A few weeks before first rehearsal, Elizabeth Frankel, the Alley Theatre’s Director of New Work, spoke with Rajiv Joseph, author of Describe the Night.
Elizabeth Frankel: We so look forward to welcoming you back to the Alley in a few weeks. I know many Houstonians well recall seeing the premiere of Gruesome Playground Injuries in 2009. To begin, how did that premiere come about?
Rajiv Joseph: I remember that I finished the play and my agent sent it out across the country to all these different theatres, and I think it was literally three days later Mark Bly, who was then in charge of new works, called up my agent and said, “We want to do it.” I’ve never experienced that kind of instant feedback from a place that didn’t know me. It was a unique and exciting event.
EF: Then you had The Monster at the Door here two years later. What was that process like?
RJ: The Alley gave me a commission for a new work. That was a much different experience because I was really writing it up until opening night due to an unexpected confluence of events that occurred in the year leading up to it: I had my Broadway debut with Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo in addition to my New York premiere of Gruesome Playground Injuries and then another world premiere that same season in Palo Alto for The North Pool. Those things combined with my first year writing for the television show Nurse Jackie, I was stretched a bit thin. So I remember I came into rehearsal for The Monster at the Door and I was still really heavily rewriting the play.
EF: And how has your experience been working here twice before, premiering work in front of Houston audiences?
RJ: Every time I come to Houston it’s a joy. I love the city. I love the people. I love the staff at the Alley. I have a great relationship with [Artistic Director] Gregory Boyd and so many of the board members and donors. It always feels like coming home. It’s unusual to have a place you feel such a kinship to that’s so far from home.
EF: I was thinking about this before I called you and am curious: Is it true that with Describe the Night, you will have had more world premieres here than at any other theatre?
RJ: I think that is true… Two at Center Theatre Group [in Los Angeles]. Two at Second Stage Theater [in New York]. And I’m about to have two at the Atlantic Theater Company [in New York]. Yes, that is true.
EF: So, The Monster at the Door premiered and then after that that, the Alley gave you another commission in 2014. Did you know right away that you’d be writing the play that has become Describe the Night?
RJ: No. I didn’t know what I was going to write. But then Giovanna Sardelli, who is the director of Describe The Night, approached me with this experimental idea that happens at NYU in which a director and a playwright work with students from the graduate acting program to create a piece. In this method of working, called the Joint Stock Method, a writer doesn’t really know what they’re writing about at first and then the actors and the director all collaborate on research and improvising things until ideas start to emerge. When I started this program with the students, I was immediately excited about that and I asked the Alley if they would allow it to be my commission. I would have understood if they said no because this was a very experimental way of approaching work and I had no real pitch. I was like, “It’s going to be sort of about Russia, about this plane crash in 2010 and the writer Isaac Babel.” That’s kind of all I knew and those things are very disparate. And so it was to the Alley’s credit that they would say, “Yes, sure, that sounds great. Go ahead.”
EF: How did you come up with those specific ideas to bring into the NYU workshop?
RJ: I knew I wanted to write about the Russian writer Isaac Babel who was popular in the 1930’s and up to 1940’s, when he died. And I knew I wanted to write about the Smolensk plane crash in 2010. There needed to be a linking category, a story that in some way fell between the two and I was very interested in Vladimir Putin and his involvement in the KGB in the 1980’s and the fall of the Berlin Wall -- what the fall of communism, what the fall of the Soviet Union, meant to Russia. And that became the middle story that emerged. It was a slow process of testing ideas and working with actors and realizing that I wanted to write three small plays that intersected and made one larger play.
EF: What peaked your interest in Isaac Babel?
RJ: I had read him in college and liked his stories. Then I found his published diary from 1920 when he was a wire reporter with the Russian Red Cavalry in the Russo-Polish War. I was really drawn to that piece of literature because I also keep a journal and I have since I was about 22, and so I’m always interested to read other writers’ journals when they’re published. His was particularly interesting and haunting to me.
EF: So what happened after the NYU workshop?
RJ: A year ago the Alley sent me, for the second time, to the Ucross Foundation [artists retreat center] in Wyoming, where I was given two weeks to flesh out the story and the script. That’s the script that I ended up bringing for the reading in the [Alley All New] Festival this past February.
EF: And I gather there’s also a trip to Russia somewhere in there, too, right?
RJ: There is but in some ways even more importantly, prior to the trip to Russia, last summer, I went back to Romania where I’ve been five times with the Lark Play Development Center to participate in a teaching and translation program. I was teaching writing courses to students there in a town called Targu Mures, which is in Transylvania, at the same time Describe the Night was being translated into Romania and Hungarian and given public readings in both. That experience was fascinating because I was working on that play, I was continuing to develop it, but I was also getting this real perspective from a group of people that deeply love theatre, who I’m friends with, but also had a deep interest in this play because the history and the specter of communism and the Soviet Union and Ceausescu still hang heavy over that region. Their perspective on the piece really helped me take a leap forward. Watching it translated and hearing it translated into Romanian and Hungarian, answering questions from the actors and the directors about what the play meant was a huge transformational moment for me. And then the following fall I was able to go, with the Lark again, to Moscow, this time to do a reading of Guards at the Taj but being there, obviously that was instrumental, as well, to the development of Describe the Night.
EF: Clearly you began writing this play three years ago but surely you’ve heard people remark, as I have, how topical it is to have a play coming out now that’s set in Russia. What is your reaction to that?
