Past and Present Meet Head-on: Interview with Christiane Jatahy

By Anna Stavrakopoulou*

I met Christiane Jatahy during her first visit to Thessaloniki in early July 2022. I was asked to moderate the discussion between the creative team and the audience, following the breath-taking performance of Julia. She came across as accessible, unassuming, direct, quick and sharp; at the same time, it became clear to all that she is very caring and respectful towards her cast, and that she pays close attention to the infinitesimal detail of her artistic vision.

She was born in Rio de Janeiro in 1968 and after studying theatre and journalism, she completed postgraduate work in Art and Philosophy. Her trajectory in theatre and film spans two decades, and her work is marked by several characteristic patterns which unify her work: the historical context and the impact of the past, the importance of contemporaneity and the current societal impulses and strains, and last but not least, the relationship between actor and character. While she and her long-term collaborators, Julia Bernat, Isabel Teixeira, Stella Rabelllo among others, keep reinventing themselves with every new project, one can identify some prominent techniques throughout her oeuvre.

She works with improvisation, but her shows are not improvised. Although she draws inspiration from major authors of the Western Canon, such as Homer, Shakespeare, Strindberg and Chekhov, her rendition of their stories is immersed in the preoccupations of theatregoers from Sao Paolo and Rio to Berlin and Paris, the latter of which has become her home away from home in recent years. At the core of Jatahy’s artistic vision are issues pertaining to family relations, forced or self-exile, fate or the unexpected, the impact of power and politics on everyday life, and other perennial problems that have weighed heavily on humanity.

Christiane Jatahy. Photo: Courtesy of Christiane Jahaty

What mesmerises her audiences are shows constructed as an amalgam of tradition and innovation, theatre and film, reality and fiction, and while all components are well-rehearsed and masterfully coordinated, each performance has its own time, date, longitude and latitude stamp, representing a bead in a long chain of unique riveting artistic events. Some recurring themes in her work are topos, utopia, migration, journey and return (or impossibility thereof), gender politics, the fragility of democracy, the disrespect of the decision-makers towards planet Earth and its inhabitants, all pressing problems which she hopes to address and help resolve with her innovative work.

Always bearing poetic, dreamlike titles, from The Lack that Μoves Us (2005) and onwards, many of Jatahy’s shows represent the time of the play as the real time of the action, the actors often use their own names, and the spectators feel they are watching something they should not be witnessing; they might get uncomfortable, but they stay put in their seats, breathlessly watching what are often life-changing performances.

Julia (2011). Photo: Courtesy of Christiane Jatahy

Jatahy’s international breakthrough came with Julia (2011) based on Strindberg’s 1888 play Miss Julie. The action is set in contemporary Brazil, and in addition to live theatre, the performance includes both pre-recorded and live videos, as the artist’s intention is to “ ‘introject’ the ‘reality’ into a preexisting fiction.” Within the same spirit and by employing her (by now) signature techniques, Chekhov’s Three Sisters becomes What if They Went to Moscow? in 2014, Shakespeare’s Macbeth becomes The Walking Forest in 2015 (and Before the Sky Falls in 2021), Homer’s Odyssey becomes Ithaca in 2018 (and The Lingering Now in 2019); Jatahy’s work always introjects abundant doses of reality to the pre-existing sets of plots and characters. For instance, in Before the Sky Falls current authoritarian regimes and their power-mongering agents are interwoven with threads from Macbeth’s cast of ambitious, cruel men, while the spirits of the Amazon summon the forest and fight back; the philosophy of the Yanomami, an indigenous people from the north of Brazil, transports the action from 11th century Scotland to 21st century Brazil.

In Hamlet, staged at the Odéon-Théâtre de l’Europe in Paris in April 2024, the lead part is played by a woman who asks the question “To act or to resign?” There is no doubt that Jatahy decided a long time ago to be proactive and has done so consistently for the last twenty years, by connecting the dots of past and present, tradition and innovation, native and foreign, casting a wide net from South America and Europe. She does this, not only by carefully considering the audiences, but also by including in her shows immigrants from socio-economically marginalized backgrounds as she films their struggles. Through her efforts, Jatahy raises awareness in all possible directions for all kinds of worthy causes.

Anna Stavrakopoulou: Thank you so much for your interview. I’m truly honored to be interviewing you today, and I’ve always admired the range and quality of your projects. I’d like to ask you a few questions, and hopefully we’ll be able to explore your most important work in the theatre.

