Behind the Scenes at The Seagull

June 7, 2011
 “We loved it!” — Arkadina, Act 1

It is certainly gratifying to have to type the words: “Due to Popular Demand, The Seagull is Extending Through June 19!”

Our company, our remarkable playwright and above all our amazing audiences share the credit for this victory.  There’s been a tremendous unification of the ensemble with the script, and both with each unique audience that comes to Garrison Landing to watch the play unfold fresh each night. As the person who has spearheaded the marketing campaign, I know we’ve made a terrific effort, but the full houses we’ve been getting and the tremendous feedback online and in person takes that marketing to an at once much bigger and much more personal level.  Clearly, people are talking about this show in a way that’s filling our houses up.  So thanks to our wonderful co-presenters at the Depot Theatre, we’re allowed to extend an additional three performances (all the schedule allows).

I know these shows will fill up fast — this coming weekend is nearly sold out already.  So if you’ve wanted to see The Seagull, but haven’t been able to work it out, this could be your chance.  Or if you want to return and see how much it’s changed, don’t hesitate.  Order tickets online HERE or call 845-424-3900.

June 6, 2011
“Write about only what’s important and everlasting.” — Dorn, Act 1

I have been away from the blog and away from The Seagull for a while.  In late April, with Seagull rehearsals not yet underway, I was hired to write and direct a multi-media theatrical opening for a panel called Beautiful Minds: The Enigma of Genius for this year’s World Science Festival, then ended up being asked to takeover the panel that followed, and had the amazing fortune to add, just days before the event, the incomparable Philip Glass and Julie Taymor, who joined four scientists and our brilliant moderator, Festival co-founder Brian Greene.

Among the many, many thrills of this experience, one was putting together the startling montage of faces of genius that formed the climax for our theatrical opening, “Recognizing Genius.”  Set to the finale of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, we saw dozens and dozens of faces flash on the screen, women, men, ancients, moderns, easterners, westerners, scientists, artists.  And how wonderful it was that one of those faces was Anton Pavlovich Chekhov.

I will say that the consensus of our panel was that genius is enigmatic and ephemeral, but that it has to do with, as I wrote of Marie Curie in our opening, “opening a door that no one knew existed.” Chekhov did this.  He changed theatre in a fundamental way.  Nina, the young actress, says early on in The Seagull, criticizing her boyfriend’s writing, “It’s not easy to act in your play.  There are no living characters in it.”  Kostya replies, “Life should be portrayed not the way it is, and not the way it’s supposed to be, but the way it appears in dreams.” Chekhov manages to do both.  The Seagull is absolutely a living thing, so like life that at every one of our Sunday talkbacks, an audience member has asked “how much did you change the script to make it more contemporary?”  The answer is: not a word.  This is exactly the script Chekhov wrote, in the absolute best, most faithful English translation available, by Laurence Senelick.

Chekhov’s writing is universal: it connects with anyone, any time, any where.  But at the same time, Chekhov’s play is dream-like.  Several times, characters directly address the audience (including Nina’s Act 2 conclusion, spoken directly to the audience “It’s a dream.”)  Dreams move with a fluidity that, prior to Chekhov, didn’t exist on stage, where audiences were used to shifts in location and time, or alternately to a forced unity of time, place and action.  Chekhov changed everything.  As he said of his masterful construction, “I wrote it forte and ended it pianissimo, contrary to all the rules of dramatic art.” But, to paraphrase Arkadina’s words, “we mustn’t praise him too much, or we’ll put a hex on him.”  Chekhov makes it clear throughout The Seagull that talent isn’t the province of some rarified few, that talent never manifests without a tremendous amount of hard work, and that without “a well-defined goal”¦your talent will destroy you,” as Dr. Dorn tells Kostya.

Nina finally understands the key to navigating the dangerous eddies of talent that can suck you under and destroy you.  She tells Kostya in Act 4: “The main thing isn’t fame, glamour, the things I dreamed about, it’s knowing how to endure.”  Nichiren Daishonin, the 13th Century Buddhist reformer, wrote from a forced exile, 633 years before Chekhov wrote Nina’s words, “I feel immense joy.  The reason is that this world is called the saha world, saha meaning endurance. This is why the Buddha is also called ‘One Who Can Endure.'”  Nina has, through her struggles, maintained and sharpened her “well-defined goal” and has discovered her mission.  This is the genius that is available to all of us.

There are only three chances left to see this amazing cast and design team bring this play to life.  Tickets are disappearing even as you read this.  Don’t miss out.  Go HERE or call 845-424-3900 for tickets.

May 26, 2011
“I have the right to demand that you respect my independence.” — Arkadina, Act 3

The first time I met Maia Guest was at an audition; I was the auditioner, she the auditionee.  And I didn’t cast her.  Not because she wasn’t vibrant, funny, intelligent, touching”¦because she was too young for the part. So I called her in for the next show I was doing, when she wasn’t too young for the part, and she was great again and was cast and we’ve continued to work together since, and also got married to each other at some point in there.  People often wonder how it is we manage to work together and remain married.  My mother’s standing joke is “I don’t know how you guys do it, I can’t even wallpaper a room together with your father.”

Maia Guest

I don’t know how we do it either.  And I won’t speak for Maia, but I will say that I know why I do it.  I don’t do it because we’re married; in fact, doing all this creatively and emotionally demanding work together isn’t what you’d call a boon to your marriage.  There’s a reason most married couples spend the majority of their daily lives away from each other. No, I work with Maia because she’s so good at what she does.  If you’ve seen her on stage, you know what I’m talking about.  An extremely talented actor of stage and screen came to see The Seagull on Sunday, and said to me afterwards, regarding Maia performing outdoors amidst the myriad distractions of Garrison Landing, “When someone is going up against the trains, the helicopter, the power boats, and is still getting laughs and bringing this text to life”¦that’s an actress you keep around, buddy.”  Works for me.

