People, crowds, audience, community?

Since my computer died, which – I swear to God – will have been my last PC, I’ve had several opportunities to  trundle up to the Grand Apple store in  Grand Central.

Every time I climb up the steps, I turn around and pause to look at the masses of people down below. That said, “masses” is not the right word at all.  Mass, singular, isn’t correct either. Even on a busy day, the many people are clustered in different formations. They are either standing still in a line, as in front of the various ticketing stalls, or they are in smaller groups around the central clock. Some are waiting to meet up, some are simply standing in the middle of the hall, looking up at the magnificent ceiling, hopelessly snapping pictures with their phones at the beauty up high, or they stare frowning into maps or books or phones. Around these smaller configurations you have the milling crowd: streams coming in and going out from all sides, from above and below, the dining concourse.

I watched this going on for some time, etching the dynamic into my mind for the next time I have to stage a complex crowd scene.  I’ll need at least four subsets of different movement or standing patterns to make it look convincing, aka “real”. That was a revelation.

We tend to think in binary terms: people are either singular, individual, and have one mindset  – also politically speaking -, and then we have the mass, which behaves in a completely different way. But unless there is a strong galvanizing force, say an emergency, or in a more benevolent case a theatrical event, out of a large number of people, we need to “create” a unity out of little groups.  From the problem of creating on stage a convincing crowd, a logical next question for the theatre person is how to create a unified crowd out of disparate groups in the audience. What galvanizes viewers into becoming one? A charismatic  performance, a compelling story line, a striking visual? All these elements contribute to this, and as theatre makers we strive to make them all as arresting as possible for the attention to be focalized, but when it happens, it always feels like magic.

Are there tricks? Well, the savvy director/producer knows that if you have a small house you seat them together, as closeness enables the forming of a “company”. You try to generate an audience “ensemble” as much as you want to create that quality in your cast. A big aspect of the rehearsal process involves “creating an ensemble”, a trusting group of performers, who can play together, even if their characters rip each other to shreds. That same energy is desired in the audience.

As we seem to move apart as a society, I see more and more shows that immerse their audience in an experience – Sleep no more as a case in point- , or have the actors engage with the audience before the show, during intermission, eating and drinking together – The Seven Sicknesses – or even the experience people have who buy tickets for Wagner’s Ring Cycle at the Bayreuth festival in Germany. You can’t get tickets for each individual opera, you have to commit to the whole four-evening endeavor. And every night you have the same seat, and every night, therefore, you have the same neighbors. I’ve witnessed it over and over during my four years working there that people will inevitably connect. By the time the gods go down in Götterdämmerung, friendships (and hostilities) have formed in the audience, the production has been dissected between them while everybody has endured the same hard seats (acoustics be damned!),  and you experience something like the origins of theatre, sprung from religious ritual in Greece. Community. But community not as a starting point, but as an end point, an achievement of unity out of disparate elements. Like that crowd in Grand Central, which in small groups have their own agendas and stories. It’s an effort to come together, and not always pretty, be it in rehearsals, in the theatre with a sweaty neighbor, or in conflicts mundane and/or political. But it’s worth the effort, for when community happens, it’s a wonder, it’s communion.

10 Years ago today…

… I landed in New York City on an artist’s grant from the state of Liechtenstein. Pretty bad timing, since in 2002, one year after 9/11, the rest of the world was hightailing it out of here. Ouch. When I had applied for this particular grant, which allows working Liechtenstein artists to be sponsored for one year at a location of their choosing, as long as they make a convincing enough case for its ability to provide artistic growth, 9/11 had not happened yet, and nobody saw such a sea change coming to this town.

Katrin HandstandSo here I was. A break. A breaking away, rather. Not so much a smart career move, but a rupture in a path, that felt constraining in a strange way. It had been 8 years working as Assistant director and director at German opera houses, of which 5 were spent at the major “Städtische Bühnen Frankfurt“, where all heavyweights came to play if they felt progressive and adventurous.

