ChekhovOS: A new operating system for the stage
Posted on Nov 16, 2021 by Neal Romanek
Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, with the writer portrayed by the legendary Mikhail Baryshnikov, gets a new interactive treatment during lockdown. FEED uncovers all you need to know about ChekhovOS
A story set at the turn of the century about the fading of the old order and the uneasy beginnings of the new – what could be more appropriate for today’s troubled times?
Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard was conceived as a kind of comedy, but the original interpretation by director Konstantin Stanislavski in 1904 presented the play as a tragedy, and most productions since have followed in that vein. But the latest interpretation ran this year in a way Chekhov could never had imagined.
Entitled chekhovOS /an experimental game/, it was produced by Boston’s Arlekin Players Theatre and featured ballet legend Mikhail Baryshnikov as Anton Chekhov, interacting with his Cherry Orchard characters, as are personalities trapped in his psyche – inside his ‘operating system.’
The production was broadcast online, but the interactive story kicked in before viewers even logged on. Audiences received emails and texts from the play’s protagonists, leading them to a secret video where the characters begged them to “vote the right way” during the show.
The interactive story kicked in before viewers even logged on
Arlekin is a theatre company launched a decade ago by immigrants from the former Soviet Union. For most of its existence, Arlekin performed in the Soviet republic languages – Russian, Armenian and others – with productions aimed at Soviet expats.
The troupe then emerged into the English speaking theatre scene and were an instant, award winning hit. But right on the tail of that success came the pandemic – and artistic director Igor Golyak had to figure out how to pay the bills.
The result was a virtual production, called State vs. Natasha Banina – based on Natasha’s Dream by the Russian playwright Yaroslava Pulinovich – about a 16-year-old orphan who commits a crime of passion. The piece was a monologue delivered over Zoom and was an exercise in experimentation, with the watching audience also becoming the jury who would deliver a verdict on the girl.
“I experimented with overlays and put together five or six different pieces of software that are not meant to go together,” explains Golyak, who also directed the piece. “The first thing I realised as we were putting it together was that the audience also needed to be playing a role. This new genre we’re creating is different from a film or theatre. The audience needs to play an active part in the experience.”
State vs. Natasha Banina effectively opened the door to a new realm of interactive theatre for the company.
“We started doing that show for free, and suddenly one night we saw Baryshnikov in the audience,“ recalls Golyak. “Then we started seeing the artistic directors from Boston theatres, then a bunch of press, then The New York Times, then it exploded.”
Suddenly one night we saw Mikhail Baryshnikov in the audience
Baryshnikov saw the show four times in total, then invited the production to perform at his Arts Center, after which it went national. “We toured the show around the United States – and internationally from our living room.”
The result was a partnership with Jessica Hecht (Breaking Bad) and Baryshnikov to develop an interactive adaptation of The Cherry Orchard, which also featured Baryshnikov’s daughter Anna (Manchester by the Sea). Using a Kickstarter campaign, Golyak launched the (zero-G) virtual theatre laboratory and adapted their space into a green screen studio. But to take things to the next level, they sought the help of interactive content creator and game designer Will Brierly, who had been collaborating with Arlekin producer Sara Stackhouse on other projects.
Brierly had been doing interactive digital projects for Adult Swim, mixing live animation with audience interactivity. These included things like a live, animated yoga show peppered with surreal moments – as well as the procedurally generated Space Ghost Coast to Coast.
“I’m fascinated by digital experiences that are live, and doing things you couldn’t ever do on stage,” says Brierly, whose company, Snowrunner Productions, is also based in Boston. “Sara Stackhouse and I had been working together earlier on a live-streaming musical performance show. In my other work, I had been gradually building this platform to pull in feeds from Zoom and other platforms to blend together in a 3D space. I wanted to make something where people wouldn’t need to download anything new, or change the way they were doing things.”
When Brierly met with director Golyak to brainstorm an approach to chekhovOS, Brierly realised he would have to expand his software system to work with Arlekin theatre tech, incorporating 3D virtual software Aximmetry and an NDI workflow. This went beyond interactive narratives on Zoom, to being a full studio tool able to switch between camera feeds and move a camera around a virtual space.
“There were probably eight pieces of software interacting,” says Golyak. “And multiple computers, including one cueing, which interfaced with different pieces of software using OSC commands – telling Will’s software to trigger various actions.”
“The fun part,” says Brierly, “is making something super-specific for this show and we’re all learning a great deal. As a game designer, I would be thinking: ‘We need to make something that will trigger all this stuff ‘, and then learning that there is already something in the theatre world to do that. I wish I’d known about that five years ago! When everyone visits each other from their little islands, you learn different things.”
We're making friends and starting to acquire our audience
Reaching the world
Arlekin’s interactive theatre performances have created a global audience. Golyak has been bowled over by the response. One recent show of chekovOS had viewers in 26 countries.
“For a Twitch stream that’s like, obviously – but for a theatre company?” exclaims Golyak. “We’re making friends and starting to acquire our audience; people who push boundaries and are open to things.
“I’m 100% sure this genre will stay – and I’m looking to explore a hybrid version, with an in-person show, then another one created for the virtual audience being performed at the same time.”
The subject matter for chekhovOS, and the writer ’s world view explored by the piece, was chosen on a whim. Golyak underlines why Chekhov’s was the ideal voice to hear in a very difficult time.
“He was ill during his life,” says Golyak. “He was a doctor dying from tuberculosis. That really impacted what he was writing – that we don’t have agency over tuberculosis, or cancer, or a pandemic. How do we exist? How do we survive? How do we be happy? These questions are what Chekhov is about. That’s his operating system.”
This article first featured in the autumn 2021 issue of FEED magazine.