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The Reality of Writing

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"LOPAKHIN: ... Dear God, you gave us this beautiful earth to live on, these great forests, these wide fields, the broad horizons... by rights we should be giants.
LIUBOV ANDREYEVNA: What do you want giants for? The only good giants are in fairy tales. Real ones would scare you to death."
- Anton Chekhov, The Cherry Orchard (Act 2, Scene 1)
[Paul Schmidt trans. p. 358]

I've been thinking a lot lately about what brought me to here. Like Tim (my co-writer -- see his great post from September 12th), I've always associated writing with a certain romance. But the truth is, the reality of writing has never been what I'd call exactly "fun." I did a lot of it in college -- and as a comparative literature major, mostly what I did was analyze minutia. While I would always take profound pleasure in seeing a finished product (hopefully stamped with a big A at the top), my memories of that time are filled with deadline dread and lost sleep. I cultivated some serious procrastination techniques that have held me in (good?) stead to this day: I'd have to first re-read The Unbearable Lightness of Being for the fourteenth time, or get through an entire season of Alias (yes, it was the early 2000s); or, I'd simply tell myself that my writing would be better closer to the deadline, as the scramble to finish would give it more immediacy. I was right, insofar as the realization that something was due the next day would prompt me to immediately smoke an entire pack of cigarettes and drink a pot of coffee.

After college -- and after writing my first play -- I veered away from writing, and chose to train as an actor. I had grown weary of the solitary and somewhat depressive nature of the writing process. And let's face it: acting elicits a much quicker return. Whatever actors might say about "not doing it for the attention." Acting is, of course, every bit as viable as an art form -- and, in my opinion, every bit as difficult -- but I have to admit that part of what appeals to me about it is not only that it allows me to feel like I'm living in a world removed from my own for however long I'm onstage (or in front of a camera), but also that it provides immediate validation, or at least reflection. As soon as you get offstage, people tell you what a great job you did -- or not -- but at the very least you get to see, very shortly after the moment, how your work is perceived by others. For an only child with divorced parents, all of this is very appealing. So the cliche, it appears, is true!

So. My theatre company wanted to do this project: a modernized adaptation of Chekhov's Three Sisters. This came about via a drunken observation made at a party (by someone who will remain unnamed) that three of us ladies in the cast of a previous show looked like sisters. Then I think it was me who said, "we should do Three Sisters!" Which caused everyone to do a collective, "hey, wait a minute..."

This resulted in a reading of the original in a company member's apartment, a hilarious and magical evening during which we all decided that there was no point in doing that play. That play is done all the time. This reading in fact took place during the run of Austin Pendleton's glorious production at Classic Stage Company -- and there was no way were we going to compete with that.

No, we were going to write a new play inspired by Three Sisters! We kept talking about how relevant the play seemed to the modern climate, politically and socially: the Russian aristocracy is just like the American middle class! Chekhovian non-sequiturs are just like mumblecore! We will be the voice of our generation (or at least, as Lena Dunham's Hannah charmingly says in the pilot episode of Girls, "a voice of a generation")! Hey Nadia, you have writing experience, will you write it? Once again: "hey, wait a minute..."

Obviously I said yes. Also, I said I couldn't do it alone, so I solicited the help of my great friend Tim Van Dyck, who I knew was not only a marvelous writer but would have a perspective different enough from mine to keep my neurotic -- and procrastinatory -- tendencies in check. Going back to writing years later was something I approached with excitement... and also dread. I was afraid of being held responsible. Afraid that I wouldn't be able to play well with a co-writer and director and company who were all depending on me, and that everyone would end up hating me afterwards. Afraid that I had nothing to say, or that what I did have to say would be inarticulate or derivative.

In both comp lit and drama schools, I had professors who would say, "when you're stuck, go back to the text." Which is what I did. I used Chekhov as a lifeline, going back to the original whenever I felt we were going off the rails. The play we have written is decidedly not Three Sisters -- it follows the original closely in some places and veers in totally different directions in others -- but is, I think, a great homage to a time and a kind of art that changed everything that came after. Chekhov's play is about the decline of the Russian aristocracy, yes, but it is also about a family filled with real love trying to keep it together against impossible odds; about missed connections, missed opportunities, and broken communication; about individuals' potential for greatness and how it is so easily squandered or misunderstood by the world.

At our first read-through, I got to read my part for really the first time. In previous workshop readings I would have another actress read the role, so I could be outside of it. Yes, I am in the show as well -- and, as per my previously mentioned semi-neurotic nature, I've been worried that this could be the wrong decision. Common wisdom, I thought, is that this is just simply not done. Would I be able to fully engulf myself in this world that we've created, in the way that good acting requires, if some of the words I was saying onstage were my own? Is it possible to switch gears so completely? Would people judge me as having undeservedly awarded myself a key role because of my own vanity? Luckily, the answer to the first two questions is turning out to be a resounding "yes;" as for the last question, I no longer care. Think what you want. Playing this part feels wonderful; and not least because I'm able to bring my two artistic focuses together for the first time. It was fascinating to finally read our own words from the inside, and to see how in many cases, intentions and nuances changed in ways I could not have anticipated as a writer.

Over one hundred years have passed since the first production of Three Sisters at the Moscow Art Theatre, and everything and nothing have changed. We've attempted to show that fact for what it is, for what it's worth. Come see! And judge for yourself.

This post was written in association with Lunar Energy Productions' "By Rights We Should Be Giants," a new adaptation of Chekhov's "Three Sisters" by Nadia Sepsenwol and Tim Van Dyck.Performances at the Secret Theatre, Long Island City, New York City, Oct.17 - Nov.3, 2012. For more info: click here.