Heroic, mind-boggling and beguiling; art in the face of mortal danger and against insurmountable odds. That’s the story of Shostakovich’s 7th symphony, written during the siege of Leningrad in the Second World War, as told in The Conductor.
The ‘concert-play’ itself is heroic, mind-boggling and beguiling; creating something for music lovers and theatregoes out of Shostakovich’s own battles and determination.
The Conductor, says the description, is a one act play, the story of the relationship between Shostakovich and the conductor of the Leningrad Radio Orchestra, Karl Eliasberg.
The Conductor has travelled, and continues to tour, through three countries, each with their own flavour for theatre. And it has defied the odds for productions, which although being perhaps of the margins, have been marginalised.
We spoke to director Jared McNeill to see how The Conductor has developed through that artistic and geographical journey. And to get a glimpse through his international eye on the modern creative landscape.
ArtsCulture: You started touring in 2016, how has The Conductor developed during that time?
Jared McNeill: Our very first review came from Buxton, 2016, where we ran for 4 performances at festival. It suggested “director Jared McNeill and playwright Mark Wallington (who has adapted Sarah Quigley’s novel) need to resolve how best to reconcile the music and the story… the emotional punch that the story could deliver is undermined by the length of time given to the powerful music.”
Otherwise, this was a fantastic review, with elements of the piece dubbed “excellent.”
A thousand different tastes
This was our experience early on: we knew that we had something, but we weren’t sure exactly what we had. In many ways, we still don’t, and perhaps never will, but in 2016 it was like we were in the kitchen, cooking one dish to satisfy a thousand different mouths, all with a thousand different tastes, and all very vocal about what they did and did not like. This is impossible.
Our aim from the very beginning was to create something equally accessible to those who’ve no interest in classical music, much less Shostakovich, and those with season tickets to the symphony.
Music lovers could come away satisfied that they had felt the full breadth of the symphony, and theatregoers could expect to find a deeply moving, and resonant, tale. This aim has guided us in many ways, in the crafting of what we call a “concert-play.”
A hard-sought synthesis
Funny enough, there is far more music now than there was in 2016, but you would never know it, because the music of the symphony, and the telling of story, seem to have found a hard-sought synthesis, where one seems to spring naturally from the other, and visa versa.
Then I’d say the greatest change has been in learning what the show is, what it can be, and what it is not.
For example, we came to feel that it is not credible, and perhaps not respectful, for this group (complete with piano, chair, and music stand) to deign to show the suffering of the Leningrad Siege. There is no scenery to chew, and so it quickly devolves into watching an actor chew his or her own arm, which can become pathetic after a time.
Honoring the truth
By letting go of the need to “show”, what we’ve stumbled upon is something that exists as more of a tribute, simply honoring the truth of this story, and its relevance in the modern climate.
Visiting an exhibition on the Leningrad Siege, I came to another realization: that this is a story about Life, and not Death. The subject of the story is not a war which puts a halt to life, but it is the lives that pushed to carry on in the face of the coming slaughter. It is an important difference. It is the difference between light closing, and light opening.
ArtsCulture: You’ve toured The Conductor in the UK, France and Italy. What view do you get of the health of theatre in those countries?
Jared McNeill: I can’t speak to more than my own personal experience, which has been more than fortunate. I have been part of, and witness to, transformative theatrical experiences in the UK, France, Italy, and elsewhere. That will never change. The subjectivity of the exchange means that someone will always be moved, while the one sitting beside them is bored to tears. Then, in a sense, the theatre on stage will remain as healthy as the audience who’ve come to be a part of it.
Someone will always be moved
There are places that offer more support by way of public funds, either for the artistic enterprise itself, or for the precarious nature of the personal life of the artist. It is a pity, at times, to see that support, financial or otherwise, seemingly funneled to a few established companies or artists who (outwardly) don’t need it, rather than to the many upstart companies and artists who do.
Producing theatre presents a great financial risk, and many have responded to that reality by opting to produce no risk at all.
