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.
Two Philly actors and a Russian director walk into a podcast room.
And they talk about the apocalypse!
This week, Kellie talks to Brett Ashley Robinson, Yury Urnov, and Ross Beschler about fire dances, Vermont communes, eating people, and more.
In Episode 1, “Hellfire and Bunker Fun,” host Kellie Mecleary interviews Wilma HotHouse Company member Campbell O’Hare, who plays Maria in Mr. Burns. They discuss Campbell’s fear of lava rivers and post-apocalyptic den-mother aspirations.
January 10th baby, it’s cold outside
People sometimes often ask me how I know when a play is done.
I ask Kenneth Koch. He wrote a poem about it (The Art of Poetry).
I swear by the first rule:
ask 1) Is it astonishing?
If you can answer that, you probably don’t need all the other questions, but they are good too.
7) Is there any unwanted awkwardness, cheap effects, asking illegitimately for attention,
Show-offiness, cuteness, pseudo-profundity, old hat checks,
Unassimilated dream fragments, or other “literary,” “kiss-me-I’m-poetical” junk?
Is my poem free of this? 8) Does it move smoothly and swiftly
From excitement to dream and then come flooding reason
With purity and soundness and joy? 9) Is this the kind of poem
I would envy in another if he could write? 10)
Would I be happy to go to Heaven with this pinned on to my
Angelic jacket as an entrance show? Oh, would I?
If you are thinking, don’t you have to sort through more analytical stuff about your play, too?
The answer is yes, but I only do a good job of it when I’m feeling like a poet.
Kinderhook Farm, NY.
“Are you here for the tour?” asks a man in overalls. “Yes, is the tour happening?” “It’s happening if you want it to happen,” he says, and walks off. Another woman walks up, and as it happens, she is the shepherdess. For most of the next two hours, there is no one on the tour except for my partner and me. It is blissfully useful. I learn about orphan sheep. She curls her finger into a tongue, to demonstrate the difference between how cows eat grass and how sheep chomp. I ask her bizarre questions and she recommends a movie.
10 am – 3pm. Observing the Hothouse. Yury Urnov is leading the room. They are doing relatively straightforward text analysis on a decidedly unstraightforward play about hacktivism. I think: hell yes hacktivism, hell yes, anarchy, hell yes, Wilma. The play, for me, does a brilliant job at highlighting the aggression behind internet humor and memes. It’s a window into disaffected emotional chaos when it is directionless, and how it gathers incredible force when it takes on targets. I think about what it says about me, that I am drawn to that playfully destabilizing energy. Rage is powerful. Collective rage even more so. Collective Rage is also the title of a play by Jen Silverman. In the elevator, people talk about that play.
I also think, f**k… The Internet Is Serious Business and Dionysus Was A Very Nice Man are similarly structured titles.
New York, NY. 6:30pm. I am at a fancy party. I found out a couple hours ago that I won an award. Now the award is being announced at the fancy party.
New York, NY. 8:30am. Heavy rain. I am getting drenched at this Megabus stop.
Philadelphia, PA. 11:30 am – 5:10pm. At an Academic Conference in a UPenn Library. It is called Timescales: Ecological Temporalities Across Disciplines. I wish they’d called it something more rocknroll, like Collective Academic Rage: Climate Change Is Beyond Real (If You’re Poor) I am there with Pig Iron, as a collaborator on their music-theater project, A Period of Animate Existence.
I find the conference comforting, especially on the heels of the presidential debates. Even though I’m looking at charts of catastrophe, I am relieved just to hear people define their terms and organize their discourse. I make a note to self, to read Dale Jamieson.
We are reminded, in concluding remarks from Paul Saint-Amour, to think of climate change as a condition, rather than a problem. Let’s take our time developing our thoughts, he urges, because this particular condition demands a deeper engagement than panic.
6 pm. Dinner with Walter. Walter has just come from leading a discussion about climate change at The Wilma. Talking with Walter is also comforting.
7:50 pm. Ten-minute nap in my audience seat.
8 pm. When The Rain Stops Falling, at the Wilma. It’s stunning. They’ve carved out a dark dreamspace. I feel the plot working on me, the slow ritual movements working on me.
8:50 am. I realize I am collecting a lot of memories at this Megabus stop.
New York, NY. 11:30 am. Wildlife sighting! It’s the elegant crested tinamou. Ok I’m lying, it was an author, I spotted an author: Rebecca Solnit. My primary hobby these days is reading essays by Rebecca Solnit. She ducks into a clothing store. I follow. I observe her over a stack of sweaters. Have I correctly identified her? I’m not sure. “Excuse me, are you Rebecca?” The condition of admiration also demands a deeper engagement than panic. But I stumble over the few words I can muster. How do you casually say to someone:
“Thank you! I know you don’t know who I am, but I think you’re one of the great thinkers of our age. I am blown away by the breadth and depth and style of your work, by your redefinition of non-fiction, by your bravery, by your honesty. You have gifted me a framework for thinking about activism and optimism that keeps me going. Your words have been a significant wedge for me against despair.”
