Interview with Harold Perrineau

Posted on: October 25th, 2016 by Ted Sod


Harold Perrineau

Harold Perrineau

Ted Sod: Why did you choose to do Stephen Karam's adaptation of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard and the role of Lopakhin?

Harold Perrineau:  Simon Godwin, the director, gave me a call and said, “We're doing this production of The Cherry Orchard and Stephen Karam’s doing the adaptation and I was wondering if you were interested in playing Lopakhin.”  I was more familiar with The Three Sisters, so I had to reread The Cherry Orchard, and then I watched it on Amazon just to refamiliarize myself with it and I thought, oh, this is  going to be amazing. It is an interesting time to do The Cherry Orchard because politically things were changing at that time in Russia just as they are changing here. People who were in power were being challenged, the country was changing culturally and economically – lives were in flux and were turbulent.

TS: As an actor of color, do you approach a role like Lopakhin in a different way, or is that not important to your process?

HP: I don't approach it any differently. I think it makes a lot of sense having a black man play this role. Chekhov wrote the play when the serfs were no longer slaves and they were slowly becoming part of the middle class. The aristocracy was in decline. Slavery is a part of my heritage and I come from a poor background. My mom used to wash floors and clean other people's homes, so I understand Lopakhin  --  his parents were indentured servants and now he is a hardworking businessman who loves the fancy life, but realizes he comes from nothing. That translates very easily. There are plenty of similarities between my background and Lopakhin’s that resonate for me.

TS:  Other than reading the text, what else do you have to do to prepare for a role like this?  

HP: I believe in a playwright’s words. Even when I'm doing television, I try my best to find out what the writer is trying to convey -- that's my part of this puzzle as an actor – if I can make that meaning come to life, then my work as an artist is fulfilled. Acting is bringing these souls to life. I really try to figure out where they are coming from. I have been doing a lot of reading about Chekhov, where he was in his life when he wrote this play and why he wrote what he wrote. I am reading the other plays and his short stories, but I am most interested in what was happening during the time he wrote The Cherry Orchard, which was his last play. I try to extract things that are relevant to me, then build the soul of Lopakhin’s character.

TS: It is often said your character, Lopakhin, is a self-made man. Do you agree with that appraisal?

HP: My family is from Brooklyn. No one in my family was ever an actor, let alone a successful actor. That's a journey that I've gone on, and I have had a lot of help throughout, but a lot of the time, it has just been me building my career. I understand the kind of continued work and dedication that you need to build a career that doesn't necessarily come naturally to you. And then navigating in the world that you've become part of – that is a huge challenge. At the beginning of my career, I really felt like a fish out of water, but I found a way to become a part of it, as opposed to always being on the outside looking in. That is what is happening to Lopakhin in the play. There's so much about this new world of affluence that he really seems to admire and enjoy, but he didn't grow up with it.

Harold Perrineau (Photo by Jenny Anderson)

Harold Perrineau (Photo by Jenny Anderson)

TS:  What do you think the play is about?  

HP: I am still discovering it, but the play feels to me like it's a commentary on privilege. And what your responsibilities are being part of the privileged class. I feel like Ranevskaya and her family have all this privilege, but they don't know what to do with it. There's some sort of commentary in this play about the fact that nothing lasts forever and you can't idly sit by and expect it to. That's what happens in The Cherry Orchard: the aristocrats sit idly by while change happens. The country evolves, the city evolves, evolution happens, and some people are unaware of it.

TS: Can you talk a bit about what you perceive to be the relationship between Lopakhin and Ranevskaya?

HP: I can't wait to start diving into it a bit more. Lopakhin eventually buys the cherry orchard, and I don't think it's just about power. I think some of it has to do with her, she's so dynamic. Everybody loves her. She's special. And people like that, you want to be around -- you want a piece of them. I think he's in love with her.

TS: It makes sense when you consider that Ranevskaya is trying to foist him onto Varya. If he's holding a torch for Ranevskaya, it seems obvious that he would never ask Varya to marry him.

HP: Right. But it's so unspoken between them.

TS: It’s unsynchronized passion.

HP: Exactly. I feel that when Lopakhin buys the cherry orchard, in some desperate way, he thinks Ranevskaya will say, “We can be here together. We can be together. “

TS: Do you think Lopakhin may not care for Varya because she's too much like him?

