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Bringing the Outside In: Building Cherry Orchard

One of the surprising elements of Steppenwolf Theatre Company's Cherry Orchard is the place itself. Located in the confines of our intimate Upstairs Theatre, this production will feature a completely new physical environment for our audience. We thought it was important, therefore, to have a conversation with scenic designer Riccardo Hernandez. Artistic Director Martha Lavey spoke to Riccardo at his studio in Connecticut about the exciting process of bringing Cherry Orchard to life. Martha Lavey: Design is one of the more mysterious components of the theater to many people, and this is already quite an adventure for our subscribers, to see a subscription show in our Upstairs space. We're really excited that it's you and Tina who are working on this project, because Tina's impulse is to spill the theatrical event out over the confines of any space. Can you tell us what you guys have planned for us so far? Riccardo Hernandez: Well, we've had a couple of meetings where Tina has talked about how she wants to use the whole room for the show. She's talked about images of the past creeping all the way around the space, which to me sounds very Bergmanesque, especially when you're surrounding an audience like that. One of the things we feel strongly about right now is that we want to paint the entire room white. Of course, we are very aware of avoiding anything that could be called a "Chekhovian look." ML: What does that mean, Riccardo? RH: We don't want to create an environment filled with dead trees and dead leaves and wicker furniture, or any of the physical vernacular that we know as "Chekhovian." What we really want to do is to find what Cherry Orchard IS in the Upstairs Theatre, and that is the fantastic thing — we're not in a space where we might be forced to create a kind of "Chekhovian" look. Here the audience is IN the room, and that, by its nature, is already a very different look for a Chekhov play. The audience will be with these people in their space. That's why we felt so strongly about defining the surround with white, to define the parameters of the playing area around the spectators. You are inside this room: this is distinct, this is the world, this is Cherry Orchard, it's all in the Upstairs space. I brought in a book on Russian country houses to one of our meetings, and in that book they have pictures of Chekhov's house and Tolstoy's house. We began to uncover the very specific look of the time. For example, the bookshelves these people had in their houses, the wood flooring, the actual trees. In other words, we're being extremely realistic in our approach to the research, so as to find that symbolism that we want to have in the space — we become less "Chekhovian" by researching what the real elements from Chekhov's time were. In the pictures of Tolstoy's house, there's one with a wall filled with hundreds of little pictures of his family; these unending images of real people, daguerreotypes under glass. And I thought, what happens if you put all these little pictures about head-high going all the way around the room. Tina was really taken aback because it was phantasmagoric in a really good way. It doesn't feel "conceptual" at all, because the idea is a reflection of reality. Then Tina felt that we needed to create a sense of outside, of the orchard. To achieve that, we're going to enclose each of the audience risers with white lace that has a certain kind of pattern that looks like trees, that looks like flowers, that looks like natural elements. They'll give the sense of both nature and of being curtains, both interior and exterior. These panels will be surrounding the audience, and it is also something she can control during the play by opening them or closing them. We can have a character floating in the space behind the curtains, while another scene is playing in the main space — the ghostly image of what's happening in another room. I'm hoping the whole effect will be effortless. ML: I can't wait to see it.