In your biography that’s posted on your site, you state that you are an author, a theatre director and a filmmaker. Does this sequence reflect the actual course of history in your personal development? Did you actually start as an author?

Christiane Jatahy: Yes, I did. I started out in the theatre as a child. Then I started to study theatre more formally and at some point, I decided to go to a university where I could really learn to write. That’s why I decided to study journalism. During that period I also took some classes on cinema. Cinema was a strong presence in my life as a spectator, and it has shaped me in a lot of ways, so I decided to study cinema as well. When I started creating theatre as a director, even when I wasn’t using cinematic techniques on the stage, the cinema was always central to how I would develop a process through language.

Of course I have more questions about your work with the cinema, but first I’d like to hear more about your writing. Was your first experience in writing focused on journalistic texts?

Yes, it was.

So, given that the first texts you wrote were journalistic, it seems that the focus on reality and the “here and now” is really important in your work, and reflects on you as a journalist, which is central to your performances. In other words, what happens outside the theatre is very important for you.

Yes, you’re right about that. I think I decided to study journalism because I was really interested in actual events and developments in the world at large, in my country and in my neighborhood. It’s really important for me to reflect on how the social and political spheres of society interact. But when I first studied journalism, I never thought I would actually work as a journalist; mostly I wanted to acquire a structure that would help me observe people and events, and to figure out how this structure could help me as a writer. It’s an important source for my projects, even when I am working with fiction, as you saw in Julia. My journalistic training brings a level of reality to the realm of fiction. I can go into more detail, if you’d like.

Yes, please do.

Well, I am fascinated with documentary films, since they always involve fiction, in some way, these different ways of looking at the narrative. What is real and what you create as a reality, this tension really interests me, both as a means to conceptualize what’s happening to us, and also as a means to create text.

Who were some of the most important contemporary influences in your development as a theatre director and filmmaker?

Many people have shaped my thinking, so I would say that it depends on the period, since so much has changed over the years.

Well, let’s focus on the beginning of your career, since you have always been in constant dialogue with the theatre and the history of cinema. So, who would you say has shaped you most significantly as a viewer in the cinema or the theatre? Who comes to mind first?  

That’s a really tough question, but I’ll try to answer. Definitely at the beginning of my career I was influenced by Brazilian theatre, especially since it was so difficult to see any productions from abroad. I think that the first international performance I saw was a production by Pina Bausch, and it was a very powerful experience for me to see her work.

So, a performance by Pina Bausch came to Brazil?

Yes, and it was also the first time for me to see anything international, any kind of performance, theatre or dance, in Brazil. And after that – I’ve never talked about this before – the first piece I saw from Forced Entertainment showed me another way of doing theatre. I was very young when I saw those two productions. But seeing Pina Bausch, well, for me, that event totally transformed my experience as a spectator. And of course literary texts have always been important to me, as are film directors who are somehow connected to theatre. Take Bergman for example; I am deeply moved by all of his films. John Cassavetes was another director who I discovered while I was still very young. And then I was taken by French cinema, the Nouvelle Vague, because of the dialogues and the strong sense of realism. And Brazilian film was also important to me, of course; for example, I am now working on one of the films by the Brazilian documentary filmmaker Eduardo Coutinho.

In the world of literature, I also found inspiration, for example, from the novelist Clarice Lispector. Just like Pina Bausch, Clarice Lispector is someone who works on the margins: you never know what she feels or what she really creates, yet she has an amazing capacity to penetrate our thought processes. I had a similar reaction when I saw Pina Bausch. I think it’s important to recognize how deeply women artists in general have influenced us, even if they are not always as highly regarded as male artists. I find it absolutely imperative to acknowledge the genius of these two women artists, one who writes theatrical performances, and the other literary texts.

Ithaca (2018). Photo: Courtesy of Christiane Jatahy

Thank you for pointing this out!. My next question has to do with the challenge you face when you bring older masterpieces to life in your own very personal and political terms. So, when you revive works by Strindberg, Chekhov and Shakespeare, all the way back to Homer, you also address major issues relevant to the present, such as racism, toxic masculinity and the crisis of immigration, just to name a few. When you face social issues of this magnitude, what can the classics offer you? Why do you continue your dialogue with the great old masters?

