Archive for January, 2014
THE BRIDGE BETWEEN THE ABSTRACTION OF MUSIC & THE LITERAL QUALITY OF WORDS: An Interview with A MAN’S A MAN Set Designer Paul SteinbergThis interview appears in the current issue of our CLASSIC Newsletter. Pick up a copy in our lobby or click here to read online. You move very comfortably between working on FALSTAFF at The Metropolitan Opera and A MAN’S A MAN here at CSC. Do you think or work differently in the world of opera than in the world of theatre? Do these different worlds change the way in which you think about approaching a design? PS: Not really—but yes, there are differences. One that Brian [Kulick] and I were talking about was the temple door and it needing to make a lot of noise when actors threw themselves at it. I thought, ah, it’s so great to be able to do a set that’s allowed to be noisy! (laughs.) In a broader philosophical way in any musical theatre, the design is often a bridge between the abstraction of music and the literal quality of the words. It has a different place in the structure. But for a play it’s a more one-to-one dialogue with words. The dialogue with a director is a given in either, but I think, it’s interesting because when I do get asked to do plays they tend to be epic. So, it’s not my choice, but I don’t mind, I just go from project to project. Have you designed any other works by Brecht? MAHAGONNY, which is terrific. The Widow Begbick is the full-blown character in that, and it was great to kind of meet her in her first incarnation. It was at the Lyric Opera in Chicago in 1998 or 1999. And SEVEN DEADLY SINS several times. That’s one of my favorite pieces, even though I think Brecht disowned it. I think it’s a great work because it’s only a half an hour long and it condenses of a lot of really important issues that I think still resonate. It was commissioned by Balanchine when he had a company in Paris. Brecht and Weill wrote the score. It’s interesting because it’s mostly a scenario which can be interpreted. The Weill Foundation only allows it to be done with a full orchestra. I don’t think I’ve done any of the straight plays. Given all of Brecht's theories about theatre and performance, do you feel they have impacted your thinking on any of these plays? To an extent, of course, and certainly to the extent that they are in the writing and conception of the piece. I think his theories are brilliant, but you know it’s like the Bible at certain points. One, I think, can’t be a fundamentalist. He was having a conversation with the theatre of his time and he makes great points, but I think the works are great because they transcend his theories. And one has to approach it with immediacy and sincerity, for now. You know, something like the Robert Wilson THREEPENNY was, for me, shockingly against Brecht’s intentions as I see them. But maybe that’s the point. And it’s been running at the Berliner Ensemble for ten years. It’s one of the most popular shows. Heiner Mueller once said that to be true to Brecht you have to betray him. I think he sets up that situation because he hits you with his plays and with his theories. Unlike Artaud, whose plays are skeletons to try out theories, Brecht is a brilliant writer. And frankly I don’t think his plays always achieve what he’s saying, and yet despite himself they’re rather good traditional theatre. I think the piece that is the most Brechtian in my mind in the terms that we think of is MAHAGONNY. It’s a brilliant piece, but audiences hate it. The brilliance is so nihilistic and cynical and depressing. People always say they think it’s brilliant and no one wants to see it. Where as this play, or MOTHER COURAGE or CHALK CIRCLE, even with their irony, are kind of very moral, political pieces. One sees a solution maybe at the end. Let’s discuss your design for this project. There’s a color or vibrancy to the design. Could you talk about what led you to that palette? What strikes me is that this play starts out as a fairytale and it segues to the surreal, and then a very serious piece. I thought it was good to start with the fairytale aspect and then as the event unfolds there’s a bigger and bigger separation between the fake world and the kind of jolly, orientalist attitude. You’re kind of left hanging and by the end there is really a huge discrepancy between what is actually happening with the set. The oil barrels came from a reference in the piece where one character asks another where they’re going to fight the war and the other lists several places and says if we’re going to so and so it means we’re fighting for oil. To me there’s no more potent symbol in today’s world than oil as a force for wars. And so that’s where those things come from. The color is meant to be slightly vulgar and intense, and also frankly it’s the world that these soldiers find themselves in which is alien to what they know and so it’s heightened and not realistically observed. The green wood is the forest, the jungle—but think the kind of forest/jungle fantasy is a kind of melange. Because of course Brecht didn’t know these places, he was just sort of conjuring up these fantasy versions. Can you talk a bit about the Hindu/Tibetan iconography and imagery in the production? Well, I think that it’s clear in the text that the characters have absolutely no respect for, nor are they even trying to understand, the culture they are in. So introducing the Ganesh figure in all its humor and vitality and welcoming qualities, I think it evens the playing field for the local culture, which is only represented really by Galy Gay and his wife, who aren’t exactly the epitome of high consciousness. But we also need to understand that the temple is also corrupt. By showing it like this, I’m hoping that we're showing two vulnerable cultures that are clashing. It’s not just one kind of browbeaten group conquered by the British, there isn’t much good said about colonialism in the piece. Certainly with the temple scenes, there are these strong positive feelings about culture. By the time we get to the end you kind of feel the wrath of war, and maybe the local spirit, descending on it. I think it has several meanings. It could be the triumph of Tibetan culture over the British for kind of causing this mayhem, or it’s just a manifestation of the war to the local eyes. That image is also something that was very important to Brian, to connect that to Galy Gay’s transformation. What’s next? Well, DER ROSENKAVALIER in Glyndebourne, and we’re just finishing a model that I have to take to Antwerp this week for a Mussorgsky opera, KHOVANSHCHINA. It’s really depressing—beautiful, but very grim. It’s as grim as MAHAGONNY. It ends with the chorus of old believers in Russia burning themselves to death…(laughs.) I am really happy to be doing A MAN’S A MAN because I don't get asked to do plays very much.
Click here for tickets and information. Photos: Richard Termine
A MAN'S A MAN begins performances this Friday, January 10, and we're excited to share with you in advance one of Duncan Sheik's new songs! Click below to listen to "Herr Bertolt Brecht."
Welcome to British Colonial India, where the innocent dockworker Galy Gay is rather unorthodoxly enlisted into Her Majesty’s Armed Forces. Watch him be “dismantled like a car” and reassembled into the ultimate fighting machine in this early knockabout, anti-just-about-everything farce by the ever impertinent Bertolt Brecht. This production boasts another new score and songs by Tony Award-winning composer Duncan Sheik (SPRING AWAKENING and last season’s production of Brecht’s THE CAUCASIAN CHALK CIRCLE). A MAN'S A MAN is directed by Brian Kulick and features Jason Babinsky, Justin Vivian Bond, Bill Buell, Gibson Frazier, Martin Moran, Steven Skybell, Stephen Spinella, Ching Valdes-Aran, and Allan K. Washington. Click here to purchase tickets for performances January 10 through February 16, 2014.