Nick Benacerraf on SEAGULLMACHINE / by Declan Maloney Drummond

 Photo by Kent Meister

Photo by Kent Meister

What is SEAGULLMACHINE about and how does it fit into the work The Assembly does?

SEAGULLMACHINE is big, multidimensional investigation into what it means to “take action” – politically, theatrically, personally. These questions have been central to The Assembly’s work since 2009, but SEAGULLMACHINE marks a new approach. For starters, this project combines two of history’s most incredible texts – Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull and Heiner Müller’s Hamletmachine – both interpretations of the Hamlet story, and both about the role of theater in times of social madness. Can the stage be a place of political transformation, or is it merely a site of comfort and distraction? We are building on our previous shows – two in particular: Three Sisters (by Chekhov) and HOME/SICK (devised collectively) – in terms of how we are inviting our audiences to be a part of a thriving live event where the questions of taking action feel physical and palpable. The goal of our work is always to harness our community in deep conversation, and SEAGULLMACHINE seems to have no problem doing that. (Because Chekhov is damn good and Müller is damn crazy.)

We like to think that our show offers something for everyone. I am in love with our 13-person cast, who brings you on a journey through theater history where we perform (most of) both scripts, including a brand-new translation of The Seagull that we made collectively. Ultimately, in performing this play every night we are trying to answer for ourselves: why do theater at all? It’s an appropriately existential question for us in this absurd political climate, and the audience is invited to form their own opinions about the value of this peculiar human tradition. Indeed, it’s been exciting to learn who among our audiences identify as Seagull people, and which as Hamletmachine people.

The concept began as a response to an assignment for my scenic design class at CalArts in 2010, and marks my first time co-directing an Assembly project, alongside the inimitable Jess Chayes. Our design team has taken over La MaMa’s incredible Ellen Stewart Theatre and rearranged it into a one-of-a-kind configuration, like you’ve never seen before. The question of “action” and “distraction” are made concrete by how the actors engage the “onstage” and “backstage” worlds.

What was the rehearsal process like?

The best word for it is “dreamy.” Not only has it been wonderfully harmonious to share the leadership with Jess – we find consensus on every single decision – but it became immediately clear that we are working with the most incredible group of artists in our company’s history. Last fall we had the privilege (thanks to a space grant from LMCC) of spending two months on the show. We dove headfirst into Chekhov’s endlessly nuanced and enthralling text, and staged major (collectively driven) attempts to make sense of Hamletmachine, a notoriously difficult play to mount. Our design team was regularly in the rehearsal room during that phase, experimenting with how we can use form and material to tell this story, and transition between two distinct theatrical worlds. Over the winter we had dozens of meetings with our design team, taking the fruits of the workshop and putting together a nearly final script. That way, we were off to the races when we returned to the final 4 weeks of the rehearsal process in March, where we could test our theories with specificity and go back to the drawing board as needed (because, I will remind you, Müller is damn crazy).

All this work, it’s important to note, rests on the shoulders of many other artists, who were part of our workshops from 2014 onward. We staged parts of each play at the undergroundzero festival, at the Williams College Summer Theatre Lab, at TDF’s Performeteria, and in top secret dramaturgical workshops. As Jess likes to say, the resulting work is the only play that this group of people could have created.

What's next for you?

Next, I continue my secret other life as a PhD student. (Finals!) And of course, I return to my work as a freelance set designer, which I love. But I am also starting to direct and devise a new play about delightful and manipulative techniques of TV advertising. That’ll take a couple years to complete, and I will probably produce it outside of The Assembly, because we have a whole slate of amazing work coming down the pipeline. Next up for the company is a brand-new musical, written by The Assembly’s Ben Beckley and composed by Nate Weida. It’s inspired by Kafka’s The Castle and Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener, set in an absurdist office space. We’re really excited.

SEAGULLMACHINE runs from April 14 - May 5 (opens April 16) at La MaMa’s Ellen Stewart Theatre (66 East 4th St.) in NYC.