Whenever I engage with a classical text, I start by working on material drawn from nonfictional texts. When I was initiating the trilogy, I worked on real-life stories, interviews, memories from either my own life or the lives of the actors, newspaper articles and other forms of nonfiction. Before I approached these classical texts, the most important part for me was writing down actual memories and documented reality. It was amazing how both sides were in dialogue with each other. Memory plays a vital role here: the past is part of the present, and I can understand what’s happening now when I look at the past. I decided to work with classical texts because they are connected to our memory and the past. My goal isn’t so much to revisit the past as it is to understand how the past is always present in our contemporary experience. I also try to understand how not to repeat the same events and avoid creating an eternal future.

So that’s when I chose to work with classical texts. The first one was Strindberg’s Miss Julie, which really intrigued me when I was studying theatre. I like to work with a text because it challenges me, and not just because I like it. I tend to choose texts that force me into a dialogue with my society, with reality, and make me consider why the world is as it is. That was the case with Julia, which unfortunately was very connected to Brazilian society. It was the first classical play I decided to undertake.

Chekhov has also influenced me very deeply, which is probably the case with all theatre artists. I took on The Three Sisters to understand the invisible voice of the three sisters in this piece – even if the title is Three Sisters, most of the dialogues are male dialogues. So in my work I changed this and restored the sisters’ voices. Anyway, it’s such an essential piece in the Western theatre canon.

Before the Sky Falls (2021). Photo: Courtesy of Christiane Jatahy

You also seem to like Macbeth in particular.

Yes, yes, it’s a very political text, and it shows that when you have power you can make terrifying, catastrophic decisions about others. I think this is something that has happened in a lot of countries, definitely in Brazil.

On a related topic, I’ve worked for several years, very intensely, with Greek mythology and the tragedies. During my university years, for example, I was part of a group called “Jump in the tragedy” and we studied several texts in great depth. I also worked as an actress in the Oedipus the King.

Who did you play in Oedipus?

The arauto, I don’t know how you say this in English. He is the person who comes with the description of the tragedy to Oedipus.

So, were you the Shepherd or the Messenger?

I was the herald, the last one who appeared to describe what happened to Oedipus

So, you were the Messenger.

Yes, and I was very young, 18 years old or so. It was my first professional performance.

Regarding Greek mythology, when I was a university student, I studied with Junito Brandão, an important researcher on Greek mythology. He was my teacher, and he helped me to enter this universe, and now I believe it is a part of me in some way. It’s definitely one of the forces that has shaped my thinking. And it is connected to my own culture as well – Afro-Brazilian religion is a rich source of all these kinds of archetypes.

But to come back to your question about what has shaped me as an artist: I’d say there have been many influences, some of them not directly connected to the arts. For example, there are the psychoanalysts that I studied, like Freud, Jung and Lacan.

So, you studied psychoanalysis as an artist, as you were processing a text, or as a student, as you were discovering a new area of interest?

I have always read a lot and I still do so — it’s important for our work in general, and especially for my interaction with the actors and the actresses. My approach requires sensitivity, and studying psychoanalysis was important to me as I was developing myself, both as an individual and also as a director.

And now that you mention it, this training really is very clear in your work, I mean your exposure to psychoanalysis. This leads me to another question I’d like to ask you. How do you manage to move audiences, wherever you go, in such diverse locales like Sao Paulo, Zurich, Paris, Avignon, Hamburg and Thessaloniki? In particular, do you create, having in mind theatre aficionados who have been exposed to the international theatre festivals? What is the common language that you and your audiences speak, in so many international settings?

It’s not easy to answer your question, but what I know is that when I create, I treat the work as a puzzle, where the point of view of the public, of the audience, has a prominent place. My company is called “Companha Vertice,” meaning the top part of a triangle. So, this is where I put my energy, to establish a strong connection with the audience to work with me, to create this piece.

Utopia.doc (2012) Photo: Courtesy of Christiane Jatahy

In other words, you work with the audience to co-create.

Yes, exactly! But at the same time, I never forget that it’s about an emotional relationship as well, and I try to find these feelings, the real feelings that are independent of cultures or languages. I try to work in a way where this emotional layer is very real, in the relationship among the actors, and the relationship between the actors and the audience. This is a universal form of communication; we don’t need to speak the same language to understand this.

Would you say that emotion is the common language?

Yes, but without forgetting that it’s also about intelligence and perception. I definitely focus on the intelligence of my audience and I try to understand their diversity, not only across different countries but also in each theatre hall, across the different perceptions that people have of my plays. What I try to do is to connect everybody in the present moment so that we can find a common denominator, co-create and construct relationships, those among the actors, and those between the actors and the spectators. So, the audience has an essential part in my work.

