Thursday, October 25, 2012

Václav Havel's Vaněk Plays: Audience, Protest, Unveiling, and Dozens of Cousins

Theater 61 Press is releasing five new books of translations of Havel's plays (The Havel Collection)    Here is one of my essays from the collection, about The Vaněk Plays. The website for Theater 61 Press (put up just last month) includes a number of other essays from the collection.
Who is Vaněk? He is an alter ego for Václav Havel, though, like most of Havel’s alter egos, he is an exaggerated reflection of one aspect of the writer. He is a theatrical construct, a foil whose own presumed moral purity inspires his fellow characters to justify their moral breaches. He is a symbol of the struggle against Czechoslovakia’s Communist regime, first employed by Havel, then by Havel’s friends, and even appearing in Tom Stoppard’s Rock n’ Roll (and my own Velvet Oratorio, written to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution).

I first encountered Vaněk during my freshman year in college. I found Audience in a stack of plays at the local library, and I was immediately drawn to the work. I was passingly familiar with the political situation in Czechoslovakia, but the play brought home its human dimensions to me. What struck me at the time was the empathy Havel had for the Brewmaster. The final monologue truly brought home the fact that it is not only the dissidents who struggle within a totalitarian—or rather, as Havel put it, post-totalitarian society. It is also the seeming collaborators, forced by the structure of their society into their roles.

The Vaněk plays (along with all of Havel’s work) were banned in Czechoslovakia when they were first written, but that didn’t prevent people from performing them in their living rooms, copying them surreptitiously as samizdat (illegal, faded copies of banned work), or even recording them on vinyl. These surreptitiously distributed plays helped create Havel ’s reputation, which in turn made him the natural leader for the Velvet Revolution in 1989.

The plays were clearly based on events in Havel’s life, including his own experience in the brewery in which he worked, once working in a theater was no longer an allowable option for him. On the underground recording of Audience made during the Communist years, Havel himself played Vaněk, while his friend Landovsky played the Brewmaster. One year later, Landovsky would go on to write a Vaněk play of his own.

I have directed Audience twice, first in 1993, then in 2006 during Untitled Theater Company #61’s Havel Festival, in which we produced all of Havel’s work. Though removed from the time and place that first inspired their creation, neither Audience nor the other Vaněk plays have lost their power. They all succeed in telling a very universal story about the ways in which we are all susceptible to moral compromise, about the way our own actions can contribute to the very same problems we protest.

The most recent of Havel’s Vaněk plays, Dozens of Cousins, is more of a short, modern epilogue to Unveiling. It is published here for the first time. Despite being set in the post- Communist era, we see the same tropes, the same lying and pretense that are echoes of his earlier work.

One of Havel’s core ideas in his philosophical essays is the concept of “living in truth,” that each small compromise we make with the truth leads to larger compromises, until it snowballs into a society-wide epidemic in which lying becomes the instinctual path. It is a danger in any society, no matter what the government. We all need a Ferdinand Vaněk to keep us honest.

