Director Nicholas C. Avila loves meeting plays “on the ground floor.” Although Untitled Russia Play is still in development, Avila said that Chautauqua Theater Company’s New Play Workshop may in some ways be more entertaining than watching a show with an ironed-out script.
“In my case, as an audience member, I’ve sometimes seen readings that are more exciting to me than the productions are because my imagination has done work that the production didn’t quite do for me,” Avila said. “(A workshop) asks us to participate in a way that is different — not better or worse — but different than the experience of seeing a fully mounted production.”
Chautauquans have one more chance to see, hear and imagine Untitled Russia Play at 2:15 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 1, in Bratton Theater. The NPW is sponsored by the Roe Green Foundation, and after the show, there will be a talkback in the theater.
Although Avila has been a longtime fan of Lauren Yee, this workshop is his first time directing one of the playwright’s scripts.
“I’ve been a great admirer of Lauren’s work for a few years now, and for me, I’m trying to be a student of her style that she’s developed over the last few years,” Avila said. “I try to be as fluid as possible to make sure that that voice comes through and that the actors are game to sort of play by those rules.”
In many ways, Avila and Yee’s artistic careers run parallel. Both grew up near San Francisco and studied at the Yale School of Drama, albeit Yee as an undergrad while Avila was in graduate school.
“It’s funny that we never met in the Bay Area or that our paths only crossed when we were both working regionally at Denver Center,” Yee said. “Nick was working on one of the workshops at their new play summit, and I was one of the new playwrights newly commissioned by them, and I think our first interaction with each other was, ‘Huh, why have we never met yet?’ ”
Avila, who was already a fan of Yee’s work, said that the two quickly clicked as friends thanks to their shared views on their art form.
“We’ve often had deep, philosophical conversations about either craft and life and how they both intersect,” he said. “It seems, for me anyways, natural and an honor to be chosen (to direct Untitled Russia Play).”
In addition to working alongside Yee, Avila collaborated with CTC’s design fellows and conservatory actors to ground the workshop in St. Petersburg circa 1992. Due to the experimental nature of workshops, Avila said that the set, sound, lighting and costume design elements had to be subtle in case the play underwent any significant changes over the course of its three performances.
Among the conservatory actors playing young Russians adapting to the fall of communism, Hannah Rose Caton plays a rock star named Katya who suffers an identity crisis when her role as a protest artist is threatened by the country’s newly implemented capitalist system. Avila said that sound design fellow Jeff Sherwood’s research was of particular importance to capture the play’s soundscape.
“One of the things in this particular moment in history in the play … is when they opened up the culture in the Soviet Union to accept Western values and principles and choice, and one of the most influential things becomes music,” Avila said.
Although set in another country, Avila said the play is relevant to contemporary American audiences due to the current search for a national identity. He said the role of “Mother Russia,” played by guest artist Birgit Huppuch, draws a clear connection to the American Dream in that each concept carries a deep meaning for those who follow in its tradition.
Avila said he looks forward to seeing how the script for Untitled Russia Play evolves based on the New Play Workshop.
“I think every play, especially at this particular stage in development, is a snow flake,” Avila said. “It’s really exciting as an audience member, for myself even, to see a play at this stage of development and … see how the ideas grow and stick to eventually being the final product.”