Thomas Walgrave, my collaborator and also my partner in life, always says that my work is no longer about the destruction of the fourth wall. It has already been destroyed, its debris lying there on the stage. So, my question is, what do I do now with the people who are present with me in the theatre? This point needs to be addressed, so rather than focusing on how to break the wall, I concentrate on how to connect with and involve these people in the play that we are staging. This process is a major part of my research.

For the past several years you have been living in Europe, far from your native Brazil. I wonder about the impact of Brazilian identity and culture on your work. Having just seen Julia, I imagine that your native culture is central to your work, but I would like to hear your thoughts on how Brazilian culture impacts your work.

For me, Brazil is where I’m from physically but also where I’m positioned mentally. Even when I don’t talk about Brazil, Brazil is always with me, because I am Brazilian; Brazil defines my roots. But it’s more than just my roots: Brazil also permeates my structure as a person. However, this doesn’t stop me from fighting against social and political injustice in my country. To really describe me as an individual and as an artist, you have to consider the complexity of whatever reality surrounds me. This is always the case, even when my viewpoint changes: if I’m on the outside, I can still see a serious problem from a distance. And even if I don’t want to talk about it, it’s still inevitably connected to my work. I think this is common to all artists, the question of who we are, and the need to understand the past in order to create the future. On the timeline delineated by past and present, my work is always set in the present.

Utopia.doc (2012). Photo: Courtesy of Christiane Jatahy

Would you say that there were any drawbacks or hindrances to you growing up in Brazil? For example, you’ve already said that there weren’t many international productions in Brazil. So, would you say that you missed out on certain formative experiences having grown up in Brazil? Let me clarify what I mean. Ibsen, for example, grew up in Norway but he left his homeland, and even though he lived in Italy and Germany, he always wrote about Norway. Your experience is analogous in that you, too, left your homeland, but your homeland is always present in your work. For Ibsen, Norway was always with him, and he always wrote in his native language. Ibsen also had some negative experiences in his country. He left because he wanted to be far away and observe the problems from a distance. So the question I’d like to ask you is if there were any particular reasons that made you leave Brazil and live abroad?

I never really left Brazil; I simply opened the door to allow elements of other countries to permeate my personal environment. I started studying journalism because I was interested in others and I wanted to learn more about what I didn’t know. I longed to leave, to see what was happening in the rest of the world, not only where I was! And that’s when I left, but I left as a professional, never as an exile or immigrant. I started working abroad, I came back and then I went back to Europe to work again. And now I can say that I have more than one country, and this is really gratifying.

My work is essentially about borders, but about erasing, rather than creating borders. I think that’s basically what I have done in my life, I’ve tried to erase the borders, and I believe that I can be here and still observe Brazilian society very critically. And of course I’m equally critical of other countries with analogous social and political problems, because these problems bring about human suffering and unjust treatment. I always ask how it’s possible for human beings to harm other human beings; this is why I think of my theatre as political, because I want to focus on what we have to do in order to initiate change. I want to look outside of Brazil and then again in the direction of Brazil. In both cases, it’s essential to ask how powerful people use their authority to harm others, and how they can be stopped.

Thank you so much! Your reflections are truly inspiring. I am an Odyssey lover myself. When I was a graduate student, one of my professors was a Homer specialist, and he would always categorize people as Odyssey or Iliad individuals. I am an Odyssey person, for sure, and I am very intrigued by your diptych Our Odyssey and The Lingering Now, where you filmed some scenes in Greece. As you were working on these two performances, what aspects of Homer’s Odyssey did you find to be inspiring, especially in connection to the contemporary refugee experience? Perhaps you could share your thoughts on Homer, and describe your connection to Homer and the connection to the performances.

Ithaca (2018) – from Homer and other inspirations. With Cedric Eeckout, Isabel Teixeira, Julia Bernat, Karim Bel Kacem, Matthieu Sampeur and Stella Rabello

There is a lot to say about the Odyssey. We were talking about Greek mythology before, and this text is full and profound, like an ocean, so rich, so impressive, with so many insights about who we are. In Europe I was deeply moved by the plight of the refugees. I started to focus on the problems of refugees before I started working with the Odyssey, when I did a documentary called Utopia.doc. andinterviewed people as a preparation for The Three Sisters (referring to What if They Went to Moscow?). When we talk about the country we leave, we always take the perspective of a Ulysses, and we are always looking for a home, for an Ithaca, even if it’s not the Ithaca of the past, because the Ithaca of the past is lost. So, we have to recreate our own Ithaca and project it as a concrete island.

