by Nam Phuong Doan '18
Here comes one word to sum up The Don Juan Project: heat.
I have to admit that it was unbelievably blistering to be in Lester Martin that evening because of the actual heat in the theater and the incredible energy that the cast and crew transmitted to the audience. Everyone could see the sweat on the actors’ faces, yet despite all physical challenges, they still lived their characters to the fullest with much wit and charm. There were many quirky and adorable moments that made the audience explode with pattering-like-shower whoops of laughter and excitement, such as when Sganarelle (Damir Dado Cobo) started singing “Wannabe” by Spice Girls on stage, or when Charlotte (Emma Plotkin) and Don Juan (James Overton) dramatically dry-humped each other on the floor. The bellhops really pulled it off by adopting a French-like accent and wearing Converse with different colors; sometimes they even switched shoes. Former faculty member Janis Young intrigued the audience with the role of the pauper, while professor Kirk Jackson rocked the stage with many insights and much expressive versatility under the role of Don Luis, the father of the “serial marrier and irresistible lover” Don Juan. The musical composition and opera singing stood out as an essential element that helped capture the spirit of the play.
To quote director Jean Randich, Don Juan is a montage in which the theater and the opera talk to each other. The project, which was adopted from Moliere’s Don Juan, translated by Virginia Scott, with selections from Mozart’s Don Giovanni, was a big and well-investigated production that Jean and the entire team had been sculpting for months. It was so amazing to see the Bennington’s cross-generation in the project—how current and former faculty members, staff, and students, worked together during the production and performed together on stage. One week after the performance, I had a chance to interview the director Jean Randich, as well as the cast and crew of the project to understand more about how this huge production took place.
Jean Randich—Director (J)
Margot Spanu—Donna Elvire (M)
Tom Bogdan—Choral Direction (T)
Catalina Adragna—Make-up and Hair (C)
Nam (N): In “The Director’s Note,” you said: “We’ve fashioned Don Juan for our time.” How did you fashion Don Juan as you stated? What are the most peculiar attributes of this version of him?
J: Well, he’s young, naïve, a compulsive liar, pleasure-seeking, but even more fugitive than older versions of Don Juan because he is from the internet age and infected with CPA (continuous partial attention). Also he is pansexual. Sganarelle states that Don Juan would marry you, your dog, and your cat. Our Don Juan lives beyond gender binaries.
N: Please share with us your creative process in directing the play?
J: We started with clown work, physical improvisation, and making dances. I knew from the beginning that we would be creating a physical score for every moment in the play and during the music. I just didn’t know how we would do it. As I realized how long the performing time of the uncut play and the music would be, I had to make cuts. This was tough on the actors initially, but paid off in the long run. The hardest things to envision were how the music and the play would come together, and how the projections would change the architecture, space, and temperature of the room. The opera plot doesn’t line up 100% with the stage play—so we wanted to make a dream the audience would dream with us. Sue Rees did a brilliant job creating animated and projected imagery for the entire performance. We only scrapped two ideas that proved impossible to realize in such a short time. Bear in mind we pulled off this tech-heavy show by implementing two dry techs – one for projections, one for sound – in addition to regular technical rehearsals.
The other challenge was dealing with everyone’s time conflicts. We had a huge cast of creative people many of whom had other commitments. What at first seemed adversity turned into good fortune – I think this is referred to as “desirable difficulty”. Whenever someone was absent, someone else jumped in. Sometimes it was my assistant director, Andrew Elk, but often it was another actor jumping in to a different role. This created a fabulous sense of play – “the show must go on.”
N: What are you most proud of about the play? Do you think the actors portrayed well their roles?
J: First, that it isn’t only a play, but a multimedia performance in which the languages of drama, clown work, visual art, video, animation, projection, orchestral music, and live opera all intertwine to create a dream world, a waking dream, that the players, singers and audience dream together. The ensemble listened to each other so deeply that by the second performance the worlds of the actors and the singers began to fuse right before our eyes. I’m also proud of the multigenerational nature of the production. And the explosion of gender stereotypes: women and men were funny, powerful, active, sexy, and willing to make fun of conventional gender roles to reveal human vulnerabilities. They embraced the clown to open themselves up to deep, rich experience.
