In the words of Peter Brook
an excerpt from an interview with Charlie Rose
Years ago, I ran into Harold Pinter at a party in tremendous excitement… He said, ''I have just read the most remarkable book.'' I mean, he was so excited about it that I went away immediately to buy the book, which was Awakenings, and that was how I first heard of Oliver Sacks. The next step was to be as enthusiastic as Pinter and to come to New York, phone Oliver Sacks, leave a message, got a nice message back. We met for dinner at The Ginger Man and have been close friends ever since…
Without Oliver, I might never have found the way into this mysterious, unknown, and yet extraordinarily fascinating real world of neurology; and I would never have understood how neurology is something completely different from psychology, from psychiatry, from psychoanalysis, and reflects itself in ways that are so close to what the theater is there to show; that there was a field that was legitimate for theater. Without Oliver, I would never have found this. But we say ''inspired'' because we then had to -- ''we'' being the little team who have made this play -- all together we had to find our own experiences by going ourselves into hospitals and in a way going through the same path that Oliver had done, of seeing patients, being in consultations, watching them, listening to them…
The first step was reading The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat… Second step was to feel, strangely enough, this is material for the stage. Next stage is how the hell do you do this. And everyone I knew said, ''This is impossible… There’s no way of doing this…” Because it isn't written with a story… There's no narrative. Can you make theater without a narrative? It seemed to me of course you can, but how is what the work's about… So the next step was, of course, to invite Oliver to come over. We have a group who has worked together for a long, long time in Paris, and we spent a couple of weeks just working around the subjects -- Oliver telling us at great length extraordinary tales that are not in the book from his own experience. We talked about neurology. The actors improvised. And out of this big session, we came to the conclusion that we had to now reduce our big group to a very small little commando group to be able to go into the hospitals and study for ourselves…
We had a writer who's worked with us for years -- Jean-Claude Carriere-- and he came to me after a time and said, ''You know, I think that this isn't a job for a writer because anything I do as a writer is an intervention. I will be trying to make fiction out of this.'' It would be made into fiction. So we then thought: there's another way, and the other way was first of all to go and look, watch, and sometimes very, very painfully experience these cases. There was a group of four actors, a musician, and one person -- Marie-Helene Estienne-- who was like the literary editor, in the new English word, but something more than that: the person who was combining, coordinating, and sifting the material without it being written, in the way that a playwright would write it. Then, all together, we started working from our impressions, trying slowly and all together to find a theatrical form that was not just like in a documentary film because then there's no point in doing it in the theater. It was not just imitating, but it was not dramatizing. It was making this vivid through the actor, through the actor's behavior, through the actor's words, through the actor's performing, but in a way what-- I'll put it very simply -- all work really is condensing so that what in life takes many, many months, you have to shrink down day after day until it gets shorter and shorter, more compact, more compact, until in the end in an hour and a half you can actually give to other people the experience you have taken many months to get. And that's-- that was the work…
Now Oliver, naturally, couldn't work with us on a day-to-day basis, which we would have loved, because he was here with a more than busy life. We were working in another language and on the other side of the ocean, working in French in Paris. So we kept in constant touch. He fed us all the time with tapes, with articles. We exchanged information, but it was only when we had made a shape that by chance he came to Europe, and we could present the very, very first run-through in a room about this size to him. And although he didn't speak French -- I mean, he knew-- I mean, he looked at it in the way that, that a doctor looks at every detail and can tell from what's in front of him what's going on so he understood everything and, fortunately, approved of what was going on, to our great relief.
There is a passage in Robert Conquest’s brilliant, monumental epic, The Great Terror, where the insane brutality of the process he recounts seems to infect the prose.
“The Deputy Commissar for Justice was severely criticised in January and shot.”
It is as though the author, overwhelmed, has given up on any attempt to identify due legal process, any fragment of justification for execution, just as they were abandoned in Stalin’s Soviet Union. The reader too adapts to this new logic and it is a shock, when you stop to think, to realize that you are no longer surprised. Why, if a man is criticised, then of course he will later be shot.
