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Welcome to the Arden Theatre Company blog, where we share behind-the-scenes stories and current happenings with you. You will hear from the Arden staff as well as actors and other visiting artists, and we hope to hear from you, too. If you have an idea for a topic, please post a comment about it. We can't wait to hear what you think!
Three Sisters Photo

James Ijames (Tuzenbach) and Mary Tuomanen (Irina). Photo by Mark Garvin.

Dear Audience-

At intermission of our Thursday night preview, I overheard a young man say “Chekhov is like an old time reality show.” I couldn’t agree more.

When I was a student, >recipe I had a professor who insisted to the point of zealotry that teaching plays as text destroyed the ability of students to appreciate them. While I’m not a complete convert—some plays read very well on the page—I do agree that often teaching dramatic literature with the text alone is a little bit like teaching architecture using only blueprints.

Reading Chekhov can be particularly challenging. Aside from the clear barriers of time, place, and language, Chekhov’s fascination with human behavior requires readers to constantly keep a running list of idiosyncrasies in their head. His famed use of subtext requires readers to pick up clues in dialogue about what’s going on inside character’s minds without the luxury of descriptive paragraphs and point-of-view narration that novels possess. Even the well-informed catch themselves saying “Now who is that? And they are secretly in love with whom? That guy? But they’ve never even had a scene together!” Boasting large ensembles, the plays can be tricky to navigate, especially for readers in search of a clear plot and story arc. The result? Chekhov has been written off by generations of high school students as ‘boring.’

This is where performance becomes necessary. It can be hard to find an emotional connection to the textual version of ‘Baron Tuzenbach,’ but it’s easy to feel for actor James Ijames as Tuzenbach when he covers his embarrassment over a friend’s bad behavior. On the page, Irina’s desire to work feels pseudo-Soviet (though Chekhov was writing before the Revolution). When playing Irina, however, Mary Tuomanen speaks with the naïveté of a recent college grad who thinks there’s an easy answer to her dissatisfaction with her life. There might be hints of the coming Revolution in her words, but when her speech is given an actor’s voice, Chekhov’s deep ambivalence about Irina’s solution emerges. On the page she seems certain, on the stage, it’s more complex.

It’s been a pleasure taking you inside the rehearsal room, and whether you are reading these before or after seeing the production, I hope you feel you’ve gotten a glimpse behind the curtain. Happy Opening Night!

Sally Ollove

Photo 4Irina

Irina Prozorov is the youngest sister at 20 years old at the beginning of the play. Irina’s only desire is to go back to Moscow, which her family left when Irina was very young. When it is uncertain if they will ever return to Moscow, ask she reluctantly marries the Baron Tuzenbach. Irina idealizes the idea of work and dedicates herself to work and service.

Will Irina make it back to Moscow? What will happen to her marriage with Tuzenbach?

MashaPhoto 6

Masha Prozorov is the middle sister, about 21 years old at the beginning of the play. When she was 18, she married her teacher with whom she was madly infatuated. She thought her teacher, called Kulygin, was the most intelligent man in the village; however, her love and passion for Kuygin has since faded and she is now extremely unhappy in her marriage. During the play, she falls in love with Vershinin, a Lieutenant-Colonel who commands the local artillery battery.

Will the seductive Masha stay in her marriage or run off with Vershinin?



rehearsal by candlelightDear Audience-

I am writing to you from deep within tech—the period in which we add the technical and design elements in one marathon week. Actors work 12 hour days (including some breaks) and designers and crew work even longer. Most of that time is spent in a dark theatre, waiting, broken up by moments of feverish activity. If you’ve ever seen behind-the-scenes footage of a film or TV shoot, when the cameras stop rolling and the crew descends on the performers and set, then you’ve had a window into tech.

Even in the middle of the day tech has the feel of a late night. It’s painstaking and grueling, which makes it even more rewarding when something works. It feels earned. You start to see the performance take its final shape. And there is a massive group effort to keep spirits high. Actors, unsurprisingly, are great at this.

Here are some snapshots I observed from our tech week:

-Becky Gibel, waiting to enter at the top of act 2 with a candle dancing backstage.

