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Behind the scenes of Mary Zimmerman’s ‘Silk’

This article by Robert Loerzel originally appeared in Pioneer Press on April 28, 2005.

It’s late March, and Mary Zimmerman has one month to go before her newest play, “Silk,” opens at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre.

The Goodman’s publicists are busy putting out press releases about the Tony Award-winning Evanston resident’s latest effort. Full-page advertisements for “Silk” are in newspapers.

But Zimmerman has barely begun writing.

“There is no script,” the director tells her actors at the first rehearsal. “I actually did do a few pages, though. … I don’t know that I’ll use them.”

No one, however, appears to be panicking — least of all, Zimmerman.

“We’ll have a script,” she calmly promises. “I’m just taking it a step at a time, and it will reveal itself as it does.”

Zimmerman, a Nebraska native, has been widely praised as an innovator, creating her own distinct style of theater that presents myths and myth-like stories with the fluidity of waking dreams. She has won 10 Joseph Jefferson Awards, a prestigious MacArthur Foundation Fellowship (the so-called “genius grant”) and one of the theater world’s ultimate prizes, the Tony Award, for directing “Metamorphoses.”

Her method relies on quick inspiration.

After choosing a story, she works with a design team to create a set.

She begins writing the script as the rehearsals get under way, keeping an open mind about making last-minute changes as she sees how the play looks and sounds. She says she is “writing for the space.”

All the while, she appears to be having fun, and her sense of playfulness can be contagious.

Zimmerman and the Goodman agreed to let Pioneer Press observe the development of “Silk” at several key points. Previews of the play began Saturday, and it officially opens Tuesday.

“Silk” — a 1996 book by Italian Alessandro Baricco — is the first contemporary novel Zimmerman has adapted.

A mere 91 pages long, including plenty of half-blank pages, the spare novel tells the story of Hervé Joncour, a French merchant of silkworms who becomes quietly infatuated with a mysterious, silent woman during his travels to Japan in the 1860s.

“I think I picked it up off a shelf at Barnes & Noble,” Zimmerman says. “I usually have zero interest in adapting contemporary novels, because they don’t come from an oral culture. But this is an epic. It’s a teeny little epic, (but) it’s a sort of Odysseyan story.”

Miramax Pictures owned the film rights to “Silk,” and when Ang Lee (“The Ice Storm,” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”) was planning to direct it for the screen a few years ago, the studio said Zimmerman could do a stage version as long as Miramax would own her script. She wouldn’t go for that.

“I know how I would feel if my work turned up in a movie that I didn’t like,” she says.

Later, when the film was put on hold, Zimmerman’s stage version went forward.

“I think it should be a movie,” she says. “But I’m glad it’s not happening anytime soon.”

Zimmerman, a professor of performance studies at Northwestern University, spent last fall directing an acclaimed version of one of Shakespeare’s most obscure plays, “Pericles,” at the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, D.C. (She will direct “Pericles” next year at the Goodman, where she holds the title of Manilow resident director.)

When some time opened in her schedule, she quickly decided to visit Japan for 10 days late last year, going to some of the places depicted in Baricco’s novel and taking photographs of the trees, gardens, buildings, furniture and clothing. She discovered that one of the locales, Shirakawa, is a historically preserved village with a distinctive architecture reminiscent of Switzerland. In January, she began working on “Silk” in earnest.

SCENE 1

Jan. 31: Design Meeting

Mary Zimmerman — wearing a light blue sweater and blue jeans, with her slightly unruly brown hair pinned in back — is with five of her colleagues in a conference room on the Goodman Theatre’s fourth floor. Scripts for old plays cover two walls. Large architectural-style drawings are sprawled across a long table. A black box, about two feet wide, sits on the table. A light is clamped to the top of the box and plugged into an orange extension cord. An opening on one side of the box reveals a diorama of the proposed set for “Silk,” made out of paper and cardboard. Zimmerman sits down in front of the model and sees the wall that would be used in the France scenes. She laughs.

ZIMMERMAN: Very nice. … It’s green. … It feels so fancy. You know what I mean? I like all the shapes, but I wonder what to do to make it less ritzy … The doors are so narrow — it makes them look so high. It implies a high ceiling … How about smaller doors?

SCOTT BRADLEY, set designer: Then the whole thing will get scaled down.

