Director Mary Zimmerman on The Arabian Nights and Candide
DC audiences were given two holiday gifts from Director Mary Zimmerman: her lavish and eye-popping productions of Candide for The Shakespeare Theatre Company and The Arabian Nights for Arena Stage. I became a fan of Mary’s after seeing her Tony Award-winning production of Metamorphoses at Circle in the Square Theatre in 2002 in NYC (she won the Tony for Best Director). Like many DC area audience members, I was wowed by the visual delights of Candide and The Arabian Nights. I asked Mary to take us on her journey of adapting these two great works for the stage and the recent DC productions.
Joel: How did the Arena Stage production of The Arabian Nights come about?
Mary: To tell the truth, I’m not exactly sure. Either David Dower or Molly Smith or both came and saw The Arabian Nights in Chicago, I believe at my theatre, the Lookingglass Theatre. I had felt that I was done with the show — I have a long history with it — but the challenge and opportunity of doing it in the round lured me in — that and wanting to work at the Arena in its phenomenal new building and all. The show always seemed as though it wanted to be in the round, but never has been.
You’re well known for your adaptation of classic texts. What was there about The Arabian Nights and Candide (which recently graced Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Sidney Harman Hall) that made you want to adapt them?
Well, they are very different texts, to be sure, but almost everything I’ve ever adapted has had a sort of epic and an episodic quality. There tend to be voyages and exotic lands, and a central character who goes on both an actual journey and a journey of the soul. In Arabian Nights, the King – Shahryar – never actually leaves his darkened room except through the agency of imagination. Scheherazade takes him everywhere, or rather, brings the world to him, just through her stories. She re-integrates him back into the real world through fiction, through story. And also, it should be said, I did The Arabian Nights very deliberately in the shadow of the first Gulf War. I was distressed by the discourse surrounding The Middle East at the time. In order to persuade people to go to war against others, you have to convince them that the others are truly different, not quite human, not quite “like us.” In the Arabian Nights, the characters are actually very familiar sorts, although we find them in somewhat exotic trappings.
Both Candide and The Arabian Nights present the kinds of challenges I love: How to do things that are easy in literature and hard on stage: journeys by boat and storms at sea, flying carpets, lands where red sheep pull carriages or people ride on camels. I really like trying to find a poetic stage analog for these wild images. Candide was actually a quite typical text for me: it is considered problematic, episodic, and difficult. I like that.
How long did it take you to adapt The Arabian Nights for the stage?
The way I work is quite strange: I only start writing once I am in rehearsal and so my “playwriting” takes only as long as the rehearsal period. I write in the hours in between rehearsals and bring in new bits every day. I think The Arabian Nights was probably about 8 weeks because my company was non-Equity at the time and we rehearsed only a few hours a night and on weekends. I did Candide the same way, and I suppose it took about 5 or 6 weeks altogether. I revise a lot in previews and through the years as well.
When a text is gigantic and episodic like The Arabian Nights or, say, all of Greek mythology (as in my Metamorphoses) I select episodes that I have an immediate visual idea for or response to; or stories that seem to have some particular current resonance; or stories that are particularly good for someone in my cast. The shows are cast and designed before the script is made, so the script is part of the organic development of the whole.
It’s said that you consistently come to rehearsals with sketches of what you intend to accomplish in a given scene, and that you depend on your actors to realize the intention. To what extent is that accurate, and how important is it that your actors contribute to production?
It is not altogether accurate. I do bring in script every day, though in general it was written the night or morning before. Indeed I do ask the actors for physical improvisation from time to time, to figure out how to do various lifts, or make a boat or be a camel and so on. In The Arabian Nights there is a scene of actual verbal improvisation, but the rest of the show is written like any other play — I’m just doing it during the same time frame that rehearsals are taking place.
