THOMAS OSTERMEIER (1968) IS ONE OF GERMANY'S FOREMOST DIRECTORS AND HAS BEEN A RESIDENT DIRECTOR AT THE SCHAUBÜHNE IN BERLIN SINCE 1999. HE IS FASCINATED BY THE IMPOSSIBILITY OF OPERATING OUTSIDE THE/ANY SYSTEM.
BUSH MOUKARZEL (1983) IS A THEATRE DIRECTOR FOR IRISH COMPANY DEAD CENTRE AND (SOMETIME) ACTOR.
IN EARLY 2017, THOMAS DIRECTED BUSH IN THE ROLE OF THE DIRECTOR IN RETURNING TO REIMS. THIS IS OSTERMEIER’S LATEST WORK, A RESPONSE TO THE ELECTION OF DONALD TRUMP AND THE RISE OF THE RIGHT, AND AN ADAPTATION OF DIDIER ERIBON’S 2013 MEMOIR OF THE SAME NAME THAT LOOKS AT SEXUALITY, REPRESSION AND THE ROLE OF CLASS CONSCIOUSNESS IN SHAPING IDENTITY.
HERE, THOMAS AND BUSH DISCUSS THE CRISIS OF CONFIDENCE IN CONTEMPORARY THEATRE, THE POSSIBILITY OF PUNK AND THE CURSE OF AUTHENTICITY.
Thomas: What I do feel more and more is that that to get a good result you have to involve the actors as much as possible in the process. If you impose things on them it will always feel empty and they just fulfill something and I do believe… when I talk to Josef Bierbichler, who’s probably the best actor of his generation, he’s 65 now, a great anarchist, great leftist, great writer. I’ve done many plays with him, Death in Venice, he played Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof … he told me, and I understand what he’s saying, “You know Thomas, the director was invented at the end of the nineteenth century, so it’s a very young profession. And what happened after this profession had existed for a while was that actors stopped thinking, they left it to the director. He was thinking for them, about the intellectual impact, the aesthetics, about how to tell the story.” So what he’s saying is that thought was put into the hands of the director. And he says you can see this in all theatre and that makes it terrible. And in order to overcome this, you have to bring the director back on stage. When the profession of director was invented, it was one of the actors being sent out to sit in the audience and tell the others whether they were in the light or not. So now you have to bring the director back on stage, to bring back thought and intellectual reflection and abandon directors.
B: When you say ‘bring back on stage’, you don’t literally mean it… because in my shows, I’m taking that literally, but you’re not.
T: Maybe this is why I like so much what you do. My point is really, how do I make actors engage.It doesn’t mean you have to have this naturalistic tone.You can be very exaggerated if you know why, or farcical or grotesque, if you know why. But a lot of acting, especially in Germany is happening like “Tell me what to do and I will do it. Anyway, it’s not a big role and I’m waiting for…” – again, I’m quoting my actor friend, when he says: “In Germany, there are two kinds of actors: sone is waiting for the call of a movie casting director at home, the other is waiting for the call of a movie casting director in an ensemble theatre group”. Which means that the spirit of most of the German theatre companies is completely fucked up – there’s no longer any true spirit of why we are together as an ensemble, what do we want to communicate, why are we making theatre…
B: But in defense of this idea of not thinking as an actor, just for the sake of the discussion, I think there’s a cliché that a really intelligent person can’t make a good actor because they are too analytical about what they might be doing within a scene and they know too much or want to know too much, whereas the really emotional, instinctive actor, in that literal sense the ‘stupid’ actor, they might be more effective because they’re more rooted in the problems and projects of the character rather than the event. Do you think there is a sense where actors shouldn’t be concerned too much with the show?
