In theater simple’s adaptation of The Master & Margarita, playing now at Theatre Off Jackson through 4/28, Rachel Katz Carey returns as director to the piece she originally directed in its theater simple premiere 22 years ago.
Emily Testa, who has devised works with Akropolis Performance Lab and is no stranger to working on stage adaptations of Russian literature, talked with Carey recently about the return to the piece and how it holds up. Plus, quick interviews with returning actors Llysa Holland and Monique Kleinhans in a bonus segment.
How did you come across the book, The Master & Margarita?
In 1997, I was at the University of Washington finishing up my MFA in Directing. Burke Walker, who founded the Empty Space Theater, and was also my advisor, knew Andrew Litzky and Llysa Holland who were looking for a director for this impossible thing they were doing. They approached me and said, “We’re looking for someone to do this project and here is the book. Would you be interested?” and I said, “Ahhhh…sure!” So my thesis closed, I finished strike, and I got in my car and drove straight to Port Townsend where they had the very first retreat to see if they could get a first draft. That was how it started.
[Note: For more on the process of adapting the The Master & Margarita to the stage, check out a podcast from Exit Stage Left Productions, available on Soundcloud here.]
What was the impetus to remount this show?
We had always wanted to get back to it and even considered a 20th anniversary remount in 2017, but then Andrew and Llysa were busy. Certainly the 2016 election and the subsequent “the press is the enemy” sort of leanings towards totalitarianism, and the way things have been progressing in Russia right before we opened — when the Russian government decided to pass a law against “fake news,” which allows them to just turn off websites they don’t like and censor other things. So, the more things change, the more they stay the same? There was our desire to come back to something that we loved doing and that had a great, exciting life. But also, living in a world that seems to be heading backwards, if you will. I don’t know that we ever intended it to be quite so timely, but it certainly is.
How do the political and religious themes coexist in the arc of the narrative?
Part of what’s kind of hilarious and wonderful about the story is that Stalin says, “Alright, we’re all atheists now — poof! God isn’t real, Jesus isn’t real, Satan isn’t real; and this means we will all be better human beings.” At which point Satan says, “Challenge accepted — so you changed, have you? Well, let’s just see how that’s working out for you.” He shows up in Moscow to take the temperature of the populace in this new religious-free world and, of course, what he finds is that humanity has changed very little, if at all.
I think that’s what Bulgakov was after, among all the other things he was skewering in the book. If you look at what happens in the book, the people who get punished are nonbelievers, people who refuse to believe that Satan exists at all, people who are greedy and want things that they are not entitled to, and who are not in fact willing to make any kind of leap of faith. Whereas the people who are willing to surrender, be compassionate, and relinquish power are the ones who are then rewarded.
It’s interesting to see in this work how much Satan plays a hand in all that. There’s always this notion that Satan will tempt you to do the wrong thing, and here he, as Woland, just opens the door to see what you will do when you when you walk through it.
Exactly. And that’s the Goethe quote, which is in the book and at the very beginning of the play: “I am the power that forever wills evil and forever does good.” That’s why we included it along with a little of the Old Testament Jeremiah, and the best question ever from the Seder: “Why for is this night different from any other?” which is, in my experience as a director and dramaturg, always a very useful question to ask. Why for is this night different from any other? Because this is the night that Hamlet meets the ghost of his father on the parapet; this is when the tornado takes Dorothy to Oz; this is the day Hamilton lands in America. It’s a very useful question to answer when you’re starting on virtually any project. In the best works, there’s the difference between, “What happens?” and, “What is it about?”. You want to be able to answer both questions, but if you can answer What is it about?, then that’s what’s going to help you shape what happens in the staging.
There’s some really lovely things about the staging that I liked, from the simple choreography of the Devil’s Ball, the progression of the Master and Margarita’s affair, and especially the shadow work. How much of this comes from the actors, as far as generating and devising goes, and how much from your direction?
Some of it is actors, some of it is me, but there comes a point in the process where there are too many cooks in the kitchen and I’m going to be the one making the harder decisions because there’s such a bounty of good stuff that we’ve got to pick and choose from. I cannot tell you how wonderful it is to work with a company where everyone’s got skin in the game.
For instance, the robot assembly line for the Devil’s Ball. That came out of a practical issue, which is: you have five actors, three of whom are on the stage — so how do you indicate a crowded ball full of poisoners and murderers? You create this assembly line: 1-2-3-wave, 1-2-3-wave.
