'Three Sisters' Will Save Us

Asya Danilova

OnStage New York Columnist

Russians take theater very seriously. When I was growing up in Russia, I took this exaltation for granted and never really reflected on it. When a friend of mine, a Russian theater director trained in the American school who was auditioning actors in Moscow, told me that they say “I serve in such and such theater” as opposed to “work”. This struck me deeply. I never encountered an actor or director here who would refer to their craft or talent as an almost spiritual act or service.

That was until I met Aleksey Burago, an artistic director of The Russian Arts Theater and Studio and Di Zhu, a managing director and an actress in this theater. I caught them between the rehearsals of two shows, “Swan Song” and “Three Sisters”, which they are putting on for their first Chekhov festival. Over coffee we talked about their studio’s approach to training actors and the actuality of Chekhov in the current political climate.

What is a Chinese girl doing with Russians?

There are people who immediately win you over from the moment you see them. Di Zhu is that kind of person. Although it would be unfair to say that the week before the opening of Chekhov festival was the first time we’ve met. I saw Di about a year ago on stage playing a deeply traumatized Bosnian refugee in the paly called Beekeeper’s Daughter. I disliked the play, but Di’s performance was radically different from everything else I saw on stage that night. Despite the fact that she joined the cast just a few days before the opening, she was the best part of the show.          

Three Sisters_Di Zhu as Masha_photo by Asya Danilova.jpg

A diverse and experienced in both film and theater actress, Di has a background as a classical pianist, she is the winner of quite a few awards. But in her own words, she burned out and started to look for a new career. A lot of her piano teachers were Russian immigrants, so when she took an acting class with Aleksey Burago, she immediately felt a familiar comfort in his demanding but inspiring approach to teaching.

“Aleksey had the same kind of passion for the arts”, Di says. “There is like a spiritual connection that Russians feel towards it that you don’t get with a lot of Americans. They really breathe and eat every minute of art, they take it so deeply seriously and it’s wonderful”.   

When asked what is so different about Aleksey’s approach, Di says that it is the meticulous attention to every single detail in the text. “We actually take the text and we break it down to literally word-by-word. Sometimes this kind of directing is too much for American actors, who are used to freedom”.

Russian director who fell in love with Chekhov after immigrating

Prior to immigrating to the US in 1996, Aleksey Burago studied in the Russian Academy of Theater Arts (GITIS) with the world famous director, Pyotr Fomenko. Aleksey founded The Russian Arts Theater and Studio in 2004, currently located on the Upper West Side. His directing style is based on Stanislavsky’s method and Michael Chekhov’s interpretation of it.

Aleksey put on many plays domestically and internationally and now is working on two of Chekhov’s plays for TRATS’ festival. One of them, The Swan Song (Про Великое Ничто) is in Russian. The second one, Three Sisters, is in English. Aleksey took the translation of Paul Schmidt as a base but practically rewrote it in order to shorten it, but mostly to bring back the accuracy and the true meaning of words behind the seemingly trivial dialogue. 

“Before I moved here, Chekhov annoyed me. And here he became dear to me”, says the director. Deep love and understanding of Chekhov as a person and a writer of his time shines through Aleksey’s speech: “His texts are so poetic, and everything is interconnected and working in his texts, even punctuation signs”.

“What a mess!” - exclaims Burago half jokingly but full of heart when talking about the way the Russian classic is interpreted in America. This was partly the reason that he started studying and putting on Chekhov in New York in the first place. In his research and close readings of, not only writer’s plays, but also short stories, letters and testimony of his contemporaries, Aleksey came to understand Chekhov as a person deeply compassionate and loving of humanity.

Chekhov was an exceptionally generous philanthropist even though he was never really rich. The same heartache for humanity is heard in his plays, most famous of which are “Seagull”, “Uncle Vanya” and “Cherry Orchard”. Set in aristocratic estates in Russian provinces in the end of 19th century, his plays always have a vast cast but are never built around the protagonist/antagonist relationship.

Aleksey sighs, that theater in the US is often taken as entertainment and the deep interpretation of Chekhov is often sacrificed for the sake of action, which the paying crowd craves. And what better way to provide action than pit the protagonist and the antagonist against each other. But this is not Chekhov, in whose plays “the protagonist is the crowd, the circle of characters and the current era”, according to Aleksey. 

