HB: I was driving along some backroads in 2018 when a story about “Music on the Bone” came on NPR over the car radio. The story was about the work of musician Stephen Coates, who had traveled to Russia to interview people associated with the bootlegging trade during the Cold War era. He’d met people who had transferred jazz and rock and roll songs onto x-ray film, so that the objects could be played on standard record players of the time, and quickly disposed of in the event of a raid. The story was fascinating. I ordered his book, and it became the inspiration for the story on stage.
KT: How has the inspiration for this play evolved over time?
HB: I wanted to tell a story about how people continue to create and share stories even under conditions of harsh censorship, at great danger to themselves. This story centered on young people, because the common urge to create and share the latest thing is a fundamental fascination of youth.
KT: How did you begin constructing the relationships between Tasya, Anton, and Moriz?
HB: In early drafts, they were the only three characters in the story, which took place in linear order. The play began with their first meeting as teenagers and their attempts to care for an injured bird, and ended in the same place it still does. I knew I wanted to include someone inside the bootlegging community, someone in the medical field, and someone inside the political bureaucracy, so that each of them could bring insider knowledge justifiably into the story. Emotionally, creating a love triangle also created interesting possibilities in terms of who might know what when, and the reasons each might have to betray the others.
KT: The play jumps back and forth in time. In what ways does the development of the story benefit from this structure?
HB: After the first public reading with RT in the Skatepark and conversations with Anne Mason, I realized I wanted the audience to see more of the political machinery that was crushing all three of them. But rather than having Tasya just talk about her work to one or both of the men, I decided to bring the story of the investigation onstage. Act I draws on the scenes from the past as emotional and historical context, moving back and forth in time. Then, in Act II, the story returns to being told in linear order, as Tasya resolves the threads of the investigation begun in Act I. This approach drops us into the middle of the action from the play’s first moment, and introduces three additional characters.
The supporting characters of Morozov and Svetla serve as opponent and ally to Tasya. They make her character’s intellect, passion, and purpose essential to the story, rather than having Tasya serve as simply a romantic accessory to the two young men. Finally, Babushkin is just too delicious a ruffian to leave offstage, and his knowledge is essential to tie the threads of the various worlds together.
KT: Why is this an important story for audiences to hear right now?
HB: Today, “censorship” and “banning” and “cancel culture” are once again in the limelight. Artists, academics, politicians, and public figures are harassed, threatened with violence, and even doxxed for their beliefs and publications. There is deep distrust between identity groups. Our public discourse is harshly partisan and unforgiving. Collectively, we’ve forgotten what we have in common, preferring to focus relentlessly on perceived slights and political divisions. Basically, we only want to hear a single story where we’re obviously right, and we always win. But that’s not how history works. And that’s not how it worked for the Soviets, either.
This play revisits another time and place where political division and distrust were rampant. But there and then, the consequence for sharing banned works was imprisonment and even death, in a prison system growing at an exponential rate, as citizens became enemies of the state overnight. These young heroes believe that people can learn about one another, and can change themselves for the better, through sharing music and culture. Tasya in particular believes in complicating that single story we tell ourselves about “others.” Each one is willing to risk everything for the belief that we have more in common than what divides us. Beauty can unite us. Music can unite us. That’s a really important story to hear right now.
KT: What discussions do you hope are sparked by audiences after they watch Bone Records? What do you want the audience to leave with?
HB: I hope Bone Records sparks curiosity about the hidden cultural and medical histories of this time, and about the people of Leningrad. There’s so much we’re only learning now in the West about Communist history, and the everyday lives of people during the Soviet era. I think people will also talk about the parallels between then and now in terms of trying to control access to knowledge. History teaches us that knowledge and beauty will always find their way to freedom, even if we have to learn this lesson again in each new generation.
And perhaps we will ask ourselves: What are we willing to risk everything for? Are we willing to change, in response to the unfamiliar but beautiful? What records do we want to leave for others to encounter and to be transformed by?