When playwright and short story writer Anton Chekhov arrived on the Russian literary scene in the late 1800s, he changed the course of modern drama. According to Boomie Pedersen, artistic director of the Hamner Theater in Nelson County, Chekhov’s work meant that “theater went from being larger-than-life declamatory screaming to the back rows, to much more realistic and relationship-driven.”
Now Pederson is translating Chekhov’s realness for local audiences. Maybe even taking it up a notch. As the director of a Hamner Theater project called Chekhov Unbound, she’s expanded and experimented with the rehearsal process while developing a traveling adaptation of Chekhov’s play, Three Sisters.
“In this town,” Pedersen says, theater is “all about the performance.” But what gets lost in the shuffle of three rehearsals a week as you’re gunning toward production is “the creation of the community of the world of the play” and “what can we discover working together all the time.”
So instead of following the typical product-driven model for Three Sisters, Pedersen invited her actors to consciously take time for the show. “Not just get together, read the play, memorize your lines, and do it in six weeks, but spend time with it and see what happens.”
All told, cast members rehearsed for seven months prior to their first performance. Along the way, Pedersen also hosted open rehearsals, where anyone could come and watch, at private homes around town. “The environment affects not just the audience but the actors as well,” Pedersen says. “You’re doing your scene, and there’s an audience member sitting right on the sofa where you sit down. What does that do to you as an actor, and what does it do to the audience?”
These experiments in time and place will continue once performances begin.
“We’re doing [the show] in many different venues,” Pedersen says, including Unity of Charlottesville, private houses in Palmyra and Rappahannock, and the Firehouse Theatre in Richmond, among others. “As an actor, when you experience different audiences in different spaces, you get out of your comfort zone. You have to be present, and you have to be telling the truth.”
Telling the truth is at the heart of Three Sisters, which follows a brother and three sisters as they wrestle with love and longing.
The play has no hero, Pedersen says. “You see bits and pieces of relationships, and it all adds up to these lives. It’s very much an ensemble piece. It was actually the first play that Chekhov wrote for the Moscow Art Theatre specifically.”
Pedersen says she’s wanted to direct Three Sisters for a long time. “My mother, Carol Pedersen, studied acting in New York with a woman named Tamara Daykarhanova, who actually was in the Moscow Art Theatre, and who had been in the movie version of Three Sisters, directed by Laurence Olivier many years ago,” she says. “Chekhov is someone that my mother uses in her teaching all the time, because he is so good for actors. My mom is getting older, and she also has early-stage Alzheimer’s. I really wanted to do something that she could be connected to.”
To create Chekhov Unbound, Pedersen worked with Doug Grissom, a playwright and teacher at UVA, to adapt the show for local audiences. She also cast older actors in traditionally youthful roles to shine a metatheatrical light on ageism. Though none of Chekhov’s sisters are above the age of 30, Pedersen says “the things they experience in terms of yearning, like ‘Nothing’s ever turning out right. I want to find love.’ do not change as you get older. They get more and more acute.”
Although the show was written over a hundred years ago, Pedersen believes many themes are relevant to contemporary audiences. “So much of what the play is about is the notion of, ‘Who am I in this world right now?’ With the political situation the way it is, and global warming, everything is dire. We’re asking those same questions. We all have the need to figure out why we do what we do and what the value is of what we’re doing.”
Much of Three Sisters centers on the idea of ‘becoming’—people evolving into who they will be. Through Pedersen’s experimental process, the show’s performers are doing the same.
“They’ve discovered where their lives differ and where they are in parallel with their characters,” she says. “The other day, one of my actresses said, ‘Oh, I just discovered that my character doesn’t think very highly of her husband. She pays no attention to him.’ This came up because the actress hadn’t heard a line that her character’s husband had been saying. She discovered that she wasn’t listening.”
Pedersen believes that taking time and space to discover who we are becoming has tremendous value. “If we don’t slow down and pay attention to what we have now, we may never know. We won’t know what we’ve lost.”