FACULTY SPOTLIGHT: ANYA SAFFIR
The play might be the thing – but it hasn’t been the only thing for a long time. Film, TV, and webisodes have served as launching pads for countless actors (hell, Patrick Stewart tried picking up a gig on The Daily Show). So it might seem an old-fashioned approach to hone in on the classics. I mean, when it comes to Shakespeare, or Chekhov, or the Greeks… how many ways are there to do it?
Anya Saffir, who teaches Shakespeare, Chekhov, and postwar British drama at the Atlantic, would answer by pointing to a single scene from Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters. Several years ago, while students were performing at Atlantic Stage 2 (in this case, on the working set of Atlantic ensemble member David Pittu’s What’s That Smell?), an actress playing Irina decided to improvise a little. After a devastating speech about love, loss, and heartache, she crawled under a nearby piano, hiding herself under a blanket. As her sister spoke, she let out sobs and wails… which inadvertently became a case of the hiccups. “And then the Three Sisters devolved from sobbing… into laughing,” Saffir recalls. “It became this hiccupping, laughing mess, all under a grand piano. The whole group, including me, was laughing and crying. And it seemed unbelievable that – well, that this was happening – but also that there seemed to be no other way this scene should ever be played.”
Anya Saffir is beginning her fourteenth year as an instructor at the Atlantic Acting School. An alum of the NYU acting program herself, she has With her unique perspective on how Practical Aesthestics can be applied to the classics (she’s an alum of the NYU acting program herself) she has directed dozens of school productions, including Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, Chekhov’s The Bear, and Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Our Country’s Good. Her work has appeared throughout New York, including an award-winning production of Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle that earned acclaim for its energetic, spontaneous storytelling.
That spontaneity, she says, combined with stakes high enough to reduce characters to giggling sobs, is the perfect example of why the classics still matter – not just to audiences, but to actors looking to improve their technique.
“I think everything can be acted like it’s Shakespeare or Chekhov,” she says. “There’s a reason so many of the great actors of our time have classical training – and that’s because if you can do the classical work, which is so challenging… you can apply that craft to absolutely anything, and be ten times the actor you would be otherwise.” Whether it’s comfort with language, physical comedy, or expressing yourself in front of an audience, Saffir believes these skills have a huge impact on screen, as well as stage.
Nor do her classes restrict themselves to acting. Saffir is a firm believer in actors helping themselves by learning how to self-direct.
“Every actor needs to have a director within them,” she says. “If you don’t have a director within you, you can’t prepare for the audition. You have nothing to bring to the table when you’re working with a great director. You’ll be lost if you have a director who’s more interested in design aspects than directing” – a trait especially common, she adds, in film directors.
According to Saffir, the purpose of her class, and the purpose of Practical Aesthetics in general, is to make actors flexibly autonomous – capable of working with an ensemble, or, if necessary, by themselves. Students direct their own scenes before they ever receive an outside eye, and are forced to make critical decisions before they hit the stage. Hopefully, she says, well-informed directorial decisions will allow actors to jump into roles headfirst, and not to over-think moments when they are onstage – and hopefully, create many more hiccuping fits before the scene is over.
She’ll get her own chance to measure up to Chekhov’s legacy. Saffir travels to Moscow next year with the American Repertory Theater to present a trio of Thornton Wilder one-acts at the Moscow Art Theatre. It’s the stage where Chekhov himself introduced the world to the Three Sisters – but there’s no word yet on whether a grand piano will be onstage.