Therese Raquin

Interview with Director: Evan Cabnet


Ted Sod caught up with Evan Cabnet on his preparation for directing Thérèse Raquin.

TED SOD: Tell us about yourself: Where were you born and educated? When and why did you decide you want to direct for the stage?

EVAN CABNET: I was born in Philadelphia, raised in the South Jersey suburbs. I went to NYU and studied at the Playwrights Horizons Theater School, which is where I began to get a sense of the theatre landscape in the city. I started as an actor, as most of us do, but realized very young that while I had a passion for the art form and for the process, I didn’t have much interest in being on the stage. I felt I could be a better and more productive participant as a director.


TS: How did you research the world of the play? Did you read the original Émile Zola novel or his own stage adaptation? Did you watch or read any of the countless versions (movies, plays, operas) of the story? What did you have to do in order to prepare to direct Thérèse Raquin?

EC: I haven’t seen any of the film or stage adaptations, but now I’m suddenly nervous that I should! I’ve read a few translations of the novel, and every stage adaptation in print (including Zola’s own attempt a few years after his book was published). Helen Edmundson’s version stays very true to the novel, with a few very significant thematic exceptions (I won’t elaborate for fear of spoiling her approach). As a result, so much of my research was learning about Zola, his influences— including his very good friend Manet and his mentor, Flaubert— and the Paris he lived in, which features prominently in both the novel and in Helen’s script. Zola was among the first great figures of Naturalism, so there’s been some academic research mixed into all of our work, although that won’t be visible in the production.

Keira Knightley and Evan Cabnet working in rehearsals for THÉRÈSE RAQUIN.

Keira Knightley and Evan Cabnet working in rehearsals for THÉRÈSE RAQUIN.


TS: Why do you think the story of Thérèse Raquin is so timeless and compelling to both artists and audiences? What do you think the play is about? Do you see it as a morality tale?

EC: Like all great stories, there’s a timelessness to Thérèse Raquin that speaks to our passions, our desires, our fears, and our longings. It’s about loneliness and emotional claustrophobia and the animal desires that lurk just beneath our civilized surfaces. And it’s an exploration of what happens when we indulge those more primal impulses and the fallout that ensues. I definitely do not see it as a morality tale, as Zola was far more interested in the study of humans as animals— it’s not coincidental that The Origin of Species was published just a few years before Zola sat down to write Thérèse Raquin— and so the ethics of these characters was not something he was particularly curious about: he was far too busy thinking about their wants, their actions, and the subsequent consequences.


TS: Helen’s adaptation is somewhat cinematic in its approach. The scenes are sometimes very short and move swiftly from location to location. What are the challenges of directing a play written in this style?

EC: Besides the basic technical challenges, the trick is always momentum. The questions we have to ask ourselves when building the play is whether the pace is serving the story, the stakes, and the tension. That doesn’t always mean “faster,” of course, but it does mean that the physical production must be malleable enough that it can accommodate the natural rhythm of the story, whatever that may turn out to be.


TS: What did you look for in casting the actors? What traits did you need? Do you have a sense of what it will be like to direct a cast that is comprised of both American and British actors?

EC: Helen’s take on these characters is very specific, and so our marching orders came from her. It’s difficult to describe the traits without spoiling the plot, but what I can say is that we were looking for a fearlessness and willingness in our cast to push themselves to an emotional limit, a willingness to get messy, so to speak. As for the multi-national company: it’s a French novel, adapted by an English dramatist, directed by an American, and featuring actors from England, Wales, and the US. I think so long as we can agree on accents, we’ll be in great shape.

David Patrick Kelly, Judith Light and Jeff Still in rehearsal for THÉRÈSE RAQUIN.

David Patrick Kelly, Judith Light and Jeff Still in rehearsal for THÉRÈSE RAQUIN.

TS: How will the play manifest itself visually? How are you collaborating with your design team? There are some marvelous effects in the play – how much pre-production work has to go into making those effects happen? Will there be original music?