Friday, October 19, 2012

20th Anniversary Memories: Cat's Cradle and Tom Berger


Guest blogger Tom Berger writes about his memories of UTC61/Cat's Cradle.  Do you have fond memories/scathing exposés that you can write about on the occasion of our 20th anniversary?  Please, write them!
Tom Berger choreography in action, as Timothy McCown Reynolds, Darius Stone, Horace Vincent Rogers and cast get ready to perform the boka-maru
 It’s hard to condense my feelings about UTC61 into one document; it’s hard even to take a step back and think of my experience as a separate section of my life. The incredible artists I encountered, the brilliant texts and music I worked with and the overall experience was wonderful. But I think my main love of the company stems from the broader push for new ideas and inspiring debate that is the crux of its existence, and the heart of why it’s important to me.
                  I worked with Edward and Henry for many years and in many capacities but I suppose I have to pick one project, so it might as well be my first. An interesting ad popped up on Playbill; a company was looking for someone able to assistant direct, assistant music direct and possibly choreograph a musical adaptation of Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle. A strange combination of skills, to be sure, but I always say that what I lack in talent I make up for in versatility (in other words, why do one or two things really well when you can do nine or ten things mediocrely?) [EDITOR'S NOTE: Tom's contributions are far from mediocre]. I submitted, scheduled a phone interview with the aforementioned Messrs. Einhorn and Akona, and picked up the book. It was nice to return to Vonnegut after a long absence and, of all his work, I feel that Cat’s Cradle makes the most sense to musicalize, as so little of his work was linear in a theatrical sense.
                  I got the gig, and was plunged into a room with some of the most terrifyingly intelligent people I’ve ever met. It was an eye-opening experience for me; as much as I’d done some scrappy Indie theatre (and ran a not-too-shabby company myself for five years) and liked to think of myself as a fellow of intelligence and broad interests, I was in a room of brilliant and passionate artists, who truly knew from where they spoke (I personally just fake it most of the time and amp up the charisma). But even with the ridiculous IQ points around the table, they were always open to new ideas and made sure that everyone’s input was carefully considered. As I dove into contributing what little I could to Edward’s wonderful libretto and Henry’s scintillating music, I began to realize something shocking – I was not only being listened to when I feebly popped in my two cents, I was being actively solicited for my opinion by pretty much everyone in the room. I had been under the impression that they needed a musical theatre hack to fill in the blanks and I was there just to make with the dance-y / musical instrument-y stuff.
                  And the rest was history, as they say (or will be, I’m sure, when the annals of theatre history will be written and we’ll all be fondly remembered as pinnacles of the age; right? Right?). By what is most likely my wildly inaccurate ballpark, I worked with the company on something like eight or nine shows over the next couple of years, as well as helping to run the International Jewish Theater Festival of Ideas and joining the Board. The running joke in the company was “If Henry and Edward had a love child…” I can think of no greater compliment.
                  Your success as an artist is only the sum of what you’ve absorbed from the artists who have touched you. With UTC61, I found an artistic home away from home, brilliant collaborators who challenged me every day, pieces that juuuuust stretched me beyond my comfort level (in a positive way) and friends for the rest of my life. I hope that, via quantity if not quality, I was able to give something back to this amazing group of artists in breathless gratitude for everything they have given me. Happy Anniversary, Untitled Theater Company #61.
[EDITOR'S NOTE: Many thanks, Tom Berger.  Hopefully more to come about Cat's Cradle soon, where we make a full length calypso musical with a cast of 20+ actors/singers/musicians!]

Monday, October 15, 2012

20th Annniversary Memories: The Memo

The Memo was one of the two plays in the Havel Festival I was able to direct myself—no easy task actually, with all the work entailed in producing the festival.  But I very much wanted to have an opportunity to direct a few plays as well as produce.  One play I directed, Audience, was a short two hander, and I had already directed a version of it in 1992 (more about that in an upcoming blog post).  That meant restaging would be relatively simple—if one can ever call doing any show “simple.” The Memo however, was well over two hours in length and involved a large cast and a complex script.  I knew from the top it would be a challenge, albeit a joyful one.

One of the most exciting aspects of working on The Memo was the opportunity to work with the translator, Paul Wilson, on his new translation.  The Memo (then translated as The Memorandum) had been originally produced at The Public Theater in 1967, and Vera Blackwell’s translation had been the only one available before the Havel Festival.  My friend Doug had directed that translation in college (originally we had considered co-directing), so I was particularly familiar with it.

Paul’s translation has a more contemporary, American tone.  Before he became a translator, Paul had had a long personal relationship with Havel.  While living in Prague (he is a native Torontonian), he had been a member of The Plastic People of the Universe, the band whose arrest inspired Charter 77, the civil rights document Havel co-authored.

I cast the play early, since I knew I needed as much done as early as possible as I could manage.  It also allowed Paul to travel down to work with me, our dramaturg Karen Lee Ott, and the cast.  Karen and I had worked on some original translations before, during the Ionesco Festival, and there is something thrilling for me, always, about being part of that process.

One of the things Paul was struggling with at the time was the names of the characters.  Many of the Czech names had been based on the original actors who played the part, but he wanted to anglicize them (Blackwell had kept the names of those original actors).  I suggested he use the names of our actors instead, and he agreed with that idea.  To my surprise, a few of the actors expressed reservations—the idea of playing characters who had their own names didn’t appeal to them.  But I asked them how they would feel watching the play onstage, twenty years in the future, with their role in the original translation immortalized?  That idea seemed to win them over, in the end.

