Written by Victoria Myers
Photography by Tess Mayer
December 5th, 2017
In Rajiv Joseph’s new play Describe the Night, the audience travels ninety years in Russian history—some events real and some fictional—and follows three different, interconnected plots. One concerns the writer Isaac Babel, another a KGB agent, and the third the 2010 plane crash carrying the Polish government in Russian airspace. Director Giovanna Sardelli has been at the helm of the play and its many plots and layers since its first workshop production at NYU. Giovanna, who focuses on directing new work and is Artistic Director of New Works for TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, has a long history with Rajiv and previously directed Animals Out of Paper at Second Stage and Guards at the Taj at the Geffen. We recently spoke with her about the evolution of Describe the Night, staging a show with multiple plots and time jumps, and more.
I know you’ve had a long journey with this play. Could you tell me a little about that?
It was three years ago from the first workshop production, so it actually started a little before that. I graduated from NYU in the graduate acting program and I worked there a lot, and they asked me if Rajiv and I had project we wanted to do with their students. It’s something called the joint stock method; it’s how Caryl Churchill’s plays were created. Essentially a playwright, a director, and a group of actors get together and serve a playwright’s vision. You act as a living drama church. Rajiv loves Isaac Babel. He showed up knowing he loved Isaac Babel. He showed up knowing he was very curious about the plane crash in Smolensk, Russia in 2010 that killed the entire Polish government. And that he was curious about Putin. And that’s kind of all he knew. He didn’t know how they would tie together, didn’t know what it would be, and so we did research. It was really fascinating because I’ve never researched a play like that. So I went out and found a Polish filmmaker who actually had done a documentary on the Smolensk crash to try to prove that it’s Putin—that’s his mission in life. We met with journalists who had been embedded in Russia. It was fascinating. From that came the workshop production of NYU’s Describe the Night. We thought we’d never do it again. It was before our election, so it was before anybody was talking about Russia in the way we are now. It was an Alley commission, so when they got a hold of the script they were just delighted and amazed by what had come of that process, so we had the world premiere there [in Texas] just a few months ago. So it’s been a long road to get to the Atlantic.
Did you find because of that development process, you had to change your process as a director? It sounds like you were more involved in the generative process than in some situations.
It was really good that it happened at NYU, because part of the curriculum at NYU is a games class, and it’s the spirit of play, boldness, inventiveness, and the whole notion that you know enough to make great art at any moment simply because you’re a living, breathing human being who’s interesting. I don’t think those students ever had the same script two days in a row. He was constantly changing, constantly writing, and so what was great was we have a shared vocabulary, a shared aesthetic, and so we were pretty boldly able to just throw it up against the wall as fast as we could and say, “this scene’s about this. Let’s try this. Let’s do this.” And so we were able to work much faster than you can in any professional environment.
This is a large play and the structure is somewhat non-traditional, with many scenes and time jumps. Was that always the structure of the play? And for you, as a director, what was the evolution like of how you put that on stage?
It’s always had the fractured structure of moving about in time. So that was great, because you make peace with that really quickly and you have to decide, “How do I help an audience navigate this and traverse this ground?” One of the ways is we kept projections in to always ground us in a place and time; it’s essential that the audience knows where they are in time. Also, how do we make the transitions helpful? How do we move? In one scene, we journey 90 years in one transition, so how do you tell the audience, oh yeah, you’re not in Kansas anymore. And with every time shift, there’s a tonal shift and a story shift, so how can I most quickly give you all the information that you need to go engage in the next story?
Was that a process to decide how you do that?
It was really interesting because at NYU, out of necessity, the actors had to move a lot of the furniture. It just had to be the way it was done, and then that became part of the aesthetic that was really interesting to us, that these are storytellers, and let’s not hide some of the storytelling, let’s actually use this. And so we kept some of that intact because it told a better story. We always highlight something in a transition that involves an actor, is magical, or necessary. In Houston, after the hurricane, we had to do it even more because we had lost all the automation. In Houston we were going to do less, and then because of the hurricane and losing the space and the automation and our set, we kind of reverted back to some of the things that we knew worked at NYU, and it ended up being a gift.
Did you find that you knew very early on in the process what you wanted this world to look like visually?
