Sunday, January 30, 2011

Capturing the Moment

"In der Kunst ist das Beste gerade gut genug."

-Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

"In art, the best is just good enough."

And we're back! Last week was packed with trips through the hallowed halls and a foray into a classic German university city, dating back to 1496 . . .

But before we get there, you'll notice I did not start this entry with a Danton's Death quote, but rather with a quote from the good old master Goethe. The Goethe reference is intentional and will come back around a bit later in a rather indelicate way.

I made an important discovery this week, which was that the Staatsgalerie (see pic above), the state gallery of Baden-Württemberg, is free on Wednesdays and Saturdays. So this past Wednesday I took advantage of our mid-afternoon break and went to check it out.

I was of course very excited because I had read that this museum housed two of my favorite paintings from Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. They belong to his Berlin Street Scene cycle, 7 paintings in all, one of which is hanging in Berlin, and two in New York. I was excited to see this one in person for the first time, and was certainly not disappointed.

Let's see, where were we? Ah yes, rehearsals! So I mentioned last week that we are using a live camera on stage. Nuran, the director, has conceptualized the piece as a modern look at politicians and how they operate on camera, off camera, with one another, and with the knowledge that they are almost constantly being filmed. The usually large cast of Danton's Death has been pared down to 8, who are all dressed in contemporary black=tie apparel. Our set is being created to look like a cutaway of the dome of the Reichstag, the German national parliament building.

The play has also been cut heavily and then beefed back up with poems and supplementary material from authors contemporary of Büchner as well as material from current events and even a rap section. The backdrop of the play, the French Revolution, becomes a theatrical metaphor for the current political infighting going on in the German parliament.

To support Nuran's concept we have two projections screens, one on each side of stage, and a live camera that is either on stage being used by the actors, or being run by a camera team that will be on stage during the performance, getting close-ups of the actors and following them around, wherever they go.

I was having a really great time watching all of this, and then on the second day, Janek, the assistant director, had to leave the rehearsal for an hour and a half, which meant that I was in charge. Nuran is always asking Janek for sometime every five minutes. He gets excited about what the actors are doing, and then rushes over to Janek and says something like: "Music off!" or "Lights! Quickly!" or "Tape, I need some tape, we have to tape his arms together!" or "We need papers! Papers to throw around, everywhere! Papers quickly!" and then Janek or I go scurrying off to find whatever it is that is needed.

Sure enough, Janek left, and five minutes later we started working on what would later be called: "Die Kriegsszene" (the war scene). This is the part where Nuran puts on some bumping techno music, and encourages two of the actors to run in from the back of the stage and tear the set apart, building it into barricades.

(the set, seconds before all hell breaks loose)

We had no idea what was in store, and one minute into it (when Mike and Till, the two actors, had begun thoroughly ravaging the set, throwing tables in the air and tearing platforms asunder) Nuran was cheering them on and then runs back to me and shouts:

"Brian! I need a Pusterohr! Quickly, make me a Pusterohr!!!!"

I had no idea what this word, Pusterohr, meant. None at all. Not even the first clue.

The techno music bumped, I stared blankly, the set continued to be torn apart.

Then Nuran mimed rolling something up into a tube and put it to his mouth like a blowgun . . .

Pusten-: blow -rohr: pipe


Got it. So I looked around, and in about two minutes was able to construct a mini-blowgun out of paper, gaff tape, and spitballs. And it worked pretty well! I ran up to Nuran, gave him the Pusterohr, and he handed it off to the actors, who used it to comically antagonize one another throughout the scene while they attempted to get through their big speeches. It went something like this:

Till: "Meine Damen und Herren, Sie müssen verstehen daß der Wohlfahrtsausschuss . . ."

THWAP!!! (Till is nailed by a spitball in the side of the face. Mike laughs uproariously)

Nuran: Ja! Gut! Schön! Perfekt!

. . . and that was day two.

On day three I found out that Karnik, the video artist, was going back to Munich for the rest of the week, which meant that I was going to take over the camera for the rehearsals.

