Arts & Events

A Unique Collaboration on Strindberg’s ‘Miss Julie’

By Ken Bullock Special to the Planet
Wednesday April 08, 2009 - 07:11:00 PM

Mark Jackson, who directed Strindberg’s Miss Julie, opening tonight at the Aurora, and David Graves, who composed the music for the production, first met in 2003, when both were in residence for five weeks at the Djerassi Foundation retreat in the Santa Cruz Mountains.  

Jackson, a popular Bay Area playwright (The Death of Meyerhold and The Forest Wars) and stage director, recalls Graves’ “quartets, with a variety of classical and contemporary sounds” and his ambient music project, “several CD players put out in a redwood canyon; from in front, you couldn’t see where the music was coming from. It had a magical feeling.” 

Graves, who has just completed two seasons of writing commissioned pieces for Berkeley Symphony’s Under Construction project, says he remembers “vividly, Mark and a few others coming down in sheets to an old cattle barn, where there are studios, to spook us as a joke. The barn was supposed to be haunted. He later asked me what I was doing, and I told him I’d never written a string quartet before. He looked at it on the page, asked how the software worked. At that point, we started to talk about each others’ work.” 

It was a busy and exciting time for both artists. “At the time, I had just started writing classical orchestration,” said Graves. “Until 2002, I never really wrote out music. Like a lot of other self-trained musicians, I learned by ear. I took a [San Francisco] City College class, learned to write on staff paper. At Djerassi, I wrote a symphony—I’d never worked on one before—with a goofy idea: The Dewey Decimal Symphony, using the numbers of the topics in the library to generate sequences. I composed on that and submitted it to a Berkeley Symphony competition, where it got an honorable mention. Kent Nagano said he wanted to hang onto the score.” 

Graves also heard about what Jackson was doing. “At the seven o’clock dinners every night, the artists are encouraged to talk, and that’s where I first caught wind of The Forest Wars and The Death of Meyerhold, which Mark was writing then. He was excited, writing plays like nobody’s business. He had the opportunity—the time—to become prolific.” 

After a stint studying at the San Francisco Conservatory, and being accepted as a fellow with Under Construction, Graves had a chance to catch up with Jackson last year when he and his wife put up German actors in town for a play Jackson staged at the San Francisco International Arts Festival. 

Last August, Jackson sent Graves an e-mail, asking if he would be interested in collaborating on the Aurora production. Jackson talked about some of his initial impressions of Strindberg’s masterpiece. “Tom [Ross, Aurora artistic director] and I were talking about different ideas. My mind kept going back to a few images, like a cleaver stuck in a table, and a thick branch with a hawk on it. There’s talk in the play about the hero being a hawk. That’s not used in the show, but [set designer Guilio Peroni’s] upside-down tree [above the table onstage] is better than a tree with a hawk, which would’ve been too literal. Working with Dave, it made sense to use string instrumentation, with one foot in the period of the play, one foot in today, like with the costuming.” 

“In September, we started talking,” Jackson continued. “I told him about seeing the play as a love story, a mix of the tragic with the hopeful. The key to that was in choosing Helen Cooper’s translation. In some translations, after Miss Julie and Jean have gone offstage with each other, the stage directions when they come back have her distressed, wringing her hands. In another, she’s clapping her hands! What if it wasn’t so bad after all? They’re both passionate; some part of them is drawn to each other. Opposites attract. What makes it a tragedy is they share a connection, but ultimately don’t connect.” 

Graves recounted playing a few examples for Jackson on his keyboard: “At the time I didn’t know the instrumentation.” Later, he worked with Alisa Rose at the San Francisco Conservatory, “who has played violin since 3 and fiddle since 5” to “walk through different styles for the barn dance, laying down idiomatic phrases—Swedish, not Irish! She said it’d be fun to play.” Graves also composed for viola and cello for other incidental pieces. “We went into the studio Dec. 19. In a three- or four-hour session, we had the music, then tweaked it in rehearsal.”  

“Mark expressed himself in emotional, not musical, terms,” Graves recalled. “The players would change the accent, the tempo. He would talk the same way to the actors and the lighting designer, trying to bring across multiple levels in a single line: ‘We need tragic and we need sad. We’ve got tragic, but not sad. We need both.’ Well over half of what I first came up with got turned down. But a great deal of what he was talking to me about in September became part of the production. And I really enjoyed seeing him work with the actors. He had a positive way with everybody.” 

Jackson, who has preferred to work with sound designers from the first rehearsal, whenever possible, has worked just twice before with composers, other times with musicians. His mentor in Meyerholdian Bio-Mechanics, Evgeny Bagdanov, would “make the comparison of acting and music—of acting as music. Bio-Mechanical exercises are even called etudes. He’d ask, when we’d be doing them, ‘What is your music?’ It always feels that way to me. Miss Julie is like a chamber piece, a trio for three actors. All the other elements have to function, too. Lights, timing—the ensemble of theatrical elements that impact storytelling. And in some choices, where do we need silence? To take things away? My role as a director is like a conductor’s: hearing the right chords—and discords.” 



8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday and at 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays through May 10 at the  

Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison St. $40-$42.