A Conversation Between Leo Lion (Director) and Craig Smith (Actor)
Leo Lion: What attracted you to this play in the first place?
Craig Smith: Well I knew Stephen (playwright Stephen Sharkey) as we did his “The Resistible Rise of Artruo Ui” in 2016 – right through the election. I am a fan of Stephen’s work, and I read about this adaptation when it had its world premiere in the UK in 2017 and I was attracted to the notion of a stage adaptation of a famous Tolstoy story.
LL: Phoenix tends to do plays that are rich in language (Greeks, Brecht, Strindberg) and this is yet another in translation. Are you concerned about how to be true to the flavor, for instance tempos and rhythms of the original language?
CS: Well you speak Russian Leo…. You tell me, how does the Sharkey compare to the original novella?
LL: This adaptation certainly does a lot to create an accessible Ivan Ilych – it is not a ‘modernized’ form of Tolstoy by any means, but in its sort of economy and theatricality it is appropriately immediate. By mining the text for all the most still-relevant/resonant moments, I think Stephen Sharkey has done a tremendous job of helping this story ring true as that of an everyman, even in a new language and a new millennium. In the original novella, there is much topical, period-specific sociopolitical commentary on the manners and behaviors of people. For the purpose of this adaptation, which seems to be to give Ivan control of his own narrative, (mind you—the original is in third person), Sharkey’s approach goes a long way — true to Tolstoy’s intention, this Ivan is very much both himself and “man in general.”
CS: You always lose something in translation. Our rhythms are different, if we try to recreate Russian language tempos and rhythms in our language, it will just come out as odd. And then the Russian temperament… after being in well received productions of Three Sisters, Cherry Orchard, Vanya, two Dostoevsky’s, and three from contemporary Russian playwright, Edward Radzinsky, I still struggle with realizing the laughter through a veil of tears. It seems singular to the Russian – a duality that is always available to these characters-- and it seems integral to these plays, but when we attempt this as American actors it usually comes out something quite different and not perhaps as Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, et al intended or something they would even recognize as Russian. We struggle with this as artists, and critics continuously spin on it. So we may lose that, but these are singular characters challenged by interior misgivings and these are great stories – they are essentially so very human… the stories and the people.
LL: Yes, the source and context of comedy can be such a culturally relative thing. It’s so often observed in British vs. American comedy, but there are these kinds of divisions everywhere: what people can/want to laugh at varies so much based on history, climate, temperament, etc. I like to think of this Russian temperament you mentioned as likening a play to the table spread at a Russian evening party: you ought to leave having tasted quite a bit of everything – mixed flavors, paired everything with the right drink and the wrong one. I think Ivan Ilych offers that opportunity in abundance, mixing laughter with tears, irony with introspection, individuality with multiplicity, and in that I believe we maintain something of the Russian temperament.
CS: So you are young director, a freshman in college no less, and now directing a, how shall I say, a seasoned actor in a play about mortality? What do you think about this task and do you think about your own mortality?
LL: This is something I’ve grappled with a lot – but I think the secret of it is that both the Tolstoy novella and Sharkey’s script are not so much ‘about death’ as they are about life: how we think about life, appraise our life, remember, cling to, investigate our life. And that’s an angle I am able to speak to directly. Tolstoy and I have in common a profound interest in Buddhist practice, and as I work through the ‘death of my childhood,’ as it were, I find his vision of attachment, obsession, self-interest, and stubbornness as the sources of greatest suffering to be hugely insightful and continually apropos. With any luck, my personal mortality is not yet on the horizon, but in the novella Ivan was only middle aged. Never too early to start thinking about your relationship with your life - my belief is that in the long run, I’ll be happier for it.
CS: So, what does Ilyich have to say to millennial Americans in 2019?
LL: In a time when we’re increasingly concerned with the immediate, when we’re adjusted to quicker turnarounds than ever before for just about everything in life. I think mindfulness is as vital as ever. It’s very very easy not to think too hard when quick-fixes become routine. Obviously, this is in no way limited to now or to here – Caesar, Ilych, me, you, suffer the same kinds of blinding preoccupations – but I think wherever he crops up, Ilych offers some much-needed perspective.
CS: We need these classic texts – they form a baseline for contemporary authors to bounce off of. Otherwise we end up with theatre that is about form and not necessarily about substance. Well let me rethink that – we have substance, but it often is domestic relations, or a sort of social justice propaganda about how we should be living our lives. It can be a bit surface. We miss the elemental human experience of Oedipus, Ranevsky, or Ilyich for that matter.
This project is made possible with funds from the Decentralization Program, a regrant program of the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo and the New York State Legislature and administered by ArtsWestchester