ZIMMERMAN: Maybe. I could be wrong about this, Scotty, I could be way wrong … but the scale looks like they’re in Louis the XIV … The green — I’ve got to find what I want — I’m not doing a good job. It’s this particular, very common French wall treatment.

She looks away as Bradley reaches into the top of the box and rearranges the pieces, simulating what will happen when the front section of the set rises to reveal a Japanese room, with a garden visible behind it.

ZIMMERMAN: I have seen sketches, but I haven’t seen — (She turns around.) Oh my God. Oh my God … Fabulous. Oh, it’s so good! (Noticing the lighting designer’s nervous reaction.) Are you having a heart attack?

T.J. GERCKENS: No. It’ll be a challenge. There’s no room to hang much.

ZIMMERMAN (rubbing hands together): OK, and then what happens? (Speaking aside to Scott Conn, production manager.) Have we broken the bank yet?

CONN: No.

ZIMMERMAN: Should I close my eyes?

She turns away again as Bradley prepares the model for the next scene, revealing more of the Japanese garden. She turns back to the set and peers over her glasses.

ZIMMERMAN: I didn’t think I’d like something abstracted like this, but I kind of do … I know there’s something missing in this … There’s just something compositional I want to see here, but I don’t know what it is. Something with a prop, nothing major.

She picks up a model of a red staircase.

ZIMMERMAN: Now explain this to me. When does it appear? It’s sort of operatic and theatrical. … The disadvantage is that it pushes it into the artsy thing. It feels like opera. I’m attached to it as an object, but I’m not sure that it’s right. … I also think it’s an excess, given that I have only one moment that calls for it.

They look at the cardboard cutout of a pine tree at the back of the set, and properties master Alice Maguire brings out samples of fake evergreen branches.

ZIMMERMAN: In the book, he’s in a grove of cedars, and cedars are everywhere, but they’re not as Japanese-y and as pretty as that.

MAGUIRE: We found some other stuff that’s great, but I’m not sure if we can get it.

ZIMMERMAN: I don’t want wires.

BRADLEY: It’s going to need some just to keep it upright.

ZIMMERMAN: I don’t want to see any wires — at all.

JOE DRUMMOND, production stage manager: I’ll write that down. The minutes will reflect: “No wires.”

SCENE 2

Feb. 4: Auditions

Flanked by three associates, Zimmerman sits behind a table in a rehearsal room at the Hubbard Street Dance Studios. One wall of the room is covered by mirrors. A chair sits out in the middle of the room. Thirteen actors and actresses enter the room, one at a time, and perform short “sides” that Zimmerman has written — pages adapted from the book, which may not end up in the final play. Zimmerman’s assistants are almost expressionless, but she laughs easily and frequently, smiling as she takes notes. She is unfailingly complimentary as each actor leaves the room.

ZIMMERMAN: Very nice. Very good. Thank you for being so completely rehearsed. … It was a pleasure. … Nice to meet you. … Excellent. It’s a delight.

After the morning auditions are over, she talks with her assistants, quickly ticking off a list of actresses trying out for the role of Hélène, Hervé’s wife.

ZIMMERMAN: I like her a lot. … She did not impress me that much. … I don’t think she’s quite right. … Her, not so much. … Good, but a little old. … I liked her. Where are my notes? … She’s not quite right. … She’s a really, really good actress. I think she’s a little too old. … To be honest, all these Hélènes make me say: “It’s Colleen.” (Turning to reporter.) Now you hear the coldness.

None of this morning’s actresses have impressed Zimmerman as much as Colleen Delany, whom she was already considering for the part. She leaves for lunch and her daily ritual of doing the New York Times crossword puzzle.

ZIMMERMAN: A couple of the roles are cast — the important ones — but it is getting a little late. (She raises an eyebrow and laughs.)

SCENE 3

Feb. 19: Design meeting

Zimmerman and her design team reconvene. As Bradley sets up his model, Zimmerman pets her dog, a tan-and-black shepherd mix named Beary (pronounced ‘‘Barry’’) who has come along for the day. She introduces three of her graduate students from Northwestern, who will be observing the play and acting as her assistants: Jisoo Chung, Raffaele Furno and Heather Schwartz. Zimmerman sits in front of the model.