If you haven’t seen The Seagull, do yourself a favor and come.  Tickets can be ordered right here: brownpapertickets.com or by calling 845-424-3900.

May 25, 2011
“I’m attacked from every side, I make people angry, I hurtle back and forth like a fox hunted down by hounds.” — Trigorin, Act 2

What does The Seagull mean?  What is it about? As I’ve written in this space before, it’s about life.  It’s meaning is that life is a living thing.  It really has no agenda beyond that.  Of course if audience members want to assign some message to it, that’s fine.  If they want to view it as a parable, they’re entitled to do so.  If they want to cast certain characters as “good” and others as “bad,” that’s their prerogative.
But here’s a fun game to play: for every character you think is “bad,” take an honest look at their actions in the play and see if they don’t create “good” as well.  Because here’s the thing: they all do.  When we do our rain version of the show indoors, we start with Konstantin beginning the opening song

Maia Guest (Irina)

while facing a gigantic mirror, his back turned to the audience.  But thanks to the mirror, he’s facing the audience, too — looking right at them, in fact.  In that single moment, the audience literally sees both sides of him.  Thanks to Dana Kenn’s set design, the audience is actually looking at multiple sides of a person at the same time.
The truth is, no one is any one thing.  And that’s what Chekhov has written.  But we’re habituated to want to assign roles to people; look at how hard it’s been in the history of the world for  “mother” to also be “working professional,” a subject which Chekhov confronts head-on in The Seagull.  What is Chekhov saying about this or any other conundrum?  Nothing.  He’s just showing it for what it is.  I’ll close with a quote from the writer himself:

One has to write what one sees, what one feels, truthfully, sincerely. I am often asked what it was that I was wanting to say in this or that story. To these questions I never have any answer. There is nothing I want to say. My concern is to write, not to teach!

May 24, 2011
“The view opens right onto the lake and the horizon.” — Konstantin, Act 1

Sunday night at 5 p.m. we had the first clear night we’d had in a week, and Part 1 of our Seagull played outside to a phenomenal response. To finally play the first part outside was to see how wide open with possibility the story is at its outset.  Well before Carl Howell took the stage with his mandolin to begin the show, as we do, with a song called

Carl Howell (Konstantin)

“The Crane Wife 3″ by the Chekhovian band The Decemberists, the air was crackling with electricity.  This was no mere “audience gathering to watch a play”; this was an Event getting underway, a Theatrical Maelstrom swirling itself into being.  And as the full band kicked in, it was like they were lifting the entire Garrison landing — gazebo, trees, audience and the spellbinding river itself — up into the empyrean.  As Chekhov’s words began to find purchase in the ears and hearts of the audience, with one exhilaratingly brilliant performance after another from our compassionate cast, the audience was laughing, oohing, ahhing, and swept into the whirlpool of this story which is so remarkable in it unremarkableness — special because it is not unique, but rather eternal and everlasting.  It is a classic because it remains modern.

Malachy Cleary (Trigorin) and Kelsey Landon (Nina)

Several audience members commented after the show and during our Q & A talkback about how utterly modern the play felt.  And this is a testimony to our brilliant translator, Laurence Senelick, to our cast, our designers, and of course to the writer himself, who was able to collapse time and space and fold them into this script. Our tickets are disappearing like early morning fog off the Hudson.  If you want to see this show that is making audiences laugh and cry, order tickets right away. And now it’s REALLY EASY to order your Seagull tickets HERE.”¨

May 22, 2011
“Here’s our crowd.” — Shamraev, Act 2

So we opened The Seagull on Friday night, with a tremendously receptive audience, and had a second performance with yet another wonderful crowd.  With the arrival of our audiences, the dialogue has expanded exponentially. Theatre is a series of dialogues.  The great humanist writer, educator and Buddhist leader, Daisaku Ikeda, writes about this most human phenomenon, dialogue:

“Only within the open space created by dialogue, whether conducted with our neighbors, with history, with nature or the cosmos, can human wholeness be sustained. We are not born human in any but a biological sense; we can only learn to know ourselves and others and thus be trained in the ways of being human. We do this by immersion in the ocean of language and dialogue fed by the springs of cultural tradition.”

As audiences are reporting, with their applause and their comments after the show, The Seagull is a dialogue with each other, with our histories (cultural and personal), with nature and certainly with the cosmos. Anton Chekhov’s brilliance (brought forth by the brilliance of Laurence Senelick’s superlative English translation) is to know himself and others so well, and to be able to render that living essence into the form of this play.  The brilliance of our cast and designers is to similarly know themselves and others, and thus connect with the shared humanity of the script, and recognize that this script is far more than words on a page, it is a living thing.
We are already filling up the houses, and we have only 10 performances left; a handful of seats.  Join the dialogue; get tickets now — philipstowndepottheatre.org or 845-424-3900.

