»It will seem like nothing, as it should«. In Conversation with Richard Nelson about »The Apple Family Plays«
By Joseph Pearson
10 April 2015
Imagine that we are arriving in Rhinebeck, New York, a community of fewer than 3000 people located up the Hudson River, a two-hour drive north of »the City«. We are on Route 9 passing through a centre of 19th-century commerce, red-brick vernacular architecture, then turning up Montgomery Street, past residential homes, some Gothic revival, surrounded by broad trees. Maybe it’s here that we sneak across the garden, and look in from one of the windows, lean into the living room, to eavesdrop on a family’s reactions to four major events of recent American history. These are the political frames of the four Apple Family Plays, first performed at The Public Theater, New York City, and now making their European premiere at the Schaubühne’s F.I.N.D. Festival in Berlin.
»Rhinebeck, NY is my home«, playwright and director Richard Nelson tells me, »I‹ve lived here for 32 years. It’s where my wife and I raised our two children. I thought initially I was going to write plays so specific in place and time that they would disappear immediately. When I wrote »That Hopey Changey Thing«, I thought it would be a disposable play because it was too specific. The lesson I learned from writing these plays, which is something I should have known from being a writer all my life, is that the more specific you are, the more universal you become«.
Some of the universality must come from the minimalism of the set. »There’s just some furniture and rugs«, says Nelson, and this gives Rhinebeck, NY both a specificity and the feeling that it could be anywhere. The set’s minimalism is beguiling in the clever ways it encourages the audience’s intimacy. Eight feet above the actors are a series of microphones, mixed live by a sound artist. Nelson tells me, »The goal is to create the sense of people talking to each other, so they can have their backs to the audience and talk in a conversational voice and be heard. You want the sense of overhearing and eavesdropping; you want that dissipation. The audience are part of this event. That is very important«.
One of the reasons why the subtle manipulation of sound is vital is because of the way the set is organised. »You and I have seen far more movies and TV shows than plays, and the contemporary look of cinema is that you are not always looking at the person who is talking, and you are rarely looking head on. So when you have a theatre piece, and have a couch facing the audience, with actors pretending to talk to each other as they face out, it looks theatrical in an old-fashioned way. Just in terms of the iconography of it. To be part of contemporary imagery, you need to have angles and backs and sides. That is where the sound comes in«.
Add to this the collaboration of Jennifer Tipton, perhaps the most important lighting designer in American theatre Nelson tells me. The simplicity of approach is apparent also in this aspect of the design. Nelson says, »It’s gorgeous, but it’s very simple. She’s working on only ten instruments. Normally in theatre when the audience is lit, it is by big house lights. But I had never seen, and neither had Jenny, the audience lit by stage light. So what happens is that the entire audience is very very lightly lit this way. So when we have blackouts on stage, what is left is just the audience«. What Nelson tells me next seems to sum up the whole production: »It will seem like nothing, as it should. But there are a lot of things going on«.
The set is a vehicle for an equally intimate approach to character. Nelson says, »Because of the nature of theatre and theatre festivals, by and large what Europeans see of American theatre is either experimental or Broadway musical, but there is another element of theatre, the vast majority, that comes out of a different tradition, the one I am working in. I extend it to its rawest form. My actors are completely exposed on the almost bare set. It is as actor-, human-being-, centric, as it could possible be, for seven hours«.
A Chekhov reference in the title, »Scenes from Life in the Country«, from »Uncle Vanya«, seems well chosen in this light. Nelson sees Chekhov, »the great humanist playwright« of whom he has done a number of translations, as essentially misrepresented, and used for political purposes in 20th-century struggles over interpretations of the Soviet Union, when in fact Chekhov was distrustful of ideology.
»I was trying to find my way in writing plays that were about my society and culture but that were not ideologically driven«, says Nelson, »Because I have no trust in any ideology. What I found instead of that was the human being, whose complexity and contradiction became my entire interest. Learning from both Mr. Chekhov, and to some extent from Mr. Ibsen, the best Petri dish for understanding the human and its contradictions was the family. There you have great history, complexity; one could actually portray the complexity of one’s society by digging deeper into the history of a family«.
»The set is so intimate, and so are the relationships. How then do you direct? Do you pull up a chair on stage?« I ask him.
Nelson replies, »The first thing I do is throw the playwright out of the room«.
»How difficult is that?«
»It’s pretty easy, I can always talk to him over a beer if there’s a problem«, he laughs, »Until the mid 90s, I didn’t think a playwright should direct his own plays. But then a series of things happened, and I found myself stepping in. I discovered something about my work that I had no idea about. When I write my plays, I don’t see them or hear them, I feel them. The plays are written as a dynamic. What does this mean as a director? I go into the rehearsal room, and my first job is to convince the actors of this, that I do not know how they should look or how they should sound, but what I do know is when it’s wrong. If they can believe that, and we can have a collaboration, they can try anything. They feel empowered, as true collaborators, and they are, in staging the play. One of the virtues of working with the same people over again is they know that already about me«.
»And how do you think your plays, so rooted in American mythology, will play in Germany?«
Nelson was told that perhaps in »Germany people don’t know people in America are having these conversations in their living rooms. They see America a different way« but I suspect another draw will be the focus on memory.
»You are coming to Germany, a country deeply troubled by memory, one that stares the past in the face«, I tell Nelson, »And that seems to be the major question of your play«.
The Apple Family Plays consist of oral testimonies of events in American history. These memories are then mediated by documents introduced into the play, such as letters or newspaper clippings. »Part I: That Hopey Changey Thing«, is about the 2010 Midterm Elections. »Part II: Sweet and Sad« is the tenth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. »Part III: Sorry« regards the 2012 Presidential Elections and »Part IV: Regular Singing« is the fiftieth anniversary of the shooting of John F. Kennedy. Each play had its opening night on the event in question, which meant the audience experienced the plays’ events »live« (Nelson would work on the script until 230pm that afternoon, a tremendous challenge for the actors). Of course now, watching in repertory, the plays are documents of their own production. We have a number of layers to the onion here – and I ask Nelson how they fit together. What kind of investigation of the past are the Apple Family Plays?
»At the heart, the deepest theme of the plays is memory«, he replies, »What do we remember, what do we forget. How do we remember, how do we forget? What should we remember, what should we forget? I think those are very existential questions in terms of a human being, a culture, and a country. On that opening night of »Sweet and Sad«, it was bizarre. You heard gasps in the audience. There was a ceremony that happened at noon involving a chorus of kids in blue jackets. Now you are watching a show at 730 at night and the characters are talking about these blue jackets. The audience had never seen anything as present as that. Now it becomes a period play, a different kind of animal. As opposed to looking over the shoulder of an event in the present, the audience is peeking into something that is real in a very specific time in the past. It is a different dynamic«.
»We always come back to the audience, don’t we?«
»Yes, I hope the audience will come and participate, not expect something that will be shown to them. It’s something they will witness and be part of. It’s just conversation, there are no big events, and there’s very little plot. There’s just people. If they get hooked into the people, they will have a good time«.
by Richard Nelson
Direction: Richard Nelson
Premiered on 23 April 2015Trailer