The Actors on Their Biggest Anxieties, Best Moments, and Steepest Learning Curves
Testimonials from the Company
As Tim Vasen confessed, the “task at hand” was intimidating, a challenge of more than extra-curricular proportions. To increase the chances of its success, Princeton sponsored seven academic courses in connection with the BG project.
In Fall 2006, a graduate design seminar in the School of Architecture generated the set. In Spring 2007, a half-dozen of those students enrolled in a follow-up course to design and build the props and computer projections. Beginning in February there were full-credit courses in Theater and Dance (for the company), an undergraduate background seminar offered in English through Comparative Literature, and a graduate seminar in Russian through the Slavic Department, both of which covered the Time of Troubles, Pushkin as dramatist, Meyerhold and the modernist stage, Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible films (as model for the politics and staging of Boris, and also as receptacle for some of the orphaned music). Other Russian Boris Godunovs were sampled, in opera, screenplay, and film. In March a six-week on-line Alumni Studies course was launched to educate spectators, with a special invitation to the family members of the one-hundred-plus student actors, musicians, dancers, designers, and directors involved in the project.
The statements below are excerpted from testimonials that the acting company (six women, seven men) wrote as part of their course requirements for THR 329: “The Boris Godunov Project.” (Figure 6. Cast photo) Most begin with anxiety and end in exhaustion, with moments of triumph experienced along the way. These reflections constitute, in my view, the meat of this forum: what it meant for these undergraduates—none of them Russian majors, and most without a single prior course in the field—to embody Pushkin’s characters on stage, step by step, scene by scene, taking clues from the playwright, from Meyerhold, from the director, from the elastic set, and from one another. In the mid-1820s, Pushkin had indulged in a little fantasizing over who might play his leading lady—but he could not have contemplated this.
The selections are grouped under five rubrics: Applying Meyerhold to Pushkin; Non-traditional Casting; Getting Muscles under Control; Getting Bungees under Control; Getting a Hallucination under Control (Case Studies: Evil Monk and Slaughtered Tsarevich). A closing coda comments on Prokofiev’s music.
Applying Meyerhold to Pushkin
1. SAM ZETUMER,class of’09 [Prince Shuisky, Father Varlaam, company], major in Mathematics
According to Meyerhold, the actors, knowing the tone of each scene, then direct their own scene. As long as the actors preserve the intention of the author as conceived by the director, they have a generous amount of freedom as far as the staging is concerned. This Meyerholdian idea affected me in many ways. First, I felt more comfortable providing suggestions and soliciting advice from people other than the director. Second, I felt freer to add to the tone of a scene. For example, I enjoyed adding a sort of playful rapport with the audience during scene 11 (“The Tsar’s Palace”) when I entered on Tsar Boris’s lines: “And Shuisky too I cannot fully trust — / He’s slippery, but courageous, shrewd…” In my reply, “So he didn’t know” (concerning Boris’s knowledge of the pretender), I nodded and winked as I exited, along with the hint of a smile. These gestures and inflections allowed Sam the actor to communicate to the audience about the character, revealing Shuisky’s thoughts to the viewer while withholding them from Boris.
I was amazed by the degree to which Soviet ideals permeated Meyerhold’s conception of movement in theater. He describes the actor as a craftsman and a scientist, who has calibrated his movement in pursuit of energy, efficiency, and crispness. This is theater of the precision and clarity found in the idealized Soviet factory. It is not an art of moods. I was somewhat disappointed, however, by the degree to which I felt Meyerhold utilized physical stereotypes. For example, in his treatise The Set Roles of the Actor’s Art, Meyerhold divides up major theatrical character tropes into twenty-one categories that are distinguished by the actor’s appearance. While I do acknowledge that people prejudge those with smaller eyes as more mischievous and those who are taller as more heroic, to make these prejudices the basis of the distinction between one character and another seemed to me superficial. I was expecting “movement styles” to distinguish one character type from another. Perhaps Meyerhold believed that an actor’s native gifts for movement were tied to the fixed shape of the body, which determined the plasticity of the actor and the communicability of his message. If so, this prejudice is not unfounded.
With such definitions of plasticity and biomechanics, I tailored my character development to the historical facts and content of Boris Godunov. The characters I have acted in the past usually have conflicting emotions. But Boris Godunov is a historical drama, one unknown to most Americans. Thus my characters needed simple, readable emotions. Also, characters would often compose larger images: crowds, mobs, drunken boyars. It would be distracting if each had a different personality projecting its own internal conflict; the audience would not see a crowd. I wanted the audience to know exactly what my character’s intentions were the moment I stepped on stage. These considerations (that the character development and method must be tailored to the work at hand) further relaxed my methodology. I was less dogmatic about knowing the precise objective or the meaning of a certain hand gesture. Sometimes the objective was not important for the clarity of my characters. Sometimes all I needed to do was twirl my staff around, crouch really low, and people would understand that Shuisky is a creepy, calculating, self-centered prince.
Examining one particular gesture might clarify what is meant by “tailoring the method for the content.” In scene 4 (“Palace in the Kremlin”), Shuisky denies Vorotynsky’s accusations that he has been plotting against Boris:
This is no time for reminiscing,
I would advise you rather to forget.
The fact is: I was testing you, my friend,
The better to discern your secret thoughts;
Here come the people, though, to greet their tsar.
My absence might be noted and remarked on;
I’ll follow them.
These actions were accompanied by hitting Vorotynsky’s hand away, two steps forward, cupping the back of his (her) head with my hand, and turning my other hand into a needle aimed at Vorotynsky's head. The immediate objection was to “boil the information out of Vorotynsky’s brain,” a goal which I think the hand-needle accomplished quite nicely. But boiling the information out of his head does not really fit Shuisky’s grand objectives. Being aggressive with his actions will not force Vorotynsky’s obedience. Showing this much strength at a crucial political moment reveals too much of Shuisky’s power. The real Shuisky, or even a Shuisky using the Stanislavsky method, would not act this way.
