Friday, August 6, 2010

Production Stories: Boris Godunov, Part One

(Photo Credit: Laura Pedrick, The New York Times)

“Useless, he’s useless,” the woman next to me snapped, audibly. My blood boiled. We were sitting in the Berlind rehearsal room watching the cast of Boris Godunov’s first stumble-through, and this particular VIP seemed displeased. Because she couldn’t hear Dimitri loudly during his first “aside,” she concluded that he wasn’t acting hard enough and had already dismissed the actor. I’m not sure if it was just the horrid, slushy day outside, or if she changed her mind during the rest of the show, as the Pretender went on to work like crazy for the next two and a half hours. But in that moment, as angry as I was at the woman’s response and snap judgment, I realized that this was how theatre happens; this was how the show was going to work. The people sitting in the chairs next to me hadn’t sat around a table for weeks, dissecting the play, line by line, footnote by footnote. They hadn’t done hours and hours of background work, nor should they have. What they saw in the moment, like with any play, was all they were going to see, and we had to present it to them so that some degree of the work behind the script would come across. The task of the actors, director and dramaturg is always to communicate more information in less time than is humanly possible, and that weight settled around my shoulders. But part of the benefit of having a team of hundreds, and such a qualified team, is that it propagates an incredible wealth and amount of just this communication. At the end of the performances, I can only say that I believe we succeeded beyond what we had dreamed.

Boris Godunov can be categorically described as the most exciting and important show I have ever worked on. It featured the work of over 100 students and several professors, bringing together the music, dance, theatre, Slavic, and architecture programs (and students from an incredibly diverse range of majors). It is the type of show, with full orchestra, chorus, ballet company, and over 20 actors (each playing multiple roles) that can only now be achieved by a large university, or research institution willing to invest a great deal of money which would certainly be lost on a moment of pure academic achievement, and theatrical ecstasy. (To be fair, the show was the hottest ticket in town after The New York Times got wind of it, but that many people could only be pulled together for three days' worth of performances.)

But I'm really getting ahead of myself here. Why was Boris such an exciting prospect? Because it was the theatrical equivalent of buried treasure. In 1825, Alexander Pushkin wrote a bitingly satirical and sinister play based on the life and fall of turn-of-the-17th-century Tsar Boris Godunov, and Dimitri "the Pretender" who claimed to be the exiled (and thought dead) heir to the throne, and waged a campaign against him. The play was published in 1931 but not even approved by the censor for production for another forty years. More than a century after the play's publishing, director Vsevolod Meyerhold, famous for his Constructivist sets and theory of biomechanics, planned an expansive production. He commissioned Sergei Prokofiev to compose the music. This collaboration of three eras of Russian history was not to see the footlights of day, however, because Stalinist forces suppressed the "subversive" show, and, soon after, world end Meyerhold's career and life.

And then, for 70 years, nothing happened, until Professor Simon Morrison, who has had access to Prokofiev's notes and writing, uncovered a great deal of information relating to the production, and decided to bring it to life. The score was completed, Meyerhold's notes were carefully consulted, and the world premiere production of Meyerhold's Boris Godunov opened on April 12, 2007, to much notice in both American and Russian press.

There is a lot to tell about this show's process, and this is just an introduction. There will be notes on biomechanics rehearsals, the giddiness of getting my research photographed for the Times, and the like in future posts. Right now, I'd like to close with what for me personally offered the greatest moment of artistic synergy, a sense that we were doing something right.

We had a fantastic set (see photo above) designed by grad students and professors in the School of Architecture. What I liked the most about the set was that it managed to convey both a sense of the austere and a sense of the playful. The austerity hit first, because of the large expanses covered by little or nothing, the sharp red lines of the tall scaffolding, the cold industrial steel-gray of the furniture. But the playfulness quietly seeped out in many ways. First and foremost were the bungees, the most distinctive feature of the production’s design. On one hand, the forest of bungees presented a forest of bars that could be pushed and pushed, but would eventually snap back with equal force to the pushing. This symbolically presented the idea of the oppression and hemming-in of the Russian people, particularly the peasants and lower-class, and the concept of a violent retaliation towards rebellion. On the other hand, bungees are made to be flexible, and to bounce!

It was my job to come up with image research for the production, but by this point the set had already been designed. So imagine my surprise when I uncovered this picture, looking for images for the lobby display:

This was a picture of the original Bubus the Teacher (dir. Meyerhold, 1925) set. The picture featured what looked like a stage festooned with vertical sticks of bamboo, creating a sort of combination jail and forest: just like we were trying to create with our forest/jail of bungee cords. It was definitely a sibling to the set that would be gracing our stage, that had been dreamed up by director Tim Vasen and the architecture students. The synergy? Looking at the photo, a surprised Tim told me that he had never seen this photo, nor any image of this set, and to his knowledge neither had the students. Yet together, they had envisioned a modern response to it.

This became the moment that I really started to have confidence in what we were doing; we had a sort of working kinship with Meyerhold without even realizing it. It wasn't a big moment; just a photo in a sea of researched images. But to a dramaturg, it was almost as magical as the final, magnificent production.



  1. Yes, but with one big important difference...

    And I do not mean to "belittle" the amazing efforts of the Grad Stu's and Professors of the School of Architecture at P'ton or anything BUT, look closely at the photo of Meyerholds production of Bubus, the bamboo poles are suspended from the top and not anchored at top AND bottom, like the "bungee cords" (interesting use of surgical tubing, I know how that stuff works...) in the P-ton production!
    The result of the use of the tubing was that the dancers could not safely do "en pointe."

    This would not have been a problem with Meyerholds design... and maybe why he did it that way, with those bamboo poles. Also, and this may be co-incidental, or maybe not, Soviet era theatre stages were RAKED. (thereby the term "being upstaged" comes from) and this may account for the placement of the bamboo poles seen in the photo of Meyerholds production.

    I toured the Kirov/Mariinsky theatre and tried out the stage. The rake threw my timing and leaps off tremendously, you must adjust for whether you are going upstage, cross-stage, or downstage to account for gravitational effects! Stuff you do not have to worry about on a normal flat stage. Ummm, I now understand why the Saint Petersberg and other companies have a completely separate "touring" company and a "house" company. One is trained to dance on the normative flat stage, the other on the home raked one.

  2. Here is a better photo of Ilya Shlepyanov's set for Bubus:

    hit the "click to enlarge" tag.