This coming Thursday, 23 September, Thomas Bernhard’s play Ritter, Dene, Voss receives its New York premiere at La MaMa ETC. The play’s director (and artistic director of One Little Goat, the Toronto-based company producing the play), Adam Seelig, took time out from a busy rehearsal schedule to respond to a few brief questions on the play. Tickets are available here; more information at La MaMa’s Web page for the play; and you can find a short video excerpt of both the original Vienna production and the One Little Goat production at my earlier notice on the production here.
For another interview with Seelig, see this Q&A with Jonathan Taylor.
“Poetic theatre” is a term that’s bruited about quite a bit — what makes the plays that One Little Goat produces distinctively poetic enough to claim that OLG is North America’s “only theatre company devoted to modern and contemporary poetic theatre”?
The definition of “poetic theatre” is a work in progress. I’m defining it as the Goat goes, further specifying and broadening it with each production. Yehuda Amichai, Thomas Bernhard, Jon Fosse — the authors whose work we’ve premiered have significant roots in poetry, and consequently are able to do what most playwrights per se cannot: bring ambiguity to the stage. Conventional theatre speaks of actors making choices and of directors, well, directing, but poetic theatre is often choosing not to choose, allowing the performers to incline away from “showing-not-telling” toward a kind of “being-in-lieu-of-showing.” Show less to present more. To be more present — that may be it. But doing the plays comes first; theory and definition follow. So, for example, when you came across my recent essay, “EMERGENSEE: GET HEAD OUT OF ASS: Charactor and Poetic Theatre,” it was in response to doing the plays first. Those ideas weren’t in mind, at least not consciously, before staging.
Why Bernhard, and how does Ritter, Dene, Voss reflect the definition of “poetic theatre”?
It helps that Bernhard’s plays are highly interpretive: no punctuation (other than line-breaks, making the text look almost stanzaic) and few stage directions.
Here’s one quick example of how Bernhard’s writing achieves the kind of clarity-through-ambiguity of poetic theatre — two lines from Ritter, Dene, Voss spoken by the younger sister to the older about their brother:
Ludwig means everything to me
that’s what you’ve always said
If the line had been, “You’ve always said that Ludwig means everything to you,” there’d be only one interpretation: younger sister accuses older sister of being consumed with brother Ludwig. But as Bernhard puts it, the first line makes it sound like younger sister is admitting to her own obsession with Ludwig. It may be a simple device (a more sophisticated version of teasing “… not” statements like “I love you … not”), but it certainly generates multiple possibilities and opens up that space between speaker and listener: younger sister may mean the line it one way while older sister, like the audience, initially hears it differently.
Bernhard is best known to North American audiences as a novelist, but more interestingly, as a distinctly European, even Austro-centric writer. (His plays are scarcely known here at all, though he was consistently produced at the Burgtheater, with its nearly 1200 seats, for years.) What do Bernhard’s plays offer to a North American audience?
A powerfully intuitive sense for what makes actors tick (not to mention what ticks them off), resulting in brilliant, muscular writing that somehow combines the anxieties of Beckett, antics of Ionesco, and provocations of Genet.
Ritter, Dene, Voss was written with three specific performers in mind. Given what you’ve written about character/charactor, how does distributing these parts and characters to entirely different performers change the play, if it does so at all? Are they then performers acting performers, in a sense, another level of theatrical distance? How do your performers then approach these roles?
Having new actors perform these roles changes the play enormously. I’d go one step further to say that changing even one actor in the cast changes the play enormously. The play is not independent of the actors performing it; the play is the very actors performing it. That’s what I love about Bernhard’s actor-centric title. I’d be happy to rename it Perreault, Beaty, Pettle after the outstanding Toronto cast that will be performing at La MaMa! It would better reflect our production after all, because Shannon Perreault, for example, is not playing Ilse Ritter, but rather “the younger Worringer sister.” Still, both Worringer sisters in the play are actresses, so no matter what, we’re in a metatheatrical world of actors playing actors. Can they be believed, or is it all just for show … ?