The Chekhovians, an independent NYC-based theatre company, are devoted to performing the works of Anton Chekhov with simplicity and a clear vision. Their most recent production, The Cherry Orchard, ran from September 7-10 at Theaterlab NYC. Directed by Ermete De Boni and Emely de Paiva, both alumni of The Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute (LSTFI), the production consisted of an almost entirely Strasberg-trained cast. The Cherry Orchard starred LSTFI alumni Ajay Bhullar, Ermete De Boni, Daniele Gianera, Rohith Guttamidhi, Juan Ortiz, Vanessa Ozinger, Emely de Paiva, U.S. Praveen, Emma Rose, and Srishti Sharma, alongside NY-based actor Narky Cyriaque.
From Classmates to Collaborators
According to Ermete, Emely, and Rohith – the founders of The Chekhovians – “It all started in Ted Zurkowski’s Acting Chekhov class” here at LSTFI. Although approaching Chekhov was intimidating, Zurkowski made the material more accessible by encouraging them to have fun and find the comedy in each scene. While the trio greatly enjoyed working on Chekhov within the class itself, the founders claim that Zurkowski gave them the idea to start their own theatre company: “Ted told us that we were a strong group, he enjoyed teaching us, and we should go ahead and do something because there’s not really a Chekhov company who does Chekhov as comedies instead of tragedies in New York.” Emely, Ermete, and Rohith took this idea and ran with it, founding The Chekhovians in 2022.
Last December, The Chekhovians premiered at The Players Theater in a performance titled An Afternoon with Anton. The performance featured two one-act plays by Anton Chekhov, The Anniversary and Swan Song. Then, in January 2023, the company brought An Afternoon with Anton to Italy for a limited international run.
Meet the Company
- Narky Cyriaque met founding members Emely and Ermete through the New York theatre scene, leading Narky to perform in both An Afternoon with Anton and The Cherry Orchard. Although Narky is the only member of the group who has not attended LSTFI, he felt welcomed and shared the same excitement for the material: “Any time Chekhov is involved, I’m always ready and raring to go.”
- Another student in Ted Zurkowski’s Acting Chekhov class, Srishti Sharma went to see An Afternoon with Anton to support her friends. She recalls her surprise at seeing the company’s name and the performance’s brilliance: “We were just talking about it in class and they actually did it!” Srishti adds, “After the play I talked to them and told them how cool I thought they were, not just because of the performance, but because they had the initiative to make this company,” which led to her invitation to be a part of The Cherry Orchard.
- Since Narky was unable to make the trip to Italy for the second run of An Afternoon with Anton, Ermete’s friend and collaborator, Italian actor Daniele Gianera, stepped up to join the company. Daniele completed a Summer Intensive at LSTFI in 2019, which he remembers “with joy.” Months after the Italian run of An Afternoon with Anton, Ermete offered Daniele the opportunity to return to New York and act in The Cherry Orchard, which Daniele enthusiastically accepted.
- From having a singular line in An Afternoon with Anton, Vanessa Ozinger has become a full-fledged member of The Chekhovians through The Cherry Orchard. She jumped at the opportunity to be involved in the production and play Varya, whom she calls “a hoot” to say the least. Vanessa thinks Varya is “the most serious in the play” but appreciates her moments of dry humor and especially loved crafting a very emotional scene near the end of the play. She says, “I couldn’t have done this show without Emely.”
- Emma Rose became involved in the Chekhovians through Ermete, getting to know him well since they were scene partners in Robert Ellermann’s Method Acting class. Emma’s first Chekhovian production was The Cherry Orchard, where she played Anya. Emma discussed using sensory, particularly the animal exercise, to relate to Anya since her typical typecast is “an evil wench”, not the ingénue.
- While Ajay Bhullar was familiar with contemporary plays and Shakespeare, he had never worked on Chekhov until becoming involved with the Chekhovians. Ajay attests to the positive environment of the group and says, “I really enjoyed every single day of rehearsing and working on the play.” Furthermore, Ajay strongly believes The Cherry Orchard made him “a more confident person.”
U S Praveen
- Ermete’s classmate U S Praveen says a hilarious late-night encounter with Ermete led to his involvement with the group: “That day, one of my contact lenses fell out so I took both out and was walking blindly to the supermarket. I was trying to squint and make my way back home” when he heard Ermete calling his name.
The members of the Chekhovians may work together but it is clear that they are all friends first and foremost. While working on The Cherry Orchard, Emma says the cast “developed the dynamic of our characters… almost in a scary way.” She laughs while reminiscing on how she and Narky relentlessly teased Daniele both on and off the stage.
Building the Orchard
Inspired by Ted Zurkowski’s approach to Chekhov, Ermete and Emely were determined to highlight the comedy of The Cherry Orchard. Ermete says, “The more you read The Cherry Orchard, the funnier it becomes… Every time you reread it, you find something else and it becomes more interesting.”
