Saturday, November 29, 2014

"In place of this/ A story"

A recent discussion in the pedagogy class that had to do with identity and intellectual, artistic integrity, made me think about my place in academia, in an English Department, in particular. “You do plays? Why aren’t you in the Theatre Department?” And, had I been there, “You teach literary theory? Why aren’t you in an English Department?” 

Theatre professionals, while applauding the result of my work, have often mentioned that I work in unorthodox ways. “You are so European…” Colleagues in academia have pointed out, in an agitated manner, that my relationship with the members of the Milena Group does not resemble their relationship with their students. I wanted to say: do you ask your students to strip, and shout obscenities, and open their souls to the public, and crawl on the stage, and run, and jump, and speak of love, and sex, and disappointment, and leave behind every caution, every inhibition? You don’t? Well, I do. You can imagine how I might need to create a safe space where all these things become possible. You can imagine how, since I ask for complete trust, I might have to offer something in return. Often, it’s simply my time. Spending time together, allowing them to get used to me, allowing me to know, little by little, everything about them.

But, the point is, ever since I can remember I’ve been asked, politely, why I do what I do, why I am where I am or, to put it more precisely, why I’m not where I should be. This applies to geography as well. “Where are you from? When are you going home?” Meaning: you have an accent, you’re not from here, you must miss where you’re from since this is not your home.

A creative writer in an administrative job; a playwright working inside an educational system that thinks theatre can be taught in a classroom; a humanist in an age that celebrates practicality and the bottom line (yay, industry!) and wonders out loud what literature “is for” – is it surprising, really, that the only place I feel at home is on the stage, in a world whose rules I have imagined to the minutest detail?

I am sad. I have been, for quite some time. The one thing for which I’d sacrifice anything and anybody – my plays – is seen as a hobby, a diversion, a nice little side activity. And yet (speaking of identity), when I interviewed for this job, I was told that I was replacing a man who had formed a theatre company, whose shows had been legendary, whose connection to the artistic community I could only hope to achieve one day. The practical nature of my research had been clear to everyone then. What happened to that clarity?

I sit here wondering what this next play is going to look like when the week of tech and dress rehearsals has shrunk to four days, if that. How will we do, how will I do, I who need so much time to think, to find the rhythm of every production in the space that’s going to contain it, how will I work with a completely new lighting designer, and a sound guy who’s never done sound before, on a stage I walked on once, for ten minutes – how will I not screw up? This is what I hate most when doing a play: haste. (And yet, I started thinking about this play a year ago...) The process is everything. The result is a culmination of the process. The repetition of that culmination is useless, so that’s why there’s only one show, one chance to see the play that’s in my head – always something new, something I’ve never done before, something better than the previous production. 

But today I feel unsure about everything. I must have driven the costume designer mad, changing my mind about everything for the third or fourth time. I second-guess every decision. I worry about everybody. I keep telling myself that it’s the nature of this play, that I should blame Chehov. But there’s only so much Anton can do.

The cast is away, celebrating with family and friends. In theatres across the world, directors and actors (people whose job this really is), rehearse at leisure. Our offices are closed, and when they open, we will return to our conferences and books –  the business of the English Department. I will probably continue to sort out vital things like parking or leaky toilets on the second floor. And every day I’ll wonder about the play, about the strange circumstances under which it will have to happen, and happen spectacularly, so that once again I’ll know why I do what I do, and why I am where I am.

“I leave this manuscript, I do not know for whom. I no longer know what it is about.”

Saturday, November 15, 2014

A Confession

With stops and starts, with fury and serenity, with tremendous effort and chronic devastation, Glissando has come together in its final form. And as it did, as I stood there watching it (I can never sit while directing a play), I had a profound realization: throughout the entire process I had censored myself – my methods, my impulses, my habits. This, perhaps, explains the infrequent blog entries. 

I hid nothing during Noir, because it was that kind of play, one that began at the moment the main character had nothing left to lose. I’ve never made a secret of the kind of transference that happens between me and the characters during a play. I call it transference, but it’s more of an obsession: they’re made of my thoughts and my dilemmas, but they’re better than me because they have the courage to say everything, without fear of consequences.

I am (in retrospect) convinced that I started writing plays all those decades ago in Romania, because I felt that silence, and the constant manufacturing of lies necessary for survival, were going to choke me in the end. I wrote plays to be able to breathe, and place the truth in the mouths of those talking heads who raged, and loved, and feared with the best of them, while never being me. They spoke, as I kept silent.

It is very difficult for me to differentiate between characters and actors. This is a problem, since people are sometimes more surprising than I write them. Or less splendid. I’ve written on this subject before, and I found similar echoes only in the people who do exactly what I do: academics turned loose on the stage (see Mary Zimmerman and the Metamorphoses conversations), directors not quite of “the theatre world,” but not exactly assimilated by academia either. The ones who, like me, hesitate to take a good look at the people they work with (mostly their students) for fear that what they see may not reveal itself to anyone else. I sound like my Chehov: “There are too many words, I’m drowning in words.” 

