Friday, June 13, 2008

Lincoln Center Director's Lab: The Final Week, Day 15

It's been five days since the Lincoln Center Directors Lab came to a close. I stopped blogging somewhere near the end of the second week. Week three was just too intense, and I didn't want to miss anything. Each day I think back on the Lab and remember something new - a face, a joke, a hint, a pearl of wisdom, a bit of craft. On the first day of the Lab Anne Cattanneo said "This is like director's boot camp." She was right. I'm now going to look back over my notes from the last week and try to condense them here. Maybe they will be helpful to you. They definitely will be helpful to me as I look back in years to come. To be sure there are things I missed. There may be some notes I jotted that now seem out of context. If I mis-quote or mis-represent any of the speakers at the Lab, my apologies in advance. And gratitude to all!

Tuesday 6/3

In the morning there were rehearsals happening of two new plays: Brokenbrow by Ernst Toller (adapted by Lab Member
Alex Harvey) and The Sleeping World by Crystal Skillman. (The Sleeping World was of particular interest to me as it is a play based upon my late friend, playwright John Belluso.)

The guest speaker Tuesday afternoon was playwright Sarah Ruhl. Sarah is one of the most
sought-after young American playwrights. Her work includes The Clean House which won the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize in 2004 and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in 2005. Her play Eurydice ran at New York's Second Stage, as well as across the country, and Passion Play opened at Washington's Arena Stage in 2005. She is a 2006 recipient of the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship. Sarah is completely unpretentious in person: calm, open, thoughtful. She spoke many times of the importance of her teachers, in particular playwright Paula Vogel, whom she studied with at Brown.

Sarah's "assignment" was to speak to the Lab about Expressionism in playwrighting, but she said she preferred the term "Magical Realism". This was also the phrase that John Belluso used for his work. John and Sarah had also known one another, so there certainly is a shared connection in their work. Sarah traced expressionism in writing through the work of Georg Buchner. Buchner's work reflected the inner working of a character's mind, as opposed to the omniscience of the playwright in earlier work. She said that Dadaism was too self-conscious as a style, and that her own work emerges more out of a need to tell a particular story, rather than create any specific "style". "As a writer," says Ruhl, "don't know what your style is, and don't fall in love with it." One assignment she was given by Paula Vogel was to "write a play that is impossible to stage." This simple exercise opened her up to the possibilities of theater. The imagination is vast, and too often playwrights are inhibited by their colleagues and critics. "The word 'clarity' should be banished when discussing new work."

When asked about what she might look for in a director, Ruhl was concise: "Balance. A strong leader bringing something muscular into the room. Don't let the playwright dominate."

How does she start a play? "I have an image, a voice, a scrap - no idea where it will go."

On play development: "I like to hear my plays in a living room. I hate readings."

Who are the writers she admires? "Caryl Churchill, Maria Irene Fornes, Elizabeth Egroff. And of course, Paula Vogel."

When writing a play about a difficult topic, Sarah again quoted the advice of her mentor Vogel: "If I said I was going to write a play about my brother dying of AIDS, I would never get off the couch. It's too depressing. But I can write a play about my brother taking a trip, meeting a kindergarten teacher along the way, having a great adventure..."

Thank you Sarah Ruhl for an inspiring afternoon and conversation.

Tuesday Evening - International Directors Conversation
One of the really great things about the LCT Directors Lab is the diversity of the participants from all corners of the globe. It's easy to become myopic in our views of theater as practiced only in America. So for this evening, Anne hosted a conversation with the lab's international directors. Here are some highlights:

Germany - Lutz Kessler and Andreas Robertz
  • Germany is home to over 150 publicly supported theaters, 250 private theaters, and 100 touring companies which all together bring more than 100,000 performances per year to the country.
  • The German National Theater in Weimar (where Goethe began the German tradition of writing for the theater) has a rep company that performs 25 plays in a season.
  • Some of the most important German directors today are Peter Stein of the Schaub├╝hne am Lehniner Platz, Claus Peymann of the Tower Theater in Frankfurt, and Peter Zadek, the impresario of theater in Hamburg.
Germany is very much a "director's" theater. Famous directors lead the way, and unlike America (which we might consider a "playwright's theater") fulfilling the vision of the uber-director is more the model of creating theater. Lutz stated, however that theater in Germany is in crisis - "the notion of 'what theater is'." State funded theater creates artistic pressures. Lately, many of the theaters have been exploring what might be called "reality theater" or "documentary theater" - creating plays with non-actors. He cited, for example, Rimini Protokoll, when they created a work about funerals, exploring the story from five different angles using real people. Dance/Artist Alenka Loesch - who is based both in San Francisco and Berlin - was also cited for bringing together 30 non-actors to act as the chorus for a production of Woyzcek. In this instance, personal statements of the participants were blended into the play so they had a stake in the outcome of the production. Also popular in Germany are more familiar companies such as The Wooster Group, The Big Art Group, Theater of the World, Robert Wilson, and John Jesurun. All in all, the impression I got is that theater is quite alive and well in Deutschland, but the definitions between theater/film/art/dance/performance are becoming so blurred that theater as an art form is becoming meaningless.

Israel - Yoni Oppenheim
Lab member Yoni Oppenheim was born in the U.S., trained at NYU, but has spent a great deal of time in Israel. Any conversation about theater in Israel of course begins with the Habima, the national theater of Israel, and one of the first Hebrew-language theaters. Israel as a nation has the highest per-capita audience attendance in the world. Theater plays a central role in the culture, helping to create the national story. So much so, that there is even a theater division within the Israeli army. Some of the artists that Yoni cited were Hanoch Levin, a prominent Israeli writer and director who passed away in 1999; Nissim Aloni; and the Gesher Theater. Yoni also spoke of the emergence of Ethiopian theater, Arab-Israeli theater, and the Dybbuk Festival which is held each year at the Habima.

