The follow-up to our Global Connections On the Road grant story
We had two and a half weeks to put up my brand-new, six-character language-play, with original musical score and video projections, that I had only heard read in full once by actors in Kosovo. We knew we were working in festival conditions and our stage time would be severely limited even within those weeks: our technical rehearsal was held when we had barely been in rehearsal ten days; our only dress rehearsal was at 8 am in the morning they day before our first performance, plus the Gerald Lynch Theater at John Jay College where the 9/11 Performance Project was taking place would be closed for four full days over the Labor Day weekend. We knew Eunice Wong, traveling in from Princeton, would be rehearsing with her six-month old daughter strapped to her chest. We did not know about Hurricane Irene which would shut the subways for two days, eliminating one of our three days to rehearse the play on-stage, and strand Eunice in Princeton for an additional day (when we rehearsed with her voice coming in over my cell phone speaker). We did not know that Ariel Shafir’s commercial shoot would need to be rescheduled and would take him out of our rehearsals for two full days. This meant we had everyone in the cast on the stage together only twice before our first performance.
These were clearly impossible conditions. Each night, I would go to bed, cross my fingers, and entreat the secular deities whose names I do not know, for a miracle. My husband and leading actor, George Bartenieff, and I would then lie sleepless next to each other for five or six hours, trying to keep our dire predictions to ourselves.
At six, I would rise and walk my dogs in the park, in the process clearing my head. One of the plays in the 9/11 Project, had been being performed for four years; the other, had been in rehearsal in Bosnia since June. I was preparing myself to be the ugly duckling. But the Bosnian company canceled at the last moment and that play was given as a reading instead. The actors in the other play couldn’t fill the large theater and needed to be miked. Meanwhile, we soldered on, sleep-deprived, invocation filled.
We might have been plagued by the weather and scheduling snafus but we were most lucky where it counted most, in our collaborators. George and I run a small theater company called Theater Three Collaborative, we founded in 1994, with the dancer-theater maker Lee Nagrin, who died in 2007. Through Lee we met our lighting designer Tony Gionvannetti, and costume designer Sally Ann Parsons and we’ve worked with them ever since. We also met graphic artist Luba Lukova around1994, and she has designed all our graphics, book covers, and eblasts; she would design the video projections for Another Life. Arthur Rosen, composer and sound designer, worked with us on last season’s Prophecy, but actually started out in Theater for New City’s street theater company, which George also co-founded. In fact, the whole design team had been to get her for the Prophecy production, with the exception of Rob Eggers, our set designer, new to us, but a past collaborator of Tony’s and Tony’s lighting design assistant, Miriam Crowe. When you work with people over years, you develop a language that is mainly nonverbal. We know what we want to accomplish together for the sake of the play.
The script connects us. It’s not that we never discuss, change, revise specific choices, but there is a level of nonverbal understanding between us that allows each designer the freedom and breadth to astonish and delight.
Then there was the cast. It was very clear to each of us that if we had any chance at all, we had to keep our wits about us. Anger, frustration, despair, these were, by unspoken agreement, forbidden. Good humor, absolute attention to the work at hand, kindness to one another, these qualities were de rigueur. George, of course, is my partner and he is the actor for whom I most often write. That said, the lead character Handel is totally unlike any character he has ever played: an amalgam of the malign forces that control our national discourse and policy—a sort of Rupert Murdock, Bernie Madoff, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Erik Prince, David Koch combo—this verbose, controlling, megalomaniac could not be more different than George as a person and as an actor thus far. That George made Handel a wildly horrifying, funny, domineering and even a poignant presence on the stage confirms the fact that it takes not only a good actor, but a good man, to play a real bastard. But whether or not he could pull all those character pieces together, as well as learn all those lines, is what kept him sleepless next to me each night.
Christen Clifford, who plays Handel’s wife Tess, had last worked with us in 1995-’97, when she was just out of NYU; but when I had to think of someone who could play an angry sex slave and an artist, it was Christen who came immediately to mind. Eunice Wong had been part of the first reading at Dixon Place of the first part of Another Life, which was published in the Kenyon Review last fall, and because of that reading I wrote the rest of the role of Lucia for her. Ariel Shafir, Omar Koury and Dorien Makhloghi were new. I had met Omar over coffee in the fall, and loved his warmth and liveliness which were perfect for Abdul. Ariel was recommended and we met a few weeks before rehearsals began when we managed a two-hour read-through of his scenes with Eunice; his native charm and intelligence made him right for David Abbas, the man trying not to become a torturer who does. Dorien was in The Merchant of Venice with Al Pacino and George worked with him briefly when he replaced an actor toward the end of that run. I first laid eyes on him when he came to the first rehearsal, yet Dorien had just the right innocence and integrity for Geoff, who appears throughout the play as a ghost of Lucia’s lover who jumped to his death from the Windows on the World restaurant in the Twin Towers.
I began regularly directing my plays in 1994, because I felt that my poetic-language plays, such language is visual by nature, had been mishandled, over-directed and under-felt, by most directors with whom I worked. The exception was Lydia Koniordou, a classically trained Greek actress and director, who from years of staging Greek tragedy knew the relation between the actor and the text is what has to determine each staging and design choice. I come from a director-dominated, non-verbal theater, having apprenticed both with Joe Chaikin and the Open Theater and Judith Malina and Julian Beck and the Living Theater, but I also understood, while admiring their work, that neither theater was a good one for writers. Though I wrote my first play under Chaikin’s tutelage, I declined his offer to direct it and moved away from both companies as I continued to write.
For me, the real connection in the theater is that between the language and the actor. This has less to do with writer or director than with what is on the page, which was once deep inside the writer’s gut, and how those words come to lodge deep inside the gut of the actor. The other real connection, of course, is what transpires between characters. Theater is a back and forth between characters that leads to choice and change within. For this to happen, the actors need to be empowered. Directors, I often feel, infantilize actors and playwrights both by setting themselves up as arbiters. I’ve been writing plays (and teaching classical dramatic literature) for 35 years and I’ve come to realize that the person who knows the play best is the one who wrote it. But when I direct, I also abandon my writer-self. I become the car mechanic for the Mercedes Benz who needs to fine tune that engine to give it maximum drive. I cut my plays up to the final moment, paring down a language that is imagistic yet needs to be spare. I also give actors their heads: a deep seat and long reign is a saying from my horsewoman days that I employ. Create an environment where actors feel safe, give them a solid text that plays, and trust them. Blocking happens when actors know exactly what they are playing. Then, they stand in the correct position. Feeling dictates shape.
So this is how we worked for two and a half hectic, blessed, weeks, overcoming obstacles of scheduling and the weather, integrating the lovely baby, who began to babble and sit up, and gesture as she shared the rehearsal stage with her mother and the rest, and treating one another with care. When the actors saw how beautiful the designers were making them and the play look, they also could relax a bit.
This is not to say we are done with our work: the first performance was good, the second rocky, and the third took a leap toward the sort of pacing so necessary for this play. We did an elegant workshop in two and a half weeks with many extenuating circumstances; elegant enough to move our audiences to high praise: “powerful” and “beautiful” were the two words most often used. With another three weeks of rehearsal, we’ll really have something good.