THEATRE DIRECTOR MIKHAEL TARA GARVER MAKES THE AUDIENCE THE FINAL MEMBER OF HER ENSEMBLE
By Nandini Nair
It is an ink blue night. The trees are the color of cement. The buildings are the color of the trees. In a grey building, under blue tube lights, 20 cast and crew members have come together for the first time. The introductions are swift, covering just their names and the roles they play. It is the first all-cast reading of Black Snow, a collaboration between The New Ensemble and Columbia University, to be staged in February. Overcoats are discarded and characters donned. A hapless Russian playwright, a scheming devil, a reticent archangel, jealous writers, brazen producers, nosy neighbors, talkative aunts, rapidly traverse the room. As the reading progresses, divisions blur. Strangers become co-actors. Actors become a cast; and the cast becomes an ensemble. For director Mikhael Tara Garver, theatre is about difficult love and strong communities. This reading lays the foundation for that community.
Mikhael’s sense of community also includes the audience. Her first theatre company, Uma Productions, and her present one, The New Ensemble, work on the premise that every night the audience is the new member of the show. Bringing down the fourth wall, the division between the actors and audience, is hardly new. Immersive theatre is an extension and elaboration of a previous concept. If epic theatre was about making members of the audience aware that they are watching a play, the immersive theatre of today is about making the audience a part of the play. Punchdrunk, a London based theatre company, has over the last few years, raised eyebrows and appreciation with its plays like The Masque of Red Death. A masked audience encounters bizarre and creepy characters as it is taken through a labyrinth of squalid spaces. New York based Mikhael has spent the last few months in transit as she is the staff director of Sleep No More, being staged in Boston by Punchdrunk and American Repertory Theatre (A.R.T). With this play, staged in 44 rooms of an abandoned school building, Punchdrunk makes its U.S. debut with its intimate, site-specific work.
In her own work, Mikhael similarly ensures that the audience experiences the play visually, mentally and physically. She drowns the audience in the play by creating an immersive light, sound and smell design. The stage is the entire auditorium. The action affects both the audience and actors. The challenge is to create an environment that makes the audience a part of the conversation without making it feel forced upon. In Violet Hour, an Uma production, staged in Chicago, a “paper storm,” engulfed the audience from above, below and all sides. In Faith Healer, also staged in Chicago, whiskey vapors swam through the room to create the atmosphere of a pub. “I’ve come to realize more and more that audience has to be a part. The thing I connect to is how every choice I make is related to the audience,” she explains.
With this knack for communities and leadership, it is little surprise then that Mikhael seems to create theatre groups wherever she goes. She already has one theatre company behind her and, by default, has created a second one. She started Uma Productions in 2001 in Chicago. The name is inspired by the Russian word umilenie, which in essence means “living life to its fullest.” The company’s plays ran to critical acclaim for over five years. Chicago Sun Times favorably compared Uma’s Faith Healer with the one on Broadway (that featured Ralf Fiennes), calling it a “breathtaking revival of the play.” It won a Jeff Award in 2007, given by the Joseph Jefferson Awards Committee, to honor excellence in professional theatre produced in the immediate Chicago area. Mikhael’s move to New York, to join Columbia University, put Uma on indefinite hiatus. Today, she is the artistic director of the 14-member The New Ensemble, in New York, which was created just this spring, and works with ideas of immersive theatre. The Ensemble members are professionals and students with wide vision and limited resources. They staged the successful Nonplay: Shadows of a Dream, at Horace Mann Theatre in New York, earlier this year.
TimeOut Chicago put Mikhael on the list for “20 people to watch out in 2007.” The magazine wrote of her work, “So whichever room the actors are in, you are in, too. Pair that with vibrant yet grounded acting style….when you first see it, makes you feel like you’ve discovered Something.” Where does she see herself in the continuum of immersive theatre? Mikhael replies that being a MFA student at Columbia University has helped her find mentorship and has improved her understanding of her own work. Working with theatre director and Artistic Director of SITI Company Anne Bogart and theatre director Brian Kulick has allowed her to place her work in the larger context of immersive theatre.
