Interviewed by Lissa Tyler Renaud
Israeli director David Zinder is a cutting-edge artist who works in the tradition of the scholar-director. With a substantial background in improvisation and a Ph.D. in Dramatic Art, he has received, over some decades, spectacular—even grateful—reviews for his productions ranging from The Bacchae and Macbeth to The Real Inspector Hound. Zinder’s signature directing style, grounded in the dramatic canon and deeply radical in approach, has taken him to work at theatres throughout Western and Eastern Europe, to Asia and the U.S.
In the following interview, Zinder describes the close and sustained relationships with his designers that are a significant component of his working process. At the same time, unusual for a director’s process, Zinder has formulated his own method of actor training, named ImageWork—the result of which is markedly glowing reviews for his actors. With an early book out on Surrealism, it is exciting to think what Zinder might be doing with his current production, Six Characters in Search of an Author, at the Hungarian State Theatre of Cluj, in Romania. In the throes of preparation for this “radical re-working of Pirandello’s masterpiece,” David still made time to correspond with me for Critical Stages.
For more about David Zinder’s directing, teaching, publications and reviews, see his website at http://www.davidzinder.com/.
1. In your country/city, is there any major issue (e.g. a contemporary social problem) that artists fail or neglect to address on stage? Why? Is this due to censorship, or to a blind spot in the community’s shared perception of the world—or to a community’s consciously or un-consciously avoiding it?
Israel’s theatre scene is extraordinarily vibrant and wide-ranging. There are, in fact, very few major issues—if any—that are not addressed onstage. There is no censorship in Israel, and theatres, both government-supported and independents, deal with every possible aspect of Israeli life. As everywhere else, I suppose, there are topical trends that tend to temporarily overshadow other issues, so that, for instance, recently, political issues relating to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are not high on the agenda while internal social issues are, whereas in the last years of the 20th century, the political issues were the hottest item on the stage.
2. What, if anything, is difficult in communicating with the designers? Why? How early and how often do you exchange views about the coming production? Have you designed shows yourself, and if so, does that make communication easier?
I have “designed” shows only in the sense that I have on occasion chosen a particular configuration for an empty space (e.g. for productions of Macbeth and Blood Wedding, among others) and either created, bought or chosen the costumes, the props and the movable stage elements.
Did you discover anything from doing these things that now informs how you work with your designers?
Even though I believe these productions worked well, and based on previous and subsequent productionswith designers, it was clear to me that a designer with an independent and different professional eye would have made a huge difference to the overall artistic level of these productions. My conclusion from all these experiences was very clear: I now work exclusively with designers and collaborate with them on the development of the concept, the space, the costumes and the props. This applies, by the way also to lighting designers, choreographers and composers whom I work with.
Since the experience of designing my own shows was fairly minimal, I can’t honestly say that it helped or hindered my subsequent work with designers. All it did was bring home to me the cardinal importance in theatre of artistic collaboration with like-minded colleagues from the different disciplines of theatre practice.
I usually begin working with my designers (sets, costumes and lighting) from the moment I have a first conceptual idea for the production. Since I generally work on a production between six months and a year, this means a constant, lengthy and ongoing dialogue with the designers who, in this sense, become full collaborators in the development of the concept and the ultimate form of the production.
Since over the past ten years at least I have been working with very few, chosen designers/collaborators with whom I have found a common creative and professional language, there have been virtually no difficulties in communication that I can remember.
Would you say something about this language and how you arrived at it? Or what it is about these designers that made you “choose” them?
The choices of designers have been based either on a long-term acquaintance, as is the case with my collaborator on most of my productions since 2002, Miriam Guretzky, with whom I taught for many years at Tel Aviv University, or on acquaintance with the work of a particular designer on more than one production. These designs have to reverberate in me as belonging to my kind of theatrical vision in order for me to make the choice.
As a free-lance director, working mostly in Romania now, I have on occasion worked with local designers and the choice was always based on my having seen their work and had preliminary meetings with them before making a choice. Since I work so closely with my designers, and over so long a period of time in the development of the concept, this is a critical choice so I try to be very careful about it—which is not to say that there haven’t been mistakes, but thankfully only one major one that I can remember.
