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A Few Words with Rena Polley on The Chekhov Collective’s “The Seagull”

Interview by Madryn McCabe

We sat down with Rena Polley, producer and actor of The Chekhov Collective’s The Seagull, to discuss the Michael Chekhov technique, theatre in Toronto and what makes The Seagull so special.

MM: The production part of The Seagull is incredible. 

RP: The support team was made up of brilliant people, they’re all award winning, but they had never done theatre before. I got them involved because they’re friends of mine. Rob Gray has won Genies and Geminis. He literally finished filming two weeks ago, came home, pulled in every favour to get the set built, even painted it himself (and it’s been years since he’s done that) and he leaves tomorrow to go to Bucharest for six months, so he very kindly did all this. And it was a learning curve for him. The first time he built the set, it was flat. And Peggy [the director] said, “oh no, it has to be like a W, and this way” so they all learned something because it’s different in film. So, he built this beautiful set. He had it go from something very formal, until it moves across the stage and eventually it disintegrates. Kind of like the play. And the music! Rob [Bertola, Music and Sound Design] is an Emmy and multi award winning sound designer for film, he just finished David Cronenberg’s film, and he’d never really done theatre before either. He came up with the song that’s the theme song. It’s based on an old Russian theme song, but it was rerecorded in the 60’s by The Seekers, and it became this huge popular hit. It’s called “The Carnival is Over”. So he did the reverse; it starts deconstructed and then moves the opposite, so that by the curtain call, the song is sung with full song and lyrics. And Oh Susanna did the music. So it starts deconstructed and ends up full, and the set does the opposite, it starts full and ends up deconstructed as you go across. The lighting designer is Blue Rodeo’s lighting designer. He’d never done theatre before. He finished the Blue Rodeo tour Monday night and was in the theatre Tuesday morning. He’d only seen a run through once. But he’s so brilliant! And Comrags were friends of mine too.

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MM: Your costumes are works of art!

RP: Comrags had an army of people building all this! Judy [Cornish, Comrags] said, “do you mind if I do the costumes?” I said, “Of course!” and then Joyce [Gunhouse] her partner in the company got involved, and then Joyce’s sister Judy and sewers and interns, and when we all saw the level of the costumes we thought “Uh oh. We’d better up our game!” Everybody felt that. Everybody came with an extraordinary level of work. And it made us up our game as well. And then Peggy came so prepared. She dreamt two ideas. And that was 1) The play within the play. Using the frame, using this kind of deconstructed way of telling a story. Peggy and I did teacher training in New York and our flight got canceled. So we ended up sin Manhattan for two days, and we went to the Museum of Modern Art. There was a show on all these artists that used deconstruction, and we kept seeing references to the frame. Peggy said, “that’s what I want to do at the beginning”. We tried it at a weekend workshop, and she knew it was going to work. We brought in Ellie Hyman from New York, who is a Chekhov person, but also a Viewpoints person, so she did this stuff with us, and we transferred the actors over from Ellie to Peggy. It’s hard as a director to come in to an ensemble that has been working together for a year. She only had three weeks to shape this play. It’s a big play, an epic play. The final image that she came with is when Konstantin rips the papers. Everybody always has him throw the pieces in the air, and she had him stuff them into his clothes, so that he leaves nothing behind. He takes all his writings with him. And it’s such a beautiful, poetic image. So she came with these two very strong ideas that bookend the piece. And she kept hearing rhythms. She could tell when vocally we’d drop the beat and then come up again. She’d say, “Push it. Keep driving it. There’s a pause coming, and you have to earn it.” And you can see these quiet moments in the production. She could really hear the rhythm of the piece, and wanted to honour that. She used Viewpoints from Ellie. She didn’t call it blocking, she called it composition. There are ten actors. There’s a lot to do!

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MM: When you said it was an epic play it really made me think of the number of actors in the play. The nature of the way theatre in Toronto gets produced these days means that ten actors are unheard of. 

