October 19, 2020

Collectives and Covens: Rachel Bublitz and Alexandra Harbold on THE NIGHT WITCHES

An Interview with Playwright Rachel Bublitz and Director Alexandra Harbold of THE NIGHT WITCHES

By Aaron Swenson


The “Night Witches” were the fearsome, all-female flyers of the 588th Night Bomber Regiment. At the height of World War II, they completed over 23,000 missions without radios or parachutes, in planes made of canvas and wood. Hidden by darkness, they dropped bomb after bomb on their German enemy every fifteen minutes to keep them from sleeping. Underestimated and under-supplied, the “Night Witches” trained one another as they flew between ranks and duties—mechanics became navigators, navigators became pilots, pilots became commanders. Eventually, all became legends: by the end of the war, they were the most decorated unit in the Soviet Air Force.

On October 23rd, the University of Utah Department of Theatre will debut its first fully virtual production: The Night Witches, written by Salt Lake playwright Rachel Bublitz and directed by Alexandra Harbold. Even by theatre standards, where no show goes the same way twice, this is a one-of-a-kind event: the show is performed live each night from the actors’ homes and streamed online by a masked, distanced tech crew in the Theatre Arts Building.

This production is unique in another crucial way. The Night Witches' cast, design team, and production team are almost all women — echoing the actual, all-female Soviet bombing regiment in World War II on which the story is based. What does it mean to tell this story in this space —virtual, and virtually all-female — right here and now?

Rachel Bublitz and Alexandra Harbold weigh in. 


Can you talk a little about the implications of getting to work with such a large group of women? What does that dynamic do for the process?

RACHEL: I find environments like this really fruitful and interesting. I think it’s very powerful when women tell stories about women. Men are great — I love men! — but maybe we don’t need so many of them all the time? You see so many casting notices with ten roles for guys and three for women, but there are always 75 to 95 percent more women than men in all the theatre I’ve done. I like to write parts that I wish I had gotten to play when I was an actress, and plays that I wish were available to me back then. It’s not just acting; there are more women involved in theatre across the board, and it’s exciting to be in a process that acknowledges that and embraces that.

ALEXANDRA: I completely agree. It’s the kind of project that I seek out as a director because, again, as an actor, I felt that was not my experience. As a director, to be able to cast so many women together is one of the great gifts of this process. There’s a genuine sense of community and collaboration; it’s about working together to solve problems. In theatre or storytelling, conflict is important, but it’s often an outside force generating it. What I really love about the characters in "The Night Witches" is that they are trying to deal internally with how to be brave and afraid at the same time.

RACHEL: As I was researching this play, it was amazing to see how this group of women had created a whole different way to be a soldier. It was so different than anything I had ever heard about male soldiers. These women would frequently have dances — one would play a musical instrument and they would all dance together. They embroidered for each other, constantly giving each other little gifts of embroidered birds or flowers so that they could have pieces of their sisters with them up in the air. They would say, “we are soldiers, we are here to protect our country, but we are gonna do this as women,” which, to them, meant embracing femininity and community.

ALEXANDRA: This show is a gift to work on. I love working with actors of any gender, but what I’ve found in this particular process is a remarkable willingness to be vulnerable together. There’s an intuitive sort of shorthand, and they’re so generous with each other — what they’ve created and shared feels really important to me right now. The women in the cast are invested in each other, and in the story. This show asks for that, and I see them answering it every day. 


Four female WWII Soviet aviators looking at navigation plansPhoto: Todd Collins | Digital Photo Manipulation: Aaron Swenson | L-R: McKinley Barr, Samantha Nakken, Francesca Hsieh, Lina Boyer

 And they’re answering it over Zoom! It’s surprising to me, at least, that this kind of work that’s so centered on communication can even happen right now, under the circumstances. Can you speak to that a bit, in terms of challenges, or opportunities, or both?

RACHEL: I am so glad that I have my job and Andra has hers. We did not know how we were going to do it over Zoom. It seems like an impossible thing, but that’s what theatre is: an impossible thing. We all go into a room and pretend the impossible, and if we don’t all pretend together, it’s not gonna work. Of course, we’re in separate rooms these days, but we’re working together, pretending together, to turn them into one room. This play is very theatrical in person, and it’s almost more so in Zoom: how do you create a plane and make it do all these things the script demands from these tiny little boxes on this tiny little screen? I love art that comes out of times where things aren’t easy, because everyone has to push themselves. Everybody has to work as hard as they can in order to take off — to be a plane that actually works.