Still, being this aggressive and metaphorical with one’s gestures does communicate a great deal beyond Shuisky’s immediate objectives. The fact that Shuisky does not like to be touched, but feels within his rights touching another person, shows his self-entitlement. By cupping Vorotynsky’s neck, Shuisky controls one of the most vulnerable places on his body. It gives him power not only over Vorotynsky’s movements, but also over his body, and (with the needle) his mind. Shuisky, at that moment, owns Vorotynsky. It is a very powerful image that embodies the Meyerholdian Shuisky, but not necessarily the real Shuisky.
The needle-hand also forces the audience to use its imagination. Meyerhold strove to do precisely this. He believed that theater should entrance the audience, but that viewers should also be active: “We intend the audience not merely to observe, but to participate in a corporate creative act.” A highly symbolic action gains force from being unrealistic, but still makes sense to an attentive audience. (Figure 7. Scene 1, “Palace in the Kremlin,” Princes Shuisky and Vorotynsky)
2. ROGER QUINCY MASON,class of’08 [Pimen, Blind Old Man, Mniszech, Ksenia’s Nurse, company], major in English, certificates in Theater and Dance, African-American Studies
Pushkin’s identity as a black man navigating through nineteenth-century Russia was the impetus for my interpretation of the characters I portrayed. I grew to identify with the dissonant, cynical voice of Pushkin, interpreter of history and politics, as filtered through the characters he created for the stage. Pushkin’s life and work exist in a realm of dualities: the paradox of his identity as a Russian cultural hero and as a racial other; his biraciality as a child of a Russian nobleman on his father’s side and African nobility on his mother’s side; and his aesthetic as a writer who is both favored by the Russian court but in Boris Godunov who speaks against the tyranny of the court on behalf of the welfare of the people.
Of all the characters I portrayed, I consider Pimen to be the most vehement example of Pushkin’s Africanism in the world of Boris Godunov. Pimen is an authoritative historian, a chronicler of Russian courtly intrigue, who realizes his power as an interpreter of history and desires to set history right through his chronicle. I remember the excitement I felt when rehearsing the monologue about the reigns of Ivan the Terrible and his son, Feodor. In an act of Africanist subversion, Pushkin seemed to situate the monologue in the middle of the scene as a celebration of a golden era of tsardom long since past in Russia. But then I began to listen to what I was saying more closely. Ivan emerged as a tyrannical ruler who, on his deathbed, appealed to the church for forgiveness. However, his religiosity was not genuine. […] By accusing Ivan of dishonesty and a cruel manipulation of the church for his political advantage, Pushkin packages this description in celebratory language, and litters the speech with historical irony. (Figure 4. Scene 5, Pimen’s monologue)
3. KELECHI EZIE, class of‘08 [Tavern Hostess, Basmanov, company], major in History, certificate in Theater and Dance
One of the major challenges of Boris Godunov was playing a male character. Not only was I to play a man, I was to play Basmanov, general of the tsar’s army.[…] Trying to approximate my voice to a male register or to look even remotely masculine in my army jackets was futile. These superficial attempts to reach a self-imposed image of masculinity did not bring me any closer to a true embodiment of the character. Although I did focus on engaging my diaphragm and accessing my own low register, I eventually abandoned the idea that I needed to register on the audience as a man.
Strength and power are not masculine characteristics. Neither is weakness, fear, or vulnerability. Emotions are not gendered. It is not our gender that makes us who we are, it is the choices we make and how we react in times of extreme pressure. Armed with this realization, I decided to devote my energies to conveying the emotions and the conflict that Basmanov faced. Within the space of three scenes, Basmanov must move from the trusted commander of the Godunov dynasty to a traitor. If I could accomplish this transition, then the gender of the character would be a tertiary consideration.
I believe this approach to gender inversion worked, because Boris Godunov functions simultaneously as a piece of historical writing and as an allegory for any time of change. Each character was either derived from, or reminiscent of, an actual historical figure, the memories of which resonated strongly with members of a Russian audience. American audience members unfamiliar with the story of Tsar Boris and the Pretender were just as easily transported into the world of the play, because pain, fear, loyalty, and betrayal are states accessible to us all, in some form. (Figure 8. Scene 23, “Field Headquarters,” Basmanov)
4. NADIA TALEL, class of ’10 [Patriarch, Rozhnov, company], major in Slavic
When Russian news reporters came to see a dress rehearsal of Boris Godunov, one of them asked me what it was like for me as a young woman to play the Patriarch. What acting techniques did I use? What tricks did I use to get into character? The role of the Patriarch was certainly the most challenging part I had ever played. And the fact that I was playing not only a man but also the highest spiritual authority in Russian culture made me nervous and presented me with unique challenges when seeking to speak the truth as this character. Over the course of my research on the role of the Patriarch in Russian society, our rehearsals, and our table-work, which analyzed every word of Pushkin’s, I came to a number of important realizations as to how I should approach this role.
As I examined the Patriarch, I impatiently kept asking myself: “I sort of understand how I can play a young male soldier [in the battle scenes], but how is it even possible for me to play the Patriarch: a character who is so entirely a male Russian cultural and religious symbol?” Yet I came to realize that the Patriarch is a mixture of masculinity and femininity, distanced authority and matter-of-fact practicality. Moreover, precisely because the Patriarch is a Russian cultural icon, he is beyond the realm of male or female, or even of secular-sacred.