Cut to a shot of the Kriegszene round two, with Mike and Till wrecking the set, and Brian running around with them, filming close-ups and dodging flying set pieces while the techno music bumps. But hey, its a lot more interesting than "Sit down. Be quiet. Watch.", which is what my position could have been. So I'm totally stoked to be playing on stage with the actors when Karnik is not around.

And its continued on in this fashion for two weeks now. We show up, whip out some cameras, throw on the lights and sound, and rock right into the meat of the scene. Afterward, once everybody has had a coffee and a cigarette, then we sit around the table and discuss the scene with the dramaturg. Pretty much the opposite of normal, and totally fun.

After two weeks of politics and barricade-storming, I was excited to be able to escape last Thursday to Tübingen for the evening. My friend Antonio Brunetti back in Chicago had lived in Stuttgart for a while and put me in contact with an old theatre buddy of his, Julian Knab. When I sent Julian an email last week asking if he had time to meet up, he asked:

Julian: "Brian, bist du spontan?"

Am I spontaneous? Is the pope catholic?

So I replied that I was and he invited me out to see a show of his in Tübingen that night. I hopped a train and traveled the 40km out to Tübingen, one of the oldest university cities in Germany and certainly one of the most beautiful medieval towns I've ever seen:

After picking me up at the train station, Julian led me on a walk through the Altstadt, the old part of the city. Daylight was fading and it was starting to snow, but that just added wintry charm to the scene. As we rounded a corner, he told me to look up at a third story window, where a sign hung:

The sign reads: "Here puked Goethe".

And as it turns out, Goethe was staying in that building in the early 1800's, got sick, and spewed out the window. And when the most famous German poet of all time retches on your wall, that's something worth celebrating. Even two hundred years later.

We headed over to the Landestheater Tübingen:

the local theater, and got to know each other over dinner before the performance at eight o'clock.

Julian is an old hand in the theatre, having worked all over the world as well as having been a student of Grotowski's and touring with him back in the early 80's.

Needless to say the piece he directed was masterfully done. It was a one-woman show called "Es war ein Mädchen" ("it was a girl), and dealt with a woman's relationship with her abusive boyfriend and her eventually killing her baby. It was a very physical production, and the actress, Janne Wagler, did an excellent job of switching roles lightning-fast, and bringing the story to life.

Afterward we all had a drink in the Kantine before I had to catch my train back to Stuttgart. We got along swimmingly, and it looks like Julian & Co. are going to come to Stuttgart for the premiere of Danton's Death.

It was very nice to getaway for an evening, and very nice to navigate the regional train system and feel like I know my way around a bit.

Then Friday it was back to work, chasing the actors around with the camera. Never a dull moment!

Videographically Yours,


"Love lost, such a cost,
Give me things
that don't get lost.
Like a coin that won't get tossed
Rolling home to you.

Old man take a look at my life
I'm a lot like you
I need someone to love me
the whole day through
Ah, one look in my eyes
and you can tell that's true."

-Neil Young, 'Old Man'; one of the songs played as underscoring almost every day in rehearsal. Great live version here.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Welcome to the Stud Garden

"Wir haben ein bisschen schnell versucht die Welt zu verändern. Wir sollten damit beginnen, sie genauer zu interpretieren . . ."

"We tried to change the world a little too quickly. We should begin by interpreting it more precisely . . ."

Note: the header quote, as well as subsequent quotes at the top of each entry are from Büchner's play, Danton's Death. Also, be on the look out for links sprinkled throughout the blog, including this entry. I've decided that is the most reasonable way to throw in extra pics & info for those who are interested, without overloading the casual blog reader. Enjoy! Viel Spaß!

Ja, meine Damen und Herren, wilkommen in Stuttgart! Founded in 950 A.D. as a stud farm, it grew quickly and by the 14th century had become one of the most prominent cities in Germany. The 19th century brought tons of technical innovation, and the 20th century saw the rise of Porsche and Mercedes, both Stuttgart companies. It also brought the second world war, in which Stuttgart was pretty much leveled. And after being painstakingly reconstructed, it has now reclaimed its place as an industrial powerhouse and the cultural capitol of southwest Germany.