May 20, 2011
 “New forms are what we need.” — Konstantin, Act 1

I’ve already waxed appreciative about Charlotte Palmer-Lane and her amazing costume designs.  Our production of The Seagull has had the tremendous fortune to work with three other amazing designers — and in the same vein of the show, one of the creative artists is seasoned, while two are youthful strivers. Dana Kenn designed the set and the props.  This is only my second opportunity to work with Dana, but it had better not be the last, because she’s equal parts visionary and pragmatic.  Her designs come from a place bigger than the hands she uses to draw them (and help build them, and paint them, once they’re full size).
Lighting Designer Michael Cecchini and his associate Xena Petkanas might be able to combine their ages and reach mine.  But this is theatre, and age is irrelevant.  They have lit an extremely challenging set in a way that not only illuminates the set and the cast, it illuminates the play.  As they say about sound recording in film, “when it’s good, you don’t notice it.”  Michael and Xena have created a lighting design that is so brilliant you don’t even see it as a design.  But enough talk.  Just take a look — when was the last time you saw a show that looked like THIS?

Dress rehearsal of The Seagull

May 19, 2011
“I can remember laughter, noise-making, shooting, and one love affair after another”¦”
— Arkadina, Act 1

See that quote above?  That’s exactly what The Seagull is.  It’s hilariously funny.  Everyone makes quite a lot of noise, spewing ideas, dreams, and desires.  Guns get fired.  And there’s a lot of love affairs. In other words, it’s life.  And as I watched our dress rehearsal tonight, watched our cast just living this complexly simple, simply complex tale, I was kind of knocked out.  And then after the show, giving notes, looking into their faces, I could see this mixture of exhausted and exhilarated.  Kind of like the looks I’ve seen on the faces of women shortly after giving birth, wondering if they ever want to go through with that again, and at the same time being so incredibly happy that they’ve done it.
This is a big show.  It’s not long.  It doesn’t have a complicated plot.  It’s big like life is big.  And to live into it, the cast has to bring a lot more of themselves than most scripts ask of actors. And they’re doing it.  And it’s tremendously uplifting.  And I’m so appreciative.
The Seagull opens Friday at 7.  Tickets 845-424-3900 or via email at membership@philipstowndepottheatre.org

May 18, 2011
“My costumes alone are enough to ruin me.”
— Arkadina, Act 3

I happen to live a block away from one of the most talented costume designers I’ve worked with (and I really only work with talented costume designers).  Her name is Charlotte Palmer-Lane, and I have the great fortune to work with her again on The Seagull, which is our fifth collaboration. Charlotte has many gifts.  Some of her gifts are what you might call more technical-creative: she has a natural eye for line, color and detail; she is a terrific tailor and seamstress; she is a hell of a shopper; she can make a $500 budget look like it cost $25,000.  Some of her gifts are personal: she is unfailingly polite; she is never late; she is a great listener; she has an English accent (which I mention in public as often as possible, as it makes her politely irritated, and there’s really nothing more charming than polite English irritation (I can only hope I’m near her when she reads this).
But I would say her greatest gift is that what you might call pure creativity, which I believe comes from the ability to suppress the ego and tune in to a universal wavelength that is far greater than little old you.  This is the kind of creativity that allowed Anton Chekhov to write four of the greatest plays ever written, plays that are produced in every language, over a hundred years after they were penned”¦and why is that so?  Because, I would suggest, Anton Chekhov worked very hard to not get in the way of his creativity.  I know that my best writing comes when, as Trigorin says in The Seagull, “I’m in some sort of a trance and often I don’t even understand what I’m writing.”  This is the state of subsuming the lesser self and accessing the great self that is connected at once to everything and everyone.  This, I am convinced, is what any truly creative artist is doing when they’re doing their best work.  And in the five shows we’ve done together, Charlotte Palmer-Lane only ever does her best work.  Each of her five designs has been startlingly different because each script has been unique.  But the theme that has run through all her designs is a revelation of the truth of each character and a truth of the themes of the play.  Charlotte’s designs do what I aspire to do in my direction: they serve the play.  And for that, I am grateful.  Come see The Seagull on Friday or Saturday at 7, Sunday at 5, this weekend through June 5, and you’ll see what I’m talking about.   Tickets 845-424-3900 or via email at membership@philipstowndepottheatre.org

May 16, 2011
“Their souls will merge in an attempt to present a joint artistic creation.”
— Medvedenko, Act 1

I had the great fortune to work with Carl Howell and Kelsey Landon a few years back in a show by the greatest writer ever, who went by the name “Shake-speare.”  This writer is referenced several times in The Seagull, by one of the other greatest writers ever, Anton Chekhov.  The play was Twelfth Night, and Carl played Valentine and also served as our music director; Kelsey played a gender-reversed role, Antonia.  They were, it should go without saying, treasures.  They never waited for permission to be brave, to be creative; they just did what came naturally to them.
So it was with great delight that I heard they were going to audition for The Seagull.  I suppose the greatest compliment a director can give an actor is that the actor illuminates new things about the script.  And this happened with both Kelsey and Carl in their auditions.  They enlightened me about what the play was about.

I can’t recall if I had their creative maturity when I was so young.  I certainly know I didn’t have the kind of emotional courage they possess, and which is essential to playing these two young adults who bring so much delight and who break many hearts, including their own.  They’re giving us access to a spiritual truth that you just don’t see every day.  Don’t miss them.  Tickets: 845-424-3900 or http://www.philipstowndepottheatre.org/

May 15, 2011
“Even when I was young I looked like I’d gone on a bender — and all the rest.”
— Sorin, Act 1

I first met Greg Miller a few years ago, through his wife, Lynn, who was a Cold Spring Village Trustee and the co-founder, with Greg, of Go-Go Pops.  I heard he was an actor, knew he had a long resume of credits including every iteration of Law & Order, but I hadn’t seen him act.  I suppose after 25 years of working with actors, I have developed a sense of what someone might be capable of, and I had an immediate sense that Greg was no slouch in the performance department.  But until he came to the auditions for The Seagull, I’d never seen him play anyone other than Greg Miller.
The auditions were atypical, in that the actors, as a group, spent over an hour doing ensemble exercises and theatre games, then once they were, hopefully, divested of fear and engaged in play, they actually got to read scenes, with partners they found organically.  And it was in this mode that I finally got to see Greg act, and see that my instincts were clearly correct.
The last three weeks have only fortified these feelings.  Greg’s work is so unfailingly human, and the embodiment of all the play is: it is hilariously painful, painfully hilarious.  If you live in this community, and you’ve frequented Go-Go Pops store on Main Street in Cold Spring, or bought a Pop at the Farmer’s Market, you owe it to yourself to see this marvelous aspect of Lynn’s husband.