My production of The Three Sisters and their desire to return to Moscow is already connected to this idea. The three sisters talk about this but never make this movement concrete, so we are depicting a utopia. And then I decided to interview people who had left their homes and their countries and ask them what their plans were, did they want to return? Did they dream of returning, and if they ever made a move to go back, would they want to find some other Moscow or Ithaca as a utopia? I interviewed several people from different parts of the world and cultural backgrounds. And even if this information didn’t enter directly into the dramaturgy of What if They Went to Moscow? it helped us, the actresses and myself, to understand what the issues were. So, regarding these people, in some way I am definitely connected to them, and I also see my own country from another point of view, from a distance. This connection started with What if…. After that, I created The Walking Forest based on Macbeth; again, I interviewed some people, all refugees in their own way, whose lives had been marred by an accident which forced them to relocate.

So this brings me back to the Odyssey, a deeply profound text, and its connection to the people who have lost their Ithacas. It’s a diptych. The first part is really theatre, with actors playing Penelope, Ulysses and the suitors. What interests me most in this first part is the moment that Ulysses arrives in Ithaca, the very last moment that Ulysses is on the island of Calypso and he says ‘I can’t stay any more,’ and I try to see him not only as a hero but as a complex being – he’s not always heroic. As part of our research for the performance, we interviewed three refugees and discussed their journeys over land and sea, and then we integrated their stories into the play. But the most important part of Ithaca is when Ulysses returns to Ithaca, a war zone, and to Penelope.

While we were creating the play, the first female Brazilian president, Dilma Rousseff, was being ousted by means of a fabricated impeachment process initiated by the extreme right-wing political forces in Brazil, a privileged group of misogynistic males. So the focus of the play shifted accordingly to the question of patriarchy: Penelope is not someone who waits passively; rather, she is someone who fights as well, and she fights fiercely to not be subjected. There was a deep connection between the Brazilian president’s fate and Penelope’s dignity – powerful men who attempted to rob her of her power, and Penelope, who confronts her male challengers directly. That is a key turning point in Ithaca.

I really like the importance you place on Penelope in your reading of the Odyssey.

Ulysses is the hero that does everything, and Penelope is the woman who simply waits: however, you know it doesn’t actually work like that. I see this text as the place reserved in history for women, for the battles of all Penelopes.

As for The Lingering Now, we took Homer, this history, this fiction to a number of places in the world, to people who, beyond this idea of traveling, are stuck in a present which doesn’t allow them to move forward or backward. This situation is also significant in the Odyssey – Ulysses is stuck on the island of Calypso for example, it’s a “Présent qui déborde” in French, “O Agora que Demora” in Portuguese, this never-ending temporary present that never leads to a future. So we shared the text of the Odyssey with people living in an eternal in-between, to give them the opportunity to tell their real-life stories, through this fiction.

Palestine, the Freedom Theatre in Jenin, was an obvious first place, talking about refugees in their own country. Then we filmed in Lebanon with Syrian refugee artists. It’s important to stress that in all of these places, they couldn’t always practice their professions because of their situation. So it was actors and actresses who assumed the work of recounting/relating, including a woman who plays Ulysses. Then we filmed in two refugee camps in Greece, in the inner city of Johannesburg, South Africa and in a Kayapo indigenous community in the Amazon, the other side of (again) being a refugee, in a forest that is their home.

So, the idea is to connect to the audience that co-creates this piece; the actors are mixed between the audience. And the film provides a window for us to see what’s happening outside of the theatre, a window to the memory of the spectators, appealing to their own pasts, to their own ancestors who might very well have been Ulysses or Penelopes, refugees or immigrants in their own way.

As spectators, we’re being confronted with people living in Syria, in Palestine, living in their present as refugees, in this distant present that can be all too similar to the close past of our own ancestors, as an invitation to visit our own past; the actual Ulysses went to Hades to meet his ancestors, to connect to the stories of the past. So, it’s also about connecting to a personal past, to how it has formed and structured us, as a gateway to seeing the other as someone with whom he or she shares a history, even if her or his actual situation is very different from mine. For me this is at the core of the actual refugee question, in Greece and beyond.