Pushkin hints at the double-sided nature of the Patriarch throughout the play. In scene 7 (“The Patriarch’s Palace”), in which the Patriarch is interrogating the Father Superior, we sense a different, more frightening side of the Patriarch. By casting scene 7 in prose, Pushkin indicates that the Patriarch should deliver his lines in a fashion that is more unofficial and off-the-record. Indeed, the Patriarch does not strike us as a “religious” character in scene 7. He lashes out at the Father Superior and speaks in a very secular fashion, saying things like “Damn!” and “I’ve had it!” and repeatedly loses his temper as he mocks the Pretender: “I shall be tsar in Moscow!” When the Patriarch says “An instrument of Satan!” he comes close to embodying Satan himself in all of the grotesqueness he exhibits in that scene.
Conversely, Pushkin writes the Patriarch’s next scene, scene 17 (“The Tsar’s Council”), in verse, indicating that the Patriarch has resumed his official position. When the Patriarch begins to advise the council in this scene, he begins by saying, “May the almighty bless us…,” thereby resuming his “angelic” nature. However, during the second half of the Patriarch’s speech, beginning with “A cursed unfrocked monk, son of the devil,” the Patriarch’s grotesque nature comes back into play, only in a slightly more official manner. It is interesting that Pushkin separates his text here into prose paragraphs, indicating a shift in intention or attitude. I noticed throughout the course of rehearsals that my voice would shift between saying my lines in a very high pitch and in a very low pitch. I felt that these changes in intonation were in harmony with the Patriarch’s double-sided nature of 1) a more official, holy, distanced character and 2) a more unofficial, unholy, grotesquely political character. The Patriarch represents both the religious and the secular, the angel and the devil. He originates in a strange, mystical realm and is therefore neither male nor female. I played with all these concepts when seeking to become the Patriarch. (Figure 9. Scene 22, Patriarch blesses the dying Boris)
Getting Muscles under Control
5. ANDY BROWN, class of’07 [Boris Godunov, company], major in Computer Science, certificate in Theater and Dance
The tablework for this show was excellent, but I find that researching a role by reading does very little for me. It’s partly the way that I learn, but there’s also some kind of gap that prevents information that one reads from settling into one’s body. In our background lectures, we discussed the concept of a boyar, “a Russian noble,” etc., and my immediate reaction was always to seek the details that stood out for me, which I could grab and use to inform my performance. “Boris was elected from a bunch of equals… His bloodline was partly from Asia… The boyars were not used to being subordinate … it was Tsar Ivan the Terrible who forcefully took their power away.” All of a sudden the coronation scene meant something much more than “We have a tsar!” It was our first opportunity to show the tension between boyar and Boris. Finding the nervous energy to play the first king in a new line was not so difficult. As the “replacement” Boris [the first casting choice, also a senior, had withdrawn from the show because of senior thesis pressures], I felt obliged every day to prove (mostly to myself) that I could do the role, and I felt the nervous energy of responsibility that drives me whenever I am the leader of a group.
I also appreciated that the first day, after the necessary introductions and the explanation of the set and costumes (both very exciting—and the set especially was the big reason behind abandoning my instinct to drop the show), I appreciated immensely the fact that we were up on our feet right away. The walking drill, where you walk around the room and try out different things, has always been a favorite of mine. It’s also a great way to make eye contact with everyone in the room. But I also simply love to move. I’ve always been a dense person; even before I filled out, I was skin and really dense bones. I love the water because I feel weightless, and when I’m walking, if I’m not being lazy and engage my muscles, then I can feel weightless on land. It’s just rare that I remember to put that kind of energy into my posture and movements outside of the studio/stage/etc. But I certainly felt it that first day. I glided into the open spaces in the room. I moved in harmony with the water in my cup as I jumped over the cane [one of the choreographer’s routine body-motion exercises]. Efficiency of movement does not mean bounded movement, however. It does not mean rigidly cutting out everything extraneous and then forcing your body to comply. Efficiency of movement is much more of a Zen concept. It means minimizing energy, as in, for example, the way one programs an animation: you know the figure’s starting pose and create a series of checkpoints towards an ending pose, then you perform calculations at each frame in between to minimize the energy between checkpoints. In the real body, this translates to knowing exactly what muscles to engage and fully engaging them, but also trusting your control of these muscles and not trying to put bounds or limits on their movement or on the physical manifestation of your idea. This concept mirrors all of acting for me.
6. MAX STALLER, class of ’08 [Father Superior, Semyon Godunov, Father Czernikowski, Captain Margeret, company], major in Molecular Biology
I stand on the stage forty minutes before curtain, staring at the empty house while the crew blasts rock music and collects the bungees for the opening of the act. I exhale, raise my right hand to the side, look at it, begin to rotate it: first only fingers and wrist, then adding the forearm, the elbow, then the shoulder, finally the scapula and the back. The twisting begins in the little finger, wrenching my entire arm until I am staring at the ceiling; then the thumb leads my body through the reciprocal twist and I am looking at the floor. Now the hand decides it is time to explore; I watch it as it descends through my front space, rises over the shoulder, falls deep into my back space, before circling around again. Each cycle accelerates as the hand probes deeper into the fore and aft regions of space. The movement now comes from the hips, focused through the hand. The rest of the world begins to blur, but the hand remains sharp. And then, when the dizziness becomes blinding, just as the hand begins to fly away, I let go, let the momentum dissolve to stasis. I close my eyes until I can tell which way is down, until the prickling and tingling in my right arm has given way to alertness and readiness. I look left, raise the second arm and begin again.