May 14, 2010
“You’re so talented, clever, our greatest living writer”¦”
— Arkadina, Act 3

Our talented, clever graphic designer Aaron Freimark not only created our poster and postcard designs; he’s also creating individual digital posters for the entire cast (save our late entry, Nick Marino).  Here’s the first one, for Malachy Cleary.
I’m fortunate enough not only to have Malachy in The Seagull, but to have him as a neighbor.  He and his talented son, who is also in the show, live with their family a few houses away from me.  You’ve probably seen Malachy on TV, maybe playing President Harding on Boardwalk Empire, being painfully funny on The Onion News Network, or selling some product in a commercial. This is your chance to see his remarkable talents up close.  I’m not going to say any more about what a sublime pleasure it is to work with this consummate actor, not going to wax on about his humor, his pathos, his intelligence, because, as Arkadina says of his character, “Whenever anyone compliments him, he just shrivels up.”  But he’s terrific.  Don’t miss him.  Tickets: 845-424-3900 or philipstowndepottheatre.org

May 13, 2011
“Oh, spellbinding lake!”
— Dorn, Act 1

How would you like to picnic on a lawn in one of the most picturesque locations in North America (at least), and as the sun sets, more gloriously than it does in most places on this earth, you, from your picnic blanket, will watch as a play begins, and in the play, the characters picnic on a lawn, as a glorious sun sets, to watch a play?
This is what will happen in exactly one week at Garrison Landing, when The Seagull opens.  People can arrive when the show begins at 7, if they want, but how much more delicious will it be to come early and take in this splendor. And if you don’t have time to pack a dinner, Garrison Market is catering some delectable box dinners.   How does one of these sound?

  • Smoked Bacon, Local Apples, Wrights Farms Apple Butter and Brie on a Bread Alone Croissant, a side of brown rice salad with cranberries and apricots as well as hummus and chips.
  • Smoked local trout and horseradish sauce on Bread Alone Baguette, a side of brown rice salad with cranberries and apricots as well as hummus and chips.
  • Roasted Vegetable and Beet Hummus Wrap, a side of brown rice salad with cranberries and apricots as well side Arugula Salad with roasted peppers and lemon vinaigrette.
  • Arugula Salad with chopped local apples, walnuts, crumbled blue cheese and lemon vinaigrette with a side of toasted crostini

The lake in the play, like the Hudson that fronts our “theatre”, is spellbinding, as Dr. Dorn says in Act 1.  We have been working in this glorious environment for 3 weeks now, and it has had remarkable effects on the cast and on our understanding of this beautiful, funny, moving story.  So to experience this play in such a setting is a chance you may only have once in your lifetime.  There are 12 chances (fewer depending on the rain, when we’ll play the first half on our glorious set).  Nights are starting to get filled up.  Don’t miss this chance.  Call 845-424-3900 or go to philpstowndepottheatre.org and get your tickets for this once in a lifetime experience.

May 12, 2011
“Somebody ought to write a play and get it produced — about our friend the schoolteacher.  He leads a tough, tough life!”
— Medvedenko, Act 1

I had the great fortune to be asked by Dr. Eric Richter, head of the Haldane High School English Department, to come speak to his drama class today about The Seagull, and try to express why a bunch of adolescents should bother to come see our production. Fortunately, I had an adolescent on my side: Malachy Cleary, Jr., who plays the young schoolteacher, Medvedenko, in our show.  I asked Mal to tell his peers what The Seagull is about in one word. “Hum,” he said, furrowing his brow, “Well”¦I’m thinking about an S word.”
“Sex?!” I almost shouted. He chuckled along with the rest of the class, because an adult was talking about sex, and then he said, “Actually, I was thinking more like ‘suffering’ or ‘strife.'”
“Aren’t suffering and strife the same thing as sex?” I deadpanned, and got a good chuckle out of that one.  But the thing is, like all the great laughs in The Seagull — and there are a lot of laughs — it’s a joke and it’s not a joke. The stories in this play are all about strife, suffering and sex.  And they all drive each other; sex leads to strife leads to suffering leads to sex, and on and on.  I ended up drawing a diagram on the blackboard to chart the complex web of sexual and romantic relationships that make up the play, and Dr. Richter likened it to the upcoming school prom and the drama that’s currently going on for these students.
Teaching isn’t easy.  The schoolteacher in the pay doesn’t make much money.  Not much different for our teachers today.  But the key to a great teacher is connecting with the students, connecting the material to their lives and vice versa.  Hopefully we did that today.  And hopefully they come to the show.

