Last summer, Quotidian Theatre Company produced A Little Trick, a memory play about lost love adapted from Chekhov’s short story of the same name. The short play, directed by Stephanie Mumford and featuring Jonathan Feuer, Sara Dabney Tisdale, and Christine Kharazian, can now be seen in its entirety on YouTube:
Below is the 2012 A Little Trick rehearsal blog post written by Sara Dabney Tisdale, who played Nadya in the piece:
My character Nadya in Quotidian’s upcoming production of A Little Trick has a total of 11 lines during the course of the play – fewer if you’re just counting the number of times she speaks. Jack Sbarbori and Stephanie Mumford’s adaptation of this short story by Anton Chekhov is built on a long monologue comprising the memories of a narrator (played by Jonathan Feuer) who recalls a special relationship he had with a certain girl during his youth. Because my role in this story is one in which I am silent the majority of the time, I have to make every line count. I also have to rely on gestures, facial expressions and other movements to convey Nadya’s thoughts and feelings both to the narrator and to the audience.
But even though I speak very few words, I’ve found myself relying more and more on the text of the play to create Nadya’s character, because many of the narrator’s lines are descriptions of Nadya’s face, body, and physicality. Unlike my typical approach to a role, I’ve found myself working more and more from the outside in for this piece, using Chekhov and the narrator’s outward descriptions to motivate Nadya’s internal monologue (or subtext, the word many actors use to refer to the unspoken thoughts of their characters).
To give a taste of the clues I used from the text without giving too much of the play away, here are some of the key descriptions that I found crucial to creating Nadya’s character:
• “When I only suggested sitting on the sled, she looked down, her heart sank, her breathing stopped…”
• “And it was written on her face that she herself did not know if she had heard something or not…”
• “It seemed that her entire being, even down to her muff and hood, expressed her total bewilderment…”
Even though Nadya speaks only occasionally in response to the narrator and the action of the story, those of us working on the piece during rehearsal – myself, Jonathan, and our director Stephanie Mumford – all agreed from the beginning that Nadya was a partner in the piece, not a prop or supporting player, and that her relationship with the narrator relied just as much on Jonathan’s and my interplay as actors as it did on the narrator’s words.
As such, from our first rehearsal in early June, Jonathan and I started working on our physical partnership, which over the course of the play comprises ice-skating, sledding, and more. We began with some video inspiration Stephanie had sent us, a clip of the ballet Les Patineurs, or The Skaters, by British choreographer Frederick Ashton. The ballet, a light and fun piece set to music by Giacomo Meyerbeer and Constant Lambert and featuring group, soloist, and pair “skaters” dancing in soft ballet slippers and pointe shoes, seems to capture all the physical ways that ice-skating can be represented and pantomimed without actual ice. I danced and performed with a professional ballet training program as a child and teenager, so I found myself especially excited about incorporating as many of these dance elements as possible. We made a list of the movements we’d like to adapt for our own piece and looked for places throughout the rehearsal process where we might use these various gestures to create the action of the story.
We found ourselves adapting our movement often as we worked on the piece from an acting standpoint. How might multiple sled rides down a mountain be expressed differently to mirror the changing relationship between the narrator and Nadya before, during, and after each ride? How do the given circumstances of our play’s environment – the cold of winter, the harsh wind that hits our faces when we go sledding, the warmth of spring sunshine – affect our characters and their relationship? Stephanie often referred to my role as similar to those portrayed by silent screen actors – a mostly-defunct profession that I’m respecting more and more as I work on the nuances of Nadya’s physicality.
The final challenge this week and next week, as we wrap up rehearsals and move into the performance space at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, is pairing the movement we’ve developed so far with a new and challenging stimulus: the presence of our lovely violinist, Christine Kharazian! Christine will be playing solo pieces for violin to accompany the words and action of our play – including beautiful selections from Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. Pairing our acting with live music has proved challenging, but I also think it will keep our interactions fresh in our upcoming performances. Christine, Stephanie, Jonathan, and I are now focusing on how the music can enhance and inform our acting choices; where exactly to begin and end each musical phrase so that it propels the story without drowning it out; and how, even with set music, we as actors and musicians can remain open and sensitive to the changing dynamics of live performance.
A lot will happen in the next week before our opening on Friday, July 20. I’m not sure if it’s me, Nadya, or the narrator speaking here, but I know it’s going to be a wild ride!