Meyerhold wrote that “for a moment of synthesis, you must pay weeks of analysis.” Rebecca Lazier [the choreographer] started movement exercises with us during the first class, but it was the matinee of closing day when the first exercise alone could transcend me to that other place. Rebecca told us to think of the pelvis as the origin of all movements, taught us how to keep our pelvis directly below our upper bodies as we moved so that we might go from a sprint to a stop in one step. She taught us how to push each other from the pelvis, to resist force from the most stable position. While holding a cup of water, she had us jump and land without spilling. That first day I skidded to a halt and spilt a lot of water, but I knew that The Boris Godunov Project was going to be different from anything I had done. I knew I would learn something. But I did not yet know how much I would love the process. Warming up alone before the Saturday matinee crystallized the previous nine weeks of learning to use my body.
The first time I began to understand these ideas was while working with Tim on the role of the Father Superior in scene 7. We built this character from the outside in, starting with his bent shape and shuffling. After that it was so easy! I did not need to feel the character’s emotional distress; assuming his bent shape brought so much physical distress that the supplication and fear of the Patriarch followed easily. All that matters is what the audience sees, how the character looks, so sometimes all we need to do is “assume the position” and the emotion reads. Reflecting back, the Father Superior was the breakthrough. To be able to access this universe of physical theater, I had to develop a new relationship with my body. Rebecca had us explore three pairs of opposites: lightness and strength, wideness and narrowness, sustain and quickness. We would embody each idea individually using our movements, posture, and focus until eventually we practiced all possible combinations. The warm-ups forced new combinations of movements that I had never thought to explore, but once I had tried them, they entered the physical vocabulary I used on stage.
Physicality quickly became the best tool I had to distinguish characters. Semyon Godunov and Father Czernikowski each embody the most oppressive aspects of their respective societies. Semyon Godunov headed the Russian secret police, and historians consider him to have been the most hated man in Russia at the dawn of the seventeenth century. To a Russian audience, Czernikowski represents all the ugliest parts of Jesuit activities: he killed, undermined governments, and manipulated wars to spread Catholicism. While both these men carry out essentially the same task of destabilizing the enemies of their two regimes, they did so in very different ways, reflected in the style and content of their text. Semyon Godunov speaks openly of arrest, spying, and interrogation, consistent with the very visible role of the secret police in Russian society. In contrast, Czernikowski speaks about deceit and concealment, mirroring the secretive techniques of the Jesuits; he is not the face of evil, merely the shadow behind it.
Semyon Godunov stood up straight and stiff, very proud and open about his work, while Czernikowski was bent and glided around the stage indirectly. Czernikowski’s bungee lean added a serpentine image of Jesuit coils around the Pretender. Both characters spend an extended time hovering on the edges of the scene, but Czernikowski takes a very indirect path to his post and stays partially concealed, while Semyon Godunov stands at attention in full view. In Poland, at least in Pushkin’s view, spying was more discrete.
In Boris Godunov, I put seven distinct costume layers over my company uniform, the cast record. What really surprised me was how each costume limited my physicality in a different way. At first I thought this limitation was a disaster, but then I realized that the way a costume limited my movement could help me. It focused my physical creativity in a specific direction, allowing me to go further down that path. The best example was the boyar robes, where the flowing material swallowed small gestures. For scene 17, “The Tsar’s Council,” during the story of the blind shepherd, Becca [First Boyar] and I had to develop an arsenal of gestures and postures to complement the boyar robes and read to the audience. The two boyars hardly speak, but their physical reactions give the audience a window into their thoughts. We had practiced using robes with large sleeves, which turned arm gestures into broad waves of fabric. The final costumes lacked sleeves, however, killing the broad arm sweeps, but suddenly, the angle of the elbow could be seen and this angle became a new method of expression. While playing a dozen distinct characters, costumes played a vital role in aiding the physical development of each character in a unique direction.[…]
The example of the servant in Shuisky’s house illustrates the balance between a realistic backstory for a character and the stylized way this story must sometimes be conveyed to the audience. As I imagine him, the servant was a man whose body, after a lifetime of standing rigidly straight, rebelled until his shoulders rounded forward, the left hanging slightly lower than the right. His spying is motivated more by the prospect of financial gain than out of any malicious disloyalty to his master; he realizes Shuisky will not reveal incriminating information in front of a servant, but trifling details are handsomely rewarded. He covers his eavesdropping by polishing a candlestick for the third time; when noticed, he leaves at his normal slow pace. In part because he does not speak and in part because he appears so fleetingly, the stage representation of this servant became a caricature. The audience saw an old man bent forty-five degrees, holding his arms behind him for balance, nodding zealously at every mention of the Tsar in the Boy’s prayer. At the prospect of interesting news, he leaned in to listen until he was nearly falling over. When caught, he melted under his master’s gaze before scampering away. There was a host of possibilities, and the ones I chose were intended to be a bit more comical, but the extremity of the choice was necessary to tell a rich story quickly. While spying is a recurring theme in the play, this is the only instance where the audience witnesses the act. The physical intensity of the lean was necessary to draw attention to the eavesdropping, motivating the next line: “What are you gaping at? Eavesdrop on your masters, that’s all you’d ever do if you could” (scene 10).
7. PETER SCHRAM, class of ’09 [Kurbsky, Guard, company], major in Politics, certificate in Theater and Dance
I had seen a few examples of Meyerholdian theater, understood his concepts, and I was engaging in exercises to put my body in the correct place. But I didn’t fully understand how the ideas would be translated into an acting style. For me, the breakthrough arrived early on when we were able to see pictures of the Meyerhold rehearsal processes during one of our dramaturgy sessions. The pictures were just snapshots of the acting process, and yet they seemed carefully designed, with perfect body placement, facial expressions and costumes, as if they were models put into place by a photographer. As someone who has seen his share of mediocre theater photographs, these were remarkable and reminded me of the last place that I had seen photos taken of a performance that looked that good: photos of Charlie Chaplin acting in his movies. Remembering that, my understanding of embodied theater became more complete; I could see what was done in Chaplin’s movies and do it onstage. For my role as Guard, I stole movements heavily from the depictions of men trying to oppress “the Tramp,” like the murderer in The Gold Rush and a foreman in Modern Times. For my other parts, I borrowed from the elderly as depicted in Chaplin’s works, and when I was part of a crowd I drew on Chaplin’s factory workers.