RJ: It’s as surprising to me as anyone else. I had no idea that I was writing something that would prove to be so timely and relevant. I’m interested in the politics of our age, current events and I’ve written politically in the past. For me, it’s always about finding a particular way into writing politically. I can’t just write a straightforward political play, not that those are bad. There are some that I really, really love. I love the play Oslo [by JT Rogers, about the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords], which is about these particular events and these particular people and it plays out in a straightforward manner. I admire that play so much. But when I approach political works, it has to be through a kind of slanted, shattered lens. That’s how I approached Bengal Tiger – from the perspective of a tiger. And I approached this in this kind of weird way and it just turns out to be relevant.
EF: I’ve noticed that you have a lot of plays that are history plays, or plays set in the past rather than in the present. What draws you to writing plays set in the past?
RJ: I think I’m a little hesitant to write about modern times because modern times can switch so quickly. When you write about history, even though the perspective on history can change, there is something a little more steady about it. I don’t understand what’s going on in the world right now. I attempt to through writing about it. I think that there’s a way of understanding what’s going in the world now by looking at history. And so my last play Archduke did just that; I was, in some ways, attempting to understand the global political situation the world is in now by looking at it one hundred years ago when World War I was just beginning.
EF: How interested are you in historical accuracy?
RJ: I am interested in it. But...Describe the Night is much less concerned with historical accuracy because in some ways Describe the Night is about storytelling. It’s about lies and fiction and conspiracy theories. And so the play reflects that and the trick of the play is you never know when someone is telling the truth or when someone’s not telling the truth or when something’s being depicted truthfully or not. That said, I think there have to be certain anchor-holds. You can’t just make things up willy-nilly. There are certain aspects that have to hold; for example, when the Berlin Wall fell. I can’t just make that ten years later or ten years earlier to suit my needs because that would be living in an alternate reality altogether. It’s a selective process of “here’s something that matters to me that has to be historically accurate,” and “here is something that does not” because by exaggerating it or changing it we’re actually getting at a larger truth about that time.
EF: What’s so exciting about the piece is how you start with the imagination of the writer Isaac Babel and then as the play goes on that’s there but there’s also the imagination of you, the playwright writing the play, that seeps in as well – that mix of imagination and fact.
RJ: Exactly, yes.
EF: What role did the February reading in our Alley All New Festival have in the development of the script?
RJ: That was great. The reading provided a lot of things for me. For one, it provided a very exact deadline and not just a deadline when I’m handing something in but a deadline in which I’m going to have an auditorium full of people watching it be performed. That sort of fear and urgency really helps someone kick into high gear on completing something. And it was my first time hearing the play out loud since a) it had been done in New York and b) since the election. And so suddenly I, like everyone else, was really alarmed at how current the play seemed, especially when it seemed like it hadn’t been. I didn’t know what the play was going to amount to when it was at NYU. When we did it at NYU, it was so different. There was another character in it and it was a lot more unwieldly, it was a lot messier, it was a lot longer and so at the time, I was like “I really love this play but I don’t know what it is yet. I think it’s still kind of a mess.” And the gearing up towards then working with the actors at the Alley, that whole experience, helped the play come into focus.
EF: And then I saw you in New York at the end of June for a three-day roundtable workshop of the play at the Atlantic Theater Company [which will produce the New York premiere following our production]. How did that factor into your process?
RJ: I looked at that workshop as really useful because it was the equivalent of one step back, if you consider progress two steps forward and one step back. I tried some new stuff that I didn’t like. The problems and questions of the play emerged in sharper relief and so I was able to leave having a better idea of the exactitude of what I need to get done.
EF: Changing the topic, what else has kept you busy this year?
RJ: I’m working on a number of things. I work on screenplays with a screenwriting partner and he and I are working on a screenplay together. I’m developing a television adaptation of the film Wag the Dog for HBO and I am working on a number of other plays that I have in the hopper. I keep different ideas at different levels of development.
EF: You have a long history of collaboration with director Giovanna Sardelli. How did that begin?
RJ: My very first play that I ever had produced professionally was called Huck & Holden and it was at the Cherry Lane Theatre as part of the Mentor Project, which they do every year in which established playwrights select your play and then mentor you throughout the year until you have a studio production of it. I needed a director and Theresa Rebeck, who was my mentor, knew Giovanna and introduced us. We have been working together ever since.
EF: Why is she such a good fit for your work?
RJ: Giovanna tends to understand my work better than I do sometimes. She understands subtext that I’ve put in that I didn’t even realize was there. She and I have very similar sensibilities. We have the same taste and I feel very comfortable working with her, which is so important when you’re working on new plays because that is such an arduous process and I tend to change things very dramatically as I write. I throw entire drafts out the window and start anew. I remove characters. I add characters. I have no qualms about tearing something down. I’m not precious about my writing. And that can be frightening and a frustrating thing for a director sometimes, but Giovanna goes with the flow. She knows how I work and she puts me at ease, which is important.
EF: And I know you’ve previously worked with some of the designers of Describe the Night
RJ: Amy Clark is our costume designer and she was the costume designer for The Monster at the Door, which is one of my favorite costume designs of any play I’ve ever had. We had such a fun time with that play because that play was so fantastical and heightened and theatrical and Amy just did a wonderful job there; I know that she’s very excited to come back to the Alley. She’s done a lot of my plays in the past and she’s wonderful. Timothy Mackabee, who’s designing the set, has done Guards at the Taj in New York, Mr. Wolf in Cleveland, and Archduke in LA and I think he’s the best set designer working today. He comes at set design as a dramaturg would and he understands deep things about the play and allows that to inform his design ideas. He’s not thinking literally, he’s thinking symbolically and as a result his sets are just fantastic. Lap Chi Chui, who is our lightening designer, who worked with me on Archduke and Guards at the Taj in LA, he is brilliant. And then Daniel Kluger is our sound designer and he is someone I’ve worked with for many years on many things and is just a brilliant man. He and the other designers and Giovanna tend to understand my work in a unique and particular way and they’re able to work quickly, as I do.