T: I’m not saying they shouldn’t be concerned with the show. I’m more saying they should be concerned with truth on two levels. The truth of an author in the sense of the Word ‘auteur’, which comes from a Latin word auctor, which is the one who’s at the origin of a project, the source of a project. So what I’m trying to find is the truth of an actor, you might call it intellectual truth, who understands the origin of the work. Why would a writer sit down and write a play? This is the first source of inspiration, or the first source of a need to do something on a blank page. This is very important, I do believe, to go on stage. To understand what was the first idea or the first emotional impulse. So this truth I try to find or an actor should find.And the other one is the emotional truth, what you’re talking about in terms of what the actor should feel. I think it’s a very European thing to make this distinction between thought and feeling – I think they can go together or have to go together. One reason why we’re having this discussion is because it’s very difficult to feel, or pretend to feel, on stage, so all the methods in acting are more or less concerned with this. While for example, looking at our show [Returning to Reims], if I was talking to you like “You know Bush in this moment where you really get angry, you should get really angry”. It’s stupid. As long as you kind of live the given circumstances of the show and of the thought and of the action developing, you are naturally …
B: … in the feeling.
T: … in the feeling. And I think that’s how it should be. And you should not be concerned … when an actor thinks ‘Ah fuck, I’m not feeling enough or I’m not enough in the emotion’ and the director says ‘You’re not enough in the emotion’, it’s over.
< I think it's a very european thing to make this distinction between thought and feeling - I think they can go together. Or have to go together >
B: I’ve been in situations in life where you think “I’m not feeling the right thing here”– it’s bad acting, in life. So acting as a philosophy of living– am I acting properly here? So for example, at my father’s funeral, I was thinking “I’m not crying enough here. I’m not giving the audience what they want to see, they all think I’ve no feelings and maybe I don’t, and what is my emotional truth here…”
T: But this is the wrong and the right concept at the same time, because what you’re describing is very beautiful and actually the point about all my thinking about theatre. Because what you’re describing is not giving the audience around you the feeling that you loved him enough. So all your emotion was not about you, it was about them. You were trying to put on the mask of the grieving child. As long as you understand that all our being in a social world is about adopting different roles and masks to adapt to situations so you fulfill the expectations of the people around you, and you even develop a playfulness with that, you’re fine. I think it gets very difficult when you are cursed with, and this is one of the major curses of our times, authenticity. And that can kill you. If you’re thinking, when you really get into this feeling of “I’m not mourning, not crying enough”, and then you start dealing with yourself, it can end in a mental asylum. Because you put too much pressure on yourself. I think it was you who said “There is no I without a social world…”
B: Yeah, when we were talking about the Sartre quote. But I was also talking about this with Andrew Haydon [theatre critic] last night because of this Colm Tóibín article about Eribon, about the experience of going from a small town to the city and how the voice changes a lot of the time.Suddenly someone has this cosmopolitan accent and then you hear them on the phone to their family and they have this other, thick regional accent and you question that person. “You’re very inauthentic – you perform yourself.” And ColmTóibín reflects in this article on people who haven’t had to adapt – and that’s the real problem, to not understand the job of social adaptation and to read it instead as inauthenticity, as opposed to it being the fragmentary social situation.
T: Did you have to adapt? B: No, and I was reflecting on this last night as something I misunderstood. Initially I was naive and I thought my consistency of accent or whatever, I took pride in that, like “I’m being clear and authentic”. But then I thought “No, you haven’t been forced into a circumstance where you have to fragment and perform yourself”. It’s privilege, this so called authentic self, it’s actually a fantasy.
< I've been in situations in life where you think I'm not feeling the right thing here – it's bad acting, in life >
T: First of all, I would 100% agree it's privilege. And I would even say you can tell with people, when they have this gift that they never in their life had a moment where their neck was broken, so to say. Because that gives them much more confidence in themselves, in their appearance, in the way they interact with others. And this is very helpful, this is another issue for the reproduction of dominant classes. Say, with a guy like Eric Ball, we can feel all the… horror of the social violence. He'd never be able to run a political party or to give a speech in front of, I don't know, 10,000 people in a rally. While, when you look at Eddie Redmayne and all his appearances on talk shows, you can feel the class that was carrying him. And because the class, family, the school, the institutions that carried him, his whole talent for public speech, humour, entertainment –
B: – confidence …
T: – confidence… could blossom. And that's another reason why working class kids have difficulties in drama schools. Not only can they not afford it, but also, their social self is so insecure that it's not… possible for them to go on stage. B: I must say, that sense of confidence that is instilled through privilege, which I got in my life, it sort of disgusts me. There's no question for me that I'm sitting with you here now as a result of a sort of confidence that you can have. Now, the only relationship I have with it is, let's say, disgust.
