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.

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Interview with Kill Move Paradise playwright, James Ijames

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We asked HotHouse actor Lindsay Smiling to interview playwright James Ijames about Kill Move Paradise and being an artist in Philadelphia. Lindsay Smiling plays Isa in the Wilma Production of Kill Move Paradise and also acted in James Ijames’ play Moon Man Walk, which was produced by Orbiter 3 in 2015.

Lindsay Smiling: I remember meeting you when you first arrived in Philadelphia as you were about to start grad school at Temple University. Since then, you’ve made a huge impact on the Philadelphia theater community. What is it about Philadelphia that has resonated so much with you as a performer, director and playwright to make it your home?

James Ijames: I think when I finished grad school at Temple and started working in Philly, the city felt like this tremendous space of potential. Initially I wanted to stay here for a couple of years and then move on. But the city, the people have a way of making you grow roots. I started to find my artistic homes here at the Arden and the Wilma. I started to spread my wings and try other areas with the theater. I started directing, putting my writing out there and it was all embraced. I come from a pretty dope family but I’m far away from them. Philly offered me family. Early on with folks like Kimmika Williams Witherspoon and Ozzie Jones, people like Amy Dugas Brown and Matt Pfeiffer. Some of the closest friendships of my life with Justin Jain, Aime Kelly and Akeem Davis. I feel like when you have a family they become your audience. The people you make art for. I found that here and it has made my career and my life more full.

You recently wrote that “the Wilma has had a tremendous impact on my work as a playwright” and that your first full length play was written in the dressing room while you were in the Wilma’s production of Angels in America. How do you think your relationship with the Wilma has influenced your writing?

Yeah I wrote …Miz Martha! [The Most Spectacularly LamentableTrial of Miz Martha Washington, which had readings at PlayPenn and the Wilma, and was produced by Flashpoint Theatre]  You know. I think it has something to do with scale and practice. Everything I’ve ever seen at the Wilma whether I loved it or not has always felt both wild and precise. These sort of became my guiding principles as a writer. Be wild and precise. I think this was true long before Angels in America. There have been a lot of Wilma productions that come to mind when I’m writing. Scorched, The Clean House, In the Next Room, Jesus Hopped the A Train, Leaving, and many more. That production of Angels in America in particular was inspiring because Blanka created a whole world really out of blank white emptiness. That set! It was like the Wild West and it forced everyone in the cast to engage in these large performances. When I sit down to write I’m aiming for that level of scale. Huge. But I’m also tethered to the ground by the desire for the world I write to feel precise and to make sense. It doesn’t always have to make sense to everybody but the hope as I work is that it will connect and move people.

You’re very familiar with the Wilma HotHouse, and have been commissioned to write a play for us. How do you think the Wilma’s process do think will elevate Kill Move Paradise?

So the play is incredibly physically demanding. The characters are caught in a space that I’ve come to think of as like the bardo [in Tibetan Buddhism, a transitional or liminal space between death and rebirth]. This goes back to what I was saying about wild and precise. The HotHouse practice meets this kind of writing really beautifully because the play is open. Right? I think the play is more a gesture than an instruction manual. The HotHouse approach is playful and exploratory and then it irises down to something quite precise and I believe Kill Move Paradise will benefit from this.

One of the play’s epigraphs is a quote from Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude: “At what age is a black boy when he learns he’s scary?” The idea that my skin alone is something society fears certainly resonates with me as I’m sure it does with many people of color. Can you talk about how you are challenging the audience to confront this fear in Kill Move Paradise?

Woof. Okay. So this is going to be a very long answer so buckle up.

You remember that Samuel Jackson movie A Time To Kill. I think Sandra Bullock was it in it. Anyway at the center of the movie a young black girl is brutally beaten and raped by a group of Confederate flag wearing white men. They get acquitted. Sam Jackson shoots them in the lobby of the courthouse. The rest of the movie is about Sam Jackson’s trial. His lawyer is the “Alright alright alright” guy that does those car commercials. Skip to the end of the movie Mr. Alright Alright Alright is doing his closing argument. He describes in graphic detail what this young girl has gone through. And then at the end he says to the jurors. “Now…Imagine she’s white.”

Now. Even as a kid I was like “huh?” why is that necessary for compassion or empathy? Are only white people offered this piece of human kindness?

