Michelle Johnson ’16 directs Chekhov’s “The Seagull”

Last weekend, the play “The Seagull,” written by Anton Chekhov, translated by Paul Schmidt, and directed by Michelle Johnson ’16, was performed in the Frear Theater in LPAC. Upon entering the dark performance space, the audience was greeted with Russian folk music that was both uplifting and humorous. The space was designed so that the audience sat around the stage on three sides, and the room was buzzing with light conversation in anticipation.

“I’ve never went to a play here, and honestly I didn’t know what to expect,” said Stephanie Chen ’19. “But it really surprised me and I loved it.”

To Johnson, the play by Chekov reflects both her personal artistic growth as well as her next steps in life.  

“I specifically chose ‘The Seagull’ because as I prepare to redefine myself in post-grad life, I relate a lot to the need to find meaning in my relationships and identity as an artist but also in finding ways to laugh at my own absurdities sometimes,” said Johnson.

The play clearly had varying moods that was felt by the audience. At times it was humorous, and at times it was tragic.  

“I personally loved the last scene, when I don’t know how many years later, the characters have shifted and grown,” said Chen. “It was extremely emotional and that was felt by the entire room.”

As an actress, Elizabeth Balch-Crystal ’19, who played one of the main characters, Nina, also felt that the emotional shifts were extremely prominent.

“My character, Nina, goes through a huge emotional change on stange,” said Balch-Crystal. “It’s really difficult but really rewarding to work with the character.”

In the middle of the performance the title of the play materialized, when the character Konstantin Treplev, played by Tylor Elliott ’15, carried a dead seagull on stage. The audience was expecting it but for some it was an ambiguous metaphor.

Interestingly, Johnson didn’t intend for it to be as significant and her interpretation of the play is rather one that downplays this romanticization of the metaphor, and is instead more grounded.

“[The characters] base their entire sense of worth on [their relationships and their work], and this absurd pattern of romanticizing culminates in the dead seagull Konstantin kills that everyone treats as a giant metaphor. But honestly, it’s just a dead bird,” said Johnson.

As Balch-Crystal puts it, the seagull was crucial to her character, Nina, even though it was not necessarily supposed to be meaningful for the audience.

“I think for Nina, the seagull metaphor is really central to her emotional journey,” said Balch-Crystal. “I think it also serves as a metaphor for the inevitable destruction of all things, which we see a lot in this play.”

Johnson’s interpretation of the play is really about the starkness of reality in contrast of the poetic and artistic drama.

“I find this tendency to over-romanticize funny and sad but also super relatable, and for me the takeaway is that sometimes it is not a bad thing to check back in with reality,” said Johnson. “Engaging in the relative meaninglessness of an un-romanticized perspective might be difficult, but at least it’s real.”

When approaching the production of the play, Johnson reveals that she wanted to share a special connection with the audience.

“One of my professors, Elizabeth Stevens, always talks about the process of theater as sharing a gift with the audience. So that’s how I approached the production — as an act of sharing with the audience all the warmth, fun, feeling, and meaning the ensemble found during the process,” said Johnson.

Johnson also emphasizes the amount of team-work involved in her process, and the necessity for the cast to have worked together for the play to come to life.

“The overall mood of the play was very fun and very familial,” said Balch-Crystal. “The cast and the production team all got along really well so everyone felt comfortable bouncing ideas and thoughts around.”

“The cast members were so willing to take on the challenge of a difficult script and they all brought so much joy and warmth into rehearsals,” said Johnson. “The script of ‘The Seagull’ by itself is brilliant, but it can only come alive when a group of people dedicate their unique perspectives and energies to a shared project. So overall this experience reaffirmed my desire to make theater based on collective rather than individual experience.”

Despite the fun and the comedic aspects of the play, it ended on a dark note with the death of one of the main characters, Konstantin.

“I was very shocked by the sound of the gunshot,” said Chen. “It really darkened the mood and took us to a very emotional place which seemed much more serious than the rest of the play.”

With that ending note however, Johnson felt that the underlying message was one of simple kindness and forgiveness.

“I wanted the audience to feel that life is both absurd and painful, and it is equally important to laugh at ourselves as it is to show ourselves kindness and forgiveness.”

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