A Conversation with Mary Zimmerman

You know Mary Zimmerman's work from Journey to the West, Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, The Odyssey, Mirror of the Invisible World and Silk, among other celebrated productions. Ms. Zimmerman recently took the time out of rehearsal to talk with the Goodman Theatre's Lara Ehrlich about her new adaptation of Candide.

Lara Ehrlich: What first drew you to Candide?

    Mary Zimmerman: I’ve always been drawn to adapt thorny, difficult, epic old texts. Voltaire’s Candide has that epic sweep and broad range of feeling that I like, and it is full of difficult things to stage, which I like as well. And then Bernstein’s music is so glorious.

LE: What is the story about?

    MZ: Well, a young man named Candide is the illegitimate relative of a Baron in a small province called Westphalia. He is brought up in the company of his noble relatives and tutored with the Baron’s daughter named Cunegonde. Their tutor is a professor named Doctor Pangloss, who claims that Westphalia is “the best possible place in all the world.”

    When Candide falls in love with Cunegonde and proposes to her, his benefactors turn on him and kick him out of the kingdom without a penny. The rest of the story follows Candide making his way in the world, having adventure after adventure. He is candid and honest and innocent, and he is mistreated and swindled over and over again. Cunegonde and her family also meet great misfortune in a war, so some of Candide’s adventures involve reuniting with her, separating from her and reuniting with her again.

LE: Is it a challenge to find the right tone when staging Voltaire’s satire?

    MZ: Finding the tone is the most difficult key to Candide because terrible, terrible things happen to the characters, yet the novel is hilarious. What makes the play funny and absurd (I hope) is the way in which chance and mischance pile up so fast and furious—while the characters’ views of the world—as all for the best—remains absolutely unchanged in the face of all evidence to the contrary.

LE: Could you talk about the challenge of working with a variety of different adaptations of Voltaire’s text?

    MZ: Well, I read all the previous adaptations—the books for the musical—about three or four years ago, and then I stopped reading because I wanted to go back to Voltaire’s original novel. The primary challenge is that many of the songs written throughout the years are lyrically tied to differing narrative structures contributed by each of the adapters. Some of the versions have big changes from the original structure of the novel, and some of the songs have lyrics that are tied to events or circumstances that don’t exist in the novel. Yet we want to preserve these songs in a context that makes sense, while trying to be as trusting as possible of Voltaire’s original structure and story.

LE: After all of these adaptations, why does this novel still appeal to audiences?

    MZ: Candide is a tougher text than people realize. It is quite brutal in a way, and it challenges some of our most cherished ideas—ideas about one’s own virtue and the virtues of one’s own home. I think this production is challenging in whichever country it is performed, because every country thinks it is the best in the best of all possible worlds.

    The novel and the musical ask people to think about the fact that life is really complicated and that quite random, quite tragic things happen all the time. It rejects blithe optimism, or the idea that everything is part of a grand plan as an excuse for inaction in the face of social injustice. This novel is always contemporary because there is always reason to point out hypocrisy and abuse of power.

LE: You are renowned for your unique visuals and innovative use of set and props. What can you tell us about the design of the production?

    MZ: I want to maintain surprises in everything I do, so I don’t want to give it away!

LE: You have cast a talented ensemble of actors from Chicago, Washington, D.C. and New York.

    MZ: Yes, this is a co-production with Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C., so we have some D.C. actors, a lot of Chicago actors and a few New York actors. I have three people from the group of 19 with whom I have worked extensively: Jesse Perez, Erik Lochtefeld and Tom Aulino.

LE: Which roles are they playing?

    MZ: Well, who knows? I mean, I know their larger roles, but a great many parts are assigned day-to-day, because in the way I work there is no script when we start rehearsal—except the original text I’m adapting. I’m inspired by every hour that I spend with the cast and the script is made with a particular company in mind—the company that is already in process with me. However, I don’t write the script with the actors; I write it on my own in the hours between rehearsals. When I start with an ensemble, we have the base text that we are working from and we have our set and some major costumes and what we call “ensemble costumes” and that’s about it. It is a tremendously intense, concentrated process for the whole company and one that requires enormous flexibility, rapidity and skill on the part of all the staff and creative team.

LE: What are you hoping audiences will take away from this production?

    MZ: I am hoping that audiences take away extreme and exquisite entertainment. Candide has gorgeous music and it is incredibly witty, both lyrically and musically. Voltaire’s and Bernstein’s works are both achievements of such high order that when combined, they remind us what is best in human beings—what people are capable of at their best—at the very same moment they are showing us what is worst. And in this way, this formal way—the work manages to be affirmative—even transcendent—in the face of its own cynicism and brutal satiric edge.

Courtesy of the Goodman Theatre

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