HP: I think it’s because her mother is just so much more dynamic than she is. Varya seems nice enough, woman enough, and he'd still be part of the family. It would all make sense if he can just hold onto whatever he is feeling for her mom. Hopefully, if we build it well enough, it'll almost be impossible for him to be in the room with the two women together.  This passion is so deep with him. He says when he was a kid, Ranevskaya was nice to him. He’s been holding a torch for this woman ever since he was a child.

TS: What do you look for in a director?

HP: I really like to collaborate. There are times when it's not possible. You work with directors who just don't have the language to speak with actors. I find that happens more in films, but I really look for an artistic partner, and I look to be an artistic partner. I love that we come in for a night and we only have that night to tell the story, and whatever happens, it's only for all of us who are in the theatre that night. We will have to work as an ensemble, as a team, in order to create this very special evening. So I look for a director to create a production that we can perform eight times a week and have an experience with. I look for someone to help guide and shape this entire thing.

TS: I'm wondering if you would talk a bit about where you got your training. Did you have any teachers who profoundly influenced you?

HP: I had a number of teachers who profoundly influenced me. I was a violinist in high school. I went to Shenandoah Conservatory, a music conservatory, where we had this great theatre director named Harold Herman. I left Shenandoah because I got a scholarship to dance at the Alvin Ailey School. I danced at Alvin Ailey for years and years but really wanted to be an actor. Eventually, I stopped dancing and I studied acting at the William Esper Studio, where I studied with Barbara Marchant -- that changed my whole way of thinking about being an actor. When I first went there I would do this thing -- I would think in my head, how would Denzel do it? How would Sam Jackson do it? And Barbara said, “How would Harold do it?” And that one question changed the way I approached acting for the rest of my life.

TS: Any advice for young people who want to have an acting career?

HP: I always say you should really study and learn and have a craft that's yours -- that can't be taken away from you -- because it's so hard to be an actor emotionally. You're being turned down, you're being told that the thing that you're selling, your wares, are not good enough, they're not strong enough, you're too short, you're too skinny, you're too fat, you’re too dark, you’re too light. Things that just beat you up over and over and over and over and at every level, it gets trickier and trickier. But if you have craft, that's the thing that you can always carry with you. I tell people: work and learn your craft. No one can ever take that away from you.


The Cherry Orchard is now playing at the American Airlines Theatre. Visit our website for tickets and more information.

Related Categories:
2016-2017 Season, Education @ Roundabout, The Cherry Orchard, Upstage

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Playwright Mike Bartlett

Playwright Mike Bartlett

Ted Sod: Where were you born and educated? When and how did you decide to become a playwright?

Mike Bartlett: I was born in a small town called Abingdon, just south of Oxford. I was very lucky in that my secondary school had a big theatre and a really good drama teacher. I started off by acting in school plays, then directed a play or two. I went to Leeds University, studying English and Theatre Studies, and it was a fantastic course that allowed us to really experiment and explore the possibilities of making all sorts of work. By the time I left I was pretty sure I wanted to be a director, but I found I would write brilliant cover letters to get me the interview for the assistant director job, then get an interview and mess it up. There’s a skill a young director must have: to be able to communicate your vision in person, without actually having any work to prove what you can do. I wasn’t great at that, so when I wasn’t doing any directing, I started writing instead and found I was much happier. I wrote some short plays, and I went into the Young Writers Program at the Royal Court Theatre, taught by Simon Stephens. I had my first play produced in 2007 at the Royal Court Theatre, entitled My Child. The Royal Court did a brilliant thing. They said, even before My Child was staged, “We’re also going to commission another play from you straight away.” That was a turning point for me, being able to just focus on writing. From then on, I’ve written plays and, more recently, television.

TS: What inspired you to write Love, Love, Love?

MB: I was feeling that my generation I was born in 1980 was scrambling around in London, not able to make ends meet, living in terrible flats, struggling to pay rent, trying and often failing to do what they wanted in life, but at the same time being hit over the head all the time with stories about how great things used to be. Stories of the ‘60s and early ‘70s and the amazing lifestyles that young people had then. My generation would go back home from their tiny flats to visit their parents, who were living in huge houses with big empty rooms and lots of money. And it occurred to me that so many aspects of the culture in Britain preferred that particular generation over young people now -- and because there are more of them and more of them vote, it’s going further and further that way. And then, the other side, which I think is equally important to the play, are the criticisms of the older generation towards my generation: If you care so much, why aren’t you more politically active? Why don’t you do what we did? Why don’t you fight for these rights? Why don’t you protest and vote, and get involved and change things? And they’ve got a point. Are we the generation that moans, but does nothing? Those two opposing views made me think that it’s a great subject to explore through a family over time.