Being the eldest in a close-knit family, Mikhael has always interpreted her own role in the context of community. Her belief in family and community can be traced back to her childhood. Her parents send a scanned copy of their elder daughter’s bat mitzvah vows. The date reads May 03, 1992. In 12 type written sheets with hand written marginalia and editing, a 13-year-old Mikhael writes about the meaning of “officially becoming a Jewish adult.” The vows are a combination of sacred verses and her personal views. The document is precious in its sincerity. It reads in part, “If you feel your life is full and you’re filling the lives of others. Then it’s a blessing you choose such a path.” She writes towards the end, “When looking back on different Jewish traditions, in my life, one word come to my mind, Family.”
This almond-eyed and crescent-mouthed director spent her childhood, with her family, in and around Washington DC. She grew up learning dance and watching theatre. She stayed away from the games field and stayed with her books instead (which varied from history to science). Her father, Steven Garver, a lawyer and photographer, recounts, “By the age of three Mikhael could tell you the difference between ‘Annie’ the movie and ‘Annie’ the Broadway show.” Her younger sister Rachel who admits “tagging behind” Mikhael, remembers the road trips of youth. The car would be packed with food and costumes as they travelled to different dance contests across the state and beyond. Reveling in the makeup and colors, she would run errands for her big sis. Mikhael not only danced through youth but she also sang. She even sang the national anthem for a few Washington Wizard games.
When talking about the past, Mikhael often says, unsentimentally, “I wasn’t built to be an actor.” She took up dancing at a young age on a pediatrician’s recommendation, as she had a “very minor problem with her spine,” remembers her mother, Patrice Garver. Through school, she would dance 16 hours a week and even had a key for the studio for the weekends. She had to have foot surgery when she was in college. What dance did she study? She knits her eyebrows and replies, “Everything. Jazz, ballet, modern, tap…” Dance, for her, is not about different forms, instead it is about the interpretation of time, space and the body.
Dance and theatre were her passions, though neither she nor her parents thought theatre would come to define her so completely. Mikhael’s grandfather, two great aunts, two great uncles and her best friend’s mother were sick with cancer. Seeing her grandfather’s battle, she grew up thinking she would become an oncologist. When she joined Northwestern University she wanted to do genetics and arts. But its theatre facilities, like a 1000-seat proscenium theatre, and the opportunities to direct elaborate student productions, gently urged her towards theatre and away from science, ensuring that she graduated with a B.S.S.P. in Theater 2000.
While Mikhael is the director-choreographer of Uma plays like Enter Alice, dance has also had a more profound influence on her work as a director. She interprets space through dance. “I’d grown up as a dancer. I had a keen understanding of space,” she explains. In her sophomore year, she came across Viewpoints, a technique of improvisation that was first based on dance but then adapted for actors by Anne Bogart and SITI Company. It is through Viewpoints and concepts of dance that she makes her actors understand their relationships with each other and the audience.
Although Mikhael was born and brought up in the United States, her family is “ultimately from Ukraine,” she says. Of Jewish descent, they lost ten members to the pogroms of Europe. In high school, she went to Ukraine, to see where she was from. She looks upwards and says with an inaudible laugh, “I went with a group of opera singers!” She hasn’t returned since, but Russia finds its way into her work. She reveals a deep fondness for the Russian playwrights, be it Chekov or novelist and short story writer Nabokov. Why does she like them? “Because the inner working of their play is romance. It is not the ‘I love you’ romance. But it is the Russian frosted-glass romance.” It is also about the romantic ideals of art.
Her thesis production at Columbia University and current project is Black Snow, based on a novel by Soviet novelist and playwright, Mikhail Bulgakov and adapted by American playwright Keith Reddin. As February approaches, Mikhael is living in a world of Communist grays, old mirrors that reflect their own truth, severe winters and sardonic humor. The play deals with the existential questions of life and creativity, but with wit and humor. It appeals to her because it goes beyond the story of a man writing a play. “It asks why we (artists) do what we do”, she says. For her, theatre and being an artistic director, is about reaching out and connecting to the world.
