Sunday, January 19, 2014


I’ve spent some time today with the text of “The Art of Cruelty” trying to define, once and for all, just what I mean when I talk about “undertones” in Chekhov. I’ve tried to explain it, repeatedly, in rehearsal, or casual conversation…Nobody knows what I mean.

Many years ago, when I attempted my own version of “Three Sisters” here (a play called “NostalgHia”), the show never took place. Six months of work and no performance. At the time, the shutting down of a show the evening of the opening night felt like death. I mourned that show for months; it almost put me in the hospital (ER to be more exact…but that’s a story for another time); it severed, for a while, connections with people I had been extremely close to for years.

Now, in retrospect, I think that somebody was watching out for me. I couldn’t have attempted another Chekhov after that Chekhov and, at the time, I didn't realize the importance of undertones.

So what exactly are they? It’s still very, very difficult to explain to the modern actor (particularly the modern Western actor – yes, geography matters). It’s not just repression. It’s not just a sense of propriety pushed beyond the bearable. It’s not just unhappiness. It’s a combination of all three with an added touch of guilt for desiring (things, people…mostly people) one learns one shouldn’t have.

There is a moment in fin de siècle theatre (not just Chekhov -- Ibsen and Strindberg too) when women feel shame for desiring. What do they want? What we all want but are too polite to admit: colossal love affairs without an expiration date; travel ("only travel with people you love") to faraway places whose landscapes and cultural protocols provide additional pleasure; professions that allow for unrestricted use of intelligence; no age restrictions of any kind.

You see the problem with explaining this to 20-year-olds fresh out of school, ready to tackle the old masters…The young feel no need to apologize. But Chekhov’s women are no longer young. They’re worn by their menial jobs, or their tedious marriages, or their frustrating years of spinsterhood, or the town’s expectations, or plain old age. By the time they walk into the world set up by Chekhov’s stage, their time is already up. They wake up one morning to discover that they have “expired” like an old can of pineapple. The problem is that their souls (often their bodies) have not (expired). They rebel internally (rebellions completely invisible to the naked eye), and rage against the world…while on the outside, all the others see are polite women pouring a cup of tea for their(disinterested) male visitors, and talking about the weather. That’s the undertone: repression, desire, tragedy – all mastered completely while talking about things of an “appropriate” nature like the price of oranges, or school work (many of Chekhov’s women are teachers), or rain boots, or the latest pamphlet.

No tragedies in tea cups, theirs. Massive internal storms that sink all ships.
Those undertones. How do I explain them to the next generation of twenty somethings ready to take the stage? It’s not that they don’t understand loss (I choose my casts carefully), it’s that there is a certain brand of regret that no one of that age has experienced. And if they’re really lucky (geography, expectations), perhaps they never will.

I'm outvocabularied, Mr. Chekhov. Once again, you win. But not for long, I hope, because what I cannot put into words, I find in images. Tenderness and violence and affection and regret. Desire. That’s what Chekhov’s women are all about. That’s what they’d rather die than confess to. That’s what I need to show. That is what I want.

(A note: I collect songs and images when I think about a play -- a mood file of sorts. Later I regret not tracing the source of the image, the artist. Some of these are nameless, unattributed images. They are not mine, and I never use them other than to exemplify a mood)

Sunday, January 5, 2014

The Beginning (An Editorial for Audition: A Journal of Drama and Performance)

With every single production of the Milena Theatre Group I feel the need to look back to where it all began and remember my mistakes, my victories, and my moments of absolute, unquestionable happiness. Most of all though, I look back to remember why I started all this: the group, the long hours of rehearsal late into the night, the endless doubt before each show. 

The answer is simple: I did it because I couldn’t do otherwise, because I missed the intensity of the theatre back home, because I had something to say and wanted to find a different way of saying it, because I could no longer sit passively and watch dozens of mediocre productions get standing ovations every night from a public who would have withheld applause had it been exposed to a different kind of theatre – immediate, alive, courageous, and beautiful in its recklessness. And so, in 2001, the Milena Theatre Group was born.

In the beginning I didn’t have a name for the kind of work we did but that didn’t matter: poor theatre, homeless theatre, vagrant, vagabond, exiled theatre. Anything would have sufficed because that’s how I felt back then, deprived of the spaces and performances that used to keep me alive for weeks. I realize this sounds both vague and abstract. Let me try to explain.

Romanian theatre exists at a level of intensity that only Artaud’s image of “victims burned at the stake signaling through the flames” begins to capture. The shows I grew up with – The Brothers Karamazov, The Master and Margarita, Don Juan, or the Love of Geometry, Ubu Roi, Faust, Oedipus Rex, Antigone, Strange Interlude, Camino Real…I could go on (the list is endless). What I was going to say is that the shows I grew up watching changed me forever. I don’t know who I was supposed to be, but I know who I have become: someone who has always felt more at home on the stage than in everyday reality; someone who agonizes over this or that small gesture, over the way a spotlight imprisons a silhouette, over the fluidity of every movement, over rhythm and words, and images of love and death that require the actor to let go completely with a never-before-experienced sense of abandon.

