Alana Arenas | Performer of the week interview

Dan Waller and Alana Arenas in Three Sisters at Steppenwolf Theatre Company

Dan Waller and Alana Arenas in Three Sisters at Steppenwolf Theatre Company Photograph: Michael Brosilow

In Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters, the dreams of the titular trio are crushed by an unfair world. One of the obstacles standing in the sisters’ way is Natasha, their demanding sister-in-law played with fiery vigor by Steppenwolf ensemble member Alana Arenas in Tracy Letts’s new adaptation of the classic drama. A native of Miami, Florida, Arenas attended the New World School of Arts with fellow Steppenwolf ensemble member Tarell Alvin McCraney, and moved to Chicago to attend the Theatre School at DePaul. Her career changed drastically when she starred as Pecola in Steppenwolf’s adaptation of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, leading to an offer in 2007 to join Steppenwolf’s venerable ensemble. Arenas talks to us about what it means to be a Steppenwolf ensemble member, how she sympathized with her character, and why Chekhov’s plays continue to resonate with contemporary audiences.

How did becoming a Steppenwolf ensemble member change your career?

It dramatically changed, because one of the things about acting is that it’s a very, very unpredictable lifestyle and being a company member somewhere, having an artistic home, it’s nice because there’s an opportunity for you to always see theater. Especially in my company, there’s a lot of people there that I look up to, that I admire, so there’s an opportunity to always be inspired to do better and be sort of fed, artistically, and I have to say that my company has also been very generous with offering me roles, so it’s been a really huge benefit to me.

When you first were cast as Natasha, how much of the adaptation had been completed? Did it change in rehearsals?

It changed but it didn’t change drastically. And that could be perception, because I didn’t have a lot of drastic changes from the script. Maybe different characters from the show would have different things to say about that, but I think for the most part, to the degree that a show can change—because I’ve been in one of those processes as well, where there’d be whole new scenes and stuff like that—this didn’t change in that way.

Everyone in the play is a villain in their own way, but your character is one of the big antagonists. How do you work to make that character empathetic, and how do you get into that character’s head and make it someone that you want to play?

Well, so here’s the thing. I actually was just having a conversation with my boyfriend last night about Natasha, and it had to do with a lot of people walking away feeling that Natasha is the B-word, and when I was talking to him about my character, he said ‘Wow, you really like your character a lot.’ I guess from his perspective I justify her reasoning a lot, to the point where I actually don’t see her as the B-word, I see her as a person who actually wants to get along with people, she wants everybody to be on board with the sort of things that she thinks are good, but they don’t get on board and she’s finally forced to say, ‘Well whether you’re on board or not, this is what the program is going to be.”

Is that the main thing that you sympathized with in her character? Is that something you see in yourself as well?

No, actually what I actually sympathize with the most is that these are people who to some degree look down at Natasha, they make judgments about Natasha, and when I say “they,” I’m mainly talking about the sisters. There are certain comments about Natasha’s taste in clothes, you know I’m called a “Philistine,” and I think that has to do with the actual commentary of the play as it's written. I can’t say as an authority that perhaps Chekhov was commenting on the actual social climate of the entrepreneur class, the merchants that would lead to revolution in Russia, but based on the research that I’ve been reading, these people had a very, very, very negative reputation in Russia. Like the upwardly mobile bourgeoisie, the working class were trying to attain things and acquire things and create a social ladder that could be climbed up, and they wanted to climb up it very fast. I think Natasha’s a person who didn’t have what they have, and she wants it and she’s trying to acquire it and in some ways makes judgments about how they are handling the things that they have, or how they are mishandling the things that they have. You know, if you have servants, the servants should serve.  So I sympathize with somebody who’s trying to do better with their life and just trying to earn—just trying to be better, just be more. And being looked down upon because of that, because she wasn’t born into any sort of status that they would acknowledge as equal footing with them.

What kind of research did you do into the historical background? Did you read any other adaptations of Three Sisters?

The other adaptation I read of Three Sisters was extremely early on. It was before we got into rehearsals, and I didn’t quite connect with it. But I will tell you that we had a dramaturg who was phenomenal, her name is Dassia [N. Posner]. Our table work was invaluable for me. Just sitting down with the play, reading the play, being able to ask questions. Because Dassia is a dramaturg, but she’s also Russian. She’s also just very great, she’s phenomenal at her job. A lot of the questions just had to do with "What does this mean culturally?" Because nobody in the room is Russian. There’s one actor who’s Eastern European, but for me that’s very important, because I feel like culture shapes a lot of somebody’s perspective, it shapes how they decide to fit in the given circumstances of the culture, or not in the given circumstances of the culture. It informs a lot for me. So a lot of questions I had were based around ‘What does this mean in this culture?’ to help me understand to really get inside the person. So it was really the dramaturg packet, the dramaturg sitting around with [director] Anna [D. Shapiro] and Tracy [Letts] with the cast just doing tablework, that was golden for me.

How was it working with Tracy and Anna as a team?

I feel like working with Tracy and Anna is—you are on the U.S. Olympic team for theater. You are working with champs. There was actually a point in the process where I thought, "You could give them anything and it would be amazing." If they’re in the room together it doesn’t matter what play it is, they’re going to ride you, encourage you, inspire you to give the audience an experience that is human, that is true. These are people who are really approaching the work with an extreme amount of passion and respect for the art and for the craft. So these aren’t people who are okay with "Well, we’ll throw up this play in time and then it’s okay if everything doesn’t work out." These are people who are striving not for it just to work out, but for it to work out well. And they inspire you to do the same.

Why do you think Chekhov’s plays, specifically Three Sisters, are revived so often? What do you think still speaks to contemporary audiences?

Well here’s the thing. I’m going to tell you very honestly. When I got the play, I’m going to be very honest, I’m not a person who in the past has gotten Chekhov. I don’t get it. I thought the play was about people sitting around being like, “Oh my God, I want to go to Moscow.” And they’re fat. And I just, I actually did read Three Sisters when I was in college, and I didn’t get it then, and I thought, this is an opportunity to learn. I was really afraid, I was really scared, because I remembered that I didn’t get it. But I’m going in, and you know, let’s go. We get in the room, and as we start talking about, like I said, uncovering what is the cultural circumstance, I think, “Chekhov is a genius, he’s a gangster genius.” I would call him a G, that’s what I want to call him. Because of real-life human circumstance. The three sisters are having this wonderful bonding moment, and then enters Natasha with all of her crap. And that’s real-life stuff.

And I think the reason why it gets revived is that if you can get at the heart of the play, if you can get at what Chekhov was intending to write—I know that’s something that Tracy was very concerned about. There are a lot of adaptations that have been done of Chekhov’s work, and as Americans sometimes we never really uncover what Chekhov was writing for the Russian audience, what he was writing for the world, because of something getting lost in translation. And [Letts’s] desire was to fully bring to the fact that this is a very human story that everybody can relate to. We’re human beings, we’re pondering what it is to live and what it is to long for something that’s just an idea, and how to really be present in this moment with satisfaction. Because this is life—you can dream about going home, you can dream about when you become this, or when you become that—and then even if you get it, you’ll find something else to be dissatisfied with. So how do you find your happiness in the present moment when everything that you want is still an idea looming in your head and life can be always elusive?

Three Sisters runs through August 26 at Steppenwolf Theatre (1650 N. Halsted St, 312-335-1650). Read our review of Three Sisters.

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