Acting Chekhov in Translation

4 Plays, 100 Ways

by Robin Beth Levenson (Author)
©2019 Textbook XXX, 310 Pages


I am in awe of Robin Beth Levenson's scholarship and the detail of her research, as well as her ability to explain to the reader how the various translations of Chekhov's plays create such different blessings and curses for the actor trying to say the right words. This book is an amazing and unique achievement - Bruce Katzman, actor, teacher, director, www.secretsofchekhov.com
Iconic Russian writer Anton Chekhov is recognized as the most translated and produced playwright in the world after William Shakespeare—that is, he is the most produced and most highly regarded modern playwright in English translation. Chekhov’s style models our behaviors and aspirations in alluring and intricate ways, unmatched in playwriting. His plays determined Realism in language and acting practice from the late 19th century to the present. Acting Chekhov in Translation: 4 Plays, 100 Ways explores the history of translation, contemporary and controversial approaches to stage translation, the notion of "action" from Aristotle to Adler (and beyond), and Chekhov’s inimitable dramaturgy. English translations, adaptations and versions of The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, The Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard are each considered from the actors’ points of view, from the page to the stage.
The nature of stage translation has recently undergone novel and provocative changes: how can someone who does not know the source language adapt or translate a play? It is done frequently, and the outcomes are investigated herein. For the translator as well as practitioners, understanding theatre craft is essential to producing playable and engaging productions. Differences in the language, punctuation, syntax, sound, rhythm, stage directions and what appears on the written page in various translations affect the work of the actor on the playscript.
The purpose of this inquiry is not to definitively evaluate or interpret Chekhov’s plays but to discover approaches to working on plays in translation and to determine practical tools we may use in the analysis of dramatic form, as well as human behavior. This book includes selections from 145 translations and translators of all four plays and a glossary of acting terms that helps describe concepts for practical script analysis.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • Advance Praise for Acting Chekhov in Translation
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • List of Illustrations
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction
  • Bibliography
  • Chapter One: Translation
  • Definitions
  • A Brief History of Translation
  • References
  • Chapter Two: Modern Approaches to Translation
  • Translation for Actors
  • References
  • Chapter Three: The Translator as Artist
  • The Rehearsal and The Audience
  • Translation, Adaptation or Version?
  • References
  • Chapter Four: Action
  • Definitions
  • Teachers and Theorists
  • Directors and Stanislavsky
  • Action in Practice
  • Back in the U.S.S.R.
  • References
  • Chapter Five: Chekhov’s Dramaturgy
  • Chekhov’s Dramaturgy as Metaphor
  • Chekhov on Writing: Objectivity and Nature, Grace and Rhythm
  • Structures of Action
  • Biography and Dramaturgy
  • References
  • Chapter Six: The Seagull
  • Title and Character Names
  • The Translations, Act I, Scene 1
  • Stage Directions
  • Actions, Stage Directions and Word Choice
  • Stage Directions
  • Punctuation, Stage Directions and Word Choice
  • Word Choice and Pauses
  • The Translations, Act IV, Final Scene
  • Word Choice
  • Action, Punctuation and Rhythm
  • Word Choice and Syntax
  • Action, Stage Directions and Circles of Attention
  • Word Choice, Syntax and Rhythm
  • References
  • Chapter Seven: Uncle Vanya
  • Word Choices
  • Title and Character Names
  • Stage Directions, Act I
  • The Translations, Act III, Scene 3
  • Word Choice and Sound
  • Word Meaning
  • Punctuation
  • Final Word Choice and Sound
  • The Translations, Act IV, Final Scene
  • References
  • Chapter Eight: The Three Sisters
  • The Translations, Act I, Scene 1
  • Stage Directions
  • The Translations, Act IV, Scene 1
  • The Translations, Act III, Final Scene
  • Word Choice, Sound, Syntax and Punctuation
  • The Translations, Act IV
  • Song and Allusion
  • Sound and Rhythm
  • Stage Directions
  • References
  • Chapter Nine: The Cherry Orchard
  • Title and Character Names
  • The Translations, Stage Directions, Act I
  • Stage Directions
  • The Translations, Act II, Scene One
  • Change of Scene/A Traveler
  • The Translations, Act IV, Scene One
  • Stage Directions
  • The Translations, Act IV, Final Scene
  • Word Choice
  • Word Sounds
  • Word Meaning
  • Sound Effects
  • Action
  • Punctuation/Rhythm
  • Word Choice and Sound
  • References
  • Chapter Ten: A Body of Beauty
  • References
  • Bibliography
  • Appendix A: Glossary
  • References
  • Appendix B: The Cited Plays and Their Translators, 145 Renditions
  • Index