One of our initial meetings is at the downtown Think Café, adjacent to New York University. It is a café of worn wood and worn out couches. Mikhael’s eyes are big with worry as she sits hunched over her laptop with her stage manager and costume designer. It is not the despair of tantrums, it is the despair of pursed lips. She pulls at her short curls, trying to straighten out her hair and problems simultaneously. She has just been informed that she cannot stage Black Snow the way she had envisaged at Riverside Church theatre. She had wanted to use the greenroom as the main entrance for the audience, but the idea has been struck down by the management. The way the audience enters the space moulds her vision of a play. She asserts, “I cannot go to step two, till I know how the audience enters”. She is now compelled to re-imagine the entire play. “What is (heart) breaking is that I’ve invested a lot to be at Columbia and with the amount of money we put in, it is difficult to swallow that simple things can’t be solved,” she says.
Her costume designer Sydney Maresca says to this experienced director, “We know you are mad. But we know you will figure it out.” Her productions team’s faith in her seldom seems misplaced. Our next meeting is at the imposing Riverside Church Theatre on the Upper West Side in New York. Phoenician Women, adapted and directed by Karin Coonrod is to be staged in less than an hour. The cast slowly slips into character through a series of choreographed exercises. Mikhael and her team gently tip-toe around the stage, realizing its possibilities and limitations. Here is when two stages of the creative process coincidentally cross paths. One stage is where the director first encounters the space and tries to make it her own. The other stage is when the space is tamed and the actors are all set for the performance.
Mikhael bristles with a new energy. She still doesn’t like the space but she has a solution. If opportunity comes pounding at the door of Sergei (the main protagonist of Black Snow), it has come whispering to Mikhael. She had spent the previous night reading and re-reading the play, mapping its trajectory with lines on a paper. Through her doodles, she has figured out how to make this space work for her. She later details the mechanics of the play to her team. It involves - action on two levels, audience movement, 26 integrated musical moments and an elaborate set of bulbs and photographs. She says, “So it will be small. I tend not to bite off more than I can chew.” Her team erupts in laughter.
“She is a leader,” is a common refrain from actors, designers and classmates who have worked with Mikhael. Brian Carter, a member of the New Ensemble and a lead actor of Black Snow, tells me spontaneously, “She is a superstar. I’ll just follow her. We did Nonplay together and now we are doing Black Snow.” Artists believe in her, because she works through problems looking for solutions rather than falling to bits. Finding that direction is still largely an “old boys club”, she is consciously and unconsciously “one of the boys,” she says, toying with her All Star sneaker which rests on her knee, before throwing her hands behind her head and leaning back. Her belief in collaboration yet leadership is evident in her body language, which is casual yet authoritative. She believes in teamwork, but she is the constant caretaker and the final leader. Her designers come to her with different possibilities, she decides the final outcome. Her speech is assured and devoid of hesitation. She is in control and is aware of it. Watching her work is to watch the same vision being created simultaneously in different heads.
Mikhael is successful at collaborating and leading because she knows her own mind. During the meetings with her cast and crew she constantly refers to the “play in my head.” For her, the play in her head serves as the “ultimate intention.” For Jon Faris, Managing Director, Uma, Chicago, it serves as that “fantastical place where there are no limitations.” For Rachel, it is the magic that Mikhael believes in – be it the magic of love, family or community. It allows her to see things as they can be and not merely as they are. Anne Bogart acknowledges this “play in her head,” when she writes, “She always has a vision of what she wants to do and she can communicate that vision.”
Her “big dream” is to communicate that vision further. She is already deeply involved in the Emerging America festival at Boston with A.R.T. Holding onto her coffee, as the bus zips from Washington DC to New York, she says, “I want to create theatre events where people believe that they are a piece of it. The dialogue is what happens before and after”. She is leading the movement for “club-theatre artists,” which uses the space of a club for theatre and which helps identify artists at the grassroots. With the audience able to nominate club theatre artists, it will only further the cause of immersive theatre, as the audience will be part of the process and dialogue from the very beginning.
Finally, for Mikhael, theatre is about creating a “metamorphoses of the fragile material of life.” This is a line taken from artist Alexei Sundukov’s book. She frequently refers to its moody images to illuminate the script of Black Snow. Theatre can create magic. It can transform this life. It is an ink blue night with trees the color of cement and buildings the color of the trees. In a grey building, under blue stage-lights all “was washed clean by a thunderstorm. The air was delightful. It softened the heart and made one want to start living again.” A gentle snow silently danced down upon us.
Lights fade out.
The curtain falls on Black Snow.
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