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Interview: Building a Live and Virtual Orchard, With Mikhail Baryshnikov and Jessica Hecht

Hecht and Baryshnikov star in an in-person and streaming Chekhov production off-Broadway.

In the middle of the 2021 portion of the pandemic, director Igor Golyak and his company, the Arlekin Players Theatre, came together to create ChekhovOS, a blend of theater, cinematography, and virtual reality. Coming out of the pandemic, Golyak has merged the universe of the internet with the real-life theater world to create The Orchard, a new in-person and virutal production of Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard, now running at the Baryshnikov Arts Center.

On screen, the namesake of the venue, the legendary Mikhail Baryshnikov, played Chekhov. In person, we get a rare stage appearance as he takes on the role of Firs, the old servant, opposite theatrical stalwart Jessica Hecht as Ranevskaya. Here, they both tell us about building this world.

Mikhail Baryshnikov and Jessica Hecht with their cast mates in The Orchard at Baryshnikov Arts Center
(© Maria Baranova)

How did you get involved with this production?
Jessica Hecht: My brother-in-law is from Ukraine, and he's a big supporter of Igor's company. They're all part of this amazing, small community — my brother-in-law's a doctor, but they all have this history of being refugees and coming here. He told me he thought I would really respond to his work, and I'd seen so much Zoom theater already that I started watching while making dinner. Within five minutes, I stopped actually making dinner, because I thought it was remarkable. I found the aesthetic really fascinating; it wasn't like the kind of theater you could see on Zoom. I got very excited by it and I asked to meet Igor. [to Mikhail] How did you get involved with Igor?

Mikhail Baryshnikov: Igor started to make The Cherry Orchard virtually. BAC, our center, was involved in that production at some point, and they decided to do it in person, so he asked me initially about playing the old servant, Firs. But I'm also Anton Chekhov.

Is this a live version of ChekhovOS, which you both did over the pandemic?
Jessica: No. The virtual representation of the orchard will be a hybrid of what you saw in ChekhovOS and new pieces that Misha has filmed as Chekhov, and then a little piece that I filmed as Olga Knipper [Chekhov's wife]. And then it feeds into a little stream, and then you enter the production that we are doing live.

Mikhail: The virtual production is based on the letters of Chekhov and Olga, and Chekhov's letters to Stanislavsky, his mother, his sister, and then we have a little meeting.

Jessica: That combination of the Anton/Olga piece with the play is only accessible in the virtual production. The live production has its own magic and many elements that are really remarkable. What's interesting about putting it together is that Misha and Igor know a tremendous amount about Chekhov. I was thinking to myself, is it the same as American acting students knowing so much about Williams or Miller? They just have an inbred understanding of the world. I shouldn't say Americans got it wrong, but it's been more stilted than it could be, and I hope that this is freeing of the idea of what Chekhov might have wanted theatrically.

Jessica, was Ranevskaya one of those roles you always wanted to play?
Jessica: Yes. I did want to play her very much, but I'm not the kind of person that has a list. I don't have the Linda in Death of a Salesman or Amanda in The Glass Menagerie. If somebody engages me with an idea of what they think a part could be, then I get really excited, because it's also about the collaboration. Igor understood Chekhov in a way that I could only dream about, so that opened my mind to what the part could be.

Mikhail Baryshnikov and Jessica Hecht in The Orchard at Baryshnikov Arts Center
(© Maria Baranova)

What is it like to do this Russian play now, in light of everything that's going on?
Jessica: It's an interesting question doing a Russian play at this moment. I thought we would spend more time talking about the war. There is a direct reference to the war in the play. It's little known that Chekov spent a large part of his life in Ukraine. His home was the neighboring town to Bucha. But doing a Russian play at this moment is really important. Misha wrote an article for The Guardian about why you shouldn't defame Russian artists. They created these things as affirmation, so to consider them part of what we are reviled by...We should not put the horrors of the moment into the same baskets as the artists.

Mikhail: It's such a tragic situation right now. A good part of the country are totally with their president, supporting this so-called operation, which is nonsense of course. It's an ugly, bloody, unnecessary aggression. Right in the last few months, there was a big movement of people who are escaping their homeland one way or another because they couldn't bear it. For me, it's extraordinary and disturbing and tragic and not human that they'd put tape on people's mouths and silence their voices. It's awful. I've lived in the free world, next year, 50 years. I just cannot imagine how people live under such oppression. I try to help as much as possible, to raise money for refugees and the children's programs and education.

Should people come see The Orchard in person or virtually?
Jessica: I would love for them to see it in person just because I want people to come back to the theater. That's all. There's a sense of communal grief and empathy that we get by sitting in a theater together. There's a lot of humor in this play and we have a lot of funny moments, and it's meant to be funny.

Mikhail: It is a comedy. That's the best part of it. Under personal tragedies and political uncertainties, like in our country, to see the comedy, because it's so multi-layered and emotional and sad. For me, personally, this is scary, because I have not been onstage in a few years.

Jessica: But no one's been onstage for a few years.

Mikhail: But you work nonstop. I'm not an actor. You're going from show to show, to film, to television, and I'm doing one show every two or three years. We're sitting here at our center, which is my main job. The rest is icing on the cake.

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