That said, my actors are all: who they are, their particular talents, their proclivities, their taste, their physical being — all of that determines how the script will go. I write for them — in the original incarnation of the show anyway. I pick stories for them, make songs for them, etc. In subsequent productions the script is already there and I have to cast like anyone else has to cast — based on the requirements of the (now already completed) script. This can be really hard: to find people with the exact skill set that inspired the script.
How much of the actors’ input molded this production?
Two stories, “Aziz and Aziza” and “The Contest of Generosity” were suggestions by the original Lookingglass cast members. Most of the tunes were composed spontaneously by the original cast members; and everything is made in their image, for them. For this production at Arena (and all the productions) the little “dance of the every day” as I call it, at the end, which is made up of every day gestures — all those are collectively devised by whatever group is doing the show; and the music changes as well; and certain “tracks” — the particular series of role assignments — fluctuate with each cast, according to its members particular skills.
How different is the Arena Stage production from the productions you’ve directed at Berkeley Repertory Theater, The Actor’s Gang, Brooklyn Academy of Music, Kansas City Repertory Theatre and The original 1992 Lookingglass productions at The Kinnicutt Center, Chicago Filmmakers and Remains Theatre and the Steppenwolf Studio Theatre?
There was a very big change made between the very first incarnations and the group of productions that started three years ago. In the original, when the audience came in the set was already established — rugs, lamps, ottomans were all visible. We were already in the exotic sort of nostalgic fantasy of the Old Araby. That seemed utterly impossible this time around and utterly impossible to present that setting as anything but a construction. So now when the audience comes in, everything is covered with white muslin as though in storage. It is all rather quiet, rather bleak. A bare, modern light bulb hangs over the stage. Then two fellows come in and their first move is to cover that light bulb with a filigreed lamp then everything becomes musical, riotous; we see the set unfold as the cast uncovers its elements, kicks out carpets, arranges things. We always did that arranging, but the elements were visible from the beginning in the old days.
What changed for Arena in particular was the general visual composition of the show. The general conceit of the scenes is the same, but they are oriented along different planes, different lines. It was marvelous to figure out. And I just love the proximity of the audience here — they truly feel “in the same room” as the king and Scheherazade, and I always wanted that.
How has the play evolved from that first Maine production until this Arena Stage production?
Well, in Maine we did just 3 shows in a school gym — all with the eye towards opening in Chicago. I would say that the primary developments are in the quality of the music and the quality of the clothes. Both of those have come an enormous distance. But the script s not all that changed.
Were there special challenges in producing The Arabian Nights in the round for Arena Stage?
The hardest challenges are actually acoustic. Some audience members are always behind the speaking actor — always. Articulation, volume, and diction — that is all very critical. And the carpets eat consonants all night long.
Design-wise my big fear was lights, particularly a cue we have for the Dawn. In the past this was a single, enormous instrument that cast long shadows up a back wall. Had we used that instrument, half the house would have been blinded and the effect would not have been so good. Since this is a signal cue, a cue that returns many times, I was quite worried. But TJ Gerkens, my lighting designer of many, many years and shows, is a sort of genius and as usual the show looks like it was lit by Caravaggio (as does Candide). I can’t tell you exactly what he did, but it is a multi-instrument cue.
In terms of the set, we have many more carpets than usual because our floor space is much greater; and we use the ottomans less because of sightlines for the front row. The lanterns had to be fiddled with a lot — but the show slid into the round pretty naturally.
Which was the most challenging tale to direct in The Fichandler?
Hmm. Maybe the long Aziz and Aziza tale. It has an intimacy to it, and a lot of different “locales.”
Early in the story of The Arabian Nights, the vizier tells Scheherazade that the King requires that she marry him, and he proposes that the family escape rather than face certain death with the King. But Scheherazade insists on going ahead to meet her fate. Why?
Well, she explains it to him: because she is capable of seducing this King back into the world through her stories and thereby saving the lives of all the remaining women of the country. She “has a plan” she says, that will “save the daughters of the Musselmen.”
