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Interview: Prolific Director Michael Michetti Returns to Pasadena Playhouse to Tackle UNCLE VANYA

Pasadena Playhouse’s next live production Uncle Vanya opens June 1, 2022

By: May. 25, 2022
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Interview: Prolific Director Michael Michetti Returns to Pasadena Playhouse to Tackle UNCLE VANYA  Image

Pasadena Playhouse's next live production Uncle Vanya opens June 1, 2022. A most productive Los Angeles theatre staple, Michael Michetti directs this Los Angeles premiere of the Richard Nelson, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky translation of the Anton Chekhov classic Uncle Vanya. Cast includes Hugo Armstrong as "Vanya," with Anne Gee Byrd, Brian George, Brandon Mendez Homeras, Jane Taini, Sabina Zuniga-Varela and Chelsea Yakura-Kurtz.

Michael found some time from his multi-tasking to answer a few of my queries.

Thank you taking the time for this interview, Michael! The last time I interviewed you in 2019, you were directing The Judas Kiss at Boston Court. This isn't your first time directing at Pasadena Playhouse. You did King Charles III and A Life in the Theatre previously. So, what cosmic forces brought you to direct this production of Uncle Vanya?

Danny Feldman, the Playhouse's Producing Artistic Director, and I have been talking about doing something else together since King Charles III, and he called just a few months ago to ask me about Uncle Vanya. As with so many theaters, the Playhouse's schedule had shifted due to COVID, and he felt that this play nicely fit into their adjusted season. It happens that Uncle Vanya has been on my bucket list for many years, so of course I jumped at the chance.

What can Uncle Vanya aficionados expect with this new translation by Richard Nelson, Richard Pevear, and Larissa Volokhonsky?

This translation is unique because it's a collaboration between two acclaimed translators of Russian works and a great American playwright. The former brought their knowledge of the Russian language and literature, and the latter brought his knowledge of how plays work and his lifelong interest in Chekhov's works as a theatre artist. What they came up with was a faithful and dynamic version of Chekhov's play. But then Richard Nelson went on to direct the first production of their translation, and for that production he took some additional liberties with the play, cutting two characters, doing some minor restructuring and editing, etc. And it's that version we're doing at Pasadena Playhouse. This new adaptation feels fresh and modern, almost like we're working on a new play instead of one that's more than 120 years old.

For the uninitiated, what would your three-line pitch for Uncle Vanya be? And how would it different for this production?

Uncle Vanya is a beloved play by Anton Chekhov, a late 19th century Russian playwright who was revolutionary in his time and whose plays are still shockingly relevant. The story is about a family on a rural estate and the drama that arises between them. It's about longing, unfulfilled dreams, and surviving a life of hardship.

We're doing some exciting things for this production that I think are going to be true to the spirit of Chekhov and also make the production feel vital and relevant for a modern audience. Chekhov's plays were so radical at the time because they reflected life as his audience would have known it in all of its messiness, in contrast to most other plays that presented a kind of organized, idealized life in which heroes and villains are clear and moral lessons are plainly stated. So we're trying to capture that same spirit, honoring Chekhov's work by encouraging our audience to see themselves reflected in the characters. In all of our production choices we're trying to find ways to reflect the world as we now know it. While the play is still nominally set at the end of the 19th century in Russia, the cast is diverse, the costumes are pulled from contemporary clothes that suggests the period, and the behavior and interactions between the characters will feel familiar to an audience in early 21st century Pasadena. We're also bringing the stage forward, removing the first two rows of theatre seats and making the primary playing area much closer to the audience so it's more intimate and allows the viewers to feel like a fly on the wall, peeking in on a life being lived.

You've been directing productions at various Los Angeles theatres since the 1990s. How has Los Angeles theatre improved over the last few decades?

