A Conversation with Ellie Heyman
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Meeting Ellie Heyman amongst the hymnals and lighting instruments of a church balcony felt both appropriate and thrilling. In telling this story of a long-ago Siberia, she has employed an indie rock Russian folk band, the power of a charismatic leader, and the truth she believes can only be found in the body. She explores our connection to the sacred and profane and reminds me that the best way to great art is through collaboration and curiosity.
Corey Ruzicano: Let’s start by talking a little bit about this project, Beardo, and what the Russian historical tradition and Rasputin as a historical icon has to teach us about today?
Ellie Heyman: Jason started researching Rasputin, both Jason [Craig, book and lyrics] and Dave [Malloy, music] read the same book about him and one of the things they found is that there’s no definitive history that says, “This is the story of Rasputin”; there’s actually conflicting narrative after conflicting narrative after conflicting narrative. I think Jason was very taken by the power of this charismatic personality to go from a poor peasant dude in Siberia to gaining tremendous power within the palace. Ultimately his dealings were largely influential to the fall of the Russian empire. So it’s like, how did this guy take power? What was that? This story that we’re telling isn’t about Rasputin, it’s definitely Beardo.
CR: So tell me who that is.
EH: There’s a song lyric: “He’s a weirdo with a beardo, misbehavin’ and unshaven.”
CR: There you go, that says it all.
EH: Exactly. All you need to know. There’s a mysteriousness to it all. In our world, Beardo starts as this man who has put his hand in a hole and he’s been there for an indefinite amount of time and a man finds him, a man who lives in a shack, hence his name is Shackman, and Shackman says, “Hey, dude, your hand’s in a hole, why don’t you take it out?” And, through some coaxing, he gets his hand out of that hole, and while his hand was in it, something has come into his brain and maybe it is God, maybe it is just hallucinations, maybe he has just honed his talents as a sociopathic storyteller who can read people in this sort of otherworldly way, but he suddenly has this thing that is leading him on and what that thing is, is deeply ambiguous on purpose. This is not a piece about religion, but this is a piece about someone who is able to charm and take power and maybe we love him for that and maybe we hate him for it, which is sort of interesting in today’s world, and is maybe a little different than the world was nine months ago. The piece was done in California a couple years ago, and we developed it further, and a bunch of stuff has gotten rewritten, so in the last many months where we’ve been really trying to figure out how it wants to grow and what this is, the world did feel different than it does now. I really appreciate that it’s not a direct one to one of our current political climate, but yet everything around the power of the charismatic leader and those that love him and those that hate him—the way that it polarizes people and how we all want someone to be a savior and the way in which that can destroy us—all of that is there within it. It is an interesting moment for this piece to be happening.
CR: Totally, and more and more it feels more clear that everything is story. Even in the last week: everything is a story.
EH: And everything is just your story.
CR: Your version of it, right. And how interesting it is that the spark of this piece is this man whose story isn’t really clear.
EH: Absolutely, who has so many conflicting versions out there. I’m listening to this book on tape that’s this sort of new and epic biography of Rasputin, and it’s 33 hours long. I think I’m into hour 20 of it right now, so I feel pretty good about myself. Basically it tells you something and then tells you that these other people believe something different and then it tells you something else—it conflicts with itself, so far for 20 hours.
CR: It’s funny, in some ways I guess, that isn’t that different than any other historical figure, we just tend to assume a pretty linear narrative about a lot of things.
CR: So how does indie rock music play a part in uncovering or informing this narrative?
EH: Jason and Dave are just really incredible together. Jason has written this language that is so evocative to me, it really feels like poetry. It has tinges of Beckett in it, it has tinges of Sam Shepard in it, it’s also just 100 percent pure Jason—the words are weird in the best possible way. And then Dave has such a deep knowledge of so many types of musical traditions that he pulls from whatever he needs in order to express the story. There’s definitely traditionally and classically Russian music, classical music, Russian folk music, folk music that Dave likes, electro-pop…it really is this huge hodgepodge of styles. There’s a song on the uke that feels a little Hawaiian to me. Dave is really pulling on whatever influence he needs to help tell the story that he wants or evoke the feeling that he wants. It’s interesting because Jason is so provocative with the language and Dave is so freely expressive with the music that it’s amazing that, when the two come together, the piece feels as whole and complete as it does, because there’s so much variation within it. It doesn’t really operate on a purely analytical logic, there’s more of an intuitive logic to the piece that, by the end, really drops in. All of these various disparate things come together to make a whole.