It is the opera house where Hans Neuenfels singlehandedly kicked off the trend of “Regietheater” for Opera with Aida, with the heroine being the cleaning lady,  and the audience seeing itself mirrored. That was 1970. My generation had grown up with this thinking, of opera as a bourgeois art form, the self-confident expression of a growing middle class especially of the 19th century, and my generation was infused with the belief that it still had valid points to make about our lives,politics and emotions today. Not museum art, but a living, breathing thing, that could be shaken and stirred, because it is our cultural history, our cultural background and therefore also our cultural baggage. As a young director, who needs to find her own way, having such parents was a unique challenge. Disturbance had become the norm. What now? Seeking my own path then, still exploring it now.

The other side of the coin was that I am half American and half Liechtensteiner, but apart from family visits to Kansas and camp experiences, I had never actually lived in the US. I was at that point unencumbered by house or kids, and it felt like the last moment to reinvent my world. I’d fallen in love with NYC back in the 80s, pre-Giuliani, and living here, had since then been a dream. Time to make it happen.

Jump to now, 10 years later. Hindsight is 20/20 vision, and it is very tempting to create a narrative where one thing leads organically to another. But we know well that life is not that way. Looking back I can say that coming to NYC and the US opera/theatre world led me away from “just” directing opera and branching out into straight theatre.

Whereas generally speaking the theatre world is much more conservative in the US, but in one aspect it’s more open. Opera directors will be trusted to direct plays. In Germany that would have hardly been possible, and I remember vividly the Artistic Director of the “Frankfurter Schauspielhaus” lecture me on the  vast difference between singers and actors, and that actors are sooo demanding and really daaaangerous. Well, yes, they are, but hey, opera singers have fangs too! Now, after directing a number of either genre I can say that in the zoo of the performing arts, they are different species, but both are mammals. That said, they need different things from a director, but the basic tenets are the same.

After years in subsidized theatre, I learned again about shoestring theatre, and I am now happy to be able to work at both ends of the spectrum.

It’s nice to play with big lights on a big stage, but the challenge to make something work with hardly any resources, challenges one’s ingenuity and resourcefulness. I like living in a big world, where I don’t sit pretty in one box that I know well, but that I am aware of, if not familiar with boxes of many different sizes and colors. Doing Danton’s Death on a small stage in a 60 seat house with 25 actors playing 45 roles, and a ladder for a set, then going to a medieval castle in Switzerland and create a multi-media fractured take on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in a team of altogether 60 artists, then come to New Orleans for Richard Strauss’ Salome is the kind of creative seesaw I enjoy. I like the disparity, the richness of variety, and changing worlds in the first place opened me up to that.

Writing and producing were the next frontiers, that would have most likely remained untapped if I had stayed in Germany. After years in the trenches as Assistant Director, my early forays into writing just stopped, but once in New York I had the chance to write program essays for San Francisco Opera. Writing, but writing now in my second first language. Editors are your friend there, and friends were my friends, as they tore my first and second drafts to shreds, letting me know how Germanic my sentence structure still was.

Producing was another big step. A lot of the organizational aspects I was familiar with from my years as an assistant in a big theatre, but the world seen through a producer’s eye is remarkably different than through a director’s or a writer’s. Or any purely creative worker in the garden of theatrical delights. Looking at something with a view to numbers, target audiences, shelf life, marketability, taught me a lot.  That said, I also learned that I’ll most likely remain a “self-producing artist”, which is the lowest rung on the producing ladder. I just am too narcissistic/egotistical/lazy to want to work so hard for other people’s work – kudos to those who do!

In my personal life I’d say I just did a little bit of growing up. I moved to Brooklyn, which was huge step, as in “I didn’t cross the ocean to do Borough!!!” , I got married, and now we have no kids but a cat and a dog. Yes, it’s a life.

And New York? I came here, marveling at the subtle differences between our cultures. They’re not so far apart, as they’re both Western, and New York is steeped in European roots, but mores and manners where I came from – Liechtenstein/Swietzerland/Austria/ and then Germany – are a bit different. Some things I now can explain easily to visitors: “How are you?” is not a question but a greeting, getting the check right after the table is cleared is not to throw you out (well, mostly not), but considered polite, and asking “What do you do?” is not an intrusive personal question to be ventured in a conversation that is going well, but is considered an opening gambit. I still have my accent that most people hear and remark on, but I learned not to bite people when they ask me where I’m from. I find the political world here mortifying, but I’ll will vote, since I’m a citizen, and my few experiences with the medical system led me to remain solid in my Swiss health insurance, even though it’s inconvenient and costly. But at least I understand it.

