BWW Interview: Heather Chesley Talks Anna Karenina
Director Heather Chesley is about to open a rare revival of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina at Actors Co-op on Febrary 8. In our conversation, she talks in depth about the play and why it is rarely seen.
Why did Actors Co-op select Anna Karenina? Is it because it is so rarely if ever done?
This show is about two people who struggle to understand their place in the universe, their connection to other people & their purpose in life. Both Anna Karenina and Konstantin Levin are in a crisis of faith. They are critical of social norms and class systems, yet they both take advantage of their place in it. At times, they make their own rules, in order to justify their actions; and those actions send them into a moral spiral and self made solitary confinement. They doubt God's existence and are rejected at points by the church. This story forces Anna and Levin to work hard at living truthfully. They sacrifice so much, and the outcome for both is drastically different.
I think this story holds a mirror up to the human experience. It is a back and forth of faith and doubt. It seems perfect for Actors Co-op in that way.
What challenges do you face directing this piece?
In Tolstoy's novel Anna Levin meet one time. At first look, Leo Tolstoy created two seemingly separate stories. Upon closer look, the decisions those two people make in their separate journeys, forever link them together. It is a gorgeous illustration of the deep and sometimes unconscious connection between human beings.
Adaptor Helen Edmundson turned this story on its ear. We open our play in "another place". Levin comes upon Anna Karenina, she is visiting or re-living moments in her life. She asks him, "What are you doing here? This is my story." and he responds, "Its seems it is mine." Both characters see into each other's memories and experience the effects their choices have on each other. In this play, Levin & Anna serve as judge, jury, conscience, friend & confident to one another. They both seek to understand why their stories are connected.
The play brings each character's subtext to the stage. Their thoughts are sometimes put in action, as if they are calling these moments to mind. At one point, one character breaks the fourth wall directly to address our audience. The world of this play functions on a supernatural level. I love that- it is what drew me to the piece, and it is definitely a challenge to bring that to life.
Are you a great Tolstoy fan? For what reasons?
I am a new Tolstoy fan! Helen Edmunson's adaptation is what brought me back to Tolstoy. I read Anna Karenina when I was fifteen, but I think I was not able, or I was uninterested, in looking at the story beyond Anna's love triangle. Fifteen year old Heather was angry that Anna was forced into marriage so young. I was mortified that she was outcast for falling in love and I was angry at society for forcing her into her deep depression.
That said-when I read the play, I thought "Who- is this Levin guy?" It makes me laugh to think of it now. I really didn't remember.
I was so excited by Edmundson's telling of the story. So there I was coming back to the novel, twenty-five years later and I admit, I fell in love with Levin. Levin participated in the world Anna is "condemned" by and he chooses to reject it. He seeks a simpler way of life. And while he does not get everything he wants, he seeks to better himself, to better understand the people in his world.
When you let yourself read up on Leo Tolstoy and the questions he struggled with, it is easy to see him in Levin's story. I think it is safe to say, Edmundson and Levin have made me a Tolstoy fan.
What is the message of the play? Does it resonate in today's world?
I think this play tells us that the decisions we make, small and large have an effect on the world around us. What we do causes a ripple effect on the world at large.
The play shows us the good, bad and ugly of human nature. It looks deep into depression, and yet remains hopeful. It reminds us, while in times of great darkness, we are connected; at times of great hope, we are also connected. Perhaps if we can continue to reach out to one another, we might find our place and our purpose.
Historically Anna was a novel first. When was it adapted for the stage? Why do you think it is hardly ever performed?
The novel is this gorgeous nine hundred page window into 19th Century Russia. There is so much detail in Leo Tolstoy's story telling. I imagine it an incredible challenge to adapt this story to the stage. What details do you let go of? How do you stay true to Tolstoy's world?
Edmundson adapted this play in 1992. While Tolstoy's voice is anchoring this play, the relationship between Levin & Anna is entirely Edmundson's. It moves quickly as if we are on a ride going through moments in their lives.
The play doesn't finish the novel. We end before the book. We end with more questions than we began with- my favorite kind of storytelling.
The characters and their manners of course are fascinating to behold. Do you find Tolstoy in any way similar to Chekhov? One was a novelist, the other a playwright, but I mean in terms of the universality of the people they explore.
Well, Tolstoy and Chekhov had a personal relationship. They were friends. Some say that Tolstoy treated Chekhov like a son, but he was very critical of Chekhov's plays! I think Tolstoy would tell you, he was nothing like Chekhov.
From "Memories" in the The Book of Life, Peter Gnedich recalls Chekhov's account of his relationship with Leo Tolstoy. Tolstoy said to Chekhov,
"A playwright should take the theater-goer by the hand, and lead him in the direction he wants him to go. And where can I follow your character? To the couch in the living-room and back-because your character has no other place to go."
I admit, I think Tolstoy is unfair to Chekhov, but I see his point. Tolstoy wanted to tell stories that went beyond the home front, that put Russian society, not just the individual, in conflict. He had questions about Fate and the universe and God he wanted to ask.
Both men are wonderful writers of course. They write characters that love, win and lose. In that way, both writers bring us very real characters, very relatable people.
They also write characters that hide quite a bit. From an artist's perspective, it is always fun to uncover the subtext.
What is the audience takeaway in your opinion?
I hope the audience leaves intrigued by our connection to one another. Our decisions, the way we talk, the way we support, or do not support each other, effects the world we live in and the people who live in it.
Do you wish to add anything about the cast and working on the project?
This cast is just the best group of people. This design team too-a dream team! This play exists in 19th Century Russia, but it also exists somewhere out of our understanding. On a show like this, all you can ask for is collaboration, and a whole lot of trust. Actors Co-op has always been a place full of people who want to work and "play" together. We are working on a difficult show that goes to a lot of dark places- but boy have the rehearsals been full of laughs. I'm grateful for the team's willingness to take risks, and enjoy taking them.
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