15 minutes with . . .
Adriana Sevahn Nichols
I met Adriana Sevan when she one of
In March 2007, Taking Flight took to the air in a TheatreWorks broadcast and to the stage at San Diego Repertory Theatre, under he direction of Giovanna Sardelli, who guided the Douglas run.
In August 2007, Sevan performed seven shows at the Fountain Theatre in Los Angeles.
On the morning of Oscar Sunday, February 25, we sat down at a familiar coffee shop near her home in Toluca Lake to get all the stories straight.
CRISTOFER GROSS I was impressed by how effortlessly Taking Flight, which is a story about an extremely sensitive subject, embraces both the tragic and comic, shifting between emotions without jarring the audience. Did that organically emerge out of the storytelling or did you have to hammer at it to get that rhythm just right.
ADRIANA SEVAHN NICHOLS – For my first experience with solo work, understanding the relationship with the audience, that they are in fact my scene partner, has been an amazing journey of discovery. I've not deliberately sat down with the script and said, "Okay here's where I want them to do this, here's where I want them to do that.' It's much more intimate than that. In telling the story I am immersed in the step-by-step journey of this character. It's more [about] accomplishing the moment-to-moment as I get there. I know this sounds cliché, but, unlike anything I've ever done, every night performing this has been different, because I have the license as the writer to improvise. When I get to a moment, I'm more interested in being in that moment truthfully -- in that night, in that performance, with that audience – which is different every night as well. So I will improv.
CRISTOFER GROSS You wouldn't cut anything. . .
ADRIANA SEVAHN NICHOLS – No. It's maybe adding a word, or a sentence: something that connects to the immediacy of that moment of the storytelling.
CRISTOFER GROSS Like in a conversation.
ADRIANA SEVAHN NICHOLS – Yes. And their response is vital to the storytelling. I had only one show out of all the ones at the Kirk Douglas where the audience was very quiet. I couldn't hear them at all. It was very challenging because I was not aware of that scene partner and how it was going. It really is discovering the reactions in the moment and responding to them.
CRISTOFER GROSS - So you started by writing? Or you started telling the story as performance and then converted that to a script?
ADRIANA SEVAHN NICHOLS – I wrote the first 18 pages in a workshop at the Taper led by Diane Rodriguez. So, the bones of the play were written in that workshop. And then I had the good fortune to do workshops over four months with Tony Plana, who worked on the faculty of the theater department at Rio Hondo College. He let me come in, do a little studio work and then do readings in front of audiences to get their feed back. I can't say that I developed the rest of the play in response to the audience. But I developed it in collaboration with them. Feeling what was landing and what wasn't. What felt great on the page often proved way too narrative when it was performed. So I discovered the essence and the rhythm of the play in performance.
CRISTOFER GROSS So it did happen organically.
ADRIANA SEVAHN NICHOLS – Yeah. And when I got to the Sundance Theater Festival where I had been invited to develop it further, I told Philip Himberg, the artistic director, that it was 90 percent finished. So he said, "Since it doesn't need the full three weeks, I'm going to give you two weeks and you can present first.' Well, when I got into the room with the director, Giovanna Sardelli and the amazing dramaturg Mame Hunt, Mame's questions and responses were so deliciously provocative that I sat up each night working on the play. I ended up rewriting about 40 percent of it. Then I wished I had that extra week back.
CRISTOFER GROSS Was Mame asking questions about things that weren't clear or things she felt deserved to be explored further?
ADRIANA SEVAHN NICHOLS – Both. But mostly it was going deeper with what was there.
CRISTOFER GROSS The play begins immediately following the bombings.
ADRIANA SEVAHN NICHOLS – Yes. The play initially started with the character of Adriana searching for her friend, Rhonda, on the phone, looking in every hospital . . . .
CRISTOFER GROSS And when she finds her, Adriana visits and cares for her to an extraordinary degree. But eventually she has to stop.
