Article by Kitty Drexel.
(Cambridge, MA) Playwright Ginger Lazarus said the journey to write her drama “The Akhmatova Journals” began in 1993 while visiting St. Petersburg, Russia.
Lazarus was completing a semester abroad in Moscow through the O’Neill Center’s National Theater Institute when fellow students invited her to visit the Anna Akhmatova Museum at the Fountain House with them. She said during a phone interview in late July that she planned on meeting her classmates there that afternoon but a sudden, touristy apathy convinced her to spend the afternoon sipping espresso in a cafe instead.
“I still kick myself for not going,” Lazarus said.
Lazarus’s play “The Akhmatova Journals” is scheduled for a dramatic play reading as part of the That’s What She Said program held by the Nora Theatre Company at Central Square Theater in Cambridge, MA.
The program will provide her an opportunity to develop and showcase the play with the aid of The Nora Theatre’s resources and rehearsal and performance space at Central Square Theater said Lazarus. The play will be workshopped in October and will culminate in a free public performance in November.
Lazarus said that when she was a student, she didn’t know famed Russian poet Anna Akhmatova’s poetry well but as a “mega-famous woman poet,” Akhmatova was already her hero. When she read Lydia Chukovskaya’s “Sofia Petrovna,” She decided that Chukovskaya was also her hero.
She said she was pleased to receive the news that “The Akhmatova Journals” would be read in the That’s What She Said program. “It was a lovely surprise. It’s always a thrill to get a yes after investing in a proposal, and I really want to work with this group of artists.”
Lazarus said it has taken her 26 years to develop the current draft for the November performance. In her proposal to the play development program, the playwright said that she needs actors and a director to dive into the world of the play with her.
“Revisions inch me closer to finding the drama in two writers mostly sitting in a room talking,” she said.
The workshopping process will help her strike a balance between historical accuracy and a comprehensible story. She wants the audience to feel the emotional resonance of the relationship between the poets whether or not they know the social and literary history behind the play.
In her proposal, Lazarus said the play is about the poets “wrestling with the power and danger of words.” “The horrifying realities of repressive, anti-intellectual regimes need to be on stage right now.”
According to “On This Day: Anna Akhmatova” an article in the Moscow Times online, Russian poet Akhmatova lived through the Great Purge, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin’s campaign to eradicate the Communist threat.
Poet Lydia Chukovskaya kept a diary of her conversations with Akhmatova which was published in Russian under the title “The Akhmatova Journals,” the same title that Lazarus chose for her play, said the playwright.
Lazarus said she finds the friendship between Akhmatova and Chukovskaya so interesting because the story of the writers appeals to her. The power dynamic between an influential poet and her admirer who was also a poet in her own right are intriguing she said.
“Akhmatova was a pain in the ass, unreasonable,” Lazarus said. Chukovskaya struggled with caring for Akhmatova through chronic illness while also venerating her as a writer. But, the two women were united “against the über patriarch Stalin.”
Akhmatova carried the burden of her people’s voice in her poetry, said Lazarus. It took a physical and mental toll that came out in conversation with Chukovskaya. Chukovskaya’s journals are a record of that burden.
Lazarus said that the play is set against the “funhouse, double-speak mirrors of the Soviet times and a massive tug of war between truth and propaganda.” “Being paranoid at that time was a good idea.”
Censorship is back in Russia, big time said Lazarus. “I want to honor writers who resisted, who wrote in secret and passed their unspeakable words on through friends and colleagues. And remind us what real censorship is: losing your life, not just your Twitter account.”
Artistic Director of the Nora Theatre Company Lee Mikeska Gardner said that last fall The Nora Theatre put out an RFP to widen their scope for the That’s What She Said program.
“With any That’s What She Said project, we are there to support the artists’ voice, to make sure the public event is framed in a way to invite an open mind from the audience and to move the project forward,” said Gardener.
“Ginger and I had worked together before on a (Central Square Theater) project and there was no question we wouldn’t support her,” said Gardener.
The script for Lazarus’s “The Akhmatova Journals” had its first reading April 9, 2017. It was hosted by the Boston Playwrights’ Theatre as part of its Second Sunday Reading Series.
Artistic Director of Boston Playwrights’ Theatre Kate Snodgrass said that Lazarus “has a singular way of looking at the world that is at once empathetic and quirky.”
“She looks ‘unassuming,’ even timid but she’s anything but,” said Snodgrass. “She’s a strong force in the room and she gravitates to the big ideas.
“Her plays are always about something important and bigger than life but she manages to get the big ideas across without losing the humanity of her characters,” she said.
Akhmatova went from a writer of love poetry to writing about her people’s need said Lazarus in an interview at S&S Restaurant on Aug. 2. Lazarus was cutting her medium-rare Boison burger with onions when she said Akhmatova’s switch from writing passionate, personal conversations to political criticism was unexpected.
Lazarus said that she imagines women, and people of other marginalized identities in her writing “walking into the headwinds, taking the difficult path because that’s their calling.”
Actor Gillian Mackay-Smith will play Lydia Chukovskaya in the November play reading at Central Square Theater. She said in an email that “This is such a beautiful, bittersweet play about women and friendship making art, and I hope our audiences relish the opportunity to learn about Anna Akhmatova.”
Mackay-Smith has worked with Lazarus on several productions. “The Akhmatova Journals” is the most recent. “Ginger is a quiet storm, and I mean that in the best possible way,” said Mackay-Smith.
“Her writing is so vulnerable and intimate, and I never would have been able to connect with her on that level without the opportunity to work deeply on these characters,” said Mackay-Smith.
“I strive to center my stories on women’s agency, on their will and desire to make art or seek justice or love or challenge authority or deal with challenging relationships,” said Lazarus. She said she has been kicking at the omnipresent narrative that true happiness for women comes only through heterosexual, romantic love and that finding a partner is a “Holy Grail.”
Lazarus said that she constantly resists the societal pressure to conform to this expectation. “The reason I constantly resist it is that I also can’t help buying into it. Less now than I used to, but it’s the water we swim in.”
“I love Russian writers,” said Lazarus. “The country has such a weird and complicated history, and a culture that cherishes the written word.”
“Sadly, Akhmatova’s poems lose a fair amount in translation,” said Lazarus. “Her use of meter and prosody is masterful. They sound way better in Russian.”