A one-man show with a single set shouldn't be all that difficult to pull off, but designer/playwright/actor Anthony Nikolchev created some challenges for himself on Look, What I Don't Understand. Nikolchev felt the work, based on his father's life, required a variety of visions. “I wanted perspectives as different from my own as possible that would force me to confront different ideas,” he says, explaining that it was hard for him to wrap his head around his father's escape from Communism at age 14. Nikolchev, who also plays 20 characters from his own family during their 1960s move from Bulgaria to detainment in America, thought various common understandings would universalize the work, making it less about one immigrant family and more about any American immigrants.
He decided his play required five directors, one for each of the play's four sections and a fifth who would pull it all together. If directors created inconsistencies, this “unification director” would help Nikolchev, who was always present as an actor, work it through with the others.
Not complicated enough? The directors at Thirteen Pocket in Chicago had worked on an earlier production at Wesleyan University. All were students or recent graduates, and none were theatre professionals — they were studying film, literature, and choreography. One was a Barack Obama campaign field organizer. Nikolchev, who graduated from Wesleyan in 2008, brought student lighting designer Anna Martin in during techs, and she worked with each director for a quarter of each day. “They weren't theatre directors and didn't know how to talk to lighting designers,” she says. And, oh, Nikolchev had never written a play before. “We were all beginners at everything,” adds Joseph Stankus, a film major.
But Nikolchev had some background in set design. “I came up with the set design before I wrote the text, and that helped me so much in terms of writing it.” That set, a heavy wooden structure, “is almost a Communist jungle gym. It's unsafe, but it's a play structure. It's heavy, but it can move,” says Nikolchev. When it flips down, it suggests a detainment center with bars. When it flips up, it can be a door and stair. “I could see how the set could turn into a jail cell and a cage,” he recalls.
Not everyone saw it as Nikolchev did it, however. “I didn't have everything in the stage directions,” he says. Would it be possible to do a unified production with five directors and a set that could be anything? And what if each director did the same thing with it and bored the audience?
Moreover, Stankus, who directed the first part and doubled as chief carpenter, says that, as he and Nikolchev began building the set at Wesleyan, they saw their initial idea was “a little overambitious. One person was supposed to be able to pick it up, tip it on its side, and twist it around five different ways,” he says. But the set, built from rough wood and metal, was just too heavy. In Chicago, a new set substituted ladders for heavy rusted metal stairs. Still, the 14'×9'×6' piece was difficult for one person to move.
Nikolchev says he was pleased that his versatile set allowed interpretation. The storylines — one in the past, another in the present — require that a vertical fence opens and closes the show, but directors could do what they wanted with the set in scenes that take place in varied locations including Bulgaria, Congo, and Italy.
It is not so much the narrative structure but the emotional tone that requires consistency. “This is a story about one person trying to figure out what he can't understand, but it has to feel connected from scene to scene,” says Stankus, who says for his scenes, he drew on the logic of David Lynch or Fellini but not so much dream logic as memory logic. “It's what happens when you look back and tell and retell a story,” he says.
“Having the same design for all four chapters forced four directors to speak the same language and focus on the same story, which is a human story,” says unification director Yuriy Kordonskiy, who had served as faculty advisor at Wesleyan. “The design did half my job. It came out of Anthony's passion for the subject. It wasn't an attempt to show off [as student designs can be]. The texture and heaviness of the piece made my job easier…we had to work with a big, heavy piece, which becomes different places.”
“We let the set dictate everything else. When you embrace your limitations, you always find a stronger and smarter way around,” says Stankus, explaining that, in the end, the set moved just twice. “Once we got past the idea of moving it, it made everything else so much stronger. It wound up being a true grand gesture because it didn't move all the time. I had the first move, where it opened up into a doorway, like a curtain opening to reveal a set. At the close, the 300lb. set fell.”
Stankus says the directors had to find alternate ways to be creative and “used lights and performance and allowed the audience to make their own images,” as scenes shifted between a jail cell, a truck bunker, a hotel, and more. As director of the first part, Stankus says he had to make characters and transitions legible to the audience, sometimes by exaggerating them. “The audience has to understand he's playing multiple people and when he's transforming,” he says.
Justin Denis, another of the directors, immediately felt the set's “awkward size and structure possessed great potential to create intimate, humanistic moments within an otherwise alienating, absurdist atmosphere, [underscoring] the play's themes by challenging the audience to contemplate the validity of such concepts as ‘home,’ ‘country,’ and ‘belonging,’ when their traditional meanings have been rapidly transformed by a de-familiarizing experience like immigration.” He emphasized the way positive intimate experiences between father and son could take place in the same physical space where a man is tortured and a woman is interviewed for a job.
Sure, other directors would not highlight what Denis saw as the space's absurdity, but he felt different usages would bring out these themes. And as a film student and Obama field organizer, theatre, to him, is inherently “democratic visual mayhem,” with spectators looking where they like, in contrast to film, where “the director tells you what to watch and how to interpret space and time.”
Nikolchev notes that each section has moments where technical elements were crucial and helped tell the story. “A scene in Congo, where the family witnesses a hanging, required a shadow to look like a hanging body,” he says. “The director and lighting designer worked together, and that moment took a very long time to create in a way that stood out but wasn't jarring.”
Martha Jane Kaufman, director of the fourth part, used the set to suggest different sensations as well as different settings. “When Anthony was up in the cage, it felt very claustrophobic, and things became more urgent, whereas when he was outside on the ground, it felt like there was more space and freedom,” she says. “I organized [my] whole segment around the hanging that takes place in the Congo. We wanted that to take place on a higher plane than everything else. Also it was important to me to bring the set back, at the end, to its positioning from the beginning.”
Kaufman, a dancer/choreographer, did a lot of movement and physical work in rehearsal. “Originally, my segment involved a lot more stylized movement,” she says. Unity demanded forgoing that, but Kaufman says her movement research continued to influence the section in subtle ways. “For instance, we worked on the image of the dead body in the hanging and what that looked and felt like — limp and lifeless — and hinted at that image in other places.” For that, Kaufman asked Martin for sidelighting “so that we could light Anthony's body in a rich way rather than lighting the ground. I think that's because I was most interested in the movement of his body. We wanted to use a specific color on a specific space that could come back at different moments to hint at the hanging body.” Nikolchev says the directors communicated to Martin what they wanted, and she was able to show them things they could respond to, which helped those exploring theatrical lighting for the first time. “The cue-to-cue was interesting,” says Nikolchev. “We didn't want it to be a concept piece where, all of a sudden, we were in a whole different world. We wanted to develop the story.”
Martin says she liked lighting for directors who didn't come from theatre backgrounds. “Even though the directors never saw each other's work until tech, we still had production meetings where we made sure the general aesthetic of the show was unified. We went for an expressionistic and stark look in the lighting, which gave me a lot of freedom to really explore the text,” she says.
Inspired by German Expressionist films of the 1920s, Denis says he asked for low-angled sidelighting and strong frontlighting, with little fill and no backlighting to convey action as both flat and fleeting.
“The number one comment I get from theatre directors is that they can't see the actors' faces,” Martin says. “Because we chose to do it expressionistically, it was okay to not have a lot of frontlight, which makes everything flat but visible. Perhaps they didn't know to ask for it, but I was glad to explore with single source lighting and shadows. I was really proud of the final result.”
Stankus adds that watching the final production was a thrill just “seeing what other people did with the same set.”