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Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company Reimagines Chekhov's The Seagull

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Checkhov, reimagined: (L to R) Stupid Fucking Bird cast members Cody Nickell, Kate Eastwood Norris, Kimberly Gilbert and Rick Foucheux have been working on the show since its inception.
Stan Barouh
Checkhov, reimagined: (L to R) Stupid Fucking Bird cast members Cody Nickell, Kate Eastwood Norris, Kimberly Gilbert and Rick Foucheux have been working on the show since its inception.

When it comes to his relationship with Anton Chekhov's classic 1895 play, The Seagull, D.C.-based playwright and director Aaron Posner says it's complicated, particularly for young theater artists.

"It's [The Seagull] about theater, and it's about art and 'I'm going to change the world' and all that," says Posner. "So it was one of my favorite plays." But as he grew older, he says, "it became a less favorite play. And then one that I found pissed me off."

A few years back, when Posner found himself chatting with some theater folks about the play "and why one loves it and hates it," he says he had a sudden brainstorm: to create his own version of The Seagull.

"I should call it Stupid Fucking Bird,'" he says. "And people laughed, and then I went to the bathroom, and in the bathroom I thought, 'I [really] should do my own adaptation of The Seagull, and I [really] should call it Stupid Fucking Bird.' And maybe a month or so later, I started writing."

Longer writing process

That was a few years ago, and since then, Posner has been writing and rewriting, and now his play is premiering this month at Woolly Mammoth Theater, helmed by Woolly's artistic director Howard Shalwitz.

Shalwitz says the cast was working with draft number 8.4 the other day. And indeed, 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, which Shalwitz says they've taken to calling SFB, it's been entirely different.

As Shalwitz explains, with most plays at most American regional theaters, "there's usually a long process with the playwright, a semi-long process with the director, a not-very-long process with the designers, and then a very short three- to four-week process with the actors."

But with SFB, Woolly's been able to bring all those people together over an entire year, "and touch base with the play at different phases of its development. Not just 'Oh, here's the script, and now we're doing a quick production to put it on the stage.'"

Longer rehearsals

The secret? 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."

"I think American directors and American theaters in general are among the best in the world at doing a really good job in a really 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.

"So I think that sometimes we rob ourselves of the tools that we could develop if we gave ourselves a little more time to experiment."

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 shows around town, says she's felt the difference.

"I think I've done about seven world premieres," Gilbert says. "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."

But with SFB, 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 ("Usually I'm sweaty and, you know, heart racing,") she felt right at home.

"It was just as if it was another step in the process," she says. And she admits that, in a way, this process has spoiled her.

"Spoiled, but also ruined, in a way," she says with a laugh. "Like, it's ruined me!"

Playwright Aaron Posner is totally with Kimberly Gilbert on this one. "We've had a great luxury of time," he says. And yet "we could use more time."

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.

Previews for Stupid Fucking Bird start May 27 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre in Northwest D.C.


[Music: "Bye Bye Blackbird" by Slim Cooper y su Orquestra from Vintage Dance Orchestras No. 256]

Photos: SFB

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