-Jake Blouch (Fedotik) got a haircut that was the talk of the green room. Everyone who came in commented on it. Becky was so eager to compliment him that despite having a mouth of food, she attempted to mime her approval.

-Scott Greer (Chebutikin) kept designers and his castmates entertained with a complicated ukulele dance while the crew worked out the best way to move furniture between acts.

-Scott Greer, Mary Tuomanen (Irina), Katharine Powell (Masha), Dan Ison, Abby Perelman (resident green room teenager and daughter of TD Glenn Perelman), and Becky Gibel sitting around the green room table having a lively and wide-ranging conversation about: evolution, obscure South American tribes, matrilineal mammalian societies (whales, elephants, etc), whether dolphins have possessions, a strange trip to a Southern zoo, and whether babies should unionize.

-Scott Greer and Jake Blouch sizing up each other’s fantasy baseball teams. They had their league draft the night before. Both are optimistic.

-Four month old Henry Riggar, Production Manager Courtney Riggar’s son, propped up on the green room couch, looking thoughtful. Just one of the guys!

-Alison Roberts (Wardrobe Supervisor) holding the ‘opposed’ side in a debate about the merits of Billy Joel.

During a run of the show, I was once again reminded of the relevance of Chekhov when we got to this line of Masha’s: “I’m sick of winter. I’ve forgotten what summer feels like.” Hopefully we’ll be closer to Spring next time I write. I hear we’re getting a wintry mix on Monday, though. In the meantime, first performance for audiences tonight!


Sally Ollove
Three Sisters Dramaturg

Dear Audience-

_2014-02-04 16.13.57Yesterday, we said goodbye to the rehearsal room in the Hamilton Family Arts Center and moved to the Haas stage. On our final night in the rehearsal room, drug we put all four acts together for the first time in what is called a “designer run, ” in which the play is performed for the costume, set, light, and sound, and video designers so they can start to figure out how they can best serve the production created. As the sun set and the sky outside the windows darkened, the characters exposed their raw emotions and rough edges to heartbreaking—and sometimes guffaw-inducing—effect.

2014-02-07 12.09.44One of the most exciting revelations from the designer run was the effect of the music the cast has been working on almost since day one. Under the guidance of composer James Sugg, they learned Russian folk songs, accompanying themselves on an orchestra’s worth of instruments. Among our actors we have a cellist, two guitarists, a bassist, an auto-harpist, a ukulelist, a flautist, and no less than three accordion players.

The music does more than just provide an excuse to work some Russian language into the performance. It provides a necessary release from the tension bubbling inside the characters, each a sleeping volcano, capable of eruption at any moment. The music also reminds the audience that Chekhov’s writing is itself a kind of symphony. Each character has their theme or motif—“I want to work,” “I love my wife,” “The future will be happy”—that floats in and out of the larger symphonic tapestry of the Prozorov home. There are crescendos and diminuendos, scherzos and solos. Some of them resolve, and some of them don’t, but like a great symphony, Three Sisters gives you a microcosm of the human experience so eloquently and beautifully that if you sit back and really listen, it will take your breath away.

Sincerely,_2014-02-07 12.11.13
Sally Ollove
Three Sisters



A Few Inspirations from Three Sisters Costume Designer Olivera Gajic

A Few Inspirations from Three Sisters Costume Designer Olivera Gajic

Dear Audience—

Designs for the physical life of the production are moving ahead. We’ve begun “loading in” (building the set, adjusting the light grid, etc). Costumes are also underway. Much like the way having a character stand instead of sitting can say a lot about a person, costuming also impacts character, so small choices at this stage in the rehearsal process can really make a difference in how a character is perceived.

As a case study, I sat in on Becky Gibel’s costume fitting for Natasha with Olivera Gajic, the costume designer, and Alison Roberts, the Arden’s costume supervisor. The first act of our production starts in a contemporary rehearsal room before shifting to more traditional looks. For this act, Olivera brought some shiny maroon pants and killer suede boots for Becky. Pulling on the boots, Becky commented “I love that she [Natasha] is a little more contemporary because she’s the one moving forward.” From what I saw, even when in more nineteenth century inspired looks, Natasha’s costumes are all bold, inspired in part, I’ve been told, by a Serbian pop star.