EC: We’re staying true to the period in which the play was written and using color, light, and scale to tell the story of both Thérèse’s interior and exterior life. Beowulf Boritt, our incredible set designer, has conjured a world that honors plot, theme, and tone seamlessly and elegantly. Josh Schmidt is composing original music, heavily influenced by the popular music of the time, particularly of the lower classes featured in the play. Jane Greenwood, who needs no introduction, has created beautiful clothes that storytell in a simple, powerful way, and Keith Parham, our lighting designer, will paint Beowulf’s set in a way that articulates and heightens the tension as the play veers from Naturalism into other territories.


TS: Water seems to play an important part thematically and literally in the play. Do you think Zola was using water as a metaphor for something else?

EC: I think Zola’s use of water in his story is certainly symbolic of freedom. The themes of escape, of deliverance, of distance are all encapsulated in the constant movement of the Seine, but over the course of the play it turns into something more sinister and inescapable.


TS: When you last directed at RTC, I asked you how you keep yourself inspired as an artist and you said, “…As a director, you're only as good as your sense of observation, so the more you pay attention to the world around you, the more you're (theoretically, at least) sharpening your skill.” Will these observations help in directing a period piece like Thérèse Raquin? If so, will you share with us an observation about human behavior you’ve made that relates to the play?

EC: If there’s a play that exists that doesn’t rely on wrestling with human behavior, I definitely don’t know about it. The period— in this case, 1860s Paris— is the setting, but the story is as immediate and startling as anything we read online and in the papers every day. I like to think Zola’s aim in writing Thérèse Raquin was quite simple in the end: to answer the question of “how do people do such things?” whenever unimaginable tragedy strikes. In order to answer this, we must find those dark, primal parts of ourselves and of those around us and examine them unflinchingly, as Zola did. That’s the only way to get to the truth he and Helen are seeking, and will, I hope, make for a bracing, thrilling night at the theatre.

Thérèse Raquin begins previews October 1 at Studio 54. For more information, please visit our website.

Related Categories:
2015-2016 Season, Therese Raquin

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From the Artistic Director: Therese Raquin


TR-0011M-StandardArtFilesStandardArtFiles-640x640pxThérèse Raquin, a stunning play by Helen Edmundson adapted from Émile Zola’s classic novel, makes its Broadway debut October 1 as the first production at Studio 54 in this 50th Anniversary season.

Thérèse Raquin is a story that I’ve wanted to put on stage for more than 15 years. Having read Zola’s novel and seen earlier stage versions of the piece, I was completely enthralled by this tale of passion, power, lust, and guilt in 19th century France. I read every possible adaptation I could get my hands on, but none had captured the full vitality of what was on the page. This was clearly no easy task. Even Zola himself had written and quickly dismissed his own stage adaptation, saying that he had “brutalize[d] and disfigure[d] it to make it fit a new mold.” I decided that the best plan was to start over completely, and so Roundabout commissioned the gifted playwright Helen Edmundson (best known here in New York for adapting Coram Boy) to breathe new life into Thérèse Raquin.

Helen proved to be more than up to this significant challenge. Her script vibrates with the soaring emotions of these characters, as they step out of the confines of polite society and allow their more base animal instincts to take over. Helen has found a way to honor Zola’s original while heightening it in ways that would never have been allowed in a play during his time. There’s good reason that the novel was considered scandalous when it was first published in 1867, and Helen has captured the energy of that legacy, giving us the feeling that we are getting a glimpse behind the façades that society requires.

Our wonderful director, Evan Cabnet (who directed The Dream of the Burning Boy for Roundabout Underground), has astutely pointed out that Thérèse herself is a character who, while not as familiar to American audiences, deserves to be spoken of in the same breath as names like Hedda, Nora, and Miss Julie. It is, in fact, quite likely that writers like Ibsen and Strindberg would never have created these iconic and complex women without Zola first bringing us Thérèse.

When you have such a stunning character, it’s essential to find a performer of stunning talent to bring her to life, and we have certainly found that in Keira Knightley. I am so thrilled to be giving Keira her Broadway debut with this piece. She is an actress of incredible depth and range (as her two Academy Award nominations will attest), and I can think of no one better suited to tackle this role.

