An Interview With CHESS director Ryan Fogwell and lead Tavis Cunningham

Tavis+Steph Chess hero mediumIt’s hard to describe Chess, the musical composed by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus from ABBA with lyrics by Tim Rice, with its intricate plot, complex characters and multitudinous themes of love, politics and war – one really has to see it to appreciate it. With such well known songs as Anthem and One Night in Bangkok, this production has won countless fans all over the world and its original London production, starring Elaine Page and Murray Head, ran for three years on the West End. I spoke with Director Ryan Fogwell and lead Tavis Cunningham, who plays Anatoly Sergievsky, about the new production coming to Manly, NSW for a limited run this May.

Let’s talk about Chess. For people who haven’t heard of nor seen the musical before – what is Chess about?

Tavis: It’s set in the middle of the Cold War in 1979-1980 – a bit more into the later of the Cold War I guess, – and it’s really about how people are controlled by their countries and the political machinations that are going on between members of the US and the Soviet Union. It’s all taking place during two chess tournaments – one in Italy and one in Thailand. It follows the Russian chess player [Anatoly] and one of the members of the American team [Florence] who they get together during the first chess match and then various complications happen.

I feel like Chess is a metaphor – It’s the black vs white, the Soviets vs the Americans, good and evil etc …

Ryan: Yeah, it’s interesting because from what I’ve read about it, Tim Rice basically started with chess as a metaphor and went from there into these ideas of love and war and all these other metaphorical ways of looking at it the strategy behind chess. It is very complicated and that’s one of the hardest things about it. 99% about it is told through song, which isn’t always the easiest thing to understand, and then it’s such a complicated plot on top of that so it’s like trying to really pick out the moments that tell the story.

When I mention the musical, people say, “Why would I want to watch a musical about people playing chess?

Tavis: It’s easy to think about the chess players themselves but a lot of it is about Florence and her decision that she needs to make. It’s not actually a whole lot about chess, even though that’s the title of the show.

Ryan: Exactly. That’s one of the things that I have to keep saying is, “No, it’s not about chess.” I get very sick of saying it’s not about chess.  [laughs]

Ryan, how did the opportunity come about to direct the show? Did they approach you or did you go to them?

Ryan: It was a bit of both. I wanted to get into directing. I finished my degree in theatre and music last year and directing is where I want to go. I approached Manly Musical Society, who I’ve worked with before and said, ‘I’d really like to direct with you guys’ and then they picked the show and just gave it to me.

Where you familiar with the show before you signed on?

Ryan: I had heard of it and that was about it.

So how do you approach taking a show like Chess and making it your own?

Ryan: The two things that I kept in mind when approaching the show was I really want to do justice to the show in the fans eyes because it has a lot of devoted fans. I wanted to make sure I was doing the right thing by its legacy but also wanted to make sure I was telling the story that was there. I needed to find out what the central idea was and then with that see how best tell that story. That’s the main things that I wanted to do coming into the show.

Tavis, how do you see your character Anatoly and is it hard playing such a complex character?

Tavis: Yeah, it definitely is a really complex character. The main thing that you have to do when playing it is really to keep him human because you don’t want to try and create a character who is unrelatable and you don’t want to create a character that you don’t understand why it is what they’re doing. It has been interesting talking about the motivations behind the character as well because we’ve kind of realised in some ways that Anatoly is suffering from depression – just the way he’s often paranoid about what people are doing around him and he finds it very hard to trust anyone. A lot of his story arch is about dealing with his depression and working out where he stands and how he feels about being controlled by the Russians and then when he defects from them, how to go it alone.

Do you think his relationship with Florence is a way out? Is it love? Is it lust? etc. 

Tavis: In many ways it is just a way out because he does feel very trapped in the situation he is in beforehand, being controlled by the Russian team. But I think it definitely is a mixture between the offer of a way out but also that he is really interested in Florence and attracted to her. Between Act One and Two there is a whole year between the two chess tournaments, I do think they really get to have a lot of time to get to know one another and there is a real relationship there, but I do think probably right at the beginning it is kind of an opportunity they seize and go with without really thinking about it too much.

Do you think Chess will have the same interest or popularity as the other musicals that are out at the moment?

Tavis: It has a different level of popularity to things like Les Mis and Wicked. It’s definitely not as big and it’s not as overwhelming take-over in terms of popularity but it does have a pretty big following.

Ryan: It’s interesting because when I’m talking to people about it, it’s either, “No, I haven’t heard of that”, “Oh, I really love One Night in Bangkok” or “Yes, Chess is one of my favourites.” There’s not really any in-between – that’s the response I get. It seems to have this really intense cult following of people who know it and love it.