Then Olivera pulled out a couple of robes options for Natasha. The question comes up: does Natasha put on the robe for the first time in Act II or III? In Act II, Natasha wants to cancel a party due to start soon. Is she the kind of person who is in a robe when she raises the possibility of canceling the party or is she already all dolled up in party-wear? A small difference, but an important one as it indicates the amount of control Natasha perceives herself to have. Ultimately, Terry will make this decision with the collaboration of Becky and Olivera, but these are the kinds of questions the costume designer grapples with while designing. Chekhov himself understood the power of costuming to tell a story, writing extensively detailed letters about costuming to members of the Moscow Art: “You wear the tailcoat only in Act I; as to the bandolier, you are quite right. At least until Act IV you should wear the uniform such as it was before 1900” (Chekhov to Aleksandr Vishnevsky who originated the role of Tuzenbach). Olivera carefully takes pictures of each costume piece, encouraging Becky to strike a “Natasha pose.”

GRACE GONGLEWSKI in 'A Little Night Music' in a robe designed by ROSEMARIE E. MCKELVEY

GRACE GONGLEWSKI in ‘A Little Night Music’ in a robe designed by ROSEMARIE E. MCKELVEY

One of the robes Olivera is considering as an option for Natasha was the vintage silk flowered robe that Grace Gonglewski wore as Desiree in the dressing room scene in A Little Night Music. Olivera pinned and played with tightening the sleeves and maybe adding detail for Natasha. Meanwhile, an Act IV look for Natasha might incorporate Desiree’s red dress, with a different shape to the sleeves. Along with props, we often repurpose costume pieces from one show to another—what works in one grand late 19th century house might work in another, as long as it suits the characters.

As Becky finished her costume fitting, Scott Greer arrived for his. He explained that in a community like Philadelphia, in which theatres often rent costumes to one another, he sometimes wear the same pair of pants at two different theatres—the pants travelling with him from the Arden to the Walnut Street Theatre, for example. It’s not even unusual in the film industry—check out to see how Hollywood shares costumes from one film to another.

Are there costume pieces you remember from previous Arden productions you would like to see return? Or a way you would costume one of the characters from Three Sisters? Share in the comments!

Sally Ollove
Dramaturg for Three Sisters

Read Part Two
Read Part One

Actor Sarah Sanford (Olga) leads a group warm-up with the cast of Three Sisters. Photo courtesy of guest Instagrammer Sam Tower.

Dear Audience –

Welcome to week four of Three Sisters rehearsal. In a typical Arden rehearsal process, we would be nearing the end of our time in the rehearsal room and preparing to move to the stage. But this isn’t a typical process. Thanks to support from the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage, Three Sisters has an extended rehearsal period—a luxurious 6 weeks instead of 4. It seems like a small change, >see but has allowed us time for avenues of exploration that we ordinarily wouldn’t have time to try. One of the most exciting has been the experiments we’ve been attempting with actor, teacher, and director Emmanuelle Delpech on clowning.

The word clowning often conjures images of large shoes, giant pants, and red noses. Carnivals and birthday parties. But that’s only one version of clowning. Thanks in part to long traditions in Italy, France, and Russia, clowning has become a respected form of theatre grounded in improvisation and rigorous movement technique. The emphasis is on the physical and spontaneous playing of the actor, an “outside-in” technique in which physicality leads you to character rather than the other way around.

We think of clowns as funny. And often they are. But sometimes it will break your heart. Really great clowning relies on the tension between the comedic and the heartbreaking, and that’s also true of really great Chekhov. So as we were diving into textual analysis, we were also excited to attack the characters from the opposite angle.

