Dispatches from the Rehearsal Hall: Nordost

This spring I have the privilege of acting as production dramaturg for the play Nordost, by German playwright Torsten Buchsteiner (translated by David Tushingham). The director, Aliya Griffin, and I are good friends and co-artistic directors of Aliya’s performance society brainchild, The Troika Collective (which is to say these dispatches will be somewhat self-serving since obviously I want to spread the word about this amazing show).

This room is "the skinny", where the cast was rehearsing yesterday!

This room is “the skinny”, where the cast was rehearsing yesterday! (This photo is a few years old).

It’s been a couple of years since I’ve been involved in a rehearsal process and I must confess my theatrical muscles have gotten a bit stiff lately. This makes me somewhat wistful, remembering a time when life was pretty much one long loop of rehearsing and performing and I got to move and shout and experiment and collaborate and create with my friends a few times a week (there really was something lost when I decided not to make performing a priority anymore). But it’s kind of invigorating too–waking up old sensibilities, watching the creative process unfold, and having it feel fresh again, rather than being the same old slog (which does happen, as much as I enjoyed performing). I think production dramaturgy is a good fit for me, and a fortunate one–not every director will work with a dramaturg (and some who have dramaturgs foisted on them don’t listen to them anyways). There’s something very attractive about dipping my toes in the process but not getting fully immersed. I get to see something different from what the director and cast are seeing (because they are seeing the everyday of it, and I am seeing more like time-lapses), and that’s kind of special.

But still very daunting. In the past, The Troika Collective has created the work we perform, and you’d think mounting a show that has already been written and performed successfully elsewhere would be easier for us, but it really isn’t. When the challenge of writing a new piece is removed, the challenge of working within textual constraints (and with expectations, if the play is well-known) replaces it. Our production will also be the North American premiere of Nordost, and that is a pretty big responsibility, especially when the subject Nordost tackles is so solemn.

Which brings me to the challenge of content. All plays, no matter their subject matter, should be rehearsed and performed with rigour and intention. That being said, some demand this rigour more than others and we are currently rehearsing a pretty rigourous play. From the perspectives of three different women (a Russian mother of two, a Latvian-born paramedic working in Moscow, and a Chechen widow-turned-militant), Nordost tells the story of the 2002 hostage taking of the Dubrovka Theatre in Moscow by Chechen rebels/freedom fighters, and about the Russian government’s duplicitous and bungled response, which left all of the hostage takers and plus 129 Russian civilians dead by Russian actions. This is a heavy play.

So how do you tell this story in a theatrical space? How do you bring such a terrible event to life in a way that engages, rather than exhausts, your audience? How do theatre artists engage with this material for several hours several days a week without becoming nervous wrecks?

Thankfully, Buchsteiner has written a a great deal of strength and humanity into his characters. There is grief in this story, and anger, but also incredible resilience. In many ways, doing the play justice will mean getting out of the story’s way a bit and letting the audience experience it for themselves. As for the artists working on the show, I feel safety and camaraderie in the rehearsal room and that goes a long way. Rehearsals can still be incredibly pleasant, even fun, in spite of the seriousness of the play being worked on.

There are also formal challenges. Nordost will be performed in the round, which I think is one of the more difficult stage configurations. Unlike a proscenium stage, in which the scenes are really moving pictures in a frame, a round stage offers no place to hide and requires each stage picture to be dynamic and interesting from all angles. It’s a configuration not to be taken on lightly, but when it informs the work (as I think it will), it can be a rewarding artistic choice.

Challenges aside, I am getting pretty excited. Everyone involved directly in the show is an excellent person with commitment and vision and it’s sort of like going on a long road trip with your friends–you know you’re going to get tired sometimes but you know it’s going to be so much fun.

Mark your calendars! Nordost will be performed at the Havana Theatre on Commercial drive March 4 – 7.

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