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Telephone Hour

Chicago/9:30 a.m.: Martha Lavey, artistic director London/3:30 p.m.: Stephen Jeffreys, playwright London/3:30 p.m.: Terry Johnson, director Topic: Lost Land, the new play by Jeffreys, directed by Johnson, featuring Lavey as an actor. Martha Lavey: Stephen and I first met because of Steppenwolf’s interest in his play The Libertine. I then asked Terry Johnson to direct that play, which John Malkovich performed on our stage. Subsequently, John directed Terry’s play Hysteria here at Steppenwolf and then in both Paris and Barcelona. And now, we’re all returning to Steppenwolf, Terry directing John, Yasen and myself in Stephen’s play, Lost Land. First things first, Stephen; tell us something briefly about the play. Stephen Jeffreys: It’s set in Hungary in 1918 and 1919, around the end of the first World War, which was a disastrous event for Hungary because they lost two- thirds of their country’s land in the peace treaty. I suppose the play is called Lost Land partly because it talks about that loss, and partly because it refers to a lost inner landscape of what people possess and what they remember. ML: And how were you interested in this subject? SJ: The play developed because I wanted to write another role for John, and he said that this would be the time to do it. I wanted to set the play somewhere remote, where a man who once held great political power had retired to a world far away from his previous life and was about to be tempted back. How curious that we’ve arrived at the same dynamic as in my previous play at Steppenwolf, I Just Stopped By to See the Man, where someone who had retired from life, in fact, was being tempted to come back. They’re both Faustian plays in that way. I remembered the historical character Michael Károlyi, a Hungarian politician at the end of the First World War who ran the social democratic government for a time and who subsequently went into exile. That historical figure’s life was part of the impulse, and what I’ve done was just gradually build on this bit of history until Károlyi became this count who is involved in land reform and is giving away his own lands. Setting it in the wine growing region of Hungary certainly takes care of the “remote place.” All that seemed like very rich stuff to get into, and I spent quite a while just adding ideas to this story, building it up very slowly, without writing any dialogue. I write the dialogue last. ML: And Terry, what has your process been so far with Lost Land? Terry Johnson: The process is similar to the one we went through on The Libertine. In this developmental period, as the director, you read the play, and you give it your best shot about what you think might be the next step for the play, and you feed that back to the author. From my experience, if you do that twice and the play hasn’t gotten any better, it’s best to resign. (laughter) Stephen and I tend to come up with the same notes – we certainly came up with 80% of the same cuts between reading the first draft and the second draft. So far, we’re quite of one mind, which is very heartening. After the first revision, we got some very good actors together here in London, who read the play for us. There’s a huge difference between reading a play and hearing a play because the reading takes place in real time, so you get a much bigger sense about what the play is giving you and what the play is lacking. So, we did that, and it took two hours. We then had some quiche and went straight into a two-hour chat through the play. What Stephen and I share is that we’re both quite explicit – we barely discuss “concepts,” we barely discuss “overview.” We tend to discuss such things spinning out of, say, one line on page four. I’m quite detailed, and so is Stephen, so that’s how we find our way along, really. SJ: Terry’s very good at this kind of note, because he’s a writer, himself. “That line isn’t very good, try something else,” whereas other people might tell you what to put in there, being very prescriptive. We both work on isolating areas that seem phony or forced. It’s a question of gradually eliminating these and presenting something which is truthful and interesting. TJ: For me and Stephen, rehearsals are part of the writing process, rather than simply the time to get the play on. Five brains are better than one, and I’m supposed to be the mediator, the orchestrator for that period. ML: Terry, what part of the process of directing do you love the most? Is there any interval in rehearsal that you love? TJ: Well, there’s a whole little bit which is quite dull, which is where everyone’s decided what they want to do, and they want to know where on stage they’re going to do it, but they can’t do it. That’s the worst. ML: Actors studying their books and not looking up. TJ: Yeah, I mean it’s interesting, there’s a week in rehearsal where the director could quite definitely wander in at three o’clock in the afternoon and look at what’s been doing. It all happens between the actors at that point. The French call it rehearsal repetition – and yeah, it’s a lot of repetition. ML: It’s interesting. I can definitely say that, as an actor, it doesn’t feel like nothing is going on. TJ: Oh, heavens no, there’s huge work being done by the actors. In fact, the actors are barely conscious of what I was talking about, but they know what they want to do. They think they don’t know what they want, but they do. At the end of the first week, or certainly by the middle of the second, we’ve done what I call the radio version of the play. The version you could, literally, say standing in front of a microphone, and it would be perfect. At some point, fairly early on in rehearsal, the distance between that moment of being able to speak it perfectly and being able to repeat that perfect performance, and knowing the matrix of phonics, knowing the roots, knowing it deeply enough to repeat and perform with confidence takes a little bit of time. As you pull out of that, that’s the most delightful time, when actors are confident enough in themselves to start being entertained by each other. If I were to describe the part of rehearsal I like most, it’s that moment where the actors entertain each other. And I don’t mean that in a lovey-dovey, terrible sense, I mean it in a profound sense; when they’re able to work together and feed off what they are getting each other. That’s when it gets sexy. I spent some time in Auckland living on the pier, and I used to watch teams of six people take out these huge World Cup yachts and get them through the harbor and out into an open sea. Rehearsal reminds me of sailing a yacht; you’re rushing around, a touch here to this instrument and a tiny little tug on this rope. You never know which instrument or what rope it’s going to be. You never know what issues are going to come up. From day to day, you’re just kind of running around the deck, trimming this sail and pulling this one up, and at any time, the whole damn thing could collapse. Everybody gets very despondent, or you’ve sailed around in a tight circle and you’ve capsized, and we’ll have to stand on the rudder to get it up! It’s a good metaphor because a play is a big, unwieldy thing that needs a really light and quick touch to keep it sailing in the right direction. It demands all your resources, human and intellectual. And that’s what’s fun about it, after all.