This is Part One of a series of articles on the World Premiere of Zoe Mavroudi’s The Stenographer, now playing at Venus Theatre. In this article, I interview Playwright Zoe Mavroudi and Director Deborah Randall.
Zoe Mavroudi (Playwright)
Joel: When did Deb communicate with you about producing The Stenographer?
Zoe:I sent her the play back in January, from Greece. It was the first time I’d ever made contact with her. She replied to me almost immediately saying she loved it and wanted to talk about a possible production. It all happened quickly I have to say.
Have you visited Laurel to view rehearsals and the production?
I have not visited Laurel and could not attend rehearsals. I had professional obligations in Greece, Cyprus and in London already scheduled when the Venus production came up. However, I’ve been in touch with Deb for months now. We we’ve been discussing the play and she’s kept me informed on everything from casting to the set design and rehearsal process. It was an unconventional way of collaborating but we’ve had great rapport and she’s demonstrated a deep understanding of the play from the beginning of our communication. She’s also a very passionate and communicative person and that’s always infectious.
What suggestions did you make to Deb about directing the play and to Frank and Amy about playing their roles?
The process of guiding the actors was entirely in Deb’s hands. The play is what some people might refer to as “talky” – and takes place in real-time so both actors are on stage together the entire time without any scene changes. So it’s a conversational, chamber piece and needed a meticulous approach and that’s exactly what Deb gave it.
When did you write The Stenographer, and what’s it about?
I finished writing it at the end of last year. I wrote it in a very short time but it had been brewing in my mind for a while. The play tells the story of a night meeting between a college professor, who is an expert on Russian literature and a young woman, a stripper, whom he invites to his house. They start a discussion on Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, the professor’s favorite novel, but gradually they reveal things about their lives, which are bound to be shocking and life-changing for both of them.
What were some of the inspirations and personal experiences that made you write the play?
Well, reading Crime and Punishment was certainly an inspiration. I was very intrigued by the gender politics in that book, which features several instances of violence and injustice against women. Dostoevsky tracks the evolution of Raskolnikov – a man who murders two women at the beginning of the book – partly through his relationships with the women in his life, particularly the prostitute Sonya, who is a fascinating and enigmatic character.
As I read more about the book and about Dostoevsky’s life, I found out that he got married to his stenographer, after a failed first marriage and at a time when he was coming out of a very difficult period in his personal life. So he fell in love with this young stenographer, who helped him complete one of his novels in time for a deadline, and they ended up having four children together and a very happy marriage. She became in a sense a nurturing figure in his life, quite like Sonya was to Raskolnikov. So I began to see a connection between this true story from Dostoevsky’s life, this real-life couple and the fictional couple of Sonya and Raskolnikov in the novel. I imagined a play set in the present and featuring a man and a woman, which would unfold in one long scene, quite like these excruciatingly detailed, long scenes Dostoevsky excels at. And in this play a seemingly casual discussion about Dostoesvky’s life and the themes in Crime and Punishment would escalate into a confrontation about their own lives and the secrets and regrets they harbor.
I guess that the play is in some way, my way of expressing how moving and relevant I find the novel and what it says, among other things, about men and women and our deep need to coexist and love each other in spite of our tainted history. But it is also a play about writing, about the power of writing to elevate and to redeem us.
How many other productions have there been?
This is the world premiere. It’s never been produced before.
Have you had any other inquiries in the States to produce the play?
No, I haven’t.
When did you first become a writer?
I am a native Greek, currently writing and performing in a foreign language, in the English language. I started as an actress but I’ve been writing my own plays and screenplays for about six years now. I’ve trained as an actress in my native Greece and in New York, where I lived for several years. My first – and only produced play before The Stenographer – is a solo play called Beauty is Prison-Time, which I’ve been performing myself for the past two years in various festivals and venues in New York, Cyprus, Edinburgh, Glasgow and now in London – where it will complete an extended run at the Lion and Unicorn Theatre. For the London run of Beauty is Prison-Time I just received a nomination for best female performer and most promising new playwright by the Off West End theatre awards here in the UK. (I am also a screenwriter with scripts that have placed and won an award in contests – but they are unproduced at the moment.)
What do you want audiences to take with them after seeing this production of The Stenographer?
I hope that audiences are moved by it, first and foremost. That’s all a playwright can hope for really. I hope that they remember the experience of watching it long after they’ve seen it – and that they decide for themselves what the point of it was. Oh, and I hope it makes some people go back and read Crime and Punishment because it’s a great book.