TS: This play spans the years 1967 through 2011. What type of research did you have to do on the time period in which you weren’t yet alive?

MB: I remember as a child my grandmother’s flat felt like it was still in the ‘60s. My parents and grandparents would talk about what it was like in 1967. For instance, one thing that surprised me was that very few people had telephones in 1967. More people had televisions than telephones, and that sort of thing makes a huge difference to what it feels like to be in a room or how you would meet someone. I think all those details are fascinating. A bit of that 1967 scene is my own experience, in terms of the places I’ve been. And importantly a lot of it is imagination.

TS: In the early 1990s, you were just coming into the tween years. You must be an astute observer of behavior.

MB: I think most 12-year-olds are very astute observers of behavior. Many parents underestimate how much their children know and see, and how much they remember. I think that’s why childhood memories are so vivid. You’re just like a sponge. You soak up places and smells, and definitely behavior as well. I think, as a child, you’re particularly fascinated by what adults are doing and why they do it. The trick is actually maintaining that as you get older. It’s being as open, observant, and sponge-like as you can into adulthood.

Zoe Kazan and Ben Rosenfield (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Zoe Kazan and Ben Rosenfield (Photo by Joan Marcus)

TS: I listened to a BBC interview you did, and you said once you have an idea for a play and you’ve decided it is worth writing about, you put yourself in hibernation. Is that true?

MB: It depends on what it is. But, yes, broadly speaking, I think that’s the case. I’m not like a monk. I don’t lock the door and not see anyone. But I do try and  stay in the zone as much as I can, until I’ve got to the end of that first draft. With this play, I wrote the first draft very quickly in a week or two. Because once you have a sense of the setup, what you want to do is let the characters loose. The state I want to be in with the characters, if I get it right, is that I’m not in full control of them. They are driving the drama forward, through what they want to do - through their emotions and psychology and desires. All I’m doing is transcribing what they tell me. I know perhaps that sounds a little unhinged, but it’s a bit like when you dream. Everyone creates stories and characters who want things and have goals and overcome obstacles when they dream.

TS:  Many of our audience members are Baby Boomers, and they’ve lived through the very years portrayed in the first act of your play. What is it about that generation that intrigues you?

MB: You can’t deny the cultural, social, and economic impact the Boomers have had in Britain and, I suspect, in America. As young people, they completely revolutionized the culture. Then in middle-age, they revolutionized the economy and the entire country that they lived in. Now, they continue to change the dynamic and to define where their countries are politically and economically. As part of a younger generation, I can criticize that and I do find fault with many things that happened, but what I can’t do is deny that they are an unusually influential generation. If you look at what it was like in the mid-‘60s, in terms of the establishment and the country, when that generation came through, to where we are now, it’s an astonishing story. There’s nothing more boring than a one-sided play. And that’s not my aim with this it’s an honest and sincere exploration of the dreams that that generation had, which ones came true and what they managed to achieve. And, also exploring the ways in which this generation has been a failure. The best audience members for this play are Baby Boomer parents coming with their adult children.

TS: Are there specific things in the text that you have to change for an American audience?

MB: We are making some changes, but they’re more changes that I’ve wanted to make since the play was last on. I’ve got unfinished business with some sections. I found with King Charles III, when we brought it across to Broadway, I made all sorts of changes, because I was advised to be concerned about, in quotation marks, the American audience. Once we were on, I found the audience understood everything easily, and all the changes reverted back to the original version because I didn’t need to spell things out or explain things. The audience was just really smart and got it.

Richard Armitage and Amy Ryan (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Richard Armitage and Amy Ryan (Photo by Joan Marcus)

TS: What do you look for from a director? What type of actors do you need for this specific play?

MB: The main thing I look for in a director is a real collaborator, because I come from a background of making theatre, not just writing for it. I love to be part of everything: design, performance, rehearsals. I need a director who understands that we’re making this all together. I love a director who is engaged with the text. And I don’t mind them questioning lines or pushing to make the play as good as possible. And then with actors, I think my work has a rhythm to it. I love the sound of a line. I love punctuation. I like hitting the full stop. And I love using dashes, ellipses, interruption points, all to convey intention. Rhythm conveys intention in English. So, I need actors who are really up for that.

