Catching the Tail of Mr. Burns: an Interview with Director Yury Urnov

Russian director Yury Urnov is directing Anne Washburn’s Mr. Burns: a Post Electric Play for the Wilma. We were first introduced to Yury through Woolly Mammoth Theatre in DC, where he is a company member, and his astonishing production of Guillermo Calderon’s play Kiss (which Yury directed again this summer in Siberia). Since that time, Yury has led several sessions with the Wilma’s HotHouse company. We’re delighted to finally have his work on our stage. Wilma Dramaturg Walter Bilderback interviewed Yury on September 29, near the end of the first week of rehearsals for Mr. Burns. They discussed Yury’s concept for the play, the need for art, and the importance of acting companies, among other topics. This interview has been edited for clarity.

Walter: Early in the rehearsal process, you used a wonderful expression for the design and rehearsal processes: you said you were trying to “catch the tail of what this thing is about.” Can you talk a little bit about what you feel  you’re trying to catch?

Yury: It seems like it’s a very special look at the post-apocalyptic world – there are obviously multiple attempts to mold this future and I think we are doing it for a reason, right? We are preparing ourselves this way by creating experiences in art so we can imagine what to do when it gets to the moment.

I think Mr. Burns is actually talking about one of the things that usually people don’t pay attention to in the post-apocalyptical models — yes, everyone knows we will lose electricity… But nobody really talks about we will also lose our access to art.

I think Mr. Burns is actually talking about one of the things that usually people don’t pay attention to in the post-apocalyptical models — yes, everyone knows we will lose electricity, we know we will lose this and that, right. But nobody really talks about we will also lose our access to art. We will lose access to the culture, generally speaking and then art specifically speaking. And I think that’s the kind of the model that the play, and the production, is trying to work around. To build this model where there is no way you can put your hands on art in any form, in any shape. And we find out that something makes it impossible for them to live without art. Right? And they start finding ways in which – they start with the primal storytelling and the myths they remember and retelling them, and then they develop it through, in three acts, from the initial storytelling to some very elaborate artistic form by Act Three.

Walter: And one of the myths they remember is The Simpsons, specifically the “Cape Feare” episode. Within your approach, are there challenges that one or more of the acts present to you in trying to fulfill the expression of that, to “catch the tail?”

Yury: Well I do think it’s the shape of the piece, the three-part form of the piece. I’m very happy it’s not a linear piece but that’s a challenge, right? Because the characters from Act Two don’t survive into Act Three, in Act Three we’re dealing with a whole new set of characters, so there is no way to build the connection between the audience and the stage through characters.

Walter: So you need to find something other than the characters or the plot to latch onto.

Yury: And I think in this case it’s the theme, and that’s how this work of art becomes the main character of the piece, and that is what we’re tracking. We’re watching the dramaturgy of the development of that theme.

Walter: There are three acts, and it’s seven years between the first and second act, and then 75 years between the second and third, …

Yury: Right. So the myth in this case goes through three stages. The first stage is the creation of the myth — that’s what the characters are doing in the first act, they’re creating the new art. Even though they are basing it off something they know, they are creating the new myth. They are desperate for finding something to create this first myth of this new world. And then in the second act, we go through the capitalistic stage, the popularization and commercialization of this myth, right – they are selling it. And then the third act is sacralization . . .

Walter: making art sacred…

Yury: Right, right

Walter: And you’re looking at approaching each of the acts in a different style, too.

Yury: I think the style of each act needs to be appropriate to the development of the theme. As a side-note, I have a very deep feeling that I can’t, and a lot of people can’t, deal anymore with linear dramaturgy. We don’t think this way, we experience life in a much more segmented, fragmented reality, in a collage kind of reality, which plays like Mr. Burns represent.

So what are our new tools for developing theme? One is developing the theme by exploring different genres. And that’s what we’re trying to do here. We’re starting with naturalism for the moment of the creation of the myth. In the second act, we’re going through the stage of American television realism: commercial television, commercial theatre, commercial Broadway – the moment when we are selling the myth, popularizing it. And then in Act Three we’re going into the form of the opera, when we get to the sacralization point.

Walter: One of the things I’ve been very impressed by in watching the design come into being, is how you and the designers  – Misha Kachman for sets, Meghan Healey for costumes, and Michael Kiley for musical composition – have approached the third act in order to give us, the audience, some clue about what the situation is. Could you talk a little bit about that process?

Yury: I think it started in all three directions immediately, but to some extent the sound defined our starting point. We were trying to ask “what’s the most primal form of performing art that we know of in European history?” And we decided: it’s probably early opera, it’s on the edge of ritual. It’s not really religious, but we are still telling a myth; in the world of Act Three, we are telling the myth of this sacred family, the Simpsons. And the actors in the play are taking it totally seriously, and the idea that that was a cartoon doesn’t matter anymore. For them it’s a sacred, primal myth, and that’s how they are dealing with that. So that’s why we went to this ritual, to this opera kind of land. And while this idea was developing, I was also trying to identify the sacred physical space of this future “cathedral/opera house” with Misha. And at some point, we decided that there needs to be something connecting the three acts. We ended up with the idea of shipping containers, as one of probably the main symbols of our current civilization, and we developed this idea through three acts. In the first act, the shipping container is really just a shelter, it’s just where we survive through the post-apocalyptic days. In the second act, it’s our tool of commerce, and in the third act, when all those years pass and things like shipping containers become a rarity, they turn into the idols, they turn into the magic à la Easter Island figures, reminiscent of the Simpsons family probably.

