Archive for January, 2015
click here to read online. How did you shift from being an actor to being a translator? JCJ: My first translating job was the result of an acting job. It was 1992; the McCarter Theatre was putting on a production of Chekhov’s Three Sisters. I played Kulygin, it was the Lanford Wilson translation. I noticed I had questions, and I marked in my script, on how to get from sentence A to sentence B. There were five spots and I marked them, then I looked them up in the Russian—I had taken Russian in college. I noticed that in each of the places where I had trouble, Lanford had either omitted or sometimes added a line. I decided I would translate my whole role to see if I would learn anything about it. I spoke Lanford’s text in the production, but I used it as a tool to see if I could unearth some secrets. I’ll give you an example of one thing that I learned: in the fire scene, Kulygin is asleep and when he wakes up, he says in Russian, “Milaya moya Masha, dorogaya moya Masha,” which roughly translated means, “My good Masha, my dear Masha, my kind Masha.” Notice the repetition of the “m” sounds. So, when I played him, I repeated a mumbling “mmm” sound before his line. It’s baby talk; it’s his endearment. It’s in his mouth, his lips. When the production was over, I decided I’d translate the whole play. It was fascinating work because every sentence has at least ten different roads you could go down; there’s a fork in the road, you can decide upon this word or that word. Can you give us an example of one of those difficult translation decisions? In Three Sisters, Solyony has a line, “If man philosophizes, we call it philosophy; if a woman does, pull my finger.” How do you translate that? I was doing a play in Boston, at the Huntington Theatre on the main stage. Two flights up in a studio space, a Russian theatre troupe from St. Petersburg was performing Three Sisters. They’d been working on the play for three years, it was their language; I figured if anybody would know what this “Pull my finger” was, they would. I went up there and I said, “What’s pull my finger?” and an actor said, “It’s a Russian folk belief that if you want to know what someone’s dreaming, you pull their finger.” Another actor said, “No, no. That’s not what it means. He’s being rude; pull my finger is sexual, he’s just trying to be shocking.” “No, no. That’s not what it is,” said a third actor. “What’s the next line in the play? It’s Masha’s, ‘What are you talking about, you dreadful man?’ They don’t know what he’s talking about.” So it’s their language, their history, their culture, and they had three different ideas of what it was, so I kept it “pull my finger.” You’ve translated Three Sisters, The Seagull, The Cherry Orchard, Uncle Vanya and Platonov. Have you learned anything different from acting in them versus translating them? As an actor, I pride myself on being a text man. I get solidly behind the text and think of the text as a horse I’m riding, sit astride and balance. The words themselves can carry me through my performance. With Chekhov, it turns out the words…the text...is not what’s going on. It’s subterfuge, camouflage; the tip of the iceberg is exposed, but nine tenths of it is something completely different, so that’s one different thing from acting. When I translate it, I try to make it fun to say as an actor. I don’t let a line go by unless I feel like I would like to say that onstage. Did you find any overlaps between Turgenev and Chekhov? Some of the themes are similar; they deal with similar topics. In A MONTH IN THE COUNTRY there’s a character Rakitin who stands in for Turgenev, in much the same way that a character like Trigorin could stand in for Chekhov in The Seagull, them both being writers and both loving to fish. One of the things that is true about Chekhov’s comedies is that they’re filled with characters who love people who cannot or will not love them back. In A MONTH IN THE COUNTRY, unrequited love is seen as amusing. Rakitin is madly in love with Natalya, but they don’t consummate it. In The Seagull, Trigorin goes to Arkadina and says, “Be a pal, let me have this fling with this young girl, be generous.” She says, “How could you talk to me like that? That’s cruel!” Echoing this in A MONTH IN THE COUNTRY, Natalya asks Rakitin to help her with young Belyaev and he says, “You want me to help you? With someone else?” Chekhov called The Seagull a comedy, but would you say that Turgenev is more comedic? I would say it’s more comedic, but it has what our director Erica Schmidt calls “slow burn romance.” She was very helpful in coming up with the translation and her taste definitely shaped what I did with it. You’re known for being very collaborative with your translations, working with directors and actors, and that’s not always the case. You go into the room and listen to people. Why do you choose to work this way? As an actor, I do plays in translation all the time and it’s very important for me that it sit comfortably in my mouth, so I’m all for trying to accommodate the actors in rehearsal to make it feel natural. It’s the way people talk. I want to get it right for them because I realize that it’s different for every actor, so there’s no absolute right way. I feel it’s important to have the actors feel that they’re connected to what they’re saying. How did you come to translating A MONTH IN THE COUNTRY? Brian [Kulick] suggested me to Erica as a possible translator for A MONTH IN THE COUNTRY. She took a look at my Cherry Orchard script and liked it. This is a very modern translation and I had to do it very fast. I usually take four months to do translations and I had about a month and a half. She had a lot of input. I turned the first draft in and it was very short. I joked with her, I said, “We could call this A Weekend in the Country.” When I was writing, I didn’t have time to rewrite; I had to go with my first instinct. In almost all the cases where I had hesitations, Erica expressed the same hesitations so we had similar sensibilities. What is next for you? I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s thirteen years ago and I’ve been working as an actor steadily through that time. I would love to be able to continue to perform. I love the camaraderie, the backstage life. I love to audition. One of the great things about translating is that as my acting career is riding into the sunset I can, in a sense, still play all the parts. And that’s pretty satisfying!
