Improvising Chekhov With Nothing and Everything
The Hideout Theatre revives its 2014 hit at the Long Center
That's the rap on Anton Chekhov's plays, you know. Those dramas of late 19th century Russian life – The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters, The Cherry Orchard – are just bunches of people sitting around their country estates talking and sighing and doing, well, not much of anything.
It's a criticism that doesn't sit well with Peter Rogers, a local improviser of longstanding whose extensive credits have ranged from Charles Dickens Unleashed and Fakespeare to Start Trekkin' and The Joss Whedon Pajama Party. "If 'nothing happens' in Chekhov," says Rogers, "then surely nothing happens in Mad Men, and nothing happens in Lost in Translation, and nothing happens in Louie, and nothing happens in the entire mumblecore genre. Yes, we still have our plot-hammering favorites ruling the box office, but there are widely loved stories that favor the slow burn, the subtly nuanced character, and the explosion that happens after your storyteller's taken a good, long time to earn it."
Rogers has good reason to stand up for cousin Anton, as he's one of the cast members of Nothing and Everything: Improvised Anton Chekhov Plays, a show that was a smash success at the Hideout Theatre in 2014 and is being revived this weekend for four performances at the Long Center. Rogers and his all-star improv teammates – Parallelogramophonograph's Kareem Badr and Kaci Beeler, Confidence Men's Troy Miller, Your Terrific Neighbors' Courtney Hopkin, Hurly Burly's Marc Majcher, Control Issues' Cat Drago, Happily Ever After's Megan Sherrod, and Mandinka's Andrew Buck – have spent countless hours immersing themselves in Chekhov's work and world, learning about the history, culture, and day-to-day life of his Russia, not to mention the speech patterns of people from that time. ("We practice speaking sans modern/Texan verbiage, which can get tricky sometimes," says Drago.)
What they've learned is there's actually a lot happening in the playwright's work. "Chekhov patiently sets up tensions between characters early on, tensions that will simmer beneath the daily small talk and explode in later confrontations," explains Rogers. "Those tensions are realized in the smallest interactions: a friend's anecdote that you ignore, a disagreement about a newspaper story, a casual slight against how well someone does their job. It's all there, lurking between the lines of everyday life."
"His work is so oddly melancholy and hilarious at the same time," adds Drago. "I think it lends itself perfectly to improv."
That certainly proved to be the case during Nothing and Everything's debut run, and the cast is eager to show that it is again – this time for an entirely new audience. "Since improv is a relatively new art form as a discipline, many people haven't yet had the joy of discovering it," says Drago. Being at the Long Center, says Rogers, "gives us a chance to reach theatre fans who have been curious about improv but were never quite sure where to take the plunge." And the layout of the Long Center's Rollins Studio Theatre "puts the whole audience much closer to the performers, and that should give this run a more intimate and less presentational feeling," he adds. "That should be perfect for the stories that we'll be telling."
There has been a lot of discussion among local improvisers about whether their chosen art form needs somehow to be "legitimized" in the eyes of Austin's arts scene to expand its audience beyond the core crowds that patronize the Hideout, the New Movement, the Institution Theater, and ColdTowne. If so, a run of a hit show at a large, traditional performing arts venue such as the Long Center might help accomplish that. Drago, however, thinks that larger audience for improv is more a matter of time: "Just like traditional scripted theatre, I truly think there is a type of improv for everyone to enjoy. Comedy, drama, horror – these are all legitimate genres seen in scripted work, but not everyone likes every style. It's the same for improv. As improv begins to grow and expand its horizons, people will begin to see its value among other art forms, as they discover the genres of improv they enjoy. But that's already happening in Austin. And Nothing and Everything crosses a couple of different bridges, since it's funny and dramatic at the same time!"
Nothing and Everything: Improvised Anton Chekhov Plays runs Aug. 20-23, Thu.-Sat., 8pm; Sun., 7pm, in the Rollins Studio Theatre at the Long Center, 701 W. Riverside. For more information, visit www.thelongcenter.org.