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The Romanov Play: Come to This Reading! Also Here's Some Stuff That You Should See

 

You guys! YOU ARE ALL INVITED!

To what you say? To a reading! Of this darn play! It'll be at the Greenhouse Theatre on November 17th at 7pm as part of their Trellis series. You should totally come. It's gonna be fun, and also, by coming and responding to the play, you are helping me make it better which means how nice are you for doing that? The NICEST! 

AND - because I can't resist, here are three other things I want to share. They come under the headline of Some of the Stuff I've Found That Make Me Unable to Not Keep Writing This Play.  (You know.  SSIFTMMUTNKWTP.  It rolls off the tongue.) There will be more. For now, you just have to see - 

1. This photo of the Romanov daughters:

To me this image looks EXACTLY like what it is - a family vacation photo. That special, unavoidable family vacation photo that parents insist on taking when you need to not be doing that anymore. Here is what I imagine the girls saying, going from left to right:

Anastasia: Are they taking our picture again? I- wow. They are, they are taking our picture again.

Tatiana: If I'm very still it will go away, if I'm very still it will go away...

Maria: Wait, where am I supposed to be looking?

Olga: EVERYODY KEEP SMILING AND THEN MAYBE THEY'LL LET US TAKE OFF THESE HATS.

2. This part of a letter from Nicholas to his future wife:

"Oh! do not say 'no' directly, my dearest Alix, do not ruin my life already! Do you think there can exist any happiness in the whole world without you!"

-Tsar Nicholas II, writing in 1893 to Alexandra after she had refused his first proposal.

3. This quote on the tsarina at work during WWI:

"I have seen the empress of Russia assisting in the most difficult operations, taking from the hands of the busy surgeons amputated legs and arms, removing bloody and vermin-ridden field dressings."

-Anna Vyrubova, a lady-in-waiting to Tsarina Alexandra

The tsarina and the two elder girls went through a rigorous training program so they could help as nurses at the hospitals during World War I. Once qualified, spent long days dressing and redressing wounds, keeping soldiers company and helping with even the most gruesome operations. They also turned all available space in the city into wards for the wounded, including all of the major rooms in the Winter Palace. Here is a picture of Olga and Tatiana with a soldier:

Another fact to keep in mind with this image: as the war progressed, the Russians eventually ran so short of supplies that the soldiers were sometimes sent to the front without bullets. I promise I'm not being flippant when I say: WHAT??? HOW IS THAT A THING? 

To be continued. As always.  

PS: Thanks to all of you who suggested titles. ("Crazy Russian Eyes?" Amazing.) It's by no means a closed discussion, so if you feel inspired, don't be shy.  


The Romanov Play: Thoughts on a First Read-Through

Alright, guys. Here's some Real Talk: a First Read-Through is scary. Even if your play doesn't open for another year, it's still scary. Here are the three steps I have found to be essential to survive one: 

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STEP ONE: Start by carefully tricking a group of incredibly talented and kind people to be in your theatre company.  

This takes years.  For myself, I can neither confirm nor deny the use of kidnapping.

STEP TWO: Proceed to talk non-stop to these people about whatever it is you want them to read.

This way, when you finally get around to actually asking them to do it, there's a part of them that will be willing to do it just so you'll stop talking about it. This is also a trick, because mwahahaha, you're never going to stop talking about it - but you can totally imply that you might, and they will totally believe you.

STEP THREE: Once aforementioned company members (and if you're lucky, maybe an additional friend or two) are gathered for Desired Reading, bring them cupcakes.

You won't need them, especially if you were smart enough to have tricked Carinne Uslar into being in your theatre company (you can't it's too late she's ours mwahahahah again). She will already have provided wine and snacks because she's an amazing hostess. HOWEVER - and this is very important - bringing cupcakes will ease your conscience. As you listen to friends who have worked two double shifts in the last two days and who should be at home asleep but who are instead are sitting next to you asking you how to pronounce Tsarkoe Selo, you will at least be able to say to yourself, "Well, Self. At least you brought cupcakes."

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Now, having taken these three steps, a First Read-Through happened to me last Sunday, and due mostly to step #1, it was SUCH A FUN DAY! Thank you so so much to Shariba, Kanome, Zack, Joey, Bryan, Carinne and Lew for your help. It occurs to me now, I'm not sure if I hugged you all. I meant to. I meant to give you all giant, warm, grossly fuzzy hugs, so be prepared the next time you see me. 

As far as How the Play Is Going, here is what I will say for the record in This Here Blog Here, if only for the amusement of Future Keely, that she may chortle heartily. (For some reason I always picture myself as a very hearty chortler in the future.) What I learned - or perhaps, if I am honest, what I confirmed, because I suspected as much - is that I am one transparent writer lady. The scenes I was less interested in - well, they weren't as interesting. I'm a bad faker. The good news is: the excitement I've had by myself about the stories I love the most - stories I couldn't tear my eyes away from when I first read them in the source materials - became excitement I got to share. Here's one of those stories: After the revolution, when the Romanovs were in captivity, Nicholas II (ie the deposed tsar) was very aware that he was an ex-tsar.  He even tried to find the humor in it. "Don't call me tsar anymore," he'd say. "I'm only an ex." One day, in the early weeks of their confinement, the family gathered for lunch and found that the ham they were intending to eat was burnt. Nicholas said, "Well, this may have once been a ham, but now it's nothing but an ex-ham." And the captive family laughed together.

