Thursday, 28 January 2016

Interview: Dmitry Zhukovsky and Rena Polley talk Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard"

Cast, The Cherry Orchard. On stage until February 28, 2016 at Berkeley Street Theatre
I had a chance recently to ask some questions of Dmitry Zhukovsky and Rena Polley regarding their joint venture of bringing Anton Chekhov's famous play, The Cherry Orchard, to Toronto stages. 

Check out reviews, and The Chekhov Collective, here! 

Here's what Rena and Dmitry had to say about The Cherry Orchard (text edited for spelling and clarity);

1. Why Chekhov? I know that he's a very popular Russian playwright, considered by many to be one of the greatest short story writers in history, but are there any specific or personal reasons you're drawn to his work?

Dmitry: Yes, there are very specific and personal reasons. In my life, I experienced his influence twice. The first one, when I was a boy about eighteen. It was thanks to Chekhov that for the first time in my life I got the distinct ability to see myself from the outside and to overcome the egocentric viewpoint which is so natural for a young person. And the second time, much later, I was impressed by him being a fantastic artist, a skillful master. I've been studying his poetics and the way he designs his stories and plays for many years. So, I'd say that thanks to him I've learned a lot about how both life and art work.

Rena: I think there is so much humanity in his work. His characters are complicated and wonderful to play. When we did the Seagull a few years back, I read everything about Chekhov and fell madly in love with him. If I was an actress at that time, there is no question I would have had an affair with him. 

2. Chekhov claimed that the show’s first director Stanislavsky “…has ruined my play” (by turning a comedy into a tragedy, amongst other things). If Chekhov were alive today, and able to see your mounting of his play (opening on his birthday, no less), how do you think – or hope – he would feel about it? Would knowing that he may hear about or see your production prompt you to change anything about it?

Dmitry: Nothing. My conscience is clear. It would be a dream to hear his opinion about our show.

3. Putting aside the author’s intent - if possible - how does the play read to you personally? Tragedy? Comedy? Both?

Dmitry: Both. With one tiny remark: I would replace the word tragedy with drama. Let's be realistic - we know what a real tragedy is. This play is about a group of people who live in chatting and idleness. There are two guns in the show and neither one of them is fired. 

Rena: I agree, and often there is comedy that comes out of the drama and drama that comes out of the comedy. For me that is the best kind of writing. 

4. Do you see any parallels – thematically, or otherwise – between the early 20th century sociopolitical world of The Cherry Orchard, and the present? If yes, in what ways (if any) does that inspire or guide you in producing this play?

Dmitry: I cannot speak specifically about Canada. I'm a newcomer here and still trying to understand how Canadian society works. But I think the play resonates with a general feeling of what is happening now in the world: some fundamental change and our inability or maybe non-desire to deal with this change. To talk about modern Russia, I would say yes, there are a lot of frightening parallels with the early 20th century. From my perspective, not too much has changed in Russia and the lessons are left unlearned. Yet, we are not doing a sociopolitical show. Our play is about alienated and lonely human beings thrown into life, lost in time and trapped in their own illusions. When it comes to social and political issues, I believe they would resonate themselves, without any special pushing.

5. Dmitry Zhukovsky: Can you talk about why you immigrated to Canada, and about the differences (if any) between the theatre world at home and in Canada (or Toronto specifically)? Is there anything about the Russian theatre world that you wish we had in Canada, and vice versa? What kind of challenges have you encountered plying your craft in Canada (if any)?

Dmitry: I just wanted to move out of Russia due to political issues, and Canada became a country which opened its benevolent doors for me. Speaking about the theatre world in Moscow (where I came from) and Toronto there is a big difference in many levels. In Moscow there are several famous academic theatre schools with huge competition (hundreds of people for each student place). Those who are lucky to study there get four years of training everyday in all actor skills: both physical and psychic. While in Toronto there are no so many schools but at the same time Canadian actors are ready to study all their professional life and try new methods, attend various trainings and practice different approaches to acting. In Russia most of theatres are repertoire ones and the government funded while in Canada most of theatres are brave and vibrant independent companies. And certainly there is no way to make such a big production as The Cherry Orchard in just three weeks in Russia – it would be six months at least. I think a middle way will be the best one. I wish there were more academic theatre schools and more repertoire theatres in Toronto. That would enrich theatre practice in Toronto.

6. Why The Cherry Orchard? Does the play hold any special meaning for you?

Dmitry: The Cherry Orchard is the most beautiful Chekhov's play. How could I say no, or even hesitate a second, when Rena offered me to direct it? I'm infinitely thankful to her for such a chance. I think The Cherry Orchard brilliantly reflects all facets of Chekhov’s absolutely stunning personality, his ability to see funny and absurd things in everyday life and his unique attitude to life and people - an attitude that while very sober, very precise and sometimes merciless, is always affectionate and including. 

Rena: I think The Cherry Orchard is Chekhov’s best play. It was written as he was dying, and the existential questions about time, life, nature, politics and the human condition are all addressed with lightness, ease and simplicity. It takes a mature artist to balance all those things. 

7. Rena Polley: It was said that you sought out Russian artists to make up the crew. Can you talk about why, and what that process looked like?

Well actually it didn’t start out that way. Peggy Coffey (who directed The Seagull) was to direct but her mother became ill and she needed to be with her. I had worked with Dmitry on the letters of Anton Chekhov and Olga Knipper and asked him to direct. When we changed directors we lost some of the creative team and Dmitry brought on some of his friends or people he knew from the Russian community. Before you knew it, it became this kind of Canadian/Russian co-production. Dmitry has a very European way of approaching the script. He arrived with a fascinating concept for the play. We used atmospheres, composition and rhythm to find the framework of the piece. You could describe it as working outside in. This form helped define the psychology of the characters. It is a really interesting way to work.  He also encouraged us from the beginning to include the audience in our performances. As this is theater (and not film), we are creating illusions. We are always aware that we are actors playing a character in a theatre with an audience. There is no 4th wall and all moments include the audience.  

8. Finally, is there anything you’d like to add, either about the show, your work, or anything else?

Dmitry: I am grateful to everybody who is working on this production. It’s such an adventure!

Rena: I would like to say how much I have enjoyed working with the Russian artists. For example, Dimitrii Kilchenko our set designer, is a well know designer in Russia but does not work here as he is still learning English. He volunteers as an usher at Canstage because, as he said to me, “I miss theater so much!” I can’t tell you how thrilled I am that this man’s beautiful work will be seen on the same stage where he volunteers. And it has made me think about how many more artists there are in this city who have arrived from other countries, whose work we will never see because they do not speak our language or are not given the opportunity.

The Cherry Orchard is playing at the Berkeley Street Upstairs Theatre
January 28 - February 14, 2016
For more information, or tickets, please the Canadian Stage website

Photo of the full cast of The Cherry Orchard by Dmitry Zhukovsky

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