Walter: And then with costumes for the third act…

Yury: Oh, Meghan is amazing! Amazingly educated and imaginative at the same time, which rarely happens in this world. She dug through a huge amount of rituals, South American and East European and European and she’s quoting a lot of actual material….

She’s trying to build the costumes mostly out of the materials surviving this civilization of ours. For example, Marge’s wig is made out of blue plastic bottles. It’s very smartass, what I think she’s doing there.

Walter: And then also the research on physical materials, so what they are using…

Yury: Yeah, what she’s doing is kind of unbelievable because she’s trying to build the costumes mostly out of the materials surviving this civilization of ours. For example, Marge’s wig is made out of blue plastic bottles. It’s very smartass, what I think she’s doing there.

Walter: That’s very cool. Something else I’m very excited about is that you’re finally getting a chance to work at length with the HotHouse company. You were the first outside director we invited in to work with HotHouse, and it’s taken us three years to finally actually get you in rehearsal! [both laugh]

Yury: It’s been a long audition process.

Walter: That also means that you’ve had a chance to observe HotHouse developing. You’ve followed many of the actors  in Mr. Burns since Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. What are your observations on what you’ve seen in the development of the actors over these three years, and in what ways do you feel that might be helping you with this rehearsal process?

Yury: There are a lot of things that surprised me when I started directing in America, and  one of them was that theaters don’t have companies. That’s actually sort of a weird idea where I’m from. The idea of project theatre, where people just get together for a few weeks to build the show is relatively new there: it happens, but that’s a rarity. So the idea of theatre in my head was always, there is a company who are the people working together, studying together, on their style, or unite around the idea – some people go, some people leave, but there is a feeling of some kind of cultural unity: ideologically, this is the direction, this is the kind of theatre we want to develop, and this is what we’re trying to learn for that, to make this happen. And this is certainly the kind of thing that can’t be developed in four weeks, right? I still am trying to understand how you do productions here in four weeks. And the fact that the Wilma has the HotHouse is amazing, knowing the circumstances in which the theatre exists in the United States.

And because I was coming and going, I could see the progress between each. Each time I came back I saw the company on the next level. And by the end of three years, it’s very hard to compare these actors three years ago and today. I mean, they were pretty good to begin with but I mean, right now, the rehearsal, it’s actually joy. You know? It’s actually not a struggle, it’s actually a joyful artistic process. You can try different things, try another thing, try another thing, and everything is possible. For the director, it’s certainly a present.

Walter: It was very impressive at the first read-through, which was…

Yury: Yesterday! They learned 35-40 minutes of music in a day and a half. Playing it and singing it. You know, it’s kind of impossible, what is going on here. So if there is any way to explain to people with money that this needs to be supported, and that actors actually need to get salaries, that that’s the job, that’s not the “hobby”…

Walter: I also wanted to talk to you a little bit about the influence of Varlam Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales in “catching the tail” of this piece. I have to confess, I did not know them before you had asked me to look at them, and they’re very striking.

Because Simpsons and Shalamov…It’s probably the furthest cultural gap that you can find on the world map to connect

Yury: Well I mean it’s weird, right, because Simpsons and Shalamov…It’s probably the furthest cultural gap that you can find on the world map to connect. There is this Russian dichotomy of Solzhenitsyn and Shalamov. Unlike Solzhenitsyn, who was kind of accepting the experience and almost endorsing it on some level. Shalamov was like: “Nobody needs to have this experience.” I mean, he declares it very openly – “I didn’t survive this experience. The fact that I am alive is a bit of a joke.” So that’s one thing. The second thing we were trying to imagine, were circumstances just as horrible as they can be. For Act One it’s super important that we’re not in the “happy camping world.” We’re in the world of all the horrible things you can imagine. And the furthest I could throw the stone is a gulag. And the third was that there is this amazing the fact about Russian gulags that there was the figure of storyteller, that in the absence of everything and in these horrible dire straits and circumstances, there is an untouchable storyteller. Just the guy who tells the stories in the nighttime. And that’s one of the highest ranks you can get in the gulag hierarchy. It sends this very clear signal of how much we need art, you know? Because again, these people are deprived of many other things, it seems like they would have other interests in their life, but that becomes so important. Somebody who tells the stories – and that’s certainly where it connects to Burns clearly. [The importance of the storyteller is shown most strongly in Shalamov’s story “The Snake Charmer.” His story “A Day Off” also resonates with Mr. Burns: in that story, Shalamov writes of the importance of “final things” – bits of their previous life that prisoners clung to for a remnant of sanity, similar to the recounting of “Cape Feare” in the opening scene of Mr. Burns.]

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