Ted Sod caught up with Evan Cabnet on his preparation for directing Thérèse Raquin.
TED SOD: Tell us about yourself: Where were you born and educated? When and why did you decide you want to direct for the stage?
EVAN CABNET: I was born in Philadelphia, raised in the South Jersey suburbs. I went to NYU and studied at the Playwrights Horizons Theater School, which is where I began to get a sense of the theatre landscape in the city. I started as an actor, as most of us do, but realized very young that while I had a passion for the art form and for the process, I didn’t have much interest in being on the stage. I felt I could be a better and more productive participant as a director.
TS: How did you research the world of the play? Did you read the original Émile Zola novel or his own stage adaptation? Did you watch or read any of the countless versions (movies, plays, operas) of the story? What did you have to do in order to prepare to direct Thérèse Raquin?
EC: I haven’t seen any of the film or stage adaptations, but now I’m suddenly nervous that I should! I’ve read a few translations of the novel, and every stage adaptation in print (including Zola’s own attempt a few years after his book was published). Helen Edmundson’s version stays very true to the novel, with a few very significant thematic exceptions (I won’t elaborate for fear of spoiling her approach). As a result, so much of my research was learning about Zola, his influences— including his very good friend Manet and his mentor, Flaubert— and the Paris he lived in, which features prominently in both the novel and in Helen’s script. Zola was among the first great figures of Naturalism, so there’s been some academic research mixed into all of our work, although that won’t be visible in the production.
TS: Why do you think the story of Thérèse Raquin is so timeless and compelling to both artists and audiences? What do you think the play is about? Do you see it as a morality tale?
EC: Like all great stories, there’s a timelessness to Thérèse Raquin that speaks to our passions, our desires, our fears, and our longings. It’s about loneliness and emotional claustrophobia and the animal desires that lurk just beneath our civilized surfaces. And it’s an exploration of what happens when we indulge those more primal impulses and the fallout that ensues. I definitely do not see it as a morality tale, as Zola was far more interested in the study of humans as animals— it’s not coincidental that The Origin of Species was published just a few years before Zola sat down to write Thérèse Raquin— and so the ethics of these characters was not something he was particularly curious about: he was far too busy thinking about their wants, their actions, and the subsequent consequences.
TS: Helen’s adaptation is somewhat cinematic in its approach. The scenes are sometimes very short and move swiftly from location to location. What are the challenges of directing a play written in this style?
EC: Besides the basic technical challenges, the trick is always momentum. The questions we have to ask ourselves when building the play is whether the pace is serving the story, the stakes, and the tension. That doesn’t always mean “faster,” of course, but it does mean that the physical production must be malleable enough that it can accommodate the natural rhythm of the story, whatever that may turn out to be.
TS: What did you look for in casting the actors? What traits did you need? Do you have a sense of what it will be like to direct a cast that is comprised of both American and British actors?
EC: Helen’s take on these characters is very specific, and so our marching orders came from her. It’s difficult to describe the traits without spoiling the plot, but what I can say is that we were looking for a fearlessness and willingness in our cast to push themselves to an emotional limit, a willingness to get messy, so to speak. As for the multi-national company: it’s a French novel, adapted by an English dramatist, directed by an American, and featuring actors from England, Wales, and the US. I think so long as we can agree on accents, we’ll be in great shape.
TS: How will the play manifest itself visually? How are you collaborating with your design team? There are some marvelous effects in the play – how much pre-production work has to go into making those effects happen? Will there be original music?
EC: We’re staying true to the period in which the play was written and using color, light, and scale to tell the story of both Thérèse’s interior and exterior life. Beowulf Boritt, our incredible set designer, has conjured a world that honors plot, theme, and tone seamlessly and elegantly. Josh Schmidt is composing original music, heavily influenced by the popular music of the time, particularly of the lower classes featured in the play. Jane Greenwood, who needs no introduction, has created beautiful clothes that storytell in a simple, powerful way, and Keith Parham, our lighting designer, will paint Beowulf’s set in a way that articulates and heightens the tension as the play veers from Naturalism into other territories.
TS: Water seems to play an important part thematically and literally in the play. Do you think Zola was using water as a metaphor for something else?
EC: I think Zola’s use of water in his story is certainly symbolic of freedom. The themes of escape, of deliverance, of distance are all encapsulated in the constant movement of the Seine, but over the course of the play it turns into something more sinister and inescapable.
TS: When you last directed at RTC, I asked you how you keep yourself inspired as an artist and you said, “…As a director, you're only as good as your sense of observation, so the more you pay attention to the world around you, the more you're (theoretically, at least) sharpening your skill.” Will these observations help in directing a period piece like Thérèse Raquin? If so, will you share with us an observation about human behavior you’ve made that relates to the play?
EC: If there’s a play that exists that doesn’t rely on wrestling with human behavior, I definitely don’t know about it. The period— in this case, 1860s Paris— is the setting, but the story is as immediate and startling as anything we read online and in the papers every day. I like to think Zola’s aim in writing Thérèse Raquin was quite simple in the end: to answer the question of “how do people do such things?” whenever unimaginable tragedy strikes. In order to answer this, we must find those dark, primal parts of ourselves and of those around us and examine them unflinchingly, as Zola did. That’s the only way to get to the truth he and Helen are seeking, and will, I hope, make for a bracing, thrilling night at the theatre.
Thérèse Raquin begins previews October 1 at Studio 54. For more information, please visit our website.
2015-2016 Season, Therese Raquin