One World Theatre is a performance group that puts on a regular season of plays in English and Nepalese in Kathmandu, Nepal. We came to Nepal because my friend Deborah Merola, founder of One World Theatre, is taking a production they did a year ago — The Diary of Anne Frank – from Nepal to the Eighth International Theater Olympics in India. This is the first time the Olympics have been held in Southeast Asia. The One World Theatre submitted a video of their production and it was accepted at this huge festival, along with plays from many other countries. We believed that this would be a unique opportunity to see something of India and Nepal through the eyes of someone who is working there and knows the people and the country.
We met Deborah in Nepal, where her theater had another production, Chekhov’s Three Sisters, running at the time we arrived.
We went to see it our first night in Kathmandu. I found it hard to concentrate, so I asked if I could come again the next night and watch both the play and the rehearsal. Even through my jet-lag haze, something about the production struck me as especially moving. Perhaps it was because my expectations had to adjust to seeing dark, young Nepali actors with strong accents playing Russian characters from the 1900s, overtaking this very pre-revolutionary Russian situation and claiming it for contemporary Nepal. The characters were dressed in contemporary western costumes appropriate to a middle-class family and their friends of a professional class like teachers and government officials, but they could have been Nepali, too. Masha, for example, the married sister, wore her hair in a kind of punk, pointy cut.
Chekhov is one of my favorite writers and Three Sisters especially is a favorite play, for reasons I will explain below. So I was excited when the director, a young woman from Minnesota named Rose Schwietz, said I could come to rehearsal the next night, see the play a second time, and take some photographs.
Warm-ups, exercises, crises and other preparations before the show starts
Actors warming up before the evening’s 5:30 pm performance of Chekhov’s Three Sisters, done in English, Friday March 16, 2018.
The way Chekhov writes a scene, the drama (in the sense of the story or plot) moves forward through side comments and sudden brief speeches that seem to come out of no-where. At any given moment, some characters are paying attention to what is going on and some are oblivious, in complete denial but going along with their lives. For example, in Three Sisters the threat that is uttered by Solyony in the first act is disguised as a joke and no one seems to pay attention; then in the last act, it becomes realized in the duel between Solyony and Tuzenbach. In order to keep so many people on stage from being just a crowd or a jumble, the actors have to know where the story is being told, who is carrying it at that moment, and follow it, playing against the very true-to life, realistically fragmented dialog. It is not like creating a stage picture; it is more like keeping a flow going.
Rose Schwietz opened the rehearsal with a warmup exercise for the actors that seemed intended to create this feeling of flow and awareness. Later, she explained to me that she based this exercise on an approach called Viewpoints. She began by telling the actors: “Start by walking fluidly and entering the spaces, finding doors; find doors and step through them. You have the possibility of changing direction, stopping, starting…” The effect was to create spaces that were not only the spaces on the stage; they were the spaces between and among other actors and they changed constantly. The actors moved in different tempos, sank, scuttled, followed, hopped and dropped, avoided each other, blocked each other, walked in fast or slow motion, copied each other, huddled up. First the whole company did it, then five together, six together, and another five. The photo at the top shows this exercise.
Putting so many people on stage together and encouraging them to move swiftly among each other requires them to be highly aware of each other and respond to each other. This seemed particularly useful for a Chekhov play, where there are often seven or more people on stage.
Then came vocal warmups, with everyone standing in a circle. Then makeup and costumes.
The actors apply makeup for each other.
As the play opens, the characters Masha and Irina are found lying on the couch. It is Irina’s 20th birthday; funny hats are on the table and balloons float around and roll across the floor. Olga, the oldest sister, will be with them. Masha hardly says a word for pages and pages in the script; everything about how she is feeling is communicated by her gestures.
Here, shortly before curtain, the actor playing Solyoni (the character who later shoots and kills Irina’s husband-to-be in the last act) participates in a discussion of a crisis that has emerged: the person in charge of sound has not arrived yet. He has to be replaced. The stage manager stepped in as lighting technician.
The Characters and the Cast
In a town in Northern Russia, somewhere colder than Moscow, live the three Prozorov sisters: Olga, the oldest, played by Kurchi Dasgupta; Masha, the middle sister, played by Kavita Srinivasan, and Irina, the youngest, played by Samapika Gautam, who is really only 18. Masha describes the town as being “somewhere where it’s always about to snow.”