Welcome to Moscow, 1938. It is here, in this atmosphere, in fact this deadly reality, that Mikhail Bulgakov, aged forty-seven, novelist and dramatist, will undertake his most hazardous assignment, and how often – in all honesty – can you say that about playwright?
Here we join him, a novelist and librettist as well, looking for a theatre to take his work. The stage adaptation of his own novel The White Guard has been a huge success, running at the prestigious Moscow Arts Theatre for over eight hundred performances. The success, however, is tainted. He was forced to change the ending (the story of White Russians living in Kiev during the turmoil of the civil war) to make it politically acceptable. Of his other plays, Flight (also featuring White Russians as heroes) is banned, as are Last Days (Pushkin’s battle with the Tsar Nicholas I), Madam Zoyka (a satire on Lenin’s New Economic Policy), and Moliere (the playwright’s extinction at the court of Louis XIV). This last one hurt especially.
By now, Bulgakov is an author in distress. The artistic and commercial success of The White Guard keeps him afloat, but the horizon is empty and his future looks bleak. At an emotional low, he writes privately of his intention to give up the theatre. It is into this gloomy domestic scene that a new opportunity is delivered. Bygones are to be bygones, censorship lifted and the pariah readmitted, for it turns out that the stage needs him as much as he needs the stage.
The MAT has a privileged status, the double edged gift of Stalin. It has been allowed a tour to Paris with its actors waved through customs on the way home. Its senior figures have travelled to Germany for medical treatment, but are not denounced and tried as spies on their return. In exchange for all these favours, the company is supposed to showcase all that is great in Soviet drama. There is only one problem: Soviet drama is dismal. There is propaganda of course, no shortage of work written to the Bolshevik order, but the MAT is supposed to be above all that. They need quality and ideological rectitude, Marxist orthodoxy with a human twist, a big bold hit that doesn’t get anyone in trouble. So they turn to the man they know is in need of a break, a man with talent, a man who has previously toyed with the dangerous notion that they now present to him late one night in his cramped, cold apartment.
They want him to write a play about Stalin. In return, he asks for a new apartment. An agreement is reached. A deal is done.
But Bulgakov, I believe, had no choice other than to deliver the play he eventually did. People well known to him and his wife, Yelena, had been arrested. The poet and playwright, Vladimir Maykovsky was driven to suicide (or possibly assassinated). Another poet, Osip Mandlestam, died for, basically, writing a poem. Actor and theatrical innovator Vsevolod Meyerhold was banned, arrested, and eventually shot, so the first actor to shoot the seagull (in Chekhov’s play) was himself shot on the orders of the man who wore the Seagull badge (the MAT’s gift to its all-powerful sponsor). The terror was in full swing: show trials, hysteria, fear and paranoia were the stuff of daily life. And even with all that, if Bulgakov had been exceptionally brave (or foolhardy) on his own account, he had to think of his wife. An act of rebellion or refusal would have doomed Yelena too, perhaps before him. In a surviving document from the NKVD, four categories for arrest are listed. The first three are various definitions of enemies of the people. The fourth is quite simply: “wife”.
If he had good reasons not to decline the challenge, it is also likely that he actively wanted it. I don’t think it is a conjecture too far to suggest that Bulgakov felt he had some sort of relationship with the man who ruled the Soviet empire. Like Moliere before him, he had come to the attention of the supreme ruler and found himself now utterly dependent on the indulgence of that ruler for his continuing ability to work and to live. For Stalin had taken a liking to The White Guard and had seen the play many times. He had even attended with his old comrade and fellow member of the Politburo, Sergei Kirov in November 1934, only two days before Kirov was murdered (probably, as it happens, on Stalin’s orders). But four years before that, the path of playwright and tyrant had already crossed. In 1930, in despair and anger, the victim of a campaign of persecution and believing he had no future in the U.S.S.R., Bulgakov had applied for permission to emigrate. Stalin, in one of his characteristically Olympian interventions (a surprise phone call from the Kremlin), threw Bulgakov a lifeline, the promise of work at the MAT.
