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Performing Arts

In love with Chekhov

By Marilou Carlin

 Kate Berg, Jacqueline Toboni and Alex Madda in U-M's production of "Three Sisters." (Photo by Peter Smith Photography)

Kate Berg, Jacqueline Toboni and Alex Madda in U-M’s production of “Three Sisters.” (Photo by Peter Smith Photography)

After reading The Cherry Orchard at the age of 16, Libby Appel (BA ’59, theatre) fell truly, madly, deeply in love with the work of the great Russian writer Anton Chekhov. In fact, she says, she literally fell in love with the man himself, devouring all of his stories, plays, and letters. “My friends say he was my boyfriend,” she said.  “I’ve tried to analyze it, of course, and I think about the fact that I was just a normal 16-year-old. I wasn’t dark and brooding; I was a very enthusiastic cheerleader type. But there was something about the work, about loss and memory and death, and losing your moment in life. There was just something that hooked into me. From that point on I became avid. I’ve had this love affair my entire life.”

Now, after more than five decades as one of Chekhov’s greatest fans and most passionate interpreters, having directed his plays multiple times, Appel has become even more intimate with the writer’s work: she has become his newest translator. Over the course of the last six years she has worked with a literal translator, Allison Horsley, to adapt the playwright’s most celebrated plays, “merging Chekhov’s late 19th and early 20th centuries’ language with a contemporary 21st century idiom.”

Appel’s translations have now been gathered in a single volume-including Ivanov, The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters, and The Cherry Orchard-which has just been published by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF), where Appel is Artistic Director Emerita. She earned the title after 12 years and 21 seasons as the festival’s creative leader, during which she directed 30 productions.

For theatre students at U-M’s School of Music, Theatre & Dance, this new chapter in Appel’s extraordinarily successful theatre career has had a most fortunate result. At the invitation of Priscilla Lindsay, chair of the Department of Theatre & Drama, Appel returned to Ann Arbor in October to help coach student performers in the School’s debut production of Appel’s translation of Three Sisters (Nov. 21-24, Arthur Miller Theatre).

“I was just floored by how much knowledge she had to share,” said Jaqueline Toboni who stars as Masha, the middle sister. “I am so much more well-equipped to go into the show now that she’s worked with us. She not only told us about Three Sisters and why there were certain choices made in the script, but also about Chekhov in general, and his tendencies and his style. She’s absolutely brilliant. We were all in awe of her.”

“Libby graced us with her dynamic presence for four glorious days as we sat down with her adaptation and did our ‘table work,'” said Priscilla Lindsay, who has been friends with Appel for many years and is directing Three Sisters. “We discovered that she had taken Allison Horsley’s literal translation and teased out the heart and soul of each character in a fresh, straightforward way.”

“I don’t use any contemporary jargon, but it’s a contemporary flavor,” said Appel.  “The flow is a little warmer, more passionate, less acetic. It’s very much an American translation. I’ve heard all (of these new translations) read by American actors, and it simply fits in their mouths.”

Lindsay agrees: “My student actors feel as if the words are accessible, immediate, and infused with a modern sensibility that still evokes deep emotions and responses. Libby’s brilliant comments about the text led us to dig deeply for answers about relationships-about the journeys of the characters.”

Appel’s own journey has been a remarkable one, as her career had an unusual trajectory. Unlike many theatre professionals, she began as an academic and spent the latter years of her career in performance.

Appel was born and raised in New York, hailing from a family of lawyers and accountants that nonetheless took full advantage of the rich offerings available in one the world’s greatest theatre cities. She started attending theatre performances as a child and was soon “star struck.” When she got to Michigan as a speech major (before there was a theatre department), she discovered, to her dismay, that she was “mediocre” as a performer. Fortunately, she had a wonderful professor who steered her into directing. “It just clicked,” she said. “I knew I was a director.”

Immediately after graduating from U-M, in classic early 60s style, she married and started a family. But at age 30, she enrolled at Northwestern for graduate studies, earning her MA, and soon had a serious academic career. She taught acting at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, then chaired the acting program at California State University Long Beach, simultaneously serving as associate artistic director at the California Shakespeare Festival. In 1981 she was named dean of the School of Theatre at the California Institute of the Arts. During this period she took freelance directing jobs during summers; authored Mask Characterization: An Acting Process; co-authored two plays, Shakespeare’s Women and Shakespeare’s Lovers, with Michael Flachmann; and created and produced a video, Inter/Face: The Actor and the Mask.

From 1992 to 1996, Appel served as artistic director of Indiana Repertory Theatre and in 1995 became the fourth artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, one of the country’s finest and most diverse repertory theatres. “It was the opportunity of my creative life,” said Appel. “I got to direct just about all the plays that I wanted to direct, all the Shakespeare that I wanted to do, and so many other plays, including four of the Chekhovs. ”

Her richly rewarding tenure at OSF also led directly to her work as translator. The company’s literary director suggested she try her hand at The Cherry Orchard­­-her first love and one of the final plays she would direct at OSF before retiring in 2007. At first Appel balked: “I wouldn’t have been presumptuous enough to think I could do it,” she said. But after being introduced to Allison Horsley and then receiving the fresh literal translation, Appel spent two weeks holed up at an Oregon beach house with just her dog for company, and came away with a first draft. She also had 10 pages of questions for Horsley, which they dug into over a weekend. At some point, Horsley said, “Libby, this is your voice.” And at that, Appel said, “I stopped running scared.”

OSF produced the new translation, with Appel directing, to great acclaim that season. Appel’s successor, Bill Rauch, then commissioned her to translate the four other Chekhov masterpieces.  One of the most richly rewarding periods of her career had been launched and the artist that she’d been obsessed with her whole life became even more vivid. “Through his writing, I had such an intimate view,” she said.  “Even though I knew him before, now it was deeper. This was a gift. The culmination of this great love affair.”



Three Sisters will be performed Nov. 21-24 at the Arthur Miller Theatre at the Walgreen Drama Center on North Campus. For tickets and information visit or call 734-764-2538; email; or visit the League Ticket Office at 911 N. University.


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