Breaking the Fourth Wall in Stupid F–ing Bird at the Arden
Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull becomes Stupid Fucking Bird in Aaron Posner’s award-winning, and very loose, adaptation. The playwright, who co-founded Philly’s Arden Theatre Company, is directing the show for the first time. It opens the Arden’s 29th season tomorrow.
American Theatre included Stupid Fucking Bird on the list of the 10 most-produced plays of 2015-16, which means Posner, who’s now at the Folger Theatre in Washington, D.C., got to watch “about a dozen” versions of the comedy before returning to the Arden to take the helm on this production.
We talked to the Barrymore Award winner about adapting the likes of Chekhov and Shakespeare, and breaking the fourth wall.
What is this play about? Do you have to know The Seagull, or Chekhov at all, to get into it?
This play is about love, hope, heartbreak, theatre, art, passion, broken dreams… little things like that. You absolutely don’t need to know The Seagull or anything about Chekhov at all to get into it. Like most of Chekhov, it’s about how hard love and life are — so if you know anything about those things, you have all the knowledge you need. And just to be clear: It is totally a comedy. As Beckett says in Endgame, “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness.” This is in no way a gloomy or dark play, even though it deals with hard, true, tricky stuff. It is funny, sexy, irreverent, profane and, hopefully, very entertaining. That is the hope, anyhow.
The characters know they’re in a play, right? How does that change the audience’s experience — or, how do you want it to?
They do know they are in a play, and yet they are still totally invested in the world they are in and the problems they confront. It’s meta-theatrical in the same way Brecht or Shakespeare are. The “fourth wall” is often broken. The audience is always present. It is a kind of playful theatricality I really enjoy and I think is very appropriate in a play that is partially about theatre and theatrical forms. I think it makes the play even more immediate for an audience. As far as I can tell, audiences always know they are at a play — they bought a ticket and all. And the actors know they are in a play — they have learned the lines and the blocking and whatnot. So I don’t see any problem in letting the characters know they are in a play, too. It makes it more fun.
This was one of the most-produced plays for 2015-16. Have you seen many of the productions of it? Have you disagreed with any of the other director’s choices?
I’ve seen about a dozen productions. I have loved, enjoyed and disagreed with parts of every one. But I’ve been very pleased that the story and the core dynamic still tend to come through. Of course I’m never going to like every moment or choice in any production. Even this one won’t be exactly what I imagined. But that’s the joy of the collaborative theatrical process. I’m not the only artist in the room! Every actor, designer and collaborator helps make the production unique to this particular time and this place. I embrace that wonderful — and sometimes really frustrating! — but fascinating and wonderfully artistic reality.
What’s behind the choice to adapt, or re-imagine, works by Chekhov, Shakespeare, Vonnegut and others? Is it just being inspired by their plays?
I love their stories. I love their worlds, and their perspective on our world. In all seriousness, it is just a joy, an honor and a genuine privilege to get to splash around in their respective pools and engage with their creations in my own odd and idiosyncratic way. When I am exploring the worlds of Chekhov or Shakespeare I get to work with a genius in the room, and that’s great.
Why did you decide to direct this production of Stupid Fucking Bird?
Well… because they asked me. Because I hadn’t had the chance to direct it yet, and I really wanted to. Because so many of my ideas about theatre were formed during my time at the Arden that it just seemed like the perfect place to direct it for the first time. Plus I wrote the role of Emma Arkadina with the extraordinary Grace Gonglewski in mind, hearing her voice in my head, and it is a total pleasure to finally get to see her play the role.
Stupid Fucking Bird runs September 15th to October 16th. Tickets are here.
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