An Interview with Three Sisters’ Director Austin Pendleton

“An Appetite for Life”
An interview with director Austin Pendleton

Many critics discuss Chekhov’s dramatic change between UNCLE VANYA and THREE SISTERS. They compare it to Shakespeare’s writing shift from HENRY V to HAMLET. Do you find this to be true? If so, how would you characterize this change? Is there anything in Chekhov’s personal life that could have contributed to it?

I have no idea of the significance of this, but, between writing VANYA and THREE SISTERS Chekhov became utterly aware of the terminal nature of his illness, that there really was a clock ticking. So we find that there is a real appetite for life in THREE SISTERS. It’s presumptuous for me to say that that had anything to do with his personal life. THREE SISTERS is all about how every moment is precious and the importance of hanging on and trying to keep from moving forward. UNCLE VANYA is about “We’re stuck! We’re eating our own tails. We’re stuck!”

In the play, the phrase “What difference does it make?” appears twenty-two times. Is it safe to say, in some way, that the play seems to be asking the question “does it really make a difference?” How would you characterize the play? Is it nihilistic? Hopeful? How do you answer this fundamental question that runs through the play like a leitmotif?

I think that’s just a mantra that the Doctor has, and some of the other characters find it attractive at certain moments, to use as a defense against how overwhelming life gets at times. He’s this cheerful nihilist for the first half of the play. In the second half, he’s not so cheerful, but he’s a figure that they enjoy very much in their lives. And when he keeps saying, “What difference does it make?” they pick it up
at different moments because it’s cool, and sometimes when things get to be too much, you can just say, “What difference does it make?” just like the Doctor says. It has that much significance. The problem is that it finally overtakes the Doctor and you could say, causes the death of the Baron, because if that phrase hadn’t overtaken the Doctor by the fourth act, he would never have permitted that duel to take place.

You’ve acted the role of Túzenbach twice, as well as directed THREE SISTERS previously at Steppenwolf in 1984. What is it like to return to this play after all these years? Do you see things differently or new? What aspects are reinforced?

Every time you come back to this play it’s changed on you. What’s changed, of course, is you. I don’t know of a play, not even other Chekhov plays, that catches whatever light is shown on it and reflects it back in a different way. This play is more like life than any play I know of in that every day it looks different. I don’t remember what I felt like working on it at Steppenwolf; I just remember that it was intense then and that I enjoyed it. Now again it’s intense and I enjoy it. But it’s not like doing the same play. I don’t remember how I thought about it or directed or did it back then. I don’t remember thinking any of the things I’m thinking now. It now feels like I’m coming to it for the first time.

Marin Ireland, who plays Natásha, couldn’t be present at the first rehearsal so you read the role in her place. What’s it like to read Natásha? I know this role is important to your interpretation of the play. Can you talk a little bit about it?

Well, I thought I read Natásha very well (laughs). I was anxious for Marin to play Natásha. I’ve seen a few of the roles she’s played, and she makes you understand where her characters are coming from and I think for the humanity of this play to really land you have to understand where this woman is coming from. You can’t just say she’s greedy, vulgar, grasping—if she’s any of those things and I’m not sure those are the right words—all of it is for a reason. All of it is from having been thwarted all her life and now thwarted again by her husband and his sisters. And what do you turn to? You turn to the one thing you know which finally becomes the babies. You just turn to anything that makes you feel that you’re not just a ridiculously meaningless creature, which is what everyone in the world of the play seems to want to do with her. And I want the audience to feel that instead, rather than simply sit in judgment of her. Ideally I’d like the audience to sympathize with every single person in the play, so that they’re seeing this particular life of the play through every single life that is in it.

Since you’ve had the experience of working on Chekhov as an actor, what makes for a good interpretation of Chekhov? What is necessary to understand and interpret his unique vision?

Oh, I just think that it’s the way that an actor should work on any play, which is to try to see it from a character’s point of view. You know when a person, when any one of us individually looks at the world, we see different things. And a different person looking at the same things will see different things than we see. And that’s the job of an actor in any role: what does this person see when they wake up in the morning, when they walk down the street, when they encounter this person, that person, this situation; what did they see? I just think it’s that. Chekhov gives you more things to see and he defines the vantage point a little bit better than some writers. You’re given a little bit more to work with than certain other writers but it’s the same, basic approach that you take to any play. There are more little things to hang on to but then again that’s true of a lot of writers.

Is there one Chekhov role that you never had a chance to play but wished you had?

I don’t know. I’ve played a lot of them. I guess the easiest way to say this is “give me any Chekhov role.” There’s always so much humanity in any of his roles. Bring it on!