ALEXANDRA: You know, sometimes you end up with this division between the acting process and the technical process. [Virtual theatre] poses so many challenges, and success really depends on shared effort from the beginning. I still feel like I need to make sacrifices to the Zoom gods to ensure safe passage, but it’s been interesting to see how this might actually allow for a healthier, more collaborative version of the creative process.

As an actor, I find directing over Zoom to be a challenge. I suspect it feels more intrusive or abrasive, particularly in tech, where a disembodied voice breaks in to give a note. Silence feels different on Zoom. What I want to bring to the process is something intuitive and connected to the actors’ experience. I hope that’s still coming through. Sometimes it feels disorienting, but I am so grateful that we are doing "The Night Witches" right now. It feels like an antidote to the disconnect that the medium brings.  


Speaking of which, Rachel—as a Utah playwright, do you find it helpful to live in the same city where your work is being produced? How does it affect the process to have that gift of proximity—or maybe it’s not a gift?


ALEXANDRA: It’s a gift.

RACHEL: When you write a play, it’s different from a book or a piece of music because it’s not fully what it is until it’s performed. Typically, as a playwright, I’m usually involved in the first two or three productions of a script before I hand it off and say, “Alright, the world can have this now, and give me a little bit of money each time you do it, please.” I’ve used this technology in the process before. It’s a way to get things done, but it’s not as fun as being in the room.

Working with Andra has been amazing. I pitched this play to the YouTheatre at the Egyptian in Park City. Jamie Wilcox is the Artistic Director there, and she said, “This sounds amazing!” I started writing it and right away, I thought: “The women are the plane. They’re gonna make all the plane noises, and they’re gonna be the plane, and I have no idea how that’s gonna work. That’s what this play is.” We planned to do it at a Fringe Festival, and, you know, you don’t have a lot of equipment — maybe benches and that’s it.

I knew right away that I wanted Andra to direct this. She’s so specific and so thoughtful with movement, as well as the inner journeys of the actors. A lot of stage directions were like, “I don’t know if this makes any sense, and I don’t even know if this is possible.” And Andra said, “I don’t know if it is either, and that’s really exciting.” And we just got in a room and played. It was such a joy to have someone who wanted to work like that. She’s amazing to work with: so collaborative, great with actors. It’s great being in the same city. If I ever have a choice of a director, she’s at the top of my list forever.

ALEXANDRA: I feel the same. It’s been so interesting this time to hear what your vision is and bring that into the room with my own vision, and then run into the question of how to make Zoom play nicely. Fortunately, we’ve got amazing designers who are wrestling with the same kinds of creative questions.

 PO 2 Group picPhoto: Todd Collins | Digital Photo Manipulation: Aaron Swenson | L-R: Samantha Nakken, McKinley Barr (seated), Lina Boyer, Francesca Hsieh, Katie Calderone, Shelice Warr

So why is it so important that the woman literally, physically, become the plane? I have my own thoughts about this, but I’d rather hear from you…

RACHEL: When I was getting my MFA, my favorite teacher Michelle Carter talked about a photographer who said, “when you create art, leave space for your audience to enter with you.” When he took pictures, he wanted to leave space for the audience to climb inside. I feel the same way about plays. I want my audience to use their imagination; I want them to pretend with me and the actors. That’s definitely part of it, but the heartbeat of this play is the fact that this group of women are keeping themselves in the air. Against all odds, against machine guns and hundreds of Nazis, they are keeping each other aloft in really crappy planes under really crappy conditions. They don’t have parachutes; they don’t have navigation—they have pencil and paper and each other. It’s just one of those moments when the theme and what you want from the play and what the audience needs all fit in the same box beautifully.

ALEXANDRA: I agree. The image of the body connected to the planes — it's the metaphor and the theme, fused in one. The plane itself is a collective body, not just the two that fly it. I mean, Zoom is forcing my hand on certain things in terms of storytelling, but it’s a shared mission every time. It’s not just two people going up; the whole group are invested in every flight. It’s never just the present tense battle; the thematic investment continues and echoes. You have the fragments of embroidery and the fragments of the plane… Ahhhh, I can’t give interviews. I can think about the play, but I can’t talk about it!

