Autumn Roses - The Vanya Project - Blog 1 on a play in progress
Oct 04, 2007
- First Buds - 7/4/07
- Source Material - 9/25/07
- Naming - 9/26/07
- Challenge 1 - 9/28/07
- The Gun - 10/4/07
One play done its first stage of development, and another is already knocking on the door...
More on how all that comes together here...
Autumn Roses - The Vanya Project - First Buds
So, I'd been noodling with the idea of what's next after Love's Prick
One thing is the gays in the military play - Leave (The Surface of the World) which languishes in need of a major overhaul.
But, to be blunt, I also need something new. Leave's had its moment in the sun. It is no longer considered grant bait.
Since playing around with "As You Like It" provided such a rich and fertile breeding ground for a play (or two, or four), I wondered, "Well, is there another play you're quite fond of that you wouldn't mind picking through and re-imagining for a year or so?"
The answer came almost immediately.
Anton Chekhov's "Uncle Vanya"
So I got out my copy of the script, my DVD of "Vanya On 42nd Street," and when I learned that TRP would be doing a production, I made sure to set aside an afternoon on my schedule to go and see the play live again recently, right in the middle of my own run.
One other thing that had been bugging me recently was the glaring lack of material for two or more women together in the same scene in my work.
Oh, there are female characters. But they just don't hang out and talke to each other. The scenes that might be pulled out for posting on my website end up being largely scenes between men and women, or two men. Plenty of female monologues, but even there, the preponderance of material skews male.
Not a huge surprise. I'm a guy. I'm interested in seeing more gay stories onstage, and so my imagination goes first to putting two men together. It seems to be the quickest way to get people to pay attention. It was bound to tip the scales.
So I thought it was time to be deliberate. The Vanya project would be largely female.
Roles that had originally been male - Vanya, the doctor, the professor, Waffles - they'd all become female roles.
And many of the female roles - the nurse, the matriarch, Sonya - would remain female.
My immediate thought as an exception would be to flip gender on its head the opposite direction and make the Yelena character - the young second spouse of the professor, a young male role.
Gotta be careful that it doesn't become a play where women claw each other all to get to a cute young guy - but that was an element of the original that made the men seem a bit ridiculous, so maybe turnabout's fair play. Stuff to chew on.
And the day after Love's Prick closes, I get the following email...
"First, my apologies if you no longer live in Minneapolis, if you hate Chekhov, and especially if I accidentally I emailed you twice. Guess that means I love you more than the others!
Here’s the skinny - Genevieve Bennett, an amazing director who also happens to be extremely organized and a gem to work with—is curating the first ever all-inclusive Twin Cities Chekhov Festival!!!!
The Advisory Board is seeking proposals from artists of all disciplines—dance, theater, performance, visual, and film art, seriously whatever, as long as it sounds like you have a cohesiveness to your idea.
We are interested in new interpretations, adaptations, and original multi-disciplinary works based on or derived from Chekhov. Feel free to stage one of his plays, if you like. Help us breathe new life into Chekhov's dramas, comedies, and short stories!
Proposal guidelines are here: http://xrl.us/guidelines (Link to www.tctheatreandfilm.org)
What the Festival Provides -
- A stipend to assist with production costs.
- Assistance with rights and royalty fees (if applicable)
- Publicity (postcards, schedules, press releases, ads, etc.)
- Rehearsal space at Bryant Lake Bowl (as available)
- Technical personnel and support
- Feedback sessions with other festival presenters
- 40% of your ticket revenue.
I believe she has also worked out a sweet deal with Equity.
For more info or to submit a proposal, visit
or contact Genevieve directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or 612.770.5349.
Proposals are due Aug. 15th.
Please feel free to forward this message to others you think might be interested!"
Son of a bitch.
Wednesday, July 4, 2007 at 12:12 PM
Autumn Roses - Source Material
I never thought I’d hear myself say this, but Shakespeare is easy.
Tackling “As You Like It,” as daunting as it still is as I push into the major rewrite phase, had one major advantage that I didn’t track on until I tried to dig into “Uncle Vanya.”
Oh, Vanya has plot. But Vanya is largely ideas and character.
The Forest of Arden had all kinds of political intrigue, multiple couplings and uncouplings, cross-dressing, sibling rivalry, clowns, songs, even a lion.
Turn of the last century Russia? They’re all heroes, they’re all villains. You tip anybody too much in any one direction and it upsets the whole balance of the play.
Just ran into the first person the other day to tell me, in response to my project, “I’m sorry, but I hate Uncle Vanya.”
Most everybody else when I mentioned Vanya ended up delightfully surprising me by saying, “Oh, I LOVE that play!”
