Artistic License

castorfThis article appeared in my feed today. It recounts the conflict between the estate of the inimitable Berthold Brecht (administered by his daughter, I believe) and a German theater director well-known for his extremely liberal interpretations of the plays he directs. Brecht’s estate is known to be rather particular about the integrity of his plays as written, and Frank Castorf is known to very particularly challenge both the author and audience with his “scandalous” interpretations.

This article isn’t really going to be about Castorf’s production or the man himself. For one, I’m not familiar with the man’s work. For two, I don’t see myself making it over to Germany anytime soon. For three, I don’t speak German. For four, I’ve only this article and a few other articles that can be found online to inform me, and these are necessarily going to be less than the whole story – far less.

Instead, it will be about the artistic questions the article raises for this particular writer and sometime director.

It is very interesting to me in a couple of ways. One, of course, is the challenge to copyright and the continual conversation about the sensibility and scope of copyright, which I’m also not getting into here.

The second is in my own philosophy about directing.

Not that I need to, but I should clarify – nobody on the Great White Way is banging on my door and begging me to direct the next big thing, and most of the plays I’ve directed have been of lighter fare (though even those I take seriously – more on that later.)

When I direct a show, I always feel my responsibility is to get as close as I can to the version of the truth the author was trying to convey. And I’m not sure I feel this only as a responsibility, but also as a personal urge. I want to know what the playwright knew when or she wrote. I can’t find that out by myself. I need to collaborate with actors, a stage manager, technicians, crew, everyone, to create the environment where the characters come to life through honest digging and soul-searching.

My other priority is to draw out the actor and encourage them to find the most realistically human version of their character as possible. What truth does this or that character know? What truth are they trying to find?

And what is truth anyway?

In my little mind, and to my emotional center, I feel I can’t achieve these aims by fucking with the writer’s words. I’m known for being a stickler for the words that were written. I won’t allow an actor to change words – not even swear words. If the character says “fuck,” it’s because that character said “fuck” at that time in the author’s version of reality. If the actor can’t bring themselves to say “fuck,” then clearly I’ve made a mistake and need to find another actor.

If an actor finds a line or a phrase hard to say honestly, I think it usually has more to do with the actor not finding the character’s real emotional state, not finding the honest heart from which the words were spoken/written. I usually challenge my actors to search and search. Every now and then it might drive them nuts, but all the actors I’ve worked with, even in light comedies or murder mysteries, are extremely thoughtful, sensitive people, who already know they haven’t found that honest spot, who already know how wooden that line sounds, and without any input from me they are looking for it. Then my job becomes to help them to search, to hold the flashlight while they dig. Sometimes that means asking them questions about the character’s heart and motivation. Sometimes that means just shutting up and letting them work through it for awhile. As a last resort, I might go ahead and suggest what I think they’re missing about the character, but only with that actor’s permission. I think a director can really derail an honest actor by putting too much of our own thoughts into the actor’s archaeology, especially early on.

Of course, the writer bears an enormous responsibility to be honest and accurate in the first place, to know his or her characters, to transcribe as much of the truth as they can possibly excavate. When I’m writing, my first instinct is to shy away from the harsh light of day with my characters. I protect them out of the same urge by which I protect myself and shore up the version of myself I let other people see. Letting that veneer drop would be like getting caught masturbating.

Sure, we know everybody is human – everybody rubs one out now and then – but somehow we don’t want to be seen doing it.

The problem is that, as a writer, if we don’t let ourselves get caught, then character becomes caricature, and there’s nothing there for the actor to dig up and discover. The vulnerable heart of the man or woman being portrayed is not lost. It was never buried there in the first place.

Getting those things right in a play, from beginning to end, is daunting work. So when I receive the offering of human truth from a playwright, I can’t find a way that changing it around is going to help it at all. My job as a director isn’t to write this truth. It’s to shine a light on that truth. It’s inevitable that the light is going to shine at an angle that I think tells that truth in the way that I best understand, but if I do my job well, it won’t just be my understanding, but a social one, dug up and lit in such a way that many who come can find a lot of honest truth to appreciate and fulfill their inner person.

And I’ll say that even the lightest fare requires a deep honesty. Take a clever and rather lighthearted comedy, such as Ken Ludwig’s “Moon Over Buffalo.” I’ll cave in to conceit and relate a personal experience. I directed a small town production of that several years back. This show could have been easy to just toss together and let his writing be funny, the situations silly, all have a laugh, and go on our way. But the root of comedy is honest pain and social identification. Things are funny because, on some level, we can identify with the situation or idea that makes us laugh. I challenged my willing amateurs to make sure that their characters were as honest as if we were putting on something with the gravity of “Wit” or “The Rabbit Hole,” or even “The Laramie Project.” I challenged them to make sure the words said or the actions taken were the only thing that character could come up with, even if nobody was ever there to laugh.

Why would I torture them so? Because the writing might be funny on its own. But if the actor believes they’re transmitting the character’s heart, their inner person, then the line isn’t just funny, it’s true, and truth is an amplifier for funny, I believe.

At the end of Moon Over Buffalo, there’s a point where the main couple look like they’re going to split up. Charlotte has packed a suitcase and is on her way out the door. George pleads with her to stay, and it seems that pleading should fall on deaf ears, considering what cad he had been.

Yet she stays.

How easy would it have been for us to just chalk it up to comedy with a happy ending and leave it at that, everyone clapping and heading home after an evening of laughs?

I’m honestly rather proud we didn’t give into that temptation. No, instead the actress playing Charlotte and I both recognized how dishonest it seemed just walking through it. We struggled to figure out why the hell she would stay with this washed-up cheating tool. This was, after all, the final turning point of the play. Everyone had made an effort to play all the characters with emotions all over their sleeves. We couldn’t stop now. We wrangled and tried the scene different ways, and finally, after a lot of work, we found what I think was the truth, one that she and I both found and believed.

And I have to say, that final moment went from one last silly twist to a very honest and touching denouement. She didn’t change one word, not one. But we had found the emotional truth around why she stayed, and my actress believed that truth, and so when she stayed, we saw her do it with utmost honesty, and so the funny happy ending was amplified and became so satisfying.

I guess all of this sounds like I’m taking the piss out of Castorf. I’m not, truly. From what little I have learned, I would venture a guess that his methodology is to find truth that nobody else has discovered by tearing apart a play and reassembling it in a way that shows off a new truth, or perhaps his own truth. Perhaps he believes that the truth in a play that everyone else takes for granted is a lie, and he’s going to get underneath it. Perhaps he believes that we only see part of the truth and that he peels off more layers to get at the raw center of it. More likely he does it for reasons far deeper than these and to which I’d have a hard time ever relating.

Whatever the case, those are, to me, very valid artistic aims, at least as valid as mine, probably more so, because I do believe people are calling him up to direct plays and the like.

As theater people – playwrights, directors, actors, crew, we are seeking truth: truth about ourselves, truth about other people, truth about the world and the universe in which we live, truth about everything.

How would I like to see this turn out for Castorf? In all honesty, I hope the estate lets him do what he will. Who doesn’t recognize Brecht when they see it anymore? His work stands alone and speaks for itself. There is no danger that anybody will mistake Castorf’s version of Brecht for Brecht in totality.

I would hope the estate would give all of us theater people credit for being at least that clever.

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