Fast forward to the beginning of the 21st century and black people are being killed left and right by vigilantes, by law enforcement who say things like “I was scared for my life” when talking about teenage boys. And that thought kept running through my mind, “Now…Imagine she’s white.”

Fast forward to me sitting down to write Kill Move Paradise and trying to create a space in which the humanity of the people on stage is undeniable. These characters embody all the ways in which we try to be human. They are jealous, they are kind, they maternal and paternal, they are pushed physically to the edge of something and then fall. You can’t deny their humanity. And they are all black. So the audience has to see them as they are. Imagining the white version of them is not an option.

At one point in Kill Move Paradise a list of names is read of Black men and women who were untimely killed. As we are coming up on beginning rehearsals, how has your relationship to this script changed, knowing there are many more names that could be added to that list?

I always say that I hope this play becomes obsolete one day. That’s like a crazy thing for a playwright to say. But I hope one day that people will say we don’t need to do this play anymore because we are different. We are better. And every time I think we have reached a point where maybe this play is obsolete. It’s suddenly not. And the violence with which that reality comes to me never ceases to take my breath. Even now as I write this I’m thinking about Nia Wilson. And I’m also anxious because I know, by the time this play opens and someone is sitting comfortably in those fabulous seats, perhaps sipping a glass of wine, that list will have grown. I’m anxious because by the time this play closes that list will have grown. I don’t say this to be cynical. I don’t say this to be pessimistic. I say it because, unless we really begin to look at why this is happening. Structurally, psychically. We will repeat it. I think it’s Mark Twain who said that history doesn’t repeat, but it rhymes. A repeat you know how to deal with cause you’ve seen it before. But rhyming just different enough to fool you into thinking it’s something new.

HotHouse Intensive: Reflection

Temple University Musical Theater BFA student José Raúl Mangual took part in a HotHouse Intensive this winter.  He documented the experience through daily reflections and photos to share as blog posts as we prepare for the Summer Intensive.

Application in Performance

I first allowed myself to “sit back” and observe whether I would notice any of the training from the HotHouse intensive arise in performance. I had already built an accessibility to the extremes of my vocal register over the course of the rehearsal process. But, post-intensive, I could not help further nuancing vocal placement by specifying its accompanying physical resonance in my body. Whether the changes made would resonate (comprehensively, not physically) with audience members was uncertain to me, but I am certain it more deeply colored my interactions with Mercutio’s world.

I felt more interior stirrings: stirrings to throttle Romeo, to massage him, to swipe at Benvolio, to smooth my clothing and therefore regain my appearance of composure, and on to increasingly higher degrees of specificity from the inside out. Instead of theorizing actions and obstacles and deliberation of tactics on a sheet of paper or in front of a computerscreen, I was came upon the answers to questions I’d sought before from simply interacting with my fellow actors and the world around me through my ever-malleable text, on my feet and in my body and voice, clothed in the newfound flexibility discovered in the HotHouse intensive.

I found that, in Mercutio’s pursuits and given his circumstances, my body frequented certain resonances. Frequenting these resonances resulted in more consistent colors of response to obstacles, which refined the types of responses accessible to me in Mercutio’s body, mind, and voice! Even if I made no “decisions” about who Mercutio “was”, a character would be created for me through my living in this new acting appendages – which had always been there, but had new levels of familiarity and thorough exercise.

Insistence: Live

After almost two years of struggling everyday with the same vice, I happily share that I have insisted beyond the point of everyday struggle to something less frequent than the majority of a week, with the frequency still decreasing. I believe the efficiency of my fight had something to do with the physical outlet of my insistence – even more specifically, its role in a community. I had physical evidence of the effect of fighting an urge and surrendering to something greater than myself. In the large scale-model, my community is simply this world and the role I intend to play in it. I carry the concept of insistence with me everyday and am continually excited by its multifaceted application.

Click here to read about José Raúl Mangual

Read the first HotHouse Intensive blog

HotHouse Intensive: A New Breath

Temple University Musical Theater BFA student José Raúl Mangual took part in a HotHouse Intensive this winter.  He documented the experience through daily reflections and photos that will be shared as blog posts as we prepare for the Summer Intensive.

