GVSU professor to star in world premiere of ‘Anton, Himself’

Ty Konell

This weekend, the Grand Valley State University theater department will be hosting the world premiere of the play “Anton, Himself: First and Last.” Theater professor Roger Ellis will be performing as Russian playwright Anton Chekhov on Friday, Jan. 19, and Saturday, Jan. 20, in the Haas Center for Performing Arts. 

Ellis has acted both on the stage and in front of the camera. Originally from California, he has been acting and teaching acting for several decades.

“I’ve been doing theater about 40 or 50 years,” he said. “I’ve been here at Grand Valley for 42 years, and I’ve been an actor here, as well as an instructor of acting, and a director. So, it’s been quite a while.”

An intriguing aspect of the upcoming play is that it is a monodrama, meaning that it is performed by a single actor. 

“They’ve been around quite a while, and they’re very popular,” Ellis said of the art form. “They’re very easy for an actor to kind of showcase himself. As long as the subject is quite interesting, it can be a very handy show to produce, and it’s a lot of fun for an actor to do this kind of show.” 

Ellis said monodramas offer a more intimate experience for both actor and audience.

“The thing about theater is it’s a real relationship, you know,” he said. “It’s live on stage, and you create this relationship with the audience, and in a monodrama you’re talking right to them. There’s a kind of honesty there. There’s a kind of authentic quality to that.”

A long-time fan of Chekhov, Ellis said he feels particularly excited to be able to portray him on stage. Ellis also said there are some similarities the audience may be able to draw between Chekhov’s time and the present.

“This guy is really fascinating to me; he seems very modern,” he said. “He lived in 1900 in Russia, which seems pretty far removed from Donald Trump’s America, but not really. He was heading towards a huge revolution, so his society had a lot of the same pressures that we have. There was a wealth gap, just as there is a wealth gap today.

It’s as though this guy who has been dead for 120 years has come back to life and he’s talking about it (his life).”

Moreover, Ellis said there are many social similarities that can be noted in the play.

“We have a lot of oppression and civil rights issues, and we have struggles of people of color and so did they,” Ellis said. “There was hatred of the Jews, and they were very anti-Semitic.”

Concerning Chekhov, Ellis said the playwright was multi-dimensional: He both thrived seeing his pieces on stage and also struggled with collaboration if it veered away from his vision.

“Working in the theater, he had stopped just being a writer and having total control, and suddenly he had to work with other artists on the stage, actors and directors; it all just drive him crazy,” Ellis said. “They wouldn’t perform it in the way he wanted it, or the direction would go in a totally different direction and he would be so upset. There’s a lot of colors to the guy.”

Part of what made Chekhov’s pieces so popular, Ellis said, was how realistic they were, as Checkhov was very perceptive of true human nature. However, this sometimes brutal realness was also a culprit in the original failure of one of Chekhov’s early pieces, “The Seagull.”

“He was kind of the one writing the ‘Pulp Fiction’ of his day, the ‘Boys in the Hood’ of his day,” Ellis said. “A small community theater isn’t going to do that, and they aren’t going to do it well even if they do.”

Ellis said GVSU students may be reassured after watching the play. 

“We live in a time of real conflict and upset today politically and culturally, and it can be real nerve-wracking and concerning to people if you don’t realize a lot of this stuff has happened before and we’re still here,” Ellis said. “The world hasn’t collapsed, and we’re muddling through. So I think it’s an encouraging play, an inspiring one.”