Describing “Describe the Night”

Actor Ross Beschler chronicles the process of playing Author Isaac Babel

The journal of Russian author Isaac Babel plays a central role in “Describe the Night” as it appears and reappears over a span of 90 years. We asked actor Ross Beschler to journal his own experience of playing Isaac at the Wilma.

Lunch break during technical rehearsal.  Nap on the cot in the hallway. Describe the sensation of drifting in and out of sleep while costumers murmur over a choice of spectacles for Nikolai, while sounds from onstage scene work drift in over the monitor. Hazy.  Disjointed.

On stage, in a forest of dismembered trees painted black. Describe the lights, how they sting the eyes. Describe the silence of waiting for a cue to be written, the no-where and no-when of an actor waiting for the action to continue.  For a moment, I could be anywhere, in any time. Coughs from the tech tables.  Laughter: an actor has quietly told a story, about a time they couldn’t find a toilet in public: distension, panic.  Then silence again.  Our quiet world layers narratives into each other like a roomful of spiders weaving, weaving, into one another’s webs.  Ants busily take stock of their new world – they arrived with the trees. Who’s acting more convincingly on this stage, me or them?

Isaac Babel’s diaries are his notes to himself: the notes of a writer voraciously devouring the world around him, responding to it, and setting it down in fragments that will allow him to access those memories, those moments, later, when he has time to actually write.  He intends to tell great, heart-wrenching, hilarious stories that reveal the complexities and contradictions of human beings, and the world is giving him incredible material – men and women in the extremes of human experience, at war in Poland in the 1920s.  Sometimes he doesn’t even get as far as describing the thing he wants to describe – “Me and the Ukrainian editors,” he writes on June 4, 1920.  And that’s all he says about that.  I think of him consulting his diary after his return from war, sitting down in his study to turn his sketches into stories, and wonder: does a passage like that fill him with despair? What WAS it about those editors that he wanted to remember?  Did the very mention of it bring the whole scene flooding back to him in all its glorious detail, or was it lost forever?

Learning to see the world through Rajiv Joseph’s version of Isaac Babel is a lesson in falling in love with the details of life. “Sweat, watery tea, I’m sinking my teeth into life again, farewell to you, dead men.” Meditations on the infinite are accessible through the immediate.  Both are true, both are present, and both get documented.  He reports what he sees, in the world and in himself.


“Where are you from, young man?”

“From Odessa.”

“How is life there?”

“People are alive.”

“Here it’s terrible.”

A short conversation.

I leave shattered.

Babel, in his journals, is hungry for the heartbreak of life.  He looks to excavate it from tiny moments.  Reading passages like the one above, it’s no wonder he wrote plays and screenplays in addition to novels and short stories – he has an excellent ear for dialogue, and like a great painter can evoke a full emotional landscape with just a few spare lines.

As an actor, this helps me understand him as a man who seeks to extract the best scene he can from the world around him.  He likes the stakes high, and he likes the game interesting, just as an actor does—but for Babel this had real-world consequences.  In real life, as in our play, his fascination with danger got him into some serious trouble: his friendship with Nikolai Yezhov is based in reality, and Yezhov was one of Stalin’s most efficient butchers, a fact well-known by many.  An appalled colleague once asked him why he would keep such company: did he actually want to touch death? “No,” Babel reportedly replied, “I just like to have a sniff to see what it smells like.”  His sense of wonder and curiosity extended to the macabre, the dangerous, the forbidden, the deadly.

This makes for a man of contradictions.  Babel’s not exactly innocent, but he’s not malicious— he doesn’t wish anyone harm.  He believes that to describe and report on the world around him, in all its thorny, murky details, is no threat to anyone. They’re just stories, made to move people to joy, to terror, to tears, and who could possibly be threatened by that?

This turned out to be an extremely naive view, of course; the Soviet system, under Stalin, was INCREDIBLY threatened by a populace with an emotional life outside its direct supervision and control. And the system was willing to kill to maintain that control.   

And it did.

A lot.

