It started as a joke between a playwright and a director. Then a designer had an idea, and the project transformed into a play that theatres all over the country are doing. This is the story of Stupid F*cking Bird.
In Aaron Posner’s riff on Chekhov’s The Seagull, subtext becomes text and Konstantin Treplev’s talk of the need for a new theatre informs the design in a way that Chekhov never conceived. Chekhov’s play is set in and around a country estate. Posner’s first act is theatrical. Locations are vaguely suggested, and actors use direct address and ask for audience participation. One comes forth at the get-go to tell spectators that the play will begin when someone says, “Start the fucking play.”
After an intermission, wow! Audiences are thrust into the naturalistic kitchen of a summer cottage. The blender works, and in this kitchen-sink drama, there is a working kitchen sink, too. It is Brecht’s alienation effect, reversed: Instead of being drawn into a realistic story, then jolted into the realization that we’re watching a play and asked to stop and think, spectators are suddenly thrown into an experience that makes them feel for the characters. The play doesn’t end there; the set is removed as the audience continues to watch in a different kind of theatrical space.
Misha Kachman, scenic designer for the world premiere at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in Washington, DC, had the script from draft one. “The design process from a certain point happened parallel to the writing and rewriting process,” he says. Initially, there were no scripted style shifts between the scenes.
At an early meeting of the artistic team, Kachman talked about how different the scenes seemed from one another. “I wish there was a place where someone could go to make a sandwich or a drink,” Kachman thought, and the idea of setting Act Two in a real kitchen evolved. “Aaron started writing to that idea. We had a sense that there are three parts to the script, and each has a very different mode of storytelling. The first part is a Chekhovian pastiche,” adds Kachman, who hails from Russia and grew up seeing and designing Chekhov. “For The Seagull, the audience is expecting a certain design language, leaves, trees, some sort of a fabric, and things blowing through. It’s like there’s a design kit that we designers pull out every time there’s a Chekhov play.” Kachman says the creative team tried to meet those expectations in a tongue-in-cheek manner for the first third of the play, which featured silhouettes of Chekhov’s face on the back wall of the theatre.
Exploring The Seagull
Posner says he began to think about the play when he was directing The Vibrator Play at Woolly. He was having a conversation with the theatre’s artistic director, Howard Shalwitz, about Chekhov productions they’d seen, why they loved them, and why they were frustrated by them. They joked that Posner should do his own adaptation of a Chekhov. Posner began to explore The Seagull. He wrote just a handful of scenes and sent them to Shalwitz.
“From the beginning, the process was very open and collaborative,” says Posner, who was a director before he started writing. “At my core, I’m a collaborator. ‘Let’s all bring the best of what we have to make this happen.’ So the designers and actors were involved in the discussion early on. As Misha got involved, we were still open on whether this was a two-act or a three-act play.” They began to talk about style. “At one point, Misha said, ‘Maybe the second act would be different from the open theatricality of the first act.’” Posner says he kept that in mind as he rewrote. He found jumping into kitchen sink realism from a heightened meta-theatricality served to deepen the story. “This is the first time I’ve written to a design idea,” he says. “The design fit the Woolly Mammoth aesthetic and energy. It was a wonderful idea.”
“The play is very self-conscious and theatrical, and so was the set,” Kachman says, “and then cut, and we are suddenly in a hyper-realistic kitchen, with creaky floor boards, crickets, practical lights in it. People are under duress. They go to the kitchen in the middle of the night to make a sandwich. It’s about food. It’s about sex. It’s about people being in close quarters and saying things they wouldn’t in the middle of the day. It’s a different mode of acting, too. We constantly play with the expectations of the audience.” Kachman says Shalwitz wanted the kitchen to be completely authentic. “We went to an architectural salvage place in Baltimore and got the cabinets instead of buying them new or building them, so we didn’t have to distress them.
“The third part was us essentially saying, ‘Well, enough with all that. Whom are we kidding? The cat is out of the bag.’ They already know there is a kitchen. The world is falling apart and getting deconstructed,” says Kachman. There is no intermission between the second and third act; pieces of the kitchen go off as the action continues.
Kachman notes that The Seagull itself is meta-theatrical. “Aaron’s play takes that and runs with it,” he says. “The audience is now trained to read visual cues provided by the set. This is going to be melancholic, poetic, funny, dark. We provide those visual cues then play with that.”
Colin K. Bills designed the lights for Shalwitz’s production, and Laree Lentz designed the costumes. Sound design and original music and lyrics were by James Sugg. The entire design will be moved when the Woolly production is remounted next season at the Syracuse Stage and the Portland Center Stage, adjusted only slightly to fit the different spaces.
Stay tuned for Part Two, which discusses the productions in Los Angeles and Ann Arbor, MI.