HotHouse Intensive Day 6 (3/7/18)

I felt like today’s class was the first that I saw, without seeking, the parallels between exercises. (AKA: I feel familiar enough to explore the method in solitude now, as wished on Day 1 of Week 1!)

We saw how a new breath is a new idea through an exercise in which a two-person scene (from Passage, the Wilma’s recent world premiere) was read by two actors surrounded by a multitude of chairs, the seats facing inward. The nature of the exercise revealed just how employable punctuation and phrasing can be in the pursuit of an objective or, more generally, in the exchange of ideas with another actor. Often overlooked, the text of a theatrical work can be seen as a diverse, often character-specific terrain which informs what steps, leaps, halts, retractions, etc. we can make towards or away from what we want. If the punctuation/phrasing of the “terrain” is potholes, canyons, slopes, ice, etc., we learned in this exercise that breath often precedes, and arguably should always precede, an action: a skip across the pothole, a leap across the canyon, etc.

I have heard this concept of breath being a new idea before. It was noted in the beginning process of learning to speak Shakespeare, for example. The breath is a revving-up to drive the energy through to the end of the line, where it must, in addition to every word along the way, land with deliberate intention. I’ve seen the undeniable value of apportioning breath this way in my work on Romeo and Juliet as well as in Acting 3, (Temple’s Shakespeare-centric acting class) but the validity of this conceptual understanding of breath was proven to me in new fullness today. It was as if the breath is inhaling the information given to me and allowing it to chemically react with the inside of my body, progressing to exhale a new chemical, which is then inhaled by my partner, and thus a cycle is born.

HotHouse Intensive Day 7 (3/8/18)

Today’s class left me feeling confident in yesterday’s discovery. This work is full of information and freedom I have yet to find elsewhere. I am a thorough (the good side of slow [right?]) worker as it is, so having time in this expanse of exercises to breathe and introspect is enough to keep me entertained for a good, long while. I found that, if I relax and allow my body to breathe into the triangle, it will. I also found that my stress or withdrawal from the group and into myself can result in gripping the muscles in my lower back slightly, but enough that I cut off the opportunity for my breath to extend to my lower back and the perineum.

We also played with an exercise drawing from Cicely Berry’s methods, which was a glamorous wealth of experience and experimentation. Each member of the group acted like “ghosts”. We were voices inside the monologist’s mind, to me presenting an opportunity for each actor role, both monologist and ghosts, to be approaching the line being spoken from the received intention of the prior spoken line’s/words’/word’s intention. In the role of “ghost”, as I see it after today’s experimentation, every individual actor can “agree” or “disagree” with the perceived intention of the current line’s delivery.

To me, to “agree” is to:

  • Emphasize the monologist’s delivery of the approved word or phrase by bolstering* facets of it (such as an electric voiced s [z], the rhythm of a delivery, the received feeling of the word, others)
  • Say nothing (subtext being something of: this sounds good; keep going)

And to “disagree” is to:

  • Deliver the disagreed delivery in a way you see as preferable

HotHouse Intensive Day 8 (3/9/18)

Today’s exercises all left me feeling like we were a family of uninhibited children!

We returned to the exercise of resonating into our hands. This time, I was able to engage in such pure experimentation that I forgot I’d ever had trouble in my introduction to the exercise. The shifting of my shapes originated from my torso, initiated by the triangle from which our breath originates in the corporal sequence. Warping the positioning of my torso, specifically my diaphragm, opened me up to different sounds and, in tandem, different stirrings of emotion. In one position, I began to laugh as deeply as I used to in middle school, my eyes welling and my smile unbreakable. In another, I felt awareness spring up from my feet, as if I’d opened the door to the fight-or-flight response. I happened upon an especially fun asymmetry with my upper back hunched and my voice gurgling in a which created the image in my mind of myself as a sort of humanoid sea monster.

(José Raúl Mangual)

One exercise in particular felt totally free: we took turns being held by the rest of our ensemble, carried around in everyone else’s hands with our eyes closed, able to experience a unique form of play in which we were completely dependent upon the ensemble to control our corporal experience. There was a personally hilarious moment for myself when, floating above the floor (a given in this exercise) and spinning in a fetal-esque position, I could not shake the image in my mind’s eye of myself as a spinning cheesecurl, complete with flecks of flavoring dust. Some would call my experience nonsensical, but it only served to free my mind to experience a form of unbridled imagination I could not possibly hope to experience on my own two feet.

