Taking Chekhov to Tashkent

A Seattle Seagull flies to Uzbekistan, where post-Soviet shadows lurk but the dissident spirit stays strong

By Gavin Reub

We stepped into the sun. All of us were instantly blinded and our bodies rudely assaulted by intense heat. It wasn’t just that we were Seattle-ites unused to sunlight; it was that the overwhelming, semi-arid climate of central Uzbekistan was almost too much to bear on top of the emotional devastation we’d experienced that morning. Blinking in that painful Uzbek light, I wished I was still in the cool, celebratory darkness of the previous night, when we’d opened a new play by Dave White I’d co-directed at the Ilkhom Theatre in Tashkent. But the night of vodka and laughter was gone, and this morning I’d learned that my mentor and friend, Jerry Manning, artistic director of the Seattle Repertory Theatre, was dead.

After getting this heartbreaking news at breakfast, we, the 19 members of the Seagull Project, had traveled all morning by train, heads bowed in varying degrees of grief and jetlag, to arrive in the classical heart of the country: Samarkand. Now just over a week into our trip, we had left behind our host city of Tashkent, some 200 miles to the east, a Soviet-era jungle of cement bridges and bold 1960s architecture, arriving in an otherworldly, cobalt blue-painted Silk Road paradise.

Samarkand stands as one of the oldest cities in the world, a constant witness to destruction and rebirth, as nations war and borders shift all around it. Walking the dirt streets amid the city’s towering Islamic architecture, how small I felt! Weeks later, I learned that, in Samarkand’s ancient days, blue was the color of mourning. I was surrounded by blue that day.

We stopped in front of a Russian Orthodox church; it seemed appropriate, as we were performing Chekhov, to be confronted with an emblem of 19th-century Russia. I personally bristled at the idea of going inside, wanting to turn off my brain rather than allow in any spiritual influence. But I lost the argument, and the entire theatre troupe walked into the beautiful church and stood in awe. I breathed in the incense deeply and lit a candle. In its flickering light, I had a quiet moment with Jerry. The saints stared peacefully from their perches. I was on the opposite side of the Earth from where Jerry had died, in a city that could not have felt more foreign to me, and yet in that moment the country embraced me, and I fell into its open arms.

A weird and wonderful perfect storm of politics, new international-relations priorities and Dionysian luck had converged to bring our theatre company 6,000 miles from our Seattle home to perform Chekhov for the Uzbeks. The Seagull Project, which rehearses and performs at ACT–A Contemporary Theatre, had received a U.S. government grant to visit the renowned Ilkhom Theatre for a few weeks, taking part in and producing the Festival of American Culture Ilkhom East/West, in April and May of this year.

The U.S. Embassy in Uzbekistan had never given an arts organization such a large grant, and this reticence was not accidental. We happened to find a magical window of opportunity during a period of transition in U.S./Uzbek relations, in which President Islam Karimov’s previously aggressive stance toward the West was softening, and the U.S. Embassy was eager to extend a cultural olive branch to the region. It’s not simply that our trip was an anomaly—it was entirely unprecedented. We were in fact the first American company to perform at the Ilkhom.

Four enthusiastic Seattle actors founded the Seagull Project three years ago, under the flag of doing justice to Chekhov’s first play. Our aim was to focus on process, not product. We started without a director. We married an extensive rehearsal scheme with a broad-scoped dramaturgical approach that encouraged local artists and students to collaborate and investigate.

Our fledgling company delved into The Seagull through different rehearsal methods, and collected fresh ideas and interpretations of the play through community outreach. We dreamed of using this community method to deepen our work abroad, and to find new perspectives in other countries. This past year, John Langs, associate artistic director at ACT, joined us as the project’s director, and he will guide us in our larger pursuit: exploring and staging Chekhov’s entire canon.

After a year of workshops and rehearsals, and the successful premiere of The Seagull at ACT Theatre in 2013, our company looked to Tashkent, one of Seattle’s 21 designated “sister cities.” The Ilkhom had already done its part, visiting Seattle in 2008 and performing two plays at ACT Theatre; it had since maintained a healthy exchange with the University of Washington, often accepting American students into its three-year program. That’s how Seagull Project member Tyler Polumsky became the first American member of the Ilkhom, and his attachment to both companies (as well as the government support through the sister-city program) provided a strong case for us to take our first international step as a company into the deserts of Central Asia.