ADRIANA SEVAHN NICHOLS – One day she wakes up realizes that her life is a mess because she has neglected her own partner. He also had been a psychological victim of 9/11, having witnessed horrific things. But because he wasn't physically injured the Adriana character chose to help the horribly damaged friend in the hospital. There she felt like she could affect a change, easing someone's pain. At home with her own partner, she was completely ineffective and they became strangers. So she decides to just take a time out and collect herself, but is afraid of the repercussions from the hospitalized friend, she writes her a letter. That is justifiably perceived by the character of the friend as selfish and cowardly. And that was really the beginning of the end. There was never again contact.
CRISTOFER GROSS And the friend this was based on? Where is that woman now?
ADRIANA SEVAHN NICHOLS – I don't know.
CRISTOFER GROSS Really.
ADRIANA SEVAHN NICHOLS – I don't know.
CRISTOFER GROSS Because, in reality, you had a break, too?
ADRIANA SEVAHN NICHOLS – Well, this play is a theatricalized account inspired by a real-life experience. So, is there a red-headed investment banker that loves Bon Jovi? No. Is there a woman who I loved deeply and had a profoundly live-changing experience with? Yes. So, sadly, that is one of the facts. We have not been in contact since I took that time out.
CRISTOFER GROSS In addition to the ongoing drama between the people who inspired the fictitious story, the run at the Kirk Douglas Theatre began with an incident that I'm sure many people have told since it happened.
ADRIANA SEVAHN NICHOLS – Yes. It was amazing. Fifteen minutes into Opening Night I severed my ACL [anterior cruciate ligament]. They called paramedics and got the audience out of there. And Diane Rodriguez comes up to me and says "Adriana, Kirk Douglas is here.' He had been in the front row. I mean, it's his theatre! And I'm lying on the stage floor and I can't move. I'm in so much pain. They're trying to move me but I can't move. And all of that stopped and I was like "Mr. Douglas,' putting out my hand like I'm on some kind of chaise lounge. "It's such an honor to meet you.' And he says, "Can I do anything for you? I'm going to the lobby. Can I get anything for you?' And I joke, "Can you get me a stiff drink? And he smiles,"I'll see what I can do.' So he leaves and the paramedics arrive: three of the most handsome firemen you could imagine. Firemen. And I'm lying on a stage in a play about 9/11. I'm injured and I can't move and there are firemen kneeling around me caring for me in their bright yellow rubber pants and their blue T-shirts like they were in New York. Do you know what I mean? And I look up and it was like, "Of course, you're here with me.' And there was one who was by the book. He was so adamant about getting me to the hospital immediately and stopping the show. And then another one leaned into me and – I sometimes wonder if he was an angel – he just says to me, "You do whatever you have to do today. Just make sure you don't take so much medicine that you don't feel your pain.' And then it was, "I'm doing the play.' He somehow gave me the permission to finish. I said I'd finish and, I didn't know this, but Equity has a time limit from when you stop. If you exceed that you can't start again, no matter how good the conditions are. So I made the decision to do it within a minute or two before that cut-off. And then they packed me in ice, sat me on a chair and put a pillow under my foot so I could take the pressure off. And then in came the audience, who just looked like such scared children as they were being ushered back in. And I say, "I'm okay. I'm going to go to the hospital after this, but let's finish the story. It's been a while since we were last in these seats, so here's where we were." And I started a synopsis of what had happened and slowly I'm feeling tech come in around me . . .
CRISTOFER GROSS Scott Harrison was stage managing, right . . . ?
ADRIANA SEVAHN NICHOLS – Yes, Scott. . . . and seamlessly we just picked up where we left off. And about 10 or 15 minutes into restarting the nerves just started firing and I was in so much pain. And I thought, they will kill me if I stop a second time. You said you were going to do it and you've got to finish it. And I did. And it will be an ovation to remember for my life. There was nary a soul sitting down. There's crying and I'm holding my heart saying this is not what I imagined. Then Kirk Douglas bounds up again – and this is a man of 90 who's got two new knees – bounds out of his chair and he takes my face and he hugs me and he raises my hand like I'm some sort of sports champion. And it's lovely because in the play there's a whole scene that's re-enacted from 'Gladiator' and here is Spartacus in the front row. He quiets the audience and he says, "My name is Kirk Douglas, and this is my theater. I am happy that my wife Anne and I drove all the way from Santa Barbara today to see Adriana perform for two reasons. First is her talent and second is her courage.