TS: What advice do you have for a young writer?

MB: The main thing that I found is if you worry about quality, you’ll just get stuck. You’ll write three lines and say, “Oh, God, it’s not as good as Shakespeare!” Whereas, really what you need to do is let yourself go and give yourself permission to write absolute rubbish. Just write, write, write. See lots of plays and read lots of plays, but write huge amounts, because you’ve got to get the practice in. The more you practice, the better you’ll get. And if you’re tempted to start chasing agents and networking in theatre bars and going to lots of play development type things, question whether you’d be better off spending those hours writing something new, rewriting what you’ve got, or just practicing. What I have discovered is, all the time I spent trying to artificially further my career or “networking” was a complete waste of time. As soon as I could actually write something of any worth, it did the work for me. That’s how you get a career as a writer, by writing something that means something to an audience.


Love, Love, Love is now playing at the Laura Pels Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre. Visit our website for tickets and more information.

Related Categories:
2016-2017 Season, Education @ Roundabout, Love Love Love, Upstage

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Susanah Flood, John Glover and Simon Godwin in rehearsal for The Cherry Orchard

Susannah Flood, John Glover and Simon Godwin (Photo by Jenny Anderson)

On October 1, 2016, Simon Godwin spoke about The Cherry Orchard with education dramaturg Ted Sod as part of Roundabout Theatre Company’s lecture series.

An edited transcript follows:

Ted Sod: When I interviewed you for the Playgoers’ Guide, you said that your mother took you to see musicals when you were very young and that was probably the beginning of your love affair with theatre. Do you remember a show that you saw with her that had a profound effect on you?

Simon Godwin: I remember going to see a production of Barnum starring Michael Crawford, who at that time was a very popular British actor. He was playing the character of Barnum and I remember very well the extraordinary impression it made on me to see this man learn to walk a tightrope, which he had to do in the production. It was a demonstration of enormous skill and precision and I thought, there’s something miraculous about theatre.  The strength, achievement and the expertise of Crawford made a big impression on me.

TS: In that same interview, you talk about going to Cambridge and reading English and it was there that you decided you might want to be a director.

SG: That’s right. I had actually been a child actor in England, so I was in period dramas when I was a teenager. I was very good at playing a posh twit, but that was really all I could play. I simply had no ability really to transform myself. I realized that I didn’t want to spend my life playing posh twits from England where, of course, there’s a great appetite to see them onstage and in movies. When I got to university, I realized the thing about being a director is, you get to play all the parts without really playing any of them, and so I tried that instead and I enjoyed it so much I’ve been a theatre director ever since.

TS: I believe this is not the first time you have directed Chekhov. Did I read that you directed The Seagull?

SG: A long time ago, I directed The Seagull, yes.

Photo by Joan Marcus

John Glover, Diane Lane and
Joel Grey (Photo by Joan Marcus)

TS:  The more I read about Chekhov, the more I’m just amazed by his humanity. Aside from being an author, he was a doctor. Will you talk about your understanding of the man and his work after working on this play?

SG: One of the things that makes working on Chekhov very challenging is that he doesn’t really have heroes and villains. He was a very nuanced writer who was always trying to see the light and shadow in everybody. Chekhov is always saying that a person may be good and kind in one way, but in another way they are a catastrophe. I think that probably stems from his interest as a doctor in looking at human physiology and emotions. You get the sense that he thinks everybody has a wound. A sense that everybody has dirty linen, everybody has dirty secrets and that doesn’t necessarily make them bad -- it makes them complex. His endless fascination with human complexity is what I take away from working with him. It’s sometimes quite hard to  know how to stage his plays, because they are very slippery. They are always one step ahead of you and every time you think you know where you are – there is another surprise or a line or an incident that makes you questions things. He’s a mercurial but endlessly fascinating writer, I think.

TS: Chekhov died about five or six months after the first production of The Cherry Orchard and, for me, there are so many allusions to the end of life in this play. He keeps reminding us how impermanent life is and that we need to embrace that.

