An amusing and stirring meditation on art and love—and the means by which success is measured in both—Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull is an apt undertaking for Juilliard’s fourth-year actors as they face their futures as professional performing artists. Among other considerations, the play was chosen because of its relevance, director Richard Feldman explained. “As challenging as this masterwork is, at its center are two young people trying to make their way into the world as artists,” he said in a recent interview. “That seemed like a story the actors could make deeply personal. Everyone is working to embody the dreams and struggles of the characters—and bringing their own dreams to the table.” While most of the cast play characters older than themselves, “they’re all working together to tell and act their own stories and struggles and dreams.”
The Seagull depicts two sets of artists: the tortured young writer Kostya and his muse, the aspiring actress Nina; and Kostya’s mother, Irina, a famous actress approaching the twilight of her career, and her lover, Trigorin, a successful writer. Along with a colorful cast of supporting characters, they praise, disparage, fall in love with, and forsake one another. As in Chekhov’s other major works, hopeless love triangles and eloquent existential musings abound until the play ends tragically.
The Seagull begins with a play-within-a-play—the premiere of Kostya’s new experimental work, which turns into a fiasco. Life imitated art when The Seagull itself opened, in 1896 in St. Petersburg: It was panned, and Chekhov (temporarily) renounced the theater altogether. In 1898, however, the groundbreaking theater artist Constantin Stanislavski and his Moscow Art Theater created a wildly successfully production of The Seagull that “marked a turning point in the art of the theater,” Feldman said, as it ushered in a new era in the study, rehearsal, performance, and presentation of drama. The play has been revived regularly ever since on prominent world stages featuring a who’s who of famous actors.
At Juilliard, second-year acting students typically study and perform Chekhov’s plays as rehearsal projects. (The last Juilliard mainstage presentation of The Seagull by fourth-year actors was directed by Eve Shapiro during the 1995-96 season.) For this year’s fourth-year students, however, The Seagull is their initial Chekhov experience at the School. “There’s something about the texture of his plays and how the lives are lived and depicted that is truly unique in the theater, and we wanted to give [these students] that opportunity,” said Feldman, who is also the associate director of the Drama Division.
Feldman’s vision for The Seagull draws on Kostya’s modernist sensibility and Chekhov’s symbolic naturalist aesthetic. Interestingly, while Chekhov’s collaboration with Stanislavski brought the playwright great success, Chekhov did “lament some of the things Stanislavski did, [feeling] he made it all too naturalistic and realistic,” Feldman said. “Chekhov told Stanislavsky’s actors, ‘the stage is art, it demands a degree of artifice.’”
In the play Kostya criticizes theater presented “in a room with three walls and artificial light” featuring “banal scenes [in which] people eat, drink, love, walk about, and wear their jackets.” Ironically those banal scenes are not a great departure from the action in The Seagull, but Kostya’s ideal theater is outdoors and consists of “a curtain, two wings, and beyond that—open space. No scenery at all. There’s a clear view to the lake and the horizon.”
For the Juilliard production, Feldman, associate director Carolyn Serota, and the rest of the production team “tried to create Kostya’s theater,” he said, explaining that according to Kostya, “plays should show life the way it is in dreams.” The somewhat abstract set features an oversize curtain—an image from the world of dreams—inspired by the work of artist Alice Brown, whose paintings feature sheer curtains blowing in the wind, usually over or near water.
Feldman was also influenced by the late great American theater director Garland Wright, who taught at Juilliard in the 1990s and pointed out the recurrence of the word dream in the play. “While we want the acting to be very truthful, moment-to-moment, and naturalistic, there [are] dreamlike elements to this story that we’re trying to find a way to stage,” Feldman said.
Citing one of his great teachers, John Stix, who said, “The play is not the words, the play is the experience,” Feldman explained that the bulk of the rehearsal work for The Seagull has consisted of discovering the “thoughts and feelings under the words, around the words, beyond the words, connected to the words. Sometimes there’s a one-to-one correspondence and sometimes there’s not.”
“This play lives in the acting, and the director has to be careful not to weigh it down with some concept,” Feldman added. “Mostly you want to support the actors and get out of the way.