Deborah Randall (Director)
Joel: Why did you want to produce and direct The Stenographer?
Deborah: On the first read it grabbed hold of me. I went on a real journey. I thought the writing was so sharp and I liked how the characters sort of inverted on each other. There are so many stereotypical assumptions that come with characters such as these and Zoe just blew them up. I found it to be dynamic and worthy of staging.
Tell me about the playwright Zoe Mavroudi and working with her.
Oh, it’s really been a dream. I got her script kind of late, I think. And, it spun me around in my reading chair. So, I emailed her and told her I’d like to produce it at Venus. And she said something like, “You know I live in Greece?” And, I said something like, we’re in the information age and this could really work. We did a couple of blog exchanges. Talking mostly about Crime and Punishment which is a central theme of the Professor.
His Bible. For Zoe it is one of the works that really speaks to her in powerful ways. And, I wanted to respect that by taking the very dark Russian Lit journey. In the middle of summer. And, it was incredible. Then, she toured to London to do her solo show, Beauty Is Prison-Time at the Lion and Unicorn there. That’s when I discovered she was performing the first play she’d written. And, we were about to mount the second. Her skills as a writer are stunning. I really still can’t believe this is only her second work. But, she’s written for film and in other mediums. And, she’s a performer. So, it all comes together beautifully.
Did she make any suggestions regarding directing the production?
You know, I insist on sending her the rehearsal and production reports so she can know the blow-by-blow. It’s not always a great idea to do that with playwrights. But, in addition I’ll just zap her brain and babble over my directing. And, she always replies in these amazing ways. She’s become a strength and inspiration to me. In an early rehearsal report I talked about putting the girl on the table center stage and having her dance her strip tease through a monologue. Talked about maybe doing a light shift. I wanted to amp up the addiction of each respective character. That’s the one moment where Zoe said it was outside of her intention with this script. And that lead to this wonderful discussion And so, there were two rules put into play for this script. (1) The stripper could never dance, and (2) There are only two places in the script where the characters actually touch. And, this was a great discovery. Which goes back to why I kind of adore producing new plays.
Why did you choose Frank to perform the role?
Ah! You know, I directed Frank in ’05 in another premiere by Migdalia Cruz called, Cigarettes and Moby Dick. He popped into my head suddenly for this. He’s young for the role. But, there’s something about Frank that kind of transcends time. So, I wanted to ask him if he’d be interested. I think I sent him the script. Which begins with a 3 1/2 page Professor monologue. And, he was very excited to do it. It became a matter of scheduling.
When the company was first founded, I made a promise to myself that I would stay open all the time to new talent. And, it’s been over a decade. So, I made a new promise to myself that I would go back to the artists who have served the company well – and begin to build more of an artistic family. What’s been great about working with Frank is that both of us have not stopped in our crafts. So, it was a real pleasure to reconnect in the room. Push him, and push him hard.
Tell us about Frank’s performance, and the advice you gave him on performing his role.
Frank’s got one hell of a job. The show begins on his 4th drink and he proceeds to drink himself into oblivion. During this time, he must understand covet/adore/obsess over the novel Crime and Punishment in ways that I can only describe as evangelical. While all of this is happening, he must try to impress a stripper that he spontaneously brought home and is now entertaining in his study. Frank is an avid note taker and takes great pride in knowing his work line for line. He feels the gravity of the premiere. Of originating a role. So, let’s see…what have I done to Frank? Well, I’ve weighted him. Wrist and ankle weights to throw him off-balance and give him a sense of gravity.
Advice? I’ve encouraged both actors to play against. That’s to resist the obvious choice and to give the audience the experience. I’ve told them that it must be honest. Completely. And, I think that last note I gave them was to go deep. In each moment, fall all the way in and trust the next.
What do you like most about Frank’s performance, and the play?
It’s honesty. You know? We live in a fast world where we tend to skip over the detail of human connection. And, what happens here is we think we know as the audience. We assume. As we tend to do just before we move on to the next assumption. Only here, you stay and see what comes next. And, you find out it’s not at all what was generally assumed. I LOVE that. I do immersion theatre. Intimate work. And, you can almost hear everyone in the room breathing together and taking this journey. Which pulls you in because it seems so obvious at first and then you’re there and have to see what happens and you kind of don’t want to care but somehow, you do.