“What a mess!” he exclaims again about “The Present”, a play based on Chekhov’s “Platonov”, an Australian transplant starring Cate Blanchett that recently ended its run on Broadway. “Chekhov doesn’t judge his characters, but rather sympathizes with them. And they make every character a horrible human being. Cate Blanchett makes sexual mise-en-scenes but she doesn’t want anybody. We liked the second act though, when everything suddenly became alive. But the overall tendency is to condemn. They don’t care about each other. They communicate just because they are in the same circle but they lack connection”.

Cast as a family in the sacred space of theater

“You cannot do Chekhov without a family”. This principal, voiced by a soviet Russian director, Aleksey Popov, became the base of the company’s casting for Three Sisters. Actors from both within Aleksey’s acting studio and elsewhere, auditioned for the parts and the show ended up with an international mix. As Di puts it, “The idea was to cast people that want to be together. So they are not coming to rehearse, they are coming to see their friends. And that kind of energy is what will fuel the show to the end”.

Theater ethics is something Aleksey accentuates as an essential quality of a professional actor. You have to be open and non judgmental, you have to be positive. And you better leave your problems outside the theater when you are coming to rehearsal.

Di picks his thought up: “We always say that creative atmosphere takes a long time to build but just one second to destroy. If one person comes with all this baggage it really affects the act. And it becomes hard to allow yourself to be so open when you feel the person opposite of you is giving you tension”.

Besides creating the atmosphere of trust between people, it is important for Aleksey to create a relationship with space where they perform. He doesn’t allow anybody in the rehearsals besides the actors in order to preserve the atmosphere. The atmosphere he is talking about exists on many levels: the physical room, the music, the message, and, finally, the audience. And even though it is technically manageable, there is some mysterious, almost spiritual element to Aleksey’s understanding of the theatrical space.

This explains why he doesn’t like to travel with his shows and why a lot of plays that are brought to New York don’t succeed. “If you don’t have enough time to create a relationship with the space, it will kill you” – Aleksey drops in his usual uncompromising manner.

Three Sisters in the Trump era

Last fall, TRATS produced Crime and Punishment as a response to Trump’s presidential campaign. The candidate reminded Aleksey of Raskolnikov, who thought himself above the law and others. The current production of Three Sisters is a continuing dialogue of the director with his time through the Russian classical literature.

Three Sisters was written by Anton Chekhov in 1900 and is centered on the Prozorov siblings. Born and raised in Moscow, the three sisters and a brother from a formally privileged family are living in a small provincial town, nostalgic for the glorious past. Spouses, servants and officers from the nearby artillery post complete the cast of 13 in the tragicomic tail about the decay of the aristocratic family in the rapidly changing world.

So why show Three Sisters, such an incredibly heavy and sad story? “Well, because of how horrible life around us is” – says Aleksey, to which Di giggles: “It sounds so Russian, very pessimistic!” And yet the director is drawn, not to the decay of the privileged family of the beginning of 20th century, but to the power, which the unity of three sisters conveys. “Together they are unbeatable, they are strong, they bring life, they bring hope, they bring love and sometimes people misunderstand it. Instead they are taking advantage of it”, says the director.

“Like our life, it [Three Sisters] is sad. And we still find time and effort to laugh, to joke, to support each other, to give each other a hand. Whatever happens outside in our world, even if it is bad, still the moment is good. No matter how difficult it is. It’s like a phoenix, resurrection from ashes. My idea was that nobody is wrong, nobody is right. It is just 13 different stories, fates, and perspectives. And it’s ruled by three sisters who will save us. Or whatever they are after will save us. Openness, generosity, support, sense of humor”

Burago sees three sisters as three graces and the Holy Trinity at the same time, losing the fight against the entropy of time. His artistic soul senses the same uncontrollable and unpredictable entropy in the US today. Alexey sees the means of survival in the unity of like-minded people, which he is trying to achieve by his own work as a director and a teacher: “When people come out from the theater uplifted, when I give them hope, I know I’m not doing it in vain”.   

Three Sisters runs through April 15th in The Balcony Theater at West Park Presbyterian Church located at 165 W86th Street, New York. Tickets are $25 and can be purchased online. More information about Three Sisters, Swan Song and the acting school is available on The Russian Arts Theater and Studio’s website.    

Photos: Asya Danilova