|Dan Leventritt, Václav Havel, and Scott Simpson after Havel visits the performance of Audience at the Havel Festival|
I have directed Václav Havel’s play Audience twice.
The first time was as part of a double bill, which included Slawomir Mrozek’s Striptease. It was my first production in New York, and I was not only director, I was stage manager, set designer, lighting designer, costume designer, tech crew and box office. The second time was as part of the Havel Festival, and Havel himself attended. The first time the translation was by Vera Blackwell, and I had found it in a big stack of Samuel French scripts and taken a liking to it, somewhat at random. The second time the script was by Havel friend Jan Novák, who had been commissioned to translate all of Havel’s Vaněk plays for the festival. The first time we averaged about eight audience members a show. The second time we had a relatively full house every night.
Both times, the Brewmaster was played by Dan Leventritt, who seemed to me to be made for the part. Dan’s performance in 1992 stuck so strongly in my memory that I knew I wanted no one else to play the part in 2006.
Audience, for those unfamiliar with it, is a two-hander that introduced the character Vaněk, an alter ego of sorts for Havel. Like Havel, Vaněk is a playwright who is forced to work in a brewery because the government has declared that he can no longer work as a writer. I have written a little about the character in my essay that introduces the book The Vaněk Plays (you can find that essay here)
When I first directed the play, I was new to New York. I borrowed money from my father and brother to rent a black box theater for two weeks, but had no money for any other aspect of the production. We rehearsed Audience in Dan’s apartment on the Upper West Side, where I and the actor playing Vaněk, Moni Damevski, crowded in around a small table. Fortunately, a small table was about all the play demanded.
Simultaneously, I was directing Striptease with an actor I knew from college, Jason Katz (who now uses the name Jason Harris), and an actor who had appeared in my New Jersey production of Artist Descending a Staircase, Peter Brown. Both became good friends. They were game enough to follow me into a little empty space I found that seemed unoccupied, somewhere in midtown. After a couple of rehearsals, we found out why it was abandoned, when men in protective suits came in and told us they were there to remove the asbestos.
The set included a table (which I found in the theater) and two freestanding doors. I created the lighting on my own one night during what I loosely called “tech week,” running between the light boot and climbing up ladders to approximate some very basic cues. I recorded a toilet flushing and used some Michael Nyman music as our only sound cues, except for the mixtape I made for preshow and intermission.
A day before we went up, there were still no doors. The morning before the first performance I called my friend Mike Nuzzo. “Can you please help me?” I asked.
“Sure,” he said, always game to assist. “Maybe tomorrow?”
“Curtain is in eight hours,” I said.
He drove in from New Jersey with two doors, and with the help of a little wood from Dykes Lumber, we somehow got them to stand. When the actors arrived at 6pm, they expressed surprise that we had been able to set up the doors at all.
My brother David, who besides being our major funder/cheerleader was a stagehand/puppeteer for Striptease (there were two giant hands that needed manipulation), came in and learned his part in the hour or so remaining. Then we opened.
Fourteen years later, at the Ohio Theater, Václav Havel sat in the audience and watched Dan and our new Vaněk, the wonderfully talented Scott Simpson, perform the show. Afterwards he congratulated Dan and Scott, and I introduced him to our terrific stage manager, Taylor Keith, and the rest of our staff.
It was another small theater in New York, but it was a long journey between the two productions. And I am proud to say, Havel was pleased.