Anatomy of a Rewrite – Act I of our “Seagull on 16th Street”

Always hard to know what’s to be shared from the rehearsal process and there’s much to be respected in keeping the working dialogue that transpires between actors, director, playwright/adapter and dramaturg a private discourse of a sensitive exploration that, above all, is founded on trust; on the need to create a safe space where ideas can be floated, experiments conducted, mistakes made and encouraged. And yet we live in the age of the open door; the White House gives full access to 32 NBC cameras to cover a full day in the life of “The People’s House” and only a few of the meetings are too sensitive to be shared with the nation. The rehearsal process on our 16th Street SEAGULL? Not so much a national security concern, right? And yet still a sensitive collaboration; the script is still not yet 100% fixed; actors are 90% off-book and memorized but not completely, with now only two full weeks to go before our first public preview, we’re just past the half way point in our rehearsals. Yes, things go very well, and the set’s 80% completed and the program’s soon to the printer. Let’s make today’s posting about one sequence in the play. Call it page 18-19.

Here’s how it was originally.

NINA is in the middle of performing her play within the play in Act I. In our version, she’s not The Universal Soul (as Treplev originally conceives of the play) but The Sabbath Bride approaching the end of her time at the close of the week. And she reveals the braided candle stick, wine goblet, and the spice box–which her stage manager Yakov has over-zealously turned into a garden variety spritzing “atomizer.”


NINA: “And as we extinguish its light into the fruit of our bounty…
(YAKOV produces a wine goblet.)
The result will be a mist so fragrant as to linger the course of the week; the scent of commingling; of copulation between fiancé and affianced. Let us drink to their love and drench their fire in the liquid clot of this vessel, giving birth to the liberating shpritz of life!

(YAKOV produces an atomizer and begins spritzing the assembled.)

ARKADINA: (Whispers) Something from the Decadent School!

TREPLEV: (Instructing) Not yet! The prayer!

ARKADINA: What is that smell? Stinks of cannabis!

TREPLEV: (Pleading, reproachful.) Mother! (To Nina, instructing) Do the prayer first!

NINA: (From the book of Isaiah) “Hinei el y’shu’ati, evtach v’lo efchad…”

ARKADINA: Hindu chants! It’s like the den of Rasputin!

TREPLEV: (Reproachful.) It’s not Hindu, Mother! (To Nina) Douse the candle.

NINA: (Insisting on reciting it all) Not yet! “Ush’avtem-mayim b’sasson, mima’ay’nei ha-y’shua…”

ARKADINA: Swahili! It’s Turkish. It’s Urdu. It’s Gibberish!

SORIN: Irina.


ARKADINA: What a fine idea!

NINA: One Thing, and One Alone In This Universe, stays Undying, Unchanging – and that is Eternal Spirit. Let us drink from its glory and savor its fragrant essence!

(She extinguishes the candle in the goblet of wine as YAKOV once again madly spritzes the assembled!)

ARKADINA: More grass! More vegetation!

TREPLEV: It’s cloves, Mother!

ARKDINA: It smells illegal.

TREPLEV: Forget it.

POLINA: (To DORN.) You took your hat off. Put it on, or you’ll catch cold!

ARKADINA: The Doctor’s taken his hat off; what next? A Bacchanal? Shall we dance? To the devil?

POLINA: Put your coat on!

TREPLEV: (In a rage.) The play’s over! That’s enough! Curtain!

ARKADINA: (Flirting with Dorn) The party’s just beginning!

TREPLEV: Enough! Enough with the atomizer, Yakov! CURTAIN! Can we have curtain! (Stamps his foot.) CURTAIN! (The curtain falls.) Forgive me! I’ve forgotten that Plays of Substance are only the Domain of The Chosen Few. I’ve Trespassed on Sacred Territory!

ARKADINA: Oh, please. You want to turn the theater into a synagogue! I was trying to lighten things up.

TREPLEV: You ruined it. You ridiculed!

ARKIDINA: I was showing you where the jokes go! You asked for participation: Well, a show needs humor. And dance!

TREPLEV: What are you talking about? You haven’t danced on a stage in decades, you old coot!

ARKIDINA: (Looking around) Decades? Did he say “decades?” Why, I’m still an ingénue in the bloom of… You miserable ingrate. Passing off this Hebraic tripe as drama.

TREPLEV: “Hebraic tripe!?” You would know all about “tripe,” wouldn’t you? You despotic, old…. Let’s just leave it at that.

(Treplev exits)

ARKADINA: What’s the matter with him?

SORIN: Irina, darling, that’s no way to treat a sensitive young man.

ARKADINA: What in the world did I say?

SORIN: “Hebraic tripe!?”

* * *

And so the rewrite?  Well, first we found that Nina ran out of lines for the Hebrew blessing, taken from the Havdallah service.  So we gave her more text to sing, Hebrew to master.  First we gave her too much.  Then we parsed it back to where she’s got 3 additional sentences under her belt, and we’ll see exactly how much she needs before she gets cut off by her frustrated director/playwright.  We also saw that once Nina gets going with the Hebrew, we needn’t have her revert back to an English explanation.  So in order to build the scene to an apex, we cut Nina’s speech (“One Thing, and One Alone In This Universe…”)

But that was just one small change.  Others would follow.  Our Arkadina had legitimate questions about why she was interrupting her son’s play, and how she was interrupting.  We’ll get to those in a follow up post (After breakfast).  And we’ll look at how we get our Treplev to hit back at his mother with just the right syntax, without repeating the word “old” (note “old coot” and “despotic old…”)  And so the search for the perfect epithet.  Next time, on Dateline: Seagull.