T: Disgust with what?
B: With the sense that… this confidence opens doors, carries you through social situations… T: Yes… B: … and it's perceived often as, like you said, as that person being confident, rather than as social conditioning. That's a result of privilege. That's what I mean by disgust because… T: No, but ... No, there's no reason to be disgusted about that, because every person, every child should be brought up like you. B: No, of course, but I mean ... T: But what we should have to change is that there is a marginalised underprivileged class that did not have this ... B: I mean in a moment, in a historical moment of inequality, that's where I perceive this disgust. Not in itself, it should be that everybody has it, but I mean the resulting phrase you use is: “I deserve this” or “I should be here”. And the antithesis of that is “I shouldn't be here”.I know from a lot of working class friends of mine, even when they achieve things, there's a sense of, “I shouldn't have this”. T: It's my feeling. It's my constant feeling. My constant feeling is, I shouldn't be here… B: I will be found out.
< It’s privilege, this so called authentic self, it’s actually a fantasy >
T: I will be found out, I will be excluded, I will be laughed at. People will ehh... and it happened. It happened. It just recently happened, actually, with Stéphane Lissner from the Paris Opera, the boss of the Paris Opera, because I asked him if I could shoot inside the opera house. He refused, because I turned him down to do an opera there. And I didn't understand why it wasn’t possible.And then, he replied to me, “Well that you don't understand why I cannot let you shoot, is another evidence or proof of your bad upbringing, and the bad education you received.”
B: What an incredible thing for somebody to say. T: So he was clearly pointing at… because he knew it out of interviews or out of I don't know what, he knew that I have not this bourgeois background like he has. B: It's intimating that you don't know the rules. T: I don't know the rules, yes, and I'm behaving ‘proletarian’, and I have a bad education, and I have a bad behaviour. So he was clearly saying “You're not part of this class, and you are an ‘arriviste’ in this class, and you don't know how to behave. I'm telling you this, and maybe I'm one of the few guys who is courageous enough to tell you.” B: And this anecdote began because you said, actually, you do feel ‘arriviste’ sometimes, or you do feel this… T: I do. B: And so I’m wondering, rather than just … of course it's a problem, it shouldn't be the case that anybody should feel that, but the fact that it is the case, do you see that sometimes as an opportunity … you can come into an institution, perhaps, like the theatrical world, and bring an outsider energy or something?
T: Yeah. When I did Shopping and Fucking, for example, one of my first works, my professor, Peter Kleinert, told me,“You know, the true quality of your work, Thomas, is the criminal energy it has." And now having this conversation, I start to understand what he was saying by this, that exactly what you were raising with your question, is the thought that because you arrived in this institution, and you still have this anger of humiliation, of this other background, you have another violent or criminal energy in your work. This is again also very depressing, because this is what cultural industry and the consumer industry immediately picks up and exploits. B: And commodifies it, of course. T: Exploits it. B: “Come to an Ostermeier show for your hit of punk, your punk boys… within a bourgeois punk hit”. T: Right. Again, it exploits the energy. B: Yeah, and pacifies it in that moment. T: It pacifies it as another result, but first, it exploits it, because… it has a true power, it has a true energy, a true force. Because if they were clever enough, but I don't think that they are that deep in the analyses, but maybe they feel it, that the few who made their way into this privileged class, they really have to be strong, they have to be much stronger than the ones who were born in this privileged class. They're saying “Aah, they are strong, punk band, yeah, cool. Sid Vicious, Johnny Rotten, cool, this guy, wow, he made it. He must be strong. We like his energy, we like his face, we like his working class face, we like the fact that he does not have teeth, we like the fact that he speaks in a rude accent, we like the fact that he is violent, that he's drinking.We like it.We like it because it gives us chivalry.”