ZIMMERMAN: I had a thought that woke me up in the middle of the night. The box seats — are they going to be able to see?

BRADLEY: Oh, yeah.

ZIMMERMAN (pointing at the model and turning to the students): This is France.

FURNO (laughing): We figured.

ZIMMERMAN: Colorwise, it should be less various. … It has a fair amount of relief. I don’t want it to have the brushstroke-y look. Grad students, I know it looks grand for Hervé’s world. (She holds up the chandelier and refers to the scene when Hervé and Hélène will make love.) This is just for the Riviera. What if we could lower that chandelier to only about three feet above them? Think of how unexpected that would be.

BRADLEY: I’ve also got a couple of “hangsy-downsies” for the brothel.

ZIMMERMAN: That’s a very professional theater term.

Bradley rearranges the pieces of the model to demonstrate several other settings from the play.

ZIMMERMAN: I just feel like there are infinite possibilities. It’s highly manipulable. It’s both complex, and it’s not. It’s not fussy. I don’t feel indulgent, you know what I mean? It’s not too much.

BRADLEY: Here’s something for when we go to burning the (Japanese) village down — how do we put this black silk? Is it coming down? (He holds a torn piece of black plastic bag inside the model.)

ZIMMERMAN: I think it’s coming down. I kind of like the more abstract treatment of it — a big black piece of silk with a fan blowing from above. (She turns to Conn to ask about the budget.) OK, fantastic. So what can’t we do?

CONN: That’s probably the lowest I’ve seen a Mary Zimmerman show go over (budget) — $17,000.

BRADLEY: $17,000 over?

ZIMMERMAN: That sounds bad?

CONN: That’s not bad at all. Not for a first go-through.

He jots down some numbers on a spreadsheet. Zimmerman suggests a change in how the French walls will be built — instead of cutting a pattern into the wood, simple frames could be applied to the walls to create a relief effect.

BRIAN PHILLIPS, technical director: That would save lots of money.

ZIMMERMAN: And I actually think it’s better. Actually, what we’re talking about is more what I had in mind.

CONN: That’s why it’s good to have these meetings.

ZIMMERMAN (rubbing hands together): What else can we cut? (She picks up a cherry blossom and holds it through the top of the set model.) If we were doing an opera, we could do that: Japan is one big cherry blossom.

BRADLEY: Oh, I’m there.

ZIMMERMAN: I’m not. I like the details and the realism.

She turns to speak with Alice Maguire about the props that will be needed.

ZIMMERMAN: There may be things done in miniature. I’m just warning you … In the Japanese party scene, the rest of the party is dolls … things like that. I have sketches of it, but I’m not sure. I’m just getting this idea in this meeting — perhaps on the table (in France), there’s little models of the buildings in the village … I’m just not sure what we’re going to do with the garden at the end. I’m trying to think of some coup d’theatre.

SCENE 4

March 22: First rehearsal

After more auditions, including a trip to Los Angeles, Zimmerman has cast “Silk.” The actors include four who worked with Zimmerman on “Pericles” in Washington: Ryan Artzberger as Hervé, Colleen Delany as Hélène, Glenn Fleshler as Frenchmen Baldabiou and Elaine Yuko Qualter as the mysterious Japanese woman. Christopher Donahue, who has been in several Zimmerman plays, will narrate. Tohoru Masamune, whom Zimmerman found in California, will play the Japanese character Hara Kei. Philip White, a young actor from Northfield, lands the role of a Japanese boy. The cast and crew of “Silk” meet in a large, gymnasium-like rehearsal room at the Goodman. Everyone gathers at one end of the room, where Zimmerman stands next to the set model. She talks as Bradley demonstrates how the various scenes will look.

ZIMMERMAN: You know how fleetly the book moves. The thousands of things we have to answer are: How much of that is spoken, and how much of that do we show? It doesn’t make sense to bring out a bed for a few seconds. It moves faster than that.

She shows the final scene in Japan, which will feature a lake.

ZIMMERMAN: I don’t know if the lake is going to be blue silk on the stage, or something small he holds in his hand. I don’t really know. (Turning to Bradley.) Like all good teams, we struggled, but I don’t remember the struggle.

BRADLEY: I do.

ZIMMERMAN: It all seems inevitable now. Shall we go on to costumes?

