There’s an immersive production of a Chekhov play that happens every year with a cast that’s included a Tony winner, a Pulitzer winner and familiar faces from TV. But you’ve probably never heard of it.
That’s because the Lake Lucille Chekhov Project, launched in Rockland County, N.Y., in 2003, plays just one public performance annually, to an invited audience of a few hundred people, many of whom are Rockland locals. But a new film, “I Am a Seagull,” which just premiered at CUNY’s Martin E. Segal Theatre Center, gives everyone else a glimpse of a recent Lake Lucille staging of “The Seagull” that starred Tony winner Gabriel Ebert (“Matilda”), Pulitzer-winning playwright Annie Baker (“The Flick”) and Off Broadway favorite Deirdre O’Connell, as well as T.R. Knight (“Grey’s Anatomy”) and Gayle Rankin (“Glow” “Hamlet” with Oscar Isaac).
The Lake Lucille Chekhov Project is the brainchild of directors Brian Mertes (head of the MFA directing program at Brown University) and Melissa Kievman, whose 1805 farmhouse provides the set for the project’s productions. “It began as kind of an experiment in breaking down all the boundaries and barriers between life and work,” Mertes says. “What happens if you do a radical piece of theater inside of a small community?”
In this community theater, the whole community gets involved: Many of the performers, musicians and other artists are hosted by residents of the 80 homes clustered around the 17-acre man-made lake. Some locals turn up for dance rehearsals and become a part of the final performance, which can take place in the backyard, in the lake and all over the house. The one and only performance includes a barbecue on the lawn at intermission.
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No one gets paid for the weeklong retreat. (“The Cherry Orchard,” “Platonov” and “Ivanov” are among the titles that have been presented; the group worked on “Seagull” for four years in a row.) The cast rehearses one act a day for four days, puts it all together on a Friday, and on Saturday, it’s showtime.
Along with acting rehearsals, there are music workshops, dance rehearsals and other elements that make their way into a show that’s performed largely outdoors. “I Am a Seagull” begins with a performance of the symbolist drama written by the character Treplev (Ebert), with cast members in masks and a speech made from the farmhouse roof. When characters mention going for a swim in the lake, actors do exactly that in the real lake.
Through the whole process, the participants eat, sleep and work in close quarters, sharing housework shifts and sometimes spending nights in tents on the lawns of Lake Lucille residents — except when it rains, when everyone scrambles to find indoor space for the night. At least the food’s great.
“We’re often wet and cold and sick, and all kinds of stuff goes wrong, but we know breakfast is gonna be really good,” says O’Connell (“The Boy Downstairs,” “The Path”), who’s starring in “Terminus” at New York Theatre Workshop.
In “Seagull,” she plays Arkadina, the famous actress at the center of the play’s tangled web of unrequited loves. She’s participated in the project for a total of nine years. “It’s been such a profoundly happy, challenging experience,” she says. “With the bottomless nature of that writing, we can just keep digging, and it will keep throwing up revelations.”
What the creatives involved seem to appreciate is the focus on process rather than product. Lined up for 2018: a return to “The Cherry Orchard,” with casting still to be set.
“We find that it’s not about trying to retain something or trying to repeat a performance,” Mertes says. “The discoveries and the performance are happening all the way through the week, when something actually comes alive.”