It was the first act in a near decade-long tease that would lead, in the end, to a telegram, a train journey interrupted, and the damning faint praise of the ultimate critic. He had given Bulgkov hope, a gift in its own way more destructive than despair. In the years that followed that call, his work approached production but never quite got there (Moliere was rehearsed nearly three hundred times). Bulgakov was driven to distraction, torn between feeling saved and knowing he was doomed. He longed for a message from above, a signal to tell him where he stood. But in the years that followed, there was none.
Bulgakov should not have been surprised. One of Stalin’s most effective tactics was the use of uncertainty: subtle alterations in job description might lead to arrest weeks later. Or, just possibly, it might not. Criticism and apparent reprieve washed over Party officials like waves tossing their victims one way then the other while the tide dragged them slowly further from the shore. False reassurance and broken promises were a matter of policy at the highest level. Even after death, a deliberate fog persisted. Thousands sentenced to “ten years [of imprisonment] without right of correspondence” were in fact secretly executed – their loved ones’ flickering hope for the future nothing more than a cruel illusion. In limbo, Bulgakov was far from alone.
So giving in to, or being inspired by, the idea of writing a play about Stalin, must have seemed like a way to send a message “upstairs”, to provoke a response (perhaps a favourable one), one that would at last tell Bulgakov: saved or doomed?
For whatever reasons, then, he accepted the commission and he did what anyone might do: he tried to reconcile the conflicting, contradictory impulses. On the one hand, he must not write anything critical of or hostile to Stalin. There are bullets waiting for men who do that. On the other, he is at heart a believer in the freedom of the individual, a humane liberal, a satirist, and his craft is crying out to be used. Surely these two cannot be married. But he tries. And, perhaps thrilled to be working again, to feel the old juices flowing, he believes that he has succeeded. Yelena records that readings of scenes to friends were met with enthusiasm. Here he is, it seems, taking on the biggest subject available, the single outstanding feature of life in this nation, the object of its cult – its leader – and, he feels, making a decent fist of it.
And meanwhile, the terror reaches full strength, a bewildering torrent of arrests, confessions, trials, and punishment. Day and night, the meat grinder does not pause. The GULAG swells with human fodder. Mass graves are dug and filled. Philatelists, engineers, students of Esperanto, artists, peasants, army officers, railwaymen, foreigners, factory workers, Party officials, all fall into its maw. The instrument of terror, the NKVD itself, is not spared: several thousand of its officers are shot. The terror becomes, in the words of Robert Service, “systematically arbitrary”. Pretence of finding actual perpetrators of actual crimes is replaced with a more direct approach. Prikaz, operational orders, simply instruct the functionaries across the USSR to round up a certain number of people who fit the bill and deal with them accordingly. There are no punishments for exceeding your quota but a shortfall is fatal.
To dabble in numbers is to enter an arena of controversy and partiality. In an on-line world, we can all find whatever estimates suit our own point of view. Nevertheless, it seems reasonable to give credence to those scholars who have been to the trouble of actually researching the primary evidence (i.e. proper historians) and in turn give the most credence to those proper historians who are most cited by other people who have researched the primary evidence (i.e. other proper historians). What else can you do? Most of us weren’t actually there. But allowing for the above, a useful place to start might be the comment in Nikita Krushchev’s memoir: “ten million or more of our citizens paid with their lives in Stalin’s jails and camps”.
And then, in November 1938, with surprising rapidity, it fizzled out, this paroxysm of savagery. Perhaps it had been unsustainable: by this time, it has been reported, nearly half the urban population was on a list that should lead to arrest. Or perhaps it has simply served its purpose: all resistance to Stalin is broken. The populace is cowed and the Party, and all the institutions of state, have been made anew. Until his death, there will be no challenge to the authority of the Vohzd.
So the terror tails off (though it never disappears) and in a flourish of chutzpah, Stalin manages to blame it all on someone else: his head of the NKVD, Nikolai Yezhov. They even give the whole episode a name, the Yezhovchina. The man himself is appointed Commissar for Water Transport, which must have seemed like a death sentence. If it didn’t, it should have. A few months later, his successor at the organ of state security, Lavrenti Beria, has Yezhov arrested and shot, then strolls round to present Stalin with a list of a hundred and fifty or so friends and family of poor old Nikolai whom he now seeks approval to liquidate. So it goes.