But, for better or for worse, I’m here now. It was not a career decision and I was happy with my Frankfurt boyfriend. It was rather a simple continuation of a back-and-forth that I’d established over the course of that one year. Every 2 months I’d be back in Europe, and pretty much remained mid-atlantic in feeling. And when Sept 5, 2003 came around, I wasn’t nearly finished with New York. Not done with me in New York. Not done with the New Yorkers. Or with the boroughs. And no, it wasn’t a great gig, or a new man. I just wasn’t done. And the funny thing is, 10 years later, I’m still not. My life’s roots are in Liechtenstein, my professional ones lie Frankfurt, but I am now at home in New York. Not the whole of the USA, mind you, but this particular city, with its unique energy and neurotic, ambitious, caustic, no-bullshit, generous, warm inhabitants. A familiar terrain with so much still to explore. I guess I’m a lifer. A toast!

After Seattle

The five-week run of Hayley Heaton’s The Man in the Newspaper Hat is over. We had our last show this past Saturday, December 17, did a swift strike and went out to drink. It was fitting that it happened that I drank four cranberry-vodkas, the same amount I downed after the opening. This time, however, I did eat along with the booze. Hey, it DOES make a difference!

What’s the fallout? Well, we got a lot of publicity, consistent audiences, reviews ranging from good to middling to very very strange, but then a talk-back session with audience responses that blew me away with their level of questions and insight. So go figure. Of course it’s still much too close for me to really make an accurate assessment of what it all means. So much work, passion, conviction, not only for me, but for everyone in the team. If I don’t have it, how can I expect anyone else to give themselves fully?

Which brings me to a more general subject: where does the inspirator inspire herself when the going gets rough? The obvious choice are loved-ones, friends and drink. Yes, that all works, though in a strange city, with one’s beloved a continent away, and drowning oneself in drink is not a good idea long-term, this really is an issue.  Often it’s not even so much about serious problems, but the general venting and lamenting, that we need to get out of our systems, so we can function for another day. Yes, yoga helps, yes, running helps. And in my case I found time and time again, that going into the Elliott Bay Bookstore, and browsing through books, relieved my mind from my individual trials and tribulations, as I let myself be carried into an imaginary world, or a subject matter I didn’t even know existed. Naturally this leads to buying too many books, which I certainly did bemoan the other day, when it came to packing them. However, there is a solace in the life of the mind, and I really don’t mean that in any uppity way. Just as a momentary escape hatch, when one’s system is overloaded, there is no one to talk to, and my ambition is not to end my days going to AA for the rest of my life.

Now it’s time to step away. First the holidays, a new start into a new year, and immersing myself once more into the world of Richard Strauss’ Salome.

I wish you all a great festive, pine-scented Happy Holidays, and a good slide (“an guata Rutsch!“) into the New Year,

Mazel Tov,


Run, Tech, Go!!

Big Leap!

I guess I went AWOL with my blogging as tech week approached, but now not only this has passed. We’ve had our reading event at Elliott Bay bookstore, a slew of run-thrus, tech,   opened The Man in the Newspaper Hat, and have lived thru the first weekend of shows, and have garnered a first review. How’s that for acceleration?!

Tech week drama

No matter how many productions I’ve helmed or been otherwise involved in, there always comes that inevitable moment when you think “It’s NEVER gonna work!!!”

Of course, after enough years, I do know that this moment will come, and I think I’m ready for it. I think I know kinda when it’s gonna occur. It could be the very first run-thru, the first stumble-thru at tech, the cue-to-cue, the first dress or even as late as the last dress, but it will be one of those. My estimate is based on the most recent experience, and I treat it like Thanksgiving or Xmas. It’s a fixed thing, I can prepare, I am ready.

But no, that’s NOT how it works. It’s not like Xmas at all, but – to stay in that skewed metaphor, rather like Easter. It’s a very movable feast. And unlike Easter, which you theoretically could calculate and not just rely on this year’s calendar to tell you, the meltdown rehearsal will ALWAYS trip you up. When it happens, I’m never ready.

