I had planned to dislike Remo, the acting professor whose Chekhov class I took last spring. I had planned to feel this way because all the theater people I knew who took his classes fawned over him in a way that drove me nuts. I often dislike theater people and the theater people liked Remo; ergo, I reasoned, I would not like Remo.
I decided that I would, regrettably, be unable to dislike Remo during the audition for his course. Inside the audition room — a cavernous rehearsal space he occupied alone — I said hello and commented on the absurd number of people waiting outside. Remo said hello back and that yes, he hated having to make choices about who got to be in his class and who didn’t. And then he asked me to deliver the audition monologue.
It was not this interaction that made me like him; people are always saying this kind of thing at Harvard without any particular passion, and I am no longer much affected by its sentiment.
I went to perform the monologue as I had prepared it, standing up with lots of pacing and hand gestures. He told me to sit down at a table across from him, and to say the words simply and with intention. This was not what made me like him either, although it chipped away at my frostiness. It was nice to be expected only to sit and speak simply.
Typically in an audition, while you act, the person you are trying to impress stares at the wall behind you, or at your clothes, and glances every once in a while toward your nose; or else if you are very lucky, the person on the other side of the table will lock eyes with you, except that when they do this they will make the most terrifying facial expression, something between disgust and boredom, and you will wish they had closed their eyes entirely.
In this audition, Remo’s eye contact was steady and inviting. When I said a sad line, he looked sad. When I got to a funny section, he laughed. He responded so normally that I began to suspect I might believe the words I was saying, that they might even be my own.
This was what made me decide to like Remo.
When I met Remo (Remo Airaldi ’85, if we’re being picky) for coffee on a recent Wednesday, I found him sitting in the sun, flipping through a giant plastic binder. He explained that he was preparing for a side gig at Dana Farber that required him to impersonate a patient or the relative of a patient so that doctors could practice delivering bad news. The intention of the program, he said, is to train doctors to improve their empathetic skills.
Generally speaking, I believe acting is inherently selfish, and that the only truly unselfish people who like to act are those who also devote themselves to its instruction. Remo — spends hours helping students crack scenes, routinely cries during in-class performances, helps doctors be nice — fits this type.
But when I asked him about the potential for theater to affect anyone outside of the person creating it, he did not immediately start on a discussion about how teaching allows him to give back, as I expected him to.
Instead, he explained that when he began his freshman year at Harvard, his ambitions skewed pre-med. Becoming a doctor would please his parents, neither of whom had attended college. He loved student theater but felt that choosing to act professionally prioritized his own desires over those of his family. Plus, he said, “I wanted to contribute to the world in some way, and does theater do that, really?”
He struggled with the morality of potential careers throughout college, but by graduation, had made up his mind. He auditioned for the American Repertory Theatre’s resident company, where he worked for the next twenty years. Since then, he estimates, he’s performed in at least 120 professional productions, though he’s never added them up.
Ultimately, he decided, there is something inherently generous about the act of performing. He likes to give his students copies of a 2009 interview with the British actress Juliet Stevenson, in which she described a proverbial banner that she imagines might hang in front of theaters, reading “Come to Recognise and be Recognised.”
When we go to the theater, Remo said, “we want to realize that we're not crazy, that other people have gone through or are going through an experience like ours. And the responsibility of reflecting that in a real way, in a truthful way — you know, the good, bad, and the ugly… this idea of sitting around, being told stories. We crave that on some primal, lizard-brain level.”
“So that felt like a nice thing to dedicate my life to.”
Mostly, though, acting as conceived by Remo is not about highfalutin ideals of empathy or dramatic moments of revelation — because these highs are tempered, and quite frankly, overshadowed by moments of challenge, frustration, and failure. Mostly, he thinks, good acting relies on an unflashy ability to trudge forward.
“If you stop to do the math,” he advised me, “and I am not one to do math! — But sometimes I’ll do math — ”
He likes to calculate the following equation: Compare the time spent revelling in the product to the hours of suffering through the process, and the odds are not in your favor. If you act because applause feels good, you won’t be long for this profession, he said. “Because the math doesn’t help you.”
“So I always tell my students: you have to fall in love with the process.”
Making a life out of acting requires that you get comfortable “with this idea of frustration — that that's a fun place to be in — rather than dreading it.”
Success, therefore, is “not some talent… it's just the ability to just, when a million people say no to you, you just keep going, and you just keep going.”
Remo sees every production on campus. Before I met him as a professor, I knew him as that man all the other theater kids greeted in the lobby after shows. Put up a play in a freshman dorm basement with two actors, one light, and six chairs, and Remo will fill one of them.
He confessed to me gravely during one Chekhov rehearsal that he was concerned about being able to see a play I was performing in that weekend. He had three other student shows to see, and he didn’t think the timing would line up.
I told him he seriously, seriously, did not need to come; that surely he, having made a life in professional theater, could not glean much enjoyment from the terrible plays we make in our twenties, and that he should give himself a break. He showed up at my Sunday matinee all the same.
