The stage is set with letters hanging from thin wiråe; everything in Studio Theatre is quiet. Dawn Arnold enters and sits down at a table strewn with letters and books, intently regarding the audience. And why wouldn’t she? Arnold is about to recount one of the greatest literary courtships — that of Russian writer Anton Checkhov and Lydia Avilova.
Created and performed by Arnold, The Lydia Etudes: About Loving Anton Chekhov tells the story of the two writers, who were both avidly in love with one another but never saw their romance realized. In The Lydia Etudes, Arnold spans ten years of their correspondence with letters taken from Lydia’s own book, “Chekhov In My Life” as well as Chekhov’s play The Seagull and his short stories “A Little Joke” and “About Love.”
Throughout the play, Arnold takes portrays all of the characters, including Chekhov, her brother-in-law, friends, and others.
Senior D’Angelo Smith said, “I loved her transition from character to character. There was always a gesture so we would know which character was which. The gestures were consistent.”
Senior Amy Miller also found the performance to be profound; she remarked that, “coming into it, I wasn’t sure about a one-woman show, but my mind was quickly changed. I thought it was a really solid performance.” Miller attended in part for an acting class and also found Arnold’s transitions from character to character to be striking. “I learned some method and how it could be done,” Miller said.
Inherent to The Lydia Etudes is a performing technique known as the Michael Chekhov technique (Michael Chekhov was Anton’s nephew). The technique emphasizes “inner and outer gesture” as a way to understanding characters.
It is easy to see where Arnold draws on this in The Lydia Etudes as she boyishly brushed her hair to the side as she played Chekhov or reached for the letters above her as Lydia, sometimes with a hopeful reach and other times in a sign of frustration or longing.
Arnold was first introduced to the Michael Chekhov technique when she was in graduate school; she said that it was “a gift of a movement teacher … it was a seed planted in my brain.” Arnold attended a movement workshop, which she called “revelatory” and continued to study the technique for three years, attending every Michael Chekhov workshop.
Arnold praised the technique for its ability to allow her to become the character inwardly, saying, “I’m in theatre because I want to be something other than Arnold. With art we can become more than we think we are.”
Professor and Chair of Theater Liz Carlin-Metz agreed with Arnold, noting that there is the “exceptional ability of the actor to imaginatively and physically release into the character and manifest the character because the process demands that one is in one’s body, connected to the psychology of the character.”
Carlin-Metz spoke highly of Arnold’s work, saying that it can, “ … encourage creativity, innovation, and confidence in presentation skills across the curriculum.”
To further immerse herself in the play, Arnold created a soundtrack to help her and indeed the music contributes to the emotions in the play, uplifting when Lydia feels uplifted and dark during the moments where Lydia feels pressure from her husband or estranged from Chekhov.
During the post-show discussion, audience members praised Arnold for her performance and ability to portray so many diverse characters. “I think you’ve got Chekhov,” Professor Robin Metz extolled. When asked how the play changes each time she performs it, Arnold answered, “it changes in my connection to it, always.”
A connection is an important aspect in theatre — one that Arnold feels when she is performing and one that she expertly communicates to audiences.