SG: Chekhov died when he was 44. I’m 41 – he was three years older than me when he died of tuberculosis. We think of him being a very distinguished, sage-like figure, but he died young after writing only a handful of plays. Of course, he knew he had tuberculosis for a very long time and he lived with a sense of his own mortality. I think in all of his plays you can feel a frustration about what it means to end. I think he explores what ending feels like and what it feels like when you have a sense of your own ending.  I think some of his characters have an appreciation for life because they know it’s going to end. When Lyubov says, “It’s like I never noticed the kind of walls we have here in the house, what kind of celings…and now I look at them so greedily, with such…love…,” I think it means that she has deciphered that she needs to live more in the present than in the past or the future.  I think Chekhov’s sense of realism was very much informed by the fact that he knew he wouldn’t be here very long.

TS: You wanted a very specific American adaptation for this production. Can you talk about the choice to do that?

SG: I discovered that the theatre which originally performed the play, the Moscow Art Theatre, was originally called The Moscow Publicly Accessible Art Theatre and their mission was to do multifaceted plays about the present day. The question for me became how to marry the fact that Chekhov wrote this play in 1904 to the fact that we’re sitting here in 2016 in New York. I could’ve come armed with my Tom Stoppard version of The Cherry Orchard with a lot of English expressions in it or I could find a young American writer like Stephen Karam to do a new, colloquial adaptation. Stephen got to know the literal Russian translation that he worked from, and he saw that in the Russian translation there are a lot of ellipses, a lot of interruptions, a lot of colloquial language. Stephen has adapted the play very beautifully I think. I can’t really tell because I’m not myself an American. But I’ve certainly learned from the actors about celebrating the “speakability” of the play and that “speakability” has opened up resonances that may not always be there in other adaptations.

TS: You’ve done something very diverse with the casting and I know that some people will look at the casting and see a black person and say, “What does it mean that they’re black?” I start with the fact that they’re human and deal with the character’s humanity no matter what color the actor is.  I really commend you for giving all sorts of actors an opportunity to do Chekhov.

SG: Well thank you, Ted. You’ve opened a very good subject. I think everybody in the theatre world is working out how to best celebrate the communities in which we live and how to honor those communities in the most exciting and comprehensive way. I’m based at the National Theatre and we’ve made a commitment there to say that since London has 40% diversity, all our companies on the stage should share a similar expression of diversity. I directed Hamlet at the Royal Shakespeare Company, which is the first time a black actor has ever been employed to play Hamlet there.  I felt like it was a milestone to say Hamlet doesn’t have to be played by an actor who looks Danish. I don’t know the statistics for New York City, maybe you do, but certainly for me casting was about reflecting the fact that we are in one of the most diverse, multicultural cities in the world. It was exciting to think about The Cherry Orchard as a kind of dream. We know that Chekhov had been writing a piece before he died that took place in a boat that was stuck in ice in the Arctic. It was about two men being visited by a ghost of a woman that they both loved. So at the very end of his life, Chekhov was moving away from naturalism -- which is what we all associate him with -- into a greater, stranger, ghostlier vision of what invented stories look like. Once we step away from hard naturalism it means, of course, we can all be much more expressive and playful about the decisions we make casting actors.  Diversity in casting doesn’t want to negate people’s heritage, it wants to celebrate it. Harold Perrineau plays Lopakhin and when we were rehearsing act three, Harold said, “Simon, I have a lot of movement training and I’d really like to express this moment through dance.” That was very thrilling for me. I said, “Well, Harold, I never expected it to be like that, but I’m very excited that you’re bringing some of your expertise into this drama.” So in a way, we are asking the audience not only to be color blind, but we also want them to be color conscious.

TS: So much is going on in this play that I would think, that as a director, you almost need to sit down and map it out.

SG: Well, that scene in which Harold is ultimately dancing is actually fun to talk about because in the original, Chekhov puts a wall between the party and everything that you see as an audience. It ends up in most productions being a party at the back of the stage and occasionally a character opens the door and they have a conversation and then they go back to the party.  I thought it would be interesting to see what happens if you lose the wall and expand the party. That becomes a very, very big act of organization. You have lots of people, you have a band, you have to decide when the band is playing and when are they not, when characters are dancing, when are they not, what kind of dance people would be doing where they can spontaneously sit and spontaneously be involved. The movement direction for that scene did require mapping it all out.

Harold Perrineau, Diane Lane, John Glober, Chuck Cooper and Joel Grey (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Harold Perrineau, Diane Lane, John Glover, Chuck Cooper and Joel Grey (Photo by Joan Marcus)

TS: One of the things I thought of watching the play today is that perhaps Ranevskaya and Gaev really want this to happen. They’re just holding on to the cherry orchard because it’s part of their legacy. I found it so heartbreaking that they are trapped into doing what they think they should be doing, instead of what’s best for everyone. Do you feel that way about them or do you have a different understanding?

