BWW Interviews: Directors of THE SOLDIER'S TALE Talk About Innovative New Take on Stravinsky's Multi-genre Play

Aurora Theatre Company presents a fusion of dance, music and acting in its production of "The Soldier's Tale" now through December 18. The show features music written by Igor Stravinksy. Directors Muriel Maffre (choreography) and Tom Ross (staging and acting) tell Broadway World about the show, which tells of a soldier and his deal with the Devil. Muriel, herself, takes to the stage as the puppeteer behind the soldier puppet, which she originally conceived for a music festival at Orcas Island. 

As a prima ballerina, Muriel brings innovative choreography to the production, which is much needed on the small Aurora stage. For this production, the orchestra has been pared down to four members instead of the intended seven. The music features folkloric, tango, jazz and classical sounds. Characters often speak over the music. Instead of having one narrator read all the parts, actors and dancers share the parts with the narrator. 

Muriel and Tom talk about the challenges, inspiration and history behind the show. Read the full interview below.

Describe the show's story for those who don't know about it. 

Tom: Stravinsky wrote this piece in 1918. It was written as an unusual piece for him - it was written for a small group of performers. It was written for seven musicians and three actors and two dancers. It was kind of created to travel around the countryside into places that a big symphony would not play. It wasn't devised for Symphonic halls, for example, but for more intimate spaces. He compiled, sort of took a number of folk tales about soldiers and the Devil, and put them together in a... it's not a fairy tale, because it's too deep and dark, but into a tale that would be performed with musical interludes.

Muriel: The story is the Faust story. A soldier coming home, on leave, going to his village to visit his family. And on the way he encounters an old man that we learn later on he's the Devil in disguise. And this old man wants his violin, the soldier being a musician. The soldier is not too keen on the idea of separating himself with his violin, but the old man has this book that foretells the future and the economics and how to become rich. So, eventually the soldier trades his violin for these books. The story unfolds, and that turns out to be a really bad choice. The soldier becomes rich. He realizes that's not going to make happiness. He leaves everything behind and starts traveling far away to another land, and there he feels that he has a second chance to find happiness. He learns that the daughter of the king is ill, and whomever revives her will have the chance to marry her. He was a doctor in the army, and he might have a chance. The Devil has followed him all this way, and the Devil thinks that only the violin will be able to bring her back to life. The soldier realizes that he doesn't have the violin. His chances are not that great. So, he engages the Devil in a game of cards and is able to win his violin back. With the violin he revives the king's daughter, and they marry, and have a happy life until his wife, the daughter of the king asks him to go back to his own land. And we learn in the mean time that the Devil is exasperated by the soldier and cursed him, and the curse is that if he leaves this kingdom, this new land where they are, and go back home, if they pass the border, he will take him away. A long time passes, so, he makes the decision to go back, and as they're arriving approaching the village the Devil is waiting for him. It's a bit of a dark story.

Muriel, you have a history with this show. Tell me about that and how it led to Aurora's production.

Muriel: In 2006 I was commissioned by the director of the music festival on Orcas Island. She was interested in doing a staging for her festival and invited me to create it for her. That's how I started with the process, casting the puppet in the role of the soldier, and working with local artists. When I came back to the Bay Area, I approached Aurora and said this is a work you might be interested in. It involves a beautiful puppet that I would like to introduce and share with the Bay Area audiences. 

The show uses a puppet soldier. Tell me about that. 

Muriel: It is difficult, but it's very compelling, very beautiful. This whole idea of the magical creation of the puppet echoing what's happening in the story, the Devil manipulating the soldier. It presents many challenges, particularly because I'm the only puppeteer behind the puppet. There's a part where I transform and become the princess. 

How do you go about staging something or imagining something like this when you have such a small stage?

Tom: It's a challenge with any piece that we do here because most plays are created, they're usually visualizing a proscenium stage. So any time you do a piece on our stage you have to do a lot of blocking. I would say they're heavily choreographed, even though they may not be musicals, because you want the audience on all three sides to be having somewhat the same experience. What we're doing with this piece is the set, the musicians are upstage, and I didn't want the four musicians to be on the floor in a row. I thought that would be boring. So the pianist and the percussionist are both on floor, but our clarinetist and our violinist are raised above that on platforms above them. We have the actors be downstage, as well as the puppet.