And what better time for me to show up! I somehow convinced the Goethe Institute to throw some money my way and hook me up with the Staatstheater Stuttgart (one of the largest, and best theaters in the country) to assist on a production of Danton's Death, by Georg Büchner. Dantons Tod, is a play which takes place in the French Revolution, but is really about all of the revolutionary stirrings in Germany in the mid-1800's, as well as having deeper political reverberations through to the present . . .

But that can all wait. First, let's talk about how amazing this city is! And what a wild ride the last week has been.

I departed Chicago on a Friday, and took the overnight flight with KLM Royal Dutch airlines. This is the third time I've flown with KLM and I must take a moment to enthusiastically recommend them. The seats are comfie (even for someone of my stature), you get your own personal tv screen with tons of movies/tv shows/radio stations, and they bring by those little hot towels every thirty minutes, just for no reason at all. Lovely.

I arrived in Amsterdam and spent my two hour layover eating a sandwich and drinking an excellent cup of coffee . . . and then ZOOM! To Stuttgart!

Where I was met by Janek Liebetruth, the assistant director of Danton's Death, and my direct point of contact at the theater. We had already been communicating for a few weeks via Facebook, and inside the first ten minutes were chatting in German and getting along famously. He was also picking up another director at the airport that morning, who was coming in from Barcelona. The director, Josep, arrived twenty minutes later and we quickly figured out that he did not speak any German, so we all switched over to English. This was the first of these language shifts that day, but certainly not the last.

So the three of us grabbed the next train into the city and after getting each of us settled in our respective hotels and apartments, Janek took us to the theater to get acquainted with the facilities.

It goes without saying that a city like Stuttgart, which has been around for 1,000 years, has had some time to invest in their cultural institutions. It should come as no surprise then when the Staatstheater (state theater) looks like an encyclopedia entry for Beautiful Neo-Classical Buildings:

Ah yes! The statues! The Ionic columns! The prestige and beauty of aesthetic proportions!

But of course, as luck would have it this year the building is being renovated. For the entire season. So we basically have nothing to do with this place. Le sigh. So it goes. But hey, it probably would have just ruined me for other theaters anyway. No my friends, we are currently situated here:

Two subway stations further north than the original theater, in an old Mercedes building that has been completely retrofitted for the theater's use. And I mean COMPLETELY. Like, they stripped the place and built three brand new theater space in there. A 450 seater, a 250 seater, and a 100-seat black box. Not to mention a huge foyer (ca. 10,000 sq. ft.) with a full bar, and a side cabaret-dance floor area too. Just for good measure. Every one of these theaters are pretty spare and have kind of an industrial feel, but are all still gorgeous and would be the envy of any theater company in Chicago or here for that matter. Did I mention being spoiled?

So we got the full tour and checked the place out. Then we went and strolled around the center of Stuttgart for a few hours to take in the scenery:

I mean, not too shabby, right?

Then it was back to the theater to meet up with Christian Holtzhauer, who is one of the dramaturgs. They were prepping for the premiere that evening of The Good Person of Sezuan, which we all had tickets to as well. By this time I was getting pretty punchy, since I had been up for something like 27 hours without a nap. As I started to fade at the table Christian suggested I go upstairs to his office and take a nap on his couch. Great idea. Two hours passed like a a drop in a bucket and before I knew it, Christian was shaking me awake. It was time for the show.

Upon my (groggy) arrival downstairs, the once-empty foyer was now teeming with over five hundred people. I got my ticket and headed into the sold-out performance. It took place in the biggest of the three theaters, the Arena, which is a converted warehouse space--and its HUGE! Usually the set designer does everything they can to narrow it down, but this time they had taken a different approach: namely to open it up and use the entire thing. So the whole stage was littered with plants and a boxing ring and two full sized monkey cages like you see at the zoo, and tents and lockers and a couple of small houses and a workout area . . . it went on and on. And the actors strode out in tight pleather pant suits and tore into the text. They used a live camera to do close-ups on the action that was too far away to see clearly and rocked out a 3-hour long super-contemporary post-dramatic version of Brecht's famous script. As soon as I saw the stimulus-overload set and the skin-tight pleather costumes I thought: Yep, Welcome to Germany.

