About a month ago, I found myself in a large, brick-walled rehearsal room in Providence Rhode Island, high up under the eaves of a drafty old New England theater with an illustrious history that runs the gamut of innovation and good solid regional fare. I was sitting in on rehearsals of Jedermann (or Everyman), Hugo Von Hoffsmanthal’s 1911 adaptation of the 15th-century English morality play The Summoning of Everyman, first performed in a production directed by Max Reinhardt to inaugurate the Salzburg Festival in 1920, on the coattails of World War I—a moment that embodied as convulsive a break with the past as any.
Written in rhyming couplets, Jedermann chronicles Everyman’s encounter with Death on the night this early-20th-century one-per-center is throwing a party for his lover, and the reckoning he faces when afflicted by a heart attack in his prime. Account books must be balanced. An overweighting of material possessions, all of which have been acquired without a glimmer of compunction for those who have considerably less, must be reconciled with a dearth of good works. A showdown between Mammon and Faith, between earthly and spiritual love, ensues.
One reason you may be unfamiliar with this Austrian classic is that the rights to the text are owned by the Salzburg Festival; the play is only ever performed there: Every July and August, a company of approximately 40 performers, including some of the more famous film and television actors in the German-speaking world, reenact this spectacle of excess and purification in Salzburg’s Domplatz, or Cathedral Square, the political and spiritual heart of the city, under an often-raging afternoon sun, before a fairy-tale backdrop of Salzburg’s Baroque spires framed by the Austrian Alps. The festival describes itself on its website as “‘an anti-modern product of modernity” (Georg Kreis, Das Festspiel, 1991).’” It has a long and “chequered” (sic) history of ambivalence when it comes to navigating the complicated relationship between tradition and innovation, the push and pull of a dark and devastating past and a future that often feels clouded the world over. Unlike previous summers, Cornelius Obonya, the actor playing the role of Everyman this year, is not a star. Yet Obonya, whose DNA has been encoded with the play (his grandfather, Attila Hörbinger, performed the title role from 1947 to 1951), is as much a part of its lineage as he represents a break with tradition. This year’s Jedermann, co-directed by Julian Crouch, an Englishman who lives in Brooklyn, and an American, Brian Mertes (neither of whom speak German) opens on July 20. Even without a “star” at its helm, the production, which promises to be a new take on a very old story that speaks directly to our times, is already sold out.
To prepare for the task of directing this Austrian classic in a language he does not speak, Mertes, who runs the graduate directing program at Brown-Trinity Rep (and, together with his wife, Melissa Kievman, is the mastermind behind Chekhov at Lake Lucille), spent six weeks or so exploring the text (translated into English by Salzburg Festival dramaturg David Tushingham) with a company of graduate actors. (I was there in the capacity of dramaturg/amenuensis—to help Mertes with an edit of the Salzburg text.) Mertes guided this young company through a generative process aimed at telling the story with nothing more than a handful of tables and chairs, a milk crate crammed full of plastic flowers, a collection of musical instruments, some breakout dance moments choreographed by longtime collaborator Jesse J. Perez (who is choreographing and performing in Salzburg), and the actors’ own clothes, layered with a few trash-bag and duck-tape gowns created by Olivera Gajic (another longtime Mertes collaborator, who is designing a very different set of costumes for Salzburg). The process culminated in a weekend of showings without lights, set, or sound—apart from the music the performers themselves made.
What happened in the room was raw and immediate. The intimacy of the space engendered a kind of encounter with the text that cannot be replicated within the expansive spaces of the Domplatz. This draft of the play felt akin to a ritual—a totally American, raggedy wild ride straddling the triangulated extremes of rock and roll, call and response, and a meditative minimalism. It was nothing like the production Mertes and Crouch (a director and designer renowned for his masks and puppets and works including Satyagraha and Shockheaded Peter) are dreaming up for Salzburg. Yet this bare-bones exploration, a kind of underground, almost counterculture Jedermann, tapped into the humanity and transformative properties at the play’s core. The actors swan-dove into the material—which, in true medieval tradition, is in many ways as flat and episodic as a Mexican retablo—engaging with it completely on their own terms, grappling with, and getting to the heart of one of the more profound—and in a sense, radical—questions a young actor can ask, that of presence in performance, or rather, the challenge of telling the story simply by listening, by being in the room. And Mertes came away from the process having delved deeply into the text, having discovered the rhythms and resonances of its structure, its shape, its porousness. But most of all, what Mertes managed to create while plumbing this medieval-cum-early-20th-century Austrian tradition of a play in a rehearsal hall in Providence, Rhode Island, was a space where anything was possible—a space in which the alchemy of innovation could, and did, occur.
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In poet J.D. McClatchy’s introduction to The Whole Difference, Selected Writings of Hugo Von Hofmannsthal, McClatchy points to one of those German words the likes of which, with all their complex shadings of meaning, we just don’t have in English: Verdwandlung, which Hofmannsthal has said best describes the heart of his own work. Verwandlung, writes McClatchy, is “transformation, a moment when nostalgia and necessity collide, when the past is turned inside out and becomes a future that both repudiates and resembles what it has replaced, when we forget in order to change, and change in order to remember.”
When we forget in order to change, and change in order to remember.
When I read these words during my week-long encounter with Hoffsmanthal in that rehearsal room five flights up in Providence, I felt a shiver of recognition. There is something about this phrase that gets at the bottom of what innovation—a slippery word that no doubt means something different to every artist—means to me, a writer who thinks three-dimensionally, whose work tends to blur boundaries of language, sound, and image and can be challenging to categorize.
