The Chamber Theatre transforms Chekhov’s short stories into plays, adds female voices

Hannah Connaly and Laura Eigelbach in “All People Sneeze” | Photo by Polina Shafran

The Chamber Theatre is a local company that has found success through a tightly focused mission. This weekend, it is opening a new work by a dead playwright — “All People Sneeze” by Anton Chekhov.

Chekhov is more often known as a playwright. As perhaps the greatest of the early modernists (fight me, Ibsen fans!), his plays are an obvious choice for The Chamber’s attention as the company focuses its efforts on producing work from that time period.

It also tries to find ways to make these writers relevant and approachable to audiences and not just produce the same handful of classics from the era that theater fans have seen ad nauseum.

This time, The Chamber’s novel approach comes from digging into the works of Chekhov that haven’t been on stage much, or possibly at all. In other countries, including Chekhov’s homeland of Russia, he is just as recognized as a prolific writer of short stories.

Polina Shafran | Photo by Chris Vernon

The Chamber co-artistic director Polina Shafran, who also hails from Russia, has adapted several of these short stories into plays. Shafran spoke with Insider about why these stories deserve to be on stage and how she went about translating Chekhov from prose to stage.

“I grew up on the short stories, and for me, they are no less valuable,” says Shafran. “To me, it was very interesting to explore those. They have an interesting outlook on the lives of the people, and I really wanted to share those stories with the audience.”

Chekhov’s prose is dense, which made the adaptation fairly labor intensive.

“They did require some work, but they also, because of that, offer an interesting concept in which we are staging them,” she explains. “I did want to preserve some of the descriptive language Chekhov uses, because it’s very beautiful. So I left some of those passages.”

She enjoys the way the prose in used on stage.

“A lot of times the characters are also used as narrators, so they narrate to give the setting,” says Shafran. “It works out very nicely, because we don’t lose this authentic Chekhovian style.”

Nine stories are featured in the play, and Shafran resisted the urge to merge them into a larger narrative. Instead, she let the connection be something that serves to point out the difference between the prose and a play — the actors.

“They’re connected by the fact that they are all played by the same people, which makes it interesting and challenging for the actors, to be some sort of peasant in one piece and some sort of judge or magistrate in the next piece,” she says. “It’s a complete switch of power, and it’s very fast.”

This is Shafran’s first attempt to adapt short stories, and she admits it was learning experience.

“I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. It’s a lot of work,” she explains. “When you adapt for the stage and then you get actors in front of you, you realize, ‘OK, this part doesn’t really work, let’s not include this line, let’s include this, let’s include that.’ It’s a continuous process with me and the actors as well — they give me feedback on things that don’t work, and we made some changes during rehearsal as well.”

Chris Meir and Hannah Connaly | Photo by Polina Shafran

That process of working with the actors to fine-tune the script is pretty common in writing new plays, especially when the playwright has the ability to stick around for a substantial portion of the rehearsal process.

While Shafran was excited to bring under-appreciated works by Chekhov to the stage, she also used the adaptation process to address aspects of Chekhov’s work that modern critics have suggested are flaws. Like many works of yesteryear, the point-of-view heavily skews toward the male perspective.

“A lot of plays of that time we are looking at, they have a very long list of characters, mostly male,” she says. “Working on the stories gave me much more flexibility on what I can do with the cast and what kind of characters I can include. I actually gender-flipped some of them to allow for more women than usually those kinds of plays would allow.”

Including more women’s voices, attempting to create parity between male and female characters, is reflected in the title Shafran chose to give the evening.

The title (“All People Sneeze”) is inspired by a line from one of the stories we are using,” she says. “This line comes to say, we all have our happy moments, sad moments, sometimes we do the right thing, sometimes we make mistakes, we all eat, drink, sleep and, of course, sneeze.”

“All People Sneeze” runs March 2-10 at Hope Community & Coffee in the Mellwood Art Center, 1860 Mellwood Ave. Tickets are $15, and showtime is 7:30 p.m.