They have a brother, Andrei, played by Bijay Tamrakar and an elderly house servant, Anfisa, played by Surabhi Sapkota. Surabhi is the person shown in the photo above, getting her makeup done.
A friend of the family, a long-ago admirer of the sisters’ deceased mother, the doctor Chebutykin, is played by Rajkumar Pudasaini, a Co-artistic Director of the theater and principal actor. His still-alive love for the girls’ mother, often emerging as sudden and sometimes excessive tenderness toward Irina the youngest daughter, is one of the forbidden passions in the story.
A regiment of soldiers has been stationed in the town. Some of them treat the home of the Prozorov girls as a social gathering place. Among them is Tuzenbach, a Baron, played by Utpal Jha, and Solyony, played by Sandeep Shrestha. Sandeep is the actor standing behind the couch in the photo above. The soldiers come, eat, lie around, flirt and bring a breath of the big world, including Moscow, with them. Then they leave.
A new commander of the regiment arrives and pays a visit during the first act: Vershinin, in this case Vershinina, played by Rose Schwietz. In the original, of course, Vershinin is a man; in this production, after four actors dropped out of the role for different reasons, Rose decided to do it herself, making Vershinin a woman and her love affair with Masha a lesbian affair. This was an astonishing but completely credible choice, and it shifts the emotional center of the play because there is a scene, covering a set change, in which the two women embrace and kiss each other. This is the only happy, tender sex that takes place in the play. All the other passions are repressed: Solyony’s hungry, hyper-attentive adoration of Tuzenbach, Chebutykin’s unrequited love for the girls’ mother, and even Tuzenbach’s unrequited love for Irina, all of them fail to be fully expressed, shared or even acknowledged. Of course, there is Natasha’s giddy affair with Protopopov but as played by Pooja Lama, the affair is more like revenge than love or passion.
Then there is the headmaster of the local school and husband of Masha, Kulygin, played by Hemanta Chalise. The fact that Masha is having an affair with another woman makes Kulygin’s desperate insistence that all is well and that he is happy even more poignant. There is also local official, Ferapont, played by Sandesh Shakya, an almost completely comic role except that he is quite deaf (which is treated as a joke by the other characters, and then reversed and made pathetic by the kindness of Anfisa who takes him into the kitchen and gives him things to eat.)
Andrei, the brother, has a girlfriend. His sisters make fun of Natasha’s clothes and speech, and scorn her as a village girl, but he marries her and she becomes the mother of his children, taking over the management of the house in the process. She is played by Pooja Lama. Pooja pushes the greediness and bossiness of this character to the very edge, and becomes the actor who carries the play the most in the direction of comedy. Her character becomes quite horrible, but not in the way the sisters foresaw. Andrei himself says of her, on the one hand, that she is a good woman, but on the other, that there is “something not quite human” about her.
Smaller parts include Emily, played by Anu Dahal; Fedotik, played by Rajen Thapa; and Rhode, played by Kundoon Shakya.
An important person who has a role in the action but never appears on stage is Natasha’s lover, one Protopopov, head of the County Council. She carries on with him behind Andrei’s back and perhaps they have happy sex but given her attitude, probably not; probably something more like a cat fight.
All the actors are Nepalese except for Kurchi Dasgupta and Kavita Srinivasan, who are Indian, and Rose Schwietz, who is from Minnesota. Most are young, in their twenties or early thirties; the oldest is Rajkumar Pudasani, who is in his early forties. Some are students, some work full-time at regular jobs, some do film work or perform with other theater groups.
Kurchi Dasgupta, who plays Olga, the eldest sister. This photo was taken after a long hot day painting on Bev Hoffman’s Wall of Hope mural at the Himalayan Hotel.