One possible explanation for Remo’s attentive theatergoing lies simply in his investment in students. Over our coffee, he described teaching as a practice of shifting attention “off of myself, into you.”
“It’s a wonderful reminder that life is over there. Life is over there and over there where this group of people are going” — he pointed to a pack of students — “that's where life is, not sitting here in my own psychodrama.”
But also, he explained frankly, “I get much more bored at professional theater than I do at student theater.”
“There is this sense of this... energy? I don't know how else to describe it. People are trying things, they're trying to figure themselves out. They don't really know who they are.”
Scant resources beget creative solutions, and with a limited pool of student actors, directors often make unconventional casting decisions. This contrasts sharply with high-budget professional theater, the only occupation in the world in which a person can say with complete impunity that another person does not look the right way to book a job.
In his classes, Remo is known for casting scenes ‘against type,’ meaning characters that fulfill tropes — romantic lead, funny sidekick — need not be portrayed by an actor with the specific physical or behavioral characteristics we typically ascribe to such stereotypes.
He delegates roles according to this philosophy because he sees the classroom as a “laboratory” that, like college theater, has low enough stakes to allow for creative liberties.
But he also approaches his responsibilities as a teacher from his experiences acting.
“I'm not going to be the romantic lead,” he joked. “I've never been the romantic lead in anything in my life.” This is a reality he is resigned to. I objected: Typecasting seemed to me a symptom of the theater industry’s chronically underdeveloped imagination. “Everyone falls in love!” I said.
“Exactly,” he agreed. “Right. Within whatever limits of the character that you play, you can bring that aspect out, right?” For example, in a character that is coldly paternal, gruff and unyielding, “I will try to find the opposite of that on some level, which is a softness… a Romeo inside.”
This affinity for nuance reminded me of something he had said to my acting class before I performed in a scene as Natasha, the widely accepted villain of “Three Sisters.” Natasha is manipulative and greedy, increasingly cruel as she accumulates power, easy to hate. But as the rest of the class waited for my scene partner and I to set up our rudimentary set, Remo reminded them that Natasha has the only protagonist’s arc in the plot. She begins the play with very little and through sheer will, ends up with quite a lot. The sisters hurt her; she fights back and she wins. She is not a winner but she wins anyway. Perhaps there is something to admire in her grit, he said.
Remo’s cultish appeal among Harvard theater kids, I think, comes not simply from the fact that he approaches characters and students alike with the generosity he allowed Natasha, treating both as complex entities meriting empathy and respect. We like Remo because he affords us this compassion in the face of the deeply unpleasant requirements of standing in front of a group of people and pretending to be a person that you are not.
Remo is frank about this, the painful reckoning that acting can require: a kind of “taking inventory of yourself and embracing every part of you and being willing to share that.” Because “the more areas of your life that you go, ‘no, no, no,’ the less successful you're gonna be as an actor. You can't have a bunch of parts of you that are off limits.”
He embraces this ruthless vulnerability and says: This discomfort is a good thing, and it can become fulfilling and generative. If you do it right, perhaps it can even bring you joy.
“Uncle Vanya,” Chekhov’s last and most intimate play, ends with a monologue delivered by Sonia, the longsuffering niece of the titular character.
In the monologue, Sonia, who is herself mourning unrequited love and facing down the strong likelihood that the rest of her life will contain limited joy, tries to comfort her suicidal uncle.
“It’s so difficult for me,” Vanya says to her. “If only you knew how difficult it is!”
“What can we do?” she asks in response. “We’ll live. We’ll live.” We will live and we will suffer and most of the living will in fact be suffering, she says. And then, when all that is finished, many, many years from now, “we’ll smile and look back tenderly at our past unhappiness. And we’ll rest.”
When I prepared this monologue for performance on the last day of class, Remo and I spent a while mulling over the last line. In Annie Baker’s translation, the version we used primarily in the course, the text reads simply: “We’ll rest… / We’ll rest! / We’ll rest.” But in another translation Remo uncovered on his bookshelf — he liked to comb through alternative translations for fun, bouncing into rehearsals with different options he’d found for us to try — that final sentence reads: “I know we’ll rest.”
The crucial difference lay in our decision about whether to include these two extra words. Is the monologue aspirational? If so, the Baker translation seemed to aptly make space for the potential that Sonia’s vision might not manifest after all. Or is the monologue an affirmation of a truth Sonia is convinced of, the certainty that misery yields reward, that there is some redeeming beauty innate in suffering?
We decided it was the latter.
In my copy of the script, I have scrawled a note; something Remo said while coaching me through the monologue, around the time when the message of the speech and the pedagogical act of delivering it had begun to blur.
“Don’t let anyone make you cynical about the work,” my sloppy handwriting reads. “You have to be able to endure.”
—Magazine writer Eliya O. Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @eliyasmith. This is the second installment of her column, Will There Also Be Singing?, about theater.