Recently, I sat down with honorary lady Charles Haugland, and after we finished gushing about our mutual crush on the immense talent of Maria Aitken, discussed Chekov, surprise Russian majors, and why Joanne Chang hasn’t yet released a Meyers + Chang cookbook.
Charles Haugland: I feel as though I’m breaking the Ladies* Who Lunch structure by having no food in front of me. I’ve got my root beer, I’m just drinking my calories today.
Kyle Thomas Hemingway Dickinson: I’m sure no one will hold that against you. So Charles, you’re a dramaturg—just like on Smash!
CH: Yes, just like Daniel Sunjata.
KTHD: Tell me about what your work at the Huntington entails.
CH: Basically, I work with a script from the moment it comes through our doors to the moment it closes. I’ll read plays that are submitted to the theatre and work on developing plays with the director of new work, Lisa Timmel. I’ll prep rehearsal materials for the director, the designers, and the actors. Once we’re in performances, I do a lot of the audience engagement, everything from the program notes to the post-show conversations.
KTHD: So, The Seagull.
CH: The Seagull is the first of Chekov’s four major plays. In some ways, The Seagull remains the most difficult play, it’s hardest to say what it’s about and what it means. A lot of people have said that it’s a play about making art—obviously there’s two actresses and two writers in that main cast of four—there’s sort of a give and take that’s really interesting and complex between the people who are creating and what they create.
KTHD: What’s the rehearsal process been like?
Maria Aitken is the most prepared of any director I’ve seen while working at the Huntington in that she’s read everything. You can tell when you get into the room that she had in mind the three or four different ways you could play any scene or character and was just picking and choosing her way through what made sense with what actor and what made sense with her interpretation of the script, but she’s just so exhaustively prepared for it.
And then Kate Burton is constantly referring back to the Chekov, because we have two or three translations in the room—we’re using the Paul Schmidt translation, but you look at the things in other versions just to get a sense of it. For example, if Paul Schmidt translated the word as “bored” but Chekov said something that means more like “disinterested,” she can absolutely give you bored with a side of disinterested.
KTHD: And I hear there’s music…
CH: There’s a little, it’s not much. There are these little songs that one of the characters will often sing just the first line of. With this production, we tried to go back and find the original Russian music for these songs. When we started, we didn’t think it was going to be that hard. We were calling people at other theatres and asking “Do you have these songs?” And they would say “No, we never found those. We just substituted other things or we made the melodies up…”
We got involved with some people from Harvard who helped us track down all the original sheet music for those songs. The reference librarians there were outrageously helpful. I didn’t understand that back in the day we never got together as a country and said “This is the way we’re going to transliterate the Cyrillic alphabet into our language,” so there’s three or four different ways to do it because we just never agreed. Usually these songs, if they’re in American libraries, are under transliterated titles. The Harvard librarians were really good at figuring out the four different versions of any different vowel, trying to track stuff down. It was a fun little detective hunt.
KTHD: And I’m assuming you don’t speak or read Russian.
CH: Not a word! But do you know who does speak Russian? Kate Burton!
KTHD: Stop! Is there anything she can’t do?
CH: She was a Russian major at Brown as an undergraduate, training to be a diplomat, before she went off to the Yale School of Drama and became an actress. So there is one person in that room who speaks Russian, but it’s not me!
KTHD: Did she help you at all with your detective hunt?
CH: I didn’t know that when we were doing that part of it. So there I was using Google Translate to try to email the Russian State Library in Moscow, and all this time I just should have asked Kate Burton to write it for me!
KTHD: It seems like such a gargantuan effort for such a small part of the play!
CH: I guess we just get points for stubbornness! He’s like, “The bright moon sails the midnight sky...” And done.
KTHD: And that one line represents…
CH: ...About 15 hours or so of research.
KTHD: So, outside of all the dramaturging you do, what do you like to do?
CH: I do a lot of cooking. Recently, I’ve been dipping my toe into Korean food. I made kimchee for the first time a couple of weeks ago. I keep thinking that I’m going to get it together to try to do all the steps of making ramen. Part of it is that I just love Meyers + Chang so much that I wanted to try to learn how to cook some of that food. Someday maybe they’ll do a cookbook.
KTHD: There isn’t one?
CH: No, they haven’t done one. Originally it was going to be after the first Flour book, and then they did the savory Flour book, and now she’s doing the low-sugar baking book. Someday she’ll do a Meyers + Chang book…
KTHD: Maybe she’ll read this interview…
CH: She’ll see there’s a market for it! She’ll have to send it to her publisher.
KTHD: What is one thing that most people probably don’t know about you?
CH: I grew up in Cape Girardeau, Missouri. It’s where Rush Limbaugh hails from. That’s it’s claim to fame.
KTHD: What’s something #BosArts related that you’ve seen recently that you loved?
CH: I saw Melia Bensussen’s production of The Cherry Orchard at Actors’ Shakespeare Project, it was gorgeous. I also saw Steven Barkhimer’s play, Windowmen, at Boston Playwrights’ Theatre, and that was really great. BPT is such an important institution as far as launching the careers of so many people. I think it is such an important piece in the ecology of the region.
KTHD: And finally, what’s your favorite cocktail?
CH: Probably just good old fashioned champagne.
KTHD: Just by itself?
CH: Just by itself.
Photo: Justin Seward