Interview: Prolific Director Michael Michetti Returns to Pasadena Playhouse to Tackle UNCLE VANYA  ImageI've been directing in Los Angeles pretty regularly for more than 30 years, and theatre here is continually evolving. For instance, there has recently been a movement toward raising the professionalism of smaller theatres and employing "best practices" to support and protect the artists and their work. And there has been an increased awareness about diversifying the work on our stages and centering the voices of artists of color, women, and others who have long been marginalized in the industry. But the Los Angeles theatre scene has always been, and continues to be, vital and exciting. We have such incredible artists here, especially playwrights and actors who have settled in Los Angeles to make a living in the film and television industry. But many of them don't feel creatively fulfilled by the work they're able to get in those fields, so they keep coming back to the theatre to stretch their muscles, to take risks, and to fill their creative wells. That brings a kind of energy and inventiveness to the work in Los Angeles theatres that is exciting and unique, and a level of skill and artistry that is difficult to match.

I asked you in our last interview, with all the shows you've directed, whether you need to audition actors or just phone an actor you know and offer them the role. And though you emphasized the necessity of auditions for chemistry, you do offer roles to actors you know (like you offered Oscar Wilde to Rob Nagle for The Judas Kiss). Any Michael Michetti alumni in Uncle Vanya?

Everyone in our cast auditioned, though due to COVID the auditions happened in a strange hybrid of self-tapes, Zoom auditions, and in-person callbacks, and we didn't have an opportunity to read people together prior to casting. Hugo Armstrong, who is playing Vanya, and I have known each other for years, though I've only previously had the chance to direct him in readings and new work development, not full productions. I've worked with Chelsea and Jayne before, and Sabina did a show with Boston Court, where I was an Artistic Director. I had seen Brian in several productions, and was only recently introduced to Brandon's work when I saw him in a terrific Off-Broadway play a few months ago.

In enduring the pandemic, have you become an expert in Zoom?

Not an expert by any means, but I did a couple of Zoom readings and have learned to navigate it pretty well.

What did you do to keep creatively sane during the lockdown?

Only a week into the lockdown some dear friends reached out to a few loved ones and organized a Zoom karaoke party. Seven of us from all over the country attended and had so much fun that we made it a regular thing, meeting weekly to sing songs and connect. For over a year we met every week, and we're still regularly getting together on Zoom, though as our lives are getting busier again, we're doing it less regularly. But one of the things I did to keep the creativity active was to write parody lyrics for some of my Karaoke songs, usually focusing on current events or things in the zeitgeist. I'm not sure it kept me sane, but it was a great creative outlet!

Some venues are currently producing hybrids of live performances with the newly streaming options. What pro and cons in streaming vs. live have you discovered?

Interview: Prolific Director Michael Michetti Returns to Pasadena Playhouse to Tackle UNCLE VANYA  ImageThere are so many plusses to the ability to offer streaming options, including, obviously, health concerns, accessibility (physically and financially), the ability to reach out to audiences outside of geographical limitations, etc. And there was some terrific programming created specifically for digital media which embraced the technology and stretched the definition of what theatre could be. I eagerly devoured a lot of this programming during the pandemic and was grateful for it. But I'll tell you, I missed that communal experience of being in a room with a live audience, with actors sharing the space and telling a story to a specific group of people who have gathered to hear it. As soon as there were safe and responsible ways to go back to the theatre, I did so eagerly and it was a balm to my soul. I think what live theatre is capable of doing is so beautiful and unique and sacred, and I hope we will never have that taken away from us again.

What's the dream production you would want to direct someday soon?

Oh, there are so many! And of course, it has to be the right fit of production, theatre, timing, etc. But my interests are so varied that I often want to stretch new muscles with each new project, so following up on a piece of classical theatre, maybe a new play or a musical...?

What's in the near future for Michael Michetti?

In terms of theatre projects, it's pretty one-day-at-a-time as theatres are still figuring out how to navigate the business in this new era. But last year I fulfilled a lifetime dream of getting an apartment in New York, so after we open Uncle Vanya I'll be heading back there for a week or two to take in some theatre and enjoy the beautiful late spring weather. My home base will continue to be Los Angeles, a city I love and to which I've dedicated my life and work, but it's a blast to be bicoastal and to be able to go back and forth with such ease.

Thank you again, Michael! I look forward to seeing your directorial magic in Uncle Vanya.

Thanks, Gil!

For tickets to the live performances of Uncle Vanya through June 26, 2022; click on button below:


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