B: But presumably you feel, and we'll wrap it up soon because you probably have to go, but back into the question then of directing and what it's for.What I suppose you obviously do believe is it's worth sticking in the system, staying in the system and directing plays in theatres, which is always within a certain structure and speaking in a certain part of culture. And the energy with all the risks that you just said, about the energy being pacified or commodified ... T: I was outside the system for a while. People do tend to forget this, I was outside the system. I was doing off-theatre in Berlin before I went to drama school. And while I was going to drama school, my first show I did in a squatted house with friends, and it was completely off-theatre. It created a big sensation [laughs]. I know how it is to be outside the system. B: I suppose an aesthetic of… I always think the reason why, to put it crassly, the question of realism and formalism exists, within work, is because I always thought the danger of recognisability is that if the world looks like itself to the people who watch it, it becomes… no matter what you're saying, it becomes a way of reaffirming the world. So unrecognisability, and let's use Castellucci as an example, to go and seize the world as absolutely an alien universe, and there is no way you can access it, becomes a critique perhaps of the world in its way. Whereas I found with working with you, this great passion for the world as we know it and recognise it, from a psychological point of view– forget the questions of staging. But to find and chase the truth of psychological situations…
T: Of the moment B: … there’s that risk, let's call it a type of realism. It risks reminding the world of itself and reassuring it. Whatever you're showing.
< We like his energy, we like his face, we like his working class face, we like the fact that he speaks in a rude accent, we like the fact that he is violent, that he's drinking. We like it. We like it because it gives us chivalry >
T: I never thought about it that way. I'm just telling you, this is the way I want to work at the moment. There's no philosophical background to this. Like, you are having these ideas about formalism, naturalism, and you have to show that you're alienated from the world. I never had these thoughts. I simply do what feels right for me, and what I adore, and what I can be passionate about, and where I can put all my love. At the moment, I could not imagine myself telling the guy, “And when you go saying this sentence, you do this, and then you turn around and go here, and take care of your hand, because otherwise it's not in the light”. I wouldn't feel at ease. I would hate it. What I would especially not feel at ease with would be… Maybe you experienced it, I like to have conversations with my performers about what we want to tell. What's the point here. What is your point, what do you want to add to the show, to the thoughts on the universe, and so on.And this is for me, an incredible pleasure. To see how things develop, to see how your dialogues develop, to see your humour. This is my pleasure.
B: I must say for the record as well, it's what I was saying to you last night, what I have found the great pleasure about being directed in the show by you, was this direction you gave: "Say anything, say different words, keep your colleagues surprised and alive”.Beyond that being a true piece of direction, because you genuinely keep thinking and keep the conversation real and fresh, the great effect this had is that at every moment , I'm thinking, as I would be in a real conversation, “What should I say now, should I interrupt them, should I…” Because I know it's real and not just a tactic, a superficial tactic to flatter an actor so they feel they're part of the project, that I genuinely do have permission, but also because I don't necessarily want to disrupt rhythms that we’ve found to be effective. I've never been on stage and been thinking in the way that I have in this show. And that’s… I’m looking forward, because that's going to have a great effect on me and my work as a director. I know that.
T: But you know, or maybe you don't, when I started as a director, I was 100% formalist. The work I did at the beginning, the first years, every gesture, every movement was fixed.
B: So you did engage in those debates then, at the beginning, like an argument, “Formalism is what we have…”, because-
T: No, there was no ... That was not coming out of debate, it was ...
B: But just an instinct for them.
T: ...taste. I loved it. I hated naturalistic theatre, it was so fucking boring, I didn't want to see it, and I wanted theatre to be as… extraordinary as circus. I wanted to see my actors flying, I wanted to have physical experiences while watching physical theatre. That was my point. I did a lot of shows like that. Very choreographed, like you said yesterday…
T: Ballet. That was 100% how I did it. [Thomas on the phone, in German. We can barely hear the voice at the other end of the phone. Bush is silent].
B: [After a while, sadly and quietly] Are you going to go?