Thursday, September 13, 2012

Václav Havel's The Memo (aka The Memorandum)

Theater 61 Press is releasing five new books of translations of Havel's plays (The Havel Collection)  The initial book release event will be on Oct 4, in honor of what would have been Havel's 76th birthday.  Here is one of my essays from the collection, about the play The Memo. The website for Theater 61 Press (put up just last month) includes a number of other essays from the collection.)

Bureaucracy is often a deliberate mask for the misuse of power. Although it is possible for bureaucracy to creep in through an accumulation of well-meaning rules, there is another more sinister sort of bureaucracy that can be used as a tool. Communist regimes frequently depended on that tool, though in time, they also became entangled by their own bureaucratic structures. It is no coincidence that one of Václav Havel’s main obsessions in his plays was the workings of bureaucracy.
I came to Havel through Ionesco. I grew up reading Ionesco’s work, and it was the similarities between the two writers that first appealed to me. And Untitled Theater Company #61’s Ionesco Festival in 2001 was the inspiration and precursor for our 2006 Havel Festival. It was also Havel’s own love of Ionesco, I believe, that gave him the confidence to allow us to present his complete works.
I mention the connection because Ionesco’s influence seems clear in this particular play. Ionesco wrote at one point that his plays were about the tragedy that communication between people was impossible. In The Bald SopranoThe Lesson, and many other works, language explodes into nonsense.
In The Memo, language implodes into nonsense. It is the office bureaucracy that provides the pressure for the implosion…and by implication, the calculated government bureaucracy that was the hallmark of  Communism. Like in Orwell’s 1984, a new language is created whose purpose is pure manipulation. Unlike 1984, however, it is not a coolly powerful Big Brother that is organizing the implementation of the new language. The irony in this and many other Havel plays is that those in power are equally victims, equally caught in the machine they themselves created.
The Memo was written before Prague Spring, at a time when Communism was a bit more benign in Czechoslovakia than it would become soon after. There was a censorship board, but they were lax enough and unsophisticated enough that a play like The Memo could pass by unnoticed, or at least not completely understood. The Soviet crackdown had not yet taken place, and Havel’s writing was not yet banned. This was only his second play, though in some ways, this was the one that solidified his reputation, both as a writer and a dissident.
So many of the tropes that would become characteristic of Havel’s plays are evident in this early work: the shifting of power, the silent characters, the way that the hero’s moral compass slowly degrades through his own tragic flaws, the repetitions of phrases and of actions, the highly structured plot, the final monologue of capitulation, and of course the play with language.
When I directed the play during the Havel Festival, however, another of Ionesco’s phrases about his own work came to mind: tragic farce. With its constant and quick entrances and exits, The Memo works like a farce, and much of its humor comes when that rhythm is achieved. The absurd world that Ionesco was mirroring was that of France, soon after World War II. Havel’s absurd world mirrors 1960s Czechoslovakia. But the farcical world of The Memo is a world we’ve all experienced in some ways: one in which bureaucracy is deliberately employed as an excuse for otherwise unjustifiable behavior.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

20th Anniversary Memories: Artist Descending a Staircase

For our 20th anniversary season, I and other company memories will be writing about all the shows that span those 20 years.  An overview of those productions is on our (newly revised) website.  

In August 1992, in a small art gallery called Emmaus Soho West, a theater company began.

It began for one reason.  I had just graduated from college, and I wanted to direct a play.  I was interning at New Dramatists in New York and living at my parent’s place in Westfield, NJ.  The internship was interesting at times, with occasional brushes with celebrity playwrights (and plain old celebrities).  And I found the New Dramatists library a very happy place to spend some time.  But I wanted to do a show.  It seemed simple enough.  I needed a venue, a script, and a few actors.

Our oldest family friends, the Jaffes, owned the perfect place: an art gallery located in Springfield, NJ.  New Dramatists offered free rehearsal space, and a space to hold auditions.  Since it was an art gallery, I decided to put on an obscure play about art, Artist Descending a Staircase, by one of my favorite playwrights, Tom Stoppard.  Sam French told me the rights were available. I placed an ad in Backstage.  The actors arrived.

I remember the first two actors who walked through the door very well.  The first was a talented actor named Henry Pincus.  The second was an even more talented actor name Peter Brown.

Things had started out well.

From there the auditions went downhill.  I remember a recent Japanese immigrant struggling to pronounce Stoppard’s dialogue, and the disappointment with which he heard the news that he would not be appropriate.  I remember meeting an actor who I literally thought would attack me in mid audition.

Ironically, I ran into him a year ago.  He has his Equity card now.  Perseverance.

I eventually had additional auditions in New Jersey.  The cast only needed four actors, and eventually, I gathered them.  Then Pincus dropped out.  More auditions.  A cast.

I should mention one other important member of the nascent theater company.  My friend, Mike Nuzzo. He helped run the auditions.  Eventually, he would record the sound cues, help build the set, sell the tickets—he himself was a filmmaker, and now I was cashing in all my chips from the help I had given him.

When sending info for listings in the Newark Star Ledger, I was asked what the company was called.  I didn’t know.  I called my friend Daniel Coble for suggestions.  Something related to being in an art gallery, I said.

“Untitled Theater Company?” he suggested.

Sounded good.  Untitled Theater Company #62, I told the newspaper.

In rehearsals, I tried to use acting exercises I had been taught in college.  Most of them seemed fairly ridiculous, but I was still trying to direct the right way, rather than the way that seemed natural to me.  But still, a good script, at least a couple good actors, maybe some clever ideas and decent blocking, some chairs, an ad in the Newark Star Ledger, and we had a show.  Simple.

It almost killed me.

I borrowed chairs for the audience from a nearby temple.  Mike and I built a light booth out of circuit breakers, and placed a chair next to it on a block build to display sculpture.  My stereo and his speakers were our sound system.  I gathered props and put them on display (My idea was that a prop from each scene would be on exhibit in the gallery, the most noteworthy of which was an authentic victrola I had borrowed from a friend.)

But the biggest challenge was the table.  There was a beautiful, handmade wood table that belonged to the gallery which I had made part of the set.  It looked wonderful.  But it was heavy.  And the actors who had to carry it on and offstage (offstage being a balcony/fire escape) felt that perhaps we should just rent a regular goddamn table.  One of the actors, Mr. Brown, spoke for the company.

“Also, we really shouldn’t charge on opening,” he said.  “Since we’ll be working with the table for the first time.”

I caved. I rented a new table.  I called the first show a preview and made the five-dollar entrance fee optional.  Harmony was restored.  But going home after that final rehearsal, I collapsed in despair.

“I never, never want to do this again,” I told Mike.

We opened the next day.  It was a great success—and not just with my grandmother, who declared she would attend every single performance (which she did).  Despite our preview night and low ticket price, I actually made money—about $80.  And the audience seemed genuinely enthusiastic.  Due to word of mouth, our final performance was sold out.

Well, maybe one more time, I thought…

While loading out of the gallery, I knocked over a display dummy.  It smashed a small window.  Replacement cost: $80.  So much for making money in the theater.