| xiii →


Figure 6.1: The Seagull. Dianne Wiest as Arkadina and Alan Cumming as Trigorin, at the Classic Stage Company, NYC, 2008.

Figure 6.2: The Seagull. John Christopher Jones as Sorin, at the Classic Stage Company, NYC, 2008.

Figure 7.1: Uncle Vanya. Ksenia Rappoport as Elena and Elena Kalinina as Sonia from The Maly Drama Theatre, St. Petersburg, Russia, on tour at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, NYC, 2010.

Figure 7.2: Uncle Vanya. Sergey Kuryshev as Vanya and Ksenia Rappoport as Elena, from The Maly Drama Theatre, St. Petersburg, Russia, on tour at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, NYC, in 2010.

Figure 8.1: The Three Sisters Come and Go. Jackie Lowe, Claire Lebowitz and Liza Cassidy, Theaterlab, NYC, in 2010.

Figure 9.1: The Cherry Orchard. Katherine Alt Keener as Mme. Ranevskaya (Lyubov) and Sue-Ellen Mandell as Gayev, Columbia University Theatre, NYC, 2017. ← xiii | xiv →

Figure 9.2: The Cherry Orchard. Katherine Alt Keener as Mme. Ranevskaya and Sue-Ellen Mandell as Gayev, Columbia University Theatre, NYC, 2017.

Figure 9.3: The Cherry Orchard. Daniel Stompor as Anya with Katherine Alt Keener as Mme. Ranevskaya in Act III. Columbia University Theatre, NYC, 2017.

| xv →


I am most grateful for the suggestions and support of New York University professors Dr. Deborah Borisoff and Dr. Nancy Smithner, whose close readings and uncanny abilities to articulate the crux of my work at each stage of its development were stunning. Dr. Joanna Rotté’s knowledge of and dedication to acting practice and Chekhov are immeasurable, and she helped me see the path and purpose of this work clearly, and more objectively. I cannot thank all three of them enough.

Neil Postman’s generosity, kindness and humor helped me begin writing early on in the work, and to continue through the hardest times. Lowell Swortzell sparked initial ideas for the study, without which it would not ever have come to be. I am thankful they were my mentors and teachers.

My teachers Ron Burrus, Stella Adler, Yevgeny Lanskoy, Allen Schoer, Carol Rocamora, Richard Schechner, Nancy Swortzell, Helen White, Chris Vine, Franz Rijnbout, Slava Dolgatchev, John Harrop, Stanley Glenn, Michael Addison, Richard Rizzo, Richard P. Brown, Jules Aaron, Eric Barr, Rip Parker, Kristin Linklater, Patsy Rodenburg, Ruth Morgenroth, Geneviève DeLattre and Robert Carrelli were among those who shaped my experience of acting, of Chekhov, and views on theatre and literature; their sparks are also present in this study.

I give special thanks to Sharon Carnicke, Phyllis Zatlin, John Turturro, Simon Russell Beale, Jean-Claude Van Itallie, Dakin Matthews, Phoebe Brand, Stephen and Miranda Carnovsky, Paul Lazar, Louis Zorich, Olympia Dukakis, Austin ← xv | xvi → Pendleton, Liev Schreiber, Andrew Upton, Lee Blessing, Edward Albee, Irene Moore, John Strasberg, Orietta Crispino, Martin Sherman, Tom Donaghy, Anne Bogart, Dina Dodin, Nancy Meckler, Julie W. de Sherbinin, Laurence Senelick, Earle Gister, Chay Yew, John Gould Rubin, John Christopher Jones, Tim Craig, Štepán Šimek, Tom Markus, Royston Coppenger, Ron Sossi, Bella Merlin, Lawrence Sacharow, Stephen Wangh, Katherine Alt Keener, Karen Braga, Tom Oppenheim, Marat Yusim, Tracy Bersley, Nellie McCaslin, Joni Swartz, Tracy Shaffer, Charlotte Patton, Lance Strate, Martin Levinson, the cast of 3 × 3 Sisters and Allen Schoer with The Actor’s Institute (TAI) who graciously furnished the space for our staged reading. The published or unpublished works, interviews, photographs, conversations, classes, rehearsals and stage productions of these artists were all helpful to this study.