Rajkumar Pudasaini carries the role of Chebutykin as if it was a heavy coat of suffering. At the same time, he can make a laugh line out of nearly nothing; he invites the audience to laugh at him as a form of relief even while being pathetic. He is a very physical actor — often leaning far to one side or the other, crossing the stage quickly at an angle, swinging his legs open and spreading his arms as he sits on a couch, cocking his head sharply. He is only in his forties but he is playing a doctor in his sixties who drinks too much (in one scene, is is actually drunk and out of control). The character no longer trusts his own skill as a doctor; with the loss of his skill, he loses his trust in the meaning of everything else. For Irinas’ birthday present, he gives her a samovar, more appropriate for a wedding present than a 20-year old girls’ birthday. He’s aware and deeply embarrassed by his gift as soon as he sees his action through the eyes of the others at the party, as if he knows it reveals the way he has mixed up his love for the mother and the daughter. Later in the play, when Masha asks him if her mother loved him back, he pauses a moment, lifts a hand as if to touch a butterfly in the air, and shrugs, saying “I don’t know.” This line draws a laugh out of the audience but loses none of the pathos of the truth he is admitting.
In the last act he says “It’s nothing,” over and over again – another example of a character saying words in the dialog which both the character and the audience know to be lies. In fact, what is “nothing” is the critical act of the whole play, the consummation of Solyony’s passion in the challenge to the duel which will kill Tuzenbach. Rajukumar plays against the literal meaning of the words “It’s nothing,” in a way that requires the audience to distrust him even as he speaks emphatically.
Rajkumar is in the green T-shirt in the center of the first photograph, above, doing the warmup flow exercises. He is forehead-to-forehead with Rose Schwietz. In my previous post there is a link to the YouTube video of Arjuna’s Dilemna, in which Rajkumar played Arjuna.
The Story Itself: Four years go by and what happens?
The story is told in four acts. In the first act, the three sisters are celebrating the birthday of the youngest, Irina, who has just turned twenty. She is bursting with happiness and hope, but all three sisters really yearn to go back to the big city Moscow where they spent their early childhood. Their father died last year; their mother has been dead a number of years. Masha, the middle sister, is frustrated with everything. Olga, the oldest sister, is teaching at the high school and is tired all the time. Their brother Andrei, a heavy set loner who plays the violin, is in love with Natasha, whom the sisters laugh at for her unsophisticated taste and speech. Tuzenbach and Solyony have come to celebrate Irina’s birthday, along with Chebutikyn.
In this middle of this first act, Vershinin, the regiment commander, drops by to introduce himself — or herself, in this case. She talks in a sophisticated and elegant manner, and Masha suddenly realizes what an attractive person this visitor is. This is the situation at the end of the first act. In this production, there are two same-sex passions. Masha and Vershinina seem to slip easily and unchallenged into a passionate, physically consummated relationship, and the ultimate outcome is a sad farewell but not the end of the world for Masha. She says, “You get your happiness in bits and pieces.” She at least has had the experience of passionate love. By contrast, Solyony harbors a desperate but completely closeted love for Tuzenbach, expressed only through his twisted, annoying jokes and infantile remarks, tolerated but mostly ignored by Tuzenbach, and the ultimate outcome is the duel in which it is in fact the end of the world for Tuzenbach, who is killed.
The fourth act is four years later. What has happened? That is, what is the story? Irina is four years older and not happier. Olga is now headmistress and even more exhausted, Masha has been having a love affair with Vershinina right under the deliberately unseeing eyes of her husband Kulygin, and Andrei’s young wife, Natasha, who in this production wolfishly gloats over her control over the household, has thrown Anfisa out. Luckily, Olga gets a place to live along with her new job and Anfisa has moved in with her and has her own bedroom. In a very sad scene about the lessening of expectations, Olga persuades Irina to marry Tuzenbach, who has proposed to her, and Irina acceeds, although she is not in love. Tuzenbach plans to resign from the military and become a manager of a brick factory in an even smaller town. The regiment is leaving; the soldiers, who have formed the social world of the sisters, are going away. Vershinina is going away, too, and has not apparently encouraged Masha to run off with her. Somewhere off stage, between the acts, there has been an encounter involving threats and violence: “It’s nothing!” exclaims Chebutikyn. But it’s not nothing. Solyony has decided that Tuzenbach has insulted him and has challenged him to a duel. Tuzenbach leaves to go to the duel without telling Irina where he is going; he asks her to order him a coffee. This is another minor, even trivial line, that carries much emotional weight. Then we hear the pistol shot and he has been killed. The soldiers leave. End of play.
