Scott Klavan: Directing Night Shadows
Photograph of Anna Akhmatova with husband and son
Scott Klavan: Poetry on Stage: Directing Night Shadows
So how do you direct a new play about poetry and poets, when most Americans rarely read poems, don’t like them much, and, certainly in the case of young people, are almost totally ignorant of the art form? And how do you do it when the subject of the piece and lead player is a Russian poet from the 1910s-60s, whom, while undergoing a renaissance overseas, is known to comparatively few people in the US, and those are the people who like poetry, a lot, enough to be fans of the lead, and so, not the kind of people you have to worry about getting to see the show in order for it to be a success? No, how do you stage the play so that you reach people who don’t like or know much about poetry, so this can be a mainstream theater piece, not (another) niche show that five people see and three like enough to tell their friends?
And I wanted people to see the show I was directing, Night Shadows, or: One Hundred Million Voices Shouting, by Lynda Crawford; it was really good, an imaginative, thoughtful work about the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966), who bravely defied the oppressive Stalinist regime after the Revolution, but eventually was forced into writing poems for the Communists, so she could save her son, imprisoned by Stalin, and unlike her compatriot-artists including poet Osip Mandelstam, survived Stalin to find fame and acclaim throughout Europe. I wanted to direct it in a way that would engage an audience, bring Akhmatova’s story and poems to life theatrically, not make it dry/dull, but without pushing it, making it seem shallow and overdone, essentially apologizing for putting something as verbally dense and unorthodox as a poem on stage. How do you do that? This was my challenge in February—March of 2020.
If you’re reading Escape Into Life, you may know this background, but just in case: Anna Akhmatova, originally Gorenko, came from a prestigious family outside Odessa, and moved to St. Petersburg. In Moscow, she became part of a group of poets, including Mandelstam, and her future husband Nikolay Gumilov, called the “Acmeists,” who rebelled against the romantic work and notions of the “Symbolists” of the period, creating down-to-earth, direct, even blunt yet evocative and passionate poems that earned a devoted following; Akhmatova’s work dealing with love, longing, loss, was particularly popular.
But the movement was derailed by the First World War and then the Russian Revolution, during which Russian society was thrown into turmoil and the rising, repressive Communists, feeling threatened by Akhmatova and her colleagues, labeled them “poets of the past.” Many of the poets were persecuted, arrested, executed; others fled. As Osip says in the show: “It’s not as if we didn’t want change. But, this…?” Anna’s son Lev was jailed and she spent years waiting outside prison for a chance to see him. Choosing to stay in Russia, she resisted the regime and her work was censored. But she eventually wrote poems for the Stalinists in order to help her son, and finally succeeded in gaining Lev’s release. After Stalin’s death, Akhmatova’s reputation was restored, grew, and she is now regarded as one of the greatest Russian poets. Sergey Nagorny, the actor playing Osip in Night Shadows, originally from Kiev, Ukraine, says: “It’s hard to imagine that only 50 to 60 years ago, no one was allowed to even utter her name out loud. Today Akhmatova is Russian Poetry!”
I had been helping playwright Lynda Crawford develop Night Shadows for over two years, through NYC staged reading festivals, Emerging Artists Theatre’s New Work Series, and HB Playwrights Transgressions Festival. In early 2020, it was one of two plays chosen out of nationwide submissions to receive four mainstage off-book performances in the On Women Festival at Irondale Center in Brooklyn. On its website, Irondale describes itself: “We exist to make important, challenging, demanding and, above all, entertaining theatre and we have been doing it since 1983.” Irondale also has a strong education/community outreach component. Night Shadows did three of the performances at the On Women Festival in March but we cancelled the fourth due to the Corona virus. Crawford describes how she was drawn to the story: “I was in a writing workshop in the late 1980s and a poet in the group brought in “The Muse” by Akhmatova. I so connected with the first line of that poem: ‘All that I am hangs by a thread tonight’ (as translated by Stanley Kunitz ). I had always been one to push myself to the edge. I looked for more of Akhmatova’s poetry and began to learn about her life.”
The play begins with an older Anna waking from a dream, remembering her long days spent waiting outside the jail to see Lev. The story moves back and forward in time, depicting her heyday as a young, admired Acmeist, then years of cruelty under Stalin, and eventual rise to award-winning admiration. The emotional center of the 90 minutes is Anna’s relationship with Lev, who often resented his mother’s devotion to her craft, her need for her Muse, something he saw as taking precedence over her love for him. “Where I connected most,” Crawford says, “was in being a mother and an artist, and how dedication to one sometimes can mean failing in the other. Her difficult relation with her son became the heart of the play for me.”
In going from bare-bones staged readings to a full presentation with lights and sound at Irondale—which bought a high-ceilinged part of the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church, founded in 1857, around the corner from Brooklyn Academy Of Music (BAM), with a large raw, “distressed” playing area—my first task was to make the story visual, sensual. Lynda’s text helped, because the piece is written to include screen projections throughout: older Anna’s Leningrad apartment in 1966; the Stray Dog Cafe in Moscow where the young Acmeists congregate and have a poetry “slam”; wartime battles of WWI; the outside of the prison, and more. Using Irondale’s large video screen, I had the images fade in and out, suggesting place, movement, transience; as soon as you register the locale, the picture is gone.
The piece is written essentially as a dream, and, as with the projections, I wanted the action and motion to flow, to have a fluidity that would cast the tale in and out of conventional, staid reality. All the actors sat on-stage throughout, entering and exiting as if Anna was summoning them from her memory. I was hoping that this concept would reflect and help elucidate the poems, as poetry operates outside of typical “literary reality,” is often not linear in nature, suggests the ineffable, is a bridge between the visible and invisible. The script calls for musical interludes and I also used these to help with this effect, choosing Russian composers roughly from the period—Shostakovich, Scriabin, Tchaikovsky, more—in short excerpts, subtly suggesting rather than baldly stating moods, tone, atmosphere.
