150 years of Chekhov

By Luke Wilusz

Modern American theater would look very different if it wasn’t for Anton Chekhov. Although he wrote only a handful of plays in his lifetime, the Russian playwright and author had an irrefutable influence on the way theater is studied, taught and performed today. The Goodman Theatre is commemorating his influence with a season-long series of events to celebrate Chekhov’s 150th birthday.

The Goodman partnered with Columbia to present “The First-Class Passenger: 150 Years of Anton Chekhov.” The series is dedicated to the work of the renowned 19th-century writer and includes readings, panel discussions and dramatizations of his short stories in addition to two Chekhov-related productions on the Goodman’s stage.

A panel discussion called “Transforming Classics: Chekhov in the 21st Century” was intended to kick off the series on Nov. 8, with a discussion about contemporary interpretations of Chekhov’s work featuring Goodman Artistic Director Robert Falls, Chair Emeritus of Columbia’s Theater Department Sheldon Patinkin and playwright Tanya Saracho. However, the event was cancelled because of too little interest, according to Willa Taylor, Goodman’s director of education and community engagement.

“We may actually revisit that panel when we have all the players in place to talk about it and we have time to really pull an audience I think would be really interested in Chekhov,” Taylor said.

Patinkin, who still teaches in the Theater Department after stepping down in 2009, was asked to participate in the panel because of his status as a Chekhov expert at Columbia. He said Chekhov’s work has been a major influence on the world of contemporary theater.

“[Chekhov] has created an enormous number of really vivid characters,” Patinkin said. “He has a much shorter list of plays than Shakespeare, but his characters are equally vivid and deep, created in depth rather than shallowness. They are unique in that if they’re done well and to a receptive audience—and if they’re done well, the audience becomes receptive—they can make you laugh and cry.”

Patinkin said Chekhov’s focus on the subtleties of character interaction and emotions set him apart from other playwrights of his time and changed the way many people approached the art of theater.

“Chekhov started [his plays] with people [in mind], which is why a lot of people think nothing happens in his plays,” Patinkin said. “[They] deal much more with inner life, with what’s going on that’s not being said between people.”

Theater Department Chair John Green said many of Chekhov’s plays deal with characters caught up in times of social and cultural change and the ways in which they adapt to those changes.

“[Chekhov] marks a point where playwrights started to look more keenly at social issues, at political issues,” Green said. “Through his plays, he does usher in a whole [style of] theater that is looking critically at society—not that this didn’t happen before him, but I think it is more focused after him.”

Although Chekhov’s plays deal primarily with people in the Russian countryside, Green said his focus on human emotions and experiences are universal enough to appeal to other communities as well.

“Emerging theater forms and ethnic theaters—Latino theaters, African-American theaters—are adopting Chekhov as a model through which to examine social and political issues within their own cultures,” Green said.

Saracho’s upcoming production at the Goodman, “El Nogalar,” is a prime example of this—a reinterpretation of Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard” from a

Latina perspective.

“It is her look at issues of sort of living on the border as an immigrant,” Taylor said. “As a Mexican-American immigrant … examining more issues of that sort of bifurcated existence, issues of what it means to sort of own, not own or lose land when you are not of a country.”

Other programs included in the Goodman’s Chekhov series are a production of Chekhov’s “The Seagull” directed by Robert Falls—which opened Oct. 16 and runs through Nov. 21—along with educational events in conjunction with the Columbia Fiction Writing Department’s Story Week in March. The Goodman will work with Columbia students and faculty to adapt short stories by Chekhov for dramatizations and recorded readings.

Taylor said organizing the Chekhov series gave her a better understanding and appreciation of how relatable his work still is today.

“I don’t think I really appreciated how brilliant he was until we started working on this,” she said. “I think he was a really keen observer of human foibles and human ego, and I think he does really speak to contemporary audiences in a way that often productions don’t do him justice.”