To be honest, I used to hate Chekhov. Well, hate’s a strong word. Really, I just didn’t get Chekhov. And I hadn’t seen any good productions. The productions that buy into the whole “I’m so bored. This is awful” attitude that skates over the surface of the lines in so many of the plays doomed me to seeing plays about a bunch of people who thought they had awful lives and seemed to do nothing to change them. I wanted to like Chekhov. I mean, I liked Chekhov the character on the original Star Trek, I wanted to like the playwright. (Yes, that’s the way my mind worked when I was younger. New interests came from unexpected sources.) But I didn’t get it.
Then the first thing out of the gate when I arrived in grad school at the Yale School of Drama as a stage manager, I was assigned a production with a third-year director and many of his third-year acting compatriots doing - “Uncle Vanya.” This wasn’t even a Chekhov play I was familiar with. Cherry Orchard, Three Sisters, The Seagull - sure, I’d heard of, seen or read them. But Uncle Vanya? I thought I was in deep trouble.
I was told it would have been the director’s final thesis project if it hadn’t been for a collaboration with a gifted playwright friend which took that slot instead. So this was a really labor of love for him, a secondary thesis. It was a big deal. These were people that knew and loved Chekhov. And with the script in their hands, I finally began to understand him.
Because it was funny.
How did I miss that Chekhov was funny?
Also, as a formerly geeky-looking, closeted gay boy in high school (and let’s face it, colege, better groomed but still repressed) constantly transfixed by my more athletically gifted friends, the unrequited love affairs that were bouncing all over the place in the play deeply moved me - Vanya for Yelena, Sonya for Doctor Astrov, the Doctor for Yelena and she for him (unrequited there perhaps mostly because she was married, I’ll grant you - all the longing, none of the nerve for follow-through)
The play was full of hope and longing and deep feeling and humor.
A theater professor of mine was fond of saying about Chekhov’s plays...
“Nothing happens, but the world changes.”
These plays are about the small moments that open a person up, turn a family inside out, reverse fortunes.
These were stories that existed in a world just before the communist revolution was about to change everyone’s way of life in this country forever.
It was sunset, but they didn’t know it.
Just like the end of Vanya, summer was over, and autumn was coming. To be followed by a harsher winter than anyone imagined.
Could the argument be made that we’re teetering on the edge of the end of an empire these days? Sure. It’s not a stretch.
The character of the doctor was often heard giving voice to the question of what people would be like in a hundred years, what would they think of the people that came a hundred years before them.
Here we are, over a hundred years later, and the play still calls out to us.
The doctor’s concern for the vanishing forest, taking the wildlife off with it, is an ever growing concern today. The idea of saving the environment, of planting a tree and thus having some stake in the future happiness of the world, is just as seductive and compelling today.
The widening gap between the classes, the rich and poor, is ever with us, and just as in Vanya, it seems the leaders of the society can’t relate to or understand the problems of the poor, the notion of having to do without.
Unrequited love is my stock in trade as a writer across many of my plays. The notion of betrayals of the heart isn’t so hard to comprehend.
Those actors at Yale taught me how to read into a script, to see the emotional equations just below the surface and how they color the words and actions of the characters. The director acquainted me with the practice of calling them all actors - male and female. They all did the same hard work, they all got the same title. “If someone is being difficult, you’ll hear me refer to her as an actress, and you’ll know what I mean. If they bring their talent and commitment and no offstage drama, they’re all actors to me.”
Actors go digging. They don’t want it all on the surface. No one says exactly what they mean. That’s what subtext is for. Chekhov, that director and those actors made me a better writer. Trim it all away. Leave just the basic words. Any actor worth their salt can figure it out, if the meat is under there. If they can’t find it, or they have questions, you have some work to do. Trust the actor. Give them just what they need to solve the puzzle, don’t overdo. Don’t hand it to them.
Occupational hazard, in this case a treat, of being a stage manager and living with a script day in and day out for weeks on end - the words become a part of you. Those scenes, those images, those characters, those feelings - they became ingrained on my conscious and unconscious mind.
A couple of years later, when the film “Vanya on 42nd Street” appeared, watching a completely different cast take on that text, in the ruins of a once great theater space, was like catching up with old friends. When building up my DVD collection recently, I went in search of the film and happily found it. Just watched it, or rather reveled in it, again a few weeks ago.
So, having fun last year playing in the fields of Shakespeare and the themes, archetypes and plot points of one play I loved so well, as the first stage of that process drew to a close, I started thinking of other scripts that might hold the seeds of inspiration for new stories.
“Uncle Vanya” immediately leapt to mind.
How to realize the idea, however, is coming much more slowly.