Emmanuelle has been visiting rehearsal for the last two weeks to explore. It’s rigorous work. Everyone sweats. At first we worked outside the play, accessing silly and primal states through a series of exercises led by Emmanuelle. But in her last visit we began using these exercises to explore character. We started with an exercise called “I have a little secret” in which the cast broke into small groups and developed short performance pieces. As their characters, they had to decide on a secret, and then had to share it with us through song. They had a little time to prepare, but most of the performance of the song was improvised. The secrets ranged from those based on literal lines from the text (one character told us he was drunk, believing no one could tell) to the subtextual (one character told us he really hated his wife) to the extra-textual (one character told us she spoke to the ghosts of her ancestors), but all were deeply personal and often as surprising to the actor saying them as to us.

One of the most moving exercises revolved around the concept of pushing and pulling. Emmanuelle focused on Vershinin, the character played by Ian Merrill Peakes, whose secret was that he loved his daughters. She asked him to imagine his daughters standing on one side, and the woman he loves on the other: “imagine what is tearing you apart, what is breaking you apart,” she commanded. “You are in the middle. Now physicalize.” Ian reached as far as he could in one direction without moving his feet, then the other. As he stretched himself desperately one way and then the other, she encouraged him to make the gesture smaller and smaller, until it stopped resembling the large movements of a dancer and started looking more like a real person—the breaking apart manifesting in the tension in his shoulders, the wideness of his stance, and, most movingly, in the despair in his eyes. Emmanuelle ended the exercise by asking him to choose one over the other, and he did. I won’t tell you which, except to say that in the two minute exercise he lived the arc Vershinin takes over three acts. Following another exercise, Emmanuelle asked what it was like to be up there as the character to which Becky Gibel (Natasha) replied: “Sometimes I forget, and then I remember.” It’s easy to forget as the audience too.

As director Terry Nolen says: “once it’s in the room, it’s in the room.” You won’t see Ian stretch his arms so far apart you worry for his back. But you might see a tension in his shoulders, a step in one direction, then the other. And you’ll feel that he’s tearing himself apart. You’ll feel what Emmanuelle calls “the tragic dimension” in the performances. You’ll experience “the activity of believing not with your brain, but with your breath.”

Sally Ollove
Dramaturg, Three Sisters


PS: Then there was the exercise in which Scott Greer narrated the story of Swan Lake while dancing it, but you’ll just have to imagine that for yourselves.

READ the first post in our Letters from the Rehearsal Room series

Dear Audience-

During rehearsals for the first production of Three Sisters at the Moscow Art Theatre, thousands of miles separate playwright Anton Chekhov from the performers. While they rehearsed in Moscow, he was confined toYalta, >buy a resort town with a more temperate climate, for his health. Chekhov strove to stay connected by writing letters to just about everyone involved in the production—from the director and producer to most of the actors, especially the actress playing Masha, Olga Knipper, who would become his wife. These letters offered Chekhov—and us—glimpses into a rehearsal process from which he was often otherwise removed.

Anton Chekov and Olga Knipper, 1901

Anton Chekov and Olga Knipper, 1901

As we rehearse our new production of Three Sisters, we wanted to offer the same opportunity to you that those letters offered Chekhov—a window into a process that can sometimes seem far away. Each Wednesday, we’ll post letters to you on the Arden Blog sharing insights and stories from where we are in the process. Whether you read one a week or all the night before you visit the theatre, you’ll get a sense of how this production of Three Sisters evolves throughout rehearsals and performances.

We are now in our third week of rehearsals. We spent the last two weeks interrogating this new translation (and the translator, Curt Columbus), unpacking the back story, and falling in love with Chekhov’s characters. With each new day, we discover that Irina, Masha, Olga, and the rest are not so different from us: the girl from a privileged background who wants to change the world, the woman with a job she doesn’t like who keeps getting promoted, the men whose favorite pastime is arguing with each other, the fiancée who doesn’t feel welcome, the friend who can’t grasp social norms, and the brother who would rather hide in his room than face his failed prospects. Already, we have found the characters of Three Sisters to be people with rich inner lives that are often loud and funny, even when they are frustrated or hurt, not unlike the people we know in our real lives.

We are also starting to understand Tuzenbach’s line from Act II: “It’s snowing outside. What’s the point of that?” much better than we ever thought possible. Hope you are staying warm!

Sally Ollove
Three Sisters Dramaturg

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