THREE SISTERS by Anton Chekhov, adapted by Nicolas Billon with László Marton, directed by Marton, w/ Megan Follows, d'bi. young.anitafrika, Patricia Fagan, Kevin MacDonald, Sarah Wilson, Albert Schultz and Diego Matamoros. Presented by Soulpepper at the Young Centre (55 Mill). Previews begin tonight (Thursday, August 30), opens Wednesday (September 5) and runs to September 29, Monday-Saturday 7:30 pm, some Wednesday and Saturday matinees 1:30 pm. $41-$59, stu $28, rush $20, stu rush $5. 416-866-8666. Rating: NNNNN
Playwright Nicolas Billon needed some convincing that he liked Chekhov.
Ironic, since Billon's adaptation of Three Sisters done in collaboration with director Lászl&oactue; Marton is about to open as part of the Soulpepper season.
"I know that while Chekhov is one of our most important playwrights, some audience members never feel so bored in the theatre as when they're at one of his plays," he says ruefully. "So I approached this text, which Soulpepper's Albert Schultz and Lászl&oactue; chose before I was involved, with some trepidation.
Billon is a member of the inaugural Soulpepper Academy, and the first thing the young artists tackled, along with Marton, was a workshop of Three Sisters.
"It was an astounding experience because we got to see the play through Lászl&oactue;'s eyes. When he explained how its parts fit together, I saw the Russian playwright in a totally new way.
"Because of that six-week experience, I became more comfortable with the idea of adapting the play for the full company."
The talented bilingual writer has already made his mark at Canada's biggest theatre, the Stratford Festival, which staged his plays The Elephant Song and The Measure Of Love. Not bad for a young playwright whose first script began as an exercise for a university class.
Still, Billon had never done an adaptation before, and he admits to "the fear, the discomfort, of sleeping in someone else's bed.
"It was weird at first, but I found my way in, which was to do a faithful adaptation. That was my anchor, the sense that I wanted the work to remain Chekhov's rather than become mine.
"I kept in mind something that Jean Cocteau said: "All our work consists of erasing traces of our work. '"
That's where Budapest-based director Marton, who's directed the work several times in the past, was helpful. A regular guest artist with Soulpepper, he also helmed a Canadian production for the now-defunct Masterclass Theatre that featured several actors in the current Soulpepper version.
"He was pretty hands-off during the writing, and we really started collaborating in the rehearsal hall. I've never worked with a director so precise, so meticulous. He knows when a word doesn't sound right and suggests I look for another.
"The relationship turned out to be delightfully symbiotic."
Three Sisters is one of several productions that involve all members of the academy, which offers a two-year training program to a group that includes actors, a director, a designer and a playwright.
"It was strange coming into a company of actors," acknowledges Billon, who had to get up on his feet to play one of the characters in the Three Sisters workshop. "But after going through the anxieties of a performer, I have newfound respect for actors.
"Playing that character also taught me something about Chekhov. He never polarizes his characters. You can look at any of his plays and recognize a little bit of yourself in every one of the people, even in those characters for whom you might not have much affinity."
Since January he's written program notes for all the Soulpepper productions and dramaturged The Threepenny Opera and The Time Of Your Life. But what about Billon's original writing during this two-year Soulpepper stint?
"I have been working on some ideas for my own plays while I'm here, and Soulpepper has been good about allowing me to do that. We all know that this first year of the Academy is a work in process; the onus is partly on us to tell those in charge what we need and what we like.
"I have a major script that I have to put down on paper, and a second is waiting to be formed after that.
"Being here at Soulpepper has kept me busy in the best possible way. Chekhov by day, Billon by night isn't too bad."