Describe the Night” plays at the Wilma Theater through February 22. To hear more from Beschler and the cast, be sure to come for a Café Chat

Describe the Look: An Interview with DESCRIBE THE NIGHT Costume Designer Vasilija Zivanic

Last week, I (Casey Berner, Project Coordinator) was lucky enough to sit down with Vasilija “Vasi” Zivanic, the costume designer of Describe the Night, to get a look into how she creates the costumes and looks for each show.

Casey [CB]: Walk us through your process—when you first get hired for a show, how do you approach the script and initial thoughts?

Vasi [VZ]: I’m always very curious and excited to read the play. I isolate myself—shut off the phone and everything, almost like meditation—and I read. There’s always a word or a line that triggers the ideas, the visuals, and I’m waiting to find that word. And that’s where the visuals come in. For me that silence, to really bond with the work, is crucial.

CB: Do you remember what the word was for Describe the Night?

VZ: “Too much memory makes a man weak.” When I read that—[Vasi here pulls out her notebook]. There was another… “I don’t know what is true”? Something like that, I wrote it down. [She begins to flip through a small notebook, with notes and sketches on DTN]

CB: Oh, do you get a notebook for every show?

VZ: Yes—I scribble in it and then go back and underline [she laughs]. I read in segments and make my notes. Then when I make that bond, that connection, I start to see it visually. That trigger is very important- It’s intuitive, and I see it all visually. Then I start to compare my notes with the director. And for me it was that “Too much memory makes a man weak.”

[she looks at copies of the sketches]

I come from Eastern Europe, so I love Kafka, and this play is so close to that. I could really understand—it’s like no man’s land—I could relate to it on different levels. [she looks at the photo cover for her sketches]

VZ: This is something else that’s important for me, finding the photo cover. For this, you don’t really know who’s laying there—are they alive or dead, are they resting, what? And with the boots, it connects to costumes but also to the world. Like Kafka: is it real, or is it a rotting room full of memories?

CB: For those of us who have never seen a costume sketch before: what are we looking at?

VZ: It’s a communication piece. It helps—and should help—distinguish character. Even on this page: [she indicates the first sketch, of Isaac Babel and Nikolai Yezhov in 1920]

VZ: You have two soldiers in the same uniform, but you can see how their personality, thoughts, experiences distinguish how they wear their clothes. For example this sketch: Isaac, he’s a writer, so I made him more free—his tie, his hat is less formal. In his carrier for his pistol, instead of a gun he’s got a pen. In a way he’s more relaxed—like the uniform would choke him and he doesn’t want to be tied up. For Steven [Yezhov] he’s more tied up. He’s more driven to power, ready to attack. And the belt—historically it’d be brown, but we decided to make it black, make it harsher. That’s what I mean about the intuition—this is your introduction to the characters and how you relate to them.

Like Kafka: is it real, or is it a rotting room full of memories?


[The next sketch, of old Nikolai in the ‘08s]: I based him on Tito. He was a leader, he died in the 80s—like a type of Catsro. Because I grew up looking at him on TV in former Yugoslavia, that image is carved in my brain. And when I read the play, I kept thinking, “I know this guy! Why do I know this guy?” And then I just woke up and realized, Tito! And I remembered his medals—and because Nikolai is 90, I wanted to make it more surreal, more exaggerated. Under the coat he’s wearing a union suit [she laughs], you know, old people pajamas? And those have the medals, because he doesn’t want to give up the power, the entitlement. I wanted to make it more heightened, more surreal.

[Yevgenia, young and old]: Blanka and I—we looked through so many dresses, so many choices, but for us both the feeling has to be right. So for her, something remote from this world, demure, intellectual. And also I wanted to soften her in relation to the stage; it’s all monochromatic, so I wanted to make her an accent in a pale red, but then when I rendered I gave her splashes of deep red, like blood, to give the audience a sense of what’s coming. Then in the script she’s so old. But there’s that human aspect and something mystical in how she predicts the future. I wanted to keep that link between old and young. So she’s got this feeling of dignity to her, but also very dark. She’s in an Eastern European house dress, always closed up, covered up, layered. She’s not opening up anymore. And then the hair—I want to make sure the audience knows it’s the same person, so her hair when she’s old has the same shape as when she’s young.

