Interview with Maria Shclover and Irina Shabshis, the co-founders of the Cherry Orchard Festival

Written by Meagan Meehan. Posted in Theater, Theater Interviews

Published on May 25, 2018 with No Comments

The Cherry Orchard Festival is an arts festival that has become a beloved staple of NYC. In 2018, founders and producers Maria Shclover and Irina Shabshis are bringing Russia’s Theatre of Nations to New York with Anton Chekhov’s “Ivanov,” a dramatic play about an antihero, a melancholic upper-class man who is struggling to regain his former glory. The play will run from June 14 to June 17 at New York City Center (131 W. 55th Street), as part of their VI Cherry Orchard Festival of the Arts.

Most recently, in January and February of 2018, the Cherry Orchard Festival presented eight performances in Boston and Chicago of “Brodsky / Baryshnikov,” a one-man performance conceived and directed by Alvis Hermanis, noted Latvian director of The New Riga Theatre, based on the poems of Nobel laureate Joseph Brodsky, and performed by Mikhail Baryshnikov, an old friend of the poet.

Maria Shclover, Board Chair and Co-Founder was born in Moscow, where she studied piano at the prestigious Gnessin’s Moscow Special Music School of Music. Maria went on to study at the State Gnessin Musical College. Upon graduation, in 1991, Maria immigrated to the United States. She continued her education in International Business and Finance at New York University’s Stern School of Business. Maria founded Maestro Artist Management in 2005, which has successfully produced, promoted and managed touring companies of international performing artists in music, dance, and theatre.

Irina Shabshis, Board Vice President and Co-Founder was also born in Moscow and began her music studies at age five at the Moscow Music School. She graduated from the Gnessin Russian Academy of Music as a Choirmaster and served as an assistant conductor of leading choral groups. In 1989 Irina immigrated to the United States and studied technology and finance, initially working in banking.

In 2011, Maria and Irina founded the Cherry Orchard Festival Foundation to bring world-class performing arts to wider audiences in New York and the US. Cherry Orchard Festival combines Maria and Irina’s expertise and industry experience with their longtime passion for family arts education. Their shared dream is to showcase performers and stage works from around the world for American audiences.

Since 2013 the Cherry Orchard Festival has built a solid reputation for presenting moving and intriguing concerts and productions by international artists and ensembles to New York City audiences. A production of the Cherry Orchard Foundation, the Festival is a celebration of the international arts in the heart of New York City and beyond. Each of its world-class, multi-disciplinary performing and visual arts attractions is unique and never has been presented before in the US. Festival’s creative team finds the newest and most daring projects in the international arts arena and introduces it to an audience. The Festival’s mission is to initiate and promotes global cultural activity and exchange of ideas to an inter-generational audience through entertaining and educational programming and events in all genres. The Festival’s team is committed to providing the finest entertainment, exceptional musical performances and enlightening educational programs to its patrons.

Recently, both ladies granted an exclusive interview discussing their company, their vision, and more.

Meagan Meehan (MM) of Entertainment Vine: How did you initially get interested in theater and when did you meet and decide to collaborate? 

Maria Shclover (MS): We met in 2004 at the home of a mutual friend, but it was probably fate that brought us together. We both had professional training as classical musicians, both graduated from one of Moscow’s most prestigious music universities, before immigrating to the US, where we both retrained for other professions, but the love of the performing arts was still a major part of both our lives. Together, we found a way back to our common passion. My father is a renowned Russian musican and actor, and I practically grew up backstage, while studying piano. Coming to New York in 1991 with two bags and big dreams, I knew I need to get a US education, yet I had no connections and no knowledge of English language. With hard work, I was accepted to NYU Stern, majoring in finance and international business. In the meantime, Irina transformed herself from professional choirmaster to computer programmer. By the time we met, I was working for General Electic, but already producing small performances on my own, as a hobby. Together, we formed a small agency, called Maestro Artist Management and started bringing and presenting international artists in New York, and then nationally.

MM: What inspired the start of the Cherry Orchard Festival and how did you promote it and get it so well known? 