The Lingering Now (2019), is the second panel of the diptych Our Odyssey (2017). Video direction Matthieu Bourdon

Yes, you’re exactly right, you’ve really gotten to the heart of the issue. I am wondering if you have seen the Le dernier caravanserail of Mnouchkine? Have you ever had a chance to see it?

No, unfortunately not. The only piece I’ve seen from Mnouchkine was in Brazil, it was Les Naufragés du fol Espoir.

My next question has to do with your technique as an artist. From what I have seen, you tend to use varied compositional practices and multiple media in your productions. And sometimes this is very demanding for the spectator, because so much is happening at the same time. So, I’d like to ask what you’re trying to achieve through this multilayered and fragmented experience of the viewer. This is your characteristic style, that you create a fragmented experience on the stage with the screen, with things happening all over the stage, and it is intentional. So, my question to you is, why are you doing it this way, what are you trying to achieve artistically and in general?

For me, it’s always about the dramaturgy, about going deeper. When I talk about a puzzle, well, I have the pieces, but I can also see the complete image of it, on the box. In What if They Went to Moscow?, for example, the theatre is theatre and the film is in a separate place. The audience can complete the image having the two experiences, but the images are not in the same place.

What if They Went to Moscow? (2014). Photo: Courtesy of Christiane Jatahy

With the theatre, it’s the spectator who makes the final cut, the editing, and decides where to look. In Julia, to give an example, he or she can decide to look at this or at that, and I can present the complexity of the universe, all in the same frame. I use the word frame, but you can call it text, or dramaturgy, or also the text that I wrote in the invisible space, in the so-called theatre. But in cinema, even when you see exactly the same situation as in the theatre, like in What if… you see only one point of view. I as a director, I put my camera here, I chose a particular place for this closeup, I oblige you to look at these stairs, and the spectator might ask, “Why is she showing me these stairs?” In theatre, on the contrary, you can decide to look or not at the stairs.

In the theatre you can open the frame in order to show what is outside of this frame, while in the cinema you have to imagine what is outside of the frame. In What if… I separate these two layers, I provoke one thing on one side, I embrace another thing on the other side. And then there’s the presence of the camera on stage: when I put the cameras on stage it’s not only a tool to create live film, but it also involves the character of the cameraman, what he or she means in the dramaturgy, how it affects the actors. In Julia, as you saw, the camera can even be a kind of a father. To stay with the example of Julia, I create three levels: in the first one the actors create the film inside the play, in the second one, the characters of Strindberg’s play interact, and in the third, a fictional story focuses on a girl who never had someone to take care of her, and her main relationship is the one with the invasive camera. There are so many levels created by the presence of a camera, which provokes all around.

Julia (2011), based on August Strindberg’s Miss Julie

So, if I understand what you’re saying, it seems that for you, the theatre has more possibilities than cinema.

I think they’re different. I think that the cinema really opens our capacity of imagination, and even if I can’t show everything in the cinema, I can put people inside of what I’m showing and then I can imagine everything around it. That’s why the cinema can take us away from where we are, so that we forget that we are in a cinema, and we really enter into the world of the film. On the other hand, in the theatre, we never forget that we are in a theatre, in a concrete space. So, theatre has to assume the imagined space, and it has to create this important connection: “We are here, this is a space, this is a theatre”. In the cinema, people forget that they are in a darkened auditorium for the purpose of seeing a story unfold. So these two forms of artwork affect our minds very differently. That’s why it interests me to play with this in-between.

What if They Went to Moscow? (2014). Photo: Courtesy of Christiane Jatahy

And you do this masterfully, truly masterfully. How would you describe your creative process? Do you work alone, or do you have a regular creative team who work with you? How do you complete your work?

It depends. The greater part of the work comes from me, so I’m the one who has the first idea, not the entire development of the idea, but the main part. Often this first step implies an idea of the theatrical space, and of the way that I want to create this dramaturgy. And then, the second step is when I initiate a dialogue with collaborators and for sure this opens up many possibilities for developing my initial idea. When I arrive in the rehearsal room, I always have either a complete structure or at least a very solid base to start the work; I never start rehearsing from a blank page. And it also depends on the piece. In some work I begin by leaving more space for improvisation, and at a certain point I complete this phase of improvisation, I take the time to write the text, and then I come back to the rehearsals. In other plays, in Julia for example, I started the first day of rehearsing with the maquette of the set ready, with all the ideas of what I wanted to develop and depict. Julia Bernart, the actress who starred as Julia, always says to me, “When you started to explain Julia, I didn’t understand a thing! What you wanted, this thing with theatre and cinema… But once I was inside of the process I understood.”