May 11, 2011
“I’m telling you all this because you’re a writer.  You can put it to use.”
— Masha, Act 3

We are a civilization of writers.  Not that every living human being is a professional writer or even a good writer, that’s not the point.  We are, as far as science can discern, the only narrative-driven species on the planet.  As Nina says to her estranged boyfriend in The Seagull, we “talk in code, symbols of some kind.”  She’s talking about the eponymous bird of the title, which her quasi-ex has just shot and laid at her feet.  She goes on, “And this gull is obviously a symbol too, but, forgive me, I don’t understand it”¦”
The great, under-viewed, underappreciated, under-understood HBO series created by the inspired David Milch (a spiritual son of Chekhov), John From Cincinnati, dealt mightily with the theme of the power of language — symbols — to effect change in individuals and, ultimately, save our species from destroying itself.  In this seminal scene the mysterious John, who comes not from Ohio but from some place not of this earth, uses the words of others to discuss the power of language.  He refers to the line and the circle on the wall, and connects those symbols to the ones and zeros in a digital camera.  The line and circle on the wall are the first shapes drawn by our ancient ancestors on the insides of the caves in which they lived.  These are the basic shapes — a line or a one and a circle or a zero — of our language, connecting millennia, from Stone Age to digital age.
But the issue is never how to write, or even what to write, but why to write.  Every writer ever and only writes from experience, learned or felt.  Every character in The Seagull is a variant on Chekhov and his experiences; he was a failed writer, a successful writer, a doctor, a cuckold, a son, a lover and on and on.  He put his life to use.  But why?
Why put the line and the circle on the wall?  To teach your fellows how to hunt?  Maybe.  But I would argue that from the beginning of language, the primal reason to create narrative was to overcome fear and develop faith.  You paint scenes of men killing a mammoth to say, “We made it through this trial, and so can you, too.”  Fundamentally, the work of writing should be the transformation of suffering into joy. And what is hard-wired into this is the fact that narratives are essentially connective.  Stories are written to be shared.  Storytelling, indeed language itself, exists to affirm our innate interconnectedness.  And the best writers understand this at a spiritual level.  They are universal donors, able to open their lives like veins and transfuse out their experience into tales that continue to revive us, in the case of The Seagull, over 100 years after it was first written.

May 10, 2011
“If lived on an estate like this, by a lake, you think I’d write?  I’d kick this addiction and do nothing but fish.”
— Trigorin, Act 4

 Yesterday was allegedly our one day out of seven off, but most theatre people I know ditch the concept of a one-day weekend when they’re on a show.  And they want to be on a show all the time.  Which means they want to be working all the time.  They may say they want to take vacations, and some of them do, but all they think about is getting back to the blacksmith shop which fires their soul.
I’ve written about the various addictions on display in The Seagull, but it’s worth noting that in order to create this production, I’m taking advantage of a bunch of addicts: the actors, designers, technicians and producers who are driven to work long hours for little or no material gain. While we’re rehearsing at the gazebo, we often see couples strolling by, sitting on the benches and looking out at the Hudson.  What strange creatures we must seem to them, not reveling in the placid beauty of the environs, but yelling, beating our breasts, tearing our hair, shedding tears and, above all, working, working, working.
Trigorin says that if only he lived in a place like Philipstown, he’d stop writing and just fish all day.  Don’t believe him.  He’s a junkie, and his chosen narcotic is creativity.  I know.  Because I’ve got the same habit, and there’s no 12-step program for it.  Not that I’d want one.

May 9, 2011
“I’m the only one who tells you the truth.”
— Arkadina, Act 3

Anton Chekhov called The Seagull a comedy, despite the fact that it includes as its subjects: depression, infidelity, betrayal and suicidal ideation.   Or perhaps, as we’re finding out, it’s not despite those subjects but because of them that The Seagull is so funny. And it is funny.  Laugh out loud funny.  I sit in the audience and just howl as the actors bring these words to life.  How can a writer wring laughter from such dark matters?  By capturing what is so deeply, painfully, hilariously human about our species: our ability to dissemble.
The Seagull is full of liars.  People lie to their lovers, lie to their parents, lie to their children, lie to their spouses, lie to their friends”¦and above all, lie to themselves.  It’s this last deception that drives all the other ones, and makes the mendacity not malicious, but misguided.  Which is to say, when people are lying to themselves, it’s usually really funny.  And when they’re then lying to others, because they’re lying to themselves, it’s still pretty funny.  But the reason it’s funny is that it’s so truthful in its rendering of lies.  Anyone who has been in a family, who has been in love — in other words, every human being ever, will come to The Seagull and laugh because they’re seeing life.
Two weeks down.  12 days to go before people start arriving with picnics at Garrison Landing to watch all the little lies and the great big truth. Tickets: http://www.philipstowndepottheatre.org/ or 845-424-3900.

May 8, 2011
“A love that’s young, charming, poetical, wafting me to a dream world — it’s the one and only thing on this earth that can bring happiness.”
— Trigorin, Act 3

The Seagull is a play about addiction and addiction’s partner, co-dependence.  While the play does display touches of chemical addictions (to snuff and alcohol), the chief addictions are to art, to work, to the ego and, most of all, to other people.
What is the greatest lie that we all agree upon?  Surely, that we are separate from each other.  As any good Buddhist will tell you, every aspect of life is connected to every other aspect of life, in a mind-bogglingly complex web of associations — what we call “the interconnectedness of all things.” A great play, as we’re discovering in rehearsal, tells this story of these hidden connections.  The characters echo and reflect each other.  No one is separate. This is what St. Paul referred to as the members of the body. “And,” he wrote, “whether one member suffer, all the members suffer with it; or one member be honored, all the members rejoice with it.”  And boy do these people do their share of suffering and rejoicing.
The second greatest lie we tell is that another person can make us happy.  And this lie is told over and over again in The Seagull.  Just last night, we worked on the scene quoted above, where Trigorin professes his love for a much younger woman and says it’s “the only thing on this earth that can bring happiness.”  This myth is fortified and reinforced by nearly every other character in the play.  And as oft as it is spoken of, it is debunked.
Everyone wants to be happy.  But as the young girl herself says, after she’s been through nearly two years of personal hell, the most valuable thing in life is “knowing how to endure”, which she also defines as having faith.  Faith, she goes on to explain, is about having a mission.  “When I think about my calling, I’m not afraid of life.”  Faith/calling have the capacity to defeat fear.
We are all connected.  And thus the misery of our family, our friends and neighbors can be our great opportunity to pursue our calling, which is to dispel fear and inspire faith.  The religion most spoken about in The Seagull is “the religion of art.”  Since our species first began to paint on the walls of caves, we have been transforming our experience, often an experience of suffering, into something that inspires: art.
It bears repeating that we’ll be opening our art on May 20, and you should order tickets now, as there really aren’t many of them.  http://www.philipstowndepottheatre.org/ or 845-424-3900.  See you at the gazebo.