Without any direct storytelling, in other words, many stories get told. If it weren’t for the title, we might not know which ones to follow. But it’s above all the story of all three sisters, the life chances of young women at that time and place, who are all still alive and together at the end. Irina has been saved from marrying a man she did not love, but only because he is dead; Masha has had the experience of great passion, but is now back with her husband, who accepts compassionately what has happened to her; Olga can be said to be materially better off, but her new job as headmistress is even more likely to be exhausting than her previous one as just a teacher. Natasha, of course, has gone from a shy village girl to the bossy, selfish mistress of a large house, although a house burdened by a mortgage. Perhaps what is most important about this play is the obvious fact that the main characters are women, and that it is about the life opportunities of women in a society where property and violence belong to men.
One World Theatre doesn’t own a space at the present time; it finds and rents spaces for performances. Three Sisters is being done at the Kunja Theater, a black box 100-seat theater in what appears to be a bamboo-construction compound called Thapagaun, used for writers and artists workshops. The theater space and entrance are behind me; I am standing on a terrace above the rest of the compound.
Three Sisters Thirty Seven Years Ago
When Deborah told me that she would be going back to Nepal in March and that her theater would be producing Three Sisters, I remembered the production I saw in 1980 at American Conservatory Theater (ACT) thirty seven years ago, with Elizabeth Huddle playing Olga. The play as I saw it then seemed to be about women trying to find meaning in their lives through work, not love. I had also just begun to be personally shaken by the tremors of the women’s movement. To me too, work was the way out of a trap. In the first act, Irina, the 20-year old, says:
Work is the meaning of life — it’s goal, happiness, and joy. The worker getting up at dawn to break stones on the road is happy. So is the shepherd and the teacher of little children, and the engineer in the railway…God, it’s easier for a man. Better to be an ox, a horse, anything than a young woman who wakes up at noon, has coffee in bed and spends two hours dressing. That’s dreadful. I need to work, just as I need to drink water on a hot day.
Although I had already had many jobs, I was just discovering “my work” at that time, and Irina’s words hit home. But Irina is talking about herself individually; when she talks about work, she is really talking about getting a job. Tuzenbach, the soldier of the regiment who is himself a Baron, grew up with a servant who would pull off his boots when he came home from a day at school. Tuzenbach responds to Irina’s mention of work by talking about the stark inequalities of the society in which they all live.
A powerful storm is brewing — a good one. ..Our whole morbid, boring society will be swept away. I’ll work, and in twenty five or thirty years, everyone will work.
For her, work is individual liberation; for Tuzenbach, it’s revolution. The two themes fused for me into vision of what my own work could be.
The powerful storm that Tuzenbach foresaw actually did happen, of course. Chekhov, who lived from 1860 to 1904, wrote Three Sisters in 1900 for the Moscow Art Theater. The first Russian Revolution began a mere five years later, involved worker strikes and peasant uprisings, won a constitution but did not get rid of the Tsar. The second Revolution started in 1917 and established the Soviet Union, a communist country in which one way or another, everyone really did work.
Mt work at that time was not only teaching but producing theater. I had produced a series of cabaret evenings at Rosenthal’s Deli in Berkeley, drawing on the culture of Yiddish theater, Second Avenue in the early 1900s, and the many talented Jewish performers, storytellers and singers around Berkeley. This led to an invitation to produce the first season of the Berkeley Jewish Theater, where we did five short comic one-acts from the Second Avenue repertoire. These sold out, especially to groups from old-age Jewish residential facilities, but also got myself and my co-producer, Harriet Herman, accused of blasphemy. I learned something about the difference between what was funny before the Holocaust and what was not funny afterwards. The problematic play was The God of the Wealthy Wool Merchant.
During this time Three Sisters was being produced at ACT and I went twice, maybe three times, once even walking out of a class taught by Jim MacKenzie (a class for aspiring producers, which I was taking with Christine Taylor). He was the ACT Executive Producer, much loved. He said, as I got up to leave, “You need this class,” and I remember saying, “I need to see Three Sisters more.”
