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An Interview with Phil Timberlake & Elise Kauzlaric

In advance of the opening of Emma, dramaturg Maren Robinson sat down with adaptor Phil Timberlake and director Elise Kauzlaric to ask them a few questions. 

MR: Elise, this is your third foray into the world of Austen after having directed Pride and Prejudice and Northanger Abbey.  What do you think you have learned most about the world of Austen and her characters and why do you think they still resonate with us so much?

EK: The language of Austen is delicious and the character relationships are rich. It is challenging and exciting to dissect the nuance of the exchanges – what is unsaid vs what is said – as well as what the characters innately understand about the time they live in that the actors have to both understand for themselves and then convey to the audience. It’s been wonderful for me, personally, to have a deeper understanding each time of how the worldview and language can be explored in the rehearsal process.

MR: Phil, you have graced the stage at Lifeline and been a dialect coach, but this is your first adaptation? What has he process of adapting Emma been like for you?

PT: Elise a terrific collaborator! And being a part of an artistic ensemble is such a privilege. We workshopped the show and had multiple readings over the last couple of years. Now that rehearsals have begun in earnest, the ensemble continues to watch and give feedback. And with Lifeline’s production history, they know so much about Austen!

MR: For both of you, often at Lifeline actors take on multiple roles. In this adaptation of Emma you’ve taken this to a whole new level. Could you talk a bit more about the joys and challenges of having actors not only play multiple roles, but also having multiple actors play the same role at different points in the play?

EK: For the performers this is a fantastic challenge. They not only need to be able to collaborate on a character portrayal with other actors, but also differentiate for themselves between characters distinctively and immediately. We have had great fun developing the characters and then finding how we can celebrate the act of passing roles to each other or having a moment of personal transformation. One piece that has been a wonderful challenge for the actors is pushing the precision and dexterity of vocal and physical work toward characterization. It’s fascinating to watch how this evolves as they discover new things through the process.

PT:  I would add that it is also a great pleasure to engage the viewers imaginations – the audience has to “complete” the transformations in their own minds.

MR: Could you talk a bit more about the set design and how it works with this particular adaptation?

EK: Phil’s adaptation is a celebration of the act of storytelling, the event of theatre. As we started to look at the world for this production if felt right to set up a playing space rather than a literal Austen village so we started to investigate ideas of period theatre and toy theatre. Thematically, Emma also treats people as playthings so the inspiration of toy and paper theatre was exciting. Our final version is a theatrical space in which the actors telling us the story can play.

MR: Phil, I know you had the opportunity to spend time in England while you were working on your adaptation. Is there anything that you discovered in your time there that influenced your adaptation?

PT: Well, it was delightful. I was quite struck by the small size of the villages, and could imagine the “confined society” as Emma puts it. And therefore how new people coming to town could be of great interest – a big part of Emma’s story. I was also struck by the location of Jane Austen’s house in Chawton. It’s right on a deep curve in the Winchester road (nearly a 90° angle). I formed an image of Austen watching the comings and goings along the road as they slowed down to make the turn – another image of Emma’s life, perhaps. There were also a lot of sheep. And they made it into my script, ever so briefly.

MR: In this production there is singing, but it is not a musical. Why is it important to have this musical interlude in the play?

EK: While sharing music and singing at parties was a common occurrence of the day, dramatically it allows us to heighten the action slightly and spend some time on the unspoken narrative. Song is an emotional expression – of joy, of longing, of sorrow. What Emma chooses to sing vs what Jane chooses to sing is quite different. It reveals another aspect of their personal stories. Much like the dance moments, song also allows moments of observation, meaningful looks. We can linger in some storytelling moments in song in a way that is different than a text driven moment.

PT: Exactly so, Elise (as Mr. Elton would say). I always love to have music as a part of storytelling. And dancing if possible …. Although with Austen adaptations there are always a number of moments in rehearsal where someone asks, “Which party is this? Is this the Cole’s or the Weston’s? Or is it Christmas?” 

MR: If you had to liken yourself to one character in the Emma who would it be?

EK: Oh, goodness. I’d like to think I’m a Mrs. Weston. She’s fairly grounded, practical, positive, and wants the best for those around her. Though I do have a little Knightley in me – I try not to be too critical, but I do have strong opinions on how people should and shouldn’t behave…and I like to share these opinions.

PT: Oh, I totally empathize with Emma. Late in the book, in the midst of the unraveling of one her many matchmaking schemes Emma ponders: “How to understand it all … the blunders, the blindness of her own head and heart!” Who can’t relate to that?

Emma runs through July 14 at Lifeline Theatre.

An interview with Bilal Dardai

Dramaturg Zev Valancy sat down with ensemble member Bilal Dardai to chat about his history with, and current adaptation of, The Man Who Was Thursday.

ZV: How did you first encounter The Man Who Was Thursday, and what about it made you feel like you had to adapt it?

BD: I first encountered the title by way of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman — interestingly, by way of Gaiman making a passing reference to its imaginary sequel The Man Who Was October. I knew nothing else about the book or about Chesterton before I’d picked it up, but I loved its singular wit and characters. This was long before I was doing much playwriting at all, so the idea of adapting it didn’t come up until much later. I reread the book in around 2005 and this time I was struck by two things: (1) how much its combination of intrigue and chaos reminded me of the irrational arguments that had led the U.S. to invade Iraq, and (2) how much fun it would be to speak Chesterton’s dialogue aloud. As such, the adaptation reflected a number of my personal views on our state of geopolitics as well as my appreciation for dark, nimble comedy.

