you discovered, that the multiple translations highlighted Chekhov’s characters’ contradictions?
Morgan: I think so, because it started as a sort of formal challenge or prompt, and then it became clear that we had this opportunity for different voices playing the same character. So why not have those voices be as different and distinct and diverse as possible, in terms of age, sex, gender, branching away from what the traditional casting would be. But creating these units who are somehow energetically connected. Sometimes it felt kind of like a Harry Potter quiz, like, “are you a Sonya or Astrov energy?”
Kellie: We’re making a quiz, did I tell you?
Morgan: No, but that’s amazing. I’m a hardcore Sonya.
Kellie: I know, I relate to her too.
(Readers, here’s a link to that quiz if you want to take it to see which Vanya character you are!)
Kellie: Is it possible to talk in a little more detail about process? How much of the writing came straight from the brains of you, the other members of New Saloon, and your dramaturg; and how much came out of explorations of the text with actors in rehearsal?
Morgan: We did a mix. So the idea for Act 1 is that it is there to introduce you to the characters and their problems. And so we wanted to do this really presentational set of monologues. Actually Maddie [Madeline Wise, New Saloon Company Member] and I sat down and banged those out by ourselves with all the translations late at night in our apartment. And then Act 2, we definitely relied on a group of actors who would come in…it was very casual at first, we weren’t even moving towards a show:, we’d say to each of them “here’s your character here’s your script, here’s your character here’s your script, here’s your character here’s your script; say what you want when you want to. And here’s one wine bottle: you all need to drink the same wine, so work it out.” And slowly but surely we’d start to carve away and select which parts of which translations we wanted to use,. And then I think there was after that another sit down writing session [with] me, Maddie and Milo [Cramer], the core New Saloon trio, and Elliot Quick who was our dramaturg. It often was about rhythm and the delight of the different translations and how some of them are kind of silly and feel kind of flowery and some are just unusual and strange. So it was kind of like a treasure hunt for the best bits of each translation.
In the way that Act 1 is there to introduce, we saw Act 2 as the tangled love web and the text kind of follows suit. And then Act 3 is when all the action happens, so we didn’t want overlapping repetition, we wanted it to move faster, and that’s when we introduced the Google Translate because it’s Vanya’s mental break, basically. And then Act 4, there’s a little bit of a throwback to Act 2 and then we streamline into Milo’s adaptation for the ending. Which to me feels very American and very contemporary. If you just walked into Act 4 you wouldn’t think you were watching Chekhov. In our version, the final act felt very much like something that we had all experienced.
Kellie: Why did you decide to call it Minor Character?
Morgan: Eventually after we were messing with the text so much, we thought it deserved a new title, because we were like “ok it’s not really Uncle Vanya anymore, it’s this weird other thing that’s using Uncle Vanya. At first it was just simply, Six Translations of Uncle Vanya at the Same Time. Minor Character we found and really loved coming out of the scene between Yelena and Sonya, where Yelena says, “I’m boring, I’m just a minor character, I’m just a walk on part, I’m trivial.” Yelena has such main character energy but she’s talking about herself as this minor character, but does she really feel that way? We were kind of thinking about how each character thinks they’re the main character in every scene that they’re in, including Waffles, a minor character who people sideline all the time.
Kellie: I love that. Many of these characters, if not all of these characters, particularly Vanya, and maybe Yelena too, are sort of struggling with not having done what they thought they would do. Vanya is kind of an inadvertent minor character in his own life: he’s playing a supporting role.
Morgan: He is! He’s the title character but he’s actually given up what his life could have been to support another character. And he’s not Vanya, he’s Uncle Vanya.
Kellie: Right! Pointing to his relationship to Sonya.
Are there things you learned about translation working on Minor Character?
Morgan: I learned that some things are untranslatable. And I think Yury [Urnov, director of Minor Character and Wilma co-Artistic Director] would probably agree with that. And so the workaround is tonot rely on language so much. Rely on other things. Whether that’s choreography or music or a piling up of voices. Try to find the way to communicate the thing without relying on the precise word.
Kellie: You know, this is the thing I’ve often wondered about Chekhov plays when it comes to translation, and it’s more about cultural translation. I’ve often wondered if there’s something in the DNA of Chekhov plays that are inherently Russian, if there is an aspect that we’ll never quite be able to grasp as Americans.
Morgan: I mean that’s right. We don’t have the same long winters, the same political history. There’s a lot about being alive that’s really different. But, If we can’t have the same perfect understanding, we can, you know, understand…life in the country exists in America too.
Kellie: Sure. Family dynamics exist.
Morgan: Yeah, unrequited love, everywhere.
Kellie: …all over.
We exchange knowing looks
Kellie: Ok. Does this play, Minor Character, resonate differently for you now because of the pandemic than it did pre-pandemic?
Morgan: I think so. Listening to Astrov talking about his patients, just hearing about sickness and dying just sits in a different place now because it’s gotten so much closer, to all of us.
Kellie: I feel like their sense of isolation and loneliness, specifically Vanya and Sonya at the end, resonates differently for me too.
Morgan:Totally, totally. The way that they look to work as the thing that’s gonna keep them sane – I totally did that during the pandemic, I totally clung to my work, all different work, as just something to get me through the day, and I was so glad to have it.
Morgan: If we just work, if we just work, it’ll be fine. Just put your head down. Don’t think about it too much, don’t feel anything, just work.
Kellie: Ok, last question: what excites you about the Wilma producing, Yury directing, the Wilma HotHouse Acting Company performing this play?
Morgan: Yeah! I think that it’s an ensemble piece and the HotHouse is such an incredible ensemble so it’s a real golden opportunity to just see them functioning as an organism together. And then creating Minor Character was a bunch of young Americans messing around with Chekhov and now it’s in the hands of a real Russian. Yury said something to me early on about how Chekhov is revered in Russia in such a way that you couldn’t really mess with it like this. It’s too sacred. And he was kind of glad that we had hacked at it so he could have fun with it in this way. But I think that Yury’s understanding of Chekhov is much deeper and more personal than any American’s could ever be. So I think there’s something really exciting about the combustion of New Saloon’s irreverence and Yury’s Russian-ness and playfulness. I think Yury as a director really values playfulness and clown and humor. And that’s so important for this play. So I think it’s a really yummy combo.
Kellie: Me too. Thank you Morgan!
Morgan: Of course!