The Ilkhom is a beacon of truth and creativity in Uzbekistan, a country where traditional Muslim values predominate and freedom of expression is often limited. Founded in 1979, it became the first independent theatre in the Soviet Union. From its birth, the Ilkhom was a home for dissidence and the political undercurrents of Uzbekistan.

Mark Weil, Ilkhom’s founding artistic director, was an artistic force who risked (and eventually gave) his life directing there. In its formative years the theatre was entirely secret, stealthily producing plays forbidden by Soviet censors in the basement of a men’s social club. When the Ilkhom made the bold choice to step into the spotlight in the early ’80s, the company toured to Moscow and was greeted with outrage and threats. Surprisingly, though, the Ilkhom was eventually granted full artistic immunity by one of the more powerful members of the Uzbek cabinet.

But even with relative freedom from Soviet interference, the theatre did not—and currently does not—live beyond the gaze of a powerfully conservative Uzbek government. As part of the festival, we were staging a new American play, Dance on Bones, by Dave White, based on a collection of poems set in a dystopian world that echoes the post-Soviet landscape of Russia. Jazz rises with the apocalyptic floods, becoming the savior for a new world, with culture as humanity’s flotation device. We were in rehearsal when a police officer (a “pickle,” as they are called, after their awful green uniforms) and his dog appeared at the door of the theatre. We kept rehearsing, surreal though it seemed, as police searched the whole theatre. As the dog bomb-sniffed, we performed laments about “the Man of Steel,” underscored by our Uzbek jazz quartet. The Ilkhom actors never acknowledged the “visitors”—for them this just another day living in the shadow of the not-quite-free post-Soviet era.

This calm, businesslike attitude should not be mistaken for indifference. It is how the Ilkhom has survived. It was one morning seven years ago that Weil, the troupe’s founding artistic director, was stabbed to death on his front steps. He was in tech for his Oresteia, which was to open the next day. There is speculation that the theatre’s unshackled creativity and cultural influence was becoming too much of a threat; others believe that he was killed because of the depiction of Islam in a recent Ilkhom production. Whatever the cause, his wallet and valuables were left on his person; it was clearly a murder of intent. The head may have been removed, but the heart of the Ilkhom beat on, and Weil’s company opened Oresteia the next night. There was never a moment at the Ilkhom when we were not acutely aware of the price Weil paid for his revolutionary theatre.

Late one night, after having just finished a long tech, we were thanking the local techies with a few beers. We were two Americans and two native Uzbek men—one with wild dreads, pulled back tight; and another whom they called Romeo, after his attempt to climb his girlfriend’s apartment building left him punctured on a fence post. The four of us spoke through an exchange of broken Russian and English. Running the bases on the usual topics—women, our introduction to theatre, Russian curse words—we stumbled onto the topic of Uzbeki politics.

“Did you hear the explosion on your first day here?” I hadn’t. “They said it was something like a gas vein, but that’s just what they say.” My ears perked up. “It’s all right, though. They are very tough on terrorists here,” the Uzbek techie assured me. I couldn’t help but wonder: Who are these terrorists they are so rough on?

After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, I learned, the country of Uzbekistan reemerged in 1991, and Islam Karimov—a former Soviet cabinet member—was established as its first (and so far only) president. In the early 2000s, reports began to surface about horrific human-rights violations, including instances of murder, rape by the police, censorship—even cases of political prisoners being boiled alive.

Karimov is noted for his “anti-terrorist” stance, especially against those he considers Islamic jihadists, and he has been strong U.S. ally, even offering his country as a military base for operations in Afghanistan. But in 2005, during what became known as the Andijan Massacre, hundreds of protestors were driven into a closed street and shot by Uzbek police and snipers. As many as 1,500 dead were dumped into mass graves. The U.S. government could no longer ignore Karimov’s human-rights record, and accordingly removed troops from the country.

As you might imagine, our preparations to travel to this region were extensive. We were coached by the U.S. Embassy on areas of concern: how to dress, looking strangers in the eye, and generally flaunting our American presence. We were told to expect every hotel room to be tapped, and to delete everything from our phones when we got home. Several of the members of the Seagull Project are openly gay, which is illegal in Uzbekistan. The idea that we were being watched constantly was troubling, and the fact that we were being told to wash ourselves clean of this environment afterward brought a sense of danger along with our sense of American privilege.