CB: What happens next with these sketches?

VZ: Once I figure it out, I do a lot of historical research, and when I understand the details and history, that’s when I start to deconstruct. Then Blanka and I talk, and I let her “This is how it should look historically, but this is how far away from that I think we can take it.” We try to find balance and respect for both worlds. And that’s when I do the sketches, when we decide on the concept. Then when they’re approved, I make technical sketches. For the ones that get built, I’ll make flats.  First we have a mockup fitting, then later fit them in the real fabric.

CB: You’ve worked with the Wilma HotHouse several times now. How does having that relationship with the company affect your work as a designer?

VZ: It feels like a home—actually, the Wilma really is my American home. I really love them all—I call them my muses. And it really does help me! I know their talents and I know them privately, and I try to keep in my what they like to wear in their lives—even in a period piece! I think it’s really important to feel at home in what they wear. They’re the ones up on stage for an hour, two hours, so my job as a designer, I need to make them comfortable and make them believe in what they’re wearing. That’s where knowing them helps. That for me is one of the most important parts of being a costume designer. It’s not just making these fabulous pieces, there are all these elements that need to support the show and the actors. That’s important for young designers to know—it all has to support and compliment.

CB: Can I ask—what’s a place in Describe where you did something for one of the actors?

VZ: So for Ross [who plays Isaac Babel], he’s got a very dreamy personality and is a very good comedian, so when I started conceiving, I thought about how Ross would wear the military uniform. Or in making Steven’s [Nikolai Yezhov] uniform, I went with a fabric from the period but that’s also a fabric Steven would like to wear.

CB: We just started rehearsals—how will the rehearsal process change or alter your designs?

VZ: So much! I love that part. I love the designer run. And the first reading is the most important part for me. I can see how they work, and it helps with details, to really tie it all together. And you start to really see—often talking with Blanka, we’ll talk about one thing, and we start several months early so you cannot predict every detail. So it helps to clarify and to complete the characters. And every time, I’m so excited I can’t sleep! That’s why you need to really love what you do—it’s such a joy, and I can’t wait to see what else I discover.

Want to see more? We’ve got exclusive looks backstage on our Instagram (including Vasi’s sketches!) and a Q&A with DESCRIBE THE NIGHT playwright Rajiv Joseph. Check back in for more behind-the-scenes looks coming soon!

An interview with DESCRIBE THE NIGHT playwright Rajiv Joseph

Describe the Night plays at the wilma THEATER FROM Jan 28-Feb. 16, 2020.

Playwright Rajiv Joseph

WILMA DRAMATURG WALTER BILDERBACK: Why do you think audiences should come to see Describe the Night? What do you hope audiences will take away from seeing it? What questions do you hope they ask themselves?

PLAYWRIGHT RAJIV JOSEPH: My main goal with any play is to entertain and to weave a dream-like story.  I want and hope audiences lose themselves in the tales of this play.  It’s not a history lesson, nor is it a political dissertation of any kind.  It’s a fairy tale, a collection of myths.  I do hope it’s thought provoking, and that people can talk about it, discuss it, and find aspects of the story that speak to them long after the curtain has gone down.

It’s a fairy tale, a collection of myths.
Playwright Rajiv Joseph

WALTER: What prompted you to write this play?

RAVIJ: About 15 years ago I bought a copy of Isaac Babel’s 1920 Diary, which survives in fragments, with large portions of it destroyed.  I was drawn to this work, and how one could see a creative mind beginning to flourish.  I wondered if there might be a play about Babel’s artistic process, and his experiences with the Red Cavalry in Poland.  But I didn’t pursue writing the play; it was on a backlist of ideas. 

In 2010 when an aircraft carrying a large swath of the Polish government crashed in Smolensk, Russia, I wondered if there was a way of connecting that event to the Polish-Russo War and Isaac Babel, but that seemed even more unwieldy for a play.  But when I was given the opportunity, through the NYU Graduate Acting Class, to develop a new work with the students there, I figured this might be the idea.  Through the research efforts of the students, and our collaborative process, I found the third story that fit in the middle:  That of a young, confused KGB agent in Dresden in the 1980’s, who could be Vladimir Putin. The three stories work as sort of gears, each pushing the others to make the play move.

