BWW Interviews: Melia Bensussen on Actors Shakespeare Project's THE CHERRY ORCHARD
This February, Actors Shakespeare Project is presenting a production of Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard, directed by longtime theatre practitioner Melia Bensussen. The production runs February 12 through March 9 at the Dane Estate at Pine Manor College.
Recently, I had the opportunity to meet with Ms. Bensussen and chat all about her relationship with ASP, the freedom that comes from directing classical pieces, and the common misinterpretation of Chekhov's works, not to mention, of course, the production at hand.
Alex Lonati, Broadway World: Thank you so much for meeting with me! Let me start by asking, what initially drew you to this production: the company, the piece, or a fortuitous combination of the two?
Melia Bensussen: I love working for Actors Shakespeare Project. This will be my fourth play with them; the last few have been Shakespeare. When they were planning this season, [Artistic Director] Allyn Burrows got in touch with me, we started talking about all of the titles they were discussing, and he said, "Cherry Orchard". And I said, "Really? You're going to do Chekhov?" I've never directed Chekhov. This is a first for me. So I was thrilled.
I think they are such a positive and energetic and creative company of actors for me to work with. And I feel that approaching Chekhov is not unlike the way I approach Shakespeare. I treat it like a new play, find what surprises me, what interests me. But specifically, it's the pleasure of a smArt Theatre voice. Chekhov just really understood theatre so intrinsically.
AL: Are you usually drawn to these more classic works, like Chekhov and Shakespeare, or do you ever dabble in contemporary pieces?
MB: I joke that I like my playwrights either really, really dead or next to me in the room. I love the act of collaborating with a writer, so I love new play work. And then with classics, or plays that are so much a part of the canon (or how we define the canon), they are open for interpretation so I can play with language and play with the script to a degree, which Shakespeare allows. Chekhov allows that too, in terms of language itself, but the structure of Chekhov is different. It is much more intrinsic to the play than with Shakespeare, so I don't find the structure is something I shift about. But I am doing a new adaptation, language wise, drawing on the literal translation and playing with this company to find the voice that is truest to them and to this production, really aiming for transparency in the language. It's about communicating character and emotion, which I think is really at the core of this.
AL: You mention working with a new adaptation. Has the piece been modernized at all?
MB: No, I'm really aiming for clarity, so anything that is too modern in the language I'm trying not to use. For example, I don't want to hear anyone say "yeah". But that being said, I also don't want a stiltedness that can creep into translation. I have done some work with translations in the past. I did a version of Lorca's Blood Wedding using Langston Hughes as the base because rather than switching into Spanish, Hughes had brought in a very Harlem Renaissance based vocabulary, which was exciting. So I set Blood Wedding in that period.
With Chekhov, I'm just trying to find a transparency for the language. Can you feel what they are all saying? Can you understand the emotion behind the language? Language serves really as a cover for emotion. So in Chekhov, it is not so much that they are hiding what they mean, but rather, that they're using language to get through to their meaning or to avoid the pain of what they feel.
AL: Aesthetically, what can audiences expect? What will the experience of attending this production be like for theatre-goers? MB: Oh! We are so lucky. As is Actors Shakespeare Project's tradition, we found a great space: the Founder's Room at Pine Manor College. It's a space in a house not unlike the kind of house that would have been lived in by this family, Different period, different continent, of course, but a grand ballroom kind of space that we are turning into a theatre space. We are staging it in the round, so expect to be really close to actors. Expect to really join in the conversation. Chekhov was not a playwright drawn to spectacle. He wanted the audience to be complicit with his plays. You are not simply a passive observer; you are a participant, getting to know these characters, maybe escaping your troubles for a while to lose yourself in theirs.
AL: That sounds ideal. So, with the combination of Chekhov's intentions and this new adaptation, is this production more accessible to audiences?
MB: Absolutely. It should feel like a new play! Not contemporary in the sense that it is being set in 2014, but my hope is that people say, "Oh really? This is Chekhov? Well, that's not hard!" Because it's not hard. And it's not long. People think Chekhov is so long, but the whole play should be two hours with an intermission. We think of Chekhov as Russian and melancholy, but he was writing comedies. There were some great correspondences with Chekhov and his intimates during The Cherry Orchard rehearsals where he was enraged that they were taking so long in rehearsal. He felt that the play should move very quickly. I paraphrase an ancient Greek writer who said, "Tragedy is about the difficult; comedy is about the unbearable". Chekhov is a comedian.
AL: Yes! Chekhov's works are so often dramatized, as Stanislavsky (who directed initial the productions) produced them as tragedies, but they are written as comedies. Are you adhering to Chekhov's intentions?
MB: Yes, very much. Chekhov described the show as a comedy bordering on farce, so that's really the world we're in. There are tragic notes that are sounded in the same way that all our lives end with our deaths no matter what. Cherry Orchard ends with loss. But that doesn't mean there isn't a lot of joy on the way there.
For more information about Actors Shakespeare Project's production of The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov, visit www.actorsshakespeareproject.org.