SG:  I think that each of us sitting in this room right now have something that we wish we could let go of, but it’s just too hard to let go. I’m thinking of my smoking habit at the moment, which has caused a number of Lopakhin-esqe people to say to me, “Simon, please stop smoking. It’s killing you. It’s bad for your health. It’s not going to end well.”  And part of me wants to listen and change and part of me is stuck going, “Well, that’s my habit. That’s what I do. I’m going to stay this way because it helps me.” I feel like I want to be released from smoking and yet somehow I can’t be released from smoking. So this paradox of saying, “Somebody save me from myself because I’m not going to save myself unless somebody helps me,” is very much at the heart of this play and we’ve all got versions of that paradox.

TS: Today I watched Celia Keenan-Bolger as Varya play that moment when she comes in with a big, broad smile thinking Lopakhin is about to propose and he just can’t ask her. Chekhov won’t allow it to happen. Do you understand why that is? Because in a normal play, that would happen.

SG: Yes, that’s right. I think it’s really helpful to compare Chekhov to normal plays because it explains his genius. He won’t reward us in the way we want to be rewarded and it’s really frustrating at times as a viewer because you think, I need some pleasure here, please. I need some relief.  But to answer your question, Chekhov found marriage very difficult. He got married very late. He had many affairs and part of him found commitment really hard. I think there’s a little bit of Chekhov in Lopakhin, who is on one level successful and very good at business, but is frightened of love. You could say he’s in love with Lyubov. There’s this push and pull in him toward these two women: Varya, who he feels he should be with and Lyubov, who’s always been this kind of angel in his imagination. Chekhov is so resolutely unsentimental and rarely rewards audiences in traditional ways.

TS: When the first production of The Cherry Orchard was done, Chekhov had a very tenuous relationship with Stanislavski, who directed it. I read when he saw a rehearsal, he was upset because the actress playing Anya was crying too much and he said to Stanislavski, “You directed it like a tragedy. It’s a comedy with farcical overtones!”  Stella Adler said in her book on Strindberg, Ibsen and Chekhov, that it was from that point forward that it has become the challenge of the director to figure out the tone of this piece. Can you talk to us about tone?

SG: Well, thankfully, I’m still in rehearsals. We’re still in previews, so every day I come in and I work more on the show with the company. Every day we learn more from the audience by doing it in front of you. We learn about what’s funny, what’s not funny. What’s sad and what’s not sad, what’s clear and what’s not clear. Every day we carry on, shaping and learning and growing because I think you put your finger on this, Ted, the tone is really hard. It’s by no means a rip-roaring comedy, but there is a lot of comedy in it. How do we find a way of playing the comedy fully so it doesn’t get in the way of the emotions and how we do find a way of playing the emotions so they don’t get in the way of the comedy? I think as a company we’ve really got to understand how to merge those things together, how to move from one style to another.

Photo by Joan Marcus

Diane Lane (Photo by Joan Marcus)

TS: I’m in love with some of the choices that have been made by you and the design team. First of all, you create space that is evocative, not literal. At the end of the play, the  characters are dressed in modern clothes. Will you talk us through some of the ideas behind those choices?

SG: It’s a scary process taking this classical play and making decisions like, oh, maybe the costumes do get a bit modern at the end. Because, very much like Hamlet, it’s a play we all know or most people know. We’ve seen it in different incarnations and, of course, what’s fascinating about the play is that it is partly about people not wanting change.  In each of us, including myself, there is a wish to keep things as they are and a wish to do things differently. I think about Sir Barry Jackson, who in 1925 staged the first modern-dress production of Hamlet and how that must’ve felt in the 1920s when audiences saw Hamlet for the very first time in modern dress. I’m sure they were horrified and, of course, ultimately it doesn’t become such a big deal anymore. With The Cherry Orchard costumes and set, I think the negotiation was the same as it was with the dancing scene. We were very much trying to figure out, how can it not be business as usual? How can we try to find a balance that isn’t the fake trees that are normally there? It relates a little bit to a phrase that Stanislavski coined during the first production of The Cherry Orchard, which was the magic “if.” What the magic “if“ meant in his terminology was, if this was happening to you, how would you react, how would you behave? What I’ve realized when I’ve done plays in very strict period costumes is that the actors say to me, “I don’t know how to act this because I wasn’t around then. I don’t know how they behaved so I’ll try to do a historical performance.” And it is difficult for me as a director, too, because I wasn’t around then either — so it’s bit of a guessing — a bit of a making up the moment, which of course is possible because it’s just having and using your imagination. In a way, by making these choices, you’re morphing into something artificial to get to something more authentic.

