Anya Reiss on adapting Chekhov

Despite a jam-packed schedule of auditions, meetings, rehearsals and writing, Anya Reiss managed to squeeze in a few minutes for a chat about her new adaptation of Chekhov’s The Seagull, to be performed at the Southwark Playhouse. Reiss made her debut when Spur Of The Moment, written when she was 17, was staged at the Royal Court Theatre in 2010. Reiss won the Evening Standard and Critics’ Circle Award for Most Promising Playwright, an accolade that clearly comes as a result of a longstanding relationship with the London new writing house. A graduate of the Royal Court’s Young Writers Programme, she was first taken under the theatre’s wing at the age of 15 and her second play, The Acid Test was a Court sell out in 2011.

One of those attracted to the ambitious and driven playwright was Russell Bolam, who wanted to nurture Reiss’ raw talent as a writer. Reiss believes her agency (she is represented by United Agents) were a “real safety net” whilst helping her get noticed and protecting her from the “scary world of the industry”. Nonetheless, it has been through a relaxed and sociable approach that Reiss made her most helpful contact yet. While we chat, Reiss recalls that she met director Bolam “at a bar” and it was through “the modern way” of networking and “building relationships” via Twitter and Facebook that she was able to land so firmly on her feet in the industry. And indeed she has, with her Chekhov adaptation attracting stars such as Matthew Kelly (iconic presenter of Stars in Their Eyes and Olivier award-winning actor) to tackle this infamous play and its intriguing new imagining at the hands of Reiss.

The Seagull, written in 1895, explores the romantic and artistic conflicts between the protagonists and is a director’s dream when it comes to an ensemble cast. Much of the explicit and graphic action takes place offstage, a technique that was controversial to the theatre-going public of popular melodrama in mainstream theatre during the nineteenth century. The audience was then – and is still now – thrown into a world where characters favour subtext, skirting around what they really mean, over literal expression: a dramatic mechanism that grew and shaped theatre as we know it today. It is the ripples, the effects and the consequences of characters’ decisions, choices and actions that matter.

Bolam is an “avid Chekhov fan” and approached Reiss with the prospect of an adaptation. Reiss happily confesses to having what she describes as a “childish response” to the play at first, deeming it “classical and dull”. However, reviewing the play with her adapter’s hat on, she realised she had “really misjudged how relevant and modern it really is”. This prompted a desire to communicate what she discovered about the play to audiences, re-examining it in a fresh new light whilst challenging her skills as a writer with this first foray into adaptation. She describes her own writing style as “sparky and relevant” and expresses her determination to avoid any kind of “museum writing”.

With these comments in mind, it’s not hard to make the jump to calling her new Seagull an exciting and radical re-imagining. Reiss makes it clear however that her interpretation should not be regarded as in any way “a concept piece”; the aim was a “remoulding of the play so it makes sense in a modern context.” The reason for adapting old plays is to show how “human nature is always going to be true”. For Reiss, often “actors writing and enduring the arts industry want to show it’s not an intellectual exercise”. She maintains that we have a “culture to connect to”. There is an increasing obsession with “getting famous” but for Reiss it’s “not about all that. The whole process of writing and creating The Seagull is based on goals we’ve got but it’s all up for grabs as to where it can be taken.”

Calm and collected, Reiss clearly feels it’s important to take a realistic approach to play-making and comments that adaptation has been a “freeing experience” – not least because “all the hard work is done for you”, meaning that “you don’t need to worry about plot”. This shaped a lot of the way Reiss and Bolam work together, which she describes as “a great experience” – a hands-off approach that has permitted a distance from her writing not always afforded to playwrights. She explains that it’s almost impossible to look at your own original writing objectively in rehearsal and editing but if it’s not your own work, you have a more professional approach. Reiss and Bolam clearly blend their skills well, forming an innovative duo open to “exploration and experience” at the performance space at the Southwark Playhouse.

When chatting about her success as a writer, Reiss primarily credits her “front-footed nature and confidence” about her work. Her unique advice is to “go to theatre bars and build relationships,” thereby opening the door to potential new opportunities and collaborations. For Reiss, theatre is clearly about a lot more than just what happens onstage or behind the scenes: it’s an industry all about people. Amidst a fiercely competitive theatrical community with the possibility of criticism around every corner, it can be reassuring to know that even the greatest of writers started from very little and achieved a lot: the opening night of The Seagull was infamously branded a failure. The lead actress, Vera Komissarzhevskaya (playing the role of Nina) was so intimidated by the hostile audience that she lost her voice and couldn’t perform, while a crushed and disheartened Chekhov walked out and hid backstage.

A humbling reminder that even the greatest have their bad days – but Reiss doesn’t seem in any danger of suffering such a response to her offering of the play. With a proven track record and a refreshingly mellow approach to the industry, Reiss reminds us that it is possible to dream, to achieve and to succeed – but it doesn’t have to be all work and no play.

The Seagull is at the Southwark Playhouse until 1 December. For tickets and more information visit www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk.

Image credit: Ben Carpenter

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