CR: That’s interesting because I think that in and of itself is an interesting tool to get at how to bridge the gap between the different historical perspectives.
EH: Definitely, and Jason always says, “This is our way of looking at it.” We’re definitely not saying it’s Rasputin—anyone who comes to this looking for a historical fiction piece will be sad.
CR: Or maybe they’ll be enlightened! I like what you said about intuitive logic, I wonder if you could talk a little bit more about the use of fiction or storytelling in today’s world, using intuitive logic rather than a more linear, fact-based narrative.
EH: Sure, I think of something that Jason does that I also really lean into as a director: There’s a lot of space in between things in certain ways; we can show you something and it can be good, but if we can get you to imagine it, what you imagine will always be better and will always be more personal to you. So how can we evoke your imagination to be part of this whole experience? We can show you a scene of these two people in this moment and everyone has that narrative structure in their brain, we don’t actually have to show you the very next scene, we can show you a scene you didn’t expect, way more fast-forwarded, and in that moment you’re both with this scene and cataloging everything you think got you to that point. It’s this very charged experience because you’re partnering in your imagination and piecing together and you’re imbuing it with all the things we might have left out but that you have to bring in, in order for it to click for you.
CR: Yes, from looking at your portfolio, it seems like imagination is an intrinsic tentpole in your body of work, and I wonder if you could talk a little bit about that, about fostering imagination and what values you think it has in your work and life?
EH: Yeah, as a kid I spent a lot of time alone. I think that imagination was how I figured out how to orient myself in the word. When I wasn’t safe or didn’t feel okay, it was a place for me to go, and I think that imagination has always sort of been my best friend and sanctuary. I think that when people watch something in a passive way, you only kind of care about it but when you’re partnering with it, when you use your imagination to enter into the story and participate with us, it’s not just our story but it’s also your story—there’s a much deeper bond between the audience and the story. I’m thinking so much about the role of art in our crazy world right now, and yes, it’s always been important, but the feeling of immediacy is stronger now than ever before in my life. People need to remember their own humanity and they need to be finding it in each other, and I think our brains can lie to us, they can justify anything inside of our minds, where our bodies are not very good at lying to us. When something feels wrong, it feels wrong. We might store it up for a long time, but it’s never gonna take something that feels wrong and make it feel right. By creating theater that is deeply grounded in our humanity and is deeply visceral, we’re going to get audiences to feel their own bodies and to start breathing, and once you start feeling and once you start breathing, there’s a whole chain of events that can start to happen about extending to others and feeling like you’re a part of the community that you’re in, and maybe starting to think about your choices a little bit differently. I’m always as interested in what Jason puts in as I am in what he leaves out. There’s something about both making the audience engage and participate imaginatively and to be feeling it in their bodies. The reason that we have this scaffolding here is because I kept saying to our amazing set designer Carolyn Mraz, I just need them to be able to climb on things. I need people’s bodies to be able to feel at risk because I think that, that will awaken the audience’s bodies in a new way. To me those things—imaginative, visceral and often athletic engagement—are the tools that allow it to be emotional in a way that matters.
CR: And I’m sure doing it in a space like this lends itself to that.
EH: Yeah, the piece is so much about what is the sacred and what is the profane and what happens when they get confused. I feel like our culture has lost any kind of sense of what the sacred is, I feel like we could walk outside to go get a coffee and there could literally be two people having sex in the middle of the street and I don’t even think I’d remember it by 7 p.m. We’ve totally lost what’s proper, what it is to cross thresholds, especially around sex, so there was something about putting it in a church. When we started looking at different churches, I felt my whole body think, “Oh, I need to behave. Am I talking too loudly? Am I wearing enough clothing?” You remember your morals, or the morals you were raised with, and I think raising those inhibitions is really useful in exploring this story because then we have somewhere to go.