I last directed Frank in an attic promenade style. It was really sexual. He was John 3. And, there was a hammock scene that was three sailors getting sexual with themselves with the audience 3-5 feet away (maybe). And, I remember all three of my guys including Frank. It’s like he and I jumped right back into to that level of risk and exposure. But, this time it was so much more intense, and personal for the character.
Why did you choose Amy to perform the role?
She is Sonya from Crime and Punishment. I knew that about her. I knew she would be the perfect casting. I just didn’t know if she would do it. So, it was pretty incredible to jump in with her after 11 years. She was in Daughters of Molly Maguire and I’ve always adored working with her. About a year ago we formed a band called The Sheshes. She plays bass to my guitar. And, I just love creating with Amy because she doesn’t hesitate. And, she doesn’t take anything too personal. She just goes. And I love that. It’s been so much fun to find this badass inside of her because it is the polar opposite of who she is. (Or is it?)
Describe Amy’s performance and the advice you gave her on performing her role.
For Amy she didn’t have much to go on in the script. The character is kind of mysterious. She could almost be anyone. And, I talked with Zoe about this and came to understand that this was very intentional on the part of the writer. She wanted to give so much freedom to the artists interpreting. So, Amy did a lot of research. She visited some fine establishments with her husband. And, she has become this Girl. I think something Amy and I share is this kind of serious blue collar work ethic. And, I think we found the practicality of The Girl. The survivor. And, we locked in. I pushed Amy as hard as I pushed Frank. And, like Frank, I didn’t let her shy away. I give similar notes to them both. But, one thing I say to Amy in the end is, “Release the beast!”
What do you like most about Amy’s performance, and the play?
I feel her catharsis. We worked with textures a lot. Both characters. And, we found with Amy’s character this double aspect of a little girl who never got to play and a badass who kind of never sleeps and will engage in battle. So, it became a matter of setting those levels. This is why I love Amy in this role. She will well up with compassion and then we play against that to get to the hard shell of the girl. But, you feel that devastation underneath. It’s a catharsis to watch her.
What was your vision for the production and how did your designers help you achieve it?
I like finding the design as we find the work. Which I know is not popular with the kids these days just coming out of college with their computer chips and clipboards and scenic plot programs. And, this was such an organic process. This happens in the Professors study. So, I’ve never really worked in a world so physically masculine. It was liberating. My Set Designer is also my actor. So, she was experiencing the world in two ways. And, we kind of just kept building it. I wanted to stage in profile a lot. Which is a really big risk. So, I needed harsh angles to break that up which meant staging in the voms a bit and suggestions of the aspects of this man that were somehow consistent.
This is something I communicated with Zoe about. This idea that they sort of become a Greek Chorus for each other. So, the set was designed to almost put them in the audience a bit. And, that way the audience experiences the power of stepping into the center. I explained it to her something like it felt the centrifugal force. Like it starts at the edges and then pulls into the center with a kind of natural force and spiral and then it releases them all over again. So, the set was designed to support that.
Marilyn came in with costumes and we moved in them pretty early and just kept moving until it got comfortable for the actors. Lights came in early. It’s a lights up/lights down/real-time play. And, I think Kris did a fantastic job with the simplicity.
How can today’s audiences relate to this play?
I think we all want to embrace higher learning. And, this idea that if we study and learn and become educated, educatORS then somehow we will have done something. On the other hand, we tend to have a more primal aspect to ourselves as well – one that wouldn’t mind dancing on a table and finding physical immediate power. As human beings, I think we are vacillating between facets of ourselves. And, I think this play takes us there viscerally.
Why they should local theatregoers schlep out to Laurel to see this production?
Why not? Parking is free and plentiful. It’s immersion theatre in an honest state. And it’s cheaper than parking at the Kennedy Center. So, I think the question Joel is, “Why WOULDN’T they?”
Fill us in on your upcoming season.
Well. I’m just trying to get to Monday right now. We have a grant out to help take over the abandoned police station at the end of C Street in order to stage haunted Saturdays throughout October. And, I have a modern dance company on board to help me with that. We are in negotiations to bring in a cabaret in November. And, we are talking about bringing back our Heartfriends Musicals for children in December. I think that next year will likely bring four more brand-new works. GodDesS willin and the crik don’ rise.
The Stenographer plays through September 25th at Venus Theatre Play Shack – 21 C Street, in Laurel, MD. Tickets, which are general admission, are $18, and can be purchased at the door or online.
Read Graham Pilato’s review of The Stenographer.