ZV: This adaptation was first produced by New Leaf Theatre in 2009, also directed by Jess Hutchinson. What made you two want to revisit it?

BD: I was invited to join Lifeline’s ensemble in 2017, and at the time Dorothy [Milne] had asked if I was interested in pitching Thursday as a project for the company. Dorothy also knew that Jess had recently returned to Chicago after finishing graduate school in Texas and was interested in having her work on the Lifeline stage, and encouraged us to work on this new version if we were both interested in revisiting it (which we were). Since that time, both of us felt like we had grown as artists and people; Jess had honed her directing and storytelling skills considerably on a number of shows and I, for my part, had grown preoccupied with the history of espionage and intelligence-gathering in a way that allowed me to think about the concerns of the adaptation in new ways. Additionally, we were both excited about the opportunities to play with casting in ways that we hadn’t in the prior production. The New Leaf production was cast with ten men; the Lifeline production has been cast with an array of men, women, and non-binary performers, and the script has been updated to deliberately reflect some of those choices.

ZV: A lot has changed in the world since 2009. Can you talk about how this has changed your view of the story, and the script itself?

BD: There’s a quote from my favorite Vonnegut novel, Mother Night: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” It’s a warning that’s actually two warnings: First, beware of spending so long submerged in something you started out pretending that you become that something; and secondly, know that as far as the world is concerned you are what you pretend, and they will react according to that lie. At the heart of Thursday’s narrative is a tale of people who claim to have identities they do not have, and the consequences of those identities being stripped away either by themselves or by others. In the past ten years, especially in the online realm, I think it’s fair to say that anonymity has been weaponized in new and troubling ways, allowing malicious actors to set up training grounds for radicalization, metastasizing beyond angry discussion about pop culture into methods that can and seemingly have influenced elections.

When we first did this production I felt like we were examining the idea of people playing facetiously with serious threats. Now I feel like we’re examining how the inability to tell truth from falsehood, especially when you are the one perpetrating the falsehood and even when you’re doing so for noble ends, can lead to disaster.

ZV: What has been the biggest surprise in rehearsals for this production, or the biggest thing you have learned about the story?

DB: I find the rehearsal process to be full of many small surprises that accumulate into the largest surprise of all, when the play happens for an audience from start to finish. Beyond that: I feel like I’ve learned quite a bit more about theatricality in terms of how it’s employed both inside a theater and outside of it. The myriad ways you can toy with an audience by what you reveal and what you choose not to reveal are exciting and potentially dangerous.

ZV: You and Jess Hutchinson are frequent collaborators: this is your fourth full production together, and you have also worked on several short plays and an audio drama. Can you talk a little bit about why your collaboration works so well?

BD: What I’ve experienced in a room with Jess, and what I can tell about the way she directs plays by other people, is that when she chooses a project she does so out of an abiding faith in the text. For me, this often means that she believes in the play more than I do; that she sees opportunities and ideas that I hadn’t even recognized in the writing of it. She asks very incisive questions and I know that when I can’t answer them, it likely means that it’s because I haven’t thought about the detail as much as I should have, and being given that problem to solve is invigorating. Over time, this has also meant that disagreements we might have about a revision or adjustment don’t feel like disagreements — our clashing perspectives twist and braid around each other, figure out how to run parallel, and then become one direction. 

That’s a very long-winded way of saying we trust each other. And that while this trust started from a type of instinctual simpatico, the ongoing collaborations have been key in deepening it.

Chicago Below Contest and Exhibit

Neil Gaiman’s novel suggests that every city has a city below and each city has a price to pay. As part of our production of Neverwhere, Lifeline is curating “Chicago Below” — an exhibit of images of the Chicago that lives just underneath the glittering parts of the city: the alleys, subways, viaducts and darker places of our own city. We are collecting images to use in our lobby as part of this exhibit — click here to see current submissions.

Join us in turning the lens on our own city.

TO ENTER: you may submit no more than three (3) images of at least 2,000 pixels wide and no larger than 10 MB to Photos may be color or black and white.

Include the following info with your submission:

First Name
Last Name
Preferred name for photo credit
Instagram, flickr, smugmug, or other link (include only 1)

By entering, you authorize Lifeline Theatre to print and display the images selected in our lobby during the Neverwhere run and include them in a Facebook album and/or blog post with your photo credit and link to your preferred photo site or website. You retain the rights to your photograph; however, by entering the contest, you grant Lifeline a royalty-free, non-exclusive license to publicly display your image in our lobby, blog, or Facebook album. Images may be layered in the lobby depending on the ultimate space and design of the exhibit. Please do not use any images of people that are identifiable and for whom you do not have explicit consent to take their photos.

On June 5, we will select one winner to receive two free tickets to our summer production of NeverwhereUPDATE: our panel has selected Igor Studenkov as our winner, for the photo titled “Underground Serenity”. Runner-up is Gary Shum, for the photo titled “Night Stalker”.

Submissions received after June 5 will still be included in our ongoing displays.

Lifeline Theatre employees, artists, and ensemble members may participate in the exhibit, but their submissions will not be considered for the ticket prize.