I remember that production as very period, lots of red and gold, not so much Russian as high-middle-class British. Eliabeth Huddle played Olga, the sister with the headaches who becomes a headmistress as the acts go by. I could feel in my own bones the sense of frustration and constraint that the sisters suffer from, and I could understand how Masha, who is married, might fall in love with Vershinin, the commander of an artillery battery that has been temporarily assigned to the small town where they live. But I did not harbor the illusion that my escape to Moscow would come as a result of falling in love with someone. For me, it the combination of finding work, work in something that would contribute in some way to the storm. At first, it was theater; then teaching, and soon, teaching and activism in the labor movement.
Chekhov is Hard to Do Right
Chekhov’s plays are not single-actor star vehicles with only one, or even one main story. Going back to the exercise with which Rose started the warm-up: they require an ensemble, which is why the warmup exercises that the company was doing are so important. The multiple stories in a Chekhov play are sketched in, one hint at a time, as characters talk to each other or speak their inner thoughts in a way that feels more real than real life. This means that everyone on stage is important all the time. Even if a character is silent or has very few lines, the way that character listens to what others are saying, or responds physically to what is going on, carries the story forward. When there are many characters on stage at once, each one has to be responding to and propelling forward the emotional content of the moment. Sometimes that content comes in the lines of dialog and sometimes it comes in other ways.
This is so hard to do right; it was amazing to see this close, small group of actors fulfilling the demands of this kind of ensemble work.
Chekhov was hard even for the Moscow Art Theater. I found this in the Introduction to Sharon Marie Carnicke’s translation of Three Sisters (Hackett, 2014):
When Nemisovich-Danchenko insisted that Stanislavsky co-direct Chekhov’s The Seagull, Stanislavsky admitted that the work initially presented him with “a difficult task, becuase, to my shame, I did not understand the play…According to Olga Knipper the entire Moscow Art Theater company reacted “unenthusiastically” an with “confusion” when they first read Three Sisters. Another actor recalled, “We didn’t know how to play our roles!”
Olga Knipper became Chekhov’s wife and played Masha in Three Sisters.
When Rose Schwietz first read the play, she says (in the program notes): “I hated it. I found it boring, impossible to follow, and full of whining and complaining.”
Chekhov tells the story through the reactions of the characters to each other — or through their failure to react. For example: late in the play, Kulygin stands up in front of everyone and exclaims about how happy and satisfied he is (“I am a happy, happy man!”) and the other characters look at him and say nothing. If the director was relying on the dialog to tell the story, here, how would they know what to do? Instead, the story gets carried by the very blank looks on the other characters faces, and their silence as they acquiesce in Kulygin’s denial.
Another example: in the first act, Masha, the middle sister who is married to the High School Principal and who has been lying on the sofa the whole time so far, reading a book and hardly paying attention, gets up when Vershinin, the commander of the regiment comes to pay a visit and introduce himself (actually, herself in this production). There are now seven people on stage: Olga, Masha and Irina, the three sisters; Tuzenbach and Solyony, both soldiers; and Chebutykin, the old doctor. Vershinin knew the girls in Moscow because he knew their father. At first they don’t remember him; then they begin to. They called him “the lovesick Major.” Suddenly Masha remembers: “How you’ve aged!” she says. “How you’ve aged!” she repeats, but now she’s crying. Something has happened to her between the first time she says that line and the second. It’s Irina who notices, a few lines later, and asks her, “Why are you crying?” If Irina didn’t ask that question, we might not notice that Masha has just realized how old she too has become, and how desperate she is for something new and wonderful in her life.
Girls in Russia, Girls in Nepal and “Global People”
This is a play about three girls — they are all over 20, but they are girls in the sense of young women who have their lives ahead of them, and their dreams of future happiness. It is being performed in a Nepal, a country where violence against women, especially against girls, is a recognized major problem. Do Nepali girls, for example girls in small cities or mountain villages, have dreams of going to a cultural center somewhere far away and leading an exciting life? That would be an ambition of so many of our students in Viet Nam, who may be the children of farmers and come from villages, but dream of being “global people.” So this play about the destiny of young women is being performed in a milieu where the consciousness of the challenges facing women is very high.