Read the first HotHouse Intensive blog

HotHouse Intensive: Meeting Myself

Temple University Musical Theater BFA student José Raúl Mangual took part in a HotHouse Intensive this winter. He documented the experience through daily reflections and photos that will be shared as blog posts as we prepare for the Summer Intensive.

HotHouse Intensive Day 5 (3/6/18)


Today’s corporal sequence felt like a (welcome) scale model of a “real”-world battle: a constant, inner battle between corporal and mental/goal-oriented desire.

Our breaths as an ensemble seem to strive to follow a consistent tempo regardless of the nature of the movement being executed. In a pedestrian scenario, some movements warrant quicker breath than others post-execution: generally, a person would agree that squatting until your butt touches the floor exerts more energy than moving your head 90° to the right. After the more exhausting segments in the sequence, of which I consistently have three, I find my breath to be shallower and faster than the tempo of the collective ensemble.

Today, I found myself enforcing Justin’s teaching that we must surrender to the ensemble in those moments…for all of a few breaths. I know how to alleviate the shallow breaths as they come: we make sure our eyes stay open in soft focus, we insist upon the collective tempo, inhale and exhale from the triangle, project our breath to the rest of the ensemble, collect energy from the earth, and more; but it seems my twenty years’ muscle memory prevents my brain from taking over my body and allowing the changes to come through.

(José Raúl Mangual)

I did implement the tactics to remain with the ensemble, and they did seem to be successful! Still, the unfamiliarity felt scary enough to somehow make quitting more attractive. In a way, it felt like one of those all-too-familiar moments of panic where the comfortable, familiar option is chosen over the foreign but measured one. The quote, “If you’re afraid to dive, then dive afraid.” (-Lisa Nichols) comes to mind.

In retrospect, I believe this is the “meeting oneself” which has previously been discussed by Justin. I am stunned by what I perceive as its parallel nature to what I do when I “meet myself” in my day-to-day life! In both instances, I know the result I wish to change; I know what it can do for me: the value of the desired result, and I know the nominal (titular) steps I need to take. However, when it comes down to total implementation, I consistently fall short: I have been engaged in an inner battle with my relationship to food. Some, myself included, would categorize my behaviors as symptomatic of dysmorphic or eating disorders, though I have never received an official diagnosis. I have wanted to make “the change” for over a year and a half, as my fight to repair my relationship to food has consumed much of my attention and energy

I know the steps I need (want) to take, the changes I want to make, to fluctuating levels of specificity:

  • Cut the junk food
  • Eat more greens
  • Exercise often (dance, run, gym)

And yet, when I’m at the fork in the road, I consistently choose the path I know to be dark and winding.

Today’s moments of shallow breath leave me with odd hope. If I have an improved understanding of the components of a “failure,” I theorize “success” is that much easier to bring about. I intend to use this theory in my daily battle with this vice and other vices which have lain dormant but quiet bubbling.

(José Raúl Mangual)

I had a similar experience in a ballet class last school year. When balancing at the barre, I would take so long finnicking with the minute placement of my foot, the activation of my muscles but the relaxation in my bones, and my center of gravity, and the ease of my fingers and the wing of my foot and the turnout in both legs and more, that I would not permit myself to take my hand off the barre and simply work on balancing when the time came. Once class, my ballet professor pointed this out to me. At risk of seeming hyperbolic, I say I heard truth twofold in her note.

I realized my muscular inefficiency was being practiced in my life, in my decision-making. In general, my attention had become hyperfixative on minutia, little imperfections I rightfully wanted to fix but capitalized to the point of their eclipsing the simultaneous truth that I was not at all far from the goals they were blocking.

At that time, I wanted to clean my room. My clothes were scattered throughout the room. I had books, papers, and writing utensils in places I’d never settled to read, write, or draw. When I would muster the energy to commit to cleaning my room, I would find thirty minutes had passed with me still organizing the same top surface of my dresser drawers I began those thirty minutes focusing on, unable to graduate to the next section of my room until everything reflected the ideal configuration in my mind’s eye. Yet, in the grand scheme of my room, the mess was comprised of no more than some clothing, books, papers, and writing utensils.

Read the first HotHouse Intensive blog