Russian Writer and Journalist Isaac Babel

WALTER: The central characters of the play are all based on historical figures, but you’ve played around with the facts about their lives: how does this relate to the theme of truth and fiction in the play?

RAVIJ: All three story lines of Describe the Night address this question of what is true and what is not true, and the varying degrees of truth.

Seeing how Babel’s work bended reality towards his fiction was the first step for me in constructing the play like this, but that connected to the Smolensk crash and how, in all liklihood, the public will never know the actual truth of that crash.  (Some people think it was simply a tragic accident, others believe the crash was premeditated act of war… whether it is one or the other, the Russian government has done nothing to allay fears of conspiracy.  The remains of the plane remain in a bunker in Russia.  It is almost as if there is a desire, on the part of the Russian government, to foment confusion, suspicion and fear.)

Finally, in researching the way the Soviet government and the NKVD dealt with information, news, censorship, and the suppression of artistic voices, the very idea of “Truth” when it comes to Soviet history seems fragile at best. 

WALTER: The journalist Peter Pomerantsev, in his new book This is Not Propaganda writes of a “war against reality,” asking “what are the consequences in a world where the powerful are no longer afraid of facts?” Do you see a lineage from the ’30s to a “post-truth” world, or is this something new?

RAJIV: It’s not just a lineage from 1930’s Russia, I think history itself has always been suspect.  In every story, in every news report, in every history book the majority of the relevant information is, by necessity, left out.  Like Babel’s diary, we are only given fragments of the past through which we can attempt to discern a logic.  This is simply the nature of storytelling and memory.  But darker forces throughout history (continuing to the present day) have preyed upon the fragmented nature of information in order to control people and create fear and confusion.  Or as others might say, in order to keep the peace.

WALTER: The script has continued to evolve since its first production. We’ll be performing a version that has been rewritten this fall, partially as a result of conversations with Blanka Zizka. What have you learned from previous productions that inspired these changes? What has come from conversations with Blanka?

The wreckage from the Smolensk air disaster, which killed the Polish president.

RAJIV: I met Blanka at the production of Describe the Night at Woolly Mammoth last summer.  The Woolly production was the first one to divide the play into 2 acts instead of the original 3 acts.  I was interested in how this would change the play, for better or worse.  I thought it changed it for the better, but then, in seeing it, I wanted to continue to shape the play so it fit into this structure in a more pleasing way.  Blanka agreed with me and made several useful suggestions that I followed. 

I think the Wilma version of the play is the best one to date.  It’s hard to get a story right.  Especially this one.  I’m excited that I have this opportunity—with a theatre like Wilma and a director like Blanka—to finally bring Describe the Night into what it is supposed to become.

I think the Wilma version of the play is the best one to date.
Playwright Rajiv Joseph

WALTER: I know you did a lot of research while writing the play. For the historical characters, were there any “Aha! moments” in the research that inspired you? Things you discovered that really surprised you?

RAJIV: Too many to recount here!  The truth is always crazier than fiction.  When I discovered that Babel was close friends with Nikolai Yezhov—that a writer of subversive fiction could be friends with the head of Stalin’s secret police… and then have an affair with the man’s wife… that seemed almost too crazy to be true.  Likewise, the notion that the Smolensk aircraft crashed in the Katyn Forest in April of 2010.  Exactly 70 years earlier, the Soviet army was carrying out the Katyn massacre, in the same forest, in which 22,000 Poles were executed and buried in a mass grave.  Sometimes these details seemed too unbelievable to even fit into a play.  But they also made me believe that there was a deep connective tissue between all these events that my play could attempt to tease out.

Nikolai Yezhov (right) with Soviet leader Joseph Stalin (center)

Describe the Night plays at the wilma THEATER IN PHILADELPHIA FROM Jan 28-Feb. 16, 2020. BUY TICKETS