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A CurtainUp Feature
An Interview with John Issendorf,
Director of Three Sisters Lounge

by Les Gutman

Three Sisters Lounge
P. Ehrenberg, B. Smith and B. Greene
(Photo: John Issendorf)

From September 4 through 15, 2001, Alternative Theatre Machine (ATM) will present its updated adaptation of Chekhov's Three Sisters, reŽntitled Three Sisters Lounge, at Center Stage, 48 West 21st Street (5/6 Avs), 4th Floor, telephone (212) 696-8936. Although it sets the famous play in a bar/lounge where a live DJ spins techno, trip-hop and ambient music, and 70's disaster films play on video screens, we are told to expect a staging that is largely faithful to Chekhov.

It's been almost a century, and Masha, Irina and Olga are still not back in Moscow. They own a lounge now; their brother is the DJ. How does this re-telling square with Chekhov's view of the future? We spent some time with John Issendorf, who adapted and directed this new work, to find out. Our interview follows.

CU: Before we talk about Three Sisters Lounge, tell us a little about your own background and ATM.

JI: I grew up in New York and started doing theater when I was fifteen at a theater company that is gone now called Royal Court Repertory. This British woman named Phyllis Craig ran the theater. I started volunteering there, did stage managing -- she actually wrote me a part in one of her plays. ATM was founded two years ago as an offshoot of a company I formed when I was in college at Hunter here in New York City, Experimental Theater Workshop. The core ATM members are people from Hunter. We founded it basically because we wanted to continue doing what we were doing at Hunter. ATM is a director-oriented company. As opposed to focusing on new plays or functioning as an actor-based company, the focus is on the directorial concept, most of the time using classical or at least older texts.

CU: What influenced you to choose Three Sisters to adapt?

JI: I love Chekhov and this is my favorite Chekhov play. I always wanted to do a Chekhov play. I had a teacher in college who pointed out that Chekhov was actually a forerunner to the Theater of the Absurd, criticized when they were first done that nothing ever happened in them: that people just sat around and talked. That idea is what got to me.

CU: Can you set up the essential conceit of the adaptation for us? Instead of being set at home, we are in a bar. Are we still in a provincial Russian town?

JI: When I adapted the text, I put the setting as anywhere but Moscow. It's very contemporary, probably very New York-centric because that's me. Regarding the lounge, I got the sense if Chekhov was being criticized for just having people sit around talking, the lounge movement that developed in the 90's in New York City when Giuliani started shutting the clubs down caused things to go from a dance scene in New York to more of a hang-out scene. I thought that lent itself to what Chekhov was doing: having a bunch of people just hanging around waiting for something to happen that wasn't going to happen. But I'm not trying to pin it down as to place -- it's Everylounge, and I don't want to get more specific than that.

CU: Is "lounge" in the title a noun or a verb?

JI: It's definitely a play on both. The sisters own the lounge in this production, but they are definitely "lounging" -- not taking initiatives in their lives. The analogy -- and I hope you don't use this -- is Friends; it's their meeting place. It always seems weird to me in the play that people were always dropping by their house. It was their house but people were always dropping by. It makes more sense in our world that it's an outside place.

CU: Have the characters changed? You've essentially leapfrogged Communism.

JI: One of the reasons I picked Three Sisters is that I think it's one of Chekhov's least political plays in terms of what's about to happen. For me it's a very personal story about people not living up to their goals and not taking the initiative to go forward.

CU: An enormous amount of attention is paid to imagining the future in Three Sisters. Are there special ironies in that which you exploit? Are they back where they started or did they never leave?

JI: The basic argument between Tuzenbach and Vershinin is their differing views on what the future will be like. Vershinin is optimistic about what the future will bring; Tuzenbach is more pessimistic, or we might say realistic -- that things will be exactly as they are now. Going back to the text, nothing much has changed. the one line we changed in that passage is that instead of the projection people are going to fly around, we made it that they are going to fly around in jetpacks.

CU: You've advertised your adaptation as largely faithful. What was your starting point? Which translation did you use?

JI: There's one translation that I've used for twenty years that I know the play the most by. But for royalty reasons, I went back to an early translation by Constance Garnett, which is available on the Internet, and that's the one I worked with word-wise, when I changed the structure around. The translations are mostly awful. They are over-faithful to Chekhov. If there's a Russian word that has several different connotations, the translators seemed to want to get every connotation so every passage has a list of the eighteen emotions that would be represented by one word in Russian. The Mamet translations are, I think, the nicest of the contemporary ones.

CU: How irritated will purists be by your adaptation?

JI: I think purists would be irritated by any adaptation so I'm not too worried about that. I think we are extremely faithful to the tone of the play. A hundred years later, I think that's what's important. Again, I take a very personal slant to the production -- it's the story of the three sisters, not a political statement.

CU: Apart from the translation, did you feel the play needed updating, or did you just view it as a fun way to continue the conversation about what a popular play is really all about?

JI: When a play is this well known, it's more acceptable to do an adaptation. Most people have a sense of it already. We did most of our revising with what people do for a living. Andrei, the brother, is no longer in the other room playing the violin -- he's the DJ, in the corner spinning throughout the performance. Irina used to work in a telegraph office. Now she's a telemarketer. These are the things we needed to modernize most. There are still soldiers: Vershinin is in the army and so is the Baron at the beginning. The thing the purists will be most upset by is that we eliminated the doctor. He was an older character and seemed the most out of place in the lounge setting.

CU: Chekhov filled the text with calls for music and singing. Did you start with the idea of lounge music, or fall into it?

JI: The music is very specific as far as the genres we are using. We were looking for music with no lyrics, so it could play in the background -- ambient, acid jazz, trip-hop -- and that is also contemporary lounge-type music as opposed to dance club music, although there is one dance number.

CU:There were no calls for video monitors in Chekhov, yet you've added videos of disaster movies. (There is, of course, a disaster offstage in Chekhov's text, and in true Chekhovian form, there's plenty of talk about.) What prompted this idea?

JI: The disaster movie backdrop of the play came to me, and then, specifically, The Towering Inferno lent itself to Act 3. In previous plays I've done, I've combined classical texts with films. I did Strindberg's chamber play, The Pelican, mixed with the Hitchcock film, The Birds and I've done A Doll's House mixed with The Stepford Wives. (We called it House/Wives.) That's something I am trying to get away from a bit so this is my way of weaning off the video. In previous productions, people re-enacted scenes from the film; here it really is just background. They watch the videos, but as one would watch a video playing in a lounge when there is a lull in the conversation.

When you talk about integrating classic texts and film, I can't help but think of the Wooster Group. Who are your influences?

JI: I love the The Wooster Group, the Builders Association, Target Margin, Elevator Repair Service -- people who don't ignore the classics but don't just reproduce them either. A big influence in getting into classic plays for me was Jonathan Kalb who was a professor of mine at Hunter.

CU: Any final thoughts on what you hope audiences will take home from a visit to your lounge?

JI: We've brought things forward 100 years but we see that life is still about the same things. We can talk about what life will be like 100 years from now and it will probably be much like it is now. Technical details will change but people will always be living their lives. People discuss whether Chekhov's plays are comedies or dramas and, you know, they are both. That's because life is both. He's not just a dramatic playwright, because he shows what life is like between the drama. Our Town says people don't notice their lives going by. Every minute of your life is your life, and that's life.

After Three Sisters Lounge, ATM will get to work on its next project, Dracularama, an adaptation of the novel and all of the film versions. It's directed by Jason St. Sauver, a member of the company who portrays Andrei this time around. They hope to stage it next October.

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