Arts & Culture

A Chekhov play relatable to Americans today

At first, Heidi Schreck wasn’t sure the world needed another take on ‘Uncle Vanya’

5 min read
Heidi Schreck in Farkas Hall.

Heidi Schreck talks about her reimagined Chekhov classic “Uncle Vanya.”

Kris Snibbe/Harvard Staff Photographer

Playwright Heidi Schreck achieved a rare level of success with “What the Constitution Means to Me.” Still, she was wracked with self-doubt when director Lila Neugebauer approached her about reviving Anton Chekhov’s enduring masterpiece “Uncle Vanya.”

“I honestly felt very intimidated, like, ‘Why on earth should there be another translation when there are so many great ones?’” Schreck told Professor of English Derek Miller before an audience recently at Farkas Hall.

First performed in Moscow in 1899, “Uncle Vanya” has been translated and staged countless times, with 11 productions on Broadway alone. Ultimately, the Visiting Lecturer of English decided there was one way forward with her version.

“I decided … I’m going to try to be as true to the spirit of this play as I understand it,” Schreck said. “That is my only goal: to try to make what I feel and get from this play — based on my own understanding of it and my understanding of Russian — and put it into a language that feels true, that feels like it’s happening now.”

Schreck’s “Uncle Vanya” opened April 24 at Lincoln Center Theater, starring Steve Carell of television’s “The Office” in the title role. Instead of setting “Vanya” on a 19th-century Russian estate, Schreck places it in the near future on a family farm in the U.S. (“maybe Massachusetts,” she suggested).

Chekhov’s drama about dashed dreams and existential dread among a group of characters on a rural estate has seen a resurgence in recent years, from David Cromer’s staging last year in a Manhattan loft to Simon Stephens’ 2023 version in London starring Andrew Scott in every role. Schreck, who is teaching “Playwriting Workshop: Writing Plays in the 21st Century” this spring, can understand why. Russia in the 1890s, with its class divides, wealth inequality, and brewing political discontent, feels extremely relatable to audiences today.

“Coming out of a pandemic, the exhaustion of these last several years in this country feels very present in ‘Uncle Vanya,’” Schreck said. “We wanted to be like, ‘It could be happening right here, right now.’”

But Schreck, who began studying Russian at age 17 and lived in Siberia and St. Petersburg after college, would need to pare away any language that felt overtly Russian or too 19th century. Challenges included the word chudak, which has puzzled “Vanya” translators for decades. Meaning a strange, eccentric person or outsider, chudak appears several times in Chekhov’s original text.

Schreck decided “creep” was too negative, “misfit” too old-fashioned. “Weirdo” just didn’t sound right. She eventually went with “freak,” the same word used by the well-known Chekhov translator Paul Schmidt, M.A. ’59, Ph.D. ’74.

“I was like, ‘Well, it’s a great word,’” Schreck said. “The ‘k’ sound is wonderful at the end of it. Chudak. Freak.”

Schreck’s conversation with Miller also covered her career, which began with writing and staging experimental theater pieces with friends in Seattle and continued in New York, where she wrote for television shows including “I Love Dick,” “Billions,” “Nurse Jackie,” and “Dispatches from Elsewhere.”

But after five years in TV, Schreck missed theater and decided to return her attention to a play she had been writing about the U.S. Constitution.

“What the Constitution Means to Me” was inspired by Schreck’s high school years participating in constitutional debate competitions and famously features a live debate scene with a real high schooler. The Tony-nominated show ran on Broadway in 2019 and then in theaters around the country before landing on Amazon Prime in 2020.

The piece was motivated by Schreck’s desire to create something for the stage, something that would only work with live audiences.

“A lot of the decisions about that production — like the fact that it ends in a live debate or that it ends with questions from the audience, and that the show ends differently every night — came from a lens of, ‘What can I do on stage with people that I could never do on screen?’” Schreck said.

First-year student Jocelyn Shek, who performed the role of high school debater in the show from 2020 to 2022, attended Schreck’s talk.

When Shek auditioned for “Constitution,” she was a member of her school debate team with no acting experience. After landing the role, she ended up touring with the show to 12 U.S. cities, all while keeping up with high school courses online.

“The part that I was in does have room for improvisation, so we were changing the text of the show on a day-to-day, week-to-week basis based on real-world political events,” said Shek, who plans to concentrate in sociology and statistics.

While giving advice to young artists, Schreck was candid about the difficulties of pursuing a career as a playwright. Those who choose this path are almost certain to encounter professional and financial setbacks, she said.

“I just say, really do it only if it’s something that you love,” Shreck said. “Find a way to make it pleasurable for yourself if it’s something that you want to do.”