Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Multitasking

July 18, 2014 / by Lavina Jadhwani, Classical Directing Fellow


I've been thinking about multitasking since my post two weeks ago – I'm trying to do one (or fewer) thing(s) at a time and am hoping that this singularity of focus will enable me to be more present and do better work. What's easy is separating my non-digital tasks – just cooking or reading or working out is easy to do in isolation. What's harder is single-tasking during my online activities. It's been harder to not respond to texts while watching a television show, stop Google Chatting with my brother while also writing emails, or even write this post without Pandora playing in the background. (You should see my setup during football season – it's a little scary, especially since I started playing in two fantasy leagues.)


Tonight, I observed a rehearsal of Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike by Christopher Durang, and was struck by the character of Vanya's treatise on this topic. In the last scene, Vanya has gathered his family and friends for an in-house reading of his new play. When his sister's young lover, Spike, can't seem to pry himself away from his cell phone during the performance, Vanya chastises him:


VANYA: Excuse me. What are you doing? It's very rude.

SPIKE: I'm still listening. I can multitask. I can drive and text, or watch a movie and tweet.

VANYA: You can multitask, how wonderful. You can tweet. You twitter and tweet, you email and text, your life is abuzz with electrical communication. I know older people always think the past was better, but really... We didn't multitask. Doing one thing at a time seemed appropriate. But I guess you can sort of listen to a play and sort of send a message and sort of play a video game... all at once. It must be wonderful.


The play's director, Matthew Penn, has incredibly singular focus in the rehearsal room. He is the master of the one-on-one conversation with an actor, making the entire cast feel like they have his full attention and that he's deeply invested in their individual performances. When they run scenes, his eyes are focused on actors, not his script – he'll go back to it if he needs to check something, but he's never bogged down in the text. If an actor is jammed during staging rehearsals, he focuses on either clarifying intention or solving the stage business, but not both at once. He's incredibly patient, offering actors multiple passes at scenes and allowing them to feel like they've found the bones of their characters before layering on the details that his vision of the play involves.


In most production models, the director has been sitting with the play (and his/her particular vision of the play) much longer than the actors have. So, at the beginning of the rehearsal process, we have a lot more information about the production than the actors do, and it's tempting to give them all of that information at once. And while there are lots of things we know, there are still plenty of things that we don't – but sometimes (particularly when we're feeling lost) it's easier to expand on we're familiar with rather than saying those three scary words, “I don't know,” in front of everyone.


Single-tasking tasking in rehearsal – focusing on building ensemble and the world of the play, then clarifying actions and intentions, then staging specific business or choreography, etc – often seems to take longer. It's so tempting to multitask, to try to get your company to download a lot of information at once and immediately process that in to their performance. But it's becoming increasingly clear to me that multitasking, in almost any arena, results in working harder, not smarter. That's why Shakespeare & Company's technique of feeding in is so effective – it allows the actor to focus on being emotionally present in the scene, instead of trying to juggle that and the intellectual task of recalling lines.


Actors can also succumb to multitasking when it comes to playing multiple actions at the same time -- in theory, this seems like it might result in a more textured, layered performance; in practice, it appears so densely packed that the outside observer can't tell what's going on. In Henry IV rehearsals, director Jonny Epstein often calls out actors who are trying to accomplish two things at once. During scene work yesterday, he told the actress playing Doll Tearsheet, “You're trying to fight off your illness and reprimand Falstaff at the same time. You can't do both at once – you have to tell him off, and then the sickness gets in your way, so then you have to deal with that.” The actress adjusted, resulting in a performance that was both simpler and also more effective.


Durang's Vanya would have approved.


Pictured above: actress Elizabeth Aspenlieder and director Matthew Penn in rehearsal for Shakespeare & Conpany's 2013 production of The Beauty Queen of Leenane.