One challenge I laid out for myself - the gender of the characters would be switched around a bit, so that nearly all the roles were roles for women. The one exception would be the young trophy wife Yelena. That would now be a young trophy husband. Otherwise, the female roles would remain female, and the male roles of Vanya, the doctor, the professor, and Waffles, would also become female.
It seems the body of my work doesn’t have nearly as many roles for women as for men. And even fewer scenes just between two or more women. They have monologues, they have scenes with men, but not with each other. It wasn’t by design, it just happened. Perhaps the women naturally understand each other and don’t need to speak at length in these plays. Maybe the men need more help in understanding.
I figured if the play was nearly all women, scenes between women would be the natural result.
But I don’t want it just to be transposing Vanya, or putting the characters in drag, so to speak. It needs a different story, perhaps more than one, with the same concerns.
What that story is, I still haven’t figured out.
The title, for now, is Autumn Roses, from a line of Vanya’s...
“...as a peace offering ...an offering of peace. I’m going to present you with a bouquet of roses, which flower I have had the foresight to’ve obtained this morning. Autumn roses. Sad roses. For you.”
And off he goes to gather them.
“...sad autumn roses...” says Sonya
“Already September. How are we to live through one more winter here? Where is the doctor?” asks Yelena.
Having lived over sixteen years now in Minnesota, and growing up in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, I’ve had my share of winters - and autumns.
When Vanya returns with those roses, he’ll find Yelena in the doctor’s arms, that bombshell just the first of many that cause him to finally unravel and speak his mind against the inertia that’s grabbed hold of them all.
If I were mischievous, one or several of the characters would actually be named Rose, but no, I’ll let it be a metaphor that could light on any one of the cast of characters.
are evocative enough as words and images, together and separately, to get the mind going. Might as well let them have free reign.
Now, the actual script underneath that title, that proved a lot trickier than I expected.
Like I said, Shakespeare, by comparison, is looking easy.
Tuesday, September 25, 2007 at 7:25 AM
Autumn Roses - Naming
There are certain crutches I return to when starting any play. One of them is my baby-naming books.
Back when I was working at a bookstore part-time, I used my time stocking and perusing the shelves to find a couple of naming books I thought I could make good use of. The two I use are part of the same series, one more of a dictionary of select names, with history, meaning and related names as part of each mini-essay - separated out into a girls section and a boys section. The other, and the one I flip through most frequently, has all kinds of funky themed chapters dissecting naming trends - names currently so overused they’re on their way out, ones out of vogue that are staging a comeback, and ones that are pretty much hopeless. There are lists of names associated with strength, beauty, intelligence, and so on. There are chapters devoted to the names of different cultures, religions, celebrities and even soap operas. There’s an overview of top ten names by decade here in our country. And there’s a handy index in back with all the names listed alphabetically, and the two or three places where they crop up throughout the book for discussion.
For these characters, I felt a need to go for some more old-fashioned names. Still not entirely sure why. Maybe the whole idea of an era coming to an end, wanting to invoke a sense of the past.
Still not entirely committed to these, but for now, it keeps me from calling the characters Woman #1, #2, #3, and so on. Also not sure that I need a companion name for each character from the original, as some may be able to be combined in their function, depending on the stories told. As it now stands, I wrote down the list of character names from Uncle Vanya and then started noodling around for names I hadn’t already used recently on other projects.
Vanya - Constance (a little on the nose, so that’s the most likely candidate for change)
Sonya - Olive (which I wrestled with due to Popeye, martinis, and a particular shade of green, still wobbling on that one, too)
Doctor Astrov - Esther (the Biblical nature of it worried me, but then in reviewing the source, it seemed like a good fit after all - and I like going for similar sounds)
The Professor - Gwendolyn
Vanya’s Mother - Prudence (again, a little too on the nose - names that are tied to words can be a mixed blessing. You get the added resonance, but you also get the straitjacket. We’ll see.)
Maid (there are several servant characters but I’m going to look at collapsing them all into one, perhaps doing away with them entirely - though the exploration of class and the haves and have-nots may make the serving role an important one - for now, a place holder name) - Pearl (again, on the nose, plus being a word, and the phrase “pearls of wisdom” or “pearls before swine” come way too easily to mind)
Waffles - Muriel - this, I think, is a lovely fit
As for the trophy husband replacing trophy wife Yelena, I’m still torn. I’ve already considered and discarded Leo (too much like the lion of the zodiac), and Jonah (he in the belly of the whale). There are a couple of other names I quite like, but I’m thinking it’s because they are tied to very specific people I’m fond of. Rather than muddy the issue and give the character one of their names, it might be better just to be inspired by them as I write, and find another suitable title.
For now, trophy husband is still nameless.
