“It’s like rehearsals are on fire.”
Say “Joy” to anyone at all involved with theatre in DC — as practitioner or as audience — and that person will know immediately that you are talking about Joy Zinoman.
Zinoman is the founding Artistic Director of The Studio Theatre. She led the company for thirty-five years. She directed more than a third of the 200 plays she produced there over those years.
She took the company from itinerant non-Equity troupe to an institution with a national reputation and an impressive multi-space home in Logan Circle, transforming not only the local theatre scene, but also that now-thriving Northwest DC neighborhood.
The project she has chosen to tackle this season takes her across town to H Street, Northeast, another part of town where the arts have spearheaded a neighborhood renaissance.
The opportunity that has occasioned this trek is the chance to direct Athol Fugard’s play The Blood Knot for Mosaic Theater Company.
Part of a two-play rep presented under the rubric “South Africa: Then & Now,” Blood Knot represents the “then.” Zinoman has cast the two-character play from 1961 with a long-time collaborator and with a second actor new to her, one she found only after a lengthy quest that resolved in dramatic last-minute fashion. (But more about that later.)
I began a recent conversation with Zinoman by asking how the project had come to be: were Mosaic and she looking for a project that would bring her to H Street, or did Mosaic approach her specifically with Blood Knot, an offer she couldn’t refuse?
“The second. No, they came to me. Of course, Serge Seiden worked for me for over 25 years and I admire him and I’m very interested in his career and development as an artist.” Seiden rose in the Studio ranks under Zinoman’s tutelage, eventually becoming its Producing Director. Now, he serves as Managing Director and Producer at Mosaic.
Seiden brought Blood Knot to Zinoman knowing that she has a history with the plays of Fugard and so “offered a play that he knew it would be very hard for me to resist.” In 2008, Zinoman had directed The Road to Mecca, “which is, in some ways, the female equivalent of Blood Knot: two women or two men engaged in similar kinds of issues. So, partly, I did it because I love Fugard. I’ve not only directed, but produced a good deal of him. And this is a play that seemed to me a big challenge, so that was interesting. And also I wanted to do it for him and for that theatre.”
I asked Zinoman to talk about the contemporary relevance for a post-Apartheid audience of a play written during that era in South Africa. (In a Mosaic press release, she calls Blood Knot a “great and moving play that we need now more than ever.”)
“Absolutely, absolutely. There’s no question that the play was written as a play against brutalist acts of state-approved racism. But Fugard is not a spokesman about government policy. He is interested in larger ideas of interdependence. I think, ultimately, he’s talking about a ‘blood knot’ in that we are all inextricably linked. If I can say, or posit: it’s a blood knot that ties every human being to every other human being. He says it’s a knot that we share whether we’re immigrants or refugees or Palestinians or Syrians or transgender youths or people from some Baltimore project.
“The play is actually, one, a cry for empathy, I would say, and, two — and this is the part that’s maybe too complicated to write about — the play demands a kind of existential white guilt. It’s the opposite of what I would call Bannon’s ‘Me First’ America. As I say, I’m interested in empathy, and I’m interested in existential guilt. I think, in that aspect, it’s exceedingly relevant. It just happens to be about brothers. It’s a very, very good play, a very complicated play. It’s got lots of levels.”
I asked Zinoman to consider Fugard’s standing as a playwright. Did the end of Apartheid diminish, fairly or not, the importance of him as a writer? “I think that’s ridiculous. But, again, I am not someone whose first interest in the theatre is political. I’m interested in the theatre which first of all is human; which first of all is about character. And I’m very happy to have people think afterwards. And I think Fugard will be judged as one of the very great writers.
“I think in this play (which is an early play, a very, very early play), what’s incredibly interesting is that not only is he writing realism (it’s got lots of life activity and violence and these very vivid characters, which allows great acting); it’s also got a lot of humor, as a matter of fact. And he’s very regional, you know, and all that, but: he’s also highly influenced by Beckett. So, where Fugard is kind of regional, Beckett is more universal. And Fugard is maybe more hopeful and Beckett less hopeful. [Chuckles.] But actually, in terms of style, there are things in Blood Knot which are right from Waiting for Godot.
“It’s not a consistent piece stylistically. There’s a lot of naturalism; I think it’s a play defined by the business, to use jargon, by the physical activity, of which there’s an unbelievable amount: dressing and washing and cooking and eating and foot baths and violence and praying and sewing and writing letters and fighting. But he also heightens the style, very much, and moves away towards what was, for him, in that time, kind of modern — more symbolic, more allegorical: Cain and Abel; ritualized, repeated, game-playing; and all that.
Want to go?
The Blood Knot
Mosaic Theater Company of DC
March 29 – April 30, 2017
Details and tickets
“And then, he’s also a big language writer. There’s tremendous poetry in that play, and repeated imagery, and it’s really, really a great thing. [Small pause.] And I also have to admit that I have a fondness for early plays of great writers. [Laughs.] Things are maybe a little more raw, and a little more — I don’t know. I like them.”