The company rehearsed twice a week from July until September, sometimes in a theatre, a traditional rehearsal space, or even Central Park. The cast believes the rotation of rehearsal spaces prepared them for the actual performance. Srishti says, “Central Park was amazing because in a small rehearsal room you don’t feel the need to project or annunciate…but if you’re in a big space like a park, you have to be audible.” This was incredibly useful since the cast agreed “being understood is the first step to being appreciated and recognized for what we’re doing.”
Emely and Ermete, the co-directors of The Cherry Orchard, “had their own system and really knew what they were doing,” often privately discussing character development with each member of the cast. Each member emphasized the importance of these chats, especially since “not a lot of directors put that amount of work in.” The co-directors also focused on building trust and connecting as a cast through group Method exercises, games, and grounding exercises before each rehearsal and show. Vanessa adds, “When the cast is this big, you need reliable people who will do the work, and we had a very good group.”
Chekhov in Performance: “You Can’t Flatline”
This past September, The Cherry Orchard ran for four days (five performances) at the Theaterlab, NYC. When discussing the performance, the cast emphasized the importance of the space itself, citing the “intimacy” and “personal connection” with the audience in the white-box theater. Narky says, “The crowd was right there on stage with you,” leading to a different level of “immersion” in the story. Narky remembers thinking, “These people are here with me and we’re all going to see the cherry orchard get cut down together.” Daniele adds, “It was like the audience was in the scene itself,” which the actors used to their advantage.
Although the play itself is wordy, Emma recalls the performances flying by. She and the other castmates discussed the adrenaline and momentum of the show vividly: “The overall run was a really good workout. The way a Chekhov comedy goes, you can’t flatline or leave the character. It’s almost like you’re running laps on stage.”
The Method in Action: “What Do Cherries Mean for Me?”
Since the group is almost entirely comprised of LSTFI alumni, The Method plays a key role in the Chekhovians. Before every rehearsal and performance, Emely and Ermete gathered the cast for group relaxation. Even when rehearsing in Central Park, the group sat in a circle of chairs and relaxed. (Emma jokes that this made them look “like a cult – but a fun one!”)
Because The Cherry Orchard was performed in a white-box theater with a simplistic set, the actors relied on The Method to craft the layered history of the setting of the play, each utilizing sensory exercises to achieve this. Ajay revealed that he used a childhood place to invoke the naivety of his character. He says, “I’m so grateful that I learned Method Acting, and I’m now able to live these beautiful moments over and over again.”
Similarly, Daniele says he utilized The Method because, without connecting to meaningful places and moments in his life, “I would have remained in an abstract world.” He discussed using sensory to connect to a line about cherries. He asked himself, “What do cherries mean for me?” and then used substitution “to fill that void.” Praveen adds, “Everything I learned in LSTFI’s Conservatory Program was put to test.” In fact, the cast agrees that “everybody used The Method in different ways even though we’re all from the same school.”
Although The Method was foreign to Narky, he learned some techniques from the group, which he believes “definitely helped in the long run.” He says, “I was soaking up what [Ermete and Emely] were providing like a sponge… The Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute is sending out some good people into the world!”
Taking Chekhov Around the World
The Chekhovians are planning to bring The Cherry Orchard to Italy and Switzerland in January, 2024. The cast is incredibly excited to revisit The Cherry Orchard in the coming months and looks forward to the future of the Chekhovians. Narky says, “My dream is that I get to continue growing with these people that I’ve grown to love… Hopefully [the company] thrives, builds, and we become world-renowned.” Similarly, Daniele says, “I really hope and believe that we will go on with this adventure. We had a lot of fun and I feel that we can go much deeper into this work.”
As implied by their company name, the group is committed to working on Chekhov. As articulated by Praveen, “Chekhov gives you the time to slow down, think, gather yourself, and concentrate on what’s happening… He brings you into each moment.” Members of the cast stressed the importance of Robert Ellermann’s Method Acting class for approaching Chekhov and seemingly difficult material in general: “Robert always talks about how all great playwrights give you clues. I think working on this production really highlighted that.”
Emely, Ermete, and Rohith have not yet announced which Chekhov show they will approach next, but the plan is to perform every single Anton Chekhov play and possibly some more short stories. Emma states, “You never know what [Emely, Ermete, and Rohith] are going to put out, but you know it’s going to be really fun to work on and always with their own vision.”
BONUS: Chekhovian Fun Facts
- Narky swears he will get a Chekhovians tattoo in the future.
- The Cherry Orchard at Theaterlab featured movable walls, which changed the “ambience” of each act.
- Closing night of The Cherry Orchard was Emma’s 21st birthday. She and the entire cast celebrated the success of their show and her birthday together.
- From July until late August, the cast rehearsed in-person in New York while Daniele participated over Zoom from Italy. While the distance and technical difficulties complicated rehearsals, Daniele said it was important to “get used to the voices of the other actors.” (Vanessa adds, “If Ermete remembered to call him…”)
- While in Italy for An Afternoon with Anton, local high school students came to see the performances. When The Cherry Orchard runs in Italy this winter, the same schools are set to visit them again!