click here to read online. You fit comfortably in the world of landmark Shakespeare productions, like Cymbeline in the Park and The Merchant of Venice. You seem to be equally at home with new plays. Do you have a preference as to which type of theatre you like to design for? MW: The preference is not so much about the kind of play as the way of working. For me, every play, whether it’s old or new or a musical, you’re telling a story, so the job is the same. It’s more about finding a collaborator who understands that and who’s interested in trying to get to the beginning, middle, and end of the story visually, who realizes that there is a correlation between what the playwright is trying to say and how you visually go about telling that story. There are some processes where that’s not the agenda and then there are processes where you have to do that to make the piece alive. I think that the kind of new plays that I’ve worked on most are the kind of new plays that when you first read it you’re like, “How can you possibly bring that to the stage?” You need the visual life to tell it. I think musicals and Shakespeare are the same thing. When you read a musical, you’re like, “Oh my God, that’s so sprawling. How do you bring that to the confines of the stage?” And when you read Shakespeare, it’s the same thing. He takes you all over the map and you need to really be clever how you get from the beginning, to the middle, to the end. Even though they seem very different, the job is the same thing. If you could only survive doing one of those three, which would it be? That’s hard to answer. I don’t know that I could. It’s hard to only be in one. I find that when I’m doing a lot of one, I’m always craving the other. I just had a great experience with a living, breathing playwright and while I was doing it I was like, “Oh this is so great! I’m really enjoying this living, breathing playwright.” When I’m doing a classic, what the classic demands of you to make it more accessible is fun and different too, so that’s hard to answer. I guess I’d have to say the living, breathing playwrights because they’re alive and that collaboration is so exciting. Does your methodology change when you approach a classic versus a new play versus a musical? No, it’s always the same, it really is. People always think that the design is like a Barney’s window, like you’re filling an empty space with stuff. I guess that’s what makes Barney’s windows so great is they try to transcend that. They don’t just fill the window with stuff, they really are telling a story depending on what season it is. The playwright is giving you a story that you have to figure out how the people are moving in space and telling that story. The job is always the same: you’re visually telling a story and I think I always go about it in the same way. I think that because I did a lot of Shakespeare for a while, then when you move to a contemporary play, everything you learned about the rigors of trying to tell something as sprawling as Shakespeare, you take to that contemporary play. Then, what you learn from a contemporary vocabulary, you take to doing a musical, but I think the process for me is always the same. You’ve worked with Erica Schmidt in the past on Uncle Vanya and certainly, Uncle Vanya shares some similarities with A MONTH IN THE COUNTRY. Can you talk about what that means to you as you bring them both to life visually? I think I’ve only worked on Uncle Vanya once. I’m not sure if it’s what’s in the play or if it’s what Erica and I found in the play, but to me, out of all the Chekhovs, it’s the least elliptical and the most driving and straight ahead, and in a way, the most unrelenting. I think that what Erica and I found in Uncle Vanya was a very simple way of framing that very immediate, straight-ahead narrative drive in a way that was simultaneously abstract and contemporary, but also grounded the play in a kind of reality so that you didn’t, as an audience member, waste any time wondering, “What is this? Where am I?” It was very grounded and I think that when Erica worked on the adaptation of A MONTH IN THE COUNTRY, that was the similarity. She was looking for something that was very lucid and straight-ahead and had a contemporary resonance even though it’s set in a period. Interestingly, we ended up arriving at a similar environment for the story. When we did Uncle Vanya, it was in a proscenium theatre and this is in three-quarters, but I think the idea of framing the environment ended up being similar because we were looking for similar things. I think our experience of doing Uncle Vanya clearly informed where we thought we could go with this play. This will be your seventh production at Classic Stage Company. Can you talk about the challenges of working in our space and how that impacts your thinking? It’s very funny. I knew David Esbjornson from living in L.A. before he was the Artistic Director. When I was still living in L.A. I sent him an email…or maybe a letter…and was like, “I know that you’re here now, remember me from L.A., if anything comes up I hope you keep me in mind.” And he said, “I don’t know Mark, it’s very competitive here.” I think I was asking his advice about moving to New York. It seems like not that long ago, but I guess it was a long time ago. It’s a funny question because to me, every time you go into a theatre, it is inherently environmental. Even if it’s a traditional Broadway house with a balcony and a proscenium, there is still an environment where you’re bringing the audience together with the actors and you’re trying to figure out how to make that the most immediate connection for the audience and the actors. Every show I think of as environmental. The thing that CSC gives you is that no matter what you put in there, the audience and the actors are immediately connected in an incredibly intimate way, and so there is always an interesting tension between trying to figure out how to subvert that and how to embrace it. If you just throw it in the audience’s lap is that too much? You always want there to be some tension to the experience and it’s figuring out for each piece what the right amount of visual and spatial tension is.
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