Legendary director JoAnne Akalaitis was having a meltdown of a morning.
She couldn’t find her marked-up script for the show she was rehearsing for its world premiere this weekend at the Guthrie Theater. Her phone wasn’t charging. And she’d misplaced a favorite book, Jean Genet’s “Reflections on the Theater.”
Tense but contained, she began to relax as she sat for an interview last week. She was talking about theater, after all, something that often starts in chaos and ends in beauty. And soon the Guthrie staff had resolved both her phone and script issues.
“There is a God!” exclaimed Akalaitis, a well-known atheist. “Tell everyone in the Midwest: God is!”
Theatergoers should feel a similar excitement about her return to Minnesota to stage with “BAD NEWS! i was there ...” for just four performances Saturday and Sunday.
In 1989 the director lit the theater world afire with her 5½-hour marathon staging of Genet’s “The Screens” at the Guthrie, set during Algeria’s war for independence.
“For me, ‘The Screens’ was, and is, the yardstick by which theater is measured,” said Guthrie artistic director Joseph Haj.
Haj, fresh out of graduate school, was part of that production. “As a young actor, it was the first time I realized that theater can carry politics — can have aesthetics beyond the delivery of story or plot,” he said.
A heavyweight director who dramatizes epic stories with wit and flair, Akalaitis co-founded the influential avant-garde troupe Mabou Mines and led the New York Shakespeare Festival. With a knack for interpreting classics, she has influenced generations of directors and playwrights around the world. But the Guthrie remains a site of artistic triumph.
“In the wake of ‘The Screens,’ the most important artists in the country wanted to work at the Guthrie,” said Haj. “It put the Guthrie in the firmament for a time that was extraordinary, with a huge impact on the field.”
The New York-based director and teacher last worked at the Guthrie in 1994, when she helmed “The Rover.” On the personal side, Akalaitis’ grandson was born in Minneapolis and she still has strong ties here.
Her return also closes a loop for Haj, whose debut in “The Screens” led to an invitation to join the Guthrie acting company.
“If I had to point to the one person who had the most influence on the career I ended up having, I would point to JoAnne,” said Haj, who has kept up with Akalaitis through the years. “I love her powerful and unique mind, her artistry, how she thinks about things. I never leave a conversation with her without having learned something.”
In 1991, he and Akalaitis traveled to the Israeli-occupied territories with other American artists to meet Palestinian theater artists. “We were driving around and it was stiflingly hot, godawful,” she recalled. “These four jeeps pull up and out came Israeli soldiers from central casting — real handsome with submachine guns.”
The squad tried to detain their Palestinian driver, but Haj — whose parents were born in Palestine — insisted he be released.
“Joe was passionate then, but without the suit,” joked Akalaitis. “His grandmothers were illiterate. He can not only write his name and use the word ‘intersectionality,’ he’s head of this big theater that’s doing big things.”
Respecting the messenger
“BAD NEWS!” is timely in an era when newsgathering is in the cross-hairs of our political discourse, she said.
The show revolves around a theatrical device invented by the ancient Greeks — the messenger who suddenly appears to deliver a dramatic speech about some tale of woe that has happened offstage. Akalaitis assembled the text, using several such scenes from classic plays by the likes of Sophocles, Euripides and Seneca.
“The messengers of bad news are not always popular people, but they’re necessary people who have a duty,” said Akalaitis. “In our society right now, the bad-news deliverers are whistleblowers of the #MeToo movement. They’re not necessarily disliked. And some of them are admired. Harvey Weinstein was this cultural hero for making adventurous movies. You see the picture of Obama shaking his hand. Hillary, too, is in pictures with him. Then someone says, ‘Oh, I have to tell you … ’ ”
Akalaitis, who has a fondness for natural settings, will stage two of the show’s four performances at sunrise and sunset Saturday — “times that are naturally dramatic,” she said.
The promenade-style production will move through various public spaces at the Guthrie, with a troupe of eight principal actors that includes Stephen Yoakam and Nathaniel Fuller, both of whom worked with Akalaitis at the Guthrie, and Ann Michels and Emily Gunyou Halaas. Ten “extras” guide the audience — capped at around 100 people — from scene to scene.
Weaving various languages into the English text, “BAD NEWS!” will be both spoken and sung, with movement inspired by ancient Indian dance. Akalaitis was still tweaking the script last week. She said people will hear contemporary references, including the much-tossed-around “fake news,” but she is not aiming to court controversy in what is a chamber piece compared with “The Screens.”
A curious, inveterate reader, she speaks like the classic texts she so loves.
The show was first staged five years ago in a workshop production at Poets House in New York. Akalaitis did not even know she had this work in her until she was touring Poets House with its director, who is a personal friend.
“We were looking out at the courtyard,” Akalaitis recalled. “She invited me to do something and I said, out of the blue, I’d like to do ‘BAD NEWS!’ One is always thinking about Greek plays, Greek mythology. It lives in you. And in this case, it came out immediately after a knock at the door.”