jakub | March 7, 2024

‘Big Russian-Literature Nerd’: Heidi Schreck Translates Uncle Vanya for a Modern Audience


Ibsen, Strindberg, Chekhov—the three playwrights considered to have ushered in modernism in theatre. Eschewing the stylized melodramas of the Romantic era that dominated 19th-century stages, they began the periods of realism and naturalism that aimed to represent “a slice of life” in speech, dialogue, costumes, and scenery. They focused on realistic narratives and believable characters—everyday people in everyday situations.

Of course, these men were writing at the turn of the 20th century, so what was modern then is classical theatre now. However, this season, Lincoln Center Theater has commissioned Tony-nominated playwright Heidi Schreck to create a new translation of one of Anton Chekhov’s 100-year-old works. Uncle Vanya will premiere at Broadway’s Vivian Beaumont Theater April 2, starring Steve Carell, under the direction of Tony nominee Lila Neugebauer (who's also overseeing the hit play Appropriate).

“My biggest reason to say yes to this was Lila,” says Schreck. “I would just say yes to anything she did. I think she’s brilliant.”

As a mother of three-year-old twins, Schreck is careful with her time. And though Neugebauer may have been the biggest draw, the playwright has an affinity for Chekhov, too. The self-proclaimed “big Russian literature nerd” first fell in love with Chekhov in college when acting in his play Three Sisters. She studied the language in college and post-graduation, she moved to Russia, taught in Siberia for a year, then worked as a journalist in St. Petersburg. She even fell in love with her husband, director Kip Fagan, while working on a production of The Seagull in Seattle that they translated together. “Chekhov’s been a very big part of my life for a long time,” she says.

Since those days, though, she’s had a busy career in theatre and television, both acting and writing. She made her Broadway debut in 2019 in her own play What the Constitution Means to Me, for which she received Tony nominations for Best Play and Best Actress (it's now the most-produced play in America this season). She’s excited to return to Chekhov and to the Russian language after many years away. “I much more identify with the questions and themes and conflicts in Vanya than I would have in my 20s,” she says.

It is still early in the process for this new production. Schreck and Neugebauer are still working on the script, and it’s hard for Schreck to define exactly what themes and questions will come to the forefront in this new telling of the story—which follows a man disappointed in having spent his life managing the family farm while his brother-in-law pursued an academic career.  

When talking about the plays themes she is reminded of a line from Mary Oliver's poem “A Summer Day”: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do/With your one wild and precious life?” She notes that she is middle-aged with young children and her parents are aging. “I feel very much like I'm standing in the river of time in a very intense way, of thinking of like, ‘How have I spent my time? Am I spending it? Well, what do I want to do with the rest of time I have left?' And I feel like every character in this play is confronting that on such an intense level—on an almost painful level,” she says. “It just felt like the play I was supposed to interpret right now.”


Heidi Schreck
Heather Gershonowitz

Though Chekhov plays might have a reputation of being stuffy and old-fashioned, and are often categorized as dramas, the playwright actually wrote Uncle Vanya as a comedy. And Schreck agrees. “I mean, it's heartbreaking, but I think it's a very funny play,” she says. It will be a modern translation, but without a gimmick of specific place or time. “By stripping away any references that feel like particularly Russian or particularly 19th century, you can make it feel like it's happening right now. Which is the goal of this production. And in doing that, I've translated the humor so that it feels like something someone might say right now,” Schreck explains.

Early conversations among the creative team had them asking, “How can this feel immediate? How can it feel both tragic and funny at the same time? How can we, as much as possible, remove the layers that often stand between ourselves and Chekhov plays?” One of the answers to those questions was in casting its titular star.

Carell’s career began in Chicago in sketch comedy. He led the mockumentary television sitcom The Office and has appeared in several Judd Apatow comedy blockbuster films. But his resume is also peppered with a few more serious roles like The Foxcatcher (for which he was Oscar-nominated) and The Morning Show—showing his capacity for pathos and pain, emotions often just under the surface in most comedies.

“Here's an actually funny person who also has access to deep emotional reserves. There’s some kind of fragility in there. I think everybody has a wound, and you can kind of see it in different actors. And I feel like whatever his wound is, I find it very compelling,” says Schreck. “[When we were asking], ‘Who would resonate in this play in America in 2024?’ He was, weirdly, one of the first names we landed on.”

Though Schreck is a Tony-nominated actor, she won't be appearing alongside Carell in Uncle Vanya. (She's awfully busy with those twins, after all). But the cast does boast quite a few other Tony winners and nominees, including Alison Pill, Alfred Molina, Jayne Houdyshell, Anika Noni Rose, William Jackson Harper, and Mia Katigbak.

Schreck also admits that she's really coming into a period of finding her voice. “I've always written—I feel like maybe I've always wanted to, even more than acting, but was scared. I just very much relate to this idea of coming into the full knowledge, more and more, that I want my voice—whatever it is, and all its specificity and all it's just me-ness—to get to be in the world.”

Below, see Schreck discuss the importance of owning your voice and your body, in a roundtable conversation with actor Amber Iman, director Jessica Stone, and choreographer Camille A. Brown.





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