I thought the actors and singers were amazing. Not only did they work hard to develop their individual characters in depth, but they also practiced listening to each other with their entire bodies. We generated a lot of the action through structured improvisation. Even in the technical rehearsals, you could see actors working out how they would accomplish physically demanding blocking. I also want to mention Julius Fuentes, our choreographic assistant. I brought him on halfway through the process. We showed the cast videos of vogue and club dancing (FKA twigs), opened them up to physical possibilities, and worked with them to find movements for their performance on stage.
N: What is/are some memorable/fun memories during rehearsals?
J: It was always fun, even in auditions and callbacks. The clown work, the fencing scenes, the seductions, “Dalle Sua Pace,” the show down with the Father, the Pauper scene, Monsieur Dimanche and his dog played by Tigger – we laughed so much in rehearsal it was a blast. The first time Tom Bogdan and the singers joined us for Bennington Works, the room buzzed with electricity. I knew that Emma Welch, our amazing stage manager, and her assistants had their own version of the play. After strike, at around 11 pm, I asked if they could perform it for us. They had never done the whole play/opera before, but they did it. They ran through the physical score and threw in as much of the dialogue as they needed to tell the audience the story. The cast and I were in stitches. It was a clown farewell to great ensemble show.
N: Describe your experience of being a part of Don Juan?
C: I was only there for tech week because I was doing hair and make-up for everyone. Jean emailed me exactly the ideas she wanted for each person. Before going in, I compiled pictures that represented the concepts she told me and talked to the costume designer. Then I showed Jean the pictures and she picked out what she liked and what she didn’t. Every single day, I would come in for 3 hours and tried different things on everybody—curling, straightening, curling iron, gel, so much makeup, wires for braids, and a bunch of things I have never worked with before, which was kind of fun. And by Wednesday (the week before the show began), we had a pretty good idea of what everyone was going to have. There were a lot of trials and errors, and having to redo things and take out things. There were a lot of fun concepts, such as the idea of the model Cara Delevinge meets Jersey Shore for one of the characters. There were times that I didn’t sit down for 4-6 hours, but it was fun.
N: How long did it take you to do hair and make-up for everyone?
C: It depends on the characters. For the girls, especially the main girls, for whom I did everything in sets—I had to curl their hair, pin it, leave it in, go do other people, come back, take it out, brush it out, respray it, and then do their make-up. It took way too longer for the girls. For the guys, it took around 10-15 minutes each person. I had to do make-up for one guy who had never gotten any make-up before so there was a lot of crying. For the bellhops, it took a while because of the wires in their hair (inspired by Pippi Longstocking). The male singers mostly just needed powder so that wasn’t too hard.
N: I guess one very important question that is essentially related to make-up and hair is: how did you deal with the heat?
C: When the actors went on stage, we had to turn on all of the lights in the dressing room because they had huge light bulbs on the mirrors to do make-up, but they radiated so much more heat than needed. It was already hot outside but in the dressing room it was like 200 degrees and the actors were sweating their make-up off. I remember when I looked back at one actor, there were already powder clumps on his face before the show even started. I had to constantly used paper towels to dry their hair and face, and reapplied make-up. (Cat also showed me one method to clean the sweat around the eyes area is using too pinky fingers to wipe off the sweat—“under and to the side”—DO NOT RUB YOUR EYES!)
N: How was your overall experience of Don Juan?
T: It has always been a pleasure to collaborate with Jean. We’ve done a hybrid of The Marriage of Figaro, using Baumarchais and Mozart, which was illuminating, a production of Brecht/Weill’s Kleine Mahagony Songspiel, which was reminiscent of the extraordinary creative energy of the Cabaret Scene in Berlin before the Nazi repression, and now The Don Juan Project. Jean’s intense instinct for the power of the music and great interpretation of text made each of these fantastic experiences. My input has been in bringing student singers to newer levels of vocal expression by challenging them with very difficult repertoire and having them grow even more by experiencing the lives of the characters in the plays. Jean’s wonderful kinetic energy has brought bigger life to both aspects of the collaborations and made for rich experiences for all of us involved.