What I mean is that what I do is both dangerous and beautiful. Beautiful because the precision work we do – the attention to detail – creates a sense of harmony. Dangerous because the relationships forged during a production are more honest, a little more intense than the ones established in the classroom (for the most part, I too work with my students). I see the raised eyebrows, and I’m pretty used by now to the smiles that accompany oblique questions regarding the nature of this camaraderie. But I sleep well at night knowing that truly professional lines are never crossed, and that only the people who conceive of theatre as light entertainment think that you can stage a play without getting close to the actors. The danger, really, consists in the unbearable honesty that’s involved. The mask I have perfected for my teaching disappears almost completely in rehearsal. This is why the people I work with always remember their work with the Milena Group. Sometimes a year passes by, sometimes five, or seven, or ten. In the end, I hear back from all of them and in that moment, in that looking-back – a kind of nostalgic inventory they go through, invariably – I know that what I do is justified, that the unspeakable intensity of these productions communicates somewhere in the distance, in a territory that extends well beyond the physical stage.

And yet, during the making of Glissando, I have censored myself repeatedly. In a way, the play demanded it. All those revelations, all that crying, all that unrequited love the characters experience and talk about, had to have an impact on the cast. Small existentialist crises erupted one after the other, followed by larger ones. I often saw the smallness of the incident (a year from now will any of this matter?) but said nothing to contradict expectations, thinking that even small-scale, real-life suffering might contribute to the emotional range of the character. 

Often, I had to change the way I work – directing in narrower and narrower circles, letting things go in the beginning, establishing large patterns of movement or behavior for certain scenes, only to focus on more and more details as the days went by. I believe in fractures and interruptions, in taking scenes apart while they unfold, in bringing actors back to the moment of the deviation. It kills me to let a rehearsal go on and not focus on the moment that needs work at the moment when that work is needed. But not every actor works like that (only the people I work with repeatedly are used to this fractured rhythm, and the actors I worked with in Romania), so to accommodate other ways of inhabiting characters, I stopped interrupting scenes. The consequence: certain characters took shape faster, emerged fully-formed, but certain scenes took longer to perfect. Some are still evolving. I don’t regret trying a different method of directing, but I can’t lie: it felt foreign, uncomfortable.

There were many emotional shifts during the making of Glissando. There were times when I’d wait the entire day for the rehearsal (my refuge) only to be met with slight resentment (“I have so many other things to do!”) and have to swallow the disappointment, and smile, and focus only on the play, the only thing that matters. 

I get it. Sometimes this is only my refuge, no one else’s. By the time we meet in the evening, everyone has had a full day of living, with the whole mess that “living” implies: tedious or exhilarating jobs, belligerent lovers, impossible tasks, money worries. And I would like to say, “Listen, so have I. I too have a difficult task, and people who expect me to solve every daily tragedy, and money worries, and emotional upheavals. And you are all here because you believe in what we do, because you wanted to work with me, and because being on the stage helps you cope with all this living. Why not enjoy it?” I don’t say it. I say it here, still with much hesitation, because there’s always a moment in a Chehov play, when everyone confesses to everything. ”This is what I feel. This is my confession.” It would be dishonest not to confess.

But then there are days like today when everything comes together, when I see the beauty and potential of every scene, when I look at the graceful movements of the women who walk…no, glide on the stage, ethereal; when I look at the uncanny connection that Chehov and Emma have formed; when I see clearly the separation between his reality and his imagination; and I see her struggling to inhabit both…oh, Emma, I know you so well, I feel what you feel, I know who you are…and I think, what does it matter – the small obstacles, the adjustments, the forgotten masks? There is grace and beauty here, and every character in this play speaks a truth that is mine, and I feel an unspeakable sense of freedom and detachment, as if everything tense, and tedious and ugly (all that living) never existed.

I feel (uncensored) affection for these people who’ve decided to spend their Saturday in rehearsal, and, as I watch them pack to go back to their lives, I know that I’ll never be able to tell them just how much affection, for fear they might find it a little scary. A little odd. 

I can’t help it. A truth forms in my mind. A character utters it, on paper. Then an actor catches it, mid-air, toys with it, tries its every possibility until the best one presents itself. Magically, the actor and the character become one. My characters. My actors. My obsessions. They join together in a dance of sorts, an alternation of attraction (truth) and frustration (censorship). They find their rhythm and I find myself standing before another play that’s taken shape while no one else was watching, and I think that I am the luckiest being in the world, and I think that other people’s lives must be so boring. Chehov does this to me, to us, makes us oscillate, erratically, between disappointment and gratitude, between sadness and joy, between a sense of belonging and utter, unalterable, loneliness.