She plays show-and-tell with some silkworm eggs from Japan, then costume designer Mara Blumenfeld talks about her drawings, which hang on the wall. Other than one dress in red, the costumes are mostly black, white and gray.

BLUMENFELD: Often, when Mary and I are working together, we’re inventing a world. … This is very much grounded in two real places and a real time. … The 1860s can be a very fussy, elaborate period, clothing-wise. (We’re) taking all the details of the period and distilling it — trying to keep a spareness.

After additional discussion of costumes, Zimmerman addresses the bigger issue of why she’s directing “Silk.”

ZIMMERMAN: This is the first contemporary novel that I’ve ever staged. I asked myself, “Why this one?” … Part of it has to do with what is there and what is not there. Which of these things is our life: Is it what we do everyday, or is it our inner life?

I myself have experienced most of my life not where I am. Only when I’m in a theater, am I there. In a weird way, the life of an actor has that double quality to it. … I’ve been in love most of my life with people who might as well have been in Japan. …

It’s not going to proceed in the old dramatic way where the audience overhears people talking. It’s going to be told to the audience. … The other big challenge is it’s full of close-ups: the ring, the crease in the pants, their eyes. I’ve got some “idears” about it, (but) the audience can’t literally shift its distance from the image. …

There are a couple moments of projection … Other than that, it’s not a real electronic show. I’ve gone back and forth between thinking music is the most important thing in the play to thinking there won’t be any music at all.

Here’s my scheme for the day. We’re going to read the novel. We’ll each read a chapter. I have no idea if this is a good idea or the worst idea ever.

After a break, the actors sit down at several tables arranged in a rectangle. They take turns reading chapters, as Zimmerman takes notes and occasionally comments on how names and words should be pronounced.

Several members of the production team observe from tables at the side of the room, including Joe Drummond, who is timing the scenes with a digital stopwatch hanging from a cord around his neck. One of Zimmerman’s Northwestern students, Raffaele Furno, who is from Italy, follows along with a book in the original Italian.

When they get to an erotic chapter near the end of “Silk” — a letter written in the female voice, filled with references to the male sex organ — the actors switch on every paragraph to “share the difficulty,” as Zimmerman puts it.

The actors reach the end of the novel, and Drummond’s timer stops at 1 hour, 44 minutes and 51 seconds.

ZIMMERMAN: That was kind of extraordinary, wasn’t it? It does gain from being read aloud … What’s your response to reading it aloud?

JOE DEMPSEY, actor: It was really great hearing it out loud. But it’s so fragile and delicate. I’m a little scared.

ZIMMERMAN: It’s very intimate. But all reading experiences are intimate. Yeah, I know what you mean. How it unfolds over time and lets you add everything up — there are unanswered puzzles.

She asks Furno how the novel’s original words were changed in translation.

FURNO: It’s very blunt. He doesn’t say, “damn,” he says (expletive). He doesn’t say “blockhead,” he says (expletive).

ZIMMERMAN: I think we should keep it or something equivalent.

FURNO: In English, he says, “You idiots.” In Italy, he says, “You’re (expletive) in your pants.”…

ZIMMERMAN: Hervé is very much the subject of the story. Yet we know almost nothing of what is going on inside him. (Turning to Delany, she talks about the audience’s view of her character, Hélène.) They don’t perceive you as a major player in the story, until the very end.

DELANY: Mm-hm.

ZIMMERMAN: I made lots of notes. I have some “idears,” too. There’s only one line in the novel that I don’t like: “War’s a costly game.” It’s movie-like or something.

SCENE 5

March 26: Rehearsal

Over the past five days, the script has begun materializing. Zimmerman has written about 35 pages. The draft takes many sentences straight out of Baricco’s book, though Zimmerman is tweaking the words. Some of the lines become spoken dialogue. Others go to the main narrator, Donahue. Sometimes the characters take over the narration for a line or two, talking about themselves in the third person.

The actors read a new scene aloud as they sit around a table, while Zimmerman eats a sandwich from Arby’s, sneaking a piece under the table to her dog. Then, as some props are placed in the rehearsal space, Zimmerman watches from behind a music stand, where she places her script pages.

