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It’s hard to overstate the impact that Anton Chekhov had on theatre and acting – and he only lived to be 44! Let’s learn more about what he accomplished and how we see it playing out every day.
Here are some quick facts about him:
Good acting mirrors what we see people do in real life, right? But it wasn’t always that way. Chekhov was part of a movement that embraced real human behavior and subtext - and it changed the way people made theatre.
Did you know...?
Chekhov wrote in the late 1800s. While his characters’ emotional journeys are often seen as timeless and relatable, there’s definitely some context about the time period that is helpful to understand.
This mostly comes down to what societal rules and expectations the characters are up against. Class and gender roles were especially rigid compared to today’s standard. Here’s some information to help you understand the 1800s of it all.
Ah, the “haves” and “have-nots.” Class division was a big deal in Russia in the 19th century, and there was a huge difference between the tippy top of the pyramid (the ruling class) and the very bottom (the serfs).
A few things to note:
It wasn’t just money – political power and voting rights were reserved for only certain classes.
A "rags to riches" story would be very, very rare. If anyone was moving between classes, it was probably down – economic unrest made it easier to get into, and stay, in debt.
While some of the rules varied for different social classes, a few things were expected of men and women across the board.
Education for women was restricted to their roles as wives and mothers.
Men were given a lot of decision-making power and “ownership” over their children and wives.
Marriage was expected of pretty much everyone, and marriages were arranged or agreed upon for a number of reasons: practicality, political gain, agreements between parents, and (occasionally, if they were lucky) because they actually liked each other.
Impact on Theatre
Ever heard of Chekhov’s Gun? It’s a specific example of good ol' Anton’s lasting impact on storytelling. From Chekhov's perspective, every thing on stage should serve a purpose for the show.
"If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one, it should be fired,"
Chekhov wrote. "Otherwise, don’t put it there."
If Chekhov’s gun puts elements in a story that come back later, a Red Herring does the opposite – elements are added to a story to specifically mislead the audience.
In a showdown between Chekhov’s Gun and a Red Herring, who wins?
The Day Modern Acting was Born
Realistic acting didn’t really exist until Chekhov and his director, Stanislavsky, perfected the style. The experts say it best in this excerpt from THE ART OF THEATRE: THEN AND NOW, Second Edition by William Missouri Downs, Lou Anne Wright, and Erik Ramsey:
"Before the advent of photocopiers and the [i]nternet, playwrights often read their plays out loud to the cast during the first rehearsal. Here, in 1898, Anton Chekhov (center) reads The Seagull to the actors of the Moscow Art Theatre."
"The birth of modern, realistic acting can be traced to the opening night of Anton Chekhov's The Seagull on December 17, 1898. The play had been total disaster when it was first staged two years earlier in St. Petersburg, but Konstantin Stanislavsky (1863-1938) and Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko (1859-1943), the co-founders of the Moscow Art Theatre, decided to stage the play with a realistic set, natural staging, and acting characterized by psychological realism. These elements had been tried before, with varying degrees of success, but Stanislavsky and Danchenko wanted to bring them together into a completely realistic production. Stanislavsky had the actors draw on their own experiences and emotions to shape how their character spoke and moved, thereby creating a complex human being with well-motivated feelings and desires.
Chekhov was so nervous about the opening night that he did not attend. At the end of the first act, the audience sat silently. Backstage, most of the actors were convinced that the new realistic acting and the play were a failure. Actress Olga Knipper, who later became Chekhov's wife, fought back tears. Then "like the bursting of a dam, like an exploding bomb," as one audience member later wrote, "a sudden deafening eruption of applause broke out." Stanislavsky was said to be so happy that he danced a jig. The Moscow Art Theatre became one of the most influential theatres in the world, and Stanislavsky became the father of a new, realistic approach to acting and a new kind of actor training."
Learning to act can be a lot harder than it seems. Some actors continue to train, even after they’ve made a career of it. Some acting teachers have built their own style of finding truth in characters. Want to learn more? Click the gear.
Activity: Acting Techniques
Assign students one of the techniques mentioned in the article.
Have them share findings with the class, then compare and
contrast with the other techniques.
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