Editors Kathryn Harrison and Erika Hendrix at Peter Lang provided insights and support that were elemental in preparing the book for publishing. I am supremely grateful for their tireless patience and encouragement. I am also grateful to Michael Doub for his cheer and reinforcement, and Luke McCord for his detailed comments and suggestions on the final production copy of the book.

The support of family and friends has been extraordinary. I thank Shirley Levenson, an incisive editor, Bob Levenson, Laurie Levenson, Valerie Kane, Gene Zerna and Martha Rodriguez for their counsel and compassion. My husband, Nick Andrews, has sustained and advised me, contributing meaningfully to the work at every turn. I am deeply in his debt.

| xvii →


Acting teacher Stella Adler said, “I am a student by nature. I am a scholar as well as an actress” (1999: 195). This is not surprising. Ideally, actors do practical research on their roles; they are “script interpreters” and, Adler declares, “unless you can interpret a script you are not an actor” (4). I am a scholar and an actor as well: acting professionally in Los Angeles and New York and teaching acting, theatre, drama, voice and speech and communication have all contributed to my understanding and study of acting, dramatic literature, and human behavior. This book, however, does not presume to “interpret” Anton Chekhov’s work definitively, or to assess which translations of his plays may be the “best.” It is, rather, an exploration of how practitioners and scholars may approach script analysis when the play is in translation. Interpretation is up to the individual production, and to the audience. Chekhov’s plays provide useful examples for this examination of the playscript.

The study came about in an attempt to explore how language differences in various translations of the text of a playscript might affect “Actions” played by the actor of the text onstage. It has become an investigation into the nature of translation itself, as well as the idea of “Action” as a concept in the theatre, and how notions of play translation and the Action underlying language in a playscript might be applied to the four masterworks of one of the most enigmatic and gifted playwrights in the world since Shakespeare. ← xvii | xviii →

While many critical studies on Anton Chekhov’s masterworks and translations and/or adaptations of his work continue to appear every year, few address how language affects performance, or how the Actor—the interpreter of the text in its final form, which is called the “playscript”—might approach the text, written in English “translation.” The title of this exploration of Chekhov’s plays is of course taken from the phrase “lost in translation,” which is ironically what happens to many cultural meanings whenever works are transposed from one language to another. New books on literary translation have been published recently, but few address translation for the stage, or Chekhov’s works. This is bizarre since Chekhov’s plays—more than any other Realist writings—changed the way we approach acting practice on the stage, and in film and television. With the slashing of the arts and drama in particular from school curricula in the U.S., the learning of vital communication skills are lost as well. This is devastating for our students and society at large. This examination of stage work, Chekhov and the nature of translating foreign cultures is an attempt to open doors to global communication and understanding.

The study is divided into four parts. The first three chapters examine the nature of literature translation in general, and then translation for the stage in particular. The second part, Chapter IV, examines the notion of “Action,” which helps define overall play structure, as well as characters’ individual purposes and movements through a play. Chapter V is the third part of the study, and it explores Chekhov’s distinctive dramaturgy, which has had so much impact on writers and playwrights since the early twentieth century. Lastly, the fourth part, Chapters VI through IX, is comprised of explications of Chekhov’s canon using elements described and discovered in parts one, two and three.

More specifically, Chapter I discusses the difficulties of translation from various points of view, describes how it is a transfer of “situations” rather than just words, and gives views on interpretation. Then, a short history of translation precipitates discussion of “literal” versus “true to the spirit” styles of translation.

