It’s a recipe that comes together all too rarely: a great playwright, a passionate ensemble, and a theatre with open arms. But when the ingredients come together, the result can be a rising star—or, in this case, a soaring one.
The Seagull Project is lighting up the foggy Seattle skies with its unique, exclusive dedication to the plays of Anton Chekhov. Their Cherry Orchard, performed earlier this year, once again garnered praise for both the young company and the place that has given them a home, Seattle’s ACT Theatre. Founded in 2011 by a passionate group of local actors (Julie Briskman, John Bogar, Gavin Reub, Brandon J. Simmons, and Alex Tavares), the ensemble embarked on a long-term, actor-driven workshop of Chekhov’s The Seagull. Along the way, it attracted John Langs, the newly appointed artistic director of ACT, who offered the ensemble a place in ACTLab, a program designed to provide space and resources in a collaborative effort with emerging local artists. Under Langs’s direction, The Seagull opened in 2013 in ACTLab, and, based on its success, was invited to perform at the Ilkhom Theatre in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.
The collaboration between Langs, ACT, and the Seagull Project (TSP) continued, bearing fruit again in 2015 with The Three Sisters, which received Seattle’s Gregory Awards for outstanding production and scenic design (by Jennifer Zeyl), and this year’s Cherry Orchard. The star of these production is the inspired ensemble, many of whom have been with TSP since its inception. Langs shows the confidence and wisdom to remain faithful to Chekhov’s time and place, resisting distracting updating elements, but he does heighten the comedic elements, thereby working against the pathos of the play, just as Chekhov would have wanted. Langs’s swift and sure direction of Orchard built to a thrilling climax in Act III (wonderfully choreographed by Helen Heaslip), and a stunning denouement in Act IV, as the ensemble literally dismantled the drawing room of Ranevskaya’s estate before our very eyes, chandeliers and all, leaving tiny cherry blossoms on the stage as the only vestige of the Russia that once was.
During my visit in February, Langs spoke glowingly of his association with this passionate collective of artists, who share this singular dedication.
“When they called me in 2011 and said, ‘We want to do the “Ring Cycle of Chekhov” and take it around the world,’ I was terrified, and told them so,” Langs recalled with a laugh. “They loved it. ‘That’s the response we want,’ they said. Eventually, I fell deeply in love with the author—and the company too.”
It didn’t hurt that this growing relationship fit with a number of ACT initiatives. ACTLab, for instance, curates partnerships with emerging artists and companies (“We’re the incubator—we share resources,” Langs said), and the ACT Pass program allows patrons to see everything on the theatre’s stages in a given month for just $40. “It gives our young artists and companies a space and an audience they wouldn’t ordinarily have,” said Langs. This worked brilliantly for TSP: “It was an overnight sensation. Here you have a group of actors who are unstoppable, who were willing to volunteer their time until they had to pull a performance contract together. For them it was more important to work on Chekhov’s plays and develop their craft than ticket sales or length of run.”
The process is the beating heart of this dedicated, determined company. Every Monday since 2011, the growing ensemble gathers in a rehearsal space at ACT to work on their craft. “It should be called ‘The Seagull Process,’ not the ‘Project,’” says David Quicksall, a company member who has performed a role in each of TSP’s three productions. The process involves slow readings of Chekhov’s text, “études” (character sketches), and actor training methods pooled from the varied ensemble members’ backgrounds: elements of Bogart’s Viewpoints, Grotowski’s Plastiques, and Mikhail Chekhov’s theory. These Monday sessions, led by Mark Jenkins, Tyler Polumsky, and other company members, have resulted in a shared artistic approach and vocabulary, as well as a fierce focus, dedication, and discipline.
“It’s an evolving process,” explains Gavin Reub, TSP’s artistic director. “We tailor it to the needs of each play. Chekhov’s plays are a perfect format for continual training for the actor. We’ll gain and lose company members, but we’ll never stop working on these plays. It’s our dream to be the Chekhov company in America, to be known for our excellence, for our lifelong experience with this author—and to take our work around the world. Just as Seattle Opera is known for putting on the Wagner Ring Cycle—that’s the model we want to build on.”
Like some of Chekhov’s characters, Reub and the company have big dreams. TSP is now newly incorporated as an independent nonprofit, with a small board of directors and tiny professional staff (one third is still volunteer). After The Cherry Orchard closed, Monday sessions continued apace, with work on the next big canonical Chekhov masterpiece, Uncle Vanya, slated for 2019. In 2021, their plan is to perform all four of Chekhov’s major plays in repertory.
“All these actors will get the experience of what it’s like to live and breathe these plays over a decade of work,” said Langs. “It’s unique in America. I’ve never heard of anything like it. It seems absolutely crazy, yet here we are, seven years later, stronger than ever, breaking all box office goals. I can see how well they’re building their future.”
Once a tiny collective of five founders, the ensemble now numbers 17, with roughly half of them members of Actors Equity. To support their art, all company members work at other jobs (including waitressing, teaching, swim-instructing, baristing, manicuring, and counseling homeless youth).
Speaking with company members—who, full disclosure, are using my translations of Chekhov’s plays—I got a glimpse of what it might have been like in 1898, when the young Moscow Art Theatre was ignited by similar passion and inspiration. I asked them what had they learned from working on Chekhov so intensely for the past seven years, studying his texts and performing his plays.
“I get all the ‘old guy roles’,” said Mark Jenkins, a drama professor at University of Washington). “I’ve played Sorin (The Seagull), Ferrapont (The Three Sisters), and Firs (The Cherry Orchard). So I’ve been thinking a lot about mortality lately. And what I’ve discovered is the innocence of all his characters. With Chekhov, I’ve learned to be continually astonished.”
“What have I learned from Chekhov?” Julie Briskman wondered aloud. “Ultimate bravery. Both Arkadina and Ranevskaya are strong, sexual, driven by a need to be adored—but at the same time fragile, vulnerable. So rich, so much to explore. And in an ensemble, you learn from each other.” Peter Crook (Dorn, Chebutykin, Gaev) agreed: “Thanks to Chekhov, I’ve learned to trust my scene partners. I’m just able to be for the first time in my career.”
There have also been some surprising discoveries. Tyler Polumsky, a Russian-trained American actor who facilitated the Tashkent connection, commented on the “rogue roles” that he’s played in the three Chekhov productions: Yakov, Solyony, Yasha.
“What have I learned on this journey? Don’t take it seriously,” said Polumsky. “I need to be having a lot of fun. Otherwise it’s too heavy—and that’s not the right tone with Chekhov.”