Category Archives: Anna Karenina

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!