Smile Politely

Human pathos and music

History is interesting, but it can be frustrating for type-A people who like concrete answers. There are only so many things we can know about the past. This is the premise of The Station Theatre’s upcoming play, 33 Variations. Written by Moisés Kaufman and directed by Thom Schnarre, the play concerns one musicologist’s desire to discover Beethoven’s motivation for composing his 33 variations of Diabelli’s waltz.

Thom Schnarre — a contributor to Smile Politely in addition to being a fixture at the Station Theatre — was kind enough to answer a few questions about this intriguing production.


Smile Politely: What challenges were presented by the fact that the play takes place in two time periods?

Thom Schnarre: The script is so beautifully transcendent of time that it isn’t too difficult to navigate the time-period juggling. Kaufman states in his production notes that this is not a historical work, but a work focusing on the connectedness of all humans, and thus time periods blur and a sort of magical realism is set up in the piece. Katherine and Gertie note Beethoven and his fellows’ interactions as they research the moments recorded in the piece. Beethoven comes to Katherine in her hour of need and helps her cast off her fears and transition into her next phase. It’s pretty lovely and has a gentle ease about it.

The biggest challenge is fitting all of this action and period detail into our small space. My scenic designer, Chris (Fing) Guyote and I have set up two areas delineating the present and the past, and then several regions where the time periods merge. Specifically, the library and the areas around the piano serve as free spaces for our characters to interact and reveal themselves to those in the past or future, respectively. In our interpretation, creativity and life are both messy business, and our characters’ words and music are a way to organize the chaos. I really love how it’s come together and how Fing’s design communicates so much as you enter the space.

SP: What drew you to this script?

Schnarre: This is a big question. Circumstance for one: In 2005, I was cast in Kaufman’s The Laramie Project at Parkland College, and this production’s opening coincided with Kaufman coming to town to research Beethoven at the U of I for 33 Variations. He saw the press for the play and asked director Randi Hard if he could meet with the cast. He spent nearly two hours talking to us about our characters and his experience with the piece. It was awesome. Afterwards, we chatted briefly, and when I heard about 33 Variations’ Broadway debut, I rushed to get a copy of the play and immediately fell in love with its unique blend of human pathos and music. I proposed it a few times, but the timing wasn’t right, and I sort of put it aside with a melancholy sigh.

Fade in on 2013 for motivation number 2: 2013 was a shit year. I started having various minor physical issues, the combined impact of which was that parts of me were showing signs of age… wearing out a bit…telling me I was aging and that immortality was not an option. That was followed by an overly dramatic freak-out (not a surprise to those who know me) and a significant depression, which I dealt with old-school: a lot of pouting, cussing, and maybe a wee cocktail or twenty.

This funk also caught my creativity on fire. I wrote two plays in 18 months, directed Good Boys and True as my third effort for The Station, and wrote two pretty bitchin’ short stories, so if someone wants to make me all famous and shit, I think I’d be into it. But seriously, I really liked what I produced, which is not my typical response to my own work. Liking my own stuff was kind of my lifeline and got me through the darkness. Now, when I am in the writing zone, it’s hard for me to read a lot of other stuff; it sort of taints the well of my juices a bit, and I lose my voice. I have to read a little, write a little, or it all becomes brain-mush. So when submissions for this season rolled around, I was in the writing zone and glanced through several new plays and my stack of long shots and rediscovered 33 Variations

As I perused it again, I’d just had another health setback. I was in the midst of feeling sorry for myself when a friend of mine noted that he’d been too busy for me and that he was a bad friend, and, stupidly, I didn’t disagree with him. When I reread the play, I saw Katherine blowing her personal life while rocking her professional one. I could relate to that, because later when this same friend reiterated my assessment of our friendship, I was horrified. What if that was the last thing I had said to him? What if he thought that was really how I felt and something happened to me? The play emphasizes the importance of making things right with those you care about. It also emphasizes the importance of creative honesty and pursuing your artistic obsessions. I cleared up my personal misunderstandings with my friend and submitted the play; then the committee fell in love with it, and that’s how this production was born!

SP: What can you tell me about your cast?

Schnarre: I have always been blessed with stellar actors and great people in my directing efforts! This cast is no exception. I have Chris Taber (pictured, seated, at right), my patron saint and muse of my directing efforts in C-U. We bring out the best of each other, even when we butt heads. She’s an amazing Katherine: elegant and brittle and full of fear and vulnerability. Randall Offner is new to my tribe, and he’s a kick-ass Beethoven, all grandeur and quirky puckishness, with a sweet, wounded quality. William Anthony-Sebastian Rose II and Christopher Terrell Brown, as Anton Diabelli and Mike the nurse, respectively, are both regulars with me and The Station, and both infuse their characters with their unique personal stamps and flesh out what the script does not. J. Malia Andrus brings a continental elegance to Gertie, the keeper of Beethoven’s papers in Bonn. She is also my co-conspirator in costuming; my contemporary fashion flair melds with her historic precision. We also have two new young actors in the tribe: Jessica Miller and Evan Seggebruch. Jessica is a great and energetic addition as Katherine’s flighty and disappointing daughter, Clara, and Evan duels with both Beethoven and Diabelli as Beethoven’s secretary and confidant, Anton Schindler. They’re all awesome, and I am lucky to have them.

SP: Throughout the rehearsal process, did it ever feel like the music was a character as well?

Schnarre: Kaufman also notes this fact in his production notes — that Beethoven’s music is the eighth character. It was sort of my music of choice from late July through October, and its playfulness and drama are both present in this production. Kaufman researched the Diabelli Variations with U of I professors (and spouses) William Kinderman and Katherine Syer. Kinderman is referenced in the script, and Katherine is Syer’s namesake. Professor Kinderman referenced the sense of humor and meticulous nature of Beethoven’s variations on Diabelli’s waltz, and those aspects of the music translate into the other characters’ motivations throughout the work. For those interested, we are hosting an after-performance talk-back with both of the professors and myself and the cast after our January 30th performance.

Also, the set design denotes the music’s importance with all of the action surrounding a beautiful living room grand piano donated by Steve Schmidt at The Piano People. The imposing piece dominates the space, just as the music infuses life into the play.

SP: Speaking of music, can the audience look forward to hearing it live?

Schnarre: Yes! Bringing character Number 8 to life, Stephanie Swearingen will be our pianist throughout the production. She plays the pieces beautifully and also interacts with the actors as the play progresses. Several of the variations are excerpts in the work, and they are all performed live. Also, Beethoven’s “Kyrie” is performed by the cast; so, for the price of one ticket, you get both a play and a concert.


33 Variations runs January 22nd to February 7th. Tickets are $10 on Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday, and $15 on Friday and Saturday. All shows are at 8:00 PM, except on Sunday, February 1st. There will be a pre-Super Bowl matinee on February 1st with a 2 p.m. performance, replacing the typical 8 p.m. performance. Check out the Station website for more info and to reserve tickets.

Photos by Thom Schnarre.

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