NORTH BENNINGTON -- Performing Shakespeare outside is fairly common. A cursory Google search will turn up approximately 39 million results, not to even mention the illustrious Shakespeare in the Park company.
"Doing Shakespeare outside is typical, (but) doing Chekhov outside that's not so typical," said Randolyn Zinn, director and co-producer of the upcoming run of "Uncle Vanya" by Anton Chekhov starting July 30, at 7 p.m. at the Park McCullough House in North Bennington.
Zinn and her husband, Allen McCullough, who is acting in "Uncle Vanya" and co-producing it, celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary last year in a rather unconventional way. They staged an outdoor production of Chekhov's "The Seagull."
"We thought, ‘well, we can have a big party or a big dinner for ourselves. But we like to do theater, we like to work," McCullough said.
"We are in the theater and it seemed like the best thing to do And to do it professionally," Zinn added.
The performance had the audience follow the characters in the play as they moved from scene to scene, literally. Some moments happened outside in the garden while others in Zinn and McCullough's own living room in their home on the Park McCullough property.
"What happened was the relationship between the audience and the performer was completely redefined because of the intimacy of the situation. There wasn't that proscenium fourth wall distance," Zinn said.
"People felt like a fly on the wall by the end of the play," McCullough added. "(They felt like) part of the family, part of the world in a way that often would have made them feel a little uncomfortable."
"Uncle Vanya," written in 1897, follows the story of a family and their acquaintances as they try to cope with the crushing frustration and ennui of their middle ages.
"He's one of the three greatest playwrights in the Western canon: Shakespeare, Chekhov, Pinter. But Chekhov gets at big subjects in a way that is not at all didactic, in a way that is human. He writes the best scenes for actors to play," Zinn said. It's so rewarding and difficult. It's hard to get Shakespeare completely right, every moment, that's hard. (And) it's hard to get Chekhov right in every moment, too."
"The thing that I think appeals to actors about Chekhov is there are things happening all at once. In Shakespeare, characters are essentially speaking their emotional life. They're describing what is happening," McCullough added. "There's no subtext in Shakespeare. Chekhov is almost entirely subtext he changed theater completely he changed out plays were thought of and how they were written."
With "The Seagull," Zinn worked with a variety of translations from the original Russian. She went through the play character by character, line by line and made her own version.
"You get your purple prose versions, you get your still translations, she said. "An Englishman will write is translation and it sounds all very British and it's not right. Maybe it's right for one character to speak in heightened language and diction. And then somebody else will be way too colloquial. It seemed easier to put one together."
This year Zinn was unable to create an original translation of the script for "Uncle Vanya," since she has been busy writing her own play. She and McCullough instead pored over various translations to decide which would be best. She added that the actors, who have experience with Chekhov and "Uncle Vanya" in particular will bring their own unique attributes to the characters that they have developed over the years.
"(Chekhov's) plays are not plot heavy," Zinn said. "There are some of these pressures, but it's about people being frustrated It's a delicate business to show how absurd human beings are how wonderful they are at the same time."
"It's the small events that are enormous in people's lives," McCullough added.
"The other thing that's amazing about Chekhov, especially in this play is: Chekhov was a doctor. So there's always a doctor in the play and he's not always a good guy. But I think this gave Chekhov a view of humanity that most writers don't have, because he was in there healing people with TB and typhus. But Doctor Astrov, (played by McCullough), is planting trees, and he has a long speech, an ecological speech about how the world is going to hell in a hand basket because the trees are being cut down this is 1899 and when you hear this you're going to say ‘seriously?'"
"He's clearly the first naturalist written in a play," McCullough added.
But what makes Zinn and McCullough's productions unique is the actors, and the rehearsal style.
"We call it Chekhov Camp," Zinn said.
The cast, made up of Equity actors from all over the country, shows up at the house and lives with the producers during rehearsal.
"We love North Bennington, even though we live in New York, we so look forward to coming here and planting our garden. We feed the actors from our garden," Zinn said.
"If they like cucumbers," McCullough added.
Improv work is one of the most important aspects of their rehearsal. Zinn will give the actors direction before beginning an improvised scene which is designed for them to understand the feeling for the plays. One example comes from "The Seagull," in which a character, who is 25 at the time of the play, is a child. He writes a play for his mother, an actress, and she doesn't come home to be in it.
"Everyone was so into the reality of this I was like ‘oh my god, this is so great.' The actor burst into tears and stormed out of the room my job after that improv was pretty easy. My job as a director is to stay as open as I can to what the actors bring," she said
The Fund for North Bennington is providing support for this play, without which Zinn and McCullough said they would not be able to do it. They would also like to thank the Park McCullough House for the use of its Carriage Barn.
"We're excited and everyone was excited and everyone kind of begged us to do it again. We weren't planning on doing it again," Zinn said.
Tickets for the play are "pay what you can" because Zinn and McCullough would like to help remove the stigma against theater as being for only the wealthy.
"Kids are growing up this country never seeing a real play, never seeing a real painting, culture is crucial in our view to a strong society and a strong mind, so we really want to make this open to all," McCullough said.
"Uncle Vanya" is a production of the Living Room Theater Company, North Bennington's first professional theater company, and will begin under a tree on the Park McCullough grounds before moving inside the Carriage Barn for various scene changes. The show runs from Tuesday, July 30, through Saturday, Aug. 3. Each performance is at 7 p.m. for reservations call 802-442-5322. For more information, visit www.parkmccullough.org.
Additionally, on Thursday, Aug. 29, the Anniversary Celebration to commemorate the courtship and marriage of Lizzie Park and John McCullough returns to Park McCullough house. Guests will be treated to a reading of love letters written by Lizzie and John and read by Allen McCullough, John's great-grandson and Randolyn Zinn. Prior to the reading there will be tasting buffet and beverages from the cash bar provided by Pangaea Restaurant. Call for reservations, 802-442-5441. Cost is $35 per person.
Andrew Roiter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow him on Twitter @Banner_Arts.