Audiences at New York's Brooklyn Academy of Music are getting some of the first glimpses of an ambitious theatrical experiment: Led by director Sam Mendes (Broadway's Cabaret, the big screen's American Beauty and Revolutionary Road), an all-star cast of American and British actors are opening a production of Anton Chekhov's classic play The Cherry Orchard there.
It's just the first half of a repertory project that will soon add a production of Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale, with the same cast and director.
As executive producer, Joe Melillo confesses it all came about because of an obsession.
"I could say, affectionately, I stalked Sam Mendes," Melillo laughs.
Melillo fell in love with Mendes' work when he imported several of the director's London productions, including Shakespeare's Twelfth Night and Chekhov's Uncle Vanya.
"Those became a legendary success here at BAM, and that's how it began," Melillo says.
A Three-Year Experiment, Two Plays At A Time
"It" is the Bridge Project — a three-year collaboration between BAM, London's Old Vic Theatre and Mendes. The idea was a repertory company evenly divided between American and British actors performing classic plays. This season it's The Cherry Orchard and The Winter's Tale.
"The Bridge is named the Bridge because it's a bridge between those two particular theatrical communities, and it's based in a belief that a good actor is a good actor," says Mendes. "It doesn't matter where they come from, or what accent they speak in, and there's a lot to be learned and shared between the two theatrical cultures."
Mendes handpicked several actors he wanted to work with — among them such veterans as British theater star Simon Russell Beale and American film and stage star Ethan Hawke, as well as such up-and-comers as Rebecca Hall, who recently starred in Woody Allen's Vicky Cristina Barcelona.
You might think they'd leap at a prestige project. But between rehearsals and performances in Brooklyn and London — and a tour through Asia and Europe — Mendes was asking them to commit to almost a year of work.
"Step one in trying to persuade them to do it is you've got to pay them, which is very awkward," Mendes laughs. "I expected them to do it for nothing, but they're doing it instead for next to nothing — certainly a good deal less than they could earn on the movies that they would be making in the same time."
Hawke has committed to spending most of this year onstage. He's playing Trofimov, Cherry Orchard's eternal student, and Autolycus, the singing con artist in The Winter's Tale.
For the actor, part of the Bridge Project's appeal is its variety — performing two plays side by side with the same actors.
"For me, the worst element of theater — the only negative element of it — is the repetition," says Hawke. "There's a kind of joy of doing rep where you're not actually doing the same play every night."
How Do You Get To BAM? Practice, Practice, Practice ...
To help the actors bond themselves into a company, Mendes insisted on a longer-than-usual rehearsal period: more than two months. At the beginning of the process, he sat all of them in a circle, with carpets in the middle, as a playing space.
"I think that actors act differently when they don't know where the camera-slash-audience is," says Mendes. "I think they look only at each other, which is the beginning of every decent day's rehearsal — to act with the person that you're onstage with, as opposed to with the audience."
Mendes says he wants to disprove the cliche that Americans are more suited for Chekhov because of their naturalistic acting traditions, while English actors are more suited for Shakespeare because of their classical training.
"There's a lot to be shared in one actor watching another work," says Mendes. "And watching them all together in the room has actually been incredibly moving, because they're all equally good and they're all equally skilled in different ways.
"But they're very interesting about their own insecurities in relation to the other one: 'Well, I can't do movies, I'm English.' Or, 'I can't do Shakespeare, I'm American.' Both of which, of course, are rubbish."
The company has gone back and forth in rehearsal — one week on the Chekhov, then one week on the Shakespeare. Russell Beale, who plays pivotal roles in both plays, says that after some initial nervousness, the process felt completely organic.
"After a week of doing Cherry Orchard, you think, 'Oh my god, I can't remember Winter's Tale at all,'" he says. "And you go back and actually you did remember quite a lot of it."
Echoes Of Shakespeare In Chekhov, And Vice Versa
"I suppose any two plays infect each other," Russell Beale continues. "And these two plays that are so much about children and loss and time, and growing old and having regrets, both of them deal with the same areas — they do feed each other."
One of the things that both of Beale's characters share is anger. For Hall, the two plays offer almost polar-opposite parts. She's the drab Varya in The Cherry Orchard and the witty but put-upon queen Hermione in The Winter's Tale.
"It's quite nice for me," Hall says. "On a very reductive level, I get to play someone who's terribly repressed and miserable — and then, in the other play, I get to play someone who's kind of the opposite of that. Everyone kind of likes Hermione, until Leontes" — the wildly jealous king whose instability drives the play's major crisis — "starts messing about with her."
Mendes says he doesn't know yet what plays he'll choose for the next installment of the Bridge Project, but he does know that he wants to continue presenting work in repertory. And he'd love to add an American classic to the mix.
"I'd be very interested to see how O'Neill reflects Shakespeare, or Williams reflects Ibsen," he says. "There's gonna be lots of possibilities in the future."