Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company Reimagines Chekhov's The Seagull (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company Reimagines Chekhov's The Seagull

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:08
Welcome back to "Metro Connection," I'm Rebecca Sheir. And this week, we are winging it. Earlier on the show, we met a bunch of people who are winging it by acting on the fly, and making snap decisions, like a long time teacher of improv, and a doctor working in a shock trauma unit. But now, we'll take the whole wing thing a bit more literally, starting with a winged creature you'll find living, breeding and feeding on every single continent in the world. The seagull.

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:38
Or, as it'll be known in this next story...

MR. AARON POSNER

00:00:41
Stupid (censored by network) Bird.

SHEIR

00:00:42
OK, so we're not trying to be glib here, we're not trying to be shocking. What you just heard playwright and director Aaron Posner say is actually the title of a world premiere play opening this month at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in Northwest D.C. It's being marketed as sort of adapted from "The Seagull."

POSNER

00:00:57
I think when you say adapted, usually it means, oh, I'm trying to be true to the work, I am putting that work on stage in a theatrical form, and this is not that. So it's something else, it is a response to, it's a reimagining, it's whatever you want to call it, it's its own thing.

SHEIR

00:01:11
And this thing, this reimaging of Anton Chekhov's 1895 play about unfulfilled desires for love, success and artistic genius, for Aaron Posner, it's been nearly a lifetime in the making.

POSNER

00:01:23
"Seagull," particularly for young theater artists, it's like the play, it's about theatre and it's about art and I'm going to change the world and all that. So it was one of my favorite plays. And then as I grew older, it became a less favorite play. And then one that I found pissed me off. And so I was in conversations with some theater folks in the theatre, and we were talking about "Seagull," and talking about why one loves and hates it, and I literally said, well, you know, I should do my own version of "Seagull," I should call it "Stupid (censored by network) Bird."

POSNER

00:01:50
And people laughed, and I went to the bathroom, and in the bathroom I thought, I should do my own adaptation of "The Seagull" and I should call it "Stupid (censored by network) Bird." And maybe a month or so later, I started writing.

SHEIR

00:02:03
That was a few years ago, and since then, Posner's continued writing, and writing, and rewriting and rewriting, and as of my most recent interview with the play's director, Woolly Mammoth artistic director Howard Shalwitz...

MR. HOWARD SHALWITZ

00:02:14
Well, I think the official draft number we're on is like 8.4 or something like that.

SHEIR

00:02:18
It's common for a playwright to burn through multiple drafts before a play gets on its feet, often before it even starts rehearsals. But in the case of this play...

SHALWITZ

00:02:27
"SFB," as we call it.

SHEIR

00:02:28
...it's been entirely different. As Shalwitz explains, with most plays at most American regional theaters...

SHALWITZ

00:02:34
There's usually a long process with the playwright, and a semi-long process with the director, and a not-very-long process with the designers, and then a very short three- to four-week process with the actors.

SHEIR

00:02:44
But with "SFB," Woolly's been able to bring all those people together over an entire year.

SHALWITZ

00:02:49
And touch base with the play at different phases in its development. Not just, oh, here's the script, and now we're doing a quick production to put it on the stage.

SHEIR

00:02:57
The secret is a $4 million fundraising campaign to develop and produce 25 new plays in 10 years, by providing more technical resources, larger casts, extra readings and workshops, and longer rehearsal periods. The campaign is called "Free The Beast."

SHALWITZ

00:03:13
And so the metaphor is that the way we've worked on new plays in the past is a little bit locked in a cage, but I think American directors and American theatres in general are among the best in the world at doing a really good job in a short period of time. But we also do spend less time working on a play than most other countries do, who have deeper government support and companies of artists who've been sustained over many years through that support.

SHALWITZ

00:03:35
And so I think that sometimes we rob ourselves of the tools that we could develop if you gave yourself a little bit more time to experiment.

SHEIR

00:03:43
And that's precisely what "Free the Beast" has done for "SFB," it's given it more time. And cast member Kimberly Gilbert, who's done a ton of plays around town, says she's felt the difference.

MS. KIMBERLY GILBERT

00:03:53
I think I've done about seven world premieres, and ultimately what happens is when you work on a regular rehearsal schedule, you feel that you're ready to open when you close. Because you don't have any time to let things marinate.

SHEIR

00:04:11
But with "SFB," she says, the cast started marinating last April, during a weeklong workshop in Lake George, N.Y., and they've done a few more workshops since then. So at the play's first official reading this April, Gilbert says instead of feeling the typical jitters...

GILBERT

00:04:24
Usually I'm like sweaty and, you know, heart racing.

SHEIR

00:04:28
...she felt right at home.

GILBERT

00:04:30
It was just as if it was another step in the process.

SHEIR

00:04:32
And she admits that this process has kind of spoiled her.

GILBERT

00:04:37
Spoiled, but also ruined, in a way, like, it's ruined me.

SHEIR

00:04:43
Kimberly was saying that she feels like she's been ruined. She's like, next time I do a world premiere, I'm gonna want to have a workshop, a year in advance, and then a couple more, and then get to the first reading. She used the word ruined, this process was like such a luxury.

POSNER

00:04:53
If I can ruin actors, ruin theatre artists of any kind, that makes my life worthwhile.

SHEIR

00:04:59
Playwright Aaron Posner is, of course, joking, because yeah, he's totally with Kimberly Gilbert on this one.

POSNER

00:05:06
We've had a great luxury of time.

SHEIR

00:05:08
And yet, he says...

POSNER

00:05:09
We could use more time.

SHEIR

00:05:10
For now, though, a little more than a week remains before "SFB" is up and running. And though the play isn't exactly an adaptation of Chekhov, word has it the first act set includes a big picture of the playwright, more or less overlooking the proceedings. So, love him or hate him, he'll most definitely be there in spirit.

SHEIR

00:05:35
Previews for "SFB" start May 27th. To get more information on the show, and to see photographs of some members of the cast, visit our website, metroconnection.org.
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