Happy Days by Samuel Beckett

Happy Days by Samuel Beckett

For my first production as director at the Nevada Conservatory Theatre, I staged Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days, which ran September 11–17 in the Black Box Theatre in the 2023-2024 season at the NCT and later moved to the Vegas Theatre Company theatre in downtown Las Vegas. This was a tour de force for the lead playing Winnie, my colleague Kymberly Luke Mellen, as we explored in rehearsal and performance the post-apocalyptic world portrayed by the playwright in a setting that hinted at 1950s Las Vegas. Notable were the stunning combination of Dana Moran Williams’s imaginative set and lighting design by Jordyn Cozart, and the intermission video put together by Brooks Mellen.

You can download the NCT Evening Program, and the “Know Before You Go” guide, as well as the VTC Happy Days Program.

Here’s what I said in my Director’s Note:

Inhabiting the two sides of the same low mound of earth, Winnie and Willie are an odd couple in a strange place: in Beckett’s minimalist Happy Days a “blazing light” never goes down and – without nights – the alternation of waking and sleep is strictly timed by a bell that “rings piercingly” to demand compliance. Winnie brushes her teeth but never really eats anything. Even more strangely, part of her body is embedded deep into the ground. Although her husband enjoys a little additional freedom of movement, neither of them seems able to leave the place after all.

Another oddity of their situation is the behavior of objects: when Winnie shatters her mirror on a rock and throws it away behind the mound, she knows it will be back intact in her bag the next time she wakes up. The same resilience apparently applies to her face and teeth, which temporarily calms her anxiety. And yet, significant adjustments do take place over time: just like the frog of the famous apologue, who doesn’t realize when the lukewarm water grows too hot to survive, Winnie is oblivious to the subtle changes leading to a degradation of her condition over time.

In this production, the passage of time between the acts is visualized during intermission through a collection of commercials from the 1950s onwards that offer purchasing suggestions as well as model family relationships, including how a perfect housewife should behave. And Winnie’s bag with her “resuscitating” objects becomes a metaphor for something gone wrong with consumerism tied to the American Dream: the belief that anything can be easily discarded and substituted, in blissful disregard of the environment and the people inhabiting it. Winnie’s infinitely productive bag thus operates here like a contemporary Amazon-like shop: the intact mirror is just the newly-delivered item, while the one previously broken contributes to an ever-swelling pile of trash. Ultimately, I see these layers of trash as the reason why the earth appears to swallow Winnie’s body, dehumanizing it to look like one of the objects around her.

At the time of Beckett’s writing, between 1960 and 1961, the inhospitable environment that engulfs the couple – with its implacable light and heat, scorched grass, and uncertainty about the future – could be viewed as a reflection of Cold War tensions over the dangers of nuclear war. This aspect reminded me of Las Vegas’s own past: starting in 1951 and over the next twelve years, the southern Nevada desert – just sixty-five miles from downtown – was the theatre of 120 nuclear bomb tests in the only permanent nuclear proving facility on U.S. soil. Yet, even today, the perils of environmental abuse are all around us, leading to desertification and climate conditions similar to those of Winnie and Willie. At the same time as we identify with and support Winnie and her dreams imbued with unrelenting optimism, we become aware of the dangers of a lack of ecological responsibility.

Photo: Shahab Zargari (c) 2023
Dietz’s American La Ronde

Dietz’s American La Ronde

For Steven Dietz’s American La Ronde, I wrote the following Dramaturg’s Note and edited both American La Ronde Program and American La Ronde Know Before You Go (7) supporting material.

Dramaturg’s Note
American La Ronde: The Pleasures of Adaptation

On the title page of his play, Steven Dietz makes no secret that his American La Ronde (2017) is an adaptation of Reigen (1900) – known in English as La Ronde – by Austrian Jewish writer and dramatist Arthur Schnitzler (1862-1931). Adaptation of existing works has been a pillar of theatre-making at least since ancient Greece. The approach has proved successful because adapting the same stories combines the familiarity of repetition with the novelty of variation while demonstrating the playwright’s individual point of view and artistic prowess.

As French theorist Gérard Genette suggests, “one who really loves texts must wish from time to time to love (at least) two together” (Palimpsests: Literature in the Second Degree, 1982). In fact, perceiving an adaptation as adaptation is part of the pleasure of engaging with this type of artistic production, one that can only be enjoyed by “knowing audiences” aware of the link between the earlier and later text (Linda Hutcheon, A Theory of Adaptation, 2006). For those unfamiliar with Schnitzler’s work, it is therefore essential to underscore at least two important aspects of his play: its unconventional dramatic structure and its history of censorship due to a titillating subject matter that unmasked the private lives of a cross section of Viennese society.

In contrast with the typical climactic structure that highlights the changed situation between beginning and end, Reigen hinges on a circular structure that concludes just where it started, thus signaling stagnation and disillusion in regard to human relationships. In a series of ten scenes, each time one of two interlocutors continues to the next dialogue with a different partner until the circle is completed.  With a single exception, the action progresses rather swiftly to sexual intercourse, indicated on the page by one or more lines of dashes towards the middle of each scene.