Chapter II delves into the modern age of translation, where dramatic literature is finally seen as a separate area of study. Factors that affect translation for the stage include the recognition that audiences have individual responses to theatrical signs, with regard to time and cultural perceptions, and that translators have diverse (and contrary) criteria for translation. Time and culture-bound intricacies continue to affect translation throughout history. “Intuition” has a place in translation, rather than specific theories or practices. While attempts to formalize translation practice persist with linguists, theatre translators understand that the play is written to be performed, and must be adapted to particular performance venues. Some translators still wrestle with notions of “readability” versus “performability,” ← xviii | xix → though theatre translators see the playscript as only a “blueprint” for performance. Modern critics,’ theorists’ and directors’ outlooks on these issues are presented. Teacher, critic and translator Robert Corrigan and others put forward the idea that plays are structured from Action, and that the actor is the core of the drama. This idea, however, is not yet accepted by many linguists and literary translators.

Chapter III describes how current Chekhov translators have come to the fore as primary artists in remodeling Chekhov’s plays, though they do not claim to know the source language. Their uses of interlinear “cribs”—literal translations fashioned by a Russian speaker (often unnamed) and then reshaped for performance by a “playwright-translator”—may greatly affect the translations. While theatre practitioners may create “playable” renditions, literary translators feel it is imperative for a translator or adaptor to know the source language. The value of understanding the rehearsal process and the actor’s contribution to the text are addressed, as well as the significance of the audience. Differences among “translations,” “adaptations” and “versions” of scripts are described at length. Finally, translators discuss the importance of recreating rhythm in the translated script, and the necessity of “love” or kinship with the source playwright.

If the playscript is only a plan or “blueprint” for the play, what brings the actual performance alive on the stage? The notion of “Action” is explored in Chapter IV (See Appendix A/Glossary),1 considered the second part of the study. From Aristotle’s Poetics, and Constantin Stanislavsky’s system of acting, the notion of “Action” is proposed as a basic tool of drama, helping to create the “poetry of the theatre.” This idea is recognized by critics Bernard Beckerman and Francis Fergusson, and playwright Jean Cocteau, as well as adherents of Stanislavsky. Vasily Toporkov, an actor who was under Stanislavky’s direction at the Moscow Art Theatre, along with master teacher Stella Adler and director Jerzy Grotowski, have various views on Action. Toporkov worked with Stanislavsky on the “Method of Physical Action,” which began with the actor learning to play simple physical actions truthfully. Adler, an American teacher who has inspired or had an affect on thousands of acting students, has been particularly articulate as a proponent of Stanislavsky’s view of Action. She has taught students to play truthfully in the circumstances of the play (see Appendix). Adler’s and Fergusson’s teachers, Boleslavsky and Ouspenskaya, and especially Anton Chekhov’s nephew Michael Chekhov, continue to have an impact on actor-training. Michael Chekhov’s “Psychological Gesture” helps the actor find appropriate Actions in the circumstances of the play. ← xix | xx →

Vsevolod Meyerhold, an actor in Stanislavsky’s productions, is, perhaps, the best-known Russian practitioner and theorist to develop his own practice in contrast to that of his mentor. Director/theorist Jerzy Grotowski, too, takes ideas from Stanislavsky, and creates his own “poor theatre,” as well as his later construct known as “Objective Drama Research.” Bertolt Brecht was another admirer of Stanislavsky. Other practitioners, who may not have acknowledged Stanislavsky’s notion of “Action” per se, have still used it in their work. Examples include theatre directors Joseph Chaikin and Anne Bogart. Uta Hagen, Morris Carnovsky and Sanford Meisner (the latter two with The Group Theatre) all recognize the importance of Action for actors, while directors Charles Marowitz and Peter Brook use other metaphors to describe stage praxis. Still, Marowitz’s “awakening susceptibilities to the play’s situations” and Brook’s “energy and inspiration” may both be descriptions of Action.