Perhaps communism is the best thing that happened to Romania. An odd statement, I know. Let me explain (again): take away from people who have a high regard for the soul every imaginable freedom (travel, choice of any kind, the right to think a thought to its ultimate conclusion), take away from them the bare necessities (decent food and clothing, good wine – yes, I consider that a “bare necessity” – anything that says comfort, safety, home), and you will end up with a nation split into two large categories: tortured intellectuals and cunning factory workers. At some point there will be a rebellion and one group will try to exterminate the other out of shame, or anger, or a misplaced sense of patriotism. The motive is irrelevant. Before such a civil implosion takes place, though, something else happens: an insatiable hunger for expression, a profound intensity sublimated into artistic work, a delirious dance at the margin of danger, a celebration of the freedom of the mind – in other words, the Theatre. That’s what I grew up with. In a prison shaped as a country, the only art that escaped scrutiny was the theatre and nothing ever stopped a show: neither death, nor threats, nor the promise of torture and imprisonment, nor love, or misunderstandings, or perfect storms, or earthquakes. Nothing. On the grave of a solitary, tragic event, a play would emerge, a performance that would cleanse everything and restore the memory of whatever it was that the event had taken away.

That’s my understanding of theatre, the great force of all that is alive and beautiful. That’s why I started the theatre group which got its name after the first full-length production of a play I called Milena, Stripping, a play inside which I buried both the illusion of grand love affairs, and tragic but promising adventures.
Fourteen years later, I still agonize over the smallest gesture on the stage convinced that the absence of attention to details destroys a play as sure as a thousand plane raid. Fourteen years later, I still rely entirely on instinct, and find actors without holding a single audition. People walk into my classes, unaware of my ability to see them, to imagine them imprisoned by a spotlight on the stage - willing, beautiful captives of my fantastical scenarios.

The cast changes over the years (“Everyone I know goes away in the end”). I often work without a stage manager, or proper lights, or an adequate performance space, or money. But the group’s productions get more and more intense, a little more devastating every year, a little more difficult to forget or contain within specific memory compartments.

In moments of reflection and extreme solitude, images of the Milena Group performers (exiles?) parade themselves before my eyes like a great procession of friendly ghosts. I can never show them enough gratitude, but I forget no one.

One of them has had the greatest impact on my work, on the way I approach a new production, on the way I now understand the most elemental human impulses.

In every play I’ve tried to capture a meaningful and unavoidable encounter. This is not my definition of destiny but an illustration of my lack of belief in coincidences. Coincidences exist only to point out that the encounter is inevitable, and that it changes everything in its path. And the change is necessary, painful, spectacular, reckless, and immensely beautiful.

Welcome to the Milena Group. We bare our souls so you don’t have to.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

The Unthinkable: Glissando Or The Art of Cruelty

SMB said, “On the grave of Noir you started working on a new play? You are a maniac.”

This is true (though I prefer “lunatic”). I started work on Chekhov the evening Noir premiered. Chekhov’s Three Sisters (via the Brontës), adapted to the realities (disappointments?) of the 21st century. No explanations and no apologies.

I’ve been dancing around Chekhov for about 10 years now. Dancing around him, courting him, flirting with him, trying to make sense of him. What did this man really think of his weeping women (and why are they always weeping, and rushing off the stage to wipe away their tears in silence, in the quiet of their rooms?)

The crying attracts me, fascinates me: that unspeakable misery, that devastation…or its complete opposite – unbearable happiness. I did it once in The Happiness Machine. I staged a three minute crying scene during which the entire cast, having just listened to an Edith Piaf song, breaks down and sobs uncontrollably. Three whole minutes of tears, and wailing, and convulsive gasps. Made my day every time.

I’ve had trouble with the rhythm of this production. Emotional upheavals are followed by the desert of the real; passion is accompanied by restraint, framed by deprivation (sentimental, sexual); then undertones, implosions, small tragedies, unnoticed victories in rapid succession. The rhythm escapes me, goes up and down, fractures. Perhaps that’s the nature of the interaction between Chekhov and the women. Or perhaps things are vague because I’m working on this play a year in advance (production date: January 2015 at the ACA theatre). Even I feel ridiculous, but I can’t stop, and neither can anyone else (S, K, the women…) Noir left an empty space behind, and our collective need for a refuge is taking the shape of Glissando or The Art of Cruelty. Glissando: musical term. “A rapid slide through a series of consecutive tones.” The Art of Cruelty. Self-explanatory, I think. The business of everyday life. (You didn’t think I was going to call the play Three Sisters, did you? How obvious would that be?)

Together, the titles capture the jagged rhythm.  Every day I find songs that compliment this or that line, movement or scene. Things develop in my mind rapidly, an avalanche of unguarded, unexpected images suffocating one another. Then nothing. Stillness. Then movement again – a tango that begins like a polite but intense conversation between two people and evolves into a small emotional orgy: Chekhov and his three female characters moving as one body.

I’ve been unsure of the relationship between Chekhov and his wife until I got a book of their love letters and read in the introduction: “Temperamentally, no two people could have been more different. [Olga] was impetuous…the victim of her impulses and emotions, both as a person and as an artist…Chekhov was reserved, guarded, shying away from all direct expression of feeling, taking refuge in irony and banter.” My casting couldn’t have been more perfect. Emotional unavailability meets tumultuous needs on a stage set for three (additional) weeping women. Although my modern, (self-sufficient? Ha!) women won’t weep. They’ll shout, and demand, and throw imprudent parties, and desire, and take refuge in work, and drink, and impossible dreams of exotic travel. My women, Mr. Chekhov, not just yours. Three reflections of a single personality, honest to the point of stupidity, foolishly brave. So perhaps there will be crying, but out in the open, with public and a superb soundtrack: smoky, lounge-y, sensual, sad, manic, passionate, devastating.

This production needs to devastate more than any other production we’ve ever done. And it needs to amuse as well, because Chekhov thought he was writing comedies and I want to make him happy. So utter devastation has to follow colossal humor, slapstick in the funeral parlor, so to speak, as bosoms rise and fall with emotion and indignation.

“Night again, late again, and again I am writing to you my dearest darling. Thank you for not forgetting me, for writing often. Life is easier when you write.”