There is a tendency to seek guarantees: bigger names, new takes on old conventions, to the point where the guarantees become more important than the subject-matter.
I say all this, but at the same time I realize that this is the way the playing field has always been, and that navigation of the field has always been part of the game.
Recognition, fame, or notoriety…
Indeed, many of the great revelations in the theatrical form have come from the limitations provided by an exclusionary system. From my view, what I do find alarming, and perhaps more “new”, is the amount of direct pressure put on artists to attain some modicum of recognition, fame, or notoriety prior to being given any real opportunity to work.
Twice in the life of The Conductor, we have had our acceptance to a season hinge on the swapping-out of the entire team, as if bigger names could possibly be more important to the piece than maintaining the piece. It sounds ludicrous because it is.
“How many followers”
On more than one occasion, while in those same discussions, I have been asked “how many followers” do I have. Again, we are discussing bringing this piece to a theatre.
I understand the world moves and changes, as do our needs of operation within it, but I will say this: I have a friend in the United States, who has worked as an actor for 50 years, and when I asked what the difference is between when he started, and now, he simply said, “Nowadays you’ve got to be famous before they’ll let you be talented.”
ArtsCulture: How do you maintained your passion for theatre?
Jared McNeill: I grew up taking all the necessary steps to become a writer. In New York, I trained and worked a bit in the lighting department. For the last years I have been on the stage, while also working as an assistant director, and now I’ve taken a turn as a director, and producer.
New challenges, vantage points and perspectives
Seeking new challenges, and new vantage points, in a realm already dedicated to the spread of new perspectives, have been a good recipe for passion on my part. I don’t mean just seeking these things in a theatre, but in life.
I think there is also the sense of relevance in what one does that can aid passion to come through the more difficult moments. And this isn’t just in the theatre, but in anything. A sense of ‘why’ is very important. A sense that you are a part of something bigger than yourself.
It’s important to keep dreaming
Passion is difficult to find in oneself, and far more difficult to maintain. When the dream meets reality, it’s easy to get lost. It’s important to keep dreaming.
ArtsCulture: One of the joys of being in an audience is the shared experience – those moments in time. Your take on theatre is truly international. Do you feel there’s a universality to that experience?
Jared McNeill: I think stories are meant to be told, and that theatre, at its simplest, is just the fire around which to tell them. It is the place with enough light and shadow to let the imagination play with figures dancing in the trees.
Stories reflect the listener
Then stories reflect not only the storyteller, but also the listener.
What can be gleaned is as random and diverse as a lifetime. And yet, paradoxically, there are elements that belong to all of us, because they belong to our very stationed existence as human beings. Collective questions we’ve asked since Day One, and the experiences we’ve collected as individuals responding to those questions. In this way, they are universal.
How can we say that a story’s only limit is the imagination, and at the same time say that a story belongs only within one context?
I read a book recently on T.S. Eliot, and I am probably misquoting, but somewhere in there it was written that the aim may lie in carrying a story simultaneously in opposite directions along two parallel tracks: carrying the personal until it becomes universal; and carrying the universal until it becomes personal.
ArtsCulture: What’s next for you?
Jared McNeill: The Conductor is completing Italian dates in November, at Parma’s Teatro Due, Roma’s Teatro OFF/OFF, and Assisi’s Piccolo Teatro Degli Instabili.
For me, a number of workshops, and researches, and discussions.
I am also working with La Mama Umbria and conductor Claudio Scarabottini, in Spoleto, to put together a concert in February 2019, comprised of his resident amateur choral group BISSE, along with an orchestra, and music groups from Korea, to France, England, United States, and Nigeria.
Onions Make us Cry
I am working with Carole Karemera and Ishyo Arts Centre in Kigali, Rwanda, on a piece Onions Make us Cry, set to premiere in 2019.
We’ve just confirmed today that we will be at The Space in London for a 3-week run in March/April 2019.
ArtsCulture: thanks Jared!
Find out more and see the next dates for The Conductor on the Facebook page.
Jared has also spoken to the PRSD about The Conductor: “What use is art in the face of all this?”