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Why Imperfect Artists Make Great Characters

Date: Jan 30, 2018

Tony-winning playwright Terrence McNally explores the bigwigs of the Ballets Russes


Over a six-decade career as one of America's most prominent playwrights, Terrence McNally has been consistently fascinated with the performing arts and its larger-than-life characters. In his plays, the four-time Tony winner has examined iconic figures (opera diva Maria Callas in Master Class), aspiring stars (Googie Gomez in The Ritz), and even obsessed fans (Mendy in The Lisbon Traviata).

His new drama Fire and Air, currently making its world premiere at Classic Stage Company, is both part of that McNally tradition and a bit of a departure since it's his first work set in the dance world, specifically the groundbreaking company Ballets Russes. "I've thought about a play like this one for many years, especially since I've always enjoyed going to the ballet," McNally says. "But working on the Broadway musical Anastasia rekindled my interest in early 20th-century Paris, and that's when I truly delved into the history of the Ballets Russes. Like many of my plays, Fire and Air is historical fiction in some sense, such as compressing and changing the timeline, but all the characters are real. Most of all, it's emotionally accurate to both the people and the time period."

The six-character play focuses primarily on two very strong personalities: Ballets Russes' volatile impresario Sergei Diaghilev (played by Tony winner Douglas Hodge) and headstrong young dancer Vaslav Nijinsky (played by James Cusati-Moyer). Nijinsky was Diaghilev's protégé and lover for a time. And while Diaghilev eventually moved on to other men, notably Léonide Massine (played by Jay Armstrong Johnson), his obsession with Nijinsky, who developed schizophrenia, never went away.

"I like writing these big characters, although I am not that way at all in real life," admits McNally. "Partly, it's because they remind me of people I saw in the theatre when I was young who inspired me, such as Ethel Merman or Gertrude Lawrence or Zoe Caldwell."

Like Callas, Nijinsky is a legend, albeit a deeply flawed one. And that's what makes him and his cohorts such interesting subjects. "Just as I don't like everything about Callas, I don't like everything about either Diaghilev or Nijinsky," says McNally. "But very beautiful art is almost always created by very imperfect artists. Who knows what would have happened if Diaghilev had not put so many right people in the same room at the right time, or what would have been the outcome if he had not treated these people badly? I found all these strands fascinating."


Because of Nijinsky's mythic reputation, many writers have been attracted to his story. However, some of the most prestigious sounding Nijinsky projects have failed to get off the ground. "There is a TV script Terence Rattigan wrote about him that was never produced," notes McNally. "And there was also an unproduced screenplay by Edward Albee. Before he died, I actually asked Edward if I could read it, and although he said yes, I changed my mind. I realized looking at anyone else's work wouldn't really help me."

McNally's original draft of Fire and Air had about 20 characters. But after numerous discussions with the play's director, Classic Stage Company artistic director John Doyle, McNally drastically narrowed his focus. "There were many reasons I reduced the play to just six people," McNally says. "Practically, I don't like having actors double; it can get confusing to an audience. Philosophically, I realized some of the artists featured in that first draft, like Debussy or Michel Fokine, really deserved their own plays. And John really loves this more minimal approach to the theatre, which I have to say was on my own bucket list. And now I am really glad I tried it."

Indeed, McNally feels Doyle -- with whom he previously collaborated on Broadway's The Visit -- was pivotal in bringing Fire and Air together. "The two things I found most remarkable is that John built this cast [which includes Marin Mazzie, Tony winner John Glover, and four-time Oscar nominee Marsha Mason] in two days, and he started staging the piece immediately," says McNally. "The cast ended up not feeling they needed a traditional table read. It was amazing how quickly this company of actors, of such different ages and experience, almost instantly became a true family of theatre artists."

To read about a student's experience at Fire and Air, check out this post on TDF's sister site SEEN.


Brian Scott Lipton has been covering theatre and the performing arts for 30 years. Follow him on Twitter at @bsl1436. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.

Top image: Douglas Hodge and James Cusati-Moyer in Fire and Air. Photos by Joan Marcus.

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