The piece was well done and the audience seemed to really like it. As always there was something like fifteen curtain calls (the Europeans are not afraid to show you that they like something) and some hisses and boos at times too (also not afraid to do the opposite). It was a great way to end my first night in Stuttgart.

At the premiere party afterward I was talking to Jörg, the Chief Dramaturg at the theater. He asked how I had found everything so far, and I was gushing about how nice the facilities were. He smiled knowingly and agreed. When asked what would become of this theater when the season was over and they moved back into the renovated original building, Jörg replied:

"Oh, they will destroy this building. A French company owns it, and they want to build something new. So these theaters will disappear."

(excuse me while I pick my jaw up off the ground.)

Three state of the art theaters, offices, foyer, cabaret club, workshops, all built for a single year then torn down. What theater company can afford to throw that up and then let it go in one season? We are seriously playing on a different level here.

I don't remember much about the next day, Sunday, other than Janek waking me up at 3:00 pm to say that breakfast was ready. I had crashed his couch after the premiere party. We feasted and then hung out and watched tv for a few hours before he took me over to the apartment where I would be renting a room from Rahel Ohm, one of the actors in the ensemble.

It turns out Rahel is an original Berliner, and we have tons in common including former colleagues, friends, and even having lived in the same street in Berlin and reminiscing about the bookshop there in the Winsstraße. Yesterday I showed her how to check out the 'street view' function on Google Maps and she thought it was the coolest thing she'd ever seen. We're getting on quite well.

Its also really crazy how all of my technical gadgets know immediately that I'm in Deutschland. Google is auf Deutsch, all the ads and pop-ups too, only Facebook seems not to have gotten the memo. Turns out Pandora does not work outside the US. And a lot of video content on YouTube is also not available. I guess the Germans are coming down a lot harder on copyright stuff, or maybe the companies have just figured out better ways to block it here.

Monday brought the beginning of the rehearsal process. The rehearsal space is in yet another part of town (this time all the way on the northern edge of the city), and was also built brand new this year. The rehearsal space however, is not going anywhere at the end of this season. Its a keeper. And it should go without saying by now, that it is huge, luxurious and completely state-of-the-art. There are six rehearsal halls, one of which is also used as a performance space (bringing the total number of performance spaces for this theater to five. In three separate districts of the city). The place is simply massive.

For Danton's Death, we are situated in Probebühne 1 (rehearsal hall 1), which is where our rehearsals will take place until we move into the theater in late February. As we began this process last week, I assumed the first two weeks would be tablework. Sitting around the table, reading the play, talking about the play, reading the play some more, talking some more. We are at the top of an eight week rehearsal process, which is something like triple the amount of time that we usually rehearse in the states. So one would figure it would be a while before anything really interesting happened.

Wrong. WRONG!! Oh how wrong you would be!

We started off the Konzeptionsprobe (conceptual rehearsal) with a table read, yes. And the whole design team was present, as well as the artistic director and dramaturgs and even an acting class from the Stuttgart Acting School that had come to watch the first rehearsal.

But then, after our director Nuran had talked about his concept and we heard the play read out loud, all those extraneous folks left and the fun began. Instead of continuing with table work, Nuran had the sound designer throw on some atmospheric music ('This is the End', The Doors), the lighting designer dimmed everything to a soft glow with lots of shadows, and the video designer put a live camera on stage that the actors could play with. And then, the actors began to improvise while the prompter shouted their text to them and they just started playing within the atmosphere created. Nuran would bounce around the entire time, shouting direction, sometimes whispering, sometimes jumping up on a table and playing with the actors. This went on for a couple of hours, and continued to be the norm for the rest of the week. We come in each day, talk about the scene that Nuran wants to work on, then approximate it with lights/sound/video/costumes and the actors just start trying stuff out.

Its been the most exciting, challenging, crazy, wild, interesting, mind-blowing start to a rehearsal process I've ever had. Ever. Like, in my entire life. SO exciting!

I have so many more stories to tell, but that will have to do for now. Tune in next week for a more elaborate discussion of the rehearsal process, stories of Brian the action-cameraman, and spontaneous blowpipe construction. These and more coming at you very soon.

Till then, I'm rehearsing,


"If you don't go, you'll never know."

-Robert DeNiro