A Fiendish Conversation with Julie Briskman
Ten actors spent nine months fully immersed in Chekhov's The Seagull. Actress Julie Briskman talks about hatching the bird.
Who wouldn't want to be in the Seagull Project? The ensemble of veteran Seattle actors had a luxurious nine months to dissect, research, debate, and rehearse Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull before opening the show at ACT this week. That's nine months of work for 15 performances. One of the dedicated few is Project co-founder Julie Briskman, who plays Arkadina and serves as one of the show’s co-producers. While Briskman has been a Seattle stage regular, performing at Seattle Rep, ACT, 5th Ave, Seattle Shakespeare, and Seattle Children's Theatre, no project has been quite as intensive.
For our latest Fiendish Conversation, we talked to Briskman about the Seagull Project’s fortuitous start, the benefits of digging deep into a character, and the problem with reading theater reviews.
How did the Seagull Project come about?
The Seagull Project got started about two years ago when Brandon Simmons, John Bogar, Alex Tavares, and I were all working together on a production of Threepenny Opera at Seattle Shakes. Alex was assistant directing and she and I were talking about how much we’d love to work together. My dream would be that we’d do Chekhov. And then, oddly enough, the next day, Brandon Simmons came up to me out of nowhere and said, “I want to do a reading of The Seagull, and I would like you to play Arkadina.” And it’s like, "Well we were just talking about this! That’s amazing." That very quickly tuned into, well, let’s get this puppy on its feet, and do it in a way that hasn’t been done before.
As American actors, we’re certainly forced to put a play up in about three weeks. And most plays take more time than that, but Chekhov for sure. So we had nine months of being together as an ensemble and then (the first week of January), we started with our director John Langs. Between that time, when we would meet together on Mondays as on ensemble, we’d work with Mark Jenkins and Tyler Polumsky on ensemble building, looking at the text, and basically doing as much as we could to give Chekhov his due.
What are the upsides and downsides of spending so much time on one play?
The upside is that we’re really getting to know each other as actors and as human beings, and it’s a wonderful group of people. I feel very, very lucky to be spending so much time with so many fellow actors that I hadn’t worked with. And we’re digging deep. We’re learning things that in a regular three-week rehearsal process, I just would’ve had no idea about my character.
The downside is that all of us have been in a position of having to turn down other work, so financially it’s challenging.
And when you “dig deep” into your character, what are you finding?
John uses a great word. He says, “I want you to find the spine of the character.” He talks about the architecture of a scene, and so things are very, very layered. Something that might be an initial default for an actor, like, “Oh, well I usually lead from this point of view,” we’re able to do more than that.
What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Chekhov?
I think funny, I think deep, I think real, I think humanity, and love. At their deepest. Anybody who watches this play is going to see themselves up there. He’s very, very relatable. So much of that comes from the humor and the love; sometimes things are hilarious just because they’re so heartbreaking.
Is this going to be a one-time thing with the ensemble you’ve assembled or do you think you might do more productions in the future?
You know, when we first came together—the four producers: Brandon Simmons, John Bogar, Alex Tavares, and me with Gavin Reed as an associate producer—the first thought was we’d just do this one thing and then we’ll see what happens. I will say that this ensemble is not exclusive unto itself. If we do another play and perhaps we need another actor to come in, we will. I mean, this is the ensemble for this piece. And hopefully we’ll all work together again, but it’s not closed; there’s fluidity.
What the best show you’ve seen in the past year?
I just thought Clybourne Park [at Seattle Repertory Theatre] was breathtaking. I was sitting there at the end of Act One weeping. I didn’t know if I was weeping because the play was so beautiful or because I was so proud of my friends and the work that they were doing.
Are there any up-and-comers in the Seattle theater scene that people should really take note of?
Emily Chisholm! I love Emily Chisholm. I think she’s funny, I think she can do anything. She’s someone to keep your eye on and someone I hope stays in Seattle. I’d hate to lose her.
What are you opinions on critics?
I tend to not read reviews because they distract me, even if they’re good. Like, a million years ago in Minneapolis there was a critic who said, “This moment is worth the price of admission.” And so then every time I had to do that moment I was like, “Oh crap! Well, do they think it’s worth the price of admission? Or did they read that review and it’s not as funny, so the audience is going to hold back?”
How has Seattle influenced your art?
For the first time in my life, at this age that I am, which is 50, I am taking the bull by the horns and creating my own art, which is something I never thought of doing before. I had a lot of time in Minneapolis; I’ve worked all over the country. I’ve been really, really lucky in my career. Because of the community in Seattle and just because of how the world has gone, people don’t want to sit by the phone anymore and wait for it to ring. So it’s how can we make art happen? And because a seemingly random incident happened, because Brandon approached me at a party, The Seagull is actually happening. And I’m very proud of that.
Thru Feb 10, ACT Theatre, $35