You may know Julie Briskman as advice columnist Ann Landers or as Pirate Jenny in “Threepenny Opera” or as dozens of other characters she’s played on local stages.
Some of this accomplished, winning Seattle player’s most favorite parts? Those written by a Russian guy named Anton.
As an impassioned co-founder of The Seagull Project, Briskman has spent the last couple of years producing and appearing in works by Anton Chekhov, alongside Brandon Simmons, Alexandra Tavares and other core members of the group.
Their first show, John Langs’ staging of “The Seagull,” was a 2013 success. Now the company, which also produces “The Great Soul of Russia” reading series at ACT, is opening another Chekhov classic, “The Three Sisters” (mounted by Langs).
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Exuberant, engaging, devoted to her craft, Briskman recently looked back at the eventful year leading up to this production.
Last spring The Seagull Project toured their “Seagull” to the Ilkhom Theatre in Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, a former Soviet satellite in Central Asia.
Uzbekistan has been the site of civil unrest and human-rights abuses in recent years, including the shocking 2007 murder of Ilkhom artistic director Mark Weil,then a part-time Seattle resident.
The next year, the Ilkhom troupe was able to visit and perform here at ACT. Joining them in Tashkent, Briskman was impressed by “the bravery of the company, the way they’ve created a home in what looks like a bombed-out grocery store. But you walk in and there’s a gallery, a cafe and a little theater where you are transported.”
“We were the first American ensemble ever to receive a grant from the U.S. Embassy to perform in Uzbekistan,” she explained. “It was so inspiring to be in a place where theater is life and death for the artists and audience. The government has banned plays, and people broke through police barriers to see them.”
In Tashkent, Seagull members were instructed not to “stand on our balconies during a parade, to watch what you said, to not take any photos on the street.” But inside the Ilkhom, their show was greeted with ovations and floral bouquets.
Back in the U.S., Briskman had another gratifying (and more tranquil) sojourn, thanks to a prestigious Lunt-Fontanne Fellowship. Named for Broadway stars Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, the program brings together top regional theater thespians for a weeklong master class (led in 2014 by David Hyde Pierce) at Ten Chimneys, the late acting couple’s’ former estate in rural Wisconsin.
“It was an astonishing and life-changing experience,” enthused Briskman. “To be an actor and treated in such a beautiful way! It just felt so special.”
A former company member of the respected Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis before moving to Seattle, Briskman has been invited back to Ten Chimneys this year, for a session on Greek drama taught by Oscar-winner Olympia Dukakis.
Right now, though, she’s immersed in “Three Sisters,” Chekhov’s 1901 seriocomic study of Russian siblings who famously long to go to Moscow — and never do. She plays Olga, the eldest sister (“She’d be considered an old maid back then”), opposite Tavares as Masha and Sydney Andrews as Irina, the youngest.
As with “The Seagull,” the ensemble met weekly for months to read and study the play. “I love Olga very much,” Briskman said. “I actually played her 11 years ago at the Guthrie. But it’s different now. I see her needs as greater and more urgent, and in some ways funnier because they’re more desperate.”
Next for the Seagull flock? “We want to produce Chekhov’s other two major plays [“The Cherry Orchard” and “Uncle Vanya”], and in 2020 do them all in repertory in a Chekhov festival at ACT. We’d like to get the Ilkhom company here for that too, and maybe a company from Moscow.”
Despite her sterling track record of performances, Briskman surprisingly has no roles lined up after “Three Sisters” closes. “You know, as a theater actor it just doesn’t get any easier,” she said wryly. “We’re truly in it for love, because nobody’s making a mint.”
Misha Berson: email@example.com