Is she so certain that she can divert the King with her stories that she’s willing to meet certain death if she fails?
Yes. She knows she can do it. Or she sure hopes she can.
What do you look for in an actor you’re considering casting in one of your plays?
I love this question: the very first thing is lack of vanity; a desire to tell the story rather than draw attention to oneself, to be one of the parts that becomes greater than the whole. Being game, supportive, kind, non-competitive; physical, young in spirit, playful, very physically “in their bodies”, and romantic. Many cast members have no idea how much text or story they will get when they are cast and they have to be good about that and realize that all of it is everyone’s. They have to be very, very quick: when I bring in new text we usually read it through once, maybe talk about it a little and then go. My favorite actors are throwing themselves on the ground, full-out, throwing themselves fully into a text five minutes after the first time they’ve seen it. They have to be sort of ‘swoony’ about poetry and literature; they have to take initiative to clean things up — to make images work, to co-ordinate with their fellows to decide “let’s start with our left foot as we move off together.” All of that.
Are any of the actors who were in the original 1992 production in this Arena Stage production?
I don’t think we have anyone original in the Arena production. But in Chicago two summers ago we did have quite a few from 1992. It is a piece we all loved making, I think, and we feel it is current and rather politically meaningful as well as a great time. You’d have to ask them, – I guess.
In “The Wonderful Bag” scene in The Arabian Nights, you’ve said that you tell your actors to improvise the contents of the bag under dispute in order to reproduce the experience of Scheherazade, forced to improvise on short notice. What instructions do you give your actors in this scene? Are they allowed to prepare the improvisation ahead of time?
It’s a bit of a ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ situation in terms of whether or not they prepare. I know some of them prepare a great deal, but if I feel that preparation is really showing, I think they have violated the spirit of the bag and I tell them so. There are certain rules to the bag: nothing obviously contemporary or too new-world can show up in the bag, but you can get around that. In other words, if you want to talk about basketball playoffs, you can’t use those words but you can say, “there are a lot of men running around a sort of wooden floor, with a ball they are trying to throw into a net.” Everyone understands. And there are time limitations. The stage manager has the ability to stop them running on by blinking a light, and the judge in the scene, the Kadi, has the ability to interrupt and stop it if it is tanking or going to far. I really hate if they get too referential towards pop culture and try to curb that — but it’s a wild ride every night and not really in anyone’s control.
Which ‘Wonderful Bag” improv is your favorite so far?
Oh gosh, that is impossible. I will say that one of our principal musicians, Louis Tucci rarely does the bag, but he is capable of doing one of the top bags of all time when he does. I’m currently incredibly fond of Maureen’s “Noodle Lady” who is a consistent character, though the subject of her talk is always different. I think Usman Aly is an all-time champ at the bag as well — always current and sort of political but in very witty ways. I actually wrote my dissertation on this adaptation, and here’s something I said about David Kersnar in the original production:
“David continually mixes and matches images, treading dangerously close to modern reference and saving himself at the last moment by some absurd twist. In this case, he began to say “the continent of Antarctica,” but he realized halfway in that this was too particular and too modern for our taste, and so, to disguise the reference he was instantly forced to say, “The continent of Art-antica.” He then said, “You can see I am inconstant. I am inconsonant. I am incontinent.”
I’ve always adored that.
Why is it so important to expose the art of storytelling to a new generation of theatergoers? Why are the tales we see on The Fichandler stage so relevant today?
I don’t think stories or artistic representation of any kind can or should be reduced to their “function” in society. We express things, put on plays, paint pictures, etc. because we are compelled to do so. There is absolutely no danger of stories, of entertainments — both “popular” and “serious” ever going away. For some reason, mimesis, the ordering of chaos into narrative, it is just essential to us. Gossip, the news, novels, comic books, it is all “story.” We can’t get enough. I suppose I will admit that there is one byproduct of story-telling, beyond the pure pleasure, and that is that it cultivates empathy. That’s what it does for the King.
