Backstage: Donnellan brings 'Three Sisters,' 'Twelfth Night' to Kennedy Center

By Jane Horwitz
Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Many directors start rehearsals of the play they're about to stage with an interpretation in mind. The actors sit around a table and do a first read-through, and often the designers present models and sketches of sets and costumes already conceived.

Many directors may work that way, but Declan Donnellan emphatically does not. Nearly 30 years ago, he co-founded the celebrated Cheek by Jowl theater troupe in London with his partner, designer Nick Ormerod. They developed a different way of working, one they also draw upon when they undertake projects abroad in French and Russian.

Donnellan is president of the Russia-based Chekhov International Theatre Festival Foundation. His stagings for the festival (with Ormerod's designs) of Anton Chekhov's "Three Sisters" (Oct. 19, 20) and Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night" (Oct. 22, 23) are about to land at the Kennedy Center ever so briefly. The Moscow-based cast will perform in Russian with English surtitles.

When he starts rehearsals, Donnellan explains by phone from London, "we put absolutely nothing in front of [the actors]. . . . Everything slowly arises from the rehearsal period," including Ormerod's designs. There is much improvisation early on with the Russian performers, and exercises that Donnellan calls "etudes," as the actors dig into their characters.

"We work in such a way that we tailor the play to the actors we have," Donnellan says. "We try not to straitjacket what we're doing into a concept that's preconceived." The actors "sort of invent things, and then I ask them to do things in very different ways . . . and bit by bit, how we do it emerges. . . . We always do that, before we begin the rehearsal period, to see what's alive."

Donnellan remembers that when he staged "Sweeney Todd" at the Royal National Theatre in London, composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim asked him when he would "freeze" the show -- a common term for when the tinkering stops. Donnellan jokes that he "wasn't properly brought up," and was unfamiliar with the concept.

"The two plays that are coming [to Washington], 'Twelfth Night' and 'Three Sisters,' are very, very unfrozen. So they do vary, minutely, from night to night. . . . Some things must be the same every night, and some things must be different. . . . It's a balance."

When he works with Russian actors, he says, he has an interpreter by his side, but language seems to matter less and less. "The linguistics are just a tiny percentage of communication, and I communicate with my Russian actors probably better than I communicate with anybody else. . . . One of the things a director has to do is to be able to say to the actor when he thinks they're lying, you know. And, actually, you can tell that very easily."

Bay Theatre rides tide of change

There's been a changing of the guard at Bay Theatre Company (, the tiny professional troupe in Annapolis. Lucinda Merry-Browne, who co-founded the company in 2002 and directed 18 of its shows, announced unexpectedly in July that she planned to step down, prompted by "an artistic need to grow." She has since launched a theater education program for acting students of all ages called LMB Studio ( She also plans to start a performance wing for LMB and pursue freelance directing and acting.

While relations are a bit raw between Merry-Browne and Janet Luby, who was her co-artistic director at Bay Theatre and now helms the company alone, both women talk of working together again. Luby remains slightly stunned by her sudden promotion. She had been content letting Merry-Browne take the organizational lead while she [Luby] acted in many of Bay Theatre's shows. "I was going to be co-artistic till I was 100 years old, in my mind," says Luby. Still, she has taken the reins, finalized the season schedule, and forged ahead. "I've been pulling this airplane back up as much as I can. So far so good. I have no intention of not keeping going," says Luby.

Bay Theatre's first show of the season -- Terrence McNally's 1991 dramatic comedy "Lips Together, Teeth Apart" -- is up and running through Nov. 13. In the play, two straight couples spend Fourth of July weekend at a Fire Island beach house, which one character inherited after her gay brother died of AIDS. Playwright McNally has told Luby he'll attend Sunday's matinee at Bay Theatre's 88-seat venue in downtown Annapolis.

Gillian Drake has staged the show, which she calls "a beautiful play" that's so technically complex it's like staging a musical. Nearly 20 years after its premiere, Drake says, "Lips Together" remains relevant because "we're going through the same sort of things with 'don't ask, don't tell' and gay marriage." She says the play asks, "Don't they have the same hearts as we do? I think it's a very timely piece for now . . . a beautiful statement how all of human nature is the same."

The Bay Theatre Company season will continue with Larry Shue's farce "The Foreigner" (Dec. 10-Jan. 8), staged by Vincent Lancisi of Baltimore's Everyman Theatre, Christopher Durang's raucous, neurotic comedy "Beyond Therapy" (Feb. 11-March 12, 2011), and, finally, Lee Blessing's "Chesapeake" (April 15-May 14, 2011), about a big dog inhabited by a highly political human spirit.

Follow spots

-- Actress Tyne Daly will host the Helen Hayes Awards fundraising gala this Friday at the Four Seasons Hotel in Georgetown to benefit the organization's audience development and community service programs.

-- Teatro de la Luna launches its 13th annual International Festival of Hispanic Theater Oct. 19-Nov. 27 at Gunston Arts Center in Arlington. Troupes from Argentina, the Dominican Republic, Paraguay, Spain, the United States and Venezuela will perform in Spanish with live English dubbing or bilingually (

Horwitz is a freelance writer.

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