The Memory of Trees, An Interview


A Frontmezzjunkie Interview: David Ellenstein on North Coast Rep’s The Cherry Orchard

David Ellenstein is determined. After stints running The Los Angeles Repertory Company and The Arizona Jewish Theatre, he took over the Artistic Directorship of North Coast Rep in 2003. Since then, he has directed numerous productions, while always having a desire to revisit a piece he helmed over thirty years ago: Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard.

The tone of the piece has been debated since its debut. Chekhov himself declared the play a comedy, while Konstantin Stanislavski, Chekhov’s longtime collaborator, saw it as a drama. North Coast Rep’s production—which opens March 8th—promises, according to Ellenstein, to bring the laughs and the tears.

Some good plays are of the moment and of their time,” he says. “Some good plays are timeless and ring true no matter when they are performed. The Cherry Orchard is the latter.”

Written in 1903, the play chronicles a summer spent by a group of aristocrats, servants, and intellectuals, all bracing for the impending sale of a landmark Russian estate. In short, it’s a cacophony of love triangles, guilt, grudges, and aspirations for a better tomorrow. At once raucously funny and heartbreakingly tragic, the play was Chekhov’s last before his untimely death—mere months after the play’s January 1904 premiere.

DAVID ELLENSTEIN photo by Aaron Rumley

You’ve directed this play before.  How has that experience impacted your approach this time around?

DAVID ELLENSTEIN: I had such a great experience delving into this great play the first time around, my memories and some of the choices that we ended up with then, certainly live in my mind as we create a new production. I also am keenly aware of the things in the first production that were not what I hoped they would be. But that production was 32 years ago—so time has a way of adjusting what we remember to suit our needs, so I am trying as much as possible to approach the play with a fresh outlook and remain open to new ways of illuminating the story. I am very fortunate to have an excellent cast of creative actors and designers this time around to make that happen.

What drew you to Jean-Claude van Itallie’s version of the script?

DE: I read numerous versions and translations and they vary so much. Some feel stuffy and old-fashioned. Some feel too modern and audacious. I found that the Van Itallie walked the line of keeping enough of the poetic sense of the play while allowing for an accessible and conversational vernacular that wasn’t off-putting or strange. I find this version allows the audience to experience the characters as fellow human beings without being alienated by the fact that the setting is another time and culture—yet it preserves the specifics and history of the moment that Chekhov wrote the play in a way that feels universal.

Chekhov and Stanislavski famously debated whether The Cherry Orchard is a comedy or a tragedy. What do you think it is? 

DE: To me, The Cherry Orchard is a “human comedy”. Falling too far to the farcical element that certainly exists in the play, or giving over to the dark and more tragic qualities would be equally harmful to the play’s success. The genius to me is the ability of the play to find the truth in both. Chekhov’s understanding of the dichotomy that exists in all of us—how we each possess the ridiculous and the profound in our lives and in our character and his ability to weave the two together is why this play will continue to endure. It rings true.


How important is the historical context of the play to you? How much of that do you want the audience to absorb?

DE: As in any play, the more specific the context, the more universal the lives of the people feel. Understanding what the specifics of 1903 Russia were; the pressures and changes that are occurring in the society the characters exist in is extremely important for the actors to incorporate into their performances to fully embody the people. For the audience, a knowledge of the time and history might illuminate the play in a certain way, but is not essential to understand the story or the journey of the characters. Chekhov’s characters are complete people that audiences respond to regardless of their historical understanding of the specific time. Human struggles are timeless.

What do you want the audience to take away from this production?

DE: A few laughs and a few tears. An evening in the theatre where we are reminded of our human foibles and attributes. People are flawed and amazing at the same time, and we all share so much of this mixed bag we call life. I hope the audiences leave the theatre with a greater appreciation and respect for one another.

How do you characterize the director’s job?

DE: Understand the play. See a path in which it can be illuminated. Communicate that vision for the work. Empower and inspire all involved to bring their best and most creative talents to bear. Synthesize and curate the production so that the story can be received by the audience as intended.

What do you ideally want from an actor?

DE: ”You should feel a flow of joy because you are alive. Your body will feel full of life. That is what you must give from the stage. Your life. No less. That is art: to give all you have.” -Michael Chekhov.  Who am I to argue with a Chekhov?

Are there any plays you haven’t directed yet that you’re champing at the bit to do?

DE: I am fortunate in that I mostly get to choose the plays that I direct. I’d like to do more Shakespeare. I am attracted to classics—but it is the variety and unexpected new challenges that surprise me that end up turning me on the most.

To find out more about North Coast Rep’s production of Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, visit


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