The price all good cities have to pay

Dramaturg Maren Robinson kicks off a series of Neverwhere posts as we approach previews and opening.

Note: contains spoilers but strives not to reveal key plot points.

There are not many times a dramaturg gets to revisit a play. Having worked on Lifeline’s first production of Neverwhere, I found when we decided to produce the play again I wanted to the opportunity to revisit London Below.

Coming back to a play, you find that there are two things that change: the context and you. In this case, I found that to be very true and in this new context Neverwhere feels especially dangerous. As I listened to director Ilesa Duncan at our first production meeting it became clear just how dangerous she saw this world to be. She mentioned the cycles of immigration to London based on its colonial history, it made me think both about the tribalism of our current political landscape but also the way individuals and communities are allowed to fall through the cracks in our society. People who have been denied a social safety net.

“London grew into something huge and contradictory. It was a good place, and a fine city, but there is a price to be paid for all good places, and a price that all good places have to pay.” -Neverwhere

Gaiman uses the realm of fantasy as so many authors before him have done to hold a funhouse mirror up to our world, our problems. Neverwhere was published in 1996, the era of Conservative Prime Minister John Major who had succeeded the wildly polarizing figure of Margaret Thatcher, known for her brutal cuts to social programs. When she cut funding for free milk in British schools she was given the moniker, “Maggie Thatcher, milk snatcher.” It was the end of an era in which many critiqued the British government for callously removing the social safety nets. Gaiman’s novel can be seen as one of those critiques and certainly offers a critique for our present American political moment.

This tension between those that have and those that do not is an old one. In the novel, Gaiman populates London Above with the “haves,” the one percenters. Richard Mayhew is an investment analyst; all his friends are tied to his workplace and they all work in banking and finance. Notably, the nature of their labor is opaque. This is the world of getting rich and not getting your hands dirty. Richard’s girlfriend Jessica is in museum work, another world of elites, and she is focused on advancing both her career and Richard’s career. She is so focused on advancement that she is willing to ignore a dirty and injured girl on the street. In fact, she perpetuates a convenient myth that, “they all have homes.”

“You’ve a good heart. Sometimes that’s enough to see you safe wherever you go. But mostly, it’s not.” – Old Woman to Richard, Neverwhere

Richard’s problem then is one of choosing to see or not to see. As soon as Richard sees — and more importantly, acts — his life turns topsy turvy and he effectively disappears from London Above. It is worth pausing to mention that Richard Mayhew’s name seems to be an homage to Henry Mayhew, author of London Labour and the London Poor. It was one of the first analyses and attempts to catalog both the jobs and the poverty of Victorian London (another historical moment of great disparity in wealth). With that lineage in his name it is inevitable that Richard will choose to help.

In London Below, Richard encounters people who have fallen through the cracks dating back to the time of the Angles, Saxons, Celts and Roman soldiers, to Victorian mudlarks, all the poor and displaced through London’s long history. That history is built in large part on the subjugation of others. Several major British banks have their financial origins in the slave trade. The wealth of England is wealth plundered from colonization, quite literally taking the resources and the labor of other nations. The shining city above is built on a lot of dark and dirty business. In London Below, that dark and dirty business is open rather than disguised. It is a place where the word of a rat might save your life. Anaesthesia, the first friend Richard makes on his journey, tells a story of parental neglect, abuse, homelessness in London Above only to be saved by the rats and join a clan of rat-speakers. Her life in the sewers avoiding people who might kill you and running errands for rats is a world that is preferable to the one she experienced before.

This critique of the capitalism and imperialism of London Above is countered by a utopian alternative. London Below is a decidedly dangerous place, but it is more honest about the danger, it doesn’t pretend to care or be safe. The social order is decidedly tribal with feudal overtones. The idealistic vision of Door’s father, who sought to unite London Below, only brings death to him and most of his family. Choosing to have a good heart is repeatedly belittled in London Below as being ridiculous at best and fatal at worst. Idealists are not really wanted in either London and bleeding hearts in London below are likely to be literal ones. So, there is another choice for Richard: Will he fight? Will Richard become a warrior for the things he values? Does he even know what he really values?

For me these questions resonate again in a very personal way in the parts of me that have changed since the first production. Even as the American income gap is bigger than ever, I find that I have asked myself what things I will fight for and these are often, what people are falling through the cracks and what am I doing to help even if that isn’t the safest or easiest choice. Like all good fantasy, Neverwhere turns these questions back on us and asks us who we want to be even if we are not likely to be picking up spears anytime soon. Then again who knows?

An interview with Joanna Iwanicka

Dramaturg Zev Valancy checked in with scenic designer Joanna Iwanicka about her work for our production of Anna Karenina.

ZV: Anna Karenina is a story from a very different era, which nonetheless has real resonances with contemporary society. What about the story (and people working on this adaptation) made you want to design the set?

JI: When I was offered me the position of set designer for Anna Karenina, I was beyond thrilled. I have collaborated with Lifeline Theatre since 2006, and have worked with Amanda and Jessica before, too (most recently on a KidSeries show: Sparky!). Seeing Stephanie Diaz’s process up close and personal was also a bonus I was excited to accept. From my experience, Lifeline projects have always been intellectually ambitious and artistically rewarding, so I was sure to accept the job with the proper ratio of excitement and humility. When saying YES to Anna, I had not yet read the Russian classic, though I have been a fan of Russian literature for decades. As soon as I listened to an audio-book version of the novel, I fell in love with the characters and how fully rendered and grounded they were. I got excited that Anna’s story was paralleled with Levin’s and that the story, as life itself, goes on regardless of tragedies and downfalls of the individuals in it.

