from the Director
“The life of a man is like a flower, blooming so gaily in a field. Then, along comes a goat, he eats it and the flower is gone!”
– Anton Chekhov
Several months ago, my 2020 Creative Collaboration class embarked on a journey to produce The Cherry Orchard, the last play written by Anton Chekhov. During a 3-week school break in December, I began working on an adaptation of the script. In early January, my students and I met for the first time. Excited, enthusiastic, and energetic, we were like the buds on one of Chekhov’s cherry trees, ready to burst forth, each promising to yield breathtaking beauty when the tree finally bloomed. And then… along came a goat. COVID-19. And just like it happens to the characters in The Cherry Orchard, my collaboration class, indeed the entire world, encountered a seemingly-insurmountable obstacle that would have been unimaginable only a few months ago.
The Cherry Orchard was written in 1903. The play presents a dying aristocratic society that is giving way to the rise of a new vision for mankind. In early 20th century Russia, change was happening everywhere, driven by the offspring of former serfs and the advancing ideas in science and manufacturing. I was interested in adapting Chekhov’s early 20th century text to reflect life as it is today, by focusing on the global changes we are experiencing one hundred years later during the 21st century. Digital technology, social media, rapid transit, instant communication. As someone who has spent the past forty-five years as a theatre artist and acting teacher, I find many of these changes quite unsettling. My students faces are buried in cellphones, professional theaters must compete for audiences with Netflix, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s salary for just one movie is enough to cover the cost of an entire season at the world-renowned Canadian Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario, an artistic home and family residence for many superb actors. It is a theatre that I have attended every summer for the past fifty-one years, the one that inspired me at the tender age of sixteen to become a theatre artist.
As I created an adaptation, I could see the parallels between the lives of Chekhov’s characters and those of my friends and myself. I imagined the play’s sibling land-owners, Liubov and Gaev, as similar to the family of Constantin Stanislavski. The famous acting teacher was born into privilege, a family financially successful in business, but one also with a deep passion for the arts. Constantin and his siblings created and produced amateur theatrical productions with such fervor that eventually their father had a theatre built at Lyubimovka, the family’s country residence. Lyubimovka is a sprawling 120-acre estate where Stanislavski was given the freedom during summers to nurture his interests and talents as a theatre artist. He became an innovative actor, director, teacher, co-founder of the Moscow Art Theatre, and artistic collaborator of Anton Chekhov. In 1902, Stanislavski invited Chekhov and his wife, Olga Knipper to spend the summer at Lyubimovka while the Stanislavski family was away traveling. It was during his visit to Lyubimovka that Chekhov found the inspiration to write The Cherry Orchard. Thus, Lyubimovka was the setting I chose for my adaptation.
As I wrote, I began to see Liubov and Gaev as coming from a wealthy, business family that is also smitten by a love for the arts. I decided their father was an amateur actor, and their mother was a ballerina. Like Stanislavski, the siblings spent their childhood summers on their countryside estate set in a cherry orchard, surrounded by famous artists and performers who created productions that were presented at the end of the summer in the theatre on the estate. Eventually, time catches up to their idyllic lifestyle. The house expenses are mounting and with little inheritance left, the mortgage cannot be paid. This summer, the estate will be put up for auction. Unless something changes, the beloved orchard will be sold.
Their friend, Lopakhin, however, has a plan. In Chekhov’s play, Lopakhin is the son of a former serf who worked on the estate. He, too, has achieved great financial success through business dealings. He is devoted to Liubov, ever since she once took him in to clean him up after his drunken father had given him a bloody nose. Lopakhin’s plan for Liubov and Gaev includes turning the estate into a development, with internet cafes, gaming centers for kids, even a casino. The house and the theatre would be demolished, and the cherry trees cut down, of course, but the family will be saved! I adapted Lopakhin to be a poor immigrant, like the millions today who are struggling to build a better life for themselves and their families. In our 21st century, business is still a very fruitful career, of course. Wealth, however, is perhaps more promising in employment areas driven by technology. Let’s face it. Corporations run the world. Millionaires become billionaires. It doesn’t seem to matter to those folks that the average income has stagnated if not declined. Benefits are disappearing. Inflation is off the charts. Globalization, digital technology, social media has become the way-of-the-world.
