LIANE HANSEN, host:
Twenty years ago, a young Ukrainian translator and former philosophy student arrived in the upper crust horse country of Lexington, Kentucky and opened an oddball cafe that specialized in Turkish coffee. Now, having exchanged her radical communist youth for small-scale business success, she started a theater dedicated to bringing the techniques of the great Russian theater director Constantine Stanislavsky to the American heartland.
Frank Browning tells her story.
FRANK BROWNING: I first met Natasha Williams years ago when word was her cafe made Lexington's best coffee. Later, she helped me as an interpreter for a radio series in Kiev, her hometown. It was on a 26-hour train ride to Kiev that she described her latest Kentucky project: A theater to be called The Balagula.
Ms. NATASHA WILLIAMS: It's the Yiddish word, balagula. It means driver of a cart.
BROWNING: The name balagula recalls the great Yiddish writer, Sholem Aleichem.
Ms. WILLIAMS: The idea is that he drives a cart between different worlds. In old country it would be between the ystedle(ph) and the big city. Sholem Aleichem called himself God's Balagula.
BROWNING: The man who strives to connect the multiple realties that make up our fractured lives.
Williams had acted during her university years and then run her own theater in Kiev, where she was born Natasha Isakova. Eventually, she married an American visitor and split, then spent 20 years running the cafe and boutique in Lexington, driving her curiosity cart through the habits of a southern college town.
But eventually she went back to the theater to tell stories about the contradictory nature of human reality. Last year, she directed Martin McDonagh's "Pillowman," a play that revolves around a writer interrogated about gruesome child murders in a future police state.
(Soundbite of play, "Pillowman")
Unidentified Man #1: I've written, what, 400 stories and maybe 10 or 20 have children in.
Unidentified Man #2: Have murdered children in.
Unidentified Man #1: So, what? This is about stories with murdered children in them, do you think I'm trying to say, go out and murder children?
Unidentified Man #2: I'm not trying to say you're trying to say go out and murder children. Are you trying to say go out and murder children?
BROWNING: For Williams, the key word is reality.
Ms. WILLIAMS: Make-believe is not in the props, it's not in the scenery, it's not in the music. Make-believe that is believable is in what actors do that comes from where they actually see and feel.
BROWNING: Too much of today's theater, she says, opts for spectacle over art. To make art in her small restaurant theater, she draws directly on the work of the Russian master, Constantine Stanislavsky, in developing so-called natural acting.
Ms. WILLIAMS: Acting that is based and rooted in human psychology and focused on actors rather than on the spectacle. Mentioning Stanislavsky, this is basically his path. He went from the humongous, beautiful art theater, turned around, rented one-room studio that didn't even have the stage and started training his actors to work there and create the reality that was more real than what he could create in the state-of-the-art theater.
BROWNING: This spring, Williams directed "Some Things You Need to Know Before the World Ends," by Larry Larson and Levi Lee. Balagula's artistic director, Ryan Case, plays Brother Lawrence, a monkish assistant to the Reverend Eddy -apparently the last two survivors of a global holocaust that left the world drenched in poisoned gas - and leaves Brother Lawrence suffering visions.
Mr. RYAN CASE (Actor): (as Brother Lawrence) I came to a large clearing, and in the middle of this clearing was the Reverend Eddy smiling - no hat, no gloves. And as I got closer to him, I saw he was smiling because he was happy. Oh, I was so happy to see him again, see him healthy. He wasn't sick like he is now.
BROWNING: Director Natasha Williams took the play well beyond Christian fundamentalist slapstick, as it's often played. Her company spends months on rehearsals for pieces that usually only run for three weekends. But those rehearsals may include intense psychological, philosophical or historical investigations, says Ryan Case.
Mr. CASE: You have a concept that you want to get across. And then you find the core psychology, belief systems, defenses, how you break down - you are completely prepared for anything. If something falls or another actor loses their lines or your cat died that day, you're prepared. So, when you go out there, you drop the acting, you drop it.
BROWNING: London trained actor and playwright David Richmond says Williams' approach sets her apart from any other director he's known.
Mr. DAVID RICHMOND (Actor, Playwright): Natasha has a phrase: Ultimately, if we do this work right, the character will tell you how to behave. That's a process different from any I've ever encountered.
BROWNING: All of these strategies for training an actor and mounting real theater, Williams says, depend upon a spiral of deaths.
Ms. WILLIAMS: The idea is that everybody dies. The playwright has to die and the director. David Mamet would not agree with me. But I have the right to take the text, see it my way and then play it. Then, when I work with actors, they internalize the concept and the idea and I don't even know that I directed this. And then actors have to die in the play because they have to let go of their ego to create the world that is the world of its own. And that really is not the world of this or that specific actor.
And then, of course, play goes into the audience's mind. Everyone understands it their own way. So, you know, it's a food chain. It's a theatrical food chain.
BROWNING: The Balagula is also a theater of ideas in the middle of a restaurant in the middle of horse country, where you can get a damn fine cup of Turkish coffee.
For NPR News, I'm Frank Browning.
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