I am overwhelmed. I say something like: “I’m Kate Tarker, I’m a playwright, I love your work, thank you… for your optimism, I’m sorry… I’m sorry… I’m sorry… I’m sorry.”
Total failure of speech. Who wrote me?
I buy two articles of clothing.
New York, NY.
Drinking coffee. Writing.
September 26, 2016 Writing from an airplane Clouds underneath me
Tone tone tone tone tone.
At the beginning of a script, you’re both making up the rules of the game and trying to play it. I find I have to hammer exactly the right words into place in the first ten to fifteen pages, if I want to lose myself in the process after that.
Sometimes that means I have to get really really quiet.
And listen to myself.
And listen to words.
And pull apart words. And listen carefully to nothing.
I’m almost there.
Found these little figurines at an antiques store just outside of Oxford, PA, during a weekend with my family. Felt such a visual, sensual thrill while browsing that store and its tchotchkes. I’m not typically one to connect deeply with antiquing – in most antique stores I’ve felt once removed, as if performing the enjoyment of browsing. As if walking through an advertisement of someone else’s good time. In this store, though, things got personal. They had light up Hess trucks, just like the ones my grandparents used to send me for Christmas. Beer steins, from the region of Germany I grew up in, made of glass and metal and painted inscriptions; drinking apparatuses to last a lifetime. There were train sets (a little pricey – alas)… one of them a freight car from the New Haven line, where I went to grad school. I slid the small door open. Closed. Open.
I thought: I want toys. Why don’t I have more toys? I am not a grown up. I am a writer. I want things to play with. My least favorite part of being a writer is the anti-sensuousness of laptops.
So I bought little people and a house and a cow and a sheep. Those are all the characters in my play.
They also had a miniature version of the 1964 Worlds Fair fountain in Queens. I broke my toe playing in that fountain. So I bought that too.
September 12, 2016
Every morning Gunter Grass kick-started his daily word ablutions with rolling on the ground. Arms extended, he would propel himself violently from side to side on his Persian carpet, yelling “huppah!” Early in his career, he also found Diet Coke to be an effective lozenge for his creative juices; later he preferred cookies with milk. Grass took great pains to never be distracted by the outside world when doing the difficult and dangerous work of writing. To this end, he would keep the blinds on his window drawn. Eventually, he took this six steps further, and blinded himself.
Susan Sontag held herself to an exacting writing routine. She would get up at 4.5 am, dance around to the Bangles in her Hello Kitty night shirt, get amped on several bowls of sugar cereal, do some acroyoga, and then sit quietly at her desk and get to it. She preferred no distractions. If a bird whistled outside, she would send her pitbull to eat it.
Hildegaard von Bingen was a self-professed flaneuse and carouser, who did her best to take the “writing” out of writing routine. She would begin her day by checking Facebook (sometimes upwards of several times a day), 5 a.m. dialing former flames who were in new relationships, and tweeting transcriptions of actual birdsong. She tried to honor a daily word goal of 25 words. Sometimes those were just Words With Friends. Between sex, drugs, drinking, and long walks in the woods, it’s a divine mystery how she got anything written ever.
I’m considering titling my play DIONYSUS WAS A VERY NICE MAN.
August 19, 2016
Bright Brooklyn sunshine, illuminating bare arms with flower tattoos on stylishly dressed freelance writer women
I am writing this play now. I started writing scenes a couple days ago and I forgot some things about how this tends to go at first. The writing so far (I can’t believe I’m telling you this) has the quaint but useless quality of twirling aimlessly in a field while hoping lightening will strike.
And don’t get me wrong, the lightening god sees what you’re doing. It is lying up there on a cloud, bored to the nines, waiting just waiting for some worthwhile mortal to light with bottomless curiosity about the great electric mystery. It sizes up your twirling. It thinks: meh? The lightening god is not going to summon all its power to bless the meh dancer.
You have to rise to meet it. You have to rev yourself up. You have to call yourself out on your shit when you are just half-writing at one-quarter strength.
You think writing a play is easy? No. You have to put all your attention, intelligence, and life force into it. And the only way to do that, I find, is by killing your censor.
I have the dumbest thoughts, most every day. Bla bla bla who are you to think you can do this bla bla bla other writers already exist bla bla bla you need a haircut bla bla Gunter Grass was a novelist and sculptor and illustrator and playwright and won the Nobel Prize what have you ever done?
To which I reply.
HEY, LIGHTENING GOD! HEY!