CR: I would love to hear more too about what you’ve learned from your collaborators?
EH: We have the best team. I love them. Caroline Mraz is our set designer and Mary Ellen Stebbins is our lighting designer. Mary Ellen is the lighting designer that I work with on everything I possibly can. We went to grad school at Boston University together. I don’t even think we talk during tech, occasionally I’ll just look at her and she’ll say, “I know.” Even when the three of us looked at the space together, Mary Ellen is very kinesthetic based, as am I, so the two of us didn’t have to have any larger conversation because we both already knew that for us, it’s about the bodies and the angles and is as much about what you don’t see as what you do see. With Carolyn, there’s already a bunch of choices that are made for us because we’ve chosen this space, and so the question was, how do we actually wake this space up? It’s really important to me to think about lights and sets as a whole, because if this is the space, scenically it’s as central to decide what we do see as it is to decide what we don’t see. There’s Katja Andreiev, who’s our costume designer who is Russian, she speaks Russian, and she’s been our expert. We’ve been thinking about what it means to do this place that should feel like the beginning of the play is in Siberia and in Brooklyn at the same time. It shouldn’t feel like these characters are people who are so different and so foreign from us, they are in this story, but they are also of us, and so she has found this really interesting way of exploring the costumes to bring out the characters and to tell the story of these people in Russia while bringing it more into contemporary dress where she’s treading lines with the kind of ambiguity that we really want. Our band is dressed like contemporary Russian hooligans, it’s a Russian folk band accompanied by only strings and our lead, Damon Daunno, plays the guitar so, so well and adds to all that. Dan Moses Schreier is our sound designer and he comes from the Broadway world and that’s fantastic because the acoustics in a church are such a challenge that we have very fancy guns dealing with our sound department. We have to get everyone to speak a little bit more quietly because it’s so echo-y. My favorite thing Dan says to me is “the space gets over excited.” I love that. The way in which the acoustics work, the actors can speak quite quietly and there’s subtlety in their voice that is fuller, where if they speak loudly it just echoes and goes everywhere. We have an eclectic crew of designers and the cast just breaks my heart. They’re so good and so brave and they’re eight of the weirdest, most different people I’ve ever met and they are greater than the sum of their parts when they’re together, but they all have wildly different energies and backgrounds and training, and when they come together at first it’s like, what am I looking at? I would describe them as very effervescent.
CR: That sounds great, in steering that kind of ship, what tools have you employed to keep all those different pieces together?
EH: I feel like most of what I do is go around screaming, “Good job, keep going, more, go further!” Because the more I can encourage them to turn up the volume on their impulses, the wildness that ensues is where I think the gold is.
CR: And I’m sure there’s so much to be learned from all those different backgrounds coming together. We’ve already talked about this, but why this story now?
EH: I think the power of the charismatic personality is really big right now. I think that one of the things that Rasputin/Beardo do is to help free people from themselves. At the beginning of the play he sort of sets people off to be less afraid of what they’re most afraid of, and often that thing is God. So what if God isn’t the voice that’s damning you and telling you that you’re bad, but that pleasure could also live in God, and connection could live in God, and that ecstasy could be sacred? The relationship of sensuality and sacredness is really interesting and an unexpected turn in a story about this wild, rowdy, chaotic, dirty guy who accidentally takes all this power. I also think there’s something about what drives to people to follow.
CR: I do think what you said about the desire we have for someone to be a savior is so interesting and I find it to be so true. Even just within interpersonal relationships, the need for someone to know the answers feels, probably always relevant, but particularly relevant right now. Looking at all of your beautiful photos online, it feels like you consistently employ a really evocative visual language onstage and I wonder if you could talk about how you develop that language and how you specifically apply it to this story?
