Describe the Night is a thrilling, Obie award-winning play by Rajiv Joseph (his Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo was a 2010 Pulitzer Prize finalist for Drama). This not-to-be-missed show is set in Russia over the course of 90 years and follows eight characters who are connected by history and myth as the origins of Putin’s power unfold. This is not quite a history lesson and not a political piece, instead Describe the Night meshes real-life historical figures with fiction and fantasy. Think of it as a fairy tale.
Rajiv Joseph revised the script and made changes specifically for the Wilma Theater (where you can see the show between January 28th to February 16th) production, in collaboration with director Blanka Zizka (who has directed over 70 plays and musicals at Wilma). “I do hope [Describe the Night] is thought-provoking, and that people can talk about it, discuss it, and find aspects of the story that speak to them long after the curtain has gone down,” says Joseph.
We spoke with actor Steven Rishard who is featured in this show along with other members of the Wilma Theater’s HotHouse company. Rishard has also been seen locally in productions at theatres like Azuka, Arden, and InterAct. Additional credits include stage shows in NYC and Chicago, and television roles in series like The Americans, Treme, and Law and Order.
Q: You’ve been in many shows as a member of the Wilma Theater’s HotHouse company. What is the HotHouse and how did you become a part of its ensemble?
A: HotHouse is primarily a company of actors brought together to develop a shared aesthetic of theatrical language. We study different techniques of voice and movement, theory and practice, all in order to deepen our connections to each other and be in the same page as a company. Guest directors and theatre makers are invited to come share what they are interested in. I became a part of HotHouse during its first year after a week long audition and a discussion with its founder Blanka Zizka.
Q: Who do you play in the upcoming Describe the Night? What is this character’s importance in the show?
A: I play Nikolai Yezhov, a commander in Russia’s Red Army and eventually a high ranking official in Stalin’s circle. I’m still discovering his importance in the show…but it’s safe to say he functions as both a protagonist who perpetuates the worst of a tyrannical government and a sympathetic character trapped by the same methods he employs.
Q: Were you familiar with Describe the Night or Rajiv Joseph’s work prior to the announcement that The Wilma Theater would be presenting the show?
Yes and No. I know Rajiv Joseph and have worked with him before, though I never got to see Describe the Night when it was first produced. We read the play in HotHouse a year ago and that was my first introduction to it.
Q: The show is set over 90 years in Russia. Real historical figures and their stories are blended with fiction and fantasy. Without giving much away, what scene(s) do you enjoy performing the most?
A: We have only just begun rehearsing, but recently we worked on a scene that takes place in what I think of as a bureaucratic trickster version of purgatory, so that was fun.
Q: Did you find yourself doing any research into Putin and the historical bits of the show? What did you learn while being preparing to be a part of this production?
A: I researched mostly the environment and atmosphere of the time the play is set in. Stalin’s paranoia, and his inner circle. Richard Sorge and Lavrentiy Beria and their ilk.
Q: Describe the Night won the 2018 Obie for Best New American Play. Why do you think it received such an honor?
A: It’s a great play! It’s got laughs and gasps. It’s creepy and tense. It’s sexy and dangerous, and it’s working with real questions about the human condition.
Q: What do you hope audiences will take away from this show?
A: I hope they enjoy it and I hope it leads to stimulating conversation about not only our personal mythologies as individuals but also how we engage in our country’s mythology as citizens.