A Conversation with Jenny Lavery, Director of NEVA, Theatre en Bloc at Santa Cruz Center for Culture, February 16 - March 4, 2016
by Brian Paul Scipione
Theatre en Bloc, one of Austin’s more daring theatre companies, will be presenting Guillermo Calderon’s controversial play Neva at the Santa Cruz Center for Culture, February 16th through March 5th, 2017. The theatre is described as an intimate setting, and each performances will seat on 40 persons, so reservations are recommended. I was fortunate enough to speak with director Jenny Lavery about the show. Jenny Lavery’s credentials and skills are out-done only by the incredible passion she brings to her work.
Creating the Space
We talked about the challenges of finding a place to put on performances. Many theatres have closed recently in Austin. Lavery confirmed, “Austin is in a crisis of space.” The Off Center and Salvage Vanguard are having issues with keeping their leases and Ground Floor Theatre closed in January, 2016.
“Theater en Bloc is an iterant company so we can fit the venue to the play. I believe the venue is just as much a story teller.” She choose the Santa Cruz Center for Culture because it is locally owned and she wanted to support small businesses, but also because it is near a Planned Parenthood. She likes the visual reminder that will remind the audience that these are troubled times and certain rights are under attack.
This fits in perfectly with the political nature of the play, set in St. Petersburg, Russia on Bloody Sunday, January 22, 1905. It is so remembered because the Imperial Guard fired upon unarmed demonstrators marching towards the Winter Palace to present a petition to Tsar Nicholas II.
Enter the Players
“The actors are awesome. I had never directed any of them before. They all did the best auditions. They bring so much comedy and levity to the play.”
The play is a drama about three actors who show up to do a play and discover they are the only ones there. Lavery embraces any potential irony about the characters bringing humor to a serious situation.
“Chekov wrote comedies but everyone plays them as tragedies. In my opinion, you have to make people laugh before you can make them cry.”
Two of the characters are aware of the shootings on the streets but the third, Olga, widow of famed playwright Anton Chekhov, is not.
“They are wrestling with a lot of heavy topics. It could be a love triangle. They all try to vie for power.” The play’s action moves along quickly since all the characters have different backgrounds, motivations and goals.
“Olga since his death can’t feel anything. She is trying to prove herself as an independent female. The other two have seen something she has not seen. They are the only two who have shown up. They want to impress her but they don’t know if they should be out on the streets.”
And here is the crux of why Lavery has decided to do this play at this time. “I have had the same debate with myself. Why am I in a rehearsal room when I should be in a march on the capitol? The same is true for the audience as well. I think that’s a conversation worth having. I pick plays that cause conversations.”
And the audience is always welcome to linger after a Theatre en Block production to discuss what they seen. Lavery notes that sometimes the conversations last until one in the morning.
“His body of work is considered classic. It’s a well written narrative that transcends time. I believe this is the definition of a classic. That’s not what the play is about. It’s more about Olga’s identity and her reaction to his death. She wants them to re-play his death.”
So Chekhov is a starting point but there’s another interesting factor about playwright Guillermo Calderon. “He wrote the play under Pinochet. During Pinochet’s time the theater was only allowed to do classics.” Augusto Pinochet was the harsh dictator of Chile for years known for his government's violations of civil rights. In a way this production of Neva draws a line connecting three different governments in three different moments of time, all systematically ignoring human rights.
Lavery concludes, “it’s frightening how much is relevant today.”
The Elephant in the Room
We began our conversation by addressing the elephant in the room, the Trump administration. I inquired first if the timing of the play’s production was planned to coincide.
“I will find scripts I really like that I think could be relevant and I tuck them in my back pocket. When the time is right I will pull the trigger. I found out about the piece a few years ago.” So no question there. She also points out that this is “the first time the play has done in the states since Donald Trump has become President. It becomes more and more relevant by the day.”
Then we began to discuss the effectiveness of theater as a component of political and social change. “So for me, the reason why I am an artist is that I have a gift for story-telling. That is who I am. Theater is my church. It is a place where we can go and reflect on what’s happening.”
She went on to explain that it wasn’t just about telling a story but reaching the audience. “Using the character’s eyes we can get a new viewpoint. I believe we can change hearts and minds if we can get someone to consider another viewpoint.”
And then letting the audience stay after the show to discuss what they’ve seen. It is simply a matter of “keeping the space to allow diverse groups of people to discuss what they just saw. I have seen people tell really intimate stories to a room full of strangers and feel safe. I think that is transformative. If we can unite, if only for a few hours, to get together in a space. In times like these I feel like I cannot be alone. So bringing people together helps that. I mentioned I’m struggling with whether I should be working on a play or marching on the capitol. For me it’s not an either/or situation it’s a yes-and. This is just as an effective way.”
Neva by Guillermo Calderon opens on Thursday, February 16, 2017 at the Santa Cruz Center for Culture on E. 7th Street, Austin, across from Huston-Tillotson University.
February 16 - March 04, 2017
1805 E. 7th Street
Austin, TX, 78702
February 16 – March 4 | Performances Thursdays - Sundays at 8 pm
Tickets $0 - $30 plus service fees; VIP couple $70