Hemanta Chalise, who plays Kulygin in Three Sisters told me that in fact, Nepali girls do dream of being “global people,” but to them this means often means going to Australia or the US and studying. Australia is the Moscow for Nepali youth. Being “global” is valued by parents: Hemanta said that if a father is looking for a husband for his daughter, he will prefer a young man who has been to Australia or the US worked, to a young man with a college degree who has never been away from Nepal. However, this is a male actor talking about husbands and fathers, not daughters and girls. Just looking at the women in the theater troupe, we can see that they are making a step toward being “global people,” working in English, performing, forming collectives and producing magazines and films, often against the wishes of their families.
The other side of the story, Nepali girls, especially from impoverished villages in the western mountains, get sex-trafficked all over Asia, especially into India. Even in the cities, girls are likely to be violently abused in their families. During the short time we are here I’ve seen newspaper articles about the murder of girls by their husbands, fathers and brothers. One article was about a girl who was refusing to marry the man her father wanted her to. So she was stabbed 17 times, then her body was taken to be burned (ghats line the river through the city) to destroy the evidence, but the men were arrested before the could complete the cremation.
Bev Hoffman, the husband of Deborah Merola, is currently organizing and participating in the creation of an 80-foot mural, “The Wall of Hope,” along the retaining wall that faces the street below the Himalayan Hotel, one of the fanciest hotels in Kathmandu (I saw UN and USAID cars parked in their lot). The mural depicts the recovery of a woman from abuse, presumably trafficking or violence of some sort. As we walked along the wall while it was being painted, we saw young Nepali student-age men and women stop to be photographed beside the images on that wall, as if it was likely to become a famous landmark – a photo-op site for upcoming “global people.”
One small part of the 80-foot long Wall of Hope, in front of the Himalayan Hotel.
On to the next
Even while Three Sisters was running, some of the actors were in rehearsal with Deborah for the reprise of The Diary of Anne Frank, which is to be presented next week at two sites in India under the auspices of the Eighth International Theatre Olympics. Rose Schwietz will play Mrs Frank, Rajkumar Pudansaini will play Otto Frank, and Pooja Lama will play Miep. Hemanta Chalise, who played Kulygin, will be the stage manager. Rehearsing one play while performing in another created difficulties for concentration, to say nothing of making a schedule for rehearsals and getting people into the same room together. In addition, the young woman who would play Anne Frank, Rojita Buddhacharya, was scheduled to join a team to summit Everest immediately after the final performance. She was in intense physical training and could only get away to rehearse for two hours a day. On top of that, Rose got seriously sick, possibly from exhaustion both directing and performing in Three Sisters.
This double-schedule is all happening in an economy and society that does not provide the kinds of cushion and back-up that even people who live as precariously as actors do in the US are used to. One World Theatre pays actors $300 dollars for two months of work; the director and artistic director gets the same as the actors. The budget for the whole production is likely to be $7,000. They only make $1500 in admissions, keeping ticket prices low enough so that students and ordinary people can come (500 rupees or less). Actors have to work at more than one theater or take film work in order to live. Then there are the health problems that come from living in a place where you can’t drink the water; troupe members go to the hospital frequently with infections or other problems. At least the tremendous problem of daily electricity load-shedding has been improved. Up until one or two years ago, there would be a period of time every day when there was no electricity. This might happen in the middle of a production. When the electricity went off, the house would go dark, someone would say “We are pausing for technical difficulties,” and you would hear steps in the dark while someone went to turn on the generator. Then, after the generator got going, the lights would come back on and the actors would start up again. During rehearsals, everyone would bring in their cell phones and plug them in to charge them on the theater’s electrical system.
Of course there are also the normal personal crises. Just before Three Sisters opened, one actor had a death in the family and had to miss rehearsals while participating in three days of funeral rituals. Another troupe member, the stage manager for The Diary of Anne Frank, got mugged and had some ribs broken. In addition, three of the potential locations for Three Sisters fell through before the Kunja Theater site came through. Rose Schwietz made the decision to play Vershinin as a woman, herself, only after four men who had been selected for the role dropped out.
Nonetheless, the preparations went forward to take The Diary of Anne Frank to India. What could possibly go wrong?