Luckily I’ve worked with Tim Mackabee, our set designer, a few times, and he’s wonderful. We share an aesthetic. And so we were able to move very quickly. Bureau 42, which is an important location in the play, became kind of where the history of everything is contained, and so we decided it was the best framework for our play. We knew how we wanted things to unfold and move, and so we were able to move pretty quickly with that. I knew I wanted it to be very spare and yet, that incredible combination that is more difficult to achieve than you think, of very spare but also very rich in storytelling. But it’s the minimal amount we need to tell this story, and so we kept cutting back on things. And again, the hurricane really helped. Out of necessity we cut back.
Have you found that as you’ve been working on the play there are different themes that pop out to you as being the most interesting?
Oh, definitely. I marvel that Rajiv wrote this play over three years ago, and how he was examining a culture where, if you don’t value truth, it’s who tells the best story out of necessity, out of whatever reason, then truth ceases to mean anything. And then you get the best storyteller, and then lo and behold we got Trump who then turned around and basically attacked our media and calls things fake news. And suddenly this play was so frighteningly relevant, and that theme, which has always existed, moved to the forefront, about what kind of a society creates a Vladimir Putin? What are the seeds of that? How do you bring that person into being? It’s not just one child being born, it’s a society and a system that supports that. And, lo and behold, now we get to look at our own now in a different way.
Have you found that now audiences come in with so much more knowledge or so many more preconceived notions that it changes how you get them to enter the world of the play?
A little bit. They get ahead of that theme in a way they never did before because they’re so attuned to it, the minute they hear the word lies, it resonates completely differently. Most audiences don’t know the history. Very few people know about the airplane crash, or they have a sense that it killed the president of Poland. They don’t realize it decimated the entire governing body. So there are still so many things to discover. They don’t actually know who Nikolai Yezhov was in history, and very few Americans really know Isaac Babel. So there’s still so much to be unfolded and to be discovered.
Do you find that audiences actually don’t know what’s fact and what’s fiction when they leave the play?
Yes, and we’ve wrestled with whether we tell them. So we have a fact sheet we hand out at the end. And we don’t give it to everybody. At NYU, we didn’t give anybody any information. But I think now, especially with this time where we’re wrestling with what is true and what isn’t true and why, we felt it might help with the Googling if we were like, “These people are real, these people are fictional, this event is real,” and just gave some of the facts. We don’t make judgments on what is truth, we just tell you some of the facts. And we don’t make a big point of handing it out. It’s just there if people are asking a ton of questions and that seems to be the most important thing to them. We want to put that at rest quickly so they can dig deeper about the why of the play.
Have you found with the way this play moves that it’s been challenging to get people to watch the themes more than the plot?
I did, yes. I think people really think they have to follow the plot as though the plot is the answer, and in a very funny way, the entire plot is summarized in some way in scene one with Nikolai talking to Isaac. There are definitely things you want when you follow characters from the beginning to the end, but I think Rajiv does a great job of taking care of the plot so that you are left with deeper thematic questions at the end. Where they shoot you questions, thematic questions, it’s our hope that you’re not left piecing together too much plot.
With this production and with this cast, I imagine you had a much more traditional rehearsal process than what you had at NYU?
Yes. It was. I have to say both experiences were so wonderful, and all of our casts have been perfect for the moment in time we told that story. As intricate as this play is, and as deep as the play is, three weeks was an incredibly short rehearsal time. But the Atlantic was phenomenally generous in giving us a long rehearsal and preview period. So we’ve been able to work and Rajiv just put in two new pages today. We placed some text and it’s been a very alive process because these actors are doing it in front of people every night with new material and they’re great at it. You know, you get musical people like Rebecca [Naomi Jones] and Danny [Burstein] and they’re like, “this is easy, no song or new dances? I can say words.” It’s kind of amazing just the gusto for that, the aliveness of the work.
Since you brought up new pages, how do you make the decision of when to add something, when to make the call, “I think it just needs a little adjustment,” or to just make something work? How do you make those calls?
It’s very tricky. Today was our last real rehearsal and we put in two pages, and they are changes that to someone else will feel so slight. The one is at the end of the play. We were playing with how to just make it land a little more, and you don’t want to mess with something until you know how to fix it. For over five days we’ve been watching the end of the play, saying, whose job is it to fix it? Is it an acting note? Is it directing? Or sound design? And we realize, oh it needs a hair more text. The audience needs a few more hand holds to get to the end. So Rajiv was able to see that and made the last move. The difference is, now everybody knows everything so much more than they did before that they can go, “Oh, I see, oh thank you, that’s great.” Sometimes you wait and you find out who’s great with lines, who’s not great with lines, you find out who has a question they want answered, because then they’ll take that change whenever you give it to them because it satisfies something in them. So we’ve been able to keep plugging away.