I myself am very much looking forward to seeing The Memo onstage and hearing the names of the cast members in the role.  I think, now that the play has been published, that opportunity may come soon.

The work of the play was very much in the timing.  Entrances and exits are timed like a farce, and indeed much of the play had farcical elements, particularly the scenes in the translation center.  Fortunately I had three excellent comic actors for those roles (Ken Simon, Talaura Harms, and Skid Maher).  The classroom scenes were anchored by Peter Bean and Uma Incrocci, theater company mainstays who I knew would keep the play comic and alive.  And it was great fun as always staging them in them.  The hardest of scenes, I found, were actually the office scenes.  There too I was blessed with a number of good actors, but those scenes have some heavy lifting to do both in terms of exposition and philosophizing.  Those scenes put heavy burdens on the two leads, Andrew Rothkin and Maxwell Zener. But they both worked valiantly to conquer the material.

In retrospect, to be honest, I think I would stage those scenes a bit differently, if I ever revived the piece.  That may have to do with the fact that Havel’s single criticism of my work on the play related to those scenes.  But more on that that later.

The play was barely staged in time.  Tech is always a bit frantic during festivals, but I remember a sense of panic the whole time during our Memo tech.  How we got through the final cue, I don’t know, but we did.

By then, I already knew the Havel would be attending.  In fact, it was his test performance, in a way.  His office told me that they could not guarantee how often he would be able to attend, but that he would definitely be attending The Memo.  It became clear that it was something of a test performance.  If he liked The Memo, he would be back.  If not…I wasn’t sure.

In retrospect, he told me later, he regretted his initial caution.  He was able to attend half the shows, but if he had it to do over again, he would have scheduled in advance to try to see them all.

I had met Havel a few times before the show, and the encounters were pleasant without being particularly personal.  We had a more one on one get together planned, but it would not be until after he had attended.

As I remember, he came to the third performance, so we had had a chance to at least get into somewhat of a rhythm.  I had avoided telling the actors when he was coming, as I didn’t want it to affect their performance, but a few of them figured it out when they glimpsed his arrival.  I had mentioned to some in the festival that he would be coming, to be sure the audience would be full, and they in turn had told others.  To my embarrassment, Havel’s first arrival had a bit of the feeling of a scene from La Dolce Vida.  Cameras were flashing everywhere.

Havel took it all in stride.  As I was to realize much later when I visited him in Prague, this sort of activity was normal for him and didn’t really disturb him anymore.  I grabbed him a beer and sat him down front and center.  A bodyguard requested a seat behind him, which I accommodated.  I was assured that the bodyguard was used to being at the theater and a good audience member.

Then I cowered in the back row and watched.  To my great relief, pretty soon into the first scene, Havel laughed.  And he continued to laugh, even at the little jokes I had put into the staging that hadn’t been in the original script at all.

At intermission, I sat down with him, and for the first time we had a one on one conversation.  He asked me mostly about details of the festival and told me he was enjoying the show, much to my relief.  The second act passed a bit like the first, though I must admit, the timing which had seemed right on target in act one sometimes slipped during act two.  But all in all, I was very proud of the performance.

After the show, Havel posed for pictures with the cast and with Robert Lyons, who ran the Ohio Theater where The Memo was being staged (he runs the New Ohio now, but I will always miss the spacious and beautiful old theater).  And he very quickly told me he would be coming back.

Havel’s one criticism of the production: the silent character, play by V. Orion Delwaterman.  Not Orion’s performance, but my staging of him in the office scenes.  The silent characters, he told me, had been based on the silent government presences, the agents who would stand glowering somewhere in the background but ever present, a menacing mystery of sort.  I staged Orion in a much more active way, a silent but efficient functionary who movements mirrored the antagonist,.

Funny, in two American productions of The Memorandum I have seen since then (Blackwell’s translation) that same character was staged in similar ways.  A cultural Czech/American divide, I suspect.  But of course, that criticism made me rethink the staging of the office scenes, as I mentioned earlier, and I think I have a way to bring that idea to life, should I have a chance to do so again.

It was, of course, an amazing experience.  Paul Wilson also seemed gratifyingly pleased with the performances.  And I still think of that show Havel attended as the beginning of my real relationship with Havel.  I am grateful for it.