What’s the Point in Making Fun of Czechoslovakia?

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Scene Seen: Lisa Dillin & Milana Braslavsky [...]

John Barry and Director Stephen Nunns discuss Single Carrot Theatre’s Upcoming Play, The Memo by Vaclav Havel.

Just before the opening of Vaclav Havel’s The Memo, director Stephen Nunns is in the final stages of rehearsal at Single Carrot Theatre. This is the second show in Single Carrot’s new venue at 2600 North Howard, and also, significantly, the second time in its seven-year existence that Single Carrot has hired an outside director.

The Memo was first suggested, according to Nunns, by Single Carrot’s last artistic director Nathan Cooper, and Nunns was ‘a little surprised’ by the choice. (Cooper is now living in Bulgaria, where he has a six month old child. That is another story.) The Memo was penned by Vaclav Havel, in Czechoslovakia in 1965. A satire of Communist-era Czechoslovakia, it riffs on its central premise: the development of a new language to increase workplace efficiency.

Nunns is an associate professor in the Towson University Theater department and has certainly dealt in expressionism and Eastern European Theatre. But he prefers to avoid too much artsy mumbo jumbo. “If it doesn’t make you laugh,” he says, “It’s a complete failure.” In an extended discussion, I asked him about (I) Theater in Baltimore, (II) this particular production and (III) his own approach to directing. Here goes, in three stages.

I. Theater in Baltimore

John Barry: So you’re cofounder of Acme Theatre, but The Memo is a production by Single Carrot. There are a lot of theaters around here, now.

Stephen Nunns: Yeah. (Stares at Smartphone). Sorry, I’m just trying to get a thing here…. Yeah, there are a lot of things going on. Baltimore Rock Opera just closed a show.

JB: Yeah, I couldn’t get a ticket… I’m going to get a coffee. Want one?

[Three minutes later…]

SN: Thanks for the coffee.

JB: You’re welcome. So, yeah, this is Single Carrot. It’s the second thing they’re doing in the new space.

SN: There’s a bunch of new people in the company now. And there are no founding members in this show. So, it’s interesting. They’re in a new space now – 2600 North Howard Street. They’re doing five shows this year. They’re expanding and institutionalizing themselves, and not in a bad way. In this production, there are people from Baltimore Rock Opera, from The Annex Theatre, from Stillpoint Theatre. It’s become more of an expansive gig.

JB: A center for the arts. The one everyone in Baltimore has been waiting for.

SN: And they’re letting other companies use the space – Effervescent Collective just did a show there, BROS just rehearsed their show there.  I think it’s a byproduct of the fact that people are friends, and it’s really healthy. And it’s a real black box theater, it has a rehearsal room and a green room.

It’s not so much about theater, it’s part of a larger art scene.

The Memo at Single Carrot Theatre from Single Carrot on Vimeo.

II. The Play

JB: So how did you decide on The Memo?

SN: It wasn’t my decision. I had been talking to Nathan Cooper – he was in the Acme 24-hour production of Beckett’s Play last year— and he and I had been talking informally about me doing something with SC, and then he called me up and asked me if I wanted to do this.

I know one of the company members brought the play to the table. It’s an interesting thing for them, because Single Carrot is known for doing the hot new playwrights from New York — so this is a departure. I looked on their website, and they didn’t do a whole lot of classics. So, this is a weird, interesting choice. When they brought it to me, I was surprised. The thing about the play – Havel wrote it when he was young. It’s an indictment of Communism, or Soviet Style Bureaucracy.

JB: Which doesn’t make it very relevant to a young audience…

SN: I looked at it, and my first question was: What’s the point in making fun of Czechoslovakia? You know, the place doesn’t even exist anymore. After reading through it a couple of times, I realized that you don’t have to make it about Czechoslovakia. It is about an office. It’s about the power plays that go on in low-stakes office situations, where people are vying for power.

I was thinking, well, the communists really don’t have the market on bureaucracy. I think bureaucracy is as much a product of late twentieth century capitalism as it is of communism. I was thinking about it in a corporate context.

And just when I was reading it, in the U.S. they were threatening to close down the government, and the health care website, and everything. Then, I was thinking, Well this isn’t corporate America — this is DC. So that’s what we ended up doing. It’s in a low level office in DC – it’s a small office, a government office that’s gone haywire.

I think it’s worked out well. Part of the Americanization too is that we’ve pushed the humor. It’s almost vaudevillian. We really try to take the jokes to the limit.

Screen Shot 2014-03-29 at 4.07.41 PM

III. Directing

JB: What do you add to this production as a director? When you use the word vaudevillian…

SN: One of the things I really like are those comedies from the thirties, The Philadelphia Story, His Girl Friday, the Marx Brothers… a broad, comedic performance style. Around WWII, it kind of disappeared, but I loved that sort of thing. In my last play, Machinal, [Produced at Towson University in 2013], that’s what I was pushing: a presentational style, putting it out there in a broad comedy…  it’s a certain type of comedy that you never see in movies anymore. You don’t even see it on stage much anymore. It’s funny, it’s an American tradition. I really thought about it a lot.

For example – there’s this character in the play who doesn’t say anything. Now in some productions you could turn him into a sinister character, lurking in the shadows, but we turned him into this Harpo Marx kinda guy. He turns into a major presence on the stage. He’s a wacky dude who’s pulling things out of his coat.

The actor is Jack Sossman, who’s done a lot with Baltimore Rock Opera. He’s turned it into a virtuosic performance.

JB: So you make that connection with your actors – make fun of it, give them something to work with.

SN: It’s a question of trying to look at things in a bigger way. You can do things a lot differently. There was this New York production where they were doing it in trench coats and getting all constructivist. But I don’t really want to do it that way. If anything, I want people to laugh a lot.

I try to pay attention to the sound and the rhythm. It’s hard. You know, you’re dealing with eleven people, and it’s almost like dealing with an orchestra. I think it’s important to keep that sense of rhythm. It’s really really important when you’re dealing with this sort of stuff.

I really try to let the actors – I set up this playground and then let em go to fuckin’ town. I think setting up an environment that allows people to work is important. Really, it’s just like an editor. You make small suggestions, and they go crazy, and you go, That’s cool, I’ll take that, leave that out…

JB: Is there something more contemporary than the thirties comedies to compare this sort of production to?

SN: That’s hard. I guess if I tried to think of a relatively contemporary movie, it would be Airplane. When they wrote that script, there was one rule: there have to be three jokes per page. Some of the jokes were terrible, but it was so relentless and they kept adding up.

JB: So people should come expecting that, and not a strongly worded metaphor for communist bureaucracy.

SN: You could do that with this play. I don’t think that’s what Havel wanted. I think he was after a farce. People should come ready to laugh. If they don’t laugh, it’s a complete failure. [Laughs]

Vaclav Havel’s The Memo is at Single Carrot Theatre April  2 – 27. Get tickets here.

*Author John Barry is a Baltimore-based writer and teacher.

** Featured Photo: Jack Sossman, Sarah Gretchen, and Rich Espey. Photo by Chris Hartlove.

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