Getting the Bungees under Control
8. LILY COWLES, class of ’09 [Maryna Mniszech, Holy Fool, company], major in Religion
My two major roles, Maryna and the Holy Fool, were complicated to create. Ever calculating, Maryna is a scheming little devil who knows what she wants and how to get it. The main difficulty I faced playing her was that I could not reconcile Meyerholdian, over-the-top expressionism and her very understated, sneaky personality. I was worried that any large physical movement could potentially jeopardize her as a serious, real character. (Figure 10. Scene 15, Maryna and the Pretender)
The bungees on stage both helped and hindered me. At last, after spring break, we were able to get up on the Berlind stage. I remember walking in for the first time—it was both haunting and incredibly beautiful. What followed was an extremely frightening and stressful week for all of us. We played with them a lot—that was the idea for the first week or so, to interact with the bungees and see what we could make of them as entities in our new physical lives. To be honest, my experience with the bungees was largely negative during those first few days. I realized quickly how loud they were—screeching across the metal tracks as they were pulled aimlessly in this direction or that. Sitting up in the back few rows and looking down on the actors on stage, I remember having a sudden feeling of panic that no one in the audience would even be able to hear the words.
9. ADAM ZIVKOVIC, class of’10 [Grigory Otrepiev, later Dmitry the Pretender], major in Religion
I have been getting up on stage since I was five years old. Whether it was to play a short piano tune, deliver a small speech, or enter without even saying a word, the stage has always been my playground. Never in my wildest dreams did I expect for my normal playground to quadruple in size, be overrun with floor to ceiling bungee cords, or to be as crowded as a can of sardines as a full-fledged orchestra, acting company and dance troupe try to share the stage. My playground companionship had never been made up of such enthusiastic and energetic actors, nor had my soliloquies been complemented by such full, luscious and heightening music.[…]
One theme in Boris Godunov was particularly central to my character: the continual breaking of barriers. Expectations changed with every rehearsal. Having more experience in small theaters, taking on the role of Grigory Otrepiev in a sea of medical tubing, bright-colored wigs, long-legged dancers, long-winded singers, and long-bowed musicians and archers was exhilarating. I remember walking out onto the Berlind stage for the first time, becoming entangled with almost two hundred pieces of tubing. But that barrier would soon be broken down for me. I began to envision ways to use them to heighten whatever emotion I was portraying. Again and again, however, I found myself lost among the jungle gym of physical theater. The bungee cords became a metaphor for the entire production for me.
10. PHILICIA SAUNDERS, class of’10 [Prince Vorotynsky, Rózia, the boyar Khrushchov, company], major in East Asian Studies
The bungee cords could represent anything the actor or an audience member wanted them to be. Throughout the play, actors are seen falling, tripping, and tumbling into bungee cords. More than anything, they are a force field. Sorry to sound like Star Wars, but that’s what it feels like. In reality, bungee cords do not exist. However, in this production they seem to be all around us. They are omnipresent. One might wonder, do the actors see them or not? They certainly do touch them and utilize them to heighten a moment, but it’s complicated. These stretchy materials can extend almost 10 times their length. At least when rehearsal is out and actors have time to rest, they could take a “bungee ride” to release the pressure and stress along with the added tension in the cords. (Figure 11. Testing out the bungees)
Getting a Hallucination under Control (Case Studies: Evil Monk and Slaughtered Tsarevich)
11. BECCA FORESMAN, class of’10 [Shchelkalov, The Evil Monk, the Boy, company], major in French
[Editorial note: The company knew that Pushkin had deleted scene 6, “By the Monastery Wall,” from his published version and that Meyerhold planned to restore it as Grigory’s dream on the road. In 1936, the director had specified a “shaking décor,” a steady pulse pattern in the background (Vladimir Pyast´ had been brought in as metric consultant), and an exaggerated, proto-Expressionist speaking style. Since Prokofiev did not provide any musical numbers, the Princeton composer Peter Westergaard produced music for the scene, as well as a fine English translation in strictly pulsed trochaic octometer. On the Berlind stage, the transition from Pimen’s cell to this dream sequence was marked by a monks’ chant in the wings, a flash of laser-white light, a shuddering of bungees, and the immediate start-up of Grigory’s loud, irritated, sing-song incantation as he paced the white-on-white stage:
What a wretched life we lead here! Wearisome and tedious!
Days will come and days will go but all you see and hear’s the same:
All you see are monks in cassocks, all you hear are tolling bells.
Every day you walk and yawn, and yawn and walk, that’s all there is.
If you close your eyes and day-dream, then at night you toss and turn;
When you get to sleep at last, then black dreams rack your soul till you are
Glad to hear the morning bell and glad to feel the wake-up stick.
No, I’ll suffer it no longer. Scale the walls and fly the coop.
Wide’s the world, the road is open, let it take me where it will:
Let me simply disappear…
The Evil Monk made his (her) entry shrouded in black, through a forest of bungees, sidling up to Grigory and speaking in a whisper. By the end, transfixed, they are mouthing each other’s words: “I’m Dmitry, the Tsarevich.” “Here’s my hand: you will be tsar.”]
