By Mark Jenkins
On April 23, 2014 a Seattle based troupe of self-producing actors their director and a production manager flew to Tashkent, Uzbekistan to present their production of Chekhov’s The Seagull at the renowned Ilkhom Theatre of Mark Weil. The performances we gave constituted the centerpiece of a two week long “Festival of American Culture: East/West” hosted by Ilkhom and was significantly supported by the US Embassy in Tashkent.
As a member of the acting company of The Seagull Project and also a professor in the UW School of Drama having, previously visited and presented master classes at Ilkhom in 2005, 07 and 09, I an eager to share a bit of our experience with the School of Drama and REECAS family.
For context, let me share words from Co-Artistic Director of The Seagull Project, and actress, Julie Briskman.
“The Seagull Project was formed out of a passion for the great works of Anton Chekhov. When the founding producers came together, the goal was to set about creating a new kind of collaboration. One which allowed the actors to take the time needed to create an ensemble and honor the work of Chekhov with bravery honesty, simplicity and elegance. To work in a way that was vibrant and vital. We spent a year in weekly workshops, delving into the text, exploring the characters and delving deeper into what ensemble means.”
Our company originally produced and performed The Seagull to great box office and critical acclaim as part of ACT Theatre’s Central Heating Lab in early 2013. One of the cast members, UW alum, Tyler Polumsky, had studied with and then became the first American member of the Ilkhom Theatre’s Russian speaking acting company where for several years he performed in many of the company’s repertory of plays (which includes adaptations of John Steinbeck and Edward Albee.)
Due to our rigorous, time-consuming exploration and rehearsals of The Seagull and the powerful audience response we received, it became clear that the texture of our production was richer than the typical American productions of Chekhov. We didn’t want to “hang it up” after all our efforts. So, as a result, Tyler initiated the idea that we try to take our production of The Seagull to Tashkent, obviously no small undertaking. But Tyler and the producers, Julie Briskman, Gavin Reub and Alexandra Tavares, together with key people of Ilkhom, proposed and organized the festival, which was funded largely by the Embassy and ran from April 27-May 9. In addition to our full production of The Seagull, on Ilkhom’s main stage, two new American plays were given staged readings during the festival, one in Russian, the other in English. Tyler even put together and rehearsed a ’60s era rock concert with a mixture of American and Tashkent musicians. Janis Joplin and Jefferson Airplane live!
Embassy officials and Tashkent officials attended several of the events. One evening, we were guests of the American Ambassador at his residence. He attended our last performance of The Seagull and hung out with us afterward.
Our performances of The Seagull at Ilkhom received overwhelming, even rapturous response from the audiences. (I play “Sorin”). After the first performance, a Russian visitor from Moscow, proclaimed to me, “How did you capture the Russian soul? And from America!” Another, a literary scholar, told me, “Over the years I have seen five productions of The Seagull in Moscow. This is the best I’ve seen!”
During our time in Tashkent, seven members of the company gave master classes to the students and alumnae of the Ilkhom Acting Program. Six of the 16 company members are alumnae of the UW School of Drama.
Those are the facts. This is what happened. Sixteen American artists threw body and soul into the challenges the enigmatic Russian master, Anton Chekhov, presents with his play, The Seagull. For us in the company he is the pinnacle of playwriting — right up there with Shakespeare. We were determined to meet this writer on his terms. That is, putting human souls in situations as intimate as an exam room and allowing their stories to be told compassionately, but without mercy. This ultimately requires the actors to move beyond any technique we posses and allow our own naked souls to serve as surrogates for his characters. There are many pitfalls in such an endeavor, hubris, ignorance, folly, illusion, pretentiousness, fakery. But if a company of actors does what is necessary to arrive at the stripped-away condition that Chekhov intended for his characters then, for a while, there is no foreign country or culture between the story, the actors, the audience and the “lives” the good doctor gave us during his 42 years on the planet. I’m convinced we proved that at Ilkhom, in Tashkent.
Incidentally, we of The Seagull Project, are going to begin working on The Three Sisters this summer for an early 2015 production at ACT Theatre. We are hoping to play it, in true repertory along side The Seagull.
Mark Jenkins is a professor in the UW School of Drama.