This is the play. These are the actors. And we are almost there.

Sunday, October 26, 2014


It’s taken me an incredibly long time to put this play together. Possibly because we’ve had so much time to do it (an illusion, really), possibly because, of all my plays, this is the one that deals with subjects closest to my heart: the making of a play, and Chehov, my Chehov (the one spelled without a k), the man I've always regarded as a contemporary, with whose plays I’ve had a complicated relationship ever since I can remember.

The question has always been, why do actors find it so difficult to play his characters? Is it the rhythm, that slow gliding toward unhappiness that the so-called realism of the stage (which doesn’t really exist, but that’s a discussion for another time) has trouble recreating? Is it because Chehov’s plays exist, stubbornly, at the intersection of a certain brand of psychological realism and the absurd? I don’t know. What I do know is that, like Shakespeare’s plays, Chehov’s invite deadliness – those never-ending productions of correct articulation and unspeakable boredom.

For some reason (possibly the “transfer” of some actors from to Noir to Glissando, possibly something else entirely), I wanted to create a connection between the two plays, so in this production Chehov is credited with writing Noir. Why? First, there’s the stark contrast, almost an opposites attract kind of relationship: Noir, done without professional lighting (remember the abandoned lamp factory set?) because I couldn’t get over parting with a brilliant lighting designer I’d worked with for a decade; Glissando, our first production at the ACA Moncus Theatre, benefiting from the theatre’s superb lighting and sound system. Second, if everything in Noir was meant to look improvised, decayed, accidental (how else would one flirt with the Angel of Death?), Glissando moves in the opposite direction, toward the beautiful, the mellifluous, the artistic. 

When the play opens, Chehov is working on a production of Three Sisters – he writes the play as he directs it, the way I work on the Milena Group productions – and although there is much chaos and confusion in the mind of the playwright as he tries to organize the scenes of his play, everything, from the set dominated by three giant paintings of the sisters, to the movement of the light between the “real space,” (the Chehov household) and the imaginary space (the stage where Chehov rehearses his play), has that gliding rhythm, almost trance-like, that the Chehovian characters experience, a rhythm that creates a sense of beautiful serenity that welcomes personal tragedies without surprise. All of this to say that tragedy is beautiful and glamorous while comedy is cheeky and loud, chaotic and messy, alive…The reason it took me so long to find Glissando’s rhythm is that, in keeping with Chehov’s claim that he was writing comedies, I wanted to blend both: impossible, tragic love affairs, and moments of terrific comedy, while never betraying the rhythm of the production. It hasn’t been easy, but I think that rehearsing the scenes of the play separately, and in no particular order (like working on a film), and slowly revealing each character’s tragedy in vignettes, moving from “real” to make-believe spaces, has done the trick.

Ever since we started working on this play, I’ve felt that all of us began to live inside a strange, meta-Chehovian production, a play-within-a-play scenario that resulted in disturbing events and strange coincidences.

I’ve never denied or tried to hide my superstitious nature, but I have to say that, in the middle of misfortunes, catastrophes, and reversals (see previous posts), I’ve felt a certain strange logic take over, something that seemed to demand that we live Chehovian scenarios in reality before attempting them on the stage. Everything that’s happened in the past months (the necessity of replacing the actress playing Olga – nobody can ask the human body to perform impossible feats; following S’s daring career change in the middle of the rehearsal process; hoping some of the cast and crew will not collapse under the enormous pressure of PhD exams and dissertations – a constant reminder that theatre is everyone’s refuge, but not everyone’s career or main preoccupation – and how grateful this makes me, knowing the time, the emotional energy these people put in each production!…living with the disappointment of a failed kickstarter campaign for Glissando; responding to a late evening text from one of the actors whose friend, knowing nothing about the production, used the character’s name instead of the actor’s…a typo. “How is that possible? We never discussed the play or my character’s name!” – strange, impossible coincidences as the date of the show nears, and many other internal developments I won’t even mention here, difficult but necessary decisions about the future, and a permanent sense of exhaustion)…everything points to the fact that we are, that we have been, living inside a Chehov play for months now. What can I say? I hope it’s worth it. I think so. I think that, perhaps, trying to do a Chehov play like any other play, in a matter of weeks, has been the problem with many of the Chehov productions I've seen. Perhaps only this blurring of boundaries between reality and the stage can make us understand his characters profoundly. Perhaps a sacrifice is necessary before each production. We should be fine then. We’ve sacrificed a lot already.

For now, the music is in place to guide Glissando’s characters through their most difficult scenes, as they laugh, and cry, and wail at the injustices that fate has dealt them, as they slowly withdraw at the end of each exchange, to find comfort and reparation in the shadows.