20 April 2010

Interview with Susan Wilson, Director, Dead Man's Cell Phone

Susan Wilson, Director of Dead Man's Cell Phone, on now until 8 May in Circa One, agreed to sit down with drama* on the waterfront for the first official blog entry, to talk about umbrellas, cell phones and the challenges of Sarah Ruhl.

Q. Tell us a bit about Dead Man’s Cell Phone - what is it about this play that made you want to direct it?

A. Dead Man’s Cell Phone is a play by Sarah Ruhl, who’s a very renowned and esteemed new American writer. She’s been nominated and shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize and she won the Suzanne Blackburn Award for The Clean House, which is a play we did last year. I have read all of Sarah’s plays and I think she is fantastic – she’s a fantastic voice of the 21st century. She’s taking a different view and a different ride through the theatre, and all of her work is just so challenging and so beautiful. She started out as a poet and her poetry shines through in all the work that she does, as does her extraordinary imagination and her extraordinary ability to create beautiful characters and beautiful stories. Her stories are quite out of the ordinary; they don’t follow the usual pattern of theatre that we’re used to. Dead Man’s Cell Phone is not a play set in a room, it’s not a play of naturalism or realism. It’s what you would call a fabulist or a surreal play, or the magic realism genre. It enables us to take a voyage, which Sarah creates so beautifully, from one dimension to another. This happens in The Clean House as well as in Dead Man’s Cell Phone. For me, it’s a great privilege to work with a fantastic team of actors and designers on a play like this at this stage.

Mel Dodge as Jean. Photo by Stephen A'Court.

Q. You directed The Clean House for Circa’s 2009 season. How do these two plays compare?

A. The Clean House is a play about death and cancer, which sounds very dark and black, but it’s a beautiful and very, very funny play. I think the thing that Sarah allows us to do is to laugh at death, and she takes us on a voyage through that and out the other side. The Clean House is a wonderful play about someone facing up to death and about a group of women who become friends as a result of this particular situation. It goes from a very ordinary setting – a very clean house – to a very fabulous setting in another part of the country, so it travels all over the place in its story telling. In the end, it comes back to where it started and by then the clean house is no longer clean, it is a really, really messy place. The play is a wonderful metaphor for how life is not about keeping things clean and tidy, but about how life can be a great big mess and for that is often better. Sarah looks at these very mundane situations – a woman who’s obsessed with cleaning her house or a woman who is very shy, like Jean in Dead Man’s Cell Phone. She works in the Holocaust Museum and she’s like an object from a museum. But both of these women get taken on a journey out of themselves. The woman gets taken out of the clean house and goes on a fabulous journey and the same thing happens to Jean. In Dead Man’s Cell Phone, she comes out of the Holocaust Museum and starts to live her life, and has fantastic adventures on the way. The portal for her is the cell phone, the fact that she picks up the cell phone from the dead man and it takes her on a journey. That’s another thing that I like about Sarah Ruhl’s plays: they’re quite mythic, they take you on a journey that is not to be expected in a normal dramatic situation and they do not obey the usual rules of theatre. She doesn’t really stick with the usual Freudian analysis of character, there’s no background to her characters – they just are. That’s very much like Shakespearean or Greek drama. So even though she’s a fabulous 21st century writer, she’s going back to another form of writing, which is really exciting. She’s drawing on different essences, she’s taking different styles and presenting them in the 21st century in a really exciting, theatrical way. There’s a great quote in which she explains this: “I try to interpret how people subjectively experience life. Everyone has a great horrible opera inside of them. I feel that my plays, in a way, are very old-fashioned, they’re pre-Freudian in the sense that the Greeks and Shakespeare worked with similar assumptions. Catharsis isn’t a wound being excavated from childhood.” All of that is very attractive to me – I find it very exciting. Having worked in the theatre all my life, I love a new form and I love the beauty of her writing.

Q. Were there any particular challenges in directing Dead Man’s Cell Phone?

A. All of us who worked on it just adored analysing the work and finding ways to make it work. It is very, very challenging because Sarah asks for magic things to happen on the stage. But I think it’s great for the audience to be taken on a magical journey in that way, so we enjoyed the challenge of working on it. And the cast has been fantastic and has worked really, really hard to achieve what she asks for.

One of the things is the design of the show; at the front of the script there is a little quotation about Edward Hopper, the American painter. So we were very aware of the fact that she wants to see those kinds of images on stage. They are images of people in places where you might expect people to be happy and cheerful, like cafés, but they’re on their own, they’re isolated, they’re solitary figures even though they might be sitting together at a bar. We looked at a lot of Edward Hopper’s paintings in order to achieve that in the design of the set and the costumes. In the script it says in a couple of places, “Jean sits, an Edward Hopper painting for five seconds,” so we tried to achieve that through lighting and atmosphere.