ZV: Were there any themes or emotions that stood out as you worjed out the aesthetic of the set? Any artists who inspired you?

JI: I think that the major theme of this production is the universality and timelessness of the story. Producing a play about Russian aristocracy of generations past in 2018 America called upon picking an aesthetic that would bring it up to date or at least break away from a traditional period-specific interpretation. The key influence was the art of Gustav Klimt, who was brought to the design team by the director. That choice provided to be potent enough to transcend not only the artwork used in our backdrops, but also the choice of materials used on the set. By juxtaposing the lush elegance of Klimt’s art with rough and industrial metal elements of the set, I hoped to infuse the production with the tensions of the zeitgeist contemporary to Tolstoy’s characters as well as modern day America.

ZV: The space at Lifeline has a very distinctive size and shape. What challenges and opportunities does that offer, and does this production differ from previous times you have designed for Lifeline?

JI: It’s important to note that all spaces provide their unique challenges and to me design is an art of harnessing those and making the play work within the limits of the given space. What I absolutely adore about this space is the height, allowing for creation of multiple-level sets. That also means the audience members can have quite different points of view of the play depending on their seats in the house. This particular production has also brought us a specific requirement of puppet movement, which inspired the choice of raised deck and a “trench” running across the stage. In my previous endeavors in this space, I have often tried to embrace the color palette of the existing brick and to create sets that blended in well within this “container”. Anna’s set is breaking away with this trend. This time I decided to be much more restrained with my color palette, and bank on accent colors to help us tell the story.

ZV: There are many locations in this story, and it isn’t possible to represent them all realistically. How did you make decisions about how to represent them all within the limitations of space and budget?

JI: My main focus was to create a structure which would allow the characters to leave, travel, and arrive at their destinations without covering much distance, hence not extending the duration of the transitions. Amanda and I also quickly realized how important it would be to have scenes melt, blend, and co-exist onstage, which called for the playing areas to be that much more partitioned and fragmented. Giving up on realistic furniture was an easy choice to make, both logistically and conceptually. I wanted the main staircase to be tightly related to Anna’s arc of the story and with that it seemed obvious that it would function not only as the train staircase, but also her carriage, bed, and deathbed. With that in mind, it only made sense to put other existing objects to “work” and re-imagine other stair units as sittables, or to create acting cubes in the balconies that can serve us as any furniture that we need up there.

ZV: This set has to do a lot of work, both in terms of fluidly representing dozens of locations and bolstering a story with complex characters and themes. What principles guided you towards artistic solutions to these challenges?

JI: As I am writing these words we are about to enter the phase of our process where a lot of the choices will be made more specific and become reality. So far, I have paid attention to keeping the set unified with a tight color palette in order to allow for the other important elements of the production to shine and telegraph their specific meaning to the story. The question we have been asking each other throughout hours poring over sketches and plans of the set was how to minimize the number of objects while maximizing their impact. As a rule, I try to stay away from adding purely decorative elements and focus on streamlining the storytelling through shapes and colors that pop against monochromatic background this set provides.

An interview with Ilse Zacharias

Dramaturg Zev Valancy checked in with actress Ilse Zacharias about preparing to play the role of Anna in our production of Anna Karenina.

ZV: Were you familiar with Anna Karenina before you auditioned? What drew you to the character of Anna and made you want to be a part of the production?

IZ: I watched the movie a few years ago and I remember thinking about the complexities of this beautiful love story and how bold and beautiful everyone seemed. With that said, I attended Lifeline’s general auditions and was brought in to read for Anna later on. This was my first time auditioning for Lifeline but they are well known for their strive for inclusive casting and their overall kindness. They, the Lifeline ensemble, are what drew me to the production initially. As for the character, what’s not to love? Anna is vivacious, strong-willed, and unbelievably charming with a truthful demeanor that is unmatched and through the societal lens of 1870’s Russia, we see her wilt away from the oppression of the time. It’s a beautiful story and I wanted to be a part of this journey.

ZV: Have you had the opportunity to read the book? If so, how has it affected your performance?

IZ: I did read it! Though, I had to take short breaks between Levin’s fieldwork and some of the more dense legislative scenes. It’s great to have the book as a reference because I don’t have to guess what was going on in Anna’s head or what she was seeing when people interacted with her, Tolstoy tells the reader very vividly.

ZV: A lot of the details of the story are firmly rooted in the Russia of the 1870s. Can you talk about how your performance is informed by the historical details, and how you keep it from becoming a pure history lesson?

IZ:It would be impossible to turn Anna Karenina purely into a history lesson. Though I’ve heard stories about the lengthiness of the first couple of drafts, playwright Jessica Wright Buha has done an incredible job of advancing the plot whimsically while still staying true to the book. The plots are too rich and too heart wrenching in the show to ever be seen as a history lesson. The details, however, add a pulse that underlines every character’s performance. It takes us back to a time where choices felt predetermined and there were certain expectations to uphold. The costumes, the choice in beverage, the manner in which you would interact with a close friend versus an acquaintance, all of these minute details, as a whole, create the rhythm of every character that drives the play to it’s epic finale. “It’s a symphony of a hundred instruments. And the music either makes you dance, or it makes you cry.” –Buha says it best.