Wednesday, September 26, 2007 at 6:56 AM
Autumn Roses - Challenge 1
The lack of a story to hang things on was beginning to quite literally hang me up. So, rather than try to force story and character at the same time, just wanting to get going somehow, any how, I sat back for a minute to see what the newly named characters might want to do.
Round about week two of my frustration, in preparation for the writing group meeting, our host sent out the writing challenge. These are exercises that members of the biweekly writing group I belong to put out for each other, to help stimulate writing projects. If someone’s already working on a play, no problem, just work on that. But if you’re between projects, or stuck on something, just to keep the writing muscles active, the host whose house we’ll be meeting at sends out a message with something for people to try.
Often it takes the form of a short list of a couple of items to somehow be included in a scene. It’s normally pretty open to interpretation.
This time the host gave us the following --
- a sunflower in bloom
- an unfinished phone call
- a feeling of uncertainty
All of which seemed perfectly in keeping with the general mood I was going for with the Vanya project, so I welcomed a little jumpstart. Sometimes all you need are a couple of random details, just so you’re not facing a completely blank page or screen as you start from scratch.
In doing a little research, I found some interesting poems on sunflowers by Blake and Ginsberg, and the handy metaphorical fact that when they’re in the bud stage, sunflowers follow the sun through the sky from east to west during the day. After they bloom, they’re stuck facing east, always waiting for the next sunrise.
Still, the strange thing was that the characters didn’t want to be in a scene. They didn’t want to talk to each other, perhaps because I hadn’t defined them yet. They were, however, willing to speak solo. So, not being one for writing monologues much anymore, I found myself starting the writing process of this play by writing five monologues - each one for a different character.
At first, I wasn’t even sure which character was saying what. I just let loose on the larger themes of the play and tried to ground them in some personal specificity -
saving the environment and the fear it might be too late,
the fear of the poor rising up and taking what they want in return for society ignoring them more and more each day,
the slippery notion of responsibility for betrayal in love,
the struggle to look for beauty below the surface of our skin,
the little things that signal you’re getting older - like people not really noticing you on the street anymore
In the hands of good actors, the speeches really went over quite well at the group meeting.
Now I just have to figure out what to do next.
The monologues, assigned to characters, have helped those characters begin to take shape.
Now I just need to get them in the same room somehow, and talking to each other.
Friday, September 28, 2007 at 7:23 AM
Autumn Roses - The Gun
"I won't find it fantastic, or think it absurd,
When the gun in the first act, goes off in the third,
'Cause it's rare that you ever know what to expect
From a guy made of corpses with bolts in his neck."
- Aimee Mann, "Frankenstein"
Was it Chekhov who introduced that storytelling adage, "If you introduce a gun into the play in the first act, by the end of third act it someone must fire it."?
No matter. In the play Uncle Vanya, there's a gun.
Vanya fires twice at his rival the Professor, chasing him through the house - missing, both times.
Though he later feels suicidal, he never thinks to use the gun on himself. It's an overdose of stolen medicine that he plots to use to do himself in.
Thinking on it, I don't think I've ever had a gun in one of my plays. Not that was integral to the action.
Death has always seemed so final, it felt like cheating.
And I'm not a violent person, and violence hasn't really touched my life. I've been lucky.
The deaths that surface in my life don't seem to be sudden ones.
If you're going to pay homage to Uncle Vanya, there's gotta be a gun - mishandled, misfired, but a gun nonetheless.
What drives a person to fire a gun at another person, knowing they could kill them?
What drives a person to want to kill another person?
What drives a person to want to kill themselves?
This is scarier territory than I've ventured into before.
Thankfully, due to the writing group, another challenge came along...
Write a monologue
(again with the monologues...)
in which a character reveals a deeply personal secret
Then write a brief scene set on or near a means of transportation - ferry, car, subway, airplane, spaceship, etc -
(oh man, he had to say spaceship...)
(VANYA... IN... SPAAAACE!!)
in which that character tries not to reveal their secret to someone else
end the scene with a question
So what do I do?
The first instinct is to write a monologue in which a person professes their secret love for someone else.
But I always do that.
What about the gun, I thought?
So now the monologue is about the fact that the person has a gun, and they want to use it. They just can't decide whether to use it on someone else, or themself.
The brief scene becomes an escalating series of scenes, between that person and the potential target of their gun.
The gun never appears. But it might.
The scenes find the target always just on the verge of leaving for somewhere, anywhere else.
A little red wagon, a horse, a ferry, a train, a car, a subway, a plane
A question. A series of questions.
Very few of them answered.
But at least the gun, and some of the reasons for it, have wandered onstage.
Thursday, October 4, 2007 at 9:21 AM