Due mainly to financial constraints, most regional theater productions have about three weeks of rehearsal. And most actors and directors consider that prep time modest, to say the least — especially for a play of great depth and difficulty.
The new mounting of “The Seagull” that opens at ACT Theatre next week is bucking that trend.
Over the past year and more, a group of veteran Seattle actors, led by Brandon Simmons, Julie Briskman, Alexandra Tavares and John Bogar, have read, studied, discussed, workshopped and rehearsed the Anton Chekhov classic. They also came up with novel ways to fund the show, which is presented with additional support from ACT. And they engaged leading Seattle director John Langs to stage it.
Why lavish such attention and (mostly unpaid) toil on this particular play?
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“I’ve had a bug for ‘The Seagull’ since grad school,” says Simmons. “I’ve been inviting actors over to my house for years, just to read it informally and try to figure it out.” In 2011 he hosted another reading with selected local colleagues. “There were fireworks. It went so well, we said ‘We’ve got to do this.’ We wanted to take our time with it, and to explore the play in a long process.”
“I think Chekhov requires that,” adds Briskman. “We wanted to give him his due.”
“The Seagull” has long been a favorite of writers and actors, whom Chekhov portrays in the script with keen serio-comic insight as they struggle with love, failure, success, generational friction and the challenge of creating something of value through art.
The characters present striking contrasts: the idealistic young actress Nina, and older stage star Arkadina. The impassioned novice writer Treplev and complacent, famous author Trigorin. They are mother and son, new and old lovers, rivals and collaborators.
Chekhov’s lifelike dialogue, use of symbols and de-emphasis of dramatic plotting defied theatrical convention in 1896, when the play premiered in St. Petersburg with a disastrous opening night. But “The Seagull” has stood the test of time.
“It is about microshifts in human beings’ situations and relationships from moment to moment,” says Langs. “It’s a wonderful high-wire act. And what happens in the play is not so far away from us. It’s about people we know.”
For their own vision of “The Seagull,” the nucleus of actors formed The Seagull Project, and became producers. “We had to learn very quickly how to raise money,” notes Briskman.
They went the Kickstarter route, using the online fundraising site to attract about $10,000 from 121 backers — far exceeding a goal of $6,000.
But that was a fraction of the $70,000 needed for essential production expenses. (In addition, ACT kicked in a substantial in-kind of donation of space and services.)
To generate more cash the group decided “to create interest in all things Russian” — literature, music, food, drink. They borrowed the term “zakuski” (Russian for appetizers) for benefit luncheons they held in private homes.
“We served smoked salmon, piroshkis, borscht, all this vodka,” Briskman recalls. The repasts also featured accordion music, readings, recitations from the eloquent letters between Chekhov and his actress wife, Olga Knipper (Arkadina in the second, better-received stand of “The Seagull,” at the Moscow Art Theatre).
The zakuski events were a hit, and brought in generous individual donations. And the Seagull Project also went public, with a series at ACT titled “Great Soul of Russia,” which had actors reading from works by such Russian scribes as Dostoevsky, Gogol and poet Anna Akhmatova.
By the time the 11-member cast began rehearsing with Langs this month, they had forged what Simmons calls “an unusually close and intimate bond” — with “The Seagull,” and each other.
“As a director you pray for this level of enthusiasm and passion for a project,” Langs. declares. “It started us off miles down the road from any other show I’ve ever done.”
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org