Jason Chinn Adaptation of The Seagull in Development

Jason Chinn Playwright Jason Chinn
The Canadian Centre for Theatre Creation is currently workshopping Edmonton playwright Jason Chinn's new adaptation of Chekov's The Seagull with CCTC Director Kim McCaw as dramaturg.

Ten local actors - Clinton Carew, Jamie Cavanagh, Cole Humeny, Nancy McAlear, Laura Metcalfe, Tom Peacocke, Elena Porter, Garett Ross, Melissa Thingelstad and Fred Zbryski - read the latest version of the script for Chinn and McCaw to hear out loud this past Monday, June 10.  Chinn then made revisions to his text in preparation for a second (non-public) reading that will take place Monday, June 17.

Chinn's new version of the Chekov classic is extremely faithful to the original, despite the fact that the action is moved forward more than a century and half-a-world away from its Russian setting into Canada's Okanagan Valley in 2013.  The script got its first production this past March as an end-of-year performance exercise for the latest B.F.A. acting class at the University of Alberta.

Among other virtues apparent to anyone who watched that young cast dig in to the script under McCaw's direction, Chinn's adaptation makes Chekov's comedy funny in a freshly contemporary vein.  "I've done a bad thing," whimpers Frederick (Chekov's Kostya), feebly proffering the bloody, freshly killed bird referred to in the play's title to his lover, Nina.  The moment elicited a burst of laughter from audiences that, in true Chekovian spirit, petered into an unsettling quiet as the rest of Frederick's speech revealed him as one sorrily messed-up youth.

The CCTC commissioned Chinn to adapt The Seagull for a contemporary Canadian audience earlier this year.  CCTC Director Kim McCaw, who'd been mulling over the idea of adapting Chekov for some time, was finally prompted to seek a playwright who might be up to that task when the play was chosen as an exercise for the B.F.A. acting class he would direct this spring at the University of Alberta.

Choosing Chinn

At first glance, one might be forgiven for wondering what Chinn and Chekov have in common beyond the first two letters of their last names.  The century of playwriting tradition that separates the pair seems a small gap in comparison to the apparently yawning gulf between their tastes in subject matter: Chekov wrote about the unfulfilled longings of the Russian gentry, generally depicting them fretting or twiddling their thumbs as the aristocracy crumbled until one of them would suddenly figure out what to do with the pistol hanging over the mantelpiece; Chinn is a creator of theatrical chimeras: scathing comedies of manners that about halfway through have a habit of peremptorily entering one of the nine circles of hell - sometimes metaphorically, sometimes literally.  The proposition seems counter-intuitive until you consider that both these playwrights clearly understand the link between comedy and cruelty.

For McCaw, the pairing also had a more practical dimension.  If Chekov’s place among the greatest of playwrights remains secure in the early decades of the twenty-first century, who still hasn’t sat through their first production of one of his plays only to figure out exactly who was who sometime during Act Two? All those triple barreled names - and what’s a samovar anyway?!

“The major obstacle to audience enjoyment of this great writer has been the translations we’ve been choosing to use,” insists McCaw. “These versions, maintaining their settings in old-time Russia, with Russian cultural references that are meaningless and frustrating to Canadian theatregoers, and with the odd - to our ear - naming patterns…have made audiences give up because too often they lose track of what the relationships are between the characters, and what circumstances the characters are facing day to day.”

Chinn himself was surprised when McCaw approached him to adapt Chekov.  “I never imagined myself adapting a classic play,” he confesses.  “Before starting work on this project I thought of Chekhov’s plays as outdated history pieces.”

But as he read a number of different adaptations he found he not only connected to The Seagull immediately, but also perceived ways it could be adapted to a contemporary Canadian setting. “We’re still having the same conversations about theatre today,” he observes, “reminiscing about the good old days, and debating new forms versus old.”

Bringing The Seagull to Canada

Accepting the commission, Chinn made some quick, bold choices, shifting the setting from a Russian country estate in the 1890s to Lake Okanagan in 2013.  “I chose the Okanagan in part because of its picturesque landscapes - the hills, valleys, wineries and orchards and, of course, Lake Okanagan.  The recreation and retirement lifestyles seemed to fit perfectly: I could envision Chekhov’s characters spending their summers by the lake - falling in love, philosophizing and arguing.”  Once that decision had been made, Chinn faced the task of “infusing each character with a distinct voice and a contemporary sensibility.”  According to McCaw, Chinn met the challenge with success:  “He gave the play fresh, modern language, and breathed new life into the entire enterprise.”  

For Chinn the experience has obviously changed his mind about Chekov as outdated. “Now I don’t feel that way at all. His plays are propelled by fantastically motivated characters. Their needs and desires are so close to the surface that you can’t help but become invested in them.” He adds: “I admire the balance of comedy and tragedy in Chekhov’s plays. I hope to achieve the same quality in my own writing.”

The project, which he says was “an excellent learning experience”, has also given him a taste for adaptation.  Asked if he would do it again, his response is “Definitely yes.”  Asked what play he might tackle next if the choice was his he discloses, “Harold Pinter is one of my favourite playwrights. It would be a challenge to adapt one of his early plays, like The Birthday Party for instance. But Pinter and Britishness are inseparable so I might end up ruining it!”

As for Chekov, it’s not the first time one of his plays has been adapted.  McCaw was also motivated to update his plays after reading about a recent spate of adaptations produced in the UK.  And new translations keep coming as well.  To mention just one, the Edmonton-based company Broken Toys (workshop cast-members Clinton Carew and Elena Porter) has translated Three Sisters from Russian with the assistance of web-enabled software.  That new version of the play will be performed at the Varscona Theatre this November.  It seems a safe bet Chekov will be with us in one form or another for another century to come.