But Bulgakov has made progress with the play. He is ill now, dying of the same kidney disease that killed his father, but he works on and the producers are pleased with what they read. In good spirits, he and Yelena set off with designers and producers from the MAT to do research in Stalin’s home, the Soviet Republic of Georgia. They never get there. They are recalled by a telegram (“journey unnecesary”), the creative process is at an end.
What are we to make of the result of all this, the play Bulgakov entitled Batum (after the Black Sea oil town where the action takes place)?
It is, I would say, a pale imitation of his other work. How could it be otherwise? His head was not free to think, his hand not free to write. His other plays have zest and humanity, often what feels like spontaneity, at some moments as though the work has been casually thrown together. If that leads to some passages being less sure-footed than others, then it only re-enforces the notion of the author as a human rather than a soviet machine. But there is none of this in Batum. The humour is forced, the drama is linear and predictable, and the leading character (you know who) is a synthetic goody two-shoes, a boring Marxist who never sets a foot wrong but who somehow inspires and leads the dullards around him. The romance is cursory and simplistic (in contrast with the authentically complicated affairs in The White Guard, Moliere, and Last Days). In Batum, only the authority figures have any depth, but even they feel like emasculated reproductions of his previous villains. Bulgakov did what he was compelled to do: he sacrificed a quantum of his own credibility to sanitize and glorify the despot.
It was all for nothing. Stalin, an assiduous reader and theatre-goer, took pity on his favourite playwright. For him, too, there were conflicting impulses: on the one hand, he was tempted by the prospect of a play by Bulgakov, but on the other hand, a tyrant must take care of his image. In the words of Service again, Stalin “could kill artists at will, but he knew that his policies could only produce great art if he overlooked, at least to some extent, what the artists were really doing”.
Perhaps, like Bulgakov, Stalin hoped that the two impulses could be reconciled, and if so, he can only have been disappointed in the result. The play was submitted for approval, and his verdict was returned: Batum, he decided, was “a very good play… but not to be staged”. Bulgakov had delivered the play that, in a better world, he would never have written and now, for better or for worse, it would never be performed.
From Moliere, Act Four: “All my life I’ve licked his spurs and thought only one thing – don’t crush me. And now he has crushed me all the same. The tyrant!”
Bulgakov never did get the apartment.
His supporters of Bulgakov, perhaps trying to shield him from judgement, have combed the text of Batum to find hidden messages of rebellion. Well, fair enough, they may be there if you hold it up to the light and tilt it a certain way. For myself, I am not convinced, but I don’t think it matters one way or the other. I may have taken the liberty of renaming his play and subjecting it to parody, but I intend no criticism of the man. There is no need to shield Bulgakov from anything. The tyrant cornered him and toyed with him for his own pleasure. When it was over, there was time left for nothing but the end.
Or almost nothing. In the last months of his life, Bulgakov completed The Master and Margarita, his novel in which the Devil visits Moscow. So with this parting shot he added to what he had already created: an outstanding body of work, in drama and in prose, an incredible achievement under the most trying of circumstances. In 1938, he was a brave man trying to survive, both literally and artistically, and if Batum does not live up to his own standards, then what of it? For Mikhail Bulgakov, a true hero of the Soviet Union, owes nobody an apology.
Spooky Action Travels to New York and Paris, Back and Forth in Time
Featuring Michael Kevin Darnall, Tia Shearer, Randolph Rand, Seamus Miller, Elliott Bales, Dane Edidi, Bette Cassatt, Sha Golanski, Ryan Jones, Matthew Marcus, and Stephen Krzyzanowski.
A highly visual and cinematic play, Last of the Whyos follows Eddie Farrell, king of the Whyos gang in 1880s New York, as he slips through time to confront his future self one hundred years in the future and unleash energies long held in check.
Returning to Washington to direct is Rebecca Holderness, whose brilliant stagings of The Wedding Dress by Nelson Rodrigues, andKafka on the Shoreby Haruki Murakami previously produced a string of sold-out performances for Spooky Action.
