Natasha: Rachel, you have such a great visual eye but you’re also a generative artist with your company The TEAM, so you have a lot of experience in the early creation of a show as well. When we were all first talking about PRELUDES, what elements jumped out as exciting for you in terms of directing, and what has stayed with the piece?
Rachel: Because I’m always so insecure about my visual sensibility, I tend to start by going to the picture collection and doing a lot of lateral thinking research there—pulling envelopes of pictures that feel like they directly relate, and then those make you think of an envelope that doesn’t directly relate. And so early on, I pulled the pictures of Rachmaninoff, and we very quickly settled on that Bob Dylan one.
There were a whole bunch of pastoral images—I got really into the paintings that were on the china of the time period, like birds and outdoor imagery. And then I learned that Rachmaninoff had grown up initially in the countryside and then moved to Moscow, and he and his wife eventually (when they were significantly older) had this villa in Switzerland, which was very beautiful. Nature was always a huge part of his life, so that felt really important. And then going off the china, it actually relates to a production of UNCLE VANYA that I did at grad school in 2007. I’d gotten really into cups everywhere, and that kind of clutter. I was thinking of the clutter of Rachmaninoff’s brain, and what happens if you haven’t left your house in a long time. The accumulation. When I get to be home for a long period of time and I’m working, it just ends up looking like there are coffee cups everywhere. That idea of clutter ended up taking on a major, major manifestation with what we now call ‘The Pile’ upstage—which are all of these elements that are inspired by an image of a junk store that Mimi Lien [PRELUDES set designer] pulled. Somewhere that you walk into, and there’s just a sea of furniture. So those two— interior clutter and exterior peace—are the two main visual ideas at work in the show, and they end up fusing with a final image toward the end.
Natasha: You both are so generous and inclusive of the cast during the process of creating a new show. How did they play into developing PRELUDES from all those early ideas to what’s onstage now?
Dave: Well, three of our six actors have been with us since the beginning, and it’s been amazing to work with them—Or Matias, especially, since he has such a huge musical voice in the piece. So it’s been great to get their feedback as we were going through and seeing how the piece was developing. Yeah, we’re both big believers in having it be a very open room where everyone can voice quick questions and opinions. And we’ll ask them ‘Do you like this line? Which line is better?’ [Laughs]
Rachel: Chris Sarandon [Chekhov/Tchaikovsky/Tolstoy/Glazunov/Tsar Nicholas II/The Master] did a ton of research on each of the men that he portrays and brought a significant amount of knowledge to that. He had a lot to say about the Tsar, for example. And there’s now this small but major element of the Tsar scene where you’re just watching Chris’ feet in the air, because the Tsar was quite short, and he thought that would be really funny. So that’s totally rooted in something Chris brought.
Dave: Also, because the piece is about hypnotherapy, Rachel and I met with a hypnotherapist and he actually came in and did a group session with everyone. So that’s another part of it— talking with the cast about their own encounters with hypnotherapy and therapy in general. That’s been another really rich conversation with them.
Natasha: There’s a lot in the musical that’s perhaps unexpectedly true, and just so fascinating. Were there things that you came across that were true and fascinating that you couldn’t fit?
Dave: There are other little tidbits from later in Rachmaninoff’s life, but I feel like for this period, we got most of the main bits! There was actually one thing—Or was reading some really amazing letters from when Rachmaninoff was writing operas. There are some letters from Rachmaninoff to his librettists which are just so rude and awful.
Rachel: Yes, they’re amazing...!
Dave: They’re like ‘I know you will not be offended if I choose to change some of your words because if the words are distasteful to me, it’s going to be distasteful music, so I will do whatever I want with your words, and you should find no offense in this, ‘cause this is just what’s going to happen.’ [Laughs] I just think ‘God, what if I wrote an email like that—I could not imagine!’ So there are other parts of the biography where this asshole side of Rachmaninoff pops up, which is in the play a little bit, but that’s very much not something we focused on.
Rachel: I think the things that aren’t in there are things that shouldn’t be in there. But, one of the things that Dave and I talked a lot about is how different it is to be sad when you’re 19 versus to be sad when you’re 27 versus to be sad when you’re 45. And that balance and slow blossoming of sorrow—I know I’m at the age where I’ve now passed very firmly into adulthood, and I no longer consider myself ‘young.’
Dave: Yeah… [Laughs]
Rachel: And I’ve watched that in my friends who I’ve grown up with, as well. So I’ve thought about Chaliapin and Natalya’s relationship to Rachmaninoff, and of watching that change over the period of three years. And that Rachmaninoff was friends with Dahl throughout his life, and in therapy throughout his life. Neither of those facts should be in the piece, but are related certainly to what’s getting discussed here.
Natasha: The piece is so relatable—pulling stories from over a hundred years ago and making them relatable is something you both have done so well, in both COMET and in this. Why do you think people sympathize with Rachmaninoff even if they’re not writers? Because I think people will!
Rachel: Certainly it’s a huge thing that Dave and I have been talking a lot about: that this is the story of someone who has writer’s block, but it’s also the story of someone (whether they have the language for it or not) realizing that there’s a larger sadness that we might now classify as a clinical depression or a periodic depression. When we first started working on this, I gave Gabe [Gabriel Ebert, playing the actor-half of Rachmaninoff] a copy of a book called The Noonday Demon by Andrew Solomon, which is a heartbreaking book. It’s called an ‘atlas of depression.’ It’s so beautifully written and it charts all different kinds and qualities of depression, from the sort of purely psychological to cases of traumatic stress. And Rachmaninoff is experiencing both because there’s the trauma of the premiere of his first symphony, but there’s also probably an underlying sadness that emerges during this time period. I think that’s very relatable. And watching Natalya (his cousin/fiancé) struggle with being in a relationship with someone who has this bottomless sorrow is very, very relatable for anyone who is outside of the arts or in the arts.
Dave: Yeah, that was a concern of mine as a writer, to make it not just be a piece about an artist. I was thinking about how a lot of his depression stems also from having this amazing early success—this C# minor prelude— which he wrote when he was 19. He was kind of the toast of Russia for this period. So now at 27, he’s dealing with that fear of ‘What if the best days of my life are now over?’ That’s something I see all over, when you think about your glory days and high school and you’re on the football team... Thinking ‘How do we move from those amazing years in high school or college, and into adulthood?’ And you realize ‘Oh that’s over now. What if those were the best years of my life and now I have nothing to look forward to?’ So, dealing with that kind of thing. And a lot of those things I just said are lines directly from the show!
Read Part 1 and Part 2.