On September 15, 2016, The Cherry Orchard will begin performances at the American Airlines Theatre as part of Roundabout’s 50th Anniversary season.
It’s been more than a decade since Roundabout tackled one of the great works of Anton Chekhov, a writer whose work is notoriously tricky. Even Chekhov himself was rarely happy with productions of his plays. He nearly left the field of playwriting entirely when his first major piece, The Seagull, was met with a poor reception back in 1896. Chekhov even wrote to a friend, “Stop the printing of the plays…I shall never either write plays or have them acted.” Thankfully for the future of modern theatre, everything changed two years later, when the Moscow Art Theatre put up a new production of The Seagull that became widely acclaimed. So what happened in those intervening years to bring about such a different reaction to the exact same play?
The answer lies not in the play itself but in how it was being performed. Chekhov was one of early naturalist writers, steering away from plot-driven narratives and clear-cut heroes and villains. Instead, in an attempt to reflect the kinds of speech and movement found in everyday life, he focused on a wide swath of characters, each of them deeply complex. He placed them in everyday locations. And it was from the subtleties of the gently shifting relationships among these characters that plot slowly emerged. The Moscow Art Theatre, under the leadership of Constantin Stanislavski, embraced this new style of writing with a new style of acting, one that was revolutionary for its time but has since become the norm on our stages today. Stanislavski encouraged the playing of subtext, of examining not just what is happening on the line itself, but in the pauses between lines or single words, all of which could have deep meaning. (Granted, Chekhov was such a perfectionist that even Stanislavski couldn’t always please him – Anton complained that there was far too much crying in his friend’s production of The Cherry Orchard.)
It’s amazing to think that what we now see on our stages every day was so shocking and new in Chekhov’s time. Even the idea of putting lower class characters in a play and developing them into fully realized people was seen as revolutionary. The idea that audiences would want to watch those less fortunate than themselves or be asked to think about social change was unheard of. Chekhov was ahead of his time, certainly, but his legacy has had incredible impact.
While many writers have been influenced by Chekhov’s bold leap into subtlety, I think it’s fair to say that one of his truest heirs is Stephen Karam, which is why I asked Stephen to write the new version of The Cherry Orchard that you’ll be seeing. As he demonstrated so beautifully in his plays Speech & Debate, Sons of the Prophet, and the Tony-winning The Humans, Stephen has a particular ability to create complicated characters who move forward through life not through one dramatic act but through a series of subtle changes. There’s something about the quiet suffering and natural humor of his work that makes Stephen an utterly perfect fit for translating Chekhov. Without any kind of radical modernization, he has been able to bring The Cherry Orchard to life in a way that feels true to Chekhov’s 1904 original and yet exactly right for a 21st Century America.
This combining of the classic and the new is precisely what I love to do at Roundabout, and I think you will find this Cherry Orchard, with a superb cast under the direction of Simon Godwin, to be a wonderful example of naturalism at its best. As always, I am eager to hear your thoughts, so please continue to email me throughout this 50th Anniversary season at firstname.lastname@example.org. I can’t tell you how greatly I value your feedback.
I look forward to seeing you at the theatre!
2016-2017 Season, The Cherry Orchard