One of my favorite things about the non-profit theatre is having the opportunity to rediscover a piece like Thérèse Raquin, shedding light on a neglected classic and bringing it to the stage in a way that makes it completely new. That is exactly what we have to look forward to with this production of, and I am eager to hear your thoughts on it. Please continue to email me throughout this 50th Anniversary season at I can’t tell you how greatly I value your feedback.

I look forward to seeing you at the theatre!


Todd Haimes
Artistic Director

Related Categories:
2015-2016 Season, From Todd Haimes, Therese Raquin

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Interview with Playwright: Helen Edmundson


Ted Sod spoke to Helen Edmundson about the process of her writing her stage adaptation of Emile Zola's novel Thérèse Raquin.

Ted Sod: Will you tell us about your background? Where were you born and educated? You started as an actress in an agit-prop theatre company and then began to write, correct?

Helen Edmundson: Yes, that’s all correct. I was born in Liverpool, and we lived in various cities around the northwest of England before I went to Manchester University, where I studied Drama and then went on to complete a diploma in playwriting. Towards the end of my time there, I set up an agit-prop theatre company mainly doing cabaret style songs and sketches around political and feminist issues. Eventually after being with the company for a few years, and working as an actress freelance as well, I decided it was time to leave and to write plays. Just before I left, I wrote a musical for the other people in the company. It was called Ladies in the Lift, and it went very well. It was that which led to my first commission to write a play, and my career developed from there.


TS: Would you say that your work often focuses on women?

HE: Yes. I’m very drawn to strong female protagonists. I think that’s partly because I identify with them and feel that there are so many stories to be told. I get a real kick out of watching large numbers of women being on stage and giving them voices as strong as their male counterparts.

Keira Knightley in rehearsal for THÉRÈSE RAQUIN.

Keira Knightley in rehearsal for THÉRÈSE RAQUIN. Photo by Jenny Anderson.

TS: Which brings us to your adaptation of Thérèse Raquin. This was a commission, correct?

HE: Yes, it was. When Roundabout asked me to do it, I was thrilled. There wasn’t any question in my mind. It was a gift.


TS: Were you immediately drawn to the story?

HE: Thérèse Raquin has always been one of my favorite novels, and I love Zola’s work in general. I’ve read a large amount of it. I fell in love with Thérèse Raquin when I was a teenager -- it’s the passion, the illicit nature of it, the way that it chills you and takes you to dark places. I remember seeing an adaptation of it on television, on the BBC, when I was growing up, and it completely seeped into my soul. I couldn’t take my eyes off it. I’ve always thought I’d love to do a stage version. I actually wrote this adaptation very quickly compared with how long it sometimes takes me to write one.


TS: Will you tell our readers what you think Thérèse Raquin is about?

HE: I think it explores what happens when our most basic, animal instincts are pushed to the surface and start to dominate our behavior. And what happens when that clashes with the more developed side of ourselves, the empathetic side, the side where our conscience resides – everything which separates us from the beasts. Zola claims he was trying to do a scientific experiment. It was as though he was saying: I’m going to examine human beings under the microscope and see how they work - study the link between human physicality and sensuality and the way they behave, etc. But he didn’t just take an average girl as his subject. He took somebody who had been suppressing that animal side of her nature for such a long time that it was ready to burst forth in an explosive and unstoppable way. Thérèse and Laurent are both – but particularly Thérèse – extreme creatures. I love the daringness of Zola deciding to see what would happen when people cannot control that side of their nature.


TS: Did you have to do a great amount of research? Did you read Zola’s stage version? Was that of any value?

HE: I always like to read as much as I can about the author and feel that I really know what they were intending. I want to know what it was that was preoccupying them and inspiring them, so I fully understand the material and themes. I did read Zola’s stage version, yes. It was largely useful because of things it doesn’t do. He was writing with his hands tied behind his back. There was no way that, at his time, he would have been able to put any of the more explicit parts of the book on stage. He’d already got into trouble over Thérèse Raquin – there was a great backlash against it. It became the sort of book that people passed under tables and wouldn’t let anybody see them reading. People talked about it as being pornographic. Theatrical style and convention was also completely different at the time he was writing. But it was also useful to read the voices he had given to the friends of the family who come into Madame’s house. It was lovely to read Zola’s portrayal of those characters.