May 7, 2011
“I don’t know who you are anymore.” — Nina, Act 2

We are getting into the thicket now.  Into the tall grasses and the dense forests filled with possibility.  The actors are not holding their scripts much.  And we’re able to play more.  And even though our opening night is two weeks away, and we’re halfway through our rehearsal process, I would caution our actors against the desire to want to leave breadcrumbs, or mark the trees, in case, of course, we get lost. We’re supposed to get lost.  Because that’s the only way we’ll find anything.
I directed The Seagull at a fantastic venue called Theater Emory in Atlanta, GA in 1991 (in the same superlative translation by Laurence Senelick.  It was my good fortune to be directed by Professor Senelick four years earlier in his own translation of Schiller’s Love and Intrigue when I was a university student.).  As a young director, I felt a large measure of my job was crafting visual pictures, and so I would make all these little drawings and staging schemes inside my script so that I knew what to do in rehearsal.  And thus it was that my ideas, some of which were good, some of which patently ignored the play, and thus were bad, became fixed in my brain before they got carved like grooves into the stage.
I don’t make those little drawings any more.  Instead, my preparation is to read the script and determine to serve it through my works.  Then I go to rehearsal and watch and listen and respond.  Those little drawings I made were an expression of fear: fear that I wouldn’t have a good idea in rehearsal, fear that the actors might think I didn’t know what I was doing, fear of the unknown. But in understanding that my role as a director is to find the life of the play, I have had to dispel those fears because they were crushing the play.
I have become comfortable not knowing where we’re going, or who we are.  The only way we can find the answer to those questions in not through careful, laborious planning, but through showing up, living in the moment, and finding the life right then and there.  And since we are all interconnected, I can have confidence that the Mighty I does not need to wrestle this play to the ground.  Rather, I need to take my actors’ hands and walk with them as we allow the play to lead us into the tall grass and dense forest, with no thought as to the way back, or the way forward, just where we are right now.

May 6, 2011
“You’ve got to have theater.”
— Sorin, Act 1

The Seagull is a play about theatre that advocates incessantly for the necessity of theatre.  Aaron Friemark, our talented graphic designer, sent our poster to Grey Printing tonight, the latest step in our campaign to convince people that they’ve got to have theatre in their lives.
Why?  What is it about theatre that draws us in?  This is precisely what Chekhov asked repeatedly in The Seagull.  For all the arguing that goes on about various forms of theatre, or various levels of quality, what is overwhelmingly clear is how passionate everyone is about theatre. Oscar Wilde, who died four years after The Seagull was born, said “The theatre is not merely the meeting place of all the arts, it is also the return of art to life.”
Theatre is unusual in that it is both the place and the thing you see at the place; it is both the frame and the painting, so to speak.  It is a synthesis in its name, as it is a synthesis in what it does, bringing together every other art: writing, painting, sculpture, clothing design, singing, choreography, etc.
Above all it is a living thing, and it lives by synthesizing the artist with the audience in the place called the theatre.  This is crucial: we can’t make theatre without you.  Your presence reminds us that there really is no you that isn’t us, no us that isn’t you — you and us are false divisions, exacerbated by orchestra pits and imaginary fourth walls and absurd codes of behavior that encourage audiences to refrain from acting alive during the performance of a play.  But the fact of our Seagull is that theatre is the audience and the actors, living together in the shared space.  Join us, won’t you?
Go to http://www.philipstowndepottheatre.org/ or call 845-424-3900 and order your tickets to become an everlasting part of the theatre that is The Seagull.

May 5, 2011
“There’s no basis for distinguishing spirit from matter, because spirit itself is probably an agglomeration of material atoms.”
— Medvedenko, Act 1

