North Adams Transcript
NORTH ADAMS -- Tina Satter and her theater company aren’t doing just another production of Anton Chekhov’s "The Seagull" -- they’re making the play their own, while still honoring its original form and history.
"Seagull (Thinking of you)" will be performed at Mass MoCA on Saturday, Dec. 15, at 8 p.m.
Chekhov’s play was first produced in 1896, a character-driven ensemble piece that features such experimental aspects as a play-within-a-play. Satter’s version rethinks the original in such a way that the soul of it springs to life in a new body.
Plenty in theater spend their life loving and studying the works of the Russian playwright, but Satter didn’t encounter them until she was in graduate school and decided it was about time she read his work. Her fascination with "The Seagull" was spurred on by the successful Broadway version, which held such a power when she saw it that it aligned Satter’s experience with that of the author himself.
"It was truly one of those times where hearing the words said in this beautiful production, I could hear and feel what was happening with what Chekhov was setting up and doing," Satter said.
Encountering it performed, Satter also had the unexpected realization that a portion of the territory Chekhov explored in his work had a strange kinship with the focus of her own.
"I was like, "Oh my God, this is this strange adolescent girl magic that he’s entering through Nina,’ " said Satter. "That really spoke to me because of what I had been interested in my own writing, which are often these adolescent, coded girl worlds. Maybe that’s not the whole thing of what they are, but that’s one easy way to talk about what they are."
"I always say this thing jokingly, ‘I could have written that!’ Not that I think I could have written Chekhov, but he was in this similar space to what I’m doing and I could see Masha also rendered in that world, and it was just this frame into the play for me. So then I started paying even more attention to these plays, and particularly ‘The Seagull,’ I was hooked on it."
"The Seagull" also reached beyond its initial era to speak to Satter about the world she lived in, the downtown arts and performance community.
"This was about a whole group of artists or wannabe artists and they’re all struggling and disgruntled in whatever way they’re doing this, but they also can’t stop doing it, and they love it and love each other," she said. "I’m in the middle of this hustling downtown theater world in New York and I have a company of people we work with a lot, but even beyond us, we see those same people and talk to the same people a lot."
"It’s almost a hustle and up-by-your-boot-straps thing at every level of it to make your work and that also felt really like, ‘Oh my God, this is what my company feels like, and the people I’m around, this aspect of always talking about work. The thing was so infused with people loving art in this way, but also all the dysfunction that was around in this group of people in ‘The Seagull.’ "
Satter’s first effort to approach the play in her own work was to write a 10-page experimental version of it for a festival of short works.
"There was something in it and, at that point, I was merging," Satter said. "I took some lines from Chekhov and just seeded them into my own writing to make this thing have a form."
Part of Satter’s effort in adapting the play -- or reconfiguring it as part of her own theater piece -- was research that would inform the work as it unfolded. Chief among Satter’s interest were Chekhov’s personal letters.
"He’s so funny and hilarious, and dark and genius, in his personal writing," said Satter. "It wasn’t like I devoted a lot of time or wanted to do a study of Chekhov’s letters, but in a very instinctual way when I would come across one is that lines from one would fit in with what I was doing and I would just write down because there was something about them that’s really funny or something, and then have woven those into the script."
Numerous essays, introductions to collections of his writing, accounts of earlier productions -- all this history and analysis was studied and taken into account by Satter as she wrote, and it structured an extra dimension around the piece that peppered it with
"None of that biographical or early stuff is literally treated or seen in the piece," she said. "It’s in my mind and in mythical layers around the piece. They inform certain ways we have weird little staging nods to it and sometimes Nina gets called Vera, who is the actress who played Nina in the early production and lost her voice and couldn’t go on in real life. Maybe a hard-core theater scholar or Chekhov scholar could find those in it, but it’s more inspiration for me to create it. It’s like a layer of it in some way."
Infusing some of the immediacy into the piece is the inspiration that Satter gets from members of her theater group, aligning their traits with those of the characters she writes in order to bring them to life.
"I often write to the people I work with, because they’re a pretty specific, really interesting group of performers," Satter said. "I’m always working with weird things about their personal movements or personalities, and bringing that into whatever character I’m writing for them. In ‘Seagull’ it started to have really cool resonance with the people we had in our company -- something about how they were or how I performatively could see them."
In taking an older play and presenting it as something still alive, Satter’s work comes off as less an adaptation or an update, and more like a collaboration with the original work that has her strengthening certain strands that run between Chekhov’s original concerns and their resonance today.
"Our show is definitely not a production of ‘The Seagull,’" said Satter. "It’s like someone took Chekhov’s ‘The Seagull’ and put it inside a snow globe and shook it up. For me, I would also think of putting those ideas in there, and it’s all shaken up. Maybe there’s a crack down the side of the snow globe, but there’s also this beautiful sparkly snow falling and these actors inside the snow globe trying to make this play."
Satter’s theater company can be found online at halfstraddle.com.