Here is Becca’s account of growing into this role:
Meyerhold subscribed to the idea that “for a moment of synthesis, you must pay weeks of analysis.” I found this principle to be very true for the work I did for Boris Godunov, and my most memorable moment of synthesis happened with my Evil Monk character. During the first read-through, I listened to the Evil Monk scene and wondered how I was going to stretch my limits to fit inside such a malleable character: was the monk a Grim Reaper, a corrupted sage? How could I portray the monk as an extension of Grigory’s sinister thoughts? Studying it early on in the rehearsals, I came to think of the scene as a turning point in the play. The monk convinces Grigory to launch his plan and assume the identity of the Pretender, a decision that drives all the subsequent action.
However, I also considered the scene to be a manifestation of a deeper pulse in the play. The Evil Monk is an agent of Fate—a spirit of vengeance for the dead—who eventually kills Boris (“blood came out of [Boris’s] mouth and ears,” symbolizing the inner corruption boiling up inside the Tsar as a result of the pseudo-resurrection of the “blood-stained boy”). However, the new Prince Dmitry (a.k.a. Grigory) perpetuates the cycle of violence by killing another royal heir in order to attain the throne, just as Boris had done.
The Monastery Wall scene was loaded with interesting intellectual issues to explore. Furthermore, it was charged with the most elemental desires and motives of human nature: greed, ambition, temptation, persuasion, corruption, vengeance. During the tablework, I analyzed the scene as literature; during blocking rehearsals, I began to treat the scene as a performer. But the work still felt academic, theoretical, not related to getting the character fully on its feet and making him live. Nothing had clicked fully into place.
When rehearsals moved onto the set, we began a “bungee work-through.” Awareness of my own body was no longer enough; I had to be aware of the hundreds of vibrating bungees around me, use them as an extension of my “body mind” (or physical expression of my thoughts and emotions). I must say that this realization was largely due to Sam Zetumer’s work during the first bungee work-through; he was bold, unreserved, and had incredible intuition about how to link thought to movement. He weaved through and plucked at the cords like a cat while playing the crafty Shuisky; he leaned on and rattled the bungees while playing the drunken and explosive Father Varlaam. I could see that he sensed the “thought pictures” he was making with the set; it was clear that he was feeding off his new physical discoveries to make new vocal and character discoveries. I decided it was time to throw myself off balance.
It was during the bungee work-through of scene 6 (“By the Monastery Wall”) that the moment of synthesis presented itself. Up to this point in rehearsals, I had been playing the Evil Monk as a human man—old, wizened, sinister, but human. As I began the scene, I stopped trying to embody a man who was filled with greed and evil and began trying to embody greed and evil themselves. I launched my character work into the abstract, attempting to portray a part of Grigory’s mind. I abandoned the stiff physicality of an arthritic old man and experimented with folding and stretching myself to form extreme angles; I stopped treating my rehearsal robe as clothing, instead using the fabric as a tool to obscure my face and draw greater attention to my voice and my shape in space. I intensified the gestures of my arms, using the sleeves of the robe to accentuate the angles of my limbs and the movement of my fingers. The gestures themselves were inspired by the text; for example, when the Evil Monk is extending an idea to Grigory (“Do you understand?”), I tried to display that vocal reach with a physical reach.
This abstraction of movement carried into my vocal work as well. I stopped trying to pronounce or inflect the words to mirror a realistic pattern of speech. As a natural accompaniment to the new movement I was experimenting with, I began to draw out the consonants of the text to emphasize the percussive, hissing sounds that my character was producing (‘Stop that prattle! It is not for us to ressurect the dead!’). As a result, the serpentine, sinister quality of the character increased vocally, feeding further physical exploration to match and heighten my vocal changes.
Finally, these physical and vocal changes created an “awareness inertia” that pushed me to experiment with the bungees. I became so aware of my body as part of the space that I began to use the space like I was using my body. For example, while trying to embody temptation in the first line (“True, true, your lives are wearisome”), I leaned and pulled against the bungees while dragging out a vowel sound. This emphasized the wheedling quality of the Evil Monk’s agreement with Grigory’s rant.[…] I describe my process of discovery in a very linear, self-aware fashion; at the time that this “moment of synthesis” was happening, however, I was not making these choices as consciously as I outline them here. Things came together and fed off one another quickly and messily; they were the cumulative result of concentration, spontaneity, commitment, the shock of the set, Sam Zetumer’s inspiring rehearsal method, Rebecca’s biomechanics training, our readings on Meyerhold, and Pushkin’s text. (Figure 12. Scene 6, Grigory and Evil Monk)
12. JESS KWONG, class of’07 [Feodor Godunov, Ghost of Dmitry of Uglich, company], major in Comparative Literature
[Editorial note: During the first two weeks of spring semester, realizing the scope of the commitment and fearing for their senior theses (obligatory for all students and due in mid-April) on top of a final-semester course load, several seniors in the company dropped out of Boris. At first Tim Vasen re-cast the parts and re-shuffled the doubled roles. When Jess Kwong, a Romance languages concentrator in Comparative Literature, took a hard look at her academic schedule and reluctantly announced her intention to drop, Vasen refused to allow it. This moment taught me, a book-bound humanist, a great deal about the “ensemble or team arts” at a university. In a production of this complexity, after the first ten days, the course did not belong to you. You belonged to the course. You could not leave (“drop without penalty”) because you could not be replaced. Students began to compare the Boris Project to Ivan the Terrible’s torture chamber, to prison, to Grigory Otrepiev’s nightmare. Furthermore, the usual rules of academic competition did not apply. You were not in it to beat out other students at the “A” end of a curve, but rather to learn from them and work with them (as Becca did from Sam) to bring out their best. Jess took a deep breath, dissolved the thesis she had begun (in French poetry), and devised a new topic that involved this production. She was the only member of the company who integrated the Boris Project into her final Princeton academic obligation. In the excerpt below, from the final chapter of “The Practice of Pretence: Historical, Dramatic and Performative Legitimacy in Boris Godunov,” she discusses some of her insights while playing the two murdered tsareviches.]