Tavis: It is relatively widely known, not so much from the plot, but from the songs popular in the 80s like One Night in Bangkok, Nobody’s Side and I Know Him So Well. A lot of people are interested in it, as well especially when you tell them that the music was written by the ABBA composers and the music is by Tim Rice, who has worked with Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber. It’s not a mega musical or anything like that but it certainly isn’t as obscure thing that no ones ever heard of. It definitely has a following.

Usually Chess has a stripped back set meaning no elaborate costumes or sets. Is that how this interruption is?

Ryan: Yes. We’re doing that as well. There’s a lot of words. It’s a lot wordier than a lot of musicals. Especially for the ensembles – they’ve got The Press Conference scene, where it’s just words the whole time.

Tavis: We’re definitely not going for a realistic set or anything like that especially because one part of the show is set in Milano, Italy and the other is set in Bangkok, Thailand. That would be a real undertaking to try and make it realistic but also I think those settings are actually not all that important in the scheme of the show as well. To emphasis on them wouldn’t really do much justice to the setting at all. It definitely is a stripped back kind of production but in many ways that allows you to concentrate on what the actors are doing and all the machinations that is going on with the Cold War plots because it’s quite a complicated set of things that are happening so it’s really good to be able to concentrate on that.

Ryan: I think a whole lot of set and everything would just clutter and make it harder to understand.

Tavis, I read that you said that you think Chess has some flaws. What did you mean by that out of curiosity?

Tavis: I’m not always a fan of Tim Rice’s lyrics. I think sometimes some of the original lyrics that he had occasionally don’t make sense or don’t fit together well. Occasionally the lyrics you have to think about them for a moment before you can work out the phrasing of it or how to construct together in the music but it’s not a major issue. And I really do think that everything else kind of is pulled together in such a way that it doesn’t really affect it much. The show, it’s kind of unique in a way that it’s had many revisions over the years. Meaning that the revisions are good revisions, thankfully, rather than, I guess, in other shows where they revise and revise and you never really get to the right spot. But this has been progressing each time and things have been added and changed so it’s actually in a really good place now.

What do you both love most about musical theatre?

Ryan: When I first started theatre; I came from music. I’d never studied theatre before so the music is really what I love about it and how much story you can tell just with the music as opposed to the words, the staging or anything. Just the music itself can often tell you so much and that’s one of the things I really like. You can really get so many nuances just from what the music is doing. You don’t actually have to do a lot elsewhere sometimes.

Tavis: I’ve been singing and performing in musicals since I was quite young. It’s been one of my favourite past times. I’m really interested in singing and acting and it’s something that I would be interested in pursuing as a career potentially. I really like the time you’re given in theatre and as well the chance to keep on rehashing an idea over and over the course of shows.

Tavis, what would be your dream musical role?

Tavis: I’d really enjoy playing Bobby from Company [by] Sondheim. That is a also a really interesting character [and] I do enjoy some songs, so I’d love to play that role at some point.

Tavis, I read that you’re a little shy so how do you go about being on stage?

Tavis: On stage I feel like it’s very different to how I am in real life. In terms of being able to perform to people, performing is a different world, in some ways, although you have to bring your own self into it to make it real, but when I’m on there I’m really involved in what’s happening on stage rather than thinking about who might be watching me or anything like that. Whereas in real life I’m a bit socially awkward and I need to think about what I’m going to say a lot. In theatre I’m already given what I’m going to say. I’m really bad at improvisation. But when I’ve got a script in front of me I can think about why I’m saying the things I am saying and put a lot of thought into it before hand.

Do you have a favourite song from the show?

Ryan: Listening to Anthem is always a joy just cause it’s so epic! And then personally, I really like the more complex ones like The Press Conference where all the ensemble are speaking really quickly. All those complicated notes and stuff, I find that really fun.

Tavis: I do really enjoy a lot of them. In terms of a solo song I really like Nobody’s Side just because it’s a fun song to listen to not because of the way it progresses the plot or anything like that. It is an important song but it’s a fun song to sing and listen along to. In terms of an ensemble song, Embassy Lament is a fun song as well. It’s quite a funny song so I like that one too.

Last question, what would you do with one night in Bangkok?

Tavis: I would definitely go explore all those temples that they keep mentioning in the song. I think it would be great to see those historic Buddhists and temples in Thailand especially at night time.

Ryan: I suppose I’d want to go eat some food. That’s what I really love whenever I’ve been traveling. I’d go to a restaurant [and] make sure you’re interacting with the locals and the city, I think that’d be really great.

Chess is playing at the Star of the Sea Theatre, Manly from May 22-30.
Tickets available at:

Originally published on the AU review

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