So it’s been almost two months since I’ve been back from my trip to Berlin to work on “Berlin Bound” with Sysiphos Der Flugelefant and Thin Skin Theatre and I still have not found the time to truly dissect the experience. I’m hoping that taking the time to write this blog will be a remedy to that.
Now for the proverbial “where do I begin?”. I’m hoping that Nai Wen’s blog entry will describe the process before I got there so I can focus on my journey with the show from Canada to Berlin.
Since they began preliminary rehearsals in Berlin a month before I arrived, Nai Wen and I had to find a way to keep me included in their process. This show was being collectively created based on stories and discussions between cast and crew so it was vital to be aware of all the conversations and exercises they had during these first crucial weeks. Nai Wen and I skyped regularly (which is not the easiest with a 6 hour time difference!) and had a couple of skype rehearsals with the cast. The best thing they did was video tape each rehearsal which they emailed to me almost daily. This was very valuable since they had already begun to create a physical language for the show. This way, when I finally had the chance to physically join them in Berlin, I was able to integrate myself more easily when they would remind each other of a moment from an exercise they had experienced or some conversation they had, etc. It also allowed me the ability to remind them of a moment I loved from the videos as well. We already had a short hand, which was amazing.
I have to admit I was a little nervous before I arrived. The group of them had been rehearsing and exploring without me for almost a month and I would be the new kid on the block and didn’t want to feel like an intruder. I would have to find the best way to adapt to the working style they created without me. But they welcomed me with open arms and Nai Wen did a terrific job of including me in a way that I was not a guest, but a co-creator.
Now there was one little thing missing: We still weren’t sure what the show was about!
We know we wanted to deal with immigrating to Berlin, expectations, the isolation you feel once you arrive and the difficulty in adjusting to a new life. But there was no clear story.
The rehearsals were a hot bed of conversation, creativity and negotiations. There were so many languages to deal with. One actor was Australian and the other was Spanish. Both moved to Berlin to work in theatre. Our DJ/VJ for the show was a little Spanish fireball with a thick accent and limited English. Our dramaturg and costume designer were both native Germans. Nai Wen is Taiwanese/German and I am Canadian. You can imagine the time it took to filter through all the accents and languages. It sometimes got so confusing that it took 20 minutes to realize we were all debating the same viewpoint. Interpretation is everything. This language barrier proved rewarding and frustrating at times. We had to find a new way to communicate. This, as it always does, reflected the themes of the show. And it wasn’t just the languages, but also a different working style that we each brought to rehearsals from our native countries. This was a show in itself. I always end up learning the most incredible things watching other people try to communicate. Amazing.
Finally we created a script. We ended up deciding on a piece that focuses on foreigner’s expectations when immigrating to another country and dealing with the ramifications of their decision to move there after the newlywed period of discovering the place is over.
We called it a Party Performance to reflect the venue: Kater Holzig. This is a club unlike any you’ve seen. A huge adult playground. A labyrinth of rooms and stairs and art and spaces filled with objects in every nook and cranny both inside and out. The theatre space is a hodge podge of found items. It reminded me of an old style cabaret space. The space too, posed some challenges. We ended up using cardboard stools that the audience could pick up and move to sit or stand wherever they wanted during the show.
They were first greeted by “Flight Attendants” who gave them the rules of the show which were basically “There are no rules”. The audience was encouraged to dance, interact, and basically do whatever they wanted during the piece. Scary.
We also gave ourselves another huge challenge. We wanted the characters to tell their stories by stating mostly facts. No big revelations, no purging of childhood memories…nothing but facts about Berlin. I even took some of the script out of an article I found on plastic and glass bottle refunds in Germany (which many people have turned into a full time job to survive). One of the character’s main method of communication was speaking only in terms of this bottle fund. The other character spoke mostly about the comparisons of Spain and Germany, focusing on the monuments that pepper Berlin. We wanted them to find a certain desperation to connect with the audience which in essence, was Berlin. We also ended up using a lot of image work to tell the story, trying our best to economize the language. This took a lot of brainstorming and very very late nights in Nai Wen’s kitchen!
Then, to add fuel to the fire of doubt in the actors, we wanted the audience to finish the show after the two characters lost their ability to speak. We tried to find a way for the audience to be the actor’s voice and to somehow get them to share their own stories with the rest of the audience. We asked the audience to bring with them a “piece of home” that they were either willing to share or sacrifice at the end of the show. This was a very terrifying proposition and one we could not predict. We had no clue what the audience would do or if they would even understand what to do. It was a huge risk and we knew it and the actors knew it and we all tried our best to prepare for whatever results emerged. We rehearsed every possible scenario we could think of. Poor actors. We were relentless.
This took a huge about of faith and trust. The team was so dedicated and determined. Christin, our costume designer and Michael, our dramaturg were at almost every rehearsal and contributed so much to the piece. Even Christin’s costumes were vital to the dramaturgy of the show and inspired some mystical moments for the characters. This was true collaboration.
Now it might seem like I’ve neglected the process of collaborating as a director with Nai Wen, which is the point to all this. I haven’t. What I have learned through this process, without a doubt, is that Nai Wen is one of those rare theatre creatures that lives and breathes her art. Even though I had to sometimes beg her to stop working (at 4 am, when we had rehearsal at 10 the next morning!), her work ethic and precision is beyond anything I’ve encountered. You can’t get away with anything. She forces you to dissect your choices and justify decisions so that every detail in the show is fully realized. When you have the opportunity to work with someone like that you will basically do anything they ask. Nai Wen and I have found a type of collaboration built on complete honesty and trust. I am inspired by her and she knows it and so everything we discuss and create is built on that foundation. We both pursue the shows were are rehearsing with the kind of obsession allocated to the insane. I wouldn’t have it any other way. Basically, this project in Berlin reaffirmed, for me at least, that co-directing is something that should be mandatory for all directors. It doesn’t constrain you, it liberates you. This is not an exaggeration. Being able to have another creative brain to bounce off ideas with and then have the support you need in rehearsals seems vital to the creation of new work. There is no room for ego when you co-direct. Ideas can’t be sacred and you must adopt a sense of abandon since you are not the dictator that you sometimes feel when you direct alone. When you find a real collaborator, you feel as if any obstacle can be solved. It’s just incredible.
In the end, the show was magical. I was terrified as we approached the “finale” of the show on opening night, curious what the audience would do when the actors stopped speaking. And it was scary. There was that moment of utter fear for everyone in the room. What happens next? What do we do? This was our goal. After a few awkward moments, the first audience member offered their piece of home. Then another. And another. They brought songs, letters, pictures, tokens and one even brought some cake that she baked from her mother’s recipe and ended up feeding it to one of the actors.
Another person played a song that the audience ended up singing en masse. Magic.
This was a challenging process from beginning to end but that is what always makes it worth the risk for me. I left feeling full of creative juice.
I hope I’ve captured the process and experience even a little for you guys, but it was fun reliving it. Makes me miss it all so much. But I know through the World Wide Lab, that this is only the first step in years of collaboration to come. And I cannot wait.
– Evan Tsitsias, Toronto, Canada