You wanna fight? Then get down here
With me In the ring
I will punch you in the nutsack if you try to talk to me like that I will teach you how to talk to a writer There are other snails, does that mean there should be no more snails? Oh, schoolboy logic, snap
I will school you on words, Jimmy You’re nothing without me
I made you
And I can call you Jimmy I’ve unmade bigger fish than you
I’ve unmade narwhals
And by the way Gunter Grass was in the Waffen SS when he was young AKA an elite Nazi And he didn’t admit it for 60 years
SO MAYBE SOMETIMES LESS IS MORE LIGHTENING GOD
BRING IT ON
IF YOU DARE
My journal often disintegrates into stuff like the above.
I find it tremendously useful and freeing. I need somewhere to be a lunatic.
I’d rather be unfettered than tentative.
Break down the self. The self is shallow, polite, and masking deep hostility and fear and inappropriate aggression and confusion and desire and longing and hope.
When you write, you go deeper in the water.
August 5, 2016 afternoon
Watching the clouds. There’s a tuft of a puffy one that is separating, like a bit of thin, still-cooking egg white. The clouds give off an air of stillness except for this.
Saw a hummingbird this morning. Fireflies last night. The air is warm. It carries the choir of living things, which includes the yells of victorious corn hole players. The stars are brighter here than most places.
I often listen to music when I write, but these sounds are better.
I wish I was writing this week – this is a great place to write, this farm I’m at with my writer’s group. But I didn’t meet my research goals last week at the O’Neill. Some of the books couldn’t get there in time. This is also a great place to read, of course, and to stare at sheep.
I got to chat with Alan, who looks after them. These sheep don’t earn their keep. No birthing, no shearing, no hay rolling, no bringing the lambs to the slaughter. They’re more like pets. Alan talks at length with very little questioning, because he loves his subject. I lean against the fence and enjoy the sound of his voice. Three of the sheep are curious and venture closer, the rest are skittish. Later, I watched YouTube videos of more sheep, faraway sheep in Northern England, very well groomed and attractive sheep on attractive hills divided by attractive stone walls. What do I need to figure out before I write like my inner life depends on it? I think, just this: What season is my setting?
Oh no. It’s raining. Big unexpected drops.
I made a little tent for my laptop and me, out of my sweater. Let’s see how long this lasts.
I for a little while had a fantasy of being a completely seasonal writer, who writes things set in spring only during spring, etc. Maybe when I’m old and become Wendell Berry. Can playwrights become Wendell Berry? The calm of a naturalist’s mind is so different from the playwright’s, which is engaged in the design of conflict bombs. Skill as a dramatist is in large part just the skill of dragging any situation from good to worst.
Farmland: such interesting space, in between humans and wilderness. It’s the pastoral vase onto which we paint our dreams of leisure and self-sufficiency. It is also where I am pondering immortality, alcoholism, home, and the eternal philosophical / psychological problem of desire.
Ok, it is really raining now. The clouds cracked open. I tried hiding under a small wooden table but no dice.
I’m not sure any of these blog posts should be about anything more than being alive.
July 7, 2016
I’m in Connecticut, in residence at the O’Neill National Playwrights Conference this month. This means several things. I am enveloped in a thick fog. Every morning I wake up and can smell the ocean. And: The totality of my energy is going toward working on my plays.
How much actual writing should you be doing as a playwright? Here are two wisdoms I’ve been handed down. From Sarah Ruhl: Write a play a year. From Paula Vogel: Work on two plays at a time. Have one in an early stage and the other in a late stage, so you’re using different muscles.
I have found these to be helpful cairns in my life. I’d like to offer a third wisdom, hard won.
Q: How much research should you be doing as a playwright?
A: Only as much as you schedule.
Guilt free research comes from setting aside time for it, and then honoring the time limits you’ve set. Don’t let research deceive you. Here are its lies: “I just want to help.” “You just need to read one more book.” Research has the ability to shapeshift at will into a black hole. So decide in advance how much time you will give it. I am setting aside some time this month for Wilma Commission reading. For me this means: A full week where I dig my heels into the sand and make reading my first priority. I may read one book per week in the weeks beyond that.
I asked the Literary Office at the O’Neill to find me a heaping list of books from the local libraries. I’ll only share the titles I’m most excited about with you:
Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics by Mikhail Bakhtin
The Shepherd’s Life: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape by James Rebanks
The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson
Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy by Barbara Ehrenreich
Henry IV 1 and 2, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Henry V by William Shakespeare
Dry: A Memoir by Augusten Burroughs
The Scapegoat by Rene Girard
Grief Lessons: Four Plays by Euripides and Anne Carson
Do you now know exactly what I’m making?
I also need to schedule a visit to a sheep farm in August.