Muriel, from a choreographer's standpoint, how do you go about staging something or imagining something like this when you have such a small stage?

Muriel: Movement evolves from the relationship of the body with space. If you're in the action of creating something, you respond to what you have. You're working the three sides [of the stage] at all times. It was tricky logistically to bring the three art forms together, although we're all from the performing arts. I want to make sure that the three art forms are, have equal value in the production, to make sure that the music will be of the highest quality, and the dancing will be of the highest quality, and the acting will be of the highest quality. So, we need to address and coordinate everybody's needs in a way that serves the play. 

The show involves music and dancing and acting. How do you classify a show like this?

Tom: It's a fusion. It's one of the interesting things about it, it's just an odd duck. It's a unique little piece. It's a fusion of all three of those art forms. All three of them are very important in the piece. With the puppetry, as well, because it wasn't written for a puppet.

Why combine so many genres? What does it do for the show and its message?

Muriel: Because they all tell the story in different ways. It makes it richer and more three dimensional. It offers different thought of access for the audience. We all have different strengths of intelligence, and offering them all a different port of access will make that story more compelling. 

Tom: It was written that way. I think it was an experiment. It was a pretty daring thing. Stravinsky was kind of an artistic renegade. He liked to push classical music to new limits. I think he was trying to create this interesting brand new art form. He was also trying to make a commercial piece that people would enjoy and want to see. Almost 100 years later, it still retains all those things.

What is your vision for the show? Especially compared to other productions or a concert production.

Tom: I think it's interesting that we're doing it in this theatre because it's usually done in a concert hall. Frequently it's performed with one actor. I like how we're this, turning it into a very theatrical piece in a theatre. There were lines for the narrator. We've moved those lines for the soldier. Made it more like a play. Our actors are memorizing the script. They're not walking around with a book in the hand. It has more of the feeling of a play or a musical in that way.

The show is often done by a full size orchestra. Why par it down to so few?

Tom: We're a 150 seat theatre. A very deep thrust from the audience, they sit on three sides, and our stage is only 30 by 15 feet. So, there's no room on our stage to put seven musicians. So, Stravinsky had rewritten some of the piece in suite form for three pieces, for piano, violin and clarinet. Our music director, doing a workshop we had about a year ago, suggested we also add percussion, so we're doing it with four. Why do it smaller? That's what we do. We create very intimate shows. I got really intrigued with this idea of how emotionally more connected you could get to theatrically. These large grand pieces, just bring them down to a more intimate scale. To have this piece on the smaller Aurora stage with the audience on three sides and having Muriel, the former prima ballerina, dancing it on our stage it's going to be a magical experience, I believe for the audience.

Was it more difficult to mount than a regular play, since it has to have the musicians and dancers in addition to the actors?

Tom: It's somewhat like doing a musical, where in rehearsals, for example, we have a music director and sometimes she'll be working with the actors in one room on their songs that  sometimes they speak with their dialogue is to be spoken over music. And then Muriel will be taking the other actor sometimes and working with them on dance moves or with the puppet in another room.

How would you describe the music?

Tom: I think it's easier on the ear than some of his pieces. There are some really just beautiful pieces in this. He was very interested in jazz. It's fun. I like the music. He was also interested in tango music. So it's a very varied score.

Muriel: The music carries a lot of rhythm. The classical tradition that infuses a lot of jazz, or what Stravinsky imagined or interpreted jazz to be. Really fun, irregular rhythm, and then they're also folkloric tunes in the music that are in themselves very colorful.


The Soldier's Tale

Directed by Muriel Maffre and Tom Ross

Based on Igor Stravinsky's 1918 work

Book by C. F. Ramuz

English Version by Donald Pippin

Based on a concept by Muriel Maffre

Fri, 11/11/2011 - Sun, 12/18/2011


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From This Author Harmony Wheeler

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