Hesitant about the literary value of his work, the author initially had it printed in just 200 copies at his own expense. However, following sanctions against a Munich student theatre that presented three scenes from the play, book sales were banned in Germany in 1904 and the official premiere in Berlin and Vienna had to wait until 1920 and 1921 respectively. Even so, due to right-wing antisemitic political demonstrations, the play’s cast, director, and theatre administrators in Berlin were charged with creating a public nuisance and taking part in obscene acts, even if the staging had simply lowered the curtains and played waltz music during the incriminated scenes. Even if the artists were eventually exonerated, Schnitzler’s embarrassment led him to wish the play would never again be performed. And yet, its shock value must have contributed to its continued appreciation.

In transferring the action to contemporary America, Dietz adopted the same circular structure but modernized both characters and situations, with the addition of a bracelet that constantly changes hands and becomes a common thread connecting all involved. Emphasizing the continuity of each scene and between them, this adaptation eliminates the need to censor sexual activities by instead staging the difficulties of “getting to the point” in today’s more permissive yet complicated society. But intimacy is nevertheless sought after, especially when, for instance, the author insists: “This is a really good kiss. It is not a ‘stage kiss.’ It is not fake.” And true intimacy is perhaps the most shocking today when our relationships are increasingly filtered and mediated.

Stebos

Nottage’s Crumbs from the Table of Joy (dir. Clinton Turner Davis)

Nottage’s Crumbs from the Table of Joy (dir. Clinton Turner Davis)

Once again, for this show at the Nevada Conservatory Theatre I put together the full evening program.
I also interviewed the director, Clinton Turner Davis and you can find our conversation here.

Dramaturg’s Note

Lynn Nottage’s Crumbs from the Table of Joy premiered Off-Broadway at the Second Stage Theatre in New York City in May of 1995, directed by Joe Morton. Shortly after it was produced by Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago, IL in March of 1996, directed by Leslie Holland, and by South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, CA in September, directed by Seret Scott. It was first published in Nottage’s first collection of plays in 2004.

The title is inspired by Langston Hughes’s short poem, Luck:

Sometimes a crumb falls from the table of joy,
Sometimes a bone is flung,
To some people love is given,
To others only heaven.

In the play, which takes place in Brooklyn in 1950, both Ernestine Crump, a young African American aspiring writer, and the other characters she evokes – her father Godfrey, sister Ermina, aunt Lily Ann Green, and stepmother Gerte, who is German – navigate the complexities of a world that does not yield easy answers as to why certain people succeed and others continue to struggle. Religion, politics, interracial relations, all weigh on decisions, hopes, and desires that may or may not be fulfilled and yet constitute a weave that brings people together in their effort to improve their lot.

Since the set itself is such an important character in the play, for this production we include here the notes of our talented graduate and undergraduate designers, who speak of their creative process.

Enjoy the show!

Stebos

Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard (dir. Michael Lugering)

Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard (dir. Michael Lugering)

For this show I wrote my dramaturg’s notes (read below) and put together the full evening program.
I also interviewed the director, Michael Lugering: you can find our conversation here.

Dramaturg’s Notes

In January 2000, while I was studying at the GITIS, the Russian Academy of Dramatic Arts in Moscow, I visited Melikhovo, the country estate Anton Chekhov had purchased in 1892 from Nikolai Sorokhtin, a set decorator for the Hermitage summer garden theatre in Moscow. Chekhov worked to improve the condition of the estate, and used his study as medical office where he cared for patients from various villages, factories, and a nearby monastery. In 1899, after the success of The Seagull at the Moscow Art Theatre, the author invited the lead actress, Olga Knipper, to visit him at the estate. She married him in 1901. As his tuberculosis worsened, Chekhov was forced to abandon Melikhovo and move south, to Yalta, in the Crimean Peninsula. He sold the estate to a timber merchant on August 18, 1899. These facts alone suffice to trace elements of The Cherry Orchard back to the playwright’s biography, but of course the action has been refined and transfigured. The play premiered in 1914 at the Moscow Art Theatre and is regarded as the Russian playwright’s masterpiece.

At a time when our perception of Russia is clouded by the interference of its ruler’s politics of destructive war and invasion, it is even more crucial to remind ourselves of the contributions of Russian artists to the richness of world culture. Indeed, The Cherry Orchard continues to speak to us today. One of its core themes, the relationship between beauty, nature, and capital, is still a burning topic in a world increasingly under siege by climate change and tough economic choices. How can beauty thrive without sensible business and environmental practices? Is beauty even possible without exploitation?

This Fall semester marks the beginning of my work as Resident Dramaturg for the Nevada Conservatory Theatre. Apart from the excitement of collaborating with exceptional colleagues and students in the Department of Theatre at UNLV, I see my role as an opportunity to both expand the audience’s awareness of the multi-threaded creative journey that leads to each production and increase NCT’s porosity in relation to the Las Vegas community.

