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Soar the Depths

by John Zinm

As is our practice, the artistic and marketing departments gather to hear artists speak about their vision for each upcoming show. The following is an edited excerpt of the discussion for The Wheel. To get the group started, Director of Marketing and Communications John Zinn asked how the project came to Steppenwolf.
MARTHA LAVEY : I read the play for the first time—I was one of the judicators for the Susan Smith Blackburn Award a couple of years ago. When I read The Wheel I thought: this is such a Tina Landau play. What it provides is this open landscape... One of the things I think Tina does with such brilliance is to respond to a text that has a huge invitation to the director in terms of the soundscape, in terms of the mise en scène of the play. We were also looking for a project for Tina and Joan Allen to work together, and they both landed on the play. We’re excited to see Joan explore the character of Beatriz.
TINA LANDAU: One of the reasons I was so interested in working with Joan was I saw her do a reading recently and I thought: she is on acting fire.
ML: She is ready to roll. One thinks of Joan as having a certain calm reserve, but she’s in a different phase. It’s a lot more visceral.
TL: Which is what this play is too. Raw, and open. As Joan and I discussed the play, we talked about how its language works. When you read The Wheel, you find language that’s blunt, extremely economical. You don’t necessarily hear how it will sound or how it will resonate. It has very little to do with American naturalism. But rather than the bluntness being where the language begins and ends, it invites a whole spectrum of emotion, nuance and psychology that can be filled in. It’s a wonderfully open text, waiting for human voice and passion to animate it even further.
ML: The other thing I thought was going on with the language—and Chuck Mee sometimes does this as well—is that you lose the national flavor and it takes on this mythic or universal feeling.
TL: Yes. And the key with that is: one needs to approach it with tremendous specificity. That specificity, however, can take surprising forms. During auditions, when people came in and read with accents it grounded the performances in a literalness that the play resists. But when people sang songs in other languages, something magical occurred in the room. There’s going to be a ton of music in the show. We’ve cast actors who play instruments, some specific to the location of particular scenes in the play.
ML: Given the structural complexity and the technical demands of this play, one might say this play is impossible.
TL: It’s really impossible. I feel utterly challenged in every regard. I’m so glad I get to do it. At one point, Joan asked me “Would you say basically this is an anti-war play?” And I said “No.” I mean, yes—on the first level. But there are so many levels on which this play operates. I’m also interested in what’s beneath and around that first level. The Wheel is also a woman’s journey as she deals with an old psychic wound. It’s also a hard, honest look at how we treat and shape the children in our lives. It’s also a magic realist epic. The list goes on—it depends if you want to read on, between or beyond the lines. It’s very tied in for me with three Brecht plays: Mother Courage, Caucasian Chalk Circle and Good Woman of Szechuan. Mother Courage is a portrait of a woman trying to survive in wartime with children. Chalk Circle is a portrait of a woman learning about motherhood as she travels with an abandoned baby. And Good Womanis a portrait of a woman struggling to remain good in a world at odds with goodness.
ML: Can you share your thoughts about the young girl in THE WHEEL?
TL: I’ve always seen her to be a real, complex child who is abandoned, scared, perhaps traumatized by her situation. As she goes on, she doesn’t become a demon, but is demonized. That is, she becomes a projection surface for those around her so that at various times she is seen as a prophet or a miracle worker, and at other times she’s seen as a satanic presence. But she is neither. She’s a kid. People see in her what they want to see—and yes, perhaps she learns how to take advantage of that.
ML: Tina, will you speak to how you hope to make this play available to an audience, so that they will take away something that is a nourishment for them, and not just a portrayal of the difficulty of life?
TL: We don’t live in a culture where war has touched our shores in the direct way we see in The Wheel. So I’ve been thinking about what it means for us to do this play that is different than it might be for someone in Europe or the Middle East, for example. Or what might be the same. This has led me to some of the play’s most core questions, I think: how can we remain human in a dehumanizing world, how can we protect and nurture our capacity for compassion— for tenderness—in a world gone crazy with violence? How can we care for our children? Where does beauty live in a landscape of horror? I don’t want to sentimentalize the play, I don’t want to soft sell it. But I want to bring out as much light as we can find in it. And it’s there. Look at the butterflies, the bird, the way two people touch or laugh together. The lower the play dives the more it also needs to soar.
ML: And Beatriz, she grumbles—
TL: —I love her—
ML: She grumbles and yet, she cannot leave those children behind. I don’t think it’s an imposition on the play to say that there is something about the human spirit that is championed and is truly what we have to fight for.
TL: Yes! I want to read something from the author and activist Zainab Salbi: “Everything can be taken from you in a second, but the human spirit is so strong. War can teach you so much about evil, and so much about good.” On the course of her journey, amidst all the terrible things that happen, there’s a beautiful bond that develops between Beatriz and the girl. I hope the experience in the theater is visceral and immediate, more than conceptual or intellectual. That we can experience the events in a direct and immersive way through the eyes of Beatriz. The whole design is about diminishing the fourth wall and continuing the architecture from the theater and thrusting it on stage. I hope that the experience of being in this play trumps everything else. Trumps the IDEA of it. Yes, I want people to have discussions about its themes, but I hope that more than anything it FEELS like something to be in this world.