The atom was first written about by the Greeks in 322 B.C.  The word “atom” means “not cut.”  The ancient Greeks didn’t have microscopes, but their minds were able to hypothesize about the smallest unit of matter in the universe, one that could not be divided. A poor young Polish physics student named Maria Sklodwoska went to Paris in 1894, two years before The Seagull was first performed in Moscow.  In Paris, Maria met a young professor named Pierre Curie, and they married shortly thereafter and began painstaking, arduous work that would eventually lead, in 1898, to the discovery of radioactivity and the revelation that the atom could be split.
Konstantin’s play-within-the-play is about matter and atoms and what he calls “the universal soul” or what we Buddhists call “the Buddha nature,” also known as the function of fusion, that which sees that all life is interconnected.  In Konstantin’s play, he identifies Satan as the “Father of All Matter”, down to the smallest atoms — atoms which in a scant two years, it would be discovered, could be split.  In Buddhism, the negative function, referred to euphemistically as the Devil King, exists for the opposite purpose of the Buddha.  The Devil King’s purpose is to split things, to sow dissension, to divide. To be enlightened is to recognize that all is one, that the Buddha and the Devil King are one, that spirit, as the schoolteacher Medvedenko says in response to Konstantin’s play, is matter.
Here’s something interesting: I know a bit about Marie Curie and the history of the atom because, concurrent with directing The Seagull, I’m writing a script and directing a piece for the World Science Festival in Manhattan, and the piece is in part about the genius of Marie Curie.  So in these seemingly disparate projects, one a brand new piece, the other over a century old, one about science, the other about the arts — they have points of unification, tissue that connects them, and in their connections, they reflect each other.
Speaking of reflections, yesterday the first large mirror of the several mirrors that loom over the set, went up in the stage.  Why mirrors?  The image I shared with Dana Kenn, our visionary designer (who happens to be designing for the World Science Festival, too — and we both got there from totally separate routes), was of a “house of mirrors.”  Mirrors are about vanity and the ego, but they are also about connection with others.  They serve two opposing functions.  On our set, Masha can turn her back on Medvedenko but still see his reflection.  They can be at the same time divided and united.  How wonderful is that?

May 4, 2011
“The modern theatre is trite, riddled with clichí©s.  When the curtain goes up on an artificially lighted room with three walls”¦” — Konstantin, Act 1

You must bring picnics when you come to see The Seagull.  And blankets, too, so you can stretch out on the lawn there on the south side of the gazebo at Garrison Landing, and watch the first two acts of a play that includes several characters stretching out on blankets on the lawn to watch a play.
The Seagull has myriad parallels with Hamlet, and several direct references, including quotes from two scenes and the stylistic device of a play-within-a-play.  In Shakespeare’s autobiographical masterpiece, the play is “The Mousetrap”, used to entrap the king and prove his murderous guilt.  In Chekhov’s script, also rife with autobiography, the play is “something avant-garde” intended to reveal the writer’s mother and her sycophants as guilty of murdering the theatre. Last night we worked the scene outdoors; Konstantin’s play happens at the gazebo, no walls, no artificial light, no room.  And Konstantin’s mother, uncle and friends all spread out blankets, and open up a picnic basket.  They sit on the same ground as the audience for our show.  The meaning of this is clear: there’s no separation between actors and audience, between players, play and played for.
We are producing a play whose content is opposed to empty formalism in theatre, and if we are to follow through on our vow to serve the script, we simply must produce the play in a form that opposes empty formalism.  The fact that our way of producing also forces the audience to recline on one the most beautifully situated lawns in at least the Western Hemisphere is an added boon.  We will be providing chairs, but honestly, if you had to choose between a chair and picnic blanket, where would you rather sit?

May 3, 2011
“I’m more and more convinced that the point isn’t old or new forms, it’s to write and not think about form, because it’s flowing freely out of your soul.”
— Konstantin, Act 4

No rehearsals Monday, though work continued on the set. Michael Cecchini, our lighting designer, was hanging lights around Dana Kenn’s house of mirrors set design. Charlotte Palmer-Lane and her team were sewing costumes, and I was putting the finishing touches on the poster with our visionary graphic artist Aaron Freimark.  So it was a busy day off that wasn’t remotely a day off.
The poster will be up on the web and all over Philipstown soon, and like the play it depicts, it tells many stories at the same time, all of which are specific and detailed, the amalgamation of them telling one story, which is the only story ever worth telling, the one we might call life itself, or the free flowing of soul into form. The people who inhabit The Seagull are extremely concerned with forms: artistic forms (or what we might call style or genre), romantic forms (marriage, living in sin, adultery, friendship, etc.), physical forms (what is a living being?  What happens when the life is taken from a form?), and ultimately the play is the sum of the characters and their words — which are forms.
“Character” literally means letter or symbol.  For actors, to understand the characters, they must delve deeply into the words they use, and recognize that every word has a myriad of meanings, tones and colors.  What folly it would be for us to think that we will have somehow discovered the ultimate essential rendering of a character by opening night, and have all that character’s movements and vocal inflections can be locked in place like a gnat frozen in amber.  What audience would really like to watch gnats frozen in amber for two hours?  Only a fearful adherence to form drives a director and an acting ensemble to seek something they can fix by opening night and run repeatedly, with as little change as possible.  This notion of blocking and locking the form of a production literally impedes life’s current and crushes the soul.
To allow the unfettered, complex maelstrom of life to occur onstage is so much more gratifying.  And once actors have broken free of the fear that drives repetitive playing, they realize how liberating it is to let the play live fresh and real through them every night, to find new tones, new colors, new inflections, new patterns of motion and emotion. We go to theatre to watch people get caught up in a whirlpool as powerful as our own World’s End, which was the end of many a tall ship.  That churning power exists in the union of a play and a company of actors who are unafraid to recognize that such power is indeed the province of us all.  We just have to let it flow.

May 2, 2011
“Some people are obsessive compulsives.”
— Trigorin, Act 2

We just ended our first week of rehearsals.  Everyone in the cast is almost totally off book — meaning they know their lines without looking at a script.  They work hard. Our official schedule is six days a week, but I know the actors will be working on their day off.  Our budget is beyond tight, and some people are wearing more than one hat.  Carl Howell, who plays the young writer, is also arranging the five songs that are in the show, playing mandolin, and directing the show’s music.  Donald Kimmel, who plays the doctor, is also the technical director; he worked 11 hours straight in the theatre today to get a lot of the set in place.
The Seagull is a love story, but it’s not just about the love between individuals, it’s about the love people have for their art.  Trigorin, the famous writer in the play, says: “I feel that I’m devouring my own life, that to give away honey to somebody out there in space I’m robbing my finest flowers of their pollen, tearing up those flowers and trampling on their roots.  Wouldn’t you say I’m crazy?”
Are we crazy for working all hours, dredging up our private joys and sorrows and transforming them into this production, to share with somebody out there in space? Why do we do it?  Because we’re in love.  Or obsessive compulsive.  Is there a difference?