Finally, researchers and practitioners such as Sharon Carnicke, Irina and Igor Levin and Bella Merlin note the work of Stanislavsky’s students who worked with him on the Method of Physical Actions in his final years, and taught his methods to other students: directors/teachers Knebel, Kedrov and Tostonogov are names still recognized by Russian and some American teachers and practitioners. Stanislavsky’s “Method of Physical Actions” became “Active Analysis” to these later practitioners, but the notion of an actor’s Action as “movement with purpose” is common to them all. The point in this chapter is that the notion of Action, replete in Aristotle, has been passed down as “lore” to acting students in the classroom through master teachers, rather than documented in books. Action is a concept put into practice by Stanislavsky, and tested in Anton Chekhov’s plays. It was the plays, however, that created the need for a consummate acting theory and practice that could be applied to Chekhov’s later works.

Chekhov’s last plays have been seen as plays of “mood.” The third part of the study, Chapter V, is devoted to Chekhov’s dramaturgy—that is, the structures and theatrical poetry—of Chekhov’s plays through metaphors of “lace,” Impressionism and music. His work is compared to a “feeling of sadness and longing, not akin to pain” (from Longfellow) because his style is neither altogether comedy nor tragedy, but something potent and yet delicate that falls between the two. Many playwrights and writers over the past 100 years have claimed Chekhov as an influence.

Artists as diverse as Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, poet Andrey Bely and French playwright Jean Cocteau have described Chekhov’s works and theatre art in general through the metaphor of “lace.” This is because Chekhov’s plays are full of “holes”—the pauses, interstices and ellipses seem to thwart attempts to pin down his meanings, or even label his style. Chekhov has, however, been called a “Symbolist,” as his “spotty” or lacelike punctuation is seen to imply “deeper meanings” in ← xx | xxi → the playscript. While writers and critics point to Chekhov’s “Symbolist” leanings, they leave out that it is the actor who must sort out the possible deeper or hidden meanings of Chekhov’s dialogue and stage directions, in the playing.

Chekhov’s canon (his last four masterpieces) has been labeled “Impressionist” too, by various Russian critics, as well as by English and American writers and theatre practitioners. Maurice Valency (The Breaking String) writes that this “impressionism” makes Chekhov difficult for the actor, while actor Ian McKellen (The Cambridge Companion to Chekhov) states Chekhov is the actor’s “friend.” This illustrates how a lack of knowledge of script analysis and of Action as the core of the drama promulgates misunderstandings of Chekhov’s work, even by gifted critics.

Meyerhold may have been the first to comment on Chekhov’s plays’ likeness to music. Musical harmonies are analogous to both the plays’ internal dialogue (the characters who don’t seem to hear each other) and the scene structure of each individual work. The irony in juxtaposition of scenes and monologues is akin to the strategies of Gustave Flaubert, another pioneering Realist. In the French writer’s novels, as in Chekhov’s plays, characters say one thing and do another. In the burgeoning “Realist” style, this was seen as “objective” writing, which both Flaubert and Chekhov espouse.

Chekhov puts emphasis on objectivity in a writer. He uses Nature in his plays to point up the need for a healthy objective indifference towards characters. Though his objectivity caused his critics (Tolstoy among them) to accuse him of not taking social or political stands as a writer, Chekhov’s dramaturgy does have meaning, and promotes thoughtful reflection on characters presented in all their fullness and fallibility. Though Russian and American critics have considered Chekhov’s precursors to be poets and playwrights from Pushkin through Turgenev (coincidentally a friend of Flaubert’s), Chekhov’s style is unique. Director Stanislavsky admits to having been puzzled by it: while Chekhov considered his plays comedies (with the exception of Three Sisters), Stanislavsky imposed heavy “Naturalist” details on productions, and belabored the mood. But key elements of structure and language in Chekhov’s plays, discussed in depth, reveal both comedy and pathos in his iconoclastic approach to playwriting. Finally, significant events in Chekhov’s life that may have affected his dramaturgy are noted.

Next, in Chapters VI through IX, which comprise the fourth section of this study, elements of Chekhov’s dramaturgy are applied to close script analyses of selected scenes in translations of Chekhov’s plays, in chronological order: Seagull, Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters and Cherry Orchard. The import of play titles and character names, stage directions, actor’s Actions, word choice, word meaning, punctuation, pauses, rhythm, syntax, sound, song and allusion are treated variously as they ← xxi | xxii → occur in scenes from each play. Translations and scenes have been chosen based on the most variant and divergent examples of language and uses of these elements, observed in available texts of each of the four plays. These last four chapters also incorporate descriptions of the plots, characters and events in each play that provoke Actions.