CRISTOFER GROSS Amazing. But then your surgeon needed you to cut the run a few performances short so he could perform your surgery. So you took some time off to recuperate and earlier this year you were recovered enough to join Roger again for five performances of your show and his for the LA Theatre Works series at the Skirball Cultural Center. Did you have to redo anything for a radio version?
ADRIANA SEVAHN NICHOLS – What I did was I had to recreate the score. So I applied for and received a Durfee Artist Resource Completion Grant. And that generous grant allowed me to pay a composer and musicians and singers. And, the singers are the Agape Choir, who are part of the Agape spiritual center in Venice run by Michael Beckwith, who is now getting all kinds of fame from his association with the film "The Secret.'
CRISTOFER GROSS This is 'The Secret' Oprah Winfrey's become interested in?
ADRIANA SEVAHN NICHOLS – It basically says that The Secret to having everything you want in your life is working with the law of attraction: like attracts like. So the thoughts that you think, not only the ones you're conscious of but also the ones you're unconscious of, are really what draw and magnetize things to you. So if you're deliberate and disciplined about where you let your mind go and what you choose to put your attention on, it will show up in your life. And so Michael Beckwith, who is one of the core teachers of this, has his place in Venice and he's amazing. I'll tell you a story. So, I've been estranged from my friend for the last four-and-a-half years. And, it took me to write this play to realize that I . . . I think I wrote this play because I didn't know what to say. I didn't know how to bridge this gap of silence and I had so much fear in doing so. And I think when I started the play I had a lot of anger, hurt and a lot of self-righteousness. And in all this time, and certainly through the perspective of playing all the characters, it's really alchemized into an awareness of love and forgiveness. But I still didn't know how to bridge the distance with my friend. And Michael Beckwith says, on 'Oprah,' on February 8 [two-and-a-half weeks before this Intermission interview], the complete act of forgiveness is not possible until you can be grateful to that person for the gift of that experience in your life. And no matter how difficult it is, it has really shaped who you are. Cristofer Gross: That's a challenge.
ADRIANA SEVAHN NICHOLS – [Nods] So I called her the next day. I didn't catch her but I left her a voice mail and I said that I didn't want to leave the planet or hear that she had without her knowing that I loved her very much and that with all the time that has passed, it's been constant that I think of her and wish her well and if she'd like to have contact, here's my number. And if not I respect that and continue to wish her well.
CRISTOFER GROSS So, in fact, not being forgiven is what ends up happening to you. Did she call you back.
ADRIANA SEVAHN NICHOLS – [shakes head] Well, I'm changing the ending.
CRISTOFER GROSS Oh? [laugh] Is that a secret?
ADRIANA SEVAHN NICHOLS – No. Well, not really. No. I told [San Diego Repertory Artistic Director] Sam Woodhouse I was going to do it. I had to. Having had this journey with severing my ACL on opening night. And then getting the transplant from a cadaver donor who I never knew . . . .There's something about being gifted something so profound, literally the part of another human being's body that has passed on, without any judgment of who I am, what my ethnicity is, what my religious beliefs are, what will I do with this gift. A gift given to a stranger anonymously before the stranger even knew they would need it, has so touched me in a way that I cannot end the play without bringing this illumination of my own experience in.I've spent the last nine months learning how to walk again. And it's such a parallel to the character of Rhonda in the play, who has a lifelong journey of walking again. And what it means to be able to walk again and what it means to not be able to walk and what I'm experiencing is only a paper cut by comparison, it's taught me a lot. You know I got a blood clot from the surgery and had to get two injections a day of blood-thinning into my stomach. It was horrible, my stomach was covered with bruises, my hair started to fall out . It was like, "Oh my God! What is happening!" For whatever reason, this story insists on being told through experience. My destiny is such that I'm supposed to have this experience. I'm going to tell this story. It's not as if it happened. There's some things you can't possible understand until you've really put your foot in those other shoes . . . . Even if it's just for one step.So, yes, the ending onstage at San Diego Repertory will be a slightly different direction than the one that will air on the LATW recording on March 24.
And with that, we finished our coffees, hugged good-bye, and walked back into our individual stories.