Hey, DC theatre fam,
Jon Jon here, with an interview from some key players in I KILLED MY MOTHER by Andras Visky closing this weekend at Spooky Action Theater. I took some time to speak with Producer Olivia Haller, Director Natalia Nagy, and a few of the actors. I first had a few questions for Olivia, a local playwright and theatre artist.
I’d never heard of this play or playwright before; where did you find it?
Olivia: I hadn’t either! Natalia approached me with the script about a year ago. The first time I read it, it went completely over my head. It’s like poetry. It took me about three passes before some of it started to click. When Natalia workshopped the play for Joy Zinoman’s directing class at Studio, I began to understand how Bernadette’s emotional journey is the lens through which the audience obtains details about her life story. There is a lot about this play that is illuminated in performance, which is why is makes sense as a drama. It’s meant to be seen, not read.
What are some of the big questions that this play asks?
Olivia: Bernadette deals with discrimination she faces as a biracial Gypsy woman. Gypsies are a heavily persecuted group historically, but their blood ties run deep. A biracial Gypsy would be rejected by mainstream society as well as the Gypsy community for not being fully one or the other. The fact that a black actress plays Bernadette in our production allows the text to illuminate a facet of the black experience in America, and it invites those issues into the larger conversation about systemic injustice already present in the play.
Stylistically, how would you compare this play to what is typically produced in DC?
Olivia: I think the DC theatre landscape is largely made up of well-made plays, and a play like this can seem like a jerky departure from what we’ve come to expect, but I hope that there can be room for more work like this in the future.
I recently finished reading a book called Theatre of the Unimpressed by Canadian playwright Jordan Tannahill. In it, he outlines this idea that English-speaking theatre by and large uses the well-made play as a model for a “successful” play; however, that’s just one model, and it isn’t the “correct” one.
I often describe I KILLED MY MOTHER as a piece that my heart gets even if my brain doesn’t. Of course, there are details present in the play which I am now familiar with, having done my dramaturgical research, but the goal of the play is to showcase Bernadette’s inner condition and the way she processes the events in her life. These struggles are sometimes muddy; they do not go in a straight line or a clean arc, much like our own emotions and grief cycles. This play wants the audience to lean in, not sit back.
I Killed My Mother
Produced by Olivia Haller
at Spooky Action Theater
closes September 30, 2017
Details and tickets
I’ve heard that some of the themes are “Identity” and “Survival”, what are some of the themes that speak to you, and why are they “important” to view now?
Olivia: In the face of loneliness, sometimes we take care of ourselves by taking care of someone else first. That was certainly the case for Bernadette and Clip as they came of age within Ceausescu’s notorious orphanages, but their relationship lingered on for much longer than that. As Bernadette, a biracial, bisexual, Gypsy woman, seeks self-assurance in the face of discrimination and oppression, she draws strength from the presence of those who had supported her from the margins of society, even if they are no longer physically present. Oftentimes the world’s greatest problems, such as institutionalized oppression, seem too big to tackle. But how can our relationships, on a micro and macro level, create change in our world? How can we help others before we help ourselves, or in doing so heal ourselves?
What, to you, is vital about this production?
Olivia: This is the kind of theatre that I want to see more of in DC. Our production utilizes multiple performance languages (not just spoken languages, but song, movement, etc) to create emotional landscapes. It is bold in its uniqueness and cathartic in a way that isn’t always logical. And above all, it’s a hopeful story that comes out of a period of great tribulation. I am tremendously proud to have been a part of this process.
Natalia Nagy Gleason is no stranger to this particular piece, having directed it in both Budapest and London prior to bringing it here. Finally having the chance to meet her in person, it became abundantly clear how warm and inviting she is, and how easily one can see the her thoughts whirring like clockwork behind her eyes.
What was different about bringing this show to DC?
Natalia: We took the same production over from London to Budapest, so this is my second time directing Visky. As an immigrant, I was searching for something that would be meaningful to my new country as well as my Hungarian heritage. When I met Erica, I saw that she would be perfect for Bernadette. In London, we wanted to present something. Here in DC our focus was much more on learning, exploring and experimenting. Learning for me from an actress who is very DC, exploring together all the freedom that the text offers (we had 4 workshops this past year focusing on different elements of the play) and experimenting with alternative rehearsal methods, different genres, fusion of different artforms. I understand freedom – or freedoms rather – much deeper due this process: so, in this beautiful and challenging performance text, as in this new city of mine as well as for me personally.