ZV: One of the fascinating things about this production is how it combines very dialogue-heavy scenes with movement and dance. What is it like to be a part of this unique blend of performance styles?

IZ: The juxtaposition of the blending of styles is gripping. It keeps me engaged with my cast, mentally and physically, as well as with the journey of Anna. It allows the journey to take off in an unconventional yet enchanting way that gives the audience a chance to engross themselves in the show in a corporeal way as well as intellectually.

ZV: Anna Karenina and the character of Anna herself have been speaking to readers and audiences for 140 years. In your opinion, what does the story have to offer to an audience in 2018 Chicago?

IZ: It offers audiences a chance at a new perspective. A chance I hope they are willing to accept. This story, and how we’ve chosen to tell it, will take audiences on a different journey. Social conventions have kept and continue to isolate the non-conforming. Anna refuses to give up her happiness even though it means social disgrace and complete alienation. Because of Lifeline’s admirable diverse casting, the audiences may be predisposed to conventions that may be linked to the beautiful diverse actors on stage and it is our duty to shed light on these conventions and break them. The majority of the cast consists of people of color some, if not all, of which would not have been on stage back in 1870’s Russia but now, it’s Chicago. 2018 Chicago. It’s time.

The story shows audiences the extent of the effects of marginalizing a person and my hope is that when they leave the theater they will continue to challenge themselves, to continue to expand and create a space for everyone in hopes of avoiding an ending like Anna’s. “Never be afraid to do something to make yourself happy.” I hope we all get a chance at happiness and allow room for others to do the same.

An interview with Jessica Wright Buha

Dramaturg Zev Valancy sat down with Anna Karenina playwright Jessica Wright Buha to talk about her new take on the classic novel.

ZV: When did you first read Anna Karenina? What about it spoke to you as something you needed to adapt for Lifeline?

JWB: I first read Anna Karenina in January 2016. I was looking for a story with a strong female protagonist, and it’s one of my husband’s favorite books. I read the entire novel on my iPhone while breastfeeding my three-month-old son, so all of the mother-son parts really stood out to me. I felt like the questions brought up in the book ‐ what happens to a woman when she becomes a mother? What does it mean to love someone? ‐ all felt like questions that I wanted to interrogate through art.

ZV: What about the book do you feel speaks to a Chicago audience in 2018?

JWB: I had two phrases tacked to my bulletin board while I was writing: “the high cost of loving someone” and “love takes constant effort.” It’s two edges of the same sword: What does being in love do to us, and what are our obligations to our beloved? These are pretty timeless questions, and ones that I think are relevant to a modern Chicago audience.

Another huge question rattling around this play was, “Is it possible to be happy in such a hopeless world?” This seem very timely and relevant to a modern audience.

ZV: Anna is a woman who makes choices that a lot of readers find hard to understand. As a result, some readers vocally dislike her. You’ve spoken of understanding and liking her ‐ can you talk about why?

JWB: At one of our first rehearsals, an actor commented that every single character could theoretically have their best friend telling them, “Yes ‐ you’re doing the exact right thing.” It’s so confusing to know what to do, and everyone is genuinely doing what they think is right.

I sympathize with Anna. I know what it’s like to be presented with a fork in the road, and to think, well, if I just pause, then both paths remain equally open. But doing nothing is a choice, with consequences. I think a lot about James Joyce’s Dubliners, and the paralysis that all of the characters felt in those stories. I think Anna is feeling a lot of the same emotions.

I’ve heard it said that she doesn’t care about her son, Seryozha. I’d disagree ‐ I think she has such a great love for her son throughout the book. From the moment she gets back from Italy, he’s constantly on her mind. Granted, I was literally holding my infant son while I read every word of the novel, so every time Tolstoy mentioned Anna thinking about her son, it was like the words were outlined in gold. Perhaps if one isn’t actively breastfeeding while reading the book, one could overlook those mentions. In which case, Anna seems very cold and heartless. But I believe that she never forgot Seryozha. Being pulled between her two great loves was torturous to her.

ZV: The novel is over 800 pages long, and packed with events, subplots, and philosophical digressions. What did you have to cut to get it to a manageable length for a play, and what principles did you use to make those choices?

JWB: I thought of the book like a field of wildflowers, and the play like a vase. The answer isn’t to crush up all the flowers and pour it into the vase, the answer is to choose several blossoms that evoke the feeling of the field and to arrange those (and realize, of course, that the vase of flowers will never be exactly like the field).

I came back to the theme of love, and I tried to keep as much as possible that spoke to that, and I cut as much as I could that didn’t deal with that.

ZV: Was there anything you had to cut that you particularly miss? Was there anything you invented that you’re particularly fond of?

JWB: I wish I had room for more of Dolly’s story. Her character is so complicated and lovely, and she has these gorgeously sad and stirring passages in the book. The part where she’s on her way to visit Anna in the country, and she’s thinking about her life and her children and all the pride and regret that she feels towards herself? It’s so beautiful.

Regarding my additions, I’m pretty proud of how I solved the Kitty-Levin proposal scene. In the book, Levin writes down the first letter of each word in a sentence on a tablecloth, and then Kitty immediately deciphers it, and then they communicate back and forth like that for a while (which is actually how Tolstoy proposed to his wife–wild!). So I wanted it to be fun and awkward and adorable, but I couldn’t think of how to do it without using a projector/etc. So I took it in a little bit of a different direction while still trying to keep the spirit of the scene.