EH: I think that aesthetic beauty is really important to me. If I go see a play and it’s ugly and the people are mean, I just don’t care. I think that we, as makers, have to earn your attention and your buy in. I also am just so struck by the human body and the beauty of bodies and bodies in relationships I find really emotionally compelling. So I’m always looking for where is the beauty in the piece, where is the mystery in the piece, and how can the bodies be activated in the piece? I think that, that’s very reflective in a lot of the choices that Carolyn and I found together in the set, because it was how do we find things that we feel can activate the actor’s bodies but doesn’t feel like we’re building a set inside of a church. And then we found really physically game actors, casting is a huge part of it to me—there are amazing actors who are really intellectual and always have to absolutely understand something before they do and I don’t work very well with them. I need people who will go and who will play and who will find hanging really compelling, not just because it’s athletic but because when you climb and hang, it makes you feel a certain way, and what is the relationship between emotion, sensation, and physical action?
CR: It feels related to what you were saying about how our bodies can’t lie to us as well as our minds can.
EH: Exactly. If we’re going for truth, we’re actually not going for alternative truth, we’re going for truth, and I think the only place that lives is in our bodies. I think that if you’re lying to yourself, you know or you will eventually get sick.
CR: And it also feels like the other side of the coin there is that I can’t help but think as beautiful and truthful as bodies are there’s also the great fear of the body.
EH: Exactly. And this is all about what is it to free the fear of your body. But then everyone dies. So it’s complicated.
CR: Well, sure, the body is the beginning and end of all things.
EH: I have a good friend who said, “Uh oh, yeah, because your body is where your feelings are.” So of course it’s dangerous.
CR: And ultimately you get planted and then you’re part of the body of the Earth, so it’s all about the body. The fear and the beauty both live there.
EH: And seeing bodies in action in a church somehow wakes up that image that feels really important to see. We’re desensitized to seeing people on a trapeze now, but you see someone in a sacred space using their body in a way you don’t expect them to, you start paying attention and seeing it anew.
CR: Is there any central question you’ve been grappling with either with the content of the piece or in the context of your work these days?
EH: I think we’ve talked about a lot of them already, but something I think about a lot is who sees theater? It’s important to me to make theater for a popular audience, I’m not interested in just making theater for theater people, I want to make theater for everyone, so I want to make theater for people who do see a lot of people, for whom that is their church, and I want to make theater for people who saw a terrible production of Guys and Dolls and realized that they should never go back. And you know what, they shouldn’t ever go back there, but they should come see something else. That’s something I love about working in nontraditional spaces, there are the theater people who get that, oh here’s a thing in a nontraditional space, but for the people who don’t, it’s more of an event. It has the opportunity to be in between worlds, to be cool and inviting and not as exclusive feeling. My real question is how am I reaching the people beyond my theater community. I think theater is really amazing because it gives us a place to feel scary things together and a social processing, which is another reason why it’s interesting doing it in a church, but for people who would love that but don’t know that this is for them, my hope is that by seeing it in a nontraditional space, people feel invited and welcome to come.
Ellie Heyman is a New York City-based theatre director. She often collaborates with musicians and her work is best known for its athletic physicality and visually imaginative aesthetic. Ellie directed The Traveling Imaginary, a theatrical rock show, which was rated in the “top five shows of the year” by NPR and a Time Out “Critic’s Pick” on two continents. Ellie is the Co-Artistic Director of The Orbiting Human Circus with Julian Koster and co-directs/develops the podcast The Orbiting Human Circus (of the Air). Ellie directs the ongoing projects of Erin Markey, Becca Blackwell, Heather Litteer and Banana, Bag & Bodice. Her work been developed by The Public Theater/Joe’s Pub and New York Theater Workshop and presented by The Kennedy Center, Abrons Art Center, The Bushwick Starr, La Mama, New World Stages (Incite Festival), Brown University, Duke University, The Drama League, Boston Center for American Performance, En Garde Arts and indie rock clubs across America. Currently Ellie is developing Elevation 506 in Bulgaria with Yasen Vasilev and Home in Istanbul with Turkish playwright Sami Berat Marcali. Upcoming projects include: Mr. Pictures by Dane Terry (PS122) and the NYC premiere of Beardo by Dave Malloy and Jason Craig (Pipeline Theater). She is a graduate of Northwestern and Boston Universities (MFA), a Drama League Directing Fellow, and current WP Theater Lab Member.