In the character of the ghost of Dmitry, I appeared on stage four times throughout the play. Twice I traversed the stage during some character’s speech, once I appeared on the scaffolding from which I performed my miracles, and in the last case, the ghost of Dmitry was detected only through a small gesture made by the Tsarevich Feodor as his father Boris was dying. In all of these appearances, the position of my hands became symbolic, following the traditional, iconic representations of martyrs. I interpreted the upturned palms in terms of their religious significance as a sacrificial sign; the hands offered and were themselves the offering to God. The gesture brought to my mind the gospel image of Christ showing his pierced palms to the disciple Thomas as proof that he was indeed crucified and is legitimately the Son of God.
Another aspect of the character was the fact that the dead Tsarevich could not speak, indeed, could barely draw breath. I found it much easier to sustain the specific type of motion required to cross the stage if I held my breath. I found this role the most challenging of all because unlike the other characters I played, instead of communicating through words, I relied upon the words of others, whose retellings of the Uglich stories furnished me with my identity. It was in this role that I had to both permeate and be permeable. In my entrances I would not simply walk on stage but rather inhabit the set itself, sometimes moving nothing, other times causing the lines to move in my wake.
Once, without thinking, I performed the walk while I was wearing my standard costume boots and I realized the moment I entered that it was wrong. With even this slight barrier between my body and the environment, I was not the Tsarevich Dmitry. I required direct contact with the set because in that role I became a part of it.
In scene 8 (“The Tsar’s Palace”), when I had to change from a soothsayer to the spirit within seconds, I found the transition challenging until I learned to control my intake of breath. I found myself, almost by accident, repeatedly mouthing the word “uzhas” to Boris as a soothsayer. It had not been a wholly intentional choice, but rather came about as a response to the whole feeling of the scene. It was natural, as a soothsayer, to be muttering things to Boris; it was supernatural to begin muttering the very word that was attached to Boris’s utterly immobilizing guilt. (Figure 1. Scene 8, "The Tsar's Palace.")
In this scene, the walk across the stage was markedly different from the one in the first scene. Here, I watched Boris himself with great intensity, willing him to turn around and see me. As I walked past the area of bungees that came to be called “The Screen,” I was meant to gently touch them with my hand as I passed, so that they would tremble as if a breath of wind had moved them. As we added costumes, I realized with delight that I barely had to make a conscious effort to touch the cords at all because the sleeves of my spirit robe would move them for me. This was perhaps one of the deepest moments of synthesis for this character, because it meant that breath, movement, and dress had all become legitimizing elements of my identity.
In scene 17 (“The Tsar’s Council”), I encountered difficulties with the tsarevich’s lines. Tim wanted Roger and me, as the blind shepherd and the spirit of the tsarevich, to tell our own stories during the Patriarch’s speech. In this monologue, the Patriarch tells the Tsar and the boyar council of a “miraculous secret,” that people experienced miracles at the tomb of the tsarevich, and in particular how a blind old man had his sight restored there. Our voices were meant to fade in and out of one another’s. However, I was never sure how my voice should sound in those lines. During one of our last rehearsals, it struck me that it was not really the Tsarevich Dmitry who spoke in that scene, but rather his voice refigured through several layers of voice. My voice could sound the way the old man heard it, the way the Patriarch heard the old man, or the way the Tsar or any of the boyars heard the Patriarch. It occurred to me that as long as the words were clear, my voice, along with my identity, could occupy a wide range of potentials and was not tied to a single one. (Figure 13. Scene 17, the blind shepherd’s miracle)
In the last appearance of the spirit, I was not costumed as the spirit but as Boris’s son; the spirit enters only through Feodor’s innocent repetition of the sacrificial gesture. It is a small movement, but in the Princeton production it was sufficient to transfix Boris for the last time in paralyzing horror.
A Coda on Prokofiev’s Music
13. ERBER HERNÁNDEZ, class of’09 [Afanasy Pushkin, Gavrila Pushkin, company], major in Sociology
We first see Gavrila Pushkin in scene 12 (“Krakow: Wiśniowiecki’s House”), and it didn’t take long for me to understand how I was going to portray him. I had come to think of this Pushkin as both the Pretender’s “hype-man” and “right-hand-man.” I had decided that the audience would have to get the sense that Dmitry confides a lot in Gavrila, whose job was to publicly gather support for the Pretender in a way that Dmitry himself had been doing on a more personal level with all types of people.
On March 3 I was a part of the studies on scenes 21 through 25, marking the completion of the first round of scene run-throughs. I experimented with how I would bow to the people in Red Square from atop a ladder and practiced giving my speech to them. When my speech received musical accompaniment, however, I felt empowered in a way I had never been on stage. I flirted with getting the timing between my delivered speech and Prokofiev’s music, and though I did so to some extent, my words felt like they had an emphasis behind them that would demand anybody’s attention. I left excited about my speech and personal scene with Basmanov, but also somewhat nervous about being in so many scenes consecutively.