This time it was actually a middle-of-the-road run with tech, but on the lighter side, no real new deals, when suddenly large chunks of line knowledge went completely kahooey. Aside from other technical, pragmatic issues of course. But from a state of affairs of being 85% there, the percentage dropped into the 60s. The beauty of this particular issue is, that as director you can do f… all about it. Except of course give the note “Learn your lines!” Really? Like the actors hadn’t noticed? And weren’t just as cross as you are?

Let me just say, I wasn’t exactly graceful, but to my excuse I have to add that my sound designer’s computer had just had its own meltdown and threatened to lose our complete soundscape just 48hrs. before opening. Well, it was recouped, but Nat had to pull two all-nighters to retrieve the files and to finish the work. No laughing matter.


Our dress rehearsal, one evening later, left me much relieved. I decided to keep it as an invited dress, as the cast had asked for audience reactions, and mine weren’t exactly reliable data as per how an uninitiated viewer might respond. Things were back on the up-and-up, Nat managed to bring in 80% of a soundscape, the lines made a reappearance, and a lot of things worked. Thank God not everything, that would have freaked me out all over again.

Then Thursday night, we open. Good show, the audience likes it. Of course everyone is still thinking way too hard about the next thing, it’s very studied, but I do know that only repeated performances will settle that. I remember the second cast’s lead in Wicked stating famously that for the first month of her run she wouldn’t be too harsh on herself, as she still needed to get the flow of things. Alas, we don’t have nearly that much time. We only have 14 performances, yet on the other hand, The Man is not a musical.

Hm, there’s a thought…

After the first weekend

Ok, we have our first review, and it’s positive. That’s good, and honestly, I don’t care that the lady never mentions my name. She calls the director “expert” and “intelligent”, likes the actors and our green set. Misha Berson from the Seattle Times gives us wonderful placement in an article about theater to see that’s not holiday-themed.

Now the struggle for audiences begin. Always hard, we continue to be out there with our cards, posters, and offer discounts. On the other side there’s rest. Yes, a bit of rest, a bit of relief from the pressure. Thanksgiving is here with the full Turkey, we have morereviewers coming in, so please keep your fingers crossed!!

“What thou lovest well remains,

The rest is dross.

What thou lovest well shall not be reft from thee

What thou lovest well is thy true heritage.”


Rough Cuts

Week 3 – first hilltop view

Somehow there’s comfort to be found in the fact if you’ve gotten thru your play once on its feet. Still pretty hobbly, and lots of stuff to be sorted, but it’s like the first time you’ve cut thru the jungle with your machete. I try not to do it too quickly, lest you make a wrong path, but there’s still a moment of relief once it’s done.

With “wrong” I mean a solution that “works”, but hasn’t fermented at all, is too easy, comfortable all around. Sometimes it’s a good thing, when something doesn’t fit right away, as it means that new paths are being created. We all have our comfort zones, directors and actors alike. And it’s a challenge for us all to recognize them and then move past that. It’s not pleasant, rather what a friend called AFGO – another fucking growth opportunity. But it’s what makes things worthwhile.

Publicity shoot

We also had our publicity shooting this week. Karen, our costumer, did her best to get a first take on our costumes ready for that night, and we ran two scenes for Randy’s friend Jim, the photographer. Since one producer told me I should absolutely make sure that there were pictures also of the actors with me the “in charge” director and producer, to build my brand, I put my self into a green top, popped in my contacts and added some lipstick. Then I told the photographer that I’d need something like that too.

Ah, the director shot!” Randy guffawed. Like I didn’t feel stupid enough already…

Anyhoo, I put on my stiff upper lip, and said yes, kinda, and Jim was nice enough to indulge me. Now here’s the rub.

I’m not terribly photogenic at the best of times, and it takes about a zillion shots of me, and a lot of “feel good” time to get me to a picture that is worth something. That evening wasn’t it. However, while I was standing next to David and Lisa, awkwardly clutching my notepad, deciding where to focus, David started talking to me. “I know this is really difficult, but let me ask you this…” and talked to me about something completely different. It worked. Out of the bunch there is one picture that I can really use for that particular purpose. I was very moved at the empathy. Most people don’t readily tap into the fact that I’m actually a bit squeamish when it comes to attention of that ilk. Yes, I can stand in front of a crowd and talk – dealing with choruses will teach you that – but when it comes to myself, I find that really hard. So, thank you, David. Now back to your narcissistic Ezra Pound persona!