The production design team includes Guest Artists Vicki Davis (set design) and Matthew Adelson (lighting design), who will come to Washington from New York and Massachussetts respectively. Erik Teague (costume design)and David Crandall (sound design) are Washington area artists who also helped create last season’s striking production of The Wedding Dress by Nelson Rodrigues. Once again, Spooky Action’s flexible preformance space will be redesigned, tailored to the special requirements of Barbara Wiechmann’s exceptional script.
Compassion and humor intersect with imagination and memory
Spooky Action Theater opens its 2013-2014 Season with Tennessee Williams’ The Two-Character Play, directed by Artistic Director Richard Henrich. Williams called this “my most beautiful play since Streetcar.” The production runs October 3 – October 27.
In The Two-Character Play, veteran Washington actors Lee Mikeska Gardner and David Bryan Jackson portray sister and brother actors stranded in the State Theater of a State unknown. Sibling rivalry, compassion and humor intersect with imagination and memory in a spellbinding, dangerous enterprise. Gardner and Jackson have a wealth of shared experience to draw on. They were a couple for many years, and they are the parents of Max Jackson, who appeared in Spooky Action Theater’s 2012 production of The Water Engine. During their time together, the two collaborated on several plays — producing, co-directing and acting with, or directing each other. According to Jackson, “The Two-Character Play marks the first time in a decade that we have worked together onstage.”
“The Two-Character Play is very different from other Tennessee Williams works, say, Streetcar Named Desire or Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” says Henrich. “It is full of dark humor, and the humor brings a wonderful balance to a play that contemplates madness and even death. The play is highly autobiographical. Williams struggled not only with the madness of his sister, Rose, but also with feelings of potential madness in himself.”
Set designer J.D. Madsen has created a set-within-a-set, where a deconstructed southern parlor floats like a dream on the stage of a State Theater that is both cold and fantastical. Brian Allard’slighting heightens the contrast between these two worlds. David Crandall provides sound that swings from the everyday to the surreal. Kimberly Parkman’s costumes evoke both the actors’ past and present lives at once. Deb Crerie has created giant set pieces that answer Williams call for phantasmagoria, while Pallas Bane (props) and Betsy Muller (scenic painting) complete the design team.
Illusion, dream and imagination. These are the elements that comprise Spooky Action Theater Company’s 2013-2014 Season. Led by Artistic Director Richard Henrich, Spooky Action presentsThe Two-Character Play by Tennessee Williams, The Wedding Dress by Nelson Rodrigues andKwaidan by Lafcadio Hearn.
Henrich describes the coming season as being inspired by a “world that is rich and complex, but full of holes and inconsistencies. These plays reach beyond what we think we know. They reach beyond conventions… to the bigger reality that lies within the embrace of our imagination.”
Season Ten Features
The Two-Character Play by Tennessee Williams, October 3-27, 2013. A Washington premiere, this is a rarely seen later work by Williams, who described it as his “most beautiful play since Streetcar.” Evocative and haunting, The Two-Character Play is an illusion within an illusion and experienced on different levels by Felice and Clare, two actors on tour who are also brother and sister. Spooky Action’s Richard Henrich directs the production.
The Wedding Dress by Nelson Rodrigues, translated by Joffre Rodrigues, February 13 – March 9, 2014. Another Washington DC premiere, The Wedding Dress is the best known play by Brazil’s most famous playwright. The Brazilian Embassy will provide support for the production, which will be part of a mini festival featuring Rodrigues’ work. The retrospective festival will include readings of other plays and opportunities to hear specialists in Brazilian theater speak about the playwright and his place in Brazilian culture. Guest director Rebecca Holderness (Kafka on the Shore,Einstein’s Dreams) returns to Spooky Action to lead the production.
Kwaidan by Lafcadio Hearn, May 29 – June 22, 2014. Guest Director Izumi Ashizawa will create a visual feast to encompass these Japanese “ghost stories” collected by Hearn at the turn of the 20th century. Ashizawa’s Dreams in the Arms of the Binding Lady was a great success last year at the Kennedy Center, and she is quickly building an international reputation for her unique story-telling style, which combines traditional Japanese theater techniques with the lush resources of contemporary stagecraft. This will be the world premiere of Ashizawa’s new adaptation of these traditional Japanese tales.