Leo Tolstoy, Russian Society, and ANNA KARENINA

Note: This is a guest posting from Zev Valancy, dramaturg for our Winter MainStage production of Anna Karenina.

Count Leo Tolstoy (Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy in Russian—“Leo” was chosen for his English publications because “Lev” means “lion”) was born in 1828 on an estate 200 km south of Moscow. After failing to complete a college degree and running up major gambling debts, he joined the army and fought in the Crimean War, an experience which led him to start writing and influenced the increasingly pacifist, mystical version of Christianity which he practiced more fervently over the years. His ideals led him to found 13 schools for the children of the recently emancipated serfs (short-lived, due in part to police harassment), to work alongside the laborers on his estate, and to become an anarchist and an advocate for nonviolence (including a correspondence with a young Mohandas Gandhi).

Tolstoy wrote a wide variety of fiction and nonfiction throughout his career, much of which explored the ideals he espoused. He is best known, however, for his two major novels: War and Peace (partially serialized 1865-1867, published in its entirety in 1869), and Anna Karenina (serialized 1873-1877, published in book form 1878). Interestingly, Tolstoy did not consider War and Peace to be a true novel: It was set in the past, ranged widely in the characters on which it focused, included representations of real people, and had historical and philosophical essays interspersed into it. (Over the years, he referred to it by various terms, including “prose epic”.) Tolstoy called Anna Karenina his first true novel, due to its contemporary setting, engagement with contemporary politics and themes, and (relatively) narrower scale.

In addition to its explorations of themes related to human relationships and inner lives, the novel takes place against the backdrop of massive changes in Russian and European society.

Most important was Tsar Alexander II’s 1861 Emancipation of the Serfs, by which peasants who were formerly subject to significant controls by the wealthy nobles who owned their land—restrictions included the inability to own land, the nobles taking either significant fees or large portions of their labor, and restrictions on when and whom they could marry—gained a certain measure of freedom (though economic factors continued to hamper them). In addition to moral factors, the major reasons for this change included the perception that serf labor was economically ineffective, holding back Russian economic development, and a serious worry about a serf revolution. As Alexander II said: “It is better to abolish serfdom from above, than to wait for that time when it starts to abolish itself from below.”

The Emancipation of the Serfs was followed by a huge number of social and economic reforms, including reforms to the judicial system (particularly the introduction of jury trials), greater local government control (which the character of Levin is involved with before the novel starts, eventually leaving it in frustration), the introduction of the telegraph, massive expansion of railroads, and a freer press. The situation for women was also seeing significant changes, at least for the upper classes. While many elements of Russian society were extremely unfriendly to women, women had been able to inherit property since the 18th Century, and women in the upper classes were slowly gaining the right to an education (a question much debated in the novel).

This would bear fruit after the novel’s publication, with Russia having more female physicians, lawyers, and teachers than any other European country at the turn of the 20th Century. All of this tied in to “The Woman Question”, the catch all name for a philosophical, social, and literary movement focused on the rights and evolving position of women in the second half of the 19th Century. It was the subject of many essays and articles, along with many of the era’s most acclaimed literary works—Madam Bovary and A Doll’s House being two of the most prominent examples.

Anna Karenina has been widely acclaimed since its publication, lauded for Tolstoy’s grasp of character and language. It is seen as both the height of Realist fiction and a step in the development of Modernist fiction (particularly in the stream of consciousness sections before Anna’s suicide). It has seen a variety of English translations and been adapted to film, television, theatre, opera, and ballet.

Here at Lifeline, we are excited by the ways that this story from Russia in the the 1870s speaks to Chicago in 2018. In the next few weeks, we’ll be speaking to several of the artists who are helping to bring Anna Karenina to life–we hope you’ll join us!

Inside HER MAJESTY’S WILL Part Three: Chicago’s Shakespeare

Note: This is a cross-posting from PerformInk’s 3-part INSIDE series, where they’re taking readers behind the scenes of Lifeline’s production of Her Majesty’s Will through blog posts written by the people behind the scenes.

By David Blixt

Her Majesty’s Will was born because I needed a good laugh.

In Spring 2009 I was in Washington DC, performing in the re-mount of the Goodman’s King Lear starring Stacy Keach, directed by Bob Falls. I’m proud of that show, and it’s deservedly famous. But it was pretty damn dark.

My writing world was pretty dark, too. I’d just finished a draft of a novel called Colossus about the Roman/Jewish wars of the first century. Now in DC, I was rooming with my old pal Steve Pickering, whom I was helping with an adaptation of the grisly sci-fi novella Diamond Dogs.

Man, I needed a laugh. So I thought I’d write one.

Now, all my stories are inspired by gaps. Negative space. Holes in stories we think we know. I started my first novel, The Master Of Verona, to explore the origin of the Capulet-Montague feud. Colossus was the space between the death of Christ and the birth of Christianity.

To me, one great unexplored gap was Shakespeare’s ‘Lost Years’, the eight years after he left Stratford but before he appeared as a playwright.