Julia (2011). Photo: Courtesy of Christiane Jatahy

And there are other pieces that start from a different structure, with a lot of empty space to develop with the presence of the actors. But in all these different processes, I always continue writing during the process. So, I would say that the first step comes from me, and after that, it’s a process, like writing a book, only that in the case of theatre, I am writing on invisible walls.

What if They Went to Moscow? (2014) –based on Checkov’s Three Sisters–examines the relationship between theatre and cinema and the transposition of the classics to the modern stage

Thank you so much for your really brilliant insights. If I may, I’d like to ask just two more questions, since your time is valuable, and I’m aware of your full schedule.

The first question has to do with women and the fact that you’re a woman. Women, they go to the theatre a lot, they support the arts a lot. In Greece they are definitely the majority in the audience, and maybe not only in Greece. But women creators have a much harder time, especially in traditionally male jobs, you know, as theatre director, filmmaker and other leadership roles. What has been your experience as a woman director, and what advice would you give to young women who are now starting their careers?

Don’t give up: that would be my first bit of advice. I think that the position of women in theatre now is different than what my experience was like when I first started. And it’s great that this discussion is now on the table. Now, no one can say to a woman: “No, this is not your space.” It’s clearly our space now. We have to continue to fight for it, to amplify this space, but at least the discussion is no longer about having a right to the space. It’s a moment we have to seize. But when I was young and just getting started, it was different. I suffered from several instances of misogyny – maybe it wasn’t always direct or concrete, but other times it was most definitely concrete – but for sure, I always had to prove myself more because I was a woman.

Dusk (2021) is the first part of the Trilogy of Horror

It’s a common experience for women in the workplace – they always have to do three times as much to get half the recognition.

Exactly, this is true about everything. For me, it’s about defending my methods, even convincing the actors and the actresses that I have the capacity. I’ve lived through a number of situations where the issue clearly was my being a woman; with a man, it would never happen in the same way. You know, being a woman in the solitary position as a director, I’d get looks that seemed to say “Awww, hmm, poor her, she’s trying her best”. First you are a woman, then you are an artist. I am older now and fortunately things are changing, but you know that this gain is very fragile. This misogyny, this toxic masculinity, it’s still there. Or rather it’s here more than there, it’s most certainly here. But we have to take this opportunity and work together, most definitely.

Before the Sky Falls (2021) is the second part of the Trilogy of Horror

That’s a very optimistic message. I have one last question, if I may. What issues are you are going to explore now? What is your next project, if you feel like discussing it?

Well, I’ve just finished a horror trilogy. It was hard to do this trilogy because the range of subjects was really upsetting, you know what I mean. These last three pieces I did were about deeply upsetting issues: fascism, patriarchy and toxic masculinity, and post-colonialism and structural racism; they’re all directly connected to what has happened in Brazil during these past four years, it is absolutely horrible, and it has affected me very deeply. For me, personally, it was extremely demanding, emotionally. But it was also very important to me to work on this project, very, very important, really. And now I want to have some hope, even if I know the fight continues. But as an artist, at this moment, I’m asking myself, what, now, is the next phase of this creative process, how can I reframe the same question, and continue to spin the single thread that runs throughout my work: “What can we do to change”?

After the Silence (2022), the last part of the Trilogy of Horror

Well, you’re definitely at the peak of your career right now, so everything you decide to do now will have a much greater impact. You see, you’re now very empowered as a person, so you’ll have to take your hard-earned status into consideration.

Yes, so I have to take on more responsibility. (Laughs.)

Note: The interview took place on Zoom on December 1, 2022 and was edited for publication by Thomas Walgrave and Linda Manney. 

*Anna Stavrakopoulou is Professor of Theatre Studies, School of Drama, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. She studied at the University of Crete, Paris III-Sorbonne Nouvelle and Harvard. She has lived and worked for several years in the USA (NYU, Harvard, Yale) and Turkey (Bosporus University). She is a co-founder and faculty member of the Harvard Summer Program in Greece (2002 to present). Her research interests revolve around comedy, both popular and erudite, the reception of Molière, Ibsen, Beckett, and theatrical translation. Her latest book is The Reception of Ibsen in Greece: Gendered Perspectives and Translational Approaches (Kapa Ekdotiki 2023).

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