The last time Joy Zinoman staged Samuel Beckett, she nearly got shut down. In 1998, her reportedly fast-and-loose multiracial production of Waiting for Godot at Washington, D.C.’s Studio Theatre drew the unwanted attention of the late playwright’s notoriously persnickety estate. It was narrowly rescued from a cease-and-desist order via the intervention of Grace Bouton, Beckett’s niece, who happened to be a D.C. resident.
One can assume the estate won’t come after Sounding Beckett, a triptych of three short Beckett works interspersed with live music by the Cygnus Ensemble, playing at Classic Stage Company for two weeks; Bouton is scheduled to appear in a talk-back with Zinoman after one of the Sunday matinees.
Still, Zinoman—who founded and ran the Studio Theatre for 35 years until resigning in 2010—readily acknowledges that a certain control-freak element is written into Beckett’s plays, particularly the late ones: A character in Footfalls (1975) literally counts steps as she paces, and stage directions in Catastrophe (1982) specify the number of seconds a pause should be held.“Beckett very clearly says that all three of these plays take place in a void,” says Zinoman, who has joined the aforementioned works with Ohio Impromptu (1980) and bracketed them with two programs of contemporary compositions inspired by the playlets. “But how can you have a void if you have the Cygnus Ensemble and all of their instruments and equipment onstage?” The thought of the six-member band “schlepping on and off between plays was intolerable to me,” says Zinoman, so she’s putting them behind a scrim. She’s also been intent on keeping the music separate from the words. (Sorry, theater fans—dreams of a high-kicking Beckett musical will have to wait.)
“The first thing I said to the composers was that the music cannot be with the plays; it must be alongside the plays,” explains Zinoman. Indeed, the three works are already essentially musical in their rhythmic precision; in Ohio Impromptu, two identically dressed men sit at a table, one reading prose and the other knocking on the table to start and stop the other’s spiel, like a humanized twist on the playwright’s Krapp’s Last Tape. In Footfalls, a live performer, Holly Twyford, performs opposite Kathleen Chalfant’s prerecorded voice. “It’s ridiculously elaborate,” says Zinoman of the piece’s technical challenges.
A certain degree of constraint can be inspiring, of course. “It gives you limits, and within those limits, I think you can be more creative,” says the director. “If someone gives you a big, open field and says, ‘Do a play in this cornfield,’ you’re fucked. So I welcome it, and I engage in it in an antagonistic way as well.”
But what really fires her isn’t Beckett’s metrical precision or his formidable structural conceits—things, she says, that musicians have responded to (“All these modernist composers, they love Beckett,” she marvels). “I am much more interested in the biographical, the psychological Beckett,” says Zinoman. She relishes parsing his complicated mentorship with James Joyce (which underpins Ohio Impromptu) and registering the clear echoes of the playwright’s mother in Footfalls.
“He is seen as this great modernist; but the truth is, Beckett straddles biography and psychological feeling on the one hand, and this search for stripped-away form—the idea that the more stripped away it is, the more universal it will be—on the other,” Zinoman explains. “Beckett is also seen as this curmudgeon; in every picture you see, he’s gorgeous, of course, but it’s that severe look. I have one of him holding a baby, and it’s jarring in its unfamiliar domesticity.”
Another misconception is redressed by Catastrophe, an openly political allegory about oppression that was written for the then-imprisoned Václav Havel. “The illusion about Beckett is that he’s just a structuralist, he’s not political,” says Zinoman. “He was in the French Resistance during World War II, and he was profoundly engaged with his family, as all exiles are. I was interested in those parts of him that are not most commonly thought of.” Indeed, one underappreciated element of Beckett she plans to highlight is in her very name: She says Catastrophe will end with “a combustion of joy.”