In Chapter VI on Seagull, a discussion of “the well-made play” is included, as Chekhov’s works—especially beginning with Seagull—were blatant reactions against this formulaic and often overly Romantic style of drama. In these four chapters, notes on particular style choices, the use of leitmotifs, the structures of particular scenes or Acts, character eccentricities or groupings and useful observations from practitioners, critics and translators are also included as they apply to particular plays.

The Conclusion, Chapter X, sums up how the nature of translation for the stage, the notion of Action, and the myriad elements in Chekhov’s dramaturgy expressed in diverse translations of his last four plays combine to influence the actor’s approach to the text. The significance of this for educators and theatre artists is broached, along with suggestions for further study.


Adler, Stella. The Art of Acting. Ed. Howard Kissel. New York: Applause Books, 2000.

———. On Ibsen, Strindberg and Chekhov. Ed. Barry Paris. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999.

———. “The Reality of Doing,” Tulane Drama Review, IX(1): 136–155, Fall 1964.

———. The Technique of Acting. New York: Bantam Books, 1988.

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Arrowsmith, William and Roger Shattuck, eds. The Craft and Context of Translation. Austin: The University of Texas Press, 1961.

Beckerman, Bernard. Dynamics of Drama. New York: Drama Book Specialists, 1979.

Benedetti, Jean, ed. Dear Writer, Dear Actress. London: Methuen Drama, 1996.

———. The Moscow Art Theatre Letters. New York: Routledge, 1991.

———. Stanislavski. New York: Routledge, 1990.

———. Stanislavski: An Introduction. London: Methuen, 1982.

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———. Letter to the author, September, 2006.

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Brecht, Bertolt. Brecht on Theatre. Trans. and ed. John Willett. New York: Hill and Wang, 1964.

Brook, Peter. The Empty Space. New York: Avon Books, 1968. ← xxii | xxiii →

———. Interview with Genista McIntosh, Royal National Theatre/Olivier Theatre, November 5, 1993a. Also at: website-archive.nt-online.org.

———. The Open Door. New York: Random House, 1993b.

———. The Shifting Point. New York: Harper & Row, 1987.

Callow, Philip. Chekhov: the Hidden Ground. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1998.

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———. Stanislavsky in Focus. Australia: Harwood Academic Publishers, 1998.

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———. Notebook of Anton Chekhov. Trans. S. S. Koteliansky. New York: P. W. Huebsch, 1922.

———. The Oxford Chekhov. Trans. Ronald Hingley. London: Oxford University Press, Vol. II, 1967, Vol. III, 1964 and Vol. IX, 1975.

———. The Personal Papers of Anton Chekhov. Trans. S. S. Koteliansky. New York: Lear Publishers, 1948.

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———. The Idea of a Theatre. Garden City, NY: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1953.

———.“The Notion of Action,” Tulane Drama Review, 9:85–87, Fall 1964.

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Flood, Alison. “Tolstoy thought Chekhov ‘worse than Shakespeare.’ ” The Guardian, July 11, 2011. ← xxiii | xxiv →

Friedberg, Maurice. Literary Translation in Russia. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997.

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XXX, 310
ISBN (Hardcover)
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2019 (January)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2019. XXX, 310 pp., 8 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Robin Beth Levenson (Author)

Robin Beth Levenson completed her BA in French and dramatic art at the University of California, Santa Barbara; her MFA in acting at the University of California, Riverside; and her PhD in music and performing arts at New York University. She has written articles for Communications From the International Brecht Society on Woyzeck and The Seagull, for Dialogues in Social Justice: An Adult Education Journal on Ta-Nehisi Coates, and for the New York Society for General Semantics on language and George Gurdjieff, as well as publications for the New York State Communication Association, where she is also on the executive board. She has acted professionally in Los Angeles and New York, on stage and in film. She is currently Assistant Professor of Communication at LaGuardia Community College, CUNY. Her research interests include how language influences thought and behavior and the nature of performance.


Title: Acting Chekhov in Translation
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