RACHEL: You’re doing really great!

ALEXANDRA: …Yeah, well. [laughs] I’m here. I’m just grateful that we’re doing a show that’s ambitious and demanding. It’s not conversation around a dining table —we’re trying to create a plane, through movement and staging, on Zoom. It’s about a group of people trying to navigate the unknown during a time of conflict and crisis. And that feels really healing. We’re doing this particular war story in a time of so much uncertainty. There are parallels to contemporary politics, and nationalism, and patriotism, and populism. It feels like we are able to engage the real world, but a healthier version of it. [The Night Witches] created their own way to serve their country. They basically trained each other so they could move through ranks and assignments, and that investment in one another allowed them to thrive at a time of rationed resources. It feels like the right story for right now.


Like it was written for this moment, almost. What drew you to this story in the first place?

RACHEL: The book where my research came from is Dance with Death, by Anne Noggle. She flew planes for the US during World War II, but they didn’t let woman fly in combat, so she was just delivering rations and equipment and stuff like that. After the war she became a photographer and eventually, in the 90s, she went to Russia and interviewed all the living Night Witches and took their photographs. Each living woman has their own chapter. And it was just so rich with details — the play wrote itself in so many ways. After the production at the Fringe Festival we were expanding this to be a full-length play, adding two characters and expanding two others, and it was such a joy to go back into the research. I think all the things that I loved are in the play: the woman who curled her hair in case she met her husband while she was out being a soldier, or the fact that they would get so disoriented from the search lights that it was hard to know where the ground was and where the sky was. These planes are basically crop dusters going up against machine guns and flood lights, and they somehow had to keep their bearings.

ALEXANDRA: I started digging back into the book to think about staging, and in one of the stories a pilot realized there was no floor under her feet after she’d been shot at. The fragility of the actual planes makes Rachel’s choice to have the women embody the plane even stronger — it’s so minimal and vulnerable. I loved that they used the navigation pencils as lip liner, and the stories about them taking kittens up in the cockpits. Yesterday, one of our actors was on Zoom and her cat was in her arms during the flight scene. It was surreal. There are moments of delight side by side with the scary moments, but the moments of connection from those stories that are built into Rachel’s play — those are what I find so beautiful.


In a way, that leads to a good bit to leave on, because we’re coming up on Halloween. The nickname, “Night Witches”—can we get into that for a sec, and the reasons behind it, or…I mean, is this an opportunity to talk about reclaiming witchcraft and sorta lean into that? Why is it significant that they were called “witches?” What’s the best way to phrase this…

ALEXANDRA: You’re fine, you phrased it.

RACHEL: I think the Germans definitely chose that name to put them down. [The Night Witches] would turn off their engines as they approached their targets so they couldn’t be detected. You’d just hear this whoosh before the bombs came. So apparently it was reminiscent of broomsticks in the air even though no one has ever heard that, to my knowledge. I feel like it was very much about putting them in their place. For so long it was women who knew about herbs, but when men started to take over medicine, they called those women witches to take that power away from them. It’s there throughout history: men find women that they can’t control, call them witches, and kill them. But these women owned that name. They said “this is great. This is who we are: ‘The Night Witches.’”

I love witchcraft—I mean, I’m not a witch at all, but I’m all for reclaiming the word. “Witches.” It’s this beautiful space for women to come together to be weird and strong in a way that we are not always allowed to be. I have another play about women and witches as well. It’s called Mommy Dances with the Devil because [laughs] it’s about a stay-at-home mom group that’s also a coven. I love witchy things.

ALEXANDRA: Yeah, it’s funny how the play is so dense with what feels like little bits of witchcraft — the songs and the embroidery. I love the story [our dramaturg] Chessie found about that. It’s a way to protect each other. There’s longevity in spells, and connectivity…yeah, I’m all for witches as well.


So we’re saying, “less solitary witchcraft, fewer lonely witches in huts?” More covens, more collective embroidery, more collective spells?


RACHEL: I’m all in with that.




THE NIGHT WITCHES streams live from October 23rd to November 1st. For tickets and information, visit the show page at https://theatre.utah.edu/the-night-witches