At the same time, I needed to make the show as physical and emotional as possible. We included dancing inside the Stray Dog and physical conflict—as the Soviet guards arrest the poets, and one sexually harasses a young Akhmatova devotee. I was always concerned with making the scenes between Anna and Lev—as well as her relationships with Gumilov, Osip and Osip’s wife Nadezdha—genuine and heartfelt. I wanted the people to be real, their experiences and feelings—pain, devotion, defiance—tactile, palpable. Maja Wampuszyc plays Anna: “Akhmatova’s poetry is primordial. Universal,” she says. “Rooted in the basic need to live. Yes, to have food, shelter and to make love, but she takes these further—f ueled by her spiritual ambition she screams out for freedom.”
Then, most important, to animate the poems themselves. Night Shadows includes several spoken onstage Akhamotova pieces, and some by Gumilov and Mandelstam. (Lynda Crawford was able to get the rights to the Kunitz translations of the pieces from several different publishers for this production.) The challenge was to dramatize them in a manner that would make the writing not only lucid and coherent, but dynamic, electric. If the poems were seen as fusty, stodgy, academic—something, by the way, Akhmatova and the Acmeists themselves fought against—then we all failed. Intellectualism=Death.
When the poems were performed, I put only the title of the piece briefly on the video screen. It was a question during rehearsal whether we should project the whole poem. But I finally figured that that would dilute the immediacy, take away from the actors’ performance, in front of you, at that moment. We let the actors’ expression, their bodies and voices, alone carry the text, without further visual distraction. I encouraged the actors to find an “action” for each poem, treating them as monologues that had objectives, goals; as with any playscript, the characters use words to do, fight, achieve something. This was particularly effective in the scene, based on fact, wherein Anna, under surveillance from Soviet authorities, forbidden to write anything except Stalinist pieces, called in her friends to read and memorize sections of her epic “Requiem,” about her days waiting outside the jail, and then burn the writings. The actors performed “Requiem” with great sensitivity, variety, and invention, keeping it vibrant and fully felt. (“Requiem” is now considered one of Akhmatova’s classic works.)
The staging of a piece as intelligent and sophisticated as Night Shadows requires a balance, shifting between respect for the written poems and regard for the grand tradition of theater, an art form that thrives on action, conflict, characters striving to overcome obstacles, arresting interplay, imagination. And, we had an obligation: to edify, pay tribute, keep alive the memory of artists, who in many cases, died for the cause of free expression and art against authoritarianism. The story and its characters have to speak to us today, or why do it? As actress Wampuszyc describes it: “Using the microscope of yesterday to see and survive today.”
March 11-13, 2020. The Irondale production of Night Shadows came off well; the actors—most of whom double in their roles—did exemplary work and much of the tech and staging was satisfying. The audience received it with enthusiasm. But it’s a start. The challenge continues: most of the people we played before knew the topic, Irondale, or us. Now, we have a basis from which to broaden the play’s reach. I look forward to the opportunity to work with Lynda Crawford to keep adding and subtracting, adjusting, correcting, to meld the art forms of poetry and theater into an enlivened whole that plays successfully in an unlimited run, to any kind of crowd.
Night Shadows, or: One Hundred Million Voices Shouting
By Lynda Crawford
Directed by Scott Klavan
Stage Manager: Kelley Lynne Moncrief
Matthew Digeratu (Lev Gumilov, Guard)
Elana Gantman (Veronika, Nadezhda Mandelstam)
Walter L. Krochmal (Nikolay Gumilov, Oleg Losev)
Sergey Nagorny (Osip Mandelstam)
Mardi Sykes (Lidyiya, Galina Tsukov)
Maja Wampuszyc (Anna Akhmatova)
(embedded above as well)
Scott Klavan, theatre writer at Escape Into Life, is an actor, director, and playwright in New York. Scott performed on Broadway in Irena’s Vow, with Tovah Feldshuh, in regional theater, and in numerous shows Off Broadway, including two productions of The Joy Luck Club for Pan Asian Rep. His stage adaption of Raymond Carver’s short story “Cathedral” was produced off-Broadway by Theater Breaking Through Barriers (TBTB), and his play Double Murder was published in Best American Short Plays of 2006-2007. For twenty years, Scott was Script and Story Analyst for the legendary actors Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward and for companies including HBO, CAA, and Viacom. In 2015, he was featured in A Soldier’s Notes, an episode of the Web Series Small Miracles, alongside Judd Hirsch, and earned a nomination for Outstanding Actor in the LA Web Series Festival. Scott directed the one-woman show My Stubborn Tongue, written and performed by Anna Fishbeyn, off-Broadway at The New Ohio Theater and at the United Solo Festival; and directed and appeared in the solo play Canada Geese, by George Klas, in the 2016 New York International Fringe Festival. In 2019, he directed a 60-minute version of the Sondheim/Lapine classic Into the Woods, cast solely with senior actors, for Music Theatre International (MTI) and Lenox Hill Neighborhood House; the show was written up in The New York Times. He helped to develop and directed Eleanor and Alice, by Ellen Abrams, about Eleanor Roosevelt and her cousin Alice Longworth, for the Roosevelt Library and Museum in Hyde Park and the Roosevelt House in NYC. He directed Night Shadows, by Lynda Crawford, about the poet Anna Akhmatova, for the On Women Festival at Irondale Center. He is a Lifetime Acting Member of The Actors Studio and a member of the Studio’s Playwright/Directors Workshop (PDW), where his own play The Common Area, was chosen as part of the PDW’s Festival of New Works in 2019. Scott teaches at the 92nd St. Y and other arts organizations.