ZIMMERMAN: Gosh darn it, did I just tear up a page I needed? Wait, wait, wait, I just have them in the wrong order. Take it from “Six days later.” (She does a little soft-shoe dance as she waits for the actors to start.)

FURNO (sitting on the side of the room, talking to one of the other Northwestern students): She’s in a good mood today.

As the actors run through their scene, the director offers occasional comments.

ZIMMERMAN: Can you guys reunite a little more left of center and can the table be a little more over here? … Give him a little bit of a pause. Let him unfold it. … Pause a little bit longer before you say that. … You look at him and you look down again.

Zimmerman is also trying to figure out the logistics of how the set changes and actor entrances will take place.

ZIMMERMAN: OK, now — oops, oops. Through the magic of theater, this little end table is there. I don’t know how it got there, but it got there. … Can we have a pneumatic lift on the stage at this point? … I so don’t want you to move. I thought about rolling you on, but I didn’t know how that would work. … You should atmospherically exit.

DEMPSEY: Atmospherically exit?

DELANY: Did she just say that?

Artzberger and Delany practice the scene where Hervé tells Hélène he’s taking a trip.

ZIMMERMAN (to Delany): When you say, “Oh, that’s unexpected,” it’s supportive. I don’t want it to be suspicious … Why don’t you stay seated? He can kiss you and touch your shoulder. I know an old French couple. The guy always touches his wife’s shoulder when he leaves the room.

Artzberger and Delany rehearse a dancing scene, which ends with them lying on the floor. Delany imagines she is in costume, wearing a large crinoline dress.

ZIMMERMAN: You’re old dancing partners now, you’re like Ginger and Fred. (She steps in and dances with Artzberger to demonstrate.) Just hold his hand.

ARTZBERGER: Because of the crinoline, you can’t lie down. It will puddle, won’t it?

ZIMMERMAN: I think it telescopes. I could be wrong. It goes down around you, I think. … The chandelier comes down right above your head. It’s very beautiful. I think you should put your head in his lap — and I hope that’s not too clever, in paralleling the girl from Japan.

DELANY: I need help.

ARTZBERGER: Maybe you should retitle the play “Crinoline.”

DELANY: I’m picturing awkwardness. I don’t know.

ZIMMERMAN: If it’s awkward, we won’t let it be awkward. We’ll rip that crinoline right off you.

SCENE 6

April 15: Rehearsal

The script is complete and the actors have memorized their lines — almost. It’s late on a Friday afternoon, after four weeks of rehearsal, but the cast is showing no signs of fatigue or tension.

The actors go through the entire play, pausing occasionally as Zimmerman gives directions. Those actors who are not taking part in a scene sit at a table off to the side, passing time by knitting, reading, working on a crossword or munching on food left over from the cast party that Zimmerman hosted last night at her Evanston home.

The edge of an imaginary stage is marked out on the floor with tape. A strip of cardboard hanging on the rear wall is labeled “TREE.”

Zimmerman sits in a chair behind her music stand, with one foot propped up on the table next to her. She toys with the Goodman I.D. badge hanging on a chain around her neck.

As the actors perform, bits of music and sound effects are playing. Ben Sussman, assistant to sound designer and composer Andre Pluess, is looking at a laptop computer, which displays a list of the music and sound cues, with descriptions such as: “xfade to nighttime sounds of crickets etc.” In one scene, the sound of church bells continues as actor Glenn Fleshler begins saying his lines.

FLESHLER: Doesn’t it feel weird reading over those bells?

ZIMMERMAN: I don’t mind.

FLESHLER: It feels weird.

ZIMMERMAN: When you’re in a French village, life proceeds and those things are going on all the time.

Zimmerman frequently leans over to comment to Sussman as the scenes progress.

ZIMMERMAN: I think this music should stay until the end of his line — and then tweety birds. … I’ve already told you about this. There are too many birds … a little distant. … There’s going to be a little clock ticking in here.

SUSSMAN: It’s going to be a little tricky, going from the bells ringing to the clock ticking.

ZIMMERMAN (hearing the ticking): That’s way too fast.

SUSSMAN: Slower.

ZIMMERMAN (as the scenes go on): Locust-y sort of night sounds … I know this is really corny, but can I see it if the bell rings right when he touches her? … And then it should end — birdies and stuff. … I think there needs to be — I don’t know what.