Having directed this show before many times, what is your favorite part of the play??? (without giving away any spoilers, of course)?
Natalia: The freedom. And the woman.
Bernadette is at once an utter girl crush and a postmodern high-culture idol to me. She is the one I want to talk about in the room. She is the one I want the audiences to meet. This is a woman, working in Budapest today – Andras’ play is constructed from interviews with her, but through his play she is now eternal.
Looking over the cast list, it seems to be an interesting mix of actors – how did you find them? Did they audition, and what was it you were looking for in them?
Natalia: Erica was the key, the center of our performance universe, and I just offered her the role of course. I didn’t audition anyone else either in the classical sense. I prefer running workshops – structured encounters, they run 2-3 hours, it gives the actor a chance too to decide if they want to work with me too – it’s a two-way dynamic. I can tell by watching actors in other shows if I would like direct them – no need for auditions. It’s a risk anyhow, so it may as well be a bold one. I was looking for people who are sparked.
The Actors shed a little insight into the process as well, sharing a few bits and pieces about their characters and their thoughts on the play without giving too much away. Kevin Thorne, who plays the enigmatic and powerful Clip, shed a little light on his sometimes difficult to understand character – someone who is both real and memory, existing in the “Never”. Likewise, Karoline Troger plays Clara and Ada, and is a real presence on stage, with a haunting Mona Lisa smile and a floating voice like a descant through the sparse space of the theatre.
Tell me a little about your character, and what’s your favourite thing about them?
Kevin: My character clip is headstrong, he knows what he wants and will do whatever it takes to get to it. It is evident by what happens in the story. I admire that about him because it is parallel to what I believe people should always be when it comes to issues such as social justice in America today. In order to inspire change, you must be a revolutionary …and yes it may cost you your life.
Karoline: Clara, the foster mother, has some inner emptiness which she tries to fill with love. When she takes Bernadette out of the orphanage and puts her back as she likes, she really plays with Bernadette’s feelings. Whenever Clara is loved by a man, she doesn’t need Bernadette any longer – so she brings her back. Clara knows that she can do as she likes and despite the fact that she puts Bernadette in the orphanage, like you put an unwanted toy in the shelf, Bernadette will still love her and run to her with open arms. This shows how easy you can play with a child’ s soul, just that you feel better and survive. Her behavior makes her very cruel, and from my point of view, she is the worst character in the play.
Ada is the complete opposite. She is fully loving. She left her whole family behind, because she loves Bernadette. Ada chose a life with Bernadette and all the “other way around” people.
It seems that Ada has the family that Bernadette always wanted, but she is just allowed to be herself with Bernadette. For me, Ada is another great example, that your family is not automatically your family. It is not the blood that connects you. These are also relationships and you have to work on them. Ada found her family in her friends.
What were the highlights and challenges of acting through such a poetic, almost stream-of-consciousness like script?
Karoline: Bernadette is telling her story and we as the other characters are her coming-to-life imagination. Every character or situation is described so poetically that you don’t want to disappoint the audiences phantasy. I think we had to trust the text and the process which took us on an exciting journey. We didn’t know where this path would lead us, but it was just possible because every member of our cast was up to create a theater where we could give and take.
The main challenge in acting was the complex structure of the text. It includes several layers at different times and Bernadette switches between telling a story and acting the story she is telling. As you are on stage with her, you have to follow these switches and thought jumps, which makes it complicated but also very interesting.
Kevin: The thing with this piece is that you just need to listen closely. That is all that the text really requires. From a directorial standpoint, you need to be able to craft situations with it so that the actors can live through something. As an actor, it is just as simple. I really had no issue understanding the story because poetry is a map right in front of you. Poetry is emotion put to words. All the audience needs to do is listen deeply. Isn’t that what theater is made for anyway?
So there you are friends: A little peek into the minds of a few of the key players in I KILLED MY MOTHER. The show runs for only one more weekend, closing Saturday, September 30th.
In Natalia’s own words: “Come, and we will feed you Hungarian food, and drink palinka, and forget about all your troubles, as you gently slip into the Romanian Dictatorship.”?