BWW Interview: Gwen Kingston, Ashley Teague, Teresa Lotz, and Will Turner of ANNA KARENINA: A RIFF at Flea Theater
Anna Karenina: a riff is a fresh, comedic reimagining of the classic Tolstoy tale by Gwen Kingston, opening November 23rd 2019 at the Flea Theater. Created with Notch Theatre Company and featuring an original, folk-punk score by Christie Baugher, Teresa Lotz, Yan Li and Will Turner, Anna Karenina: a riff moves at the speed of a runaway train as it examines the consequences of female rebellion and its echoes today.
Ahead of opening, director (and Notch Theater Company Artistic Director) Ashley Teague, playwright Gwen Kingston, and composers Teresa Lotz and Will Turner sat down to chat about Anna Karenina: a riff, and what makes this adaptation both fresh and timeless.
How would you describe the play in one sentence?
Gwen: Please don't make me do that. I got down from 1000 pages to 100 pages. I'm done.
Ashley: A patriarchy spanking?
Will: Quick, dirty, Russian.
Ashley: Ooo yes, it's a Russian joke that goes bad. Very bad. Tragically bad. But then again...you are warned.
Teresa: "The Borises" tell a timeless story about three women trying to survive a world that's already set against them.
Ashley: To understand Teresa's description you will want to know that in this adaptation, we have a Russian band named "The Borises" (who are a mix of our ancestors, ourselves, and our future generations) that uses original music to guide us through the play.
Question: What was the inception of Anna Karenina: a riff?
Ashley: I was assisting one of my mentors, director Kimberly Senior, on a play called Discord at Primary Stages. The play only had three characters: Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens, and Leo Toltstoy. I'd never really given Tolstoy much (read: any) thought and over the course of that production I learned that the character of Levin in Anna Karenina was basically a manifesto for Tolstoy's belief system. I became curious about who this rather problematic white man was. I'd read Anna Karenina in high school (in 2001), and while I remembered very little of the story, I did remember that at the time, in the bubble of high pressure, high school society, the book resonated with 16-year-old Ashley. I felt seen.
So I reached out to playwright Gwen Kingston and asked her if she thought this classic text might be able to meet us in this present moment in a meaningful way.
Gwen: I first read Anna Karenina with my college roommates in 2012, and one of them happened to be Russian. I remember asking her, "What's the big deal about this book?" And she said that the thing you have to understand is Tolstoy was writing at a time when the Russian ideal of a "good woman" was all about standing by your man. There were these famous images of women walking through the snow to go join their exiled husbands in Siberia! That was a "good woman!" And yet, Tolstoy gives us a female protagonist who flies in the face of all that;she's full and complex and has this rich inner life and we really feel for her. So when Ashley floated the idea of an Anna Karenina for 2019, I knew I wanted to be involved, and I knew that it would have to be about this ongoing cultural conversation about what it is to be a "good woman" and how society rewards and punishes people in relation to that ideal.
Was music part of the plan from the beginning? How did it become such a huge part of the play?
Ashley: I think we always knew we wanted music in the play. And while I was pretty sure we didn't want a traditional "musical," figuring out how the music would work in the piece has been a journey. Our initial workshop took place at this gorgeous ranch in Texas where we began playing with all the ways music might be in the piece. Everything from a Gilbert and Sullivan style song about women apologizing to a folk rendition of an old russian joke where a woman looks in a shop window and upon seeing her reflection states, "too old to marry and too young to die!"
During our staged reading process at the White Heron Theater on Nantucket in fall of 2018, Will Turner composed the first song you will hear in the play, which has remained a part of the work ever since.
Will: Music is such an effective device for setting tone, which is especially useful in a piece where people may walk in with preconceived notions about the material. This is more or less where the opening song came in. As music proved effective, we started putting in more, but I've always been adamant that it not overwhelm Gwen's beautiful words--just little songlets to help break up this epic story and express the emotions characters certainly feel but can't reveal because of the culture they are in.
Question: Tell me about the music in the play and the process of developing it?
Will: I was looking to make something that happily clashed with our expectations of a period piece. A certain stripped-down punk sensibility was an inevitable result. In my mind, The Borises are a combo of Pussy Riot and Gogol Bordello. The addition of Christie and Teresa has brought with it a welcome eclecticism to the music, tied together by instrumentation and Yan Li's superb musical direction.
Teresa: Several months ago, Christie Baugher and I were approached to join the Anna Karenina team as composers. Because of the style of the play, the wackiness, the over-the-top moments, and the underlying honesty, paired with the genuine fun and beauty of the music Will had already created, we had so much flexibility with the musical genre. Will, Christie, and my natural styles are already so different, but we do have a certain level of folk-influence in common. I feel like the process of writing this score was a bit like throwing paint at the wall and figuring out what sticks, but all the paint was informed by Gwen's brilliant words, the dramaturgy of each moment, and a bit of poking fun at the ridiculousness of everything.
Gwen: The dialogue in the play is much more stripped down than the ornate language of the book, but there is still a heightened and period quality to it. The music gives us the opportunity to get much more direct and contemporary with language and sound, and reveal the rich inner lives of the characters. I think the music has become the emotional anchor of the play.
(Above: Michael Vitaly Sazonov and Portland Thomas in rehearsal. Photo credit: Nate Boze)
Why adaptations? Why do we want to revisit these old, dusty stories?
Ashley: We are seeing a lot of female-identifying artists go back to the classics right now. There seems to be an impulse to respond, even now, centuries later, to some of what dominant culture has been saying. It's like, 'hey, you've had your chance to speak (for 1000 pages!), now I've got something to say about it.'
Gwen: I think, in part, it's an outraged reaction to the idea that men get to tell us our history. Ashley and I have been collaborating on another adaptation lately. This one is an all-female Moby Dick (it's called "Dick"), where a cast of female actors get to try on these male roles, explore these male spaces and bodies and ask, "Huh, is this universal?"
Ashley: And it's thrilling to see such a diversity of perspectives coming from women as we excavate these old (dare I say dead) texts, to see so many distinct yet still wholly female responses to them. From the sacred to the profane. Like Varenka and Kitty and Dolly and Anna in the play, they don't all want to be the same kind of woman. That disagreement, that exchange of uniqueness is what makes us, as a community, strong. In order to support one another in making empowered, self-determined, and even vastly different choices for our lives, we have to go back to where those choices began and were taken away.
Teresa: I personally want to believe that Tolstoy is a punk rocker at heart and is, right now, head banging in the afterlife. I mean, I kind of doubt it. But it's an image that amuses me, and I will continue to fantasize... Kidding aside,I believe that reframing that literature is an essential way of understanding it, and women reframing the work of men--women reframing women's stories that were written by men--what a better way to say F you to the patriarchy. I love what Gwen and Ashley have done, and I'm thrilled to have been a part of it.
Ashley: Yes, absolutely, we use theatre to re-live, to unearth and to collectively dream forward into possible futures. We can't rewrite history, but in the re-telling of it, maybe we can, one word at a time, create a new story together. I hope this irreverent and wild show not only makes Tolstoy roll over in his grave, but also leaves our audiences considering how 1880's Russia resonates for all of us in today's America.
Anna Karenina: a riff is produced by Notch Theater Company runs November 23nd - December 20th at the Flea Theater in New York City. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit: http://theflea.org/shows/anna-karenina-a-riff/ or call (212) 226-0051