When the Cincinnati Playhouse’s Ed Stern described his 50th anniversary season last spring, he was especially excited about a new version of Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters, a 1905 play about three siblings who yearn for the life they once enjoyed in Moscow but now find themselves trapped in a cultural backwater. Some were surprised to hear that his director for this show would be John Doyle, who staged the Playhouse’s 2006 revival of Company that moved to Broadway and won a 2007 Tony Award.
“Everyone assumes John’s strength is in musicals,” Stern says. “But his strength is as a storyteller. It doesn’t have to be in music.”
In a recent conversation, the British director underscored this point: “I’ve done many more plays than musicals, and the musicals I’ve done have always been looking at things from a different angle. That’s generally my way of working.”
Stern was the first American producer to invite Doyle to direct at a regional theater, even before his much-lauded staging of Sweeney Todd moved from London to Broadway, where Doyle won his first Tony Award. While Doyle was in Cincinnati in 2006, Stern invited him to return to direct a play. Learning that Doyle loved Chekhov and especially Three Sisters, Stern approached award-winning playwright Sarah Ruhl (The Clean House, Eurydice, Dead Man’s Cell Phone) about creating a new script. Her quick “yes” was in part because Doyle would direct.
“I’d read some of her scripts,” Doyle says, “and I really liked her and who she was as a human being. I could reflect from her the stuff that was required — the melancholy, the lyricism, the enjoyment of words.”
He instinctively felt Ruhl would create a script he’d like to direct. “I could see that she would do something that sounded like these people,” he says.
Doyle says her script uses more contemporary language “that’s leaner, not so verbose, perhaps a little more humorous than people might expect.”
Doyle strives to establish connections between his characters and audiences. “These people are you and me, not remote Russians,” he says. “It’s not set in our time, but it will have enough imagery to make it feel like it could be our time.”
First and foremost, as Stern said last spring, Doyle is a born storyteller.
“I always approach everything as if it’s never been told before,” Doyle points out. He engages his entire cast in this process, challenging each actor to understand how his or her character contributes to the story being told, in addition to being part of a larger human process in the theater.
“We are a group of human beings who are telling a story,” Doyle says. “It makes us all the same. It puts us all around the same altar at the same time.”
Asked about future prospects for this production — loaded with Broadway-tested talent, including several Tony winners and nominees — Doyle simply says, “It would be very nice, but that’s not why we’re here.”
A modest man, Doyle is surprised by the many artistic opportunities that have recently come his way, including productions at the Metropolitan Opera and Los Angeles Opera.
“I never expected that journey at this point,” he says, “and I have no expectations of this one.” But we can expect a grand piece of theater when Three Sisters opens this week.
CONTACT RICK PENDER: [email protected]