Student Film

Amy Taubin on Chekhov for Children

Sasha Waters Freyer, Chekhov for Children, 2010, stills from a black-and-white and color film, 74 minutes.

IN THE LATE 1970s, fifth- and sixth-graders at P.S. 75 on Manhattan’s Upper West Side participated in a full-length production of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, which played for one night in 1979 “on Broadway”—albeit pretty far from the theater district—at Symphony Space at Ninety-fifth Street. With a cast and crew made up entirely of ten- to twelve-year-olds, the play was directed by writer Phillip Lopate, who was a member of the Teachers & Writers Collaborative at P.S. 75 and whose moving and quietly provocative essay “Chekhov for Children” inspired documentary filmmaker Sasha Waters Freyer to make a movie based on her experience of the production—for which, at age ten, she served as assistant director. Besides operating as a memory piece and an update on the lives of Lopate and the actors, the documentary challenges current standardized, exam-oriented public school education. It also deserves to be in the collection of any serious performing arts library. Freyer uses brief clips from video recordings of British productions of Vanya, including Stuart Burge’s, featuring Laurence Olivier as Astrov and Michael Redgrave as Vanya, and by comparison the actors in P.S. 75’s production, despite a tendency to saw the air with their hands and to sometimes singsong their words, are no less truthful and urgent in their depictions of the characters than the great actors.

Lopate reflects on the impulse behind the production, which he undertook despite being cautioned that preteens might be disturbed by an immersion in the middle-aged regret that defines Chekhov’s characters and the tendency of some of them to throw themselves into hopeless love affairs as a distraction from their pain. As we watch the video recording of the young actors onstage, we see that they have found, against all expectations, parallels in their own experience for the characters’ dilemmas. As part of P.S. 75’s unorthodox arts education, students used Super 8 and early video rigs to make on-the-street documentaries and short fictions, and to record some of the rehearsals for Uncle Vanya. The Symphony Space performance was videotaped by a member of the Teachers & Writers Collaborative, and although the technology employed was crude, the excerpts that Freyer has selected for Chekhov for Children are rich with life—the life of the play, of the cast, and of New York as it was during the arts adventure of the ’70s.

Chekhov for Children screens at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater on October 21. For more details, click here.