By Maria Shevtsova and Christopher Innes
279 pp. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Reviewed by Don Rubin[1] (Canada)

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The clue here is the subtitle of this fascinating and important volume – “conversations on theatre.” That is, to a very great extent, this book is less about its declared subject — directors and directing — than it is about the state of contemporary Euro-American theatre; less about how directors work in what can be called inter-cultural contexts than it is about the making of Euro-American, post-modern stage productions.

Not that this is a problem. There are probably not two better theatre conversationalists from the world of academe than Maria Shevtsova (editor of England’s New Theatre Quarterly) and UK-born Christopher Innes (a professor at Toronto’s York University and editor of Cambridge’s “Directors in Perspective” series). Probing in their questions about what drives the likes of Eugenio Barba and Lev Dodin, Elizabeth LeCompte and Robert Lepage, Peter Sellars and Simon McBurney, these expansive interviews give rare insight into the theatrical minds of nine major directors and theatre thinkers, all of them inheritors of such twentieth century masters as Meyerhold and Brecht, Strehler and Brook, Grotowski and Lyubimov, to name just a few.

So where has this next generation of theatre innovators taken us? The question comes up over and over again in these conversations– some casual, some edgy, all of interest – though it is ultimately never answered. Perhaps it can’t be. But a question that can be answered – and is – is why these influential directors have taken us on their specific journeys. This is where the conversations are richest.

Focused for the most part on anglophone Europeans and North American directors who have either worked in Europe or have influenced European theatre, the book is weak only in its apparent disinterest in other parts of the world. There is, for example, barely a word included on Asia or Latin America, Africa or the Arab World and there are virtually no references even within the strong European content to Spain or Italy (okay, okay, Barba is sometimes Italian…) and only passing references to France, Germany and Poland. These obvious lacunae could be helped by at least an acknowledgement of the geographical gaps and real focus.

Without such acknowledgement, what we have in this volume is an interesting interview with the young British director Katie Mitchell but no word from Ariane Mnouchkine (surely as important as Dodin in terms of influence); a good discussion with the venerable Max Stafford-Clark but nothing from Peter Stein, the late Ingmar Bergman, Andrei Serban or Robert Wilson (all equally or more important). We have fascinating words from the American iconoclast Peter Sellars and Britain’s Declan Donnellan but silence on the work and influence of Japan’s Tadashi Suzuki, director-theorist Richard Schechner or even the American Anne Bogart who certainly should have been included in the volume. But, as Innes himself said in CS when reviewing another book on a similar subject, “the selection of one figure over another in such a rich field is always a question of personal choice.”

What is covered is certainly rich and insightful. Each of the interviews — mostly done between 2004 and 2007 — is preceded by a useful critical overview of each of the director’s major work contextualizing it effectively with brief biographical material. For anyone doing work on these nine directors, the interviews and accompanying material will prove invaluable.

The Barba and Dodin interviews (done by Shevtsova) are certainly two of the strongest pieces in the volume, models of clarity, questioning, focus and good editing. Shevtsova gets Barba to effectively articulate his notions of interculturality. He argues ultimately that both interculturalism and intraculturalism are “false problems.” His position is that wherever actors are from, “when performing [they] may choose only between two conventions: a formalised and a non-formalised one. If you work according to a formalised convention – also called stylisation – you have to submit to its rules….You can be from Japan, Argentina or Namibia, but if you want to be a ballet dancer you have to learn to stand on your pointes and do arabesques and pirouettes. If you work according to a non-formalised convention, the director decides what sort of expressive patterns you have to follow….” The rest of the interview is Barba’s fascinating “therefore…”

Dodin speaks passionately of his belief that a theatre company should be an extension of an experimental “studio” and that a studio should itself be an extension of a theatre school. For his own school/studio/company in St. Petersburg – for which he seeks about 20 new members annually – there are usually some 2,500 applicants. How does he choose them? The first meeting with the applicants, he tells us, are held in groups of ten and last for no more than about 15 minutes. Each reads a short poem or some prose. They might sing. There is a short discussion.

“Discussion, “ he tells us, “ is crucial at every stage…and the most important thing during it is to identify the interesting people.” In the second round, his interest is to see a bit of what the most interesting of the interesting people know in terms of literature. In addition to this literary discussion, some might be asked to dance or sing or improvise.

“The change of context in the different rounds,” explains Dodin, “shows up the less gifted ones, who had looked stronger in a weaker batch. [By] the fourth round, we usually ask them to prepare part of a play in three days, and pair them in twos or threes. At the same time, they have to do written work not about the theatre, but about something connected to life….” How long does this extended process take? “We start in April,” he says, “and end sometime in July.”

Lepage – the first great twenty-first century director (by which I mean the first stage director to effectively use electronic technology in live theatre) – argues with Innes that there is not a substantive difference between live theatre and film. As he puts it, “Let’s not call it film and theatre, let’s call it live performance versus recorded performance or live storytelling versus recorded storytelling.….To survive, I think that theatre has to embrace the vocabulary of its audience and the vocabulary is now that of film…..people live in a language of jump-cuts and sound-bites; and if you’re not going to use that as a storyteller in the theatre, they’re at the end of the story before you are. Not because the action is slow, but because the art of storytelling in theatre is aged and slowed down….”

Indeed, almost all of the younger directors here challenge storytelling/text with something – if it’s not technology then its image, if not image, then movement. In one production, Elizabeth LeCompte screens a Marx Brothers film off-stage that can be seen only by the actors. Why is it being shown? “They’re improvising off it,” says LeCompte.

For the older directors here – particularly for Dodin and Stafford-Clark – text is still privileged. On the other hand, almost all of those interviewed – young and old – continue to use Shakespeare and Chekhov as theatrical touchstones for their work with Brecht coming in a distant third.

In sum, a most useful book for critics, scholars, directors and theatre students, for anyone wanting to understand some of theatre’s new directions and the thinking of some of its contemporary practitioners. Because theatre is such a visual art, however, the volume would have been even more useful with a larger number of photos – each chapter is limited now to one rather stark black and white photo (oddly reminiscent of Cold War-era volumes out of the USSR). It also would have been nice to have a photo of each of the interviewees. Finally, for a distinguished house like Cambridge the volume contains a surprising number of typos: it’s Jean-Luc Godard not Goddard; Jean-Claude van Itallie not Claude Van Itallie; La MaMa not LaMaMa. And for the record, the name of Quebec’s major theatre journal (referred to by Lepage) is Jeu not Jeux. These are minor cavils, however, for a book that should be on library shelves world-wide.


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[1] Don Rubin is the editor of Routledge’s six-volume World Encyclopedia of Contemporary Theatre and a Professor of Theatre at Toronto’s York University.

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Directors/Directing: Conversations on Theatre