I’d read Stephen Greenblatt’s fantastic Will In The World. I’d also read Park Honan’s Christopher Marlowe: Poet & Spy. On a lark I picked up Elizabeth’s Spy Master, Robert Hutchinson’s biography of Sir Francis Walsingham. And all at once I had my story.

The inspiration went like this:
Marlowe was a spy. What if Shakespeare was a spy?
What if Shakespeare and Marlowe were spies together?
What if Shakespeare and Marlowe were spies together, and really bad at it?

Suddenly it was a Hope-Crosby Road Movie starring young Shakespeare and young Marlowe, brilliantly bumbling their way through a world of Elizabethan espionage. Only there was no need for a love interest, because Marlowe would be chasing Will the whole time! And Will? Well, read his body of work (especially his sonnets) and you get a sense that he was, shall we say, a lover of the world?

For the story I settled on The Babington Plot, the trap that sent Mary, Queen of Scots to the axe. Thanks to a chance meeting with a ‘dark lady’, our hero Will is dragged by the wily Kit into a ridiculous plot to save Queen Elizabeth that ends with them being hunted by Catholic rebels, Spanish agents, London scum, and Elizabeth’s own men!

As I wrote, I set myself a challenge – I was not allowed to contradict anything in the historical record. Everything I wrote had to fit the facts as we know them. More, my cast had to be real people – not the nobility, whom we see depicted all the time. No, I wanted the thieves, villains, and fools of London, the dregs of society. You know – theater people.

The first chapters wrote themselves, and Steve posted them on his Shanghai Low blog. Then Lear ended, I went home, and the project was shelved for a couple years. Which seems to be how I work – I’ll write the first third of a novel, then leave it to stew for years before coming back and finishing it in a rush.

In 2011, once more in need of a good laugh, I dusted off the manuscript and finished it in three delight-filled months. In addition to laughing, I found myself crafting a couple moments of heartfelt honesty. All an author can hope for.

That summer was my wife Janice’s second year as the Artistic Director of the Michigan Shakespeare Festival. She hired Robert Kauzlaric to direct the MSF’s production of Tartuffe, a decision that was equal parts shrewd business and fond nostalgia. We had first met Rob in a production of Tartuffe at City Lit, where Jan, Rob, Rob’s wife Elise, and I had shared the stage with Don Bender, as well as the late and sorely-missed Page Hearn and Will Schutz, all under the direction of Kevin Theis. It was one of ‘those’ shows, the ones where you delight both your audiences and yourselves. Jan and I discovered part of our Chicago theater family in that production. Years later Elise and I would both be in the Goodman’s Lear.

Rob, of course, was a longtime ensemble member and playwright at Lifeline Theatre. After a couple years at MSF, Jan made him an Artistic Associate there too. Each February they road trip to Detroit for auditions, and on the car ride they play Pinky and the Brain, plotting the takeover of the world. Or so I imagine.

Four years ago, out of thin air, Rob said, “I’d love to adapt one of David’s books, but they’re all so epic! I just don’t see doing them justice.”

Jan replied with a laugh. “Have you read Her Majesty’s Will?”

He hadn’t. He did. The moment he closed the cover he pitched it to his fellow ensemble members at Lifeline.

Which is how, eight years after my desire to laugh, Her Majesty’s Will is poised to bring a laugh to a world in desperate need of one. It feels like serendipity. Stacy Keach is once more in town to collaborate with Bob Falls. The audiobook of Colossus came out last fall, read by Brian Gill, who was also in that Lear. Just a few months ago the House produced Diamond Dogs, starring Christopher Hainsworth – the director of Her Majesty’s Will. Don Bender, who was in that long-ago Tartuffe, is playing Walsingham, Elizabeth’s Spy-Master.

And me? I was astonished when Lifeline asked me to direct the fights for the show. I immediately called Hainsworth and said, “Chris, you don’t really want me in the room, do you? The author?”

“No,” replied Hainsworth. “I want you the fight director. Because the author saddled us with a lot of fights.” He paused. “We’re keeping the bear-baiting.”

“I’m in.”

He wasn’t kidding about the number of fights in Her Majesty’s Will. Rob has kept every fight from the novel, which means there are nine distinct sections of combat, most involving four or more people. Each night before the show the actors have a fight call to prepare. Even for violence-heavy shows, most fight-calls last fifteen minutes. The fight call for HMW lasts forty.

Chris gave over the first whole week of rehearsal to choreographing the violence. Which meant I had to hit the ground running.

Being a fight director on a comedy is always an interesting challenge. Like every other aspect of a play, violence is best when it tells a specific story. In a drama or tragedy, that’s fairly straightforward. But in a comedy, it’s about finding the right balance of tone. As they say, “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.”

One example – in Act One of HMW, there’s a nine-person tavern brawl. For the first iteration of the fight, I leaned hard into the comedy (one actor was making himself a sandwich while sword-fighting). After a week or so, Chris decided it wasn’t quite the right story – we had lost threat of the villains. So, with just a few adjustments, the fight became more desperate. There’s still humor, but the threat remains palpable. The fight maintains the tension, while the laughs burst in to briefly relieve it.

A lot of which is due to the actors more than me. Many excellent fight directors come in with all the moves mapped out in advance. I prefer to see what the actors bring to it. No two people move the same. Every actor has their own set of skills, and the best fights capitalize on them to tell the story.

