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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

This is All Things Considered from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block. By the end of this month, more than a dozen Broadway shows will have closed, but tonight there's a new beginning off Broadway. Audiences in Brooklyn will get their first glimpse of a new theater company. It's made up of prominent British and American stage actors, including Ethan Hawk, and the company is directed by Sam Mendes, a winner of both the Tony and the Academy Award. The company's first production, Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard." Jeff Lunden has the story.

JEFF LUNDEN: It all came about because Joe Melillo was obsessed.

Mr. JOSEPH MELILLO (Executive Producer, Brooklyn Academy of Music): I could say, affectionately, I stalked Sam Mendes.

LUNDEN: Melillo is executive producer of the Brooklyn Academy of Music. He fell in love with Sam Mendes' work when he imported several of the director's London productions, including Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night" and Chekhov's "Uncle Vanya."

Mr. MELILLO: Those became a legendary success here at BAM, and that's how it began.

LUNDEN: It is the Bridge Project - a three-year collaboration between BAM, London's Old Vic Theatre, and director Sam Mendes. The idea is to create a repertory company, evenly divided between American and British actors, to perform classic plays. This season, it's "The Cherry Orchard" and Shakespeare's "The Winter's Tale."

Mr. SAM MENDES (Director, The Bridge Project): The Bridge is named The Bridge, obviously, because it's a bridge between those two particular theatrical communities, and, you know, it's based in a belief that a good actor is a good actor. It doesn't matter where they come from, or what accent they speak in, and that there's a lot to be learned and shared between the two theatrical cultures.

LUNDEN: Mendes handpicked several actors he wanted to work with - among them veterans like British theater star Simon Russell Beale and American film and stage star Ethan Hawke, as well as up-and-comers like Rebecca Hall, who recently starred in Woody Allen's "Vicky Cristina Barcelona." But Mendes had to get them to commit to almost a year of work between rehearsals and performances in Brooklyn, London, and on tour through Asia and Europe.

Mr. MENDES: Step one in trying to persuade them to do it is, you know, you've got to pay them, which is very awkward (laughing). I expected them to do it for nothing, but, you know, they're doing it instead for next to nothing (laughing). Certainly a good deal less than they could earn on the movies that they would be making at the same time.

LUNDEN: Actor Ethan Hawke has made the commitment to spend most of this year on stage. He's playing Trofimov, an eternal student in "The Cherry Orchard," and Autolycus, a singing con artist in "The Winter's Tale." Hawke says part of the Bridge Project's appeal is its variety, performing two plays side-by-side with the same actors.

Mr. ETHAN HAWKE (Actor): For me, the worst element of theater, the only negative element of it, is the repetition. There's a kind of joy of doing rep where you're not actually doing the same play every night.

(Soundbite of play "Cherry Orchard")

Ms. SINEAD CUSACK: (As Madame Ranevskaya) Let me look at you, Petya. Why have you lost your looks? How did you get so old?

Mr. HAWKE: (As Trofimov) An old woman on the train yesterday called me, that mangy gentleman.

Ms. CUSACK: (As Madame Ranevskaya) You were only a boy, a nice young student. Now your face is lined and you're wearing glasses. Are you really still a student?

Mr. HAWKE: (As Trofimov) I expect that I will die a student.

LUNDEN: Ethan Hawke with Sinead Cusack in a scene from "The Cherry Orchard." Director Sam Mendes insisted on an extra long rehearsal period of over two months to help the actors bond into a company. At the beginning of the process, he sat all of them in a circle, with carpets in the middle, as a playing space.

Mr. MENDES: I think that actors act differently when they don't know where the camera-slash-audience is. And I think they look only at each other, which is the beginning of every, you know, decent day's rehearsal, is to act with the person that you're onstage with, as opposed to with the audience.

LUNDEN: Mendes says he wants to disprove the cliche that Americans are suited for Chekhov because of their naturalistic acting traditions, while English are suited for Shakespeare because of their training.

Mr. MENDES: There's a lot to be shared in one actor watching another work. And watching them all together in the room has actually been incredibly moving because, of course, they're all equally good, and they're all equally skilled in different ways. But they are very interesting about their own insecurities in relation to the other one - well, I can't do movies, I'm English, you know. Or I can't do Shakespeare, I'm American. Both of which, of course, are rubbish.

(Soundbite of play "Cherry Orchard")

Mr. SIMON RUSSELL BEALE: (As Lopakhin) Your brother here thinks I'm vulgar, that I jumped out too loud(ph) but I don't care. He can think what he likes. All I care is that you trust me as you used to. When you look at me with those heartbreaking eyes, you see me as you always do. Merciful god, my father was a serf in your father's time. And before that, he belonged to your grandfather, but you, you (unintelligible), you're always been so good to me that I no longer think about that and I love you like my own flesh and blood, more than my own flesh and blood.

LUNDEN: The company has gone back and forth in rehearsal - one week on Chekhov, then one week on the Shakespeare. Simon Russell Beale, who plays pivotal roles in both plays, says after some initial nervousness, the process felt completely organic.

Mr. RUSSELL BEALE: So, after a week of doing "Cherry Orchard," you think, oh my god, I can't remember "Winter's Tale" at all and you go back. Actually, you did remember quite a lot of it. And the other thing is just that, I suppose any two plays infect each other, you know. And these two plays that are so much about children and loss and time and growing old and having regrets, both of them deal with the same areas, but they do feed each other.

(Soundbite of play "Winter's Tale")

Mr. RUSSELL BEALE: (As King Leontes) Inch-thick, knee deep, o'er head and ears a fork'd one. Go play, boy, play. Thy mother plays, and I play, too, but so disgraced a part whose issue will hiss me to my grave. Contempt and clamor will be my knell. Go, play, boy, play.

LUNDEN: Simon Russell Beale as King Leontes who believes incorrectly that he's been cuckolded. Beale says one of the things that both of his characters share is anger. For actress Rebecca Hall, the two roles she plays are almost polar opposites. She's the drab Varya in "The Cherry Orchard" and the witty, but put-upon queen Hermione in "The Winter's Tale."

Ms. REBECCA HALL (Actress): It's quite nice for me in both of these plays because on a very reductive level, I get to play someone who's terribly repressed and miserable - and then, in the other play, I get to play someone who's kind of the opposite of that. Everyone kind of likes Hermione, until Leontes starts messing about with her.

(Soundbite of play "Cherry Orchard")

Ms. HALL: (As Varya) Her (unintelligible) is asleep and the sun's up. It's not cold at all now. Come and see mama. Come and look at the orchard. Isn't it beautiful? Oh God, breathe the air.

LUNDEN: Rebecca Hall as Varya in "The Cherry Orchard." Sam Mendes doesn't know yet what plays he'll choose for the next installment of the Bridge Project, but he does know that he wants to continue presenting work in repertory. And he'd love to add an American classic to the mix.

Mr. MENDES: I'd be very interested to see how O'Neill reflects Shakespeare or Williams reflects Ibsen or, you know, I don't know. I mean, there's going to be lots of possibilities in the future.

LUNDEN: "The Winter's Tale" begins performances on February 10th and "The Cherry Orchard" opens in Brooklyn tonight. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

NORRIS: At our Web site, you can hear Simon Russell Beale and Ethan Hawke on how Shakespeare and Chekhov differ. And you can watch the Bridge Project perform one of the pivotal scenes from "The Cherry Orchard." That's at npr.org.

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