Eavesdropping on the Russians

This is Eavesdrop, a series of conversations between artists, playwrights and audience members. Today we listen in on a chat between playwright Jason Grote, who wrote Shostakovich, or Silence, and company member Daniel Burns, assistant director and dramaturg for the upcoming reading. Shostakovich, or Silence is part of Local Lab 2017: New Play Festival, presented at Dairy Arts Center from March 17-19, 2017. Limited festival passes are still available here.

Single show-only tickets are available by clicking here.

Daniel Burns: There’s a lot of interest around your play, Shostakovich, or Silence, Jason. We are excited to present it at Local Lab on March 18. I can’t help but think that Russia is in the news quite a lot. So, too, are the arts—with the possible elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts.

I understand you’ve been working on the play for quite a while, yet it feels so of-the-moment now. Why did you want to write this play and why must it be presented now?

Jason Grote: What’s interesting to me about this question is that I've been working on this play for nearly a decade. I’m not the first to say this, but I believe our current situation—authoritarian nationalism everywhere, not just in the U.S.—is the end result of a long process, not the beginning of a new one. When I began writing the play in 2008, I felt a very subtle but profound unfreedom as a writer. It was nothing like what Shostakovich faced, and perhaps less significant than what we may be facing now, but it was there, the work of liberals and conservatives alike, enacted by means of the marketplace, the state, and non-state institutions alike.

Part of this was institutional, not being able to speak out against real or perceived injustices for fear of losing one’s livelihood, but also it was hermeneutic. Anything that didn’t fit on the spectrum of a very specific kind of discourse was mostly ignored, and when it was acknowledged, it was often treated with hostility. I believe that there’s a very direct line between this phenomenon and its manifestations, like Trump, Brexit, and so on.

The example of Shostakovich is, in some ways, illustrative of how artists can survive, and thrive, in an authoritarian society. But at the same time, I wouldn’t call Shostakovich a model—arguably he survived and others didn’t because he was famous and lucky, and towards the end of his life, he was excoriated for his collaboration with the Soviet regime.

Daniel: That’s an important reminder right now—the opportunity we have as artists to take all of the creativity that we can muster, all the opportunities that we can be presented with—and double-up our efforts to tell stories that matter. It is very much the mission of Local Theater Company, actually. I’ve seen some great statements on this recently—from indie musician Amanda Palmer’s statement that the current administration would make punk rock great again, to theaters and cinemas hosting special productions of 1984 and It Can’t Happen Here. I’m excited to see what audiences find in this play to add to those dialogues.

Jason: It is a strange coincidence that an authoritarian American President and a national media obsession with Russia both emerged around the time this play is approaching a place where it might finally be ready for production.

Like almost everyone else, I thought Hillary Clinton would win the 2016 election and I’d have to keep making the case that a play about a long-dead Soviet composer was relevant. I’m happy for the play, and sad for our country. Though as terrible I think Donald Trump is, I still believe that the contradictions he exposes have been in American society for a long time now, and would have erupted one way or another.

Daniel: With the length of time it takes to create a project like this, you have to identify these undercurrents of national changes well before they emerge. Looking beyond our current political climate, what is it that has kept you interested in this character—and this story—for nearly a decade?

Jason: Ultimately what draws me to Shostakovich, and keeps me interested in him, is his constant compulsion to create music, regardless of what happened to him or around him. In some contexts, this is inspiring, as with the Stalinist purges. In other contexts less so, as with his willingness to condemn other artists on behalf of the state. In still other contexts, it’s just plain impressive—he destroyed his body with alcohol, smoking, and the stress and trauma and heartbreak of living where and when he did, and he fought his way forward and made some amazing, historic, revolutionary music.

Daniel: His dedication to his work and prolific career are impressive. Symphonies, operas, scores to three dozen films—very few people have matched that sort of creative output, even without having to endure state censorship. 

As I’ve been exploring Shostakovich’s music, along with your bibliography for the play, I’ve gotten a glimpse of just how extensive the research process is for a play like this. It’s certainly not a process that can be used to whip out a play about the trending topic of the day (I’m not sure that Twitter even had the trending topics feature when you started to write this play). I like your identification of the development of a “subtle but profound unfreedom,”—both a slowly growing national trend and a deeply personal experience that could be connected to the life of another artist 75 years ago.

I’m interested in hearing more about your choice of timeline for the play’s events. How do you feel the long timeframe of the story has helped you to unpack these themes in their historical and current contexts?

Jason: The answer to this may be pretty quotidian—this reflects both the bulk of the historical record available in English about Shostakovich, and, relatedly, are the most dramatic periods of his life. There’s plenty else that’s interesting that happened to him between 1945 and 1975, as he continued to rise and fall in and out of favor with the regime, lost two wives and remarried twice, visited the United States, and so on, but as with any biographical drama, one has to pick and choose.

Daniel:  And I’m sure with Shostakovich’s extensive work, that picking and choosing was quite the ordeal. I’ve enjoyed seeing the musical selections, that will be played live by a concert pianist, set out through the play—from his earlier works and the events surrounding their composition, to the pieces that set the tone of specific scenes and relationships. I’m really looking forward to seeing all the elements—the theater, history, politics, and music—come together for our reading in just a few weeks.