Italy - Erika Tasini and Nicola Zucchi
Italy is a country with a population of about 60 million people. Theater is not as strong as it might be because, as is the case in U.S., there is virtually no funding for the arts.
The funding that was put into place as part of Italy's budget many years ago - overseen by the FUS - was never adjusted for inflation. As a result, each year the resources devoted to theater are shrinking at a rate equal to cost-of-living increases.

There are really three traditions of theater that have sprung forth from Italy:
  1. Opera
  2. Commedia del'arte
  3. Matadore (a theater company based around a star)
There are twenty regions in Italy, and each region has an established theater. There are also about 30 well-established experimental theaters, and many successful youth theaters as well. But there is no public or private funding for small theaters who are just starting out.

Some of the great directors that define theater in Italy include: George Strehler and Luchino Visconti - fathers of the modernist movement; Paulol Rossi (not the famous soccer player with the same name); and Dario Fo. Like Germany, Italy is steeped in the idea of "director as dictator". Nicola described the state of theater in Italy as an "emergency". There seems to be a need for new ideas and processes, especially at the larger theater venues.

Erika Tasini teaches theater at Cal Arts and Nicola Zucchi has established a theater in Italy as well as a summer festival MASSERIA LO JAZZO.

The Phillipines - Sean Renfro
Sean Renfro spent much of his youth living in the Phillipines, especially in Manila. The Phillipines is a "country" comprised of about 7,000 islands with disparate languages and cultures. His experience there as an actor was that "basically there is no theater". It is a third-world country, and like most impoverished nations, people don't have the luxury of making theater. There are a few small theaters in Manila. Mostly they perform musical theater. He recalls that plays about Catholicism were around, and plays about colonialism (such as "Our Country's Good") were also popular.

Finland - Jaakko Nousiainen
Finland is a nation of only 5 million people, yet there are 60 state theaters in the country! Since gaining their independence from Russia in 1917, Finland has developed a great cultural heritage. One thinks of the great composer Jean Sibelius. The Fins are quite proud of Alexis Kivi, a playwright, poet, and novelist whose major work was Seven Brothers. Theater in Finland became quite radical during the 1960's and 70's. One company that came up in the 1980's, called Thurkka, single-handedly changed the Finnish Theater. They were a company that employed a lot of techniques of physical theater, striving to shock their audience. In 1987 a group of student performers who called themselves Theater of God, actually defecated onstage, and threw feces at members of the audience. This was the end of so-called "experimental" theater in Finland. In the 1990's Finland has turned its attention toward the craft of playwriting, play development, and a more disciplined approach to making theater. Some of the most interesting groups working today are Kom Theater, Group Theater, and Q Theater. Many women now are working as playwrights and directors in Finland. Each summer Finland draws crowds from around the world for its famous Tampere Theater Festival.

Zimbabwe - Styx Mhalanga
Zimbabwe gained independence from the UK in 1980, and has been fraught with conflict as a nation ever since. There is no commercial theater in Zimbabwe whatsoever. Whatever theater existed during the British occupation was for whites only. But there is a strong tradition of gathering together for singing in dancing in the various townships. After independence, other countries began investing in Zimbabwe's cultural expression - especially the Scandinavian countries. Styx has been working to establish a the Amakhosi Cultural Center dedicated to music, theater, and film. Many new writers are coming forward in spite of the oppressive statewide censorship. There is some investment in theater for young people. Much of the work for writers comes by the way of AIDS initiatives, writing soap operas to educate the masses, and of course it's all quite safe and censored. There is alot of work to be done in Zimbabwe. YOU CAN HELP! According to Styx, one of the things they most need are books. Any and all books on performing, filmaking, playwrighting, acting, plays, novels - anything - would be greatly appreciated. You can send your extra copies to this address: Amakhosi Theatre, Box 7030, P.O. Mzilikazi, Zimbabwe.

China - Mo Zhou
Mo Zhou grew up on both mainland China as well as Hong Kong. She speaks both Cantonese and Mandarin. She received her training in traditional Peking Opera, but was adamant to articulate that "Peking Opera" is not one style or genre. It is specific to each of its many regions.
Major performance troupes are based in Beijing and Tianjin in the north, and Shanghai in the south. Western theatrical traditions arrived in China in the early 1900's. Much of the "western" theater performed in China is led by young people for young audiences, and often has more political content. Western plays tend to appear mostly in the mainstream in Hong Kong. The state-funded theaters in Beijing and Shang-Hai are more traditional, offer more physical theater with less emphasis on language. Audiences are considered small if attendance is less than 1,000 people. With a lack of good playwrights and directors, funding for these theaters may be in jeopardy. Mo mentioned some theaters in Taiwan that are incorporating traditional Chinese theater (old plays) with a new context. Among the theaters mentioned: Cloudgate Theater, and Contemporary Legend Theater (Wu Hsing-Kuo, director).

Mexico - Maria Morett
I came to learn on the last day of the lab that Maria and I have traveled similar paths. Maria began as a singer in Mexico. I began as a singer at the New England Conservatory of Music. Maria has also worked at LaMaMa ETC, and counts Ellen Stewart among her great theatrical parents. These days, Maria travels all over the world directing theater and opera. She writes and collaborates on new projects as well. She recently opened an opera in Tijuana. I look forward to following her work.