For the Master and Margarita, that circular movement of their romance came out of the actors expressing a desire to — well, actor Nathan Brockett said, “You know, the way you’ve got it is good but it’s also very narrative, and I’d love to make this a little more showing and a little less telling.” So he came in with a rewritten draft, and we started working with that. Then our choreographer, Sophia Franzella, came in and worked with Teague Parker and Jennifer Faulkner, who play the Master and Margarita. So that was me working with them by editing and suggesting, but it was Sophia, Teague, Jennifer, and Nathan who came up with that movement.
We did an intensive workshop in December for a week, just getting back to the book, getting back to the text, researching the characters. Then we did another intensive retreat in Fort Worden, over in Port Townsend, thanks to Centrum [an artists’ gathering space]. We had time and we had space, this big, beautiful rehearsal room where we did a lot of investigating shadow work, like the beheadings. I never knew there were so many ways to behead a human being until we got Teague Parker in the room. And some of our best solutions came out of necessity. In the Pilate and Yeshua scene, literally the only actor available to play Rat Killer, the big scary muscle for Pilate, was Jennifer, who is 5’2”, and she has to beat the shit out of Teague, who is 6’5”. Using the shadow work there evened the scales a bit.
The best thing I can possibly do is cast extremely smart, creative, generative people. That’s the first, biggest part of my job. Now, when I did the original production the ensemble was already there when I came on board, and we created the piece together. This time around we have two of the original company members, Monique Kleinhans and Llysa Holland, and then we had to cast the other three. I have always been a big believer in the best idea wins, and it doesn’t have to be from me. I think of the sort of directing paradigm where actors are to be filled with my brilliance is simply bullshit. Why use only one brain when you have several?
Emily Testa talked with actors Llysa Holland and Monique Kleinhans, who performed in theater simple’s original production of Master & Margarita 22 years ago, to talk about the process of coming back to the piece.
How was it returning to this work, with Rachel Katz Carey as director, as two of the original cast members? How did you re-approach these roles?
Time brings understanding. Age has helped me understand better the trap Pilate was in, caught being the one “responsible” for Yeshua’s execution — even though it was on mostly trumped-up charges, and entrapment. That feels terrible and relevant today. It also has really brought home how history is doomed to be repeated by those who don’t learn from it. As for me — I’d like to think I am a better actor, and can trust the audience to understand and see what is happening, instead of acting so hard I splinter the stage.
Having the opportunity to step back into the production is a privilege. It is not often that I can open a door to another moment in my life — especially a moment that helped shape me as an artist and a collaborator. The work that we did creating this piece is a high-water mark for what it means to collaborate and tell a story without being concerned with where you will eventually fit within it. After Rachel had helped cast us in the different roles, we then began to focus on pouring our unique abilities in to the different roles so that they would be as fully realized as possible.
It has been fun to see this again with the new cast members as they approach the work for the first time, and to play with this new energy discovering different and sometimes even deeper moments in the work that were not touched upon in our past productions. While the muscle memory can be strong, it is an intrinsic part of live performance to keep your heart and mind open to new and different ways of approaching the path. There is always more than one way to get there.
Perhaps the main difference in approaching the work for me this time however, is the familiarity with my character. Also, being much closer to the actual age of the character in the novel means that there is not a searching for, or a need to create a lifetime of experiences, but a chance to own and draw from time spent on the Earth. One of the most powerful notes that Rachel gave me after a rehearsal from our first run at this show in 1997 was “believe you are enough.” Coming back to the work now at this point in my life, I can honestly say that I know I am.
The Master & Margarita runs through 4/28 at Theatre Off Jackson in the International District. Tickets available here; pay-what-you-can performance on Thur. 4/25. Accessibility notes: restrooms are all gender-neutral, multi-stall; theatre is wheelchair accessible, through the alley entrance which theater simple is using exclusively for all performances.
Rachel Katz Carey has generated many original adaptations with theater simple, where she has been an associate director for over 20 years. Her directing career began in 1991 working for Jeffrey Hatcher as Associate Lab Director at The Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis. As a director, dramaturg, and instructor, her award-winning work has been seen across the U.S., Canada, and Australia, and includes Moliere, Shakespeare, Stoppard, Dostevsky, Hans Christian Andersen, Bulgakov, and more. She’s also known for creating theater in unlikely places like city parks, restaurants and planetariums. She is a veteran of 14/48, and a member of the Lincoln Center Directors Lab West.
Emily Testa is an Artistic Associate with Akropolis Performance Lab, with whom she recently was seen playing Solange in The Maids/Vexations. She has also performed with Annex Theatre, Parley, Theatre Off Jackson, ArtsWest, Cafe Nordo, Theatre Battery, Blood Ensemble, and ReACT.