As part of its program to develop new plays, Spooky Action Theater is launching four play development events in September. Following August workshop performances ofKlytmnestra by performance artist Dane Figueroa Edidi, these events complete New Works in Action Round One. Two previously unproduced plays will receive in-house readings. Two more plays will be presented to audiences in fully staged workshop performances. Round Two will commence in October.The objective of New Works in Action, launched in March 2013, is to provide an opportunity for new playwrights to present their work to theater professionals and audiences, who provide feed-back and participate in developing and strengthening new scripts for future full production.
Spooky Action’s initial call for new works elicited numerous play submissions from the greater Washington, DC area. Submitted plays were read, evaluated and chosen based on their alignment with the Spooky Action Theater aesthetic. The selected plays reach beyond naturalism, stretch the imagination and evoke the subconscious by using layers of reality and inventive juxtapositions of past, present and future. They lend themselves to a vigorous, movement-based performance style.
The New Works in Action process begins with a sit-down reading with the author, director and a cast of professional actors. Scripts that go to the next level are rehearsed and presented for a limited number of workshop performances as book-in-hand productions. For these, the play is up on its feet, actors carry the script, and the staging is supported with lights, sound and streamlined set and props. The workshops include a post-show discussion to engage the audience in the development process.
A call for Round Two submissions will be posted on Spooky Action Theater’s Web site in October 2013.
Round One Presentations
Aug 23 & 24 – Klytmnestra by Dane Figueroa Edidi (workshop performance)
Sept 14 & 15 – Fisker Fights for His Life, by Ernie Joselovitz (workshop performance)
Sept 16 - Postcards from the Apocalypse, by Paco Jose Madden (table reading)
Sept 21 & 22 – Dire Wolves, by Kristen LePine (workshop performance)
Sept 23 - The Revelation of Bobby Pritchard, by Rich Espey (table reading)
SOMETIMES FATE IS LIKE A SANDSTORM THAT KEEPS CHANGING DIRECTIONS
Spooky Action Theater continues its ninth season with Kafka on the Shore, adapted from the book written by “one of Japan’s most exciting writers,” Haruki Murakami.. Frank Galati, best known for his adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath, first brought Murakami’s astonishing, dream-engendered story to the stage at Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago, where Galati is an ensemble member. Now Galati’s masterful adaptation has been released for a second professional production, at Spooky Action theater in Washington.
Before it is too late, fifteen year-old Kafka Tamura (his self-chosen name loosely translates as “crow” in Czech) escapes his home in Tokyo and a dangerous father. Kafka moves through contemporary Japan and at the same time through a world of spirits that echo the ghostly Japan of the past, a world that resonates surprisingly with the primal world of dreams and subconscious reality.
Director Rebecca Holderness, whose Einstein’s Dreams was a sell-out at Spooky Action in 2010, returns from the University of Wisconsin to create the current production. The show features ten exceptional Asian-American actors along side two non-Asian colleagues, all Washington based. The production design team includes Brooke Robbins for set, Zachary Dalton for lights and David Crandall for sound.
Spooky Action Theater Company opens its ninth season with a bittersweet fable of our time. Written by Craig Lucas in 1983, Reckless is a darkly comic tale of a modern-day Alice in a perilous winter wonderland. Performances will begin with a special Pay-What-You-Can performance on October 4 and run through October 28.
On Christmas Eve, a cheery suburban mom, Rachel, is suddenly thrust through the looking glass on a journey where nothing is what it seems, and where absurdity, generosity, laughter and despair go hand in hand before reaching a place where it is always Christmas.
Directed by Artistic Director Richard Henrich the production features popular Washington actors including Mundy Spears, as Rachel, Hilary Kacser and Jim Zidar.
This season, the stage has been reconfigured to allow set designer JD Madsen more flexibility in transforming the space. Zachary A. Dalton provides the lighting design, David Crandall sound and Lynly Saunders costumes.
Reckless by Craig Lucas
Directed by Richard Henrich
with Mundy Spears, Jim Zidar, Tiffany Garfinkle, Hilary Kacser, Doug Krehbel,
Gale Nemec and Camron Robertson
Spooky Action presents three tales of transformation and self-discovery
October 2012 – May 2013