The rehearsal tunnel

Week 2

There always inevitably comes the phase in the rehearsal period, sometime sooner, sometime later, when the first flush is gone. The phase of instant comprehension is no longer instant, the head now gets in the way of first instinct, as we all try to comprehend more deeply what is going on with these people, Ezra and Elizabeth. And what it is they want at any given moment. Or what they resist, or what their mood is on this particular visit, and why Ezra would like to talk to “Liz Bish” about a dream but not about his writing. And what happens to a writer when he cannot write? And why is lineage so damn important to poets? Hayley, for instance, really doesn’t like Rimbaud, but has a thing for Blaise Cendrars. Well, Elizabeth Bishop had a thing for Pound long after it was cool to have a thing for him at Vassar. She even bought a clavichord to be more… musical.

From Hayley I also know that poets are not at all polite about what they think about poets they’ve decided they don’t like. Poets sure are not lyrical, but whenever I confess that I’m on my third glass of something fermented, Hayley will tell me: “Finally you drink like a poet!”

So has Bishop stopped drinking for a while, that when one visit to Pound is particularly ornery, she comes home and unearths the bottle behind the books in her bookcase?

No.” Lisa says adamantly. The way she sees her Bishop, she hasn’t stop drinking.

Ok then. While some things become more labored – and I know it’s a necessary phase, I suppose I become more labored as well – the upside is that the actors slip more and more into a deeper knowledge of how their characters operate, like slowly slipping into a jacket. Taking your time, as the material is so wonderful and the fit so intricate.

This does feel like doing Shakespeare.” Lisa said once, while we were working on a monologue. And I assume Hayley wouldn’t object, as she has Pound say that Shakespeare was “one of the few good English poets, there’s fuck all after that.”

Do directors have lineage? Certainly, if they’ve come up through a straight line of assisting one big guy/gal in the business. In the German theatre world I can tell if someone’s been a Neuenfels assistant, or Konwitschny’s, or Ruth Berghaus’ (though those get on a bit), and it usually annoys me, as the original is so much more powerful. Since that was not my passage, I guess I’m a jumble of influences. Rather than following one director from job to job, I was assistant director at a theatre, the Opera of Frankfurt, and it was the directors that came and went. So I got to work with quite a grab bag of styles, different ways of working, of communicating, and since I’d graduated by then, I didn’t latch on to a mentor. I picked and chose what inspired me. Some of the directors I admired most I could take hardly anything, because what they did was so different to my way of thinking. Wittgenstein wrote once that one’s philosophy depended on one’s character, and I do strongly believe, as a director you can’t really help the way you direct. Sure, you can increase your knowledge, add to your technique, improve your communication skills and bag of tricks, along the way hopefully getting rid of what REALLY doesn’t work, but in the end – you are how you direct. There’s humility in that. But also pride. For the reverse is also true. I can’t do what they do, and they can’t do what I do. On a good day, that’s real comfort.

After Week 1

Space A to B and Back Again

When I was planning rehearsals, a fairly academic endeavor happening weeks before the actual start of anything, I insisted on having regular slots at our performance space, the Odd Duck studio, even though the rental was the most expensive of any of the other spaces and parking pretty awful.  Stone Soup Theatre, our main other space, is free to us and parking is free AND easy. The director in me had to wrestle the money-conscious producer into the ground, all the while shouting:


Not only for a reality check before tech, lest you have an experience like: “Oh, what looked awesome at Stone Soup really doesn’t work at all at Odd Duck, and let’s restage an entire scene now three days before opening!” Even more important, the “real” performance space will inspire you to try site-specific things you wouldn’t thought of at the rehearsal space. And it’s worth exploring because, well, you’ll actually be DOING it all there.

Now that I’ve tested this theory, after working at SS for two days and then taking Scene 1 and 2 to OD, I can attest that, yes, it’s worth every penny. However close your rehearsal space is to the real thing, it’s just not the same, and you do, do, do need that real experience. Nevermind that we’d just spent two days at OD, reading the script, sitting down. Memory is treacherous that way.