In Candide, you went back to the original text to rewrite the book. Why?
Because I trust original texts so much. I trust the quirky, not-smooth, oddness of original texts. I feel like if these texts have been around this long, something in them is working.
Although you’ve directed opera in the past, Candide is the first time you directed a musical. Is there something about Bernstein’s score, which made it particularly appealing to you?
Everything about that score is appealing. Every bit of it. And the lyrics are so extremely great — so witty. But Bruce Norris (who wrote Clybourne Park, lately in DC) – who was my boyfriend for a great many years – told me even in college that Candide was the best musical, that “Make Our Garden Grow” was the best song ever written for the stage and that I should direct it some day.
Is there another musical that you would love to direct? or any other classics you are considering adapting for the stage?
Oh, yes. But nothing decided on. Doug Peck — my music director — and I are constantly trading lists and ideas now. It opened a world for me. I loved our Candide in the way one loves the first two or three shows one ever makes — just passionately, passionately.
When I attend one of your productions I know that it will be visually stunning. Who are some of your ‘visual’ influences?
Peter Brook and Pina Bausch. I had early exposure to both and both went right straight into me — the Mahabharata by Brook I saw at the Bouffes du Nord in Paris; and I saw Bausch’s Arien at BAM. And in terms of painting, I had early, consistent exposure and guidance to a lot of great works of art. My mother, a literature professor, had a really brilliant eye. I remember seeing the film Koyaanisqatsi when I was young and it opened up the world for me: it is pure image and music and yet it is so very moving and actually ends up being narrative. All these things taught me that story exists outside of spoken language. I think Philip Glass’s music had a lot to do with that, and when I worked with Philip later in life… it was such a fulfillment for me.
You’ve spent time in DC the last few months. Any places that you really enjoyed? What did you think about the DC audiences?
I love working in DC – love it. It is small and monumental at the same moment. One of my best friends, Natsu Onoda, is a professor at Georgetown and her husband is the chef and owner of Corduroy so naturally that is my favorite restaurant. I go to the galleries all the time; and I go to Roosevelt Island with my dog on days off. In terms of seeing things, I don’t see that much because I’m pretty much on a cowpath from the theatre to my apartment during most work days, and our day off is Monday which is everyone else in theatre’s day off as well — so no shows.
I think DC audiences are very smart. With Candide they were immediately attuned to the political satire right off and much more demonstrative about it than Chicago audiences.
In 1998, you won a MacArthur Fellowship. What was receiving the Fellowship like, and what did it allowed you to do?
It was great to win it — it is the prize you want to win; you don’t apply, you don’t seek or strive for it; you don’t compete. It just comes. There is no ceremony, you don’t have to dress up and go somewhere or make a speech. It allowed me to relax financially, I suppose — and I’m sure it helped me get promotion and tenure at Northwestern which has given me a great security. I started traveling for research for my shows after the MacArthur. I went to Egypt to look at things for a production of Philip Glass’s Akhenaten. And after that I have always traveled for research for shows whenever I can.
Where does The Arabian Nights go after the Arena Stage run?
Nowhere. In a box – until it rears its head again somewhere.
What advice would you give a student who is considering becoming a theatre director?
Easy: produce yourself. Don’t wait for anyone to hire you. Force your friends you made in college to do your shows. Do everything yourself initially. Never wait for ideal circumstances. Do the show. You need to practice to get better. You need experience.
What kind of experience will audiences have when they come to Arena Stage to see The Arabian Nights?
I hope they have a very funny and then a very moving experience. A musical experience, a sensual experience and an intellectual one as well.
The Arabian Nights plays thru Feb 20, 2011 at Arena Stage’s Mead Center for American Theatre, 1101 Sixth St SW, Washington, DC.
Thank you to my colleagues Tim Treanor and Brad Hathaway for their contributions to this interview.