Then there’s the fun of working on a new script. As Chris has watched the show take shape, he’s added or subtracted elements of the violence to better tell his story. Meanwhile Rob’s been altering the script, in some cases with major revisions, as the needs of this story become clearer. Often fights changed for the script, or for tech, or simple clarity. But every once in a while it went the other way, the fights birthing a few new lines, and even one running joke. It’s great having that much flexibility and collaborative spirit in the room, where every idea is valued. Until it comes time to murder your darlings.

Thus I’ve had the unique experience of being part of the process all the way along. Rob kept the script out of my hands for as long as he could – at the fight auditions the actors had read more of the play than I had – but I can say with honesty I’m delighted. Rob and Chris and the ensemble have crafted a fast-moving, hilarious romp through the ribald underbelly of Elizabethan theater, so like Chicago’s own.

And in between the laughs, there are a few moments of heartfelt honesty. All an author can ask for.

From page to stage

Note: This is a guest posting from Annaliese McSweeney, dramaturg for our Summer MainStage production of Her Majesty’s Will.

Caution: This blog post may contain spoilers if you are not familiar with the book Her Majesty’s Will by David Blixt.

In the blog post Inside Her Majesty’s Will Part One: Adapting the Novel Robert Kauzlaric started to address some of the challenges of adapting the novel for the stage, particularly the adding of a Chorus to help share Will’s inner thoughts with the audience. As is often the case with adapting a novel, this was only one of many changes that occurred between the page and stage. Many factors play into what stays and what gets left behind, but luckily author David Blixt was understanding and supportive of the process of bringing these characters and their story to the live theatre. Outlined below are a few such things to look out for if you are already familiar with Blixt’s version of the story – along with some historical tidbits as well.

Due to the practicalities and casting for this show, a few characters were cut before the script even made it to the rehearsal room. Many were minor characters that our young heroes come across in passing. For example, in the book Dick Tarlton is accompanied by his protégé, Robert Armin, who was in fact his successor both on the stage and in court, but he has been omitted from the play since he doesn’t significantly impact the story. Walter Williams, Walsingham’s “right hand man” in the book, was consolidated into the character of Phelippes in the play to avoid confusion among Walsingham’s minions and to create a more solidified character for a certain twist in the story. Although both were in Sir Francis’ employ, Phelippes is the more noted of the two as Walsingham’s cryptographer and forger and he played the larger part in the plot against Mary Stuart. The interaction with the local bumbling sheriff was also cut since it stalled the momentum of the play at a point where it needed to focus on other developments.

The two most notable absences in the play are of Thomas Watson and Shakespeare’s father. Watson was one of the famed “University Wits,” an informal group of university-educated dramatists in the 1580s that immediately preceded Shakespeare’s writing fame. They never referred to themselves by this name, but were given it as historians tried to identify some of the most important pre-Shakespearian influences. While Watson plays an important part in deciphering Kit’s coded message in the book, his presence is absent from the play (although many of his contributions toward moving the plot forward survive in the mouths of the other Wits). His name, however, is mentioned so as not to be forgotten as a contributor to this lively bunch of men. Shakespeare’s father is an influential, but complicated character in the book – one that drives much of Will’s actions, though he is only seen briefly near the end of the story. All the factors that drive Will from his home that are tied to his father – his father’s drinking, his decent into poverty, and family shame – are present in the stage version, but their complicated relationship is conveyed to the live audience by Will’s father’s intentional absence.

Condensing a novel to a stage production also means that time constraints make it necessary to pare the story down to its base elements, therefore quite a few fun and beloved plot points get glossed over as opening night of the production looms near. During this process there were structural changes that happened before rehearsals began, but there were also moments that the production team really did try to include in the stage performance, but alas ended up on the cutting room floor. This is particularly true for the two instances of betrayal that happen in Blixt’s book.

The first betrayal was between Kit and Will when Kit leverages his knowledge of Will’s background to Sir Francis Walsingham. The play moves at such a quick pace, covering only about a week (compared to multiple weeks in the book), that there wasn’t enough time to address the aftermath of such an event, nor to earn the subsequent reconciliation.

The second betrayal was by Em Ball. While it added complexity and an obstacle for our heroes to overcome in the book (and nodded to the historic Em’s reputation), it played against some of Kauzlaric’s hopes for the character on stage. He wanted Em to be an equal part of the troop that hangs out with the Kit at the White Hart, capable of holding her own with the educated men and full of her own valiant desire to save her queen. Aware of the limited representation that women have in this play, Kauzlaric felt it was important to show a brave, loyal, and proactive woman of the lower classes.

There were smaller bits that were lost along the way as well. For example, horse-stealing shenanigans were included in the play until rehearsals were moved into the playing space, as was the suggestion of a past relationship between Kit and Hank Evans. Scenes like the performance of The Spanish Tragedie, the Wits’ debate over England’s greatest king (or queen), and Kit and Will’s extensive travels have been cut significantly since the first draft. Also, while a working draft of the play at one time contained allusions to (nearly) all of Shakespeare’s plays, due to cuts and changes, many had to be lost along the way. There are still quite a few to be found for the attentive audience member.

Although these changes and omissions could be viewed as a loss to the story Blixt originally conceived, it is important to remember that literature and performance are very different mediums. While one structure and pace is better suited to the page, the essence and spirit of the tale is still alive and well in the staged version. We hope you bear this in mind as you “gently hear and kindly judge our play.”