Sarah also asks for people to be moving from one dimension to another, and solving that with light and sound and choreography was a challenge. All of the designers worked together on that process. Paul Jenden is a really gifted choreographer and costume designer, and Ulli Briese and John Hodgkins’ light and set designs are first rate.

Edward Hopper, Automat, 1927.

Q. What was your favourite part of the play?

A. I think my favourite parts of the play are the parts where there’s a movement from one emotion to the other, and there are several of those throughout the play. Sarah Ruhl writes in this way. In The Clean House she had a direction which said, “Anna laughs and laughs. Anna collapses. Matilda kneels beside her. Matilda wails.” It’s this sense of laughing and laughing and then crying and crying, and all the characters in Dead Man’s Cell Phone do that. I think those moments are really fantastic because you work with the actors on how to achieve those moments of real emotion. Those moments are really interesting to work on and those are the scenes that I think take the audience to a different place.

Q. Do you have a favourite character?

A. I think Mrs. Gottlieb is a wonderful creation, I think she’s extraordinary. Sarah Ruhl describes her as a woman who wears fur indoors and her house smells of dried, cracked curtains. It’s great for an actor to get than kind of sense of where they should go. But all the characters have their little quirky things: Dwight’s love of stationery, Gordon’s extraordinary monologue about his love of sushi and lobster bisque. These are mundane things that create these magical journeys for these people.

Q. The production is so well cast. What was the process you used for casting?

A. It was quite complicated because I started out with quite a different cast in actual fact. Because of circumstances beyond their control, two of the people that I had originally had in the cast weren’t available and so I had to rethink casting. I think that was quite good because sometimes when you do that you think of another way through it and it becomes quite a creative process. It also becomes a creative process for those who are in it because they are being challenged by playing parts that they didn’t start out to play. I am very fortunate in terms of the fact that the people I ended up with were absolutely right and I was delighted with the fact that they all loved the play so much. They were so willing and so dedicated in terms of going on the journey of the play. I think we are very fortunate in Wellington with the calibre of actors that we have. I think we’ve got a fantastic team of people here in all the age ranges, particularly in the more mature area. You’ve got people like Donna Akersten, a fantastic actress who brings so much to everything that she does. But everyone is inspiring – when you have a good team of people everyone inspires everyone else. And that goes in terms of all the designers, too: light, set, sound and choreography. All of those things. There was just a fantastic energy.

Gavin Rutherford as Dwight and Mel Dodge as Jean. Photo by Stephen A'Court.

Q. It is such a visually striking production, simple yet complex. What were your intentions in terms of lighting/set/staging?

A. It’s great to have done The Clean House, because that was very challenging as well. The word that comes out all the time when you read about Sarah Ruhl is challenging, because she asks so much in terms of the look that she wants for the play or the magic realism moments which require you to focus with direct concentration on how you’re going to get from one place to another. It’s good to have worked with the same designers; with John on sets for both plays, with Ulli on the lighting design for both plays. The cast are all different but are a team of people who love the play. We didn’t come to the first rehearsal knowing exactly where we were going to end up, and so the designers sit in on rehearsals and contribute to solving all the problems as well. So we’re all working on the problem-solving aspects of the design. My intentions always are to honour the writer; that’s what you do when you’re the director, you try to honour what the writer’s intentions are. Sometimes that can be very challenging. Sarah Ruhl would probably be one of the most challenging writers that I’ve worked with but I love that.

Q. There is a recurring theme of rain/umbrellas – what are your thoughts about this?

A. That arose from working through the play – of course there is a lot of imagery of rain in the play to begin with. It’s a rainy day in the café; there’s a saying in the play that when you go out in the rain in the city, one umbrella can cover three bodies. It’s that image of solitary people with their cell phones and their umbrellas in the rain. And even though we have all of this amazing communication and we live in this fantastic digital world, people can be very, very alone. That’s how we arrived at those people in the rain. They take Jean on her journey, if you like, they literally pick her up and move her on her journey. And they move everyone else on to the next story that happens on the journey. The images of the people with the umbrellas and the cell phones should resonate – at one point in the script, Sarah Ruhl calls for what she calls the “Cell Phone Ballet” and she describes it as people with cell phones and umbrellas moving to the sound of thousands of cell phones coming through the universe.

The cast of Dead Man's Cell Phone. Photo by Stephen A'Court.

No comments:

Post a Comment