SPOTLIGHT: Veronica Rodriguez Ballesteros

Many Harvard students consider the outside lives of their teaching fellows a mystery. For Verónica Rodríguez Ballesteros, a TF for Spanish A, there lies a persistent passion for theater behind the verb conjugations and vocabulary lists. Pursuing a PhD in theater studies at the prestigious Complutense University of Madrid, Rodríguez premiered an original play, “Chéjov en el jardín” (“Chekhov in the Garden”), on Feb. 21 at the Teatro Español, a prominent theater in Madrid, where it will run through March 16.

“Chekhov in the Garden” was inspired by Rodríguez’s passion for Russian theater. “This project emerged from my fascination with Anton Chekhov, because he was a very mysterious person in life,” Rodríguez says. “Nobody got to know him deeply, so he had an aura of mystery, and we wanted to try to approach his figure.”

Rodríguez, who is writing her dissertation on Chekhov’s contributions to drama, also sought to express the elusiveness of his writing. The play revolves around six historical characters, all related to Chekhov’s life, that have made a journey to a strange garden. Realizing that it is Chekhov’s garden, they wait for the legendary master to arrive. The six characters—who include Maxim Gorky, Chekhov’s celebrated contemporary, and Vera Komissarzhevskaya, the most famous Russian actress of Chekhov’s time—want Chekhov to answer questions about their journey to the garden, but he never arrives.

“They are looking for a person who gives them answers, but they are looking for the wrong person in that sense because Chekhov never gives answers,” Rodríguez says.

The premiere marked the first time that one of Rodríguez’s plays was performed by a major theater, but she is no stranger to the stage. Rodríguez began acting as a young girl and directed her first play when she was 12. She acted throughout college while studying English and literary theory, and began writing and directing as a graduate student. In 2003, she won best director and best play at the Complutense University Festival for José Sanchis Sinisterra’s “Lope de Aguirre, traidor,” the first play she directed profesionally.

“Chekhov in the Garden” was already a finalist in the Premi Born de Teatro, a coveted prize for playwriting in Spain, and reviews of the play are due out this week. However, despite the audience’s positive reaction, the 30-year-old Rodríguez was slightly disappointed with the performance.

“I would say that it was a Chekhovian disappointment. In his stories, Chekhov always exposes men and women who are imagining and expecting something very important for them to come,” Rodríguez says. “They picture it so ideally that when the moment arrives, it is a big disappointment. But I am very happy with the performance of the actors and the reception of the audience. Maybe it was something more personal.”

She uses theater regularly in her Spanish class and recommends that students interested in playwriting be exposed to theatrical production.

“It was a process,” she says. “First I was an actress, and after having that experience, I decided to direct. Theater is a collective work, and I think that someone interested in writing drama should get near a stage, because you need to know its rules. They are very particular rules, and you need that experience in order to write.”

For “Chekhov in the Garden,” Rodríguez worked with Compañía de Actores Michael Chéjov (Michael Chekhov Actors’ Company), the same group that had performed her 2002 version of William Shakespeare’s “As You Like It.”

“Having the actors in mind helped me a lot to create the characters,” Rodríguez says. “Because this is the project of a company, I didn’t write the play in isolation. From the very beginning, I had their faces and their ways of acting in mind.”

Rodríguez came to the United States six months ago to temporarily separate from theater, claiming that she found it impossible to finish her dissertation while she was immersed in playwriting in Spain. Since arriving here, though, she has worked with Harvard College TEATRO! in the production of “Bodas de Sangre” (“Blood Weddings”), and she will direct “Tres Sombreros de Copa” (“Three Top Hats”), which premieres in May.

“This is only the beginning,” Rodríguez says, reflecting on her theatrical accomplishments. “I have a lot to do yet and a lot to learn yet.”