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Kenan Theatre Company makes "The Seagull" its own

"The Seagull" will run until Monday, Feb. 26 at the Gillings Center for Dramatic Arts.

On Thursday, opening night, in the intimate space of the Elizabeth Price Kenan Theatre, the cast and crew of “The Seagull” showed the audience how they made a classic their own.

The adapted Kenan Theatre Company show, directed by associate professor Mark Perry, ran this weekend and concludes on Monday night.  

“The Seagull” is a late 19th century Russian play written by Anton Chekhov about the clash between the old and the young, and establishment and experimental theatre. It explores themes of age, gender and monetary and social status and covers heavy topics such as suicide.

While rehearsals for the show started this semester, many involved have been studying the script since participating in a class, DRAM 284: Studies in Dramatic Theory and Criticism, taught by Perry last fall. The class covered “The Seagull” and other topics pertaining to Chekhov. 

After discussion of the script, the cast experienced many emotionally charged moments that inspired them to reframe the ending of the narrative as a cautionary tale and not an inevitable truth for their interpretation.

“As artists and as actors especially, we would hope that we would be emotionally attuned to the content that we're dealing with and that we're sharing with audiences,” Alice McCracken Knight, a UNC senior and actor playing Dorn, said.

Knight said Perry encouraged students to be involved in the decision making and keep the play malleable even after they began sharing it with the community.

“I know that he really wanted this to be a collaborative process and for the play to belong to us as actors and designers just as much, if not more, than it belonged to him,” Knight said.

Perry said he and the cast chose to create a show focused on "community uplift." They took several creative liberties with the play to focus on caring for the audience, such as through providing an art gallery walk, a words of affirmation table, cookies and tea to comfort audience members as they entered and exited the space. 

To do this, Perry implemented a double cast in which each pair of actors privately decided who would perform each night. The actors were told to conceal who would be on stage until the night of the show to ensure the cast was a randomized group. Those not performing main roles that night were costumed as angels, who watched over their earthly counterparts.

Along with dancing interludes and student-created epilogue and prologue acts, the angels acted as an invisible support system for the characters as they dealt with painful moments.

"They often act, I wouldn't say as support for the audience, but as characters who can sympathize with the audience, because they're in a similar situation [as the audience],” Knight said.

Perry said he wanted to reframe the messaging of Chekhov's abrupt and violent resolution to the play.

After their first full run through of the play, which included the difficult last act, the cast supported each other by running into the parking lot and dancing. They had created an environment of laughter and camaraderie, Talyah Rawls, a UNC senior and one of the actresses playing Nina, said.

“There was so much sense of abundance, so much sense of sharing, that they had broken through the ego barrier that is the plague of theatre,” Perry said.

The cast spent time sharing experiences and times when they related to the characters in their own lives, Rawls said. Her character Nina, for instance, lives in a vast estate without much freedom as a young woman from her wealthy family. Rawls said she felt similarly stuck as a teenager during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“I feel like the lessons I've learned from these characters are lessons that I will carry with me forever in a way that is a bit deeper and more profound than it has been with shows I have done in the past,” Rawls said.


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