An interview with Joseph Haj
In its most ambitious undertaking ever, PlayMakers Repertory Company is presenting “The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby” by David Edgar, on stage at the Paul Green Theatre from Nov. 11 to Dec. 20.
The play, adapted from Charles Dickens’ third novel, uses 25 actors who play more than 150 roles to portray the journey of the Nickleby family. Their story takes nearly seven hours of theater to tell – and is presented in two performances in rotating repertory.
The Gazette recently spoke with Joseph Haj, producing artistic director of PlayMakers, about what goes into producing such an epic work.
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What makes this production so appealing?
I’ve wanted to do this production since I came to PlayMakers in July of 2006. First, I wanted to put rotating repertory back into our season. It’s something PlayMakers had not done in a really long time, so in my first year we added it back.
And it has always been my intention that rep could be one big story told over two nights as opposed to two discrete plays – with the same company, of course, being part of the entire endeavor.
We have an 18-member classically trained resident acting company, which gives us some flexibility. This play is rarely done because of its scale, and we’re one of the few places that can take it on.
What is the main theme of "Nicholas Nickleby"?
The engine of the play is money: Who has it? Who doesn’t have it? What are people willing to do to get it? And what is the terrible price exacted by a culture on those who don’t have any money?
When David Edgar wrote this piece 30 years ago, I think it was a peek into a world that had long since passed. But now it feels really, really immediate that you can wake up to find that your job is gone or your fortune is gone or you have an illness of some kind. You can end up broke in a culture that ranges from indifference to contempt for those who can’t get by.
In the opening narration there is a section that says, "'Speculate Mr. Nickleby, go ahead and speculate.’ And Mr. Nickleby did speculate but a mania prevailed, a bubble burst, four stockbrokers bought villa residences in Florence, 400 nobodies were ruined and one of them was Mr. Nickleby." That’s the engine that starts Nicholas on his journey. Money is the central theme, although that’s not what the play is all about.
Can you talk about the scope of this production
and some of the challenges it presents?
"Nicholas Nickleby" is the biggest play PlayMakers has ever produced. I venture to say it’s the biggest play any theater has ever produced. We have a 25-actor ensemble playing well over 150 different roles. Part 1 is probably three hours and 15 minutes; Part 2 is probably three-and-a-half hours. It was really clear that if we were going to take it on, we couldn’t treat it like any other play. We needed much more rehearsal time, which we built in.
I’m co-directing the project with my great colleague and friend Tom Quaintance, who has directed for us here in the past. Even with an extended rehearsal time, we have 350 pages of text to stage and there is no way for us to do that in one rehearsal room. So we have two separate rehearsals going on at once. We have spent months and months in preparation so that if he’s upstairs doing scene A and I’m downstairs working on scene B, we better be in agreement what the geography is – where the actors are coming and going, where the door is, where the furniture is – so that when we knit these scenes together they will actually fit.
How many staff members beyond the actors
and directors are involved?
If you think about all the running crew, everybody who is making something, people who work in our shops and our administrative staff who are supporting the project in education, outreach and marketing – around 130 people are mobilized to make this play come off.
Everybody in the building is working unbelievably hard. But the costume shop is working heroically. I think at this point we have well over 700 costume pieces in this show. Our costume designer Jan Chambers and her associate Jade Bettin spent all summer sketching hundreds of costumes, rendering what would go to the shops so that the costumes could be made, rented, pulled from stock, etc. The logistical challenges are enormous.
How many theaters have undertakeN "Nicholas NickleBY"?
You know I actually don’t know too much about the history of "Nicholas Nickleby" except that David Edgar wrote it with and for the Royal Shakespeare Company. They had great success in London and brought it to Broadway, where it had spectacular success in 1980-81. Since that time, only a handful of companies have taken on this show.
David Edgar worked on an adaptation shortening it from eight hours to its current length for a production at Cal Shakes (California Shakespeare Theater) in Berkeley. That was the production that was sort of rattling around my head when I thought it would be possible for us to do it here. I wanted to make it in the main with our resident company.
Did you have any input from the playwright?
One of the great things was that David Edgar came here and spent the first week of rehearsals with us. It was an honor for a spectacular artist and incredible collaborator – a guy who won the Tony and Olivier awards for this show – to be willing 30 years later to sit at the table with us and say, ‘Oh I know, maybe we can reorganize these scenes, we can put this here. I can rewrite this piece and maybe that will work better.’
It’s incredibly rare that the playwright of an established play will come back to rehearsals with the company and help them get out of the gate appropriately. I think it says a lot about who David Edgar is and his excitement that our company is doing this work that he was willing to come over from England to spend more than a week with us.
Can you talk about your decision to use
original music for this production?
We have a fantastic resident composer and sound designer, Sarah Pickett. And very early on, we talked about not just having her compose the music for the piece, but being on stage live playing the music and making the sounds as opposed to having them piped in over the speakers. It makes the performance so much more theatrically rich.
Does performing "Nicholas Nickleby" on a
thrust stage present unique challenges?
The Paul Green Theatre is not just a thrust stage, it’s a very deep thrust, practically a U-shaped stage. When you’re staging work in a proscenium, you’re making work inside a window frame.
Once you get into a thrust, it's like going from chess to 3-D chess because you have audience all around. The show one person is seeing is a different play from the show another person is seeing. If you’re doing a scene with two good actors on stage, it can pretty much stage itself. If you have three expert actors, it can almost stage itself, and for every actor you add after that, you’re basically adding an hour of rehearsal time going forward.
We have at least 10 or 12 scenes that have 25 people on stage. So just figuring out how to get the story told in a meaningful way, how to make it physically beautiful in the room, how to get the focus where you want it is an inordinate challenge that we spent a lot of time working out.
Why did PlayMakers create a blog about the production?
I’m blessed that I get to lead a theater with the most fantastic staff in the world, and a lot of them are young. They understand how effective all the new technology can be. Because the process of this production is fascinating and so challenging, the blog is an opportunity for us to really bring people into the process. The audience won’t just show up on the day to watch the story, but will have an opportunity to see how it all gets put together.
What is the Dickens Initiative?
The organizational discussions involved in doing "Nicholas Nickleby" are big. There are so many pieces in play, including economics, and one of the things we looked for was meaningful support from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).
Part of that support would help create the excellence inside the production itself. And more broadly, we wanted to have an opportunity to get out to the underserved communities, to the libraries and bookstores, and connect the production to a literacy initiative. It presented a way to share not just the work of our theater, but also the work of Dickens.
We were very fortunate to get a $30,000 grant from NEA that has allowed us to do a lot of work out in the community in a very meaningful way.
How do you think you’re going to feel on opening night?
I can’t know how I’m going to feel opening night. Sometimes, I sit there effortlessly and enjoy the work of a fantastic company of actors; sometimes it’s far more anxious than that.
As an actor, you start from first rehearsal with minimal responsibility and your level of responsibility increases until you get to opening night, when you’re holding the play in your hands. The director’s work is something of the inverse. The first day you’re holding the whole thing in your hands and sharing it with the company; you’re giving it away. And if you do that well enough, by the time you get to opening night, you’ve handed it off.
The feeling is like one of a proud parent whose child is off to college; you know that the story is in expert hands.
For information about the "Nicholas Nickleby" performance and The Dickens
Initiative, refer to www.playmakersrep.org. To read the artists’ blog,
refer to playmakersrep.blogspot.com.
To see a selection of more photos from the "Nickleby" blog, click here.