In my last post, I darkly hinted at a new research project. Let me throw a bit more light on the subject.

Over the next couple of years, I’m planning to get my hands dirty in both comparative literature and in practice-based research. Most broadly, I want to figure out what exactly “a classic” is in the contemporary theatre — and because that’s far too broad, and because I’m nowhere near polyglot enough to do that question justice unless I limit myself quite strictly, I’m mainly going to look at Germanophone and Anglo-American stages. Luckily, no two performance traditions could be more starkly opposed.

Here are some of the questions and issues I want to address:

How does “Shakespeare” work in different performance traditions?
On the one hand, the unparalleled importance of Shakespeare’s works in the repertories of the six countries I’d be studying — the UK, the US, Canada, Germany, Austria, and Germanophone Switzerland — provides something like a common denominator; on the other hand, the radical difference in how Shakespeare functions in those repertories, what a staged Shakespeare play looks like in them, will provide a quick index of just how little the two traditions have in common. (Language is part of this, of course: translation produces a liberating distance from the authorial text. That’s why I will also take into account German productions of similarly canonical works in German as well — Goethe’s, Kleist’s, and Schiller’s plays.)

Why has North American theatre abandoned the idea that classics are living things?
Or rather, am I right in my hunch that outside of the most avantgarde (almost entirely New-York-based) companies, North American (and to a slightly lesser extent, British) theatres appear convinced that speaking to contemporary issues and concerns requires new plays, rather than new interpretations of old plays? My impression, which I’m hoping to put to the test in the next couple of years, is that “old” plays — really, anything recognizably “not recent” — are treated as curatorial projects: they’re not necessarily incomprehensibly foreign, but their language (their actual as well as dramaturgical and scenographic vocabulary) needs to be preserved, honoured, closely attended to allow them to unfold their “timeless” message. Directors and actors have a responsibility to the text, perhaps even the author. The Canadian perspective interests me most here, for obvious reasons. I understand some of the historical reasons for the near-total dominance of new-play development in our theatre world, but I want to understand them better. It also seems obvious to me (though I might be quite wrong about this) that there is a direct connection between a theatre that is used to having authors around and a theatre that thinks of classics as things to be preserved — the more new plays you stage, the more likely you will be to figure plays as instructions for action, and the less inclined you will be to think of them as materials, as starting points for a performance. Such an approach is inimical to interesting stagings of works from the past: it is a form of worship.

Why have the two traditions developed in such diametrically opposed ways?
Funding is part of the issue, clearly; I think politics is another (a worshipful attitude to the German classics — and to Shakespeare! — became associated with the Nazis in post-war Germany). But still, the difference between the two systems is almost unfathomable, and to my mind, a little difficult to understand: Max Reinhardt and Brecht worked in the US, after all; the UK had E. C. Craig and Peter Brook; the New York theatrical avantgarde of the 60s and 70s had a huge influence on German theatre artists. And yet, the work presented day in, day out on the major stages in London, New York, or Toronto couldn’t be any less like what audiences get to see in all the major houses in Berlin, Hamburg, or Munich. You’d have to go very deep into the darkest, most provincial corners of Germany to find the kind of theatre that looks like Anglophone mainstream work — or to the purely commercial theatres.

What is “acting”?
I think the typical way of describing the contrast I’m interested in is as that between a theatre in which directors are in charge (or out of control) and one in which the playwright and her/his work is taken “seriously.” But it seems to me that an even more significant difference lies in what actors are expected to do — how their work is understood and defined. To put it simply, I don’t think actors in Germany do the same thing actors do in most English-speaking theatres. Take this line from a recent interview with Andreas Kriegenburg, one of Germany’s leading directors (I’m paraphrasing a bit): “It seems that today, something like psychological realism isn’t really possible in acting anymore — we are so used to seeing performances that are fractured, self-contradictory, and ironic that an approach to acting that would do without these things is now inconceivable.” What Kriegenburg describes here as basically unthinkable is the standard, mainstream style of acting across the English-speaking world. How can such a massive divergence be explained? (Part of it, I think, has to do with different reactions to the challenges posed by film and TV: German theatre actors seem to have concluded that they need to offer something totally unlike what audiences can see on screens.)

What is a rehearsal?
Along with a totally different approach to acting comes a really very different approach to rehearsal; and that, I guess, takes us back to the issue of funding. It makes sense, I’d say, that actors who have 4-5 times as much time to rehearse a play (2 months and more in Germany as opposed to 3 weeks in Canada) come up with more radical, more edgy, more unexpected, more dangerous things to do. On the other hand, there is clearly a large potential for self-indulgence. How is that being discussed? Critiqued?


To address these issues, I’ll be doing quite a bit of travelling (yay!), to Berlin, London, New York, and elsewhere. I’m hoping to talk to as many theatre practitioners in the various countries as possible, to get a full picture of how they think of what they do — what they consider their key priorities, their main goals, their core responsibilities. I’ll be doing a fair bit of archival work, to trace the historical roots of the differences I’ve sketched. But I also want to do some practical work.