To start with, thanks to the freedom afforded by a digital program, we have supplemented the director’s notes with the voice of the set designer and photos from the rehearsal process. We also scheduled a talk-back opportunity for the creative team to respond to questions and impressions by the spectators. Finally, we have sprinkled a few cherry jokes and puns throughout this program, in line with Chekhov’s comedic sense of his play.

Other plans are in the works for future productions but, for now, enjoy this play masterfully directed, designed, and acted by a cohesive and vibrant ensemble of faculty professionals and MFA students poised for a successful career in the theatre!

Stebos

Ensemble Training: Exist as a Larger Theatrical Organism

Ensemble Training: Exist as a Larger Theatrical Organism

One of the key ingredients of my teaching is the necessity for actors to constantly fine-tune their instrument at all stages of their career.
An essential skill to develop is the ability to function creatively as part of a larger ensemble, a notion that has been extremely relevant in the tradition of European theatre, but has so far gained relatively little traction in the US.

This course is designed to make you acutely aware of your multiple acting partners through training exercises that engage your physical, mental, and emotional presence on stage on several levels. You might find yourself overtly looking for a partner for a particular stage action, while secretly trying to find another, exchanging lines with yet another actor, and simultaneously keeping track of a prop circulating among members of the ensemble. Eventually, you will be able to collectively perform a “marathon” that weaves together several actions and texts in ways that would have been impossible through traditional rehearsal methods.

The course also guides you through exercises that provide an embodied experience of what energy on stage means, how it can be created, sustained, channeled in particular directions, exchanged with partners, increased or softened depending on your creative intentions. Eventually, you realize how much more intense and mesmerizing an ensemble can be compared to what performers can do when they work only as self-contained units.

These tools can then be applied to devising scenes from prose works or staging dramatic texts in less obvious configurations. You will find that all take on new life, beyond the explicit elements provided by the author, by tapping into energetic currents and flows produced by the ensemble.

Textbooks
Alschitz, Jurij. Training forever! Berlin: European Association for Theatre Culture, 2013.
Wilde, Oscar. The Portrait of Dorian Gray (any edition).
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby (any edition)

The Art of Dialogue: Training and Scene Study

The Art of Dialogue: Training and Scene Study

What does it mean for an actor or a character to be in dialogue with another? Is dialogue simply a sequence of questions and answers or can it be so much more?

In this course you will learn to differentiate and engage with different types of dialogue such as a conversation, a dispute, a duel, or a game between willing or unwilling participants, external or inner dialogues, with words or without words, linear or spherical dialogues.

You will learn to analyze conflict, tension, and disagreement – which are often at the root of ancient and contemporary plays in the Western tradition – but also to see how dialogue is a way to talk “about” something, to discover the Other and exchange psychic, emotional, or practical material, to develop a common theme despite differences of opinion and points of view.

However, this is not a course on the history of dialogue, but rather a series of practical exercises meant for performers to connect at a visceral, energetic, and intellectual level with their interlocutors, depending on the circumstances, all the time fully receptive to the feedback loop activated between dialogic partners and the audience. You will learn to at the same time rely on a definite structure of agreements with your interlocutors and improvise freely as you respond to immediate stimuli in the now of the stage.

Everyone will start by working on Plato’s Ion. Then, depending on the length of the course, each performer will choose one or two dialogues from either classical or contemporary plays.

Textbooks (plays chosen depend on your focus on either heightened language or contemporary plays):
Alschitz, Jurij. The Art of Dialogue. Berlin: Ars Incognita, 2010.
Plato. Ion. In Ion, Hippias Minor, Laches & Protagoras. Trans. Alan E. Allen. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996.
Shakespeare, William. Much Ado About Nothing. Any recent edition post 2000.
Shakespeare, William. Richard III. Any recent edition post 2000.
A dialogue from any of the Pulitzer Prize winners or runners up for Drama from 2000 onwards

The Vertical of the Role: A Method for the Actor’s Self-Preparation

The Vertical of the Role: A Method for the Actor’s Self-Preparation

In this course you learn a method of approaching your role in advance of the work with the director, which allows you to arrive at rehearsals prepared to live on stage as a fully rounded character who can stand tall in any circumstance – hence the idea of the “vertical.”
You learn to deconstruct the role and look at it again with fresh eyes.
You connect it with other literary, dramatic, and visual materials that create an intertextual network to feed your imagination.
You attach it to an inexhaustible source of energy that does not depend on yourself alone.

In the end, you will have gathered and distilled a set of resources that, once sequenced into a repeatable “journey,” will constitute a profound relationship between yourself and the character (and also build a strong piece for potential auditions).

Textbooks:
Alschitz, Jurij. The Vertical of the Role. Berlin: Ars Incognita, 2003.
Alschitz, Jurij. 40 Questions of One Role. Berlin: Ars Incognita, 2005.
Chekhov, Anton. The Major Plays. Trans. Jean Claude van Itallie. New York: Applause, 1995 (or other edition of the plays)
Chekhov, Anton. The Early Plays. Trans. Carol Rocamora. Lyme, NH: Smith and Kraus, 1999 (or other edition of the plays).