Watching this group of 14 mostly American, mostly 20-somethings wrestling with the wonderfully clunky text—a kind of patchwork of a serendipitously strange, word-for-word translation combined with a more fluid but still extremely workaday rendition of Hoffmansthal’s masterful poetry manufactured solely for the purposes of the English-speaking production team’s mounting of the Salzburg production—I felt I was witnessing what Mertes calls “the hunt for a bear.” In this case, he was alluding not only to the dancing bear that in Salzburg will form the core of the image of Everyman’s transfiguration, but the beast in us all, the mythological figure known across cultures as Wildermann, or wild man. In Mertes and Crouch’s Salzburg Jedermann, the bear, or rather that which is the beast within us, learns to dance.
Now, imagine that our bear is that elusive condition or set of circumstances that allows for innovation to transpire. Back in the States, where the NEA’s budget for fiscal year 2014 is not even twice that of Salzburg’s 2013 festival (the population of the U.S. is currently hovering around the 314 million mark; Salzburg has 149,000 citizens), the odds for finding that bear, let alone teaching it to dance, are long. If the bear is the work we do in the room together for the sake of telling a story that elicits feeling, that leaves some sort of residue that provokes the audience, the participants in the event, to feel both dislocated, dislodged from what they know, and connected—to see, feel, know themselves and their world deeper and differently as a result of their encounter with what my collaborators and I have made, even if for just a glimmer—then I can say I have experienced the beast’s vanishing for weeks, months, even years at a time.
Nonetheless, I, like Mertes’ students, remain on the hunt. Not just for the bear within me—with its propensity to learn how to dance despite, or because of, its rough edges, its wildness, those wilder places of the imagination that live within us. I am on the hunt for the spaces in the landscape of our American Theater that allow for the elusive conditions in the room where innovation can occur—that lay the groundwork for a kind of combustion, a transfiguration, for something that has not yet happened, and yet at the same time happens over and over again.
We all know that these places are far and few between. That, like a clearing in the woods, or an almost-secret forgotten corner in say, NYC’s Chinatown, the occasions when we come across these openings, these sites of serendipitous layerings and convergence, can be, to say the least, random if not infrequent. And yet. I’ve been lucky enough to have encountered more than a few such spaces along the way—whether working with Mertes on other classic texts (The Greeks, and The Americans, based on the Wim Wenders/Sam Shepard screenplay for Paris, Texas) at Julliard or on Chekhov at Lake Lucille. Rehearsing with my Latitude 14 cohorts Christina Campanella, Mallory Catlett, and Peter Norrman below ground, in a basement recording studio at the back of a woodshop on the Lower East Side, or attempting to articulate anew the oldest story in the book, that of a soldier coming home from war, with composer Jeremy Howard Beck in a rehearsal space at Opera America.
It’s not news that the sorts of spaces equipped with the resources to allow innovation to flourish and grow can be found, more often than not, within the context of educational institutions. Or in Europe. Or that much of the more exciting work I’ve seen would not have evolved without a long gestation period. That the ineffable often happens when the pressures of production are lifted. Or when, at least for a brief space of time, an institution is willing to change up the framework, the parameters, and allow for a new paradigm altogether.
But when those spaces of innovation do come about, they give rise to perhaps an even bigger question: How to sustain this sort of context for making work? In a manner, say of Mnouchkine’s Théâtre du Soleil, or the Wooster Group or Elevator Repair Service. How do my Latitude 14 collaborators and I make our next new piece in the wake of the critical success of our multimedia music-theater work Red Fly/Blue Bottle—made possible within the context HARP, a developmental program at HERE Arts Center? Keeping the momentum going has, for many reasons I won’t go into here, and which would no doubt sound all too familiar to you, been challenging. So how to sustain the work itself? How to create a staying power in a climate that feels like it’s forever closing in and down on us?
Or more importantly, how to create structures that allow for what Mertes calls a dreaming into the story? An approach that I believe is within our power, no matter how limited our resources.
Over and over again I find that by bumping up against the great innovative works of the past, I am hurtled into sites of discovery. McClatchy continues:
“The best writers in a convulsive era may embody the chaos of their time or diagnose it. Hofmannsthal did neither. One can find violent hysteria and pathological intensity in, say, his play Elektra; one can find collage and disjunctive narration, and other tricks of modernism, elsewhere in his output. But Hofmannsthal did not care to be relevant. ‘In our time,’ he once said, ‘too much fuss is made about our time.’ He cared only to be timeless. He set out—the rarest and riskiest of ambitions—to be a classic, and all along was what might be called a radical traditionalist. The powerful imagination, he knew, is conservative. He saw his world as an arena where das Gleitende—a gliding, swirling—held sway, and he eventually construed his art as one that tried not to fix but to blend. One critic has rightly said he did so ‘not by imposing law, but by revealing the hidden forms in which the parts of life are bound to each other.’”
This sensation of a “gliding, swirling” rings completely true to me. It’s an apt description of our time, now. And yet. I’m on the hunt for a bear, despite the odds. I don’t seem to really have a choice in the matter. I keep forgetting in order to change, keep changing in order to remember, keep looking for the “hidden forms in which the parts of life are bound to each other” amidst the swirling.
STEPHANIE FLEISCHMANN is a playwright, librettist and lyricist whose texts serve as blueprints for intricate three-dimensional sonic and visual worlds. Her work has been performed internationally and across