MS: We founded Cherry Orchard Festival in 2012. By that time, we had extensive experience presenting international musical and theatrical performances — Argentinian tango, Spanish flamenco, Russian ballet, French chanson, in addition to working with several classical orchestras and theaters.

IS: Our initial goal was to present New York appearances by some of the incredible international theatres that may be sold out across Europe, but relatively unknown in the US.  We had been traveling to some international Theater Festivals and really wanted to give those incredible groups a chance to perform in New York – we felt like the demand is there, the public is hungry for this kind of entertainment.

MM: Typically, how long does it take you to prepare for the Cherry Orchard Festival? 

IS: We start planning ahead at least 1.5 year in advance. When we started, we chose New York City Center as our home and main theatrical stage. When we have classical music productions, we also present them either at Carnegie Hall or at Lincoln Center. We try to build our programming early, so we can book the best possible dates in these prestigious venues.

MM: Why do you focus on classic works, especially Russian works, and might you one day open the festival up to new works? 

MS: We think that if a classic work is timeless, then there is always something new to find in it. So, while we do focus on theaters that follow the classical tradition, we always look for innovation. For example, the Vakhtangov Theatre is known for staging classics by Chekhov and Pushkin, but their “Eugene Onegin” is very modern, with feminist undertones – amazing, considering they didn’t omit a single line from the original!

IS: During our inaugural season, we presented one of Israel’s Gesher Theatre’s new works, and an experimental theatrical performance starring John Malkovich, so we are definitely open to new ideas and new works, and we hope to see more amazing new theater in the coming years, and to have the opportunity to present it to US audiences.

MM: What sorts of reactions have you seen from audiences? 

MS: There is always a range of opinions, because we have a mixed audience, from serious theatre-goers, to more mainstream folk. That’s why we always make sure to include subtitles for the plays presented in foreign languages and offer as much information as possible to audiences in advance of performances. We agreed from the start that we’ll only present work that we truly love, and it definitely makes us happy when we see our audience’s positive reactions, and when we see audiences engage in thoughtful dialogue. We have collected many wonderful letters of appreciation from audience members who crave a more profound experience, because we really try to give our audience something to think about.

MM: What do you most enjoy about working on the Cherry Orchard Festival? 

IS: Being part of the creative process! We are such a small team, and the two of us pretty much handle everything, from logistics and contracts to advertising and hospitality. And then of course there is the fundraising aspect, that was fairly new to both of us at the start. But working alongside some of today’s biggest names in theater and seeing the standing ovations and your own idea being successfully implemented makes it all worthwhile!

MM: What are the challenges of being a professional theater producer? 

MS: One major challenge so far has been to build financial support to grow the Festival. The other challenge has always been combining our demanding jobs with family life. For instance, my daughter’s high school graduation is on the same day as the opening night of the Festival, so I am going to try to make it to both!  I think it’s important to always remember how lucky we are to do what we love every day, and to be grateful to everyone who already supports us, like our family, our friends, and loyal audience members.

MM: Overall, what are your biggest goals for the future of the Cherry Orchard Festival? 

MS: We really want the Cherry Orchard Festival to become an essential part of the New York summer. We want to grow and be able to bring both well-regarded and experimental, new productions, featuring established and emerging artists. We also really hope to eventually feature some free programming and reach out to those audiences who may not have the opportunity to attend a ticketed event.

IS: Both of us are living an “American Dream” of having come here with nothing but our passion for the arts and building something of our own. We know that even a single performing arts experience can change a life, and we want to share our passion with our audience, to impact them in a positive way.

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To learn more, visit the official website of the Cherry Orchard Festival.

About Meagan Meehan

Meagan J. Meehan is a published author, poet, cartoonist and produced playwright. She pens columns for the Great South Bay Magazine, Examiner and AXS. She is also a stop motion animator and an award-winning abstract artist. Meagan holds a Bachelors in English Literature and a Masters of Communication. She is an animal advocate and a fledging toy and game designer.

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