From Our Cohorts: Misha Kachman and the Design of The Royale

From Our Cohorts: Misha Kachman and the Design of The Royale

By Howard Allen & Royce Sparks

On my first day in the Arizona Theatre Company’s new Cohort Club, I listened to a table read of “The Royale,” the first play of the season and the first play choice of ATC’s new Artistic Director Sean Daniels (who brought the Cohort Club community sharing idea with him from Massachusetts).  The cast was marvelous and Marco Ramirez script was something of a revelation.

The story follows Jay “The Sport” Jackson, the Negro Heavyweight Champion of the World sometime before 1910.  The cast includes three other fascinating African American characters and the always hustling white boxing promoter, Max.

I was immediately struck by the minimal way the story was coming at us. Very 21st Century storytelling. Much of the sound and scene design of the story was coming at us with just the help of the cast.  Ramirez script has some very telling directions on the subject:

  1. In production, the SOUNDS should be made organically, from the actors onstage. CLAPS from the ensemble should come mostly from those not actively in the scene at hand – serving as punctuation. LAUGHTER, OOHs, and AAHs can sound a little more realistic, but are still dialogue punctuation. The RINGSIDE BELL is live.
  2. It may sometimes be helpful for actors delivering punches to STOMP on the floor.
  3. A heavy bag, some stools, and some chalk dust. That’s the whole set.
  4. During the “fight” sequences, both boxers should face the audience, not each other, and there is no need to swing. You’ll see.”
  5. All the above plus camera lightbulb “flashes” that signal jumps in time.

At the table read the actors were already starting to fill in the sound design and suggesting the play’s boxing sequences themselves.  And just at the table reading, we Cohort members were already busy imagining what we did not see.  So, I became fascinated with the visual design of the whole play and scene designer, Mikail (Misha) Kachman. I was lucky enough to get him to agree to a short FaceTime interview on his career and this production from his home.

Our ATC Cohort Club Packet was followed by an Update on Designers work.  Those emails included photos of Kachman’s set design models and architectural renderings of the stage set from different angles. Then I went online and looked up Kachman, who lives in Washington D.C. and teaches grad design students at Maryland University and is a Company Member of Washington’s famous Woolly Mammoth Theatre.

Of course I asked him what it meant to design a production where the playwright asks for essentially no design.  He was not bothered by that at all. As he teaches his design students, theatre is not television.  The set for The Royale is a kind of installation that he and director Mark Garcés collaborated on after seeing what the playwright wanted, especially his request that the 6 scenes of the play be considered 6 “Rounds” like a boxing match. A kind of boxing ring becomes many other locations as well. And the final scene contains a surprise transformation of the installation.

Kachman is kind of famous for bringing in finished models of a set and design to first meetings with theatres and directors.  He said, “When the designer brings in ideas only or drawings, they are not in the front seat on the collaboration. The model can show my sense of the Visual Framework of the story. Though it is not set in stone, it means Michael and I can say this is what we have been thinking.”

This rigorous commitment to working ahead of schedule started with his training in Russia, including his 20s in the St. Petersburg State Theatre Academy. In his teens, he leaned toward graphic arts and illustration but he was encouraged not to become a studio artist because his interests included history and literature and storytelling. He met is wife, Ksenya , at the academy, where she was a teacher and puppet artist. When they left in 1999 to move to the U.S., they had the first of their two daughters with them and more theatre prospects than Russia had to offer in the 2000s.

When he works as a Company Member for the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in D.C., he has become known as a true collaborator who is encouraged to work as a kind of co-director and dramaturg with company members as his designs evolve into the World Of The Story for actors and other designers.

As he said, he tells his students they “are not studying to be nurses.” They are better as the top 3-5 collaborators at the beginning of telling a story, as happened with “The Royale.”  “We are peers,” he said, “And we can push the boundaries beyond a hierarchy of genres of artistry and a hierarchy of jobs in the creative work.  The relationships are horizontal and not vertical.”

Kachman is known nationally for many brilliant designs, especially his approach to the play, Stupid F**king Bird, a contemporary adapted look at Chekhov’s play, The Seagull.   The set design began in an Act 1 of minimal design with no walls and furniture and actors arriving in contemporary costume but in the plot line of Chekhov’s famous play. Kachman suggested early on that Act 2 be a completely naturalistic kitchen, designed with everything including the blender and the stove as practical elements. The audience was then allowed to see story freely outside of a specific time and place – not simply a rural setting in 19th Century Russia but even their own time and place, like the kitchen.

“The Royale” design will pull the audience into just enough of the world of professional boxing in a dangerously segregated America to make specific locations and the time period less important than what these 5 characters have to deal with in their lives. Even the sound design and lighting design will be actor oriented.

“Stage design should give an added value to the most important person in the theatre: the actor who is communicating directly to listeners in the audience,” he said.

How will Misha know if he has done well?  “I tell my students that in America you only know if you are asked back. You will never find out why. It is very American not to do the explaining. In Russia, it is the opposite. They love pointing out the problems and flaws and commenting on your downfall.”

As a new ATC Cohort member, I think you will be impressed enough to tell Misha your thoughts.