RP: Ten big personality characters, and ten big personality actors, that I had empowered, for better or for worse, so everybody had an opinion. Peggy had to really set up a very strong structure for the rehearsal process. We had done all of this Chekhov work and it was all sort of loose and game playing and improv and playing with text, but not making choices about text because that’s directorial. Creating the world of the characters and then when we got to the rehearsal space, it was very traditional. I thought we could continue this process more, but I realized Peggy was right. There’s a three week rehearsal process, there’s a story to tell, and you have to get through each act. We got through each act quite quickly in a big sweep because of the work we had done, and then Peggy went in a worked smaller sections. There was more of a traditional work space. We looked at beats, we looked at text, and objectives. But she would bring in Chekhov vocabulary of “what’s the Atmosphere of this act?” We could get to it quickly because we had been training in that philosophy.

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MM: How did this group of people all come together?

RP: I keep saying that we all worked for a year together, but we really didn’t. Every two or three months we did a three day intensive workshop. So that allowed us to do a lot of stuff, but then let things simmer during that time. And people have lives and shows and lots of stuff going on. So we maybe met three or four times for three or four days each time. In the last month we met every Monday. I knew I wanted to look at this play, and I wanted to see how far I could take the Michael Chekhov technique. Having studied it, I thought, “Okay, I’ve got to put my money where my mouth is”. What this process allowed us to do was to keep expanding and asking questions, instead of contracting and making choices quickly. That was the gift of this process. And even if you look at the program, Peggy talks about how it starts in expansion and ends in contraction. We can use the words of Chekhov. It’s been a really extraordinary process. The question I posed to myself at the beginning was “how far can I take this?” and what I learned is that you can use it all the way through to the end, but you’d better bring along other things as well. There’s a reason the Stanislavski technique is still surviving. It needs to be expanded, and other things looked at, but the ideas of beats, objectives, text analysis is really important, and you need to combine it with the Chekhov work. At some point in the process, you’ve got to throw out the head and let the body speak because it has a bigger vocabulary, but then bring the head back in.

MM: What I found really interesting is that they play is over 150 years old, but it’s still so relevant. 

RP: Every time someone reads this play, they say to me, “It reminds me of Facebook” or we had an athlete in the audience, and she said that Trigoren’s speech about loving the writing process but hating it when it’s published is how every athlete feels when they train. So it speaks to everyone. What we’ve discovered about this play is that there’s no bottom. We could explore this for five more years. For a nanosecond, I thought about modernizing it, but I thought, no, let’s make the audience do a bit of the work. Let them make the leap, put the dots together. Because it’s all there. It’s a story about desire, art, the heart, human nature, relationships, and family. All these things are universal. They’re timeless. We agreed it was best to tell this story simply, and through the heart. Let the play speak for itself. We tried not to add things or colour it.

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MM: I see the program that you have adapted the play.

RP: I knew I wanted to cut the play, so I looked at about seven different translations. I wanted to make the language accessible, but not too modern. Some of the formality of the language is from the play, but I didn’t want it to be archaic either. I wanted to keep the names simple so that we’re not calling each other by three different names. I trimmed.

MM: There’s also a very strong feeling of the ensemble.

RP: We did that over time, but I also think the Chekhov work can speed that up in a rehearsal. I really want to put this process into the rehearsal process. I’d like to offer myself to directors and say “give me an hour of your day, every day, and I can really help you move this process along. I can help the ensemble, I can help the atmosphere, I can help actors drop into characters”. But rehearsals are short, directors don’t know what it is. I’ve offered a few times and heard no. I understand that, but I think the Chekhov technique can make that happen faster. We had the luxury of time, and I had them do all kinds of things. In the first intensive weekend, I had them read the play and write down images of the play. I collected them, we played with them. We came up with themes, we came up with the set design, I had them come up with one line describing the play, because I wanted them to think about more than their character. I wanted them to take ownership of the play. Sometimes as actors, we just highlight our lines and look at our part in reference to the play. It’s safer. We want to protect ourselves. So I wanted to blow that away, and give responsibility for the play to the actors. We did build the ensemble over time, but I think it could have happened much faster if all we had was the three week rehearsal process. I really want to encourage people to look to the Michael Chekhov technique because I think there’s something in it that every actor, director, designer can use.

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For more information about the Michael Chekhov Technique, visit michaelchekhovcanada.com

For tickets to The Seagull, visit thechekhovcollective.com

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