The Prokofiev score made everything fall into place. It was the perfect backdrop to weave the scenes together, and it set the emotional tone for the play. It was especially effective in the final scenes. I remember one particular performance in which Erber’s [Gavrila Pushkin’s] microphone shorted out, and the orchestra covered most of his speech. The audience could not hear his words as he informed us, the crowd, of Dmitry’s arrival in Moscow and accession to the throne. But the music carried the meaning of the words.[…] Even for the scenes that did not have a score, the memory of the music informed my physical presence. The sound of the snare drums helped me develop a consistent, militaristic gait for Basmanov. The imposing, macabre horns helped me to pace my death, and then remain completely still as a dead body in the battle scene. The music added grace and fluidity to all of our performances.
The Editor’s Summing-up:
Scenes 24 and 25 of Pushkin’s play—the “final scenes” to which Kelechi refers—are terrifying. Prokofiev’s music enabled not only Kelechi, as an unnamed soldier in the battle scene, but the entire Kremlin in early summer 1605 (the Godunov family at the hands of Dmitry’s men) to “pace its own death.” First a wordless but threatening chant-like refrain issues forth from the male chorus. This stalking rhythm is reinforced by the orchestra, rising to a roar, subsiding, then re-attacking. The stage with its bungees gorged with blood is bathed, like one huge gallows, in garish red light. The production came together. But there were extremely anxious moments along the way. Once resolved, these tense moments became anecdotes (in the best Russian sense): a mix of technical, cultural-historical, and personnel breakdowns that were scary at the time and then became the favorite “cast stories” and jokes that everyone loved to re-tell.
The first crisis: the orchestra and its conductor took fright at being stacked on Hollywood Squares at the back of the stage. What if the horn player lost his footing; what if the conductor, even wearing his day-glo pink wig, could not be seen around all that scaffolding? But all came round: the stacked squares were essential, since they doubled as a huge iconostasis in the Moscow scenes. Dmitry the Tsarevich performs a miracle on the upper tier, blazing forth during the Patriarch’s tale. The final double murder took place up there in the terem as well. That murder also caused a tense moment. At one point Tim Vasen wished to substitute the Tsarevna Ksenia for Maria Godunova as second victim. She’s already up there, and who in the audience has ever heard of Maria? To add that name only confuses matters at the last moment. Tim sought me out in the rehearsal hall for my approval (there was always a “cultural consultant,” Simon Morrison or myself, on hand for moments like this). I was of course horrified, pointing out that there was a difference between poetic license and blasphemy. The violation—to say nothing of the murder—of Ksenia Godunova was a matter of serious historical import, and to Pushkin of serious moral import; it was not to be tampered with. The unfamiliar Maria Godunova remained in the script.
Then there were the combat boots for Lily Cowles in her role as the Holy Fool. In Pushkin’s original (1825) ordering of scenes, which was retained by us in this production, the “Nikolka” scene 18, “Ploshchad´ pered soborom v Moskve,” immediately preceded the comic-macaronic battle scene, “Ravnina bliz Novgoroda-Severskogo.” The transition between scenes 18 and 19 had been pared down to fourteen seconds, and Lily was fully choreographed into the Battle that followed hard upon her exit from Red Square. There was no way she could get herself out of her rags and bungees (for her verigi or penitential chains, Lily wound flaccid tubing around herself, randomly whipping her back with it before and after her lament), nor pull on those high boots in time to enter with the infantry charge. Thus Tim and the costume designer hit upon the idea of sending her into Red Square to meet Tsar Boris already sheathed in those boots. I was on duty for that rehearsal, and howled stop. Holy fools had to be barefoot. Better a foot-soldier in slippers than a iurodivyi in boots. Lily was re-choreographed later in the Battle. Thanks to the flexibility and good will of our production crew, this moment too was won for the integrity of Russian culture. (Figure 14. Scene 18, the holy fool)
Then there were the beards, which tested integrity in another direction. Alert to the status of male facial hair in pre-Petrine Russia, for a brief span of rehearsals the cast was bearded. The beards were bushy and glossy; you couldn’t see anyone’s mouth. They did not add authenticity but the opposite, functioning like masks for the lower face. The Patriarch—who was convincing as she was, commanding full spiritual authority—suddenly looked like a transvestite and parody. Boris, a big blond man, resembled a little boy dressing up. Pimen’s expressive face became a cartoon. The next day the beards came off the principals, with only the comic moments and characters thus adorned (Varlaam, the Drunken Boyars at Shuisky’s House, buffoons from the public square in scene 3). We discovered that visual authenticity was a tricky business on this modernist stage.
But the biggest anxiety, as these testimonials suggest, was also the most thrilling draw: the bungee-cord set. A week before opening night, during the brief, emotional scene 16 (“Granitsa litovskaia”), a bungee stretched and released by Peter Schram [Kurbsky] struck Adam, the Pretender, squarely in the eye. We all held our breath; the pain was intense and the rehearsal was over for the night. It reminded us that the set was a weapon. Early in the rehearsal process, the everpresent surgical tubing had proved a constraint: ballet toe-shoes got stuck in the grooves so the choreographer had to forego the lovely idea of a dance sequence on point; the Patriarch’s thumping staff wedged itself in once or twice, to the ruin of the rhythm of the scene. But this was all during rehearsal; worse was with a public. After the second night to a sold-out house, on Friday April 13, the Production Stage Manager Hannah Woodward sent around Performance Notes as usual to the cast and crew: “A good performance overall tonight with quite a few technical glitches.” Glitch #4 read: “During the Battle, a bungee wrapped itself around a light and the bungee pulled the electric in such a way that we couldn’t fly the Downstage Scrim in at the end of the battle. During the transition going into the Forest, Peter and Philicia saved the day and were able to free the bungee from the light so that we were able to use the Scrim for the rest of the show.”
Tsar Boris had died on April 13, 1605. The bungee-noose strangling the light, we came to believe, was in honor of the 402nd anniversary of his death.
Jess Kwong and Philicia Saunders after the show (photo by Denise Applewhite).