I mean.  I just.  It's such a piercing moment of self-awareness to me. Such a raw picture of someone's fight to find an equilibrium. And it's also such a Dad Joke. Ex-ham. Ha! Who would have imagined the last Russian emperor telling a Dad Joke? 

There's more where that came from, but I'll leave it there for now. There's something else I have to tell you guys: I still have no idea what the heck to call this play. Like for realsies. I'm taking suggestions. Once upon a time I was going to call it Fall. Like fall of the Romanovs, fall from grace, fall from power... omg do you get it? You get it. Do you really get it, though?

It seemed so elegant, so simple! One word! It would say so much! It would be so easy to put on a poster! But alas, I awoke one day and realized, all that title really says is OMG LOOK AT ME I AM SO DEEP I'M LIKE THE DEEPEST and it's got to go. So if somebody has a better idea, please send it my way and I will shamelessly steal it. 

One last note (especially if we're talking about the Deepest, because you guys, I am NOT) - here's a picture of Rasputin and also of Viggo Mortensen. Why do they look so similar, and should I re-write the play to be a prequel to Lord of the Rings? I leave it to you to ponder.

 

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The Romanov Play: An Introduction

The thing is, I'm writing this play.  

It's a play about the fall of the Romanovs, about the necessary end of the Russian monarchist government and the family destroyed to make that happen. It's a tragedy, but it isn't meant to feel sad, at least not most of the time. It's more about people than events because the people in this story are fascinating. They're complicated and passionate and surprisingly funny. Most of all, they are disturbingly recognizable.  

You won't see this play anytime soon.  While there will be a whole bunch of read-throughs and workshops and meetings and other sexy things to get the pulse racing throughout the next few months, the actual show won't go up for another year. The thing is, though, I'm excited about it NOW.

So I'm going to start talking about it in this blog, every step along the way until I finally get to show you all the whole thing. I don't know who "you all" might be, but to whoever is reading these words: Hello! I am so glad you're here. I want to show you something:

This is Anastasia Romanov. She's thought to be fifteen years old in this photograph. The man next to her, pretending to allow her to smoke, is her father, Tsar Nicholas II.  I love this picture, the look in their eyes. Mischievous.  Goofy, even.  It looks like they are both about to burst out laughing.

After this photograph is taken, they and the other four members of the family have about two more years before they will be shot, bayoneted and buried.

I found this photograph by accident in a library. The moment was like an upside-down, nightmare version of what I felt when I was a little kid seeing the "real" Santa for the first time. In the space of an instant, something that I had categorized as intangible seemed to acquire texture. Breath.

What's more, because the Romanovs lived in an era when photography was becoming increasingly accessible, there is a vast array of images just like this. These pictures of what I used to think of as something long and ago and far away reveal a family that isn't - wasn't - so different from families anywhere.  Not so far away at all.

Further reading only served to cement this realization. There are entire archives of first-hand accounts documenting domestic scenes that are almost obscenely relatable. More often than not I found myself reading not of the drama of life at court or issues of state, but of family dinners and books read for school, of angst-ridden teenagers and bewildered parents. Of kids striking goofy poses for pictures they never imagined the world would see.

This didn't - doesn't -  fit into the narrative I had envisioned for the rulers of Imperial Russia. I struggle to hold in my head these two realities at the same time:

1. The population just outside the palace gates lived in unforgivable poverty.  

2. The family inside was too human for me to hate.

There is more to be said on this. The suffering of six people is in no way equitable to the suffering of the millions - millions - who suffered around them. For every scene I write about the Romanovs, a voice inside my head rattles against my skull, asking "But why these people? Why tell their story?"

The answer I keep coming back to is this: the story of the Romanovs seems to me so much like the story of power everywhere. These were ordinary people who - horrifyingly - thought they were doing the right thing. As did those who took over after them. Historians continue to debate whether either regime was actually better for the Russian people in the end.

All around the world - and all throughout history - there countless examples of the same: revolutions which beget revolutions, fights for justice which beget injustice. And so often the people involved are not the villains I would imagine - would perhaps even prefer - for them to be. They're just ordinary people, doing what they think is right.  Which terrifies me. Which breaks my heart. Which compels me to explore and tell this story as best I can.

There's something else you should know. The most astonishing part about this writing process is how much original dialogue I'm able to use. There are so many diary entries, newspaper articles, personal letters and even witness statements that remain from these years. The truth is, little of the play was born in my imagination; it's mostly the words of the people who were actually there. The way they tell their own story is exquisite.  

So that's the thing - I'm writing this play.