How a Group of Grad Students Helped Rajiv Joseph Write His New Epic Play

Interview   How a Group of Grad Students Helped Rajiv Joseph Write His New Epic Play
The Tony-nominated playwright explains the unconventional development behind Off-Broadway’s Describe the Night, now playing through December 24.
Rajiv Joseph
Rajiv Joseph Mark Kitaoka

In 2014, Tony-nominated playwright Rajiv Joseph (Guards at the Taj, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo) knew he had the idea for a play, but he didn’t know how to write it. He was interested in investigating two things: the Russian writer Isaac Babel and the 2010 airplane crash in Smolensk, Russia which killed several Polish government officials, including the President.

Why Babel? Joseph owned a published edition of the writer’s journal from 1920 and Babel’s accounts of the Russo-Polish war fascinated the playwright. At the time, the crash raised speculation about the ongoing tensions between Russia and Poland. “I was interested in the connection between the diary and the current event,” says the playwright. “I wondered if maybe there was a play that could connect them and make sense of them.”

Giovanna Sardelli and Rajiv Joseph Ahron R. Foster

Most playwrights will tell you researching a play tends to be a solitary process, marked by hours alone in a library or an office. Rather than begin his research in the usual fashion, however, Joseph tapped New York University’s Graduate Acting Program. Along with director Giovanna Sardelli, the two worked with eight students to develop the play using The Joint Stock Method in which writers use company research to inspire workshops. By the end of the process, Joseph had a first draft of Describe the Night.

Inspired by a line in Babel’s real-life journal, the play, now in previews at Atlantic Theater Company, spans 90 years. The story traces the lives of seven men and women in Russia connected by history, myth, and conspiracy, and interweaves tales of forbidden love, complicated families, and unlikely friendships. It’s an epic play (three hours including two intermissions)—unsurprising considering the detailed research process behind it.

Over a two-week period, followed by a two-month rehearsal in the fall, the NYU acting students paged through research and performed their findings for Joseph and Sardelli. The group also invited a number of speakers, such as Val Vinokour, a distinguished Isaac Babel scholar and translator, to attend the sessions. “One of the things that I love about theatre is that it’s a collaborative effort. That always happens with a production but happens less with the development. Especially during the conceiving of a play.”

“It was fascinating to get such a diverse and well-informed amount of research to pack into this process,” says Joseph, who took notes throughout. “It’s like sifting through a jigsaw puzzle and finding the pieces and putting them together in a totally new shape.”

Danny Burstein, Zach Grenier, and Tina Benko Ahron R. Foster

“That process is why Describe the Night is such a unique play,” he says. “I don’t think I could have ever just sat down at my desk and written it. It’s a product of its process.”

In the end, Joseph wrote the story that mattered most to him. “There are a million ways to have written this play, or any play. Any playwright has to simply trust that they’re writing something that is hopefully from their core,” he says. This meant examining the themes closest to his heart.

Describe the Night is about the age-old debate over what is true and what is not true. What is myth and what is fact,” says Joseph. “There’s a lot to unpack about how we understand ourselves in the world and what modes of communication do we use. When are the hard facts of something necessary and when is metaphor and symbol the best way in towards something? And when does metaphor and symbol become a lie?”

For Joseph, these overarching themes have taken on new meaning in today’s context. Though he wrote the play three years ago, its exploration of truth feels more affecting in 2017. “These are very current and relevant questions considering a lot of the state of our media and politics right now,” he says. It’s also deepened his connection to the writer that inspired Describe the Night in the first place: Babel. A writer whose journal was peppered with the most innocent of writing prompts: “Describe the…,” and yet whose life ended at the hands of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

Danny Burstein and Zach Grenier Ahron R. Foster

“I admire him greatly. His work and his life,” says Joseph. ”I think about the situation of being arrested and executed for your creative writing, which is, to me, one of the more horrifying things to ponder. As an American, it hasn’t been anything that I have had to consider in a serious way. But in writing this play, thinking about him and thinking about that time in history, has really made me just consider how important freedom of expression is.”

Describe the Night will open December 5 in the Linda Gross Theater. Sardelli directs a cast made up of six-time Tony nominee Danny Burstein (Fiddler on the Roof), Rebecca Naomi Jones (Significant Other), Tina Benko (The Public'sJulius Caesar), Nadia Bowers (The Farnsworth Invention), Max Gordon Moore (Indecent), and Stephen Stocking (Archduke at The Mark Taper Forum).

Flip through photos of the Off-Broadway production:

Describe the Night was commissioned and produced by the Alley Theatre in Houston, Texas. The play was developed at NYU, TheatreWorks, Palo Alto, California as part of their New Works Festival, and with the Lark Play Development Center.

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