And what about the performing arts? Are they having to give way to these new advancements? Have they become a luxury in life that is quickly becoming moot as technology continues to take over our lives? Considering all of the political, social, and economic upheaval in today’s world, how long can the performing arts survive? These were the questions I wanted to address in an adaptation. They were the questions my students and I pondered in class, the questions we sought answers for as we explored Chekhov’s play. In January 2020, we set off on our journey together, like flowers blooming so gaily in the field. And then, came a stupid goat. He ate the buds on our cherry trees, and our theatre production was gone.
It was March 12 when I heard the news about shutting down Qatar’s schools and universities, due to COVID-19. It came at the end of our first class back, after spring break. Like so many others, we were in absolute shock. Truthfully, my assistant director and I were in complete denial. We had planned to shop for props at IKEA. Deciding our production would all work out somehow, we went anyway, bought the props, and contemplated the ramifications of our new circumstances over an ice cream cone. Our trolley was filled to the brim: ten pairs of lace curtains, fifty stems of fake cherry orchard blossoms, a dozen battery-operated candles, and little Grisha’s table and chair, which being from IKEA, we would assemble later. A totally Chekhovian scene. Anton would have loved it.
The next day I found myself in a faculty session led by an IT representative. As I slumped in my seat, I fought off a looming depression while listening to suggestions on how I could teach my class “virtually.” I felt like Liubov’s adopted daughter, Varya, who is on the verge of tears throughout the play, overwhelmed by managing the responsibilities of running the estate while nursing her unrequited love for Lopakhin. I knew the IT information was meant to be helpful. But I couldn’t believe how that stupid goat had changed my life so abruptly. How it had stomped on my plans so viciously and destructively. And then, it had the nerve to eat them! As Yepikhodov says several times throughout the play, “What a situation!”
I wrote my adaptation of The Cherry Orchard with the intention of making technology the “villain.” I wanted to present an estate that belonged to a family of artists, an artist retreat if you will. The beautiful, natural setting of the cherry orchard generates limitless creative inspiration and soulful reflection. Unlike Chekhov’s character, the 26-year old Trofimov, I fear mankind’s advancement of technology. I see it as a potential destroyer of living art, art that is live, like poetry readings, concerts, dance, and theatre. I worry that our need as human beings to commune with others, socialize in groups, gather in families is being torn apart by the ease of isolation, which technology can provide. But then again, I’m 66, not 26. I have spent many days hating modern advancements. That is, until a goat showed up, more evil than technology.
At some point during the first week of the shut-down, I experienced a major OMG moment. I realized, ironically, that technology was actually going to save The Cherry Orchard. I now admit, right now, in this moment of time, I can’t imagine living without it. Without the internet, I cannot take care of business when businesses are closed. Without Zoom, I cannot meet my class to continue our creative work. Only through the magic of virtual connection, can the present move forward towards a future. Quite unexpectedly, technology provided a ray of hope.
The irony of my journey as the director of Chekhov’s, The Cherry Orchard is not lost on me. I freely admit, the joke’s on me. No one is laughing harder than Anton Chekhov. Technology has become my new best-friend. The class did go forward. We did continue to collaborate. We did create on Zoom. Gratefully, I embraced the possibilities of technology. I met with the IT advisor and learned how to set up meetings. I sat with my assistant director, amazed by what he creates on a laptop. I listened carefully to what my students told me because now, I was the student, and they were my teachers. I knew I could offer them very little on this new virtual journey we were now taking together, except insight perhaps. Yes, 66 years of living does provide some insight on life. So, I shared what I had learned about this extraordinary playwright, named Anton Chekhov - his compassion for humanity revealed throughout all of his work, the creative vision he developed from simply observing the lives around him, the humor he used to portray everyday characters in their daily tasks, and the undying hope that lives on in all of Chekhov’s plays. The hope that life will be better. The cherry orchard will bloom again. One day. In the future.
Please. Stay safe.
April 23, 2020