Armed with these warnings, we spent most of our time in the theatre Weil built, working, rehearsing, talking with the Ilkhom company over cups of tea from their café, or over vodka. People from all walks of life and nationalities were brought together by the festival and by the unique environment fostered at the theatre. For the Ilkhom is not just a platform for daring and dangerous work, but a community for creativity. We were part of that vibrant community for 16 days, sharing our lives and desires. We collected little stories, like one about the woman who would drop a basket of cigarettes from her window if you gave her a few hundred som (about 80 American cents), and big stories, like how there may be gay members of the Ilkhom company, but there was no outlet in the conservative closet to test out the light. I felt these stories, big and small, wrapping around my heart, and knew it would be impossible to erase them, like text messages or photos from my phone.

Once a museum, then a restaurant, before it was burnt down to its shell, the top floor of the Ilkhom is an expansive, hollowed-out room, which has since grown new adornments on its singed walls. Paintings and art installations cover the space. Two weeks into the festival, and just days before the opening of our Seagull, I stood in the middle of this room as huge flashing lights and loud music pulsed in front of me and hundreds of people in hippie garb filtered past. People from all around the city of Tashkent had come to witness perhaps the most blatantly American portion of our festival: a concert of American music of the ’70s. Jefferson Airplane and Janis Joplin filled the air as people jumped and danced. They had dressed in American-style clothes not only to engage in the evening’s spirit, but to enter a contest for the evening’s grand-prize gag gift: a can of American air.

The Ilkhom company then presented their interpretations of America to us, performing Albee, Steinbeck and scenes from some new American plays—Archipelago by Caridad Svich and Worse than Tigers by Mark Chrisler. In return, we offered the Russian treasure The Seagull, in addition to Dance on Bones with our quartet of Uzbek musicians.

Watching their original musical version of Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flat, performed in Russian without English subtitles, was an out-of-body experience; “Amigos!” and other bits of American Southwest vernacular rang out like a bell. On the other hand, our American Chekhov may have seemed most peculiar to them, with its anglicized variations on Russian folk songs and traditions. We offered to our generous Tashkent hosts our interpretation of the “great soul of Russia.” This was exactly the creative dialogue and cultural exchange the Seagull Project had been dreaming of.

I thought back to a late night on the floor of an apartment on the outskirts of Tashkent, where I sat and argued with a Russian woman about the merits of performing Chekhov in English. Right away it was obvious this would be a hard fight to win.

“Why would you ever want to do that?” the woman wanted to know.

“Why? Well, we feel that he is the finest purveyor of the human soul, so by tapping into the characters on a deep enough level, we can still bring out the heart of his work.”

“Chekhov is the heart of Russia. He speaks the language of the Russian people. What can Americans hope to do with him?”

“We want to show that his work speaks to universal truths about humanity: our obsessions, our hopes, and our faults. To find Chekhov’s brushstroke—”

“No. I have no need to see that.”

She came to the show. I found her in the midst of our closing night celebration, mere hours before we were to board a plane back home, and asked her what she thought. At first she maintained her cool demeanor, choosing her words slowly and carefully. But soon a reluctant smile crept across her face. “I loved Masha,” she said without a translator, “and, you all, you…” she grasped at the air for the words. “You have the soul.” She quickly extinguished her betraying smile, but a glint of acknowledgment moved through her eyes. The words of Chekhov she knew so well may have been exchanged for a new soundscape, but the play and passion burned strong.

A melding of artistic communities had transcended language and cultural barriers, because we were all working toward the same goal: the expression of some truthful essence of human existence. After nearly three weeks working at the Ilkhom, our company had built a new kind of language with the community. The place felt like home.

Our time in Uzbekistan thrust us into another culture and forged a relationship built on discovery. When the final night came, our Seagull was met with wild approval. A word-for-word understanding may not have been reached, but we sensed a deep empathy around human need, acceptance, and love.

We at the Seagull Project may live in Seattle, but this trip marks the beginning of our nomadic lives. Each place we land is where we find our new friends, our new experiences, and our temporary homes.

I learned that Ilkhom, appropriately enough, is Uzbek for “inspiration.” The walls at the Ilkhom Theatre bleed and sweat the history of its people, their confinement, anger and bliss. Those walls hold countless stories—stories of the years when the theatre was forced into silence by government restrictions, when they brilliantly resorted to silent clown performances, stories of the day after Mark Weil’s death, when the show went on with their leader gone.

I left my own story on that wall. Mentors and leaders die, and we must lunge into the future fearlessly, with the deep appreciation of that which came before—and the energy to fuel what has yet to come.

Gavin Reub is a director, producer, dramaturg and writer, and the co-artistic of the Seagull Project.