Many playwrights who are considered quite serious nonetheless include in their plays surprising amounts of humor. I mentioned O’Neill and even Tennessee Williams; Zinoman added Ibsen to that list. I asked her to discuss that aspect of Blood Knot — its humor.
“It’s a difficult aspect, actually, but I find lots and lots of humor in this script, in particular because it’s filled with incongruities. And I think that’s where comedy comes from. So the characters are very different: vulgar vs religious; or careful and saving money and dreaming about a farm vs wanting to ball it up and screw women. So you do have lots of things put in juxtaposition with each other and a lot of comedy comes from that. Of course, it also gets horrible and violent and racial and you can hardly watch, but, you know, it has both. And, of course, in a way, the former heightens the latter.”
Tom Story is the Blood Knot actor with whom Zinoman has worked frequently over the years. I asked if she had known immediately upon committing to the project that she wanted him for the role. “Yes. I’ve worked with Tom for, like, fifteen years. I gave him his first job in Washington.” (That was as the young A.E. Housman in Tom Stoppard’s The Invention of Love in 2001.)
“He’s also my directing student, so I have a long, a big interest in him as an artist.” (When I interviewed Story in 2014, he spoke of how encouraging Zinoman was when he himself began to contemplate becoming a director as well as an actor.) “I thought this would be a great challenge for him. Tom is really good in terms of language.
“But the casting challenge was the other character. It took me, like, what? I don’t know: five, six months to cast that role. I was just like a crazy person. I had auditions in Washington. I went to New York. I went to Chicago. I went to Spring Green, Wisconsin, to see a production that had a whole lot of African-American actors in it. I could not cast that role. And then, eventually, in the most odd way, it just happened.
“The character needed a lot of warmth, and an actor who had a lot of acting chops. And he had to be bigger than Tom. And he had to be really black. [Comparative darkness of complexion is a plot point.] And they had to be reasonably brothers in terms of their age. There was a lot of things that just had to happen. So I needed a forty-year-old person who had all of those qualities. And it was not easy.
“So I had all these people, all over: they were too old, or they were the wrong type, or they were blah blah blah blah blah. Eventually, Mosaic, in their great frustration with me (and also, I have to say, they’ve been very, very good to me) agreed to hire a New York casting agent, who was known to Tom, actually. And we were supposed to have a round of auditions in New York. And this guy, about three days before, called me and said, ‘I have to cancel the auditions.’ This was my last hope! He said, ’I just can’t get enough people that I think are at the right level who are free and who will come.’
“And I was just heartbroken. And I said, ‘Well, you said you had a couple. Could you go through the list?’ So we started to go through the list, and he said, ‘This guy Nathan Hinton: he might be right, but he’s not in town, in New York.’ So I said, ‘Where is he?’ He said, ‘Well, he’s in Washington at The Shakespeare Theatre.’ He was a replacement in Romeo and Juliet, playing Friar Lawrence. So, I said, ’Well, he’s in Washington! I could see him right here, today!’
“So they called him. Literally, he came in the next day, Friday. I went to see Romeo and Juliet on Saturday. Sunday was the end [of the run of Romeo and Juliet.] He left, and, you know, I just offered him the role. And he accepted the next day. It was one of those weird things, that he was right here all the time.”
(It’s like that song that Kander and Ebb wrote for Liza with a Z — “Ring Them Bells” — about the girl who goes from NYC to Dubrovnik in search of love and meets the guy next door.) (Well, not exactly like that, but I blame her story for getting that song stuck in my head for the rest of that day.)
But what a great story. “Yeah, it’s true. It just happened like that. He came here, I went to see the show, I offered him the part, he took it. Four days. And it was very near the end. I was going to have to compromise. [Little pause.] But I didn’t! I didn’t have to compromise.”
And it’s working out well? “Oh, my God. It’s like, I mean — I don’t know.” And that was when she told me that rehearsals are “on fire.”
Both Blood Knot and its rep companion (A Human Being Died That Night by Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela) are being directed by women. (Logan Vaughn directs A Human Being Died That Night.)
“I like directing a play that’s got only men in it, and that’s written by a man. I believe that sensibilities of opposition, or oppositional sensibilities, can sometimes yield, can mine all kinds of depths. So, in this case, it’s a very male play. And yet, I think, fundamentally, these issues of empathy and so forth are particularly easy to understand for women, who are often put into roles or whatever, biologically or whatever, which are thought to be nurturing and passive and so forth. But, of course, I don’t believe any of that.
“And, of course, I think there should be more women directing plays, and running theaters, and I think that that’s just some holdover from some ridiculous prejudices. I think we’ve seen, particularly in this recent election, the kind of deep-rooted misogyny that exists in the culture. I think it’s deeper than racism. It’s in people’s bones. Their attitudes about women are very, very deep, very threatening, very — just — extraordinary.”
I asked how far along in the process they were. “The day before yesterday was the designer run-through. For me, that’s exactly halfway. So it’s entirely blocked, all the business is done, we’re working moment-to-moment now, which is a kind of heaven.
“Since I only maybe do one project a year now, in my advanced age, I want to choose it carefully, and I have hopes for the kind of stimulation that it will provide. And this is it.
“This is good.”