Award-winning director Lee Sunday Evans answered some of our questions about her approach to directing Stefano Massini’s Intractable Woman: A Theatrical Memo on Anna Politkovskaya, her first collaboration with The Play Company since 2016’s Caught.
What drew you to this play?
Lee: Anna’s dedication to covering the Second Chechen war. I am absolutely floored by her bravery and persistence in the face of insanity-making adversarial conditions, and the enormity of the devastation and violence and suffering she witnessed. I wanted to spend time understanding how she was capable of the prolonged, dogged reporting that she did during this conflict. I don’t think I could do what she did.
Did you know anything about Anna Politkovskaya before reading the play? Has your thinking about her or her situation changed?
Lee: I only knew the most cursory information about her – that she was a journalist covering human rights abuses who was murdered, presumably by some arm of the government. My understanding of her story has changed ENORMOUSLY. I actually have no idea how to summarize the tectonic perspective shift that I have had after doing research for this play. The Russian-Chechen conflict is rooted in centuries of discord and power struggles. Here’s one thing I can say that surprised me about Anna: she had a very clear, wise understanding that even if the war could end, the conflict and violence would not be easy to curb. The events that led to the First and Second Chechen wars are enormously complex and multi-faceted. I’ll share this quote from Anna’s writing, it’s the opening of her book “A Small Corner of Hell” published in 2003 –
“I am a journalist – a special correspondent for the Moscow newspaper Novaya Gazeta – and this is the only reason I’ve seen the war; I was sent there to cover it. Not, however, because I am a war correspondent and know this subject well. On the contrary, because I am just a civilian. The editor in chief’s idea was simple: the very fact that I’m just a civilian gives me that much deeper an understanding of the experiences of other such civilians, living in Chechen towns and villages, who are caught in the war.
It’s important to know that Anna became a singular expert on many aspects of the war. As sociologist Georgi M. Derluguian writes, also in 2003, “Nobody knows for sure what the actual situation in Chechnya is because today it is probably the single most dangerous place on earth to do research. Here lies part of the value of this book by Anna Politkovskaya.”
Stefano Massini [the playwright] allows for some flexibility in how to cast this play. You’ve cast three women to portray Anna? Can you tell us a little about your decision behind this choice? Any thoughts you want to share about portraying Anna onstage?
Lee: This decision was made very much in dialogue with [PlayCo Founding Producer] Kate [Loewald] – casting the play with three women was part of her original vision for producing the play, which I responded to very strongly. I’m less interested in pretending that we are watching Anna on-stage, than I am in the idea that these three women care so much about her story, her experience, and her work that they are stepping into her story to tell it.
Has the political climate informed your approach to the play in any way? Any thoughts about how a US audience might receive the play given the current US/Russia relations?
Lee: Absolutely. I’m very interested in creating a production that asks a U.S. audience to grapple with questions about what it takes to support a free, independent press in our own society when there are uncomfortable truths that threaten something important to the power structure. The production design is in large part conceived to bring the play closer to us. It can feel that this war is far away, in a place we don’t know, a place that could feel foreign to us – I hope that the way we are creating this production will take away any feeling of the play being at arms-length, and in doing so – bring the play closer to everyone’s sense of the pressing questions about what truths are told and which are not, who is allowed to have a voice in our society and why, what information we listen to and value, and what kinds of fiction we accept as truth in the political sphere.
What is your favorite part of directing a show?
Lee: The continuous unpacking of more specificity, more complexity, more nuance, more rigorous thinking with regard to every aspect of a production – the text, the scene-work and the acting, the staging and physical life of the actors, visual details. I love the collaborative curiosity and passion and emotional intelligence that goes into this process of unpacking – it’s a constant challenge and I always discover possibilities for the play and the production that I couldn’t see at the outset. Also, I always love the very first moment you put light onto a set. I always find that to be magical and electric.