TS: I know you’re still wrestling with the play and you’re still in rehearsal, but has there been a light-bulb moment for you about the play?

SG:  It’s a much tougher, harder, rawer play than I realized in the beginning and that’s been the learning for me. And I’m excited about those discoveries. Going further, more grief, more intensity, more outrageous behavior, more guts -- I feel the play enjoys it when we go for all of that behavior. So my light-bulb moment is that and I’m really trying to listen and to push everyone to ever greater extremes of emotion, comedy and storytelling.  


Audience Member #1: The very talented and beautiful Diane Lane played years ago in The Cherry Orchard; what was her initial reaction to this production?

SG: Diane was in The Cherry Orchard when she was 12. She was in the ensemble and played the ghost of Grisha – Ranevskaya’s dead son. We don’t have a dead Grisha in our production. I don’t want to speak for Diane, but I think it’s a daunting, exhilarating challenge for her to go back to a play that she’s known so well and had such a deep experience with. Diane, of course, is an incredible collaborator. And she is a wonderfully open, generous, playful, brave performer. I think it’s been great for me to work with someone who is so available and so generous. Diane’s been wonderful at embracing the new.

TS: There’s a great interview with Diane in our online Playgoers’ Guide where she talks about being in that production as a child.

Audience Member #2: What was your intent with the mobiles? I am assuming they represent the cherry orchard?

SG: When I was contemplating coming here to do The Cherry Orchard, I was looking at both Russian art and American art and I discovered Alexander Calder, the great American mobile maker. As I got to know Calder’s work more and more, I thought about how many petals and blossoms and branches he was referencing.  I thought, maybe there’s a sense of fragility in Calder’s work that could work for us. The phrase “hanging in the balance” came to mind. The fragility of the world came to mind. I said to Scott Pask, the set designer, “How might we do the images of trees and branches?” I started to show him the images of Calder and he thought the set could be informed by that.

Audience Member #3: When a set is abstract, do you make those choices because you want to set the tone for the play before it even starts?

SG: My initial inspiration was to put the people at the center of it, rather than the naturalistic detail of a house and orchards. So that was my way into it, with my mobiles and different ways of integrating and evoking things.  I think there’s probably a movement now in world theatre to explore moving beyond the confines of traditional naturalism and sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn’t. I am very grateful to Roundabout for letting me have a go at sharing a different approach with all of you.

John Glover, Harold Perrineau, Diane Lane and Joel Grey (Photo by Joan Marcus)

John Glover, Harold Perrineau, Diane Lane and Joel Grey (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Audience Member #4: What was the most daunting task about taking on this production at this time — is there anything you feared?

SG: I’m a guest at Roundabout and I am learning about this community, this audience. You realize that theatre is so much about codes, so much about dialogue between all of you sitting here and the actors on the stage -- what lands, what doesn’t, what’s clear, what’s not, what’s funny, what’s not. The daunting thing is finding a transparency between the work on the stage and you in the audience. Do I think I will achieve it in the time that I have left? I think a play like The Cherry Orchard is never fully achieved. Do I think we’ll get closer to something? Yes.

TS: It’s time for us to wrap up. If I’m not mistaken, Simon, you’ll be working again in our country directing Measure for Measure. Will you tell us about what’s on the horizon, so people can follow you?

SG: I’m directing Twelfth Night next at the National Theatre, which will have a modern take in that it’s the first time that Malvolio is becoming Malvolia. And I’m going to do a play about Iraq in London and then I’m coming back to do Measure for Measure for Theatre for a New Audience in Brooklyn. I’m really looking forward to continuing the dialogue with all of you in New York and I hope as I go on, I’ll learn more about how things work here and how I can make meaningful gestures.

The Cherry Orchard is now playing at The American Airlines Theatre. For tickets and more information, click here.

Related Categories:
2016-2017 Season, Education @ Roundabout, The Cherry Orchard, Upstage

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