Two Chekhov enthusiasts, Mike Bell and Bruce McManus, met for coffee to discuss the impending world premiere, 11 years in the making, of Bruce’s adaptation of Chekhov’s Three Sisters.
Mike enters Bruce’s home. Bruce offers coffee. Mike can’t say no because he loves “the java”. During the interview, sometimes Bruce stands up to get coffee. But, for the most part, Mike and Bruce are sitting at the kitchen table.
MIKE: Why is the story of Three Sisters important to you?
BRUCE: It resonated with me because the theme of happiness has dropped out of literature to some extent. Except for children’s literature. The characters in the play need to find some kind of place in the world, but also find happiness. Find happiness whatever that is…whatever that means. It’s intriguing to me.
MIKE: What do you find more challenging? Writing an original play or adapting a pre-existing one?
BRUCE: With my own plays I’ve lived through that period. Adaptations you have to research time, place, and who the characters represented in their own time. And when you’ve got the story and structure most of your work is done. Yet you still feel this obligation to enlighten and enhance what is there. That poses its own challenges. But there’s no easy writing. Everything’s hard about writing.
MIKE: How would you describe Chekhov as a writer?
BRUCE: Chekhov comes closest to the notion of granting playwrights the rights and liberties of a poet. He wrote powerful speeches about a character’s longings, hopes, and exhilarations. And it also seems clear, to some extent, he’s both mocking his characters and showing great sympathy. I think that’s why he’s embraced. Chekhov brought the humanness of the audience together with the humanness of the characters.
MIKE: In 1998, PTE produced your adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. What did you learn from that experience when it came time to work on Chekhov’s play?
BRUCE: I found a method of approaching other playwrights’ work. I would read the play over and over and over again..then I forgot about it. That is…I was writing the play from “memory”, scene by scene. And I wrote each scene with my own understanding and insight. I always try to observe a consistent tone with the original, but with a new set and setting.
MIKE: So why Moose Jaw? What prompted the decision to set your adaptation of Three Sisters in 1959 Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan?
BRUCE: Well, I spent 6 to 8 years there as a kid in the late 50’s early 60’s. I understood small town society very well. Who had power…who had authority…which is important to any Chekhovian location. And the social conditions the Three Sisters faced in Russia weren’t too different with what they faced in Moose Jaw at that time. But they have an important air base there. My Dad and Uncle were both in the Royal Canadian Air Force. My uncle was a pilot in World War II. I thought of the veterans and their wives, girlfriends, and sisters in my family. I always wanted to write about those people and their lives out of war. Their hopes, disappointments, and expectations of a glorious future.
MIKE: So you’ve had a good experience working with Chekhov?
BRUCE: I’ve enjoyed it. But I won’t be sorry to have Chekhov no longer with me. His characters suffer too much.
MIKE: What do you hope the audience takes away from this production?
BRUCE: I want them to really enjoy themselves. Whatever that means. If people are thinkers…I want them to think a lot. If people just want to watch the struggles and joys of life…let them enjoy….
MIKE: Well, congratulations and all the best for a great run. So…if you don’t mind…a traditional Russian toast.
(Mike holds out his coffee mug)
MIKE: Za Vas.
(Bruce clinks his coffee mug with Mike’s)
BRUCE: Thank you.