The Memo was one of the two plays in the Havel Festival I was able to direct myself—no easy task actually, with all the work entailed in producing the festival. But I very much wanted to have an opportunity to direct a few plays as well as produce. One play I directed, Audience, was a short two hander, and I had already directed a version of it in 1992 (more about that in an upcoming blog post). That meant restaging would be relatively simple—if one can ever call doing any show “simple.” The Memo however, was well over two hours in length and involved a large cast and a complex script. I knew from the top it would be a challenge, albeit a joyful one.
One of the most exciting aspects of working on The Memo was the opportunity to work with the translator, Paul Wilson, on his new translation. The Memo (then translated as The Memorandum) had been originally produced at The Public Theater in 1967, and Vera Blackwell’s translation had been the only one available before the Havel Festival. My friend Doug had directed that translation in college (originally we had considered co-directing), so I was particularly familiar with it.
Paul’s translation has a more contemporary, American tone. Before he became a translator, Paul had had a long personal relationship with Havel. While living in Prague (he is a native Torontonian), he had been a member of The Plastic People of the Universe, the band whose arrest inspired Charter 77, the civil rights document Havel co-authored.
I cast the play early, since I knew I needed as much done as early as possible as I could manage. It also allowed Paul to travel down to work with me, our dramaturg Karen Lee Ott, and the cast. Karen and I had worked on some original translations before, during the Ionesco Festival, and there is something thrilling for me, always, about being part of that process.
One of the things Paul was struggling with at the time was the names of the characters. Many of the Czech names had been based on the original actors who played the part, but he wanted to anglicize them (Blackwell had kept the names of those original actors). I suggested he use the names of our actors instead, and he agreed with that idea. To my surprise, a few of the actors expressed reservations—the idea of playing characters who had their own names didn’t appeal to them. But I asked them how they would feel watching the play onstage, twenty years in the future, with their role in the original translation immortalized? That idea seemed to win them over, in the end.
I myself am very much looking forward to seeing The Memo onstage and hearing the names of the cast members in the role. I think, now that the play has been published, that opportunity may come soon.
The work of the play was very much in the timing. Entrances and exits are timed like a farce, and indeed much of the play had farcical elements, particularly the scenes in the translation center. Fortunately I had three excellent comic actors for those roles (Ken Simon, Talaura Harms, and Skid Maher). The classroom scenes were anchored by Peter Bean and Uma Incrocci, theater company mainstays who I knew would keep the play comic and alive. And it was great fun as always staging them in them. The hardest of scenes, I found, were actually the office scenes. There too I was blessed with a number of good actors, but those scenes have some heavy lifting to do both in terms of exposition and philosophizing. Those scenes put heavy burdens on the two leads, Andrew Rothkin and Maxwell Zener. But they both worked valiantly to conquer the material.
In retrospect, to be honest, I think I would stage those scenes a bit differently, if I ever revived the piece. That may have to do with the fact that Havel’s single criticism of my work on the play related to those scenes. But more on that that later.
The play was barely staged in time. Tech is always a bit frantic during festivals, but I remember a sense of panic the whole time during our Memo tech. How we got through the final cue, I don’t know, but we did.
By then, I already knew the Havel would be attending. In fact, it was his test performance, in a way. His office told me that they could not guarantee how often he would be able to attend, but that he would definitely be attending The Memo. It became clear that it was something of a test performance. If he liked The Memo, he would be back. If not…I wasn’t sure.
In retrospect, he told me later, he regretted his initial caution. He was able to attend half the shows, but if he had it to do over again, he would have scheduled in advance to try to see them all.
I had met Havel a few times before the show, and the encounters were pleasant without being particularly personal. We had a more one on one get together planned, but it would not be until after he had attended.
As I remember, he came to the third performance, so we had had a chance to at least get into somewhat of a rhythm. I had avoided telling the actors when he was coming, as I didn’t want it to affect their performance, but a few of them figured it out when they glimpsed his arrival. I had mentioned to some in the festival that he would be coming, to be sure the audience would be full, and they in turn had told others. To my embarrassment, Havel’s first arrival had a bit of the feeling of a scene from La Dolce Vida. Cameras were flashing everywhere.
Havel took it all in stride. As I was to realize much later when I visited him in Prague, this sort of activity was normal for him and didn’t really disturb him anymore. I grabbed him a beer and sat him down front and center. A bodyguard requested a seat behind him, which I accommodated. I was assured that the bodyguard was used to being at the theater and a good audience member.
Then I cowered in the back row and watched. To my great relief, pretty soon into the first scene, Havel laughed. And he continued to laugh, even at the little jokes I had put into the staging that hadn’t been in the original script at all.
At intermission, I sat down with him, and for the first time we had a one on one conversation. He asked me mostly about details of the festival and told me he was enjoying the show, much to my relief. The second act passed a bit like the first, though I must admit, the timing which had seemed right on target in act one sometimes slipped during act two. But all in all, I was very proud of the performance.
After the show, Havel posed for pictures with the cast and with Robert Lyons, who ran the Ohio Theater where The Memo was being staged (he runs the New Ohio now, but I will always miss the spacious and beautiful old theater). And he very quickly told me he would be coming back.
Havel’s one criticism of the production: the silent character, play by V. Orion Delwaterman. Not Orion’s performance, but my staging of him in the office scenes. The silent characters, he told me, had been based on the silent government presences, the agents who would stand glowering somewhere in the background but ever present, a menacing mystery of sort. I staged Orion in a much more active way, a silent but efficient functionary who movements mirrored the antagonist,.
Funny, in two American productions of The Memorandum I have seen since then (Blackwell’s translation) that same character was staged in similar ways. A cultural Czech/American divide, I suspect. But of course, that criticism made me rethink the staging of the office scenes, as I mentioned earlier, and I think I have a way to bring that idea to life, should I have a chance to do so again.
It was, of course, an amazing experience. Paul Wilson also seemed gratifyingly pleased with the performances. And I still think of that show Havel attended as the beginning of my real relationship with Havel. I am grateful for it.