May 1, 2011
“Am I now so old and ugly that men don’t think twice telling me about other women?” —
Arkadina, Act 3

We had our Sneak Preview yesterday and we managed to not look stupid.  The gorgeous weather helped.  But so did the actors.  Donald Kimmel (Dr. Dorn) , Carl Howell (Konstantin) and Christine Wright (Masha) played the heartbreaking scene at the end of Act 1 and got many laughs, which was gratifying because it confirms my feeling that Chekhov is funniest when he’s breaking your heart.
Then Maia Guest as Arkadina and Malachy Cleary as Trigorin played the scene in Act 3 where a man asks his beloved if she wouldn’t mind if he had an affair with a much younger woman, and she begs him, fawns on him, uses all her intellectual and sexual power just to get him to stay. Again, heartbreaking, again, many laughs.
Over wine and cheese afterward, some of the women in the audience got into a heated discussion about the scene: did Arkadina do the right thing?  Or did she humiliate herself and lose her power,?  Or did she come out on top?  The debate when on for some time, and I couldn’t have been happier. The script is technically 115 years old.  But it plays like it’s all happening for the first time.  It plays like life itself.  Such is the gift of Chekhov.

April 30, 2011
“Help me.  Help me, or I’ll do something stupid.  I’ll mess up my life, wreck it”¦” — Masha, Act I

We’ve been working on The Seagull for four days as a company.  So a couple of months before rehearsals started, somebody in our newly formed, newly named World’s End Theatre suggested we do a Sneak Preview event to invite Depot Theatre supporters, friends, etc. to come and see a little bit of rehearsal, some designs, hear from the director (me), and get excited enough about the play to reserve big blocks of advance tickets.
Great idea, right? And such a great idea that, two months before rehearsals begin, I didn’t really think about the fact that I was setting the date for this audience-inspiring event a scant four days after the start of rehearsal. So now, despite the fact that we’ve somehow managed to work through about 70 percent of the script, I’d hardly say that I’m ready to start showing audiences why they need to block order tickets.  But this is exactly what I have to do, today, Saturday.
But we have this incredible script.  We have these talented artists. And we have to do whatever we can do to sell out every performance.  Even if we do something stupid.  In The Seagull, Masha, who is so afraid of doing something stupid, ends up doing something safe, which leads to enduringly painful results.  Better to be stupid, especially when you have a great cause.  On we go.

April 29, 2011
“I can’t agree with you there.  Still, it’s a matter of taste.  De gustibus, pluribus unum.”  – Shamraev, Act 1, The Seagull

We have begun.  In two days, we’ve already worked through Acts 1 and 2.  How are we moving so fast?  I’m mostly staying out of the way.  And we must work quickly, before we lose light.  On Tuesday, the assembled company of 13 actors took a first pass run at Act 1, and by the final line they were acting in complete darkness.  Why?  Let me explain.
Acts 1 and 2 of The Seagull take place outdoors, on the shores of a lake.  Our lake is the Hudson River, opposite that tricky navigation patch known as World’s End.  We’re working in and around the iconic gazebo, originally built for the shooting of Hello, Dolly! at Garrison Landing. When our characters talk about the water, the clouds in the sky, the flowers, catching fish — we will be able to see everything they reference, for real.  And we are urging our audience, like our characters, to bring picnics, lawn chairs or blankets (and we’ll provide less luxurious seating), and stretch out to enjoy the beauty of nature and the beauty of human nature, in all its ugliness.
Beauty in ugliness?  Yes.  Because the play is ever and always about the fusion of seemingly disparate elements into a unity: the unity of self and environment; the unity of self and others; the unity of self and image of self; the unity of fear and faith; the unity of death and life; and so on.  As we are learning by just speaking these words aloud and letting the script direct us (rather than me direct the script”¦I know, crazy), the characters so rarely see this inherent unification.  They are woefully susceptible to seeing only divisions.  But that’s what makes it a drama.  If everyone were enlightened, we’d have no conflict, and the play would commit the gravest sin of art: to be boring.
And even our seating won’t be boring.  As the sun literally sets on our Act 2, intermission comes and with it, a stroll by the cast and the entire audience up to the Depot Theatre, as the play moves indoors to the rooms of the home on the shores of the lake. When was the last time you got to watch a play — let alone one of the greatest scripts ever written — take place in two places, both of them gorgeous and special places in very different ways?  Our decision to play it like this was borne out of our great fortune to be in this community, in this environment.  But now we are seeing that even our structure of presentation is about the unification of two seemingly disparate environments.  How will this experience work on the audience?  We’ll find out.  As Shamraev, the play’s brilliant idiot of an overseer (played with gusto already by John Lane) says in unifying two disparate Latin aphorisms, De gustibus, pluribus unum.  Of taste, out of many, one.

One Response to "Behind the Scenes at The Seagull"

  1. Joe Plummer   May 2, 2011 at 8:11 am

    The setting at Garrison Landing is so perfect for this impactful drama to take place which this delightful preview on saturday brought to life. Like all good ideas after the fact,it becomes obvious once you experience it. I hope everyone can see and feel it for themselves once the play opens…