Arts interview

Dear Uncle, there’s madness afoot

The Tech sits down with director Anna Kohler for all the juicy details on Dramashop’s new production

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Nora H. Mallory ’12 and Jeffry Disko ’10 perform in the MIT Dramashop’s production of “My Uncle,” based on the play “Uncle Vanya” by Anton Chekhov. In addition to performing last weekend, MIT Dramashop will show the play this upcoming Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 8 p.m. in Walker Memorial.
Courtesy of MIT Dramashop

My Uncle

Directed by Anna Kohler

February 9–11, 16–18, 2012
8 p.m.

Pritchett Dining, Walker Memorial

Last week, The Tech sat down with Anna Kohler, Senior Lecturer in MIT’s Musical and Theater Arts Department, who is directing MIT Dramashop’s most recent production, My Uncle, a reimagination of Anton Chekhov’s classic 1897 play Uncle Vanya, which explores the ideas of wasted life, frustrated desire, and alienation in the setting of a Russian country estate. But My Uncle transports us into the frame of a mental asylum: The MIT student actors are mental patients who, as part of a “Drama Therapy” session, put on a stunning version of Uncle Vanya where Chekhov’s characters are played by two actors each and where the dramatic illusion is periodically interrupted by reminders of the hospital.

The Tech: Did you plan to make My Uncle, or was the production originally intended to be Uncle Vanya?

Anna Kohler: It was originally intended to be My Uncle. I was making plans to slightly adapt it and effectuate certain changes upon the script, putting in a different setting. The reason why it became My Uncle was because at the very beginning of conceiving the play I was planning to make the main focus Sonya, the young woman who is telling the story of her uncle. But it started to transform, informed by the fact that I worked with the people that I was working with. It actually came to revert back to a more original version of Uncle Vanya. The idea of basing it in a mental institution or something came from starting to read the play with the students, because one of [their] first observations was, “God, these people are so depressed, they all have one psychological malfunction or another. It would make sense if they were in some kind of … in treatment, some kind of therapy.” Somebody said, “They should be on meds,” because that’s what we think nowadays. But when Chekhov wrote the play, there was no such thing, as…

TT: As a mental asylum?

AK: Mental asylums, yes, but no therapy, no mood enhancers, no medication of that kind. So it became a very interesting concept, because, to me, the most interesting aspect of making plays is not to bring the people who work on the play close to the play, but to bring the play to the people, so that there’s a connection being made, between who the people are who are actually performing the play, as in MIT students, and what the play is. So to me it’s not interesting to try and pretend that, because one of the things that people could say is “Why on earth do Uncle Vanya with a cast of twenty-year-olds —”

TT: Or the professor, who’s sixty-five?

AK: Yes, who’s old and getting disillusioned, exactly. To me, it’s of absolutely no interest: we all work on walking like old people, put on beards and gray hair wigs, to pretend to be old. That would be doing the play a disservice. What’s interesting is to find a way to make the play about the people who are making it, and about the people who are actually watching it. In that way, I brought it close to us, which made the fact that the professor is actually a [thirty-year-old] graduate student - old in comparison to everybody who’s still currently [an undergraduate] at MIT.

TT: It’s interesting that the idea of setting it an asylum with all the medications sprang up naturally, because it’s an unnatural idea to impose on a Chekhov play.

AK: Well, I don’t know if I agree completely, but — yes, to see how it came as a completely natural comment on the play, from a person who is a contemporary, who is living now, in the twenty-first century, as opposed to then, when Chekhov was alive. As I said before, there are really two different schools of thinking. The one thinks you have to historically recreate plays, make them be how they were when they were first written. The other says that the author’s intention is really that you refresh the play, bring it to the present, because that’s why he wrote it when he wrote it. The traditional theater scene in Russia when Chekhov wrote this play was very much against him. They thought he was way too modern. Only when he found Konstantin Stanislavsky, an avant-garde and very progressive theater director for his time, [were his plays] brought out with success. So it stands to reason that Chekhov wanted his plays to be modern, to be relevant. Hence my feeling that it is absolutely necessary to make Uncle Vanya relevant for now and for here.

TT: In the parts where the doubles are performing the same scene, but at different times and with totally different emotion intentions: did you plan that? Did the acts come to you with different ideas? For example, in one scene, Vanya is yelling and the other is speaking almost at a whisper.

AK: The doubling effect was interesting because I see the characters in the play as archetypes. They are, simply, all of us. Uncle Vanya is reflected in all of us. It’s a side of myself that I don’t like very much, but I know it very well, my Uncle Vanya side. Or my Sonya side. It was interesting to have two actors play the same character to show how many different facets an interpretation of the same character can have. Charlie Brown is also Uncle Vanya to me, only for children. The way that Charlie Brown talks like “oh well, it’s not going to work out anyway,” he always gets rocks instead of Halloween treats in his bags — it’s just so much Uncle Vanya! When I went through the audition process, it was enormously important to see who would actually resonate with who else in the cast.

I said, “This is a moment that is extremely cinematic, and the reason we can do it is because we have this spatial setup: we have the swivel chairs, so the audience can choose if they’re watching here or there. It’s as if they get their own private performance. You can go completely apart and do your own thing there. Just make it very intimate, and very authentic.”

TT: The character Elena switches into Russian near the end. Why?

AK: It was a nod of the hat: first, that it’s Chekhov; second, she is an actress who is Russian; and third, I like the juxtaposing music of the Russian and the English going at the same time, and how different that sounds, how different the music. They were saying the same text, yet it sounded so different. Our language can color what a text actually is.

I was very specific about which translation I picked for this production. I used the one by Paul Schmidt, an old friend of mine I got an opportunity to work with on stage in a company called the Wooster Group. He had adapted his translation of Three Sisters [another Chekhov play] according to what we were doing in the show, and what the ensemble needed. So I knew that his translation of Uncle Vanya would be the most appropriate for us, because it was extremely flexible, as far as language is concerned — very hands-on language, no highfalutin theater. Which is what we needed to bring it to our understanding, bring it close to us.

TT: Did you decide [on the Pritchett location]?

AK: I’ve been dreaming of doing something set-specific with the students, and this particular place seemed to be perfect. I can’t tell you how excited I was when I had just talked about this mental institution idea, and I saw Pritchett and I immediately thought of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. It was a real flashback to that milestone movie, in 1975 [placed in a mental institution]. To have the space resonate on that level with that One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest idea made it so exciting to me because a proscenium theater is very limited. You can only tell one kind of story. And, particularly, you cannot tell a story that you can really be in, as an audience member. I wanted to create something that was almost like a Surround-O-Rama. That’s why during the welcome, I want orderlies who walk up and down the hallways as the audience is walking up the stairs, in their white stockings, and they’re kindly introducing the audience to all the aspects of the show, and telling them that they’re checking into the hospice, and not coming as audience, but checking in like they’re patients.

Spoilers ahead! Be sure to head over to the blogs at for the rest of the interview.