TS: I find it fascinating how quiet Thérèse is at the beginning of your adaptation, and how she’s given a voice by finding her sexual self. Was that challenging?

HE: That was. I felt it was important for the audience to see how restrained Thérèse had been for so many years. I felt it was really important that we see her unable to express herself, to understand that she has never met with people of a similar nature, who might understand her emotions, desires and intellect. There’s clearly a sense that she is stifled into living a life that is not fulfilling. One of the challenges for a director is to keep our focus on Thérèse. Once the director works towards helping the audience to focus on this silent creature, she can actually become incredibly powerful in her silence. And when she does start to speak, hopefully we’re hanging on her every word because we’ve waited so long to get a glimpse of what’s underneath the surface.

Keira Knightley and Matt Ryan in rehearsal for THÉRÈSE RAQUIN.

Keira Knightley and Matt Ryan in rehearsal for THÉRÈSE RAQUIN. Photo by Jenny Anderson.


I think the challenges of this adaptation were similar to the ones which I’ve faced before. Plays work in a completely different way from novels. The structure and dialogue are necessarily different. Even characters sometimes have to be altered or developed. Sometimes it's only the bones of the story and the ideas and themes which remain the same. Novels can meander - plays can't. For example, in the novel, Thérèse goes through a phase where she feels relatively happy - the time when she is on her own, when she is not attached to any man and when she is educating herself. She starts reading novels, she starts talking to intellectuals in cafes. Her mind is expanding. Things like that I would have loved to be able to have a little more time with. But it wasn’t possible in the adaptation if I was going to maintain the tension and keep the pace. I had to deal with that part of her journey as deftly as possible because the dramatic tension is compelling us to move forward.


TS: Why do you think so many artists have been intrigued by this story and have written their own versions of it?

HE: I think it’s partly because of the scale and the intensity of the emotions in the piece. When you put that against the fact that it was taking place in a time which was less liberated than ours, I think it gives the most wonderful, dramatic clash. I think artists are all always looking for that. We’re always looking for that sense of what happens when things which we’re not allowed to do actually break out and happen. Thérèse and Laurent are not psychopaths. They’re not mad. They are people who are functioning in the world, who have people around for tea and to play cards. And yet, they take that step. They move into that zone where some of us may sometimes have considered going, but haven't. To be able to deal with characters who do take that step is enormously alluring and fascinating.


TS: What do you look for in a director?

HE: A lot of plays which I’ve written, particularly the adaptations, are not naturalistic. Some of them are more overtly expressionistic than others. Thérèse Raquin is probably one of the least expressionistic ones I’ve written in a way, but I think a director has to recognize that it can’t be naturalistic. It has to involve really using the performers’ physicality, using movement direction, going to a place way beyond reality. Even the language is heightened - it’s rhythmic and precise, poetic at times. I look for somebody who can move the action swiftly from one location to another. The directors I love are the ones who thrive on that. Who don’t think, oh my goodness, how on earth is it possible to move from a riverbank to a flat in Paris in the space of half a minute? I love the ones who relish and harvest that to serve the drama of the piece, and to push the boundaries of theatre.


TS: And what about performers? Do you have a sense of the traits the actors need to do this type of play?

HE: I think the actors need to be very brave. I think they need to be aware that they’re not going to be surrounded by lots of props or things to hide behind. They are quite exposed. I love to work with actors who are strong storytellers and who are not afraid to go to highly emotional places.


TS: I’m wondering to what degree you’ll be involved with rehearsals. Do you anticipate any script changes?

HE: I’m going to be there for the first week of rehearsals when the company are really investigating the script. Hopefully I’ll be of some use. I will certainly be looking out for any problems. I feel confident in the script, but if there are ways in which I can change things in order to solve a particular staging challenge, for example, I’ll be ready to help out with that. And I’ll be there during the first previews to keep an eye on the storytelling.

Thérèse Raquin begins previews October 1 at Studio 54. For more information, please visit our website.

Related Categories:
2015-2016 Season, Therese Raquin

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