Caroline Neff Talks Chekhov

Doesnt this remind you of life with your sister? my friend asked. Onstage, three corseted actresses clung to each other, sobbing, philosophizing and exchanging barbs. My friend was joking of course, pointing out the melodrama inherent in Chekhovs Three Sisters, but shed unwittingly identified the source of the playwrights strength and staying power. So what if his work is punctuated by suicide attempts and fatal duels? Blame my Russian ancestors, but I absolutely relate. Lifes like that sometimes and its Chekhovs ability to harness lifes heartbreaking absurdity that has kept his work relevant for over one hundred years.

Our Town spoke with Three Sisters actress Caroline Neff about Steppenwolfs solid production and Chekhovs dexterity concerning the union of pathos and mundanity.

Our Town Youre from Texas. Why head to Chicago rather than one of the coasts?

Caroline Neff When I moved here at nineteen, I knew someone that lived here and Columbia had accepted me [but] as I get older, it makes more sense why Chicago was the place I landed. I stay because there is an integrity that I cherish and hope that I do justice to. The level of work here is unprecedented. There is a community of people who essentially work two full time jobs (day job plus theater job) because they love it and they think it’s important. That kind of dedication is really breathtaking and it compels everyone in the community to work harder.

OT How do you go about breaking down a script?

CN Breaking down a script is tricky. Everyone has their own methods and mine is by no means the “right” way. If I’m not careful, I will read, and re-read a script that I’m working on until I’ve cemented a ton of decisions, making it difficult to change those opinions once I’m in a rehearsal room with the director and the cast. So I try to do the technical elements of it, like learning my lines without imbuing it with anything until I’ve sat down and read it with the group. I always try to make choices that I believe in, but that I can change.

OT What sort of work do you do to create a character?

CN I think there is a part of a well written character that anyone can identify with, so that’s the first thing I look for. What about this person can I identify with, from the type of clothing they wear to their reactions to certain situations. We’ve all made good and bad decisions, so finding where those come from can be really universal and incredibly cathartic.A lot of creating a character just comes from rehearsal time though, finding the modes of interaction that are successful with the other people in the room, but sometimes, even though you do all the work creating the character in your rehearsal room, the identity can be solidified with the things your designers put you in. The lighting, costumes, set and sound can inform your choices like crazy. In Three Sisters, it is hard not to be aware of the corset which changes the movement, so I can’t make the same physical decision that I would were I in something different.

OT Whats been most challenging about Three Sisters?

CN Other than the corset? Chekov is really scary territory. The text can go from mundane conversation to really heightened emotion very quickly so finding where that lands in an honest place is hard, and while that happens in real life all the time, for whatever reason seeing it on a piece of paper is really daunting.

OT Most interesting?

CN It has been wildly interesting seeing the ways Chekhov was writing to real life. He’s writing at the turn of the century in Russia, pre-Bolshevik, and somehow has created a world that is so easily identifiable with today. I’ve heard people say that in Three Sisters, everything happens and nothing happens, and it’s so absolutely true. I go through life with everything and nothing happening at once, and it’s sad and funny and frustrating. Chekhov was just genius enough to be able to document it.

OT Performing a show night after night, how do you stay engaged?

CN I had someone comment to me the other night about how authentic the tears were, and I said that if you lost everything every night, you’d cry too. It is so easy to be swept away with the action that’s happening on stage, especially for Irina. She starts as a young optimist, hoping and believing that everything will turn out for the best, but, as we all know, things rarely turn out the way you plan.

OT What’s your favorite line from the play and why?

CN Does it have to be my own? If it were mine, I might say it’s “I feel like I’m sailing across a wide sky like a big, floating white bird. Why is that?” because it is so indicative of what Irina thinks throughout the course of the play. She’s so overwhelmed by her feelings and she wants an explanation. If it were in the whole play, it might be Vershinin’s line “In 200 years, life on earth with be unbearably beautiful. That’s what we’re waiting for. That’s what we’re making.” It makes the things we do now seem a little more important, doesn’t it?

Three Sisters runs through August 26th. To purchase tickets go here.

A writer with an MFA in Creative Writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sarah Terez Rosenblum freelances for a number of web sites and print publications. Her debut novel, Herself When Shes Missing,” (Soft Skull press) is available for pre-order here. She is also a figure model, Spinning instructor and teacher at Chicagos StoryStudio. Inevitably one day she will find herself lecturing naked on a spinning bike. She’s kind of looking forward to it actually.

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