What did you find to be the most challenging thing about making this piece? Did you find that there was one moment, or one scene that just took a lot of work to get right?
One of the harder things about this play is every storyline follows its own thread. So the actors met on the first day, they re-read the play together, and then some of them didn’t see each other again until we did a run-through. So they did not have a sense of how all the pieces fit together. We were working in a vacuum with only me and Rajiv really going, “That scene has to end here because the next scene meets you here,” and there’s no way that can make sense to someone until they start to feel the whole. And so one of the things that’s been challenging and exciting is having everybody in the same place, telling the same story, so that we can now knit it together so that they’re all pieces of the whole.
I would think that would be hard as a director too, since you’re rehearsing scene-by-scene and, day-to-day, not seeing the whole.
Again, the actors are so smart, they’re so attuned now to the world and the story, that when we teched it we were able to say, “Okay, so listen to how this ends. Watch the sound cue, it’s going to travel us here, the note you must start on, literally the emotional note or tone needs to be here.” Luckily, every single person in the cast was so adept with that and curious about that and wanted to know how they fit into the whole, so it’s been a really fun kind of making the entire quilt with all the pieces. Now we’re quilting it all together.
Did you have charts or diagrams of how it all would go together?
To do the transitions, the set designer, the stage manager, and I sat down with who we have and what the story is that we want to tell in that transition. In some of them, we just want it to be fast. The faster these two scenes butt up against each other, the more successful they’ll be. Others, we were like, “Oh, this one needs a breath, so we need to create fifteen seconds of art.” And so we charted that out to make sure that we had somebody to do every single thing that needed to be done and somebody to carry the emotional story. So we assigned that to every transition. It took hours.
What do you hope people take away from the play, or leave talking about?
I hope it moves them to really question truth, and what is truth and whose truth, in the face of storytelling right now when facts don’t seems to matter. I think there’s a celebration in the play of the honest voice prevailing. Isaac Babel was erased from history for years and yet he was one of the most honest voices about what was happening in the Red Calvary, what was happening in the Russo-Polish war. And try as hard as the propaganda machine did to say, “We don’t tell those kinds of stories,” if they read his diary, then they read his Red Cavalry stories. And I think there’s something about that, about the truth of soul, who will tell the truth of what’s around them is what will actually matter in the end.
The last time we talked was a few years ago. Since we last spoke, how do you feel like things in the theatre community have changed for women?
I feel things like The Interval and other organizations—I’m part of the League of Professional Theatre Women—have been instrumental in parity, and in really putting the issue at the forefront. It feels to me like there are so many more opportunities for women than there were years ago. It feels to me like they’re having a lot of the right conversations and there’s an attention to the matter. It’s interesting in terms of what we’re living through right now with sexual harassment moving to the forefront, my friend had the best quote that I’m going to share it with you because I thought this summed it up perfectly. It’s from Amy Sullivan, who’s a journalist: “One of the toughest parts of this all has been realizing that so many male colleagues assumed our careers didn’t take off like theirs because we were less talented.” And I feel like that sums up the difference in the last three years. Somebody was able to put voice to that feeling that many of us had of, “Oh, huh, you think you moved ahead because you’re more talented. You didn’t actually realize all the forces at work.” The other difference is, I’d probably wear a Nasty Woman t-shirt unapologetically; I’m delighted to be part of the club. I think there’s a fierceness happening that wasn’t [before]. Women are claiming their voice and they’re claiming their space and their righteous space and energy and time in a way I’ve not seen, and I think that’s exciting.
How do you feel like things have changed in terms of the development of new work?
It’s very interesting. I think there’s a concerted effort, especially as somebody who’s a new works director, to search out female creators. In my festival this past summer, we had female stories. One was written by a man, but it was still such a female-centered story. So there’s attention being paid to that. I think that’s the good side. On the bad side, it feels like there’s a narrowness of who can tell what story that’s happening now. I think of how I began my career and how lucky I was to have a playwright like Katori Hall support me in telling her story The Mountaintop, Matthew Lopez and I got to tell his play The Whipping Man together. The discussions I’m part of now are where the question is, “Does that need to be a man? Does that need to be a specific person of color? Does that need to be this?” And I’m figuring out how do we honor all that complexity and honor all that artists bring? And I think right now that that conversation is exciting, but sometimes narrow in scope, and I say that as an Italian-American woman who says, “Well, what stories do I get to tell? Should I just do Pirandello? Where will I come down?” Because I want to connect with stories and people in a way I think only happens through communal story time.