OD is arguably even colder than SS, and during the last run of Scene 2 I thought my teeth were louder than the actors. SS is also a generous space to be in, as their work lights are brighter, clearer, and therefore more conducive to making what is happening look better. The work lights at OD are murky and flat against black. It’s very tiring, but has one real advantage: Boy, does it not flatter! If something kinda works in that light, chances are it’s pretty damn good.

Wer nichts sieht, hört auch nichts.“ (“Who doesn’t see, doesn’t hear either“) Says my friend and set designer Verena in Frankfurt, who had me back up her insistence, when we were rehearsing Manfred Trojahn’s opera Enrico, to drape the rehearsal sets (yup, the good ole days) in white instead of leaving them black. She knew the conductor would stop giving me a hard time about the singers being too far upstage. It worked. Incredible, how our senses do not operate in isolation but are connected. And since for most of us vision is primary, what we see is what we hear, what we feel.

In this case, OD’s work lights are fine with me, I shouldn’t be flattered.


On Thursday set designer Shimon and I went to scout for paper, furniture, recording equipment, typewriters, globes. We found the paper roll that was right, but Deluxe Junk was closed. The hardest seems to be – surprise, surprise – the portable recording equipment from the 1940s. Since Shimon really wants to paint the stage – grayish white for Pound’s space, another color for Bishop’s space, and we’ll have to return the space back to black, that already puts a goodly dent into our budget. Then the calligraphy wall will be an expense, and it seems to me that the furniture will have to be very inexpensive indeed. Which is fine, as the set-up of Pound’s space will be painted anyway, so it don’t have to be pretty to begin with. Shimon left me at one of the vintage stores rifling thru 2$ CDs for the car, as I find it hard to deal with the ongoing radio chatter on my commute to and from Bellevue. “I didn’t think I’d leave you doing that!” he said with a note of surprise. Disdain? No, but I guess he thought I was more high-brow than CD rummaging. Ah, another illusion shot!

Well, here’s the selection I made off with: Liz Phair, Gregorian chants, Suzanne Vega, the Cranberries, Mozart symphonies 40&41, Stevie Nicks. I’ve yet to listen to the Gregorian chants, but I thought I could use them as meditation music, as an antidote to road rage, as a source for music for future projects, to drown out Fox News… it made me think of my mother returning from the Thrift store: “Look what I got! I have no idea what it is, but it was only 3 francs!”

From the table on our feet

The Day off.

Having a day off after an intense work weekend is a blessing. For a moment the process is suspended, allowing me time to assess what has happened. Like after a car crash, you climb out and count your bones. In a good way.

I also sense acutely, that it took my molecules three days to reassemble after my flight from NYC. Funny, it takes them about six days after flying in from Zürich. So when Randy visits us at Stone Soup before the first rehearsal, I’d rather not imagine where his subatomic parts are floating, having just arrived to the Northwest from Slovenia. He seems happy to see that planning is entering reality, and we’re all pleased to see him. As if now that team is fully assembled.

On that free Monday – Columbus Day –  I also had lunch with one of my few local friends, and have come to formulate a thesis. (more…)

THE MAN IN THE NEWSPAPER HAT – the rehearsal blog experiment

Blogging about an ongoing rehearsal process is dangerous. How much can and should one reveal of what goes on behind closed doors without exposing too much, thereby damaging that important safe place, which rehearsals need to be. You can only find new things if you let yourself go, explore paths never tried, and allow yourself room for errors, awkwardness, vulnerability. So to write about just that and publish it, seems to defy exactly that purpose. A razor’s edge if you’re optimistic, death and destruction to the process, if you’re not.

Well, I’ll try to balance on that razor’s edge, hoping that comments will let me know if I succeed. I’m also opening this blog to all members of the creative team, hoping they’ll join me with their side of things.

First weekend.
Here I am finally in Seattle, to produce and direct Hayley Heaton’s The Man in the Newspaper Hat. Long thought-out, envisioned, planned, postponed, cast, scheduled, and  now – the first weekend around one long table in a theatrical space. The cast, Elizabeth Bishop, played by Lisa Keeton, Ezra Pound, by David S.Klein. Me, flying in from NYC. I know enough about Seattle that I don’t make too many stupid badweather jokes, but the temperature in both spaces is so friggin’ freezin’, that I happily chime in, when the locals start to complain. On Friday we dip into the script, getting our feet wet, and we start locating areas that call for time-consuming exploration.