SUSSMAN: Hmmm.

ZIMMERMAN: It might be that I need to write something.

In one scene, Fleshler crosses almost the entire width of the stage to exit.

FLESHLER: Is there anywhere close I can go out of here?

ZIMMERMAN: You came in that way.

FLESHLER: So you’re saying no.

ZIMMERMAN: You’ve been handling it fine.

FLESHLER: I just don’t feel like I’m leaving him.

ZIMMERMAN: But we’re constantly doing that.

After the actors finish the play, Zimmerman spends just a few minutes giving them her notes. She returns to the topic that Fleshler had raised. She initially refers to the actor by his character’s name.

ZIMMERMAN: Baldabiou — er, Glenn, I think you’re actually right about that long cross. It’s not good. The only time the narration’s weird is when people have to walk off. … That’s something theater has to do that books don’t do and movies don’t do. You have to walk off.

SCENE 7

April 22: Tech rehearsal

The rehearsals have moved into the actual theater where the play will be performed, the Goodman’s Albert Theatre. For the past four days, the crew has been working out all of the technical details the exact moments when lighting and sound cues need to come in, when pieces of furniture and walls need to be moved.

The auditorium is dark, but computer and video monitors cast a glow in the middle of the main floor, where they’re resting on long boards placed on top of the seats. Gerckens, the lighting designer, and Drummond, the production stage manager, sit behind the screens, talking into headsets.

The French wall that was inches high in the model looks immense now on the stage, rising up beyond the audience’s line of sight. Its green color is not precisely what Zimmerman was looking for, but she still hopes to fix that before the official opening night 11 days from now.

The actors rehearse their scenes, but only a minute or two at a time. Then they wait as Gerckens asks for certain lights to be brightened or dimmed.

GERCKENS: Kill 176. Kill 175. … Let’s see 297 full on.

A light in the top left corner casts a large triangle of light onto the green wall.

GERCKENS: Mary, if I could make this look better on the wall, is that what — ?

ZIMMERMAN: Yeah, it’s too yellow, but a line like that.

GERCKENS (to an assistant): That angle, all the way from the cornice at the top there down to the chair.

ZIMMERMAN (to Donahue, one of the actors onstage): Chris? When was the last time you spoke? … Maybe you should … leave. (Laughter.) And maybe you shouldn’t say, ‘‘And they never saw each other again.’’

DRUMMOND (to Gerckens): Wait a minute. You just made a cue. Where does it go?

GERCKENS: Cue 237, on ‘‘They never saw each other again.’’

DRUMMOND: She just cut that line.

The French wall rises, revealing the outdoor look of the play’s final scene: wide open space, a garden of tulips, a towering evergreen tree with no wires visible. The blue cloth that Zimmerman envisioned for the lake is not ready yet.

ZIMMERMAN: We’re waiting on a big lake effect, which will not be here for the first preview. … Please know that anything that sucks right now I’m well aware of. I will do my best to unsuckify it.

Gerckens adds a lighting effect that looks like the reflections of a lake’s undulating water.

ZIMMERMAN: I like the lake effect, T.J.

GERCKENS: I love it on the tree. Once I add some focus, I’ll love it on him (actor Ryan Artzberger). I’m not sure how much else I can add. Should I add it on the sky? It seems odd to be that dark.

ZIMMERMAN: Yeah, let’s see that. (The back wall changes from black to a light blue.) Who knows? If we don’t like the blue cloth, maybe we will do solid flowers everywhere. There’s still time. … I have a thought.

She walks onto the stage and moves one of the tulips to the back of the stage. She stands back from the flower and looks at it with her hands on her hips.

ZIMMERMAN: Just distant, you know what I mean? Maybe we should make small ones.

BRADLEY: For forced perspective?

ZIMMERMAN: Yeah.

Tonight will be the final dress rehearsal, followed by a week of preview performances, with more rehearsals scheduled in the afternoons, leading up to opening night. Before taking a dinner break, the actors rehearse the bows they will take after each show. And then Drummond has one final piece of business.

DRUMMOND: Ladies and gentlemen! Do we have any safety concerns for this evening? Anyone feel any danger?

No one responds at first, but then everyone laughs as Zimmerman voices her own fear.

ZIMMERMAN: I might get my heart broken.