3. In your creative process, which part do you enjoy least? Why? How do you tackle it?
This is almost a trick question. Since the creative process in theatre is protracted, collaborative and complex, it is bound to have ups and downs, but overall it is—for the most part—a joy ride from start to finish. If there are “down” moments, it is mostly when actors don’t understand my direction even after I have tried to tackle the problem they are having with all the tools at my disposal. The only answer to that is patience, patience and more patience—assuming of course that I have a basic confidence in that particular actor that she or he can—and will—make the moment work eventually.
Compromise is always a difficulty. When I have a certain vision for the space or for a moment onstage and they don’t work because of considerations outside or inside the creative process (e.g. budget restrictions, technical difficulties or problems with actors), I try to tackle it by searching for alternative solutions that might conceivably be better than my original ones. If none can be found and I have to compromise that is always something that I find hard to deal with, because the only remedy for that is making excuses after the fact—and that doesn’t help in the real time of the performance.
4. During your career, have you ever received a particularly insightful piece of criticism? When, and what did it say? What made it especially important for you?
My answer to that is slightly off on a tangent, but hopefully useful for the purposes of this questionnaire. Salvador Dali once said that the best critique of a work of art is another work of art. Following this concept, I could say that the best “criticism” I ever received was from a wonderful Romanian director by the name of Vlad Mugur (who died in 2003), whose productions of great classics which I was privileged to have seen (Right You Are (If You Think So!), The Cherry Orchard and Hamlet, among others) were filled with so many brilliant and eccentric choices that were “right” even though I couldn’t explain them, that I began using the term “Vald Mugur” for every creative choice I made in my productions that I felt was right but simply impossible to explain in any analytical way. I subsequently found a definition for this phenomenon in an article about another director’s artistic choices which were described as “surprising and inevitable.”
This is a wonderful reply! At the same time, since this is a journal about theatre critics and criticism, this question is being asked with an interest in opening communication between critics and directors. Now, with a chance to “speak directly to the critics,” is there something you can say to them?
More to the point relating to critics, the relationship of creative artists with critics is always very complex, but there is a golden rule that I have tried to follow in my own work and in my teaching which basically goes like this: the spectator—or critic, as the case may be—is always 100% right. The reason for this is very simple—you can’t argue with anyone’s subjective perception of your work. What you need to do is listen carefully to every bit of criticism and take from it whatever is important to you. Yoshi Oida describes this beautifully in a paragraph on criticism in The Floating Actor when he says “even a distorting mirror is a mirror.”
I can’t put my finger on any one piece of criticism which has given me a unique insight into the overall nature of my work, but I can honestly say that I have indeed listened carefully to everything that has been written about my work. What I have taken away from these critiques is perhaps a better understanding of how my piece actually worked.
Can you give any hint of the differences between working in Israel and Romania?
A word is perhaps fitting here relating to the nature of theatre criticism in the two cultures where I work, Israel and Romania. Over the past two decades, Israeli theatre criticism has become more laconic and somewhat less informed than before, perhaps due to the massive changes that have come about in communication in general. Romanian critics, I have found, are by and large holding on to the more scholarly tradition of the past, and the major critics write extensive reviews about performances with a wide range of intellectual associations that try to place the piece being reviewed in a broad context. Of the two, I clearly prefer the latter, because writing of that nature is bound to have, for the most part, more insightful comments about the production than the ten-liners produced by many critics in Israel.
 Lissa Tyler Renaud, a master teacher of acting and voice at InterArts Training in California, has taught throughout the U.S. and at major theatre institutions of South Korea, India, Taiwan and Singapore. A recipient of Ford Foundation and National Science Foundations grants, among others, she is an award-winning actress and is recognized as a director and alignment practitioner. She publishes and lectures widely on the European avant-garde. Her co-edited volume, The Politics of American Actor Training, is newly out from Routledge, 2009.