To wit: I’m hoping, over the next few years, to work with Toronto-base companies and artists interested in exploring a different approach to classical works — to try out what happens when you bring the kinds of staging techniques, of performance approaches, of rehearsal methods developed elsewhere to bear on material familiar to our audiences (probably Shakespeare), and to see if we can expand our incredibly limited theatrical canon to include at least some of the works that dominate the much more capacious repertory of German-speaking stages. Not least of all, I’m interested to see how audiences will respond — if it is in fact true that there just isn’t any public interest in this kind of work; that no-one will see Shakespeare unless it’s done Stratford-style (preferably in Stratford) or in a park; that theatre can’t be edgy and challenging and weird and also popular. That’s the most inchoate, most pompous, and most ambitious part of the project, and I have no idea if it’ll ever get off the ground. But I’d love to hear from anyone who might be interested to talk to me about it.

The next few years will be busy years.


11 Responses to Looking ahead

  1. Wow. The world is small! This research project of your tackles my day-to-day work an discussions with my actor und director friends here in Austria. I only scanned your posting here, but when I get a chance to read it thoroughly I will post! One thing I can post now…I don’t know if I can totally agree with what Kriegenburg said about actors in Germany. I think there are quite a few actors who would like to tackle plays similarily to how actors in North America/England do it…aka psychological-realism…but they aren’t allowed because some director comes with a zainy ‘skurile’ concept. But then again I have also come to realize there is a difference in acting style or better said technique in the german-speaking countries. There is a Berlin-school and the Swiss/Austria/Bavarian-school. However, these styles are blending thanks to all the Germans working in the Austrian and Swiss Universities as well as the major state theaters….and all the german directors…. Basically: Berlin seems more technical, in the sense of “tell me what the situation requires and I will do it!” and the Swiss/Austrian/Bavaria is a more gut feeling emotional approach.

    Ok, enough for now…got to work. Sitting in the Volkstheater Regieassistenz-Kammerl. If you are in Austria – visit me!

    • Holger Syme says:

      Lovely to hear from you — we do need to talk at greater length. I’d love to hear how your Austrian experience compares to what you saw and learned in Canada. From what I know and have seen, your distinction between a Southern and a Northern style makes some sense: Hamburg and Berlin seem to be pretty much on the same page, but Munich used to be different (though that’s changed a lot). The Burgtheater is sort of an interesting test case, no? (In Germany, there’s also the fairly stark difference between Staatstheater and Stadttheater, where a lot of the smaller municipal houses probably produce far more work in the psychological-realism vein than anything else, since they have audiences with different expectations.) Much, much more to say — which is why this is a multi-year project!

  2. Holger–I have a friend you might be interested to speak to/work with. An Austrian woman who studied on the Staging Shakespeare MFA at Exeter and is now an assistant director for a large theatre company in Graz. She is the personification of the struggle between the two disparate traditions you discuss here! Put you in touch, yes?

  3. Bardiac says:

    Have you thought about looking at some deaf theater? I had a student (in the US) work on ASL Shakespeare, and it looked really interesting and challenging.

  4. Roger Beck says:

    Holger, you might want to – no, you should – cast a sideways glance at the presentation of classics of another sort in Ontario right now. I have in mind classical Greek tragedy (not comedy, because I don’t think anyone here is doing anything really interesting with Aristophanes): Sophocles Electra at Stratford this year, a breakthrough in the delivery of choral and monologue/dialogue rhythms; Little Wooden Shoe’s Antigone Dead People, brilliant experimentation with the masking convention; Little Iliad (i.e. Philoctetes) and Ajax, sheer inventiveness. Cheers, Roger.

    • Holger Syme says:

      I know! I’ve written about the Stratford Electra (notably a production directed and designed by a Greek team…), and I wish I’d had time to write about Antigone Dead People.

  5. Meredith Scott says:

    Sounds fascinating, Holger. All good and timely questions. There is a lot I could say in terms of my own thoughts on acting, voice use and Shakespeare but I will keep it simple for the moment for fear of running on too much. Increasingly, in my teaching, I am less concerned about the rights and wrongs of classical text. Because voice is my speciality, my concern is the words. Not about preserving them, but using them. And showing young performers how if they are to realize the full potential of the plays (in any production), it is their physical and vocal technique that will serve as the foundation for that work. But I often fear that the context of voice class (or any acting class) makes the students far too focused on “getting it right”. Now I am going on too much – so I will stop there, but there is so much potential here. Good luck!

    • Holger Syme says:

      I completely agree, and I think it’s a very tricky issue to address (because so much of it is bound up with questions of authority). But it seems to me that you’re obviously right in the sense that physical and vocal technique are a kind of common denominator: what you then do with that well-trained body and voice is an entirely different matter.

  6. I never expected you to move towards comp lit! Looks like a great project!

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