San Francisco writer-director Mark Jackson and Berkeley's
Shotgun Players have proved to be a formidable combination. Three
years ago, the premiere of Jackson's "The Death of Meyerhold,"
about Soviet theater director Vsevolod Meyerhold, became a huge
critical and commercial success for Shotgun, constituting a watershed
event that upped the artistic stakes for the then-nomadic company
-- all the more so because on paper it seemed like the antithesis
of a sure thing.
"I didn't know how people were going to respond
to 'Meyerhold,' " Jackson says. "We're doing a play with
'death' in the title at Christmas, with the Russian Revolution --
sounds like a good time! How do we market this thing?"
Expectations have been running high for Jackson's follow-up for
the company, "The Forest War," which opened last weekend
at Berkeley's Ashby Stage, now Shotgun's permanent digs.
"The expectation changes how the next effort
is viewed," Jackson says. "At certain points, I felt like,
'Let's not mention "from the guy that did 'Meyerhold.' "
Let's back off from that a little bit, because I don't want it set
up as "Meyerhold 2" -- come see more of that!' It's its
own piece and creates its own world. The company is the same and
the director and the writer are the same and some of the actors
are the same, but it feels like a very different piece with a very
different vibe to it."
Though his new play may be greeted with the usual
scrutiny given a post-hit sophomore effort, Jackson has been active
as a local playwright and director since shortly after getting his
bachelor's degree in directing from San Francisco State in 1994,
both with his own Art Street Theatre and for theaters such as Encore
and the Magic.
"I started doing shows for the public in '95,
so 'Meyerhold' didn't feel like a debut to me," Jackson says.
"But I think, for a lot of people in the community, it was
their debut experience with my work, so it marks a kind of turning
point for me, and for Shotgun, too."
Jackson has been quite busy since "Meyerhold."
He spent a year studying the relationship between theater and dance
in Berlin on a Humboldt Fellowship, came back to direct American
Conservatory Theater master of fine arts students in Bertolt Brecht's
"The Caucasian Chalk Circle," directed the Aurora Theatre
Company production of Oscar Wilde's "Salome" and presented
his play "Bang!" at the 2004 Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
He's also writing and directing "American " (adapted from
Nikolai Erdman's "The Suicide") for Z Space's Z Plays
and Encore Theatre Company, set for a world premiere at the Thick
House in February.
Unlike "Meyerhold," "Forest War"
wasn't written specifically for Shotgun. Jackson wrote it at the
Djerassi Resident Artists Program in Woodside in the summer of 2003,
just before starting his directorial work on "Meyerhold,"
and it developed far from the usual considerations of who, what,
where and how it would be done. He says the play was inspired by
the tall grass outside his window, political conversations with
fellow resident artists, reading Shakespeare's "King Lear,"
watching Akira Kurosawa's "Ran" and flipping through a
book about world mythology at the writer's colony.
"It takes place in an invented ancient Asiatic
land, and a 10-year war has just ended," Jackson says. "The
old king hands over the reins not to his son but to this other guy,
a wealthy noble he thinks will be a better person to run things.
Of course, the son doesn't like that and goes about hatching a plot
to undermine the new king. It's hard for me to sum up the plot because
it's very plotty. At one point, this character Andrea asks, 'What
is justice that does not count love among its laws?' There was something
I was feeling around 2003, the war in Iraq was just getting started,
but there was a mindless momentum, a lack of compassion for other
cultures that seemed very profound and very American. Having said
that, it's also about the pleasure of the theater and melodrama,
of nasty villains being nasty and lovers who are torn apart."
As a director, Jackson is concerned with movement
and visual style, and one of his demands for both shows, unusual
for theater but essential for him, was to have costumes and sets
ready when rehearsals began, so the players would know what they'd
be dealing with. "Meyerhold" drew on the Russian director's
"biomechanics" system of actor training, but Jackson says
that, though stylistic elements in "Forest War" may seem
reminiscent of kabuki, bunraku, Kurosawa or Peking opera, he's not
trying to re-create any of these styles so much as give a whiff
of their flavors to create his own fictional Asiatic culture.
"It's an invented place drawing on these icons
to give it sort of a distance, so there's a gap between the current
themes that it's dealing with and the form in which it comes,"
he says. "In rehearsals, early on, we agreed not to discuss
or concern ourselves with any modern parallels that there might
be. That was already present, and the audience can take care of
that themselves. The intent behind the play is not to make a political
statement purely; it's also to do what theater does best. Whenever
people die, it's this huge operatic thing, when they kill each other
they fly up in the air, and it's very artificial and formal."
Jackson says he approaches directing his own work
much the same way he approaches directing Brecht or Wilde.
"The only difference is that, if I wrote it,
a lot of my directorial homework has been done in the writing process,"
he says. "Once we get in there, if it's my own play, I assume
the playwright is either dead or far away and we can't get to him,
and we just assume that if it's not working it's just because we
don't understand it yet. I try to trust the intuition first, and
ask the actors to do that, too, in their own work."
"The Forest War" feels more like someone else's play than
usual, he says, because it had been written with no particular cast
or company in mind.
"I sort of assumed on some level that I was never
going to see this play, because it's larger than 'Meyerhold' was,"
Jackson says. "The irony is that it's going to be Shotgun Players
that's going to be able to do these larger-scale things, like the
Lorin District project they just did, because they're poor and can't
pay people much. The larger theaters can't afford to do that sort
of thing so much, as a matter of economics. One of the great strengths
of Shotgun is this combination of the support that comes from a
feeling of family and (Artistic Director) Patrick Dooley's we-can-do-anything
attitude that's so infectious and energizing. I think that's what
makes a project of this size possible."