I also believe it is a great privilege to collaborate with the many levels of experience represented in the cast. We learn from each other, what to do what not to do and what to be inspired by. Diversity in all senses of the word can only enrich our experiences and broaden our outlook.
N: What language were the singers singing? Could you give some insights in casting and training the singers? What was the most challenging part of the training?
T: The singers sang in Italian. Most of them had no or very limited experience with the language. The repertoire was very challenging for everyone except for Katie and Alex, who had sung some opera before. The levels of experience were very varied. […] Our casting for the singers was done before the end of last term in order to let them hear and study the music a bit before this term. When we cast the singers we knew the disparity of levels but also knew how so many Bennington students rise to challenges. What was important was that they had the vocal range and a sense of embodiment for the characters. The training sessions with Keane was a lot about repetition and learning how to sing this dramatic music with ability and autonomy. Everyone of the singers grew enormously during this experience and more than met the challenge.
N: How do you feel about the original opera and this new version, in which “the play and the opera talk to each other”?
T: I now that the original opera is genius and I really love the interface of Mozart and Moliere which was created by Jean’s great imagination and skill. We decided not to have translations of the Italian. Instead we chose to have meaningful dramatic situations that could lead the audience to places of appreciation for the beauty and complexity of the music and the human situations that were more universal in the acting.
N: What do you think about your character (Donna Elvira, Don Juan’s lover)?
M: I think Donna Elvira is a very complex and challenging character. It took me a long time to do research and dismantle her. I spent hours just practicing her prideful and elegant walk in heels. This is a new experience for me because most of my previous roles were very comical and dramatized. In Elvira, we see royalty, intelligence, principles, and piousness. I think she is very brave, strong, and passionate. Don Juan is her only love, who stole her away from a convent; before him she has never experienced love and that’s why she wants to be loved so much. She has to make a difficult choice between love and faith, and she betrays her vows for the person who betrays her heart. For her, there’s no “I will love you a little bit” but only 100% devotion. She isn’t bedazzled by his blond wig or money because all she needs is his love. For her, he is a prince on a white horse who shows her the world. Even in the end, as she dies of a broken heart, all she cares for is Don Juan—she forgives him and asks him to save himself.
N: Do you think she has the personality of a woman of our time? Do you have anything in common with her?
M: Donna Margot Elvira shares the principles and pride. I myself have dated a Don Juan for 3 years before and I think a 21st century Donna Elvira would regret nothing. 16th century Elvira believed she would go to hell for her sin, but 21st century Elvira understands that once she loves Don Juan, the rest has to happen. In the scene when all of his women came and kissed him, I was really angry because I should be the only woman he loved, at least I convinced myself so—that was the moment I knew that I made the character mine. Jean gave us a lot of room to be creative so there were a lot of improvisation, such as the slap I gave Don Juan; the play was shaped by us individually. Not only Donna but also the women of the play have a much stronger personality because Jean gave us the power to empower them—she set a mood that we could try anything.
N: What were some fun/memorable moments during rehearsals?
M: It has always been fun and memorable; we laughed all the time. Don Juan is a gigantic production and it was amazing to see little things gradually became big in front of our eyes. As a bi-lingual person from Belgium, I have an accent, which has been a challenge for me in portraying different characters in theater, but Jean never mentioned it. So the accent was no longer a burden for me. You can also see that there were many different accents on stage—everyone had the freedom to make the characters theirs, which inherently made the play very diverse and original.
After the project, the team became really good friends. We even ran over the lines whenever we saw each other. With James, I barely knew him before Don Juan, and it was impossible to hate him on stage after that because he is a huge teddy bear who is so nice and caring to everyone. On the 3rd performance night, the hottest night, when I came back to kiss him the last time, I saw that there were 4 different shades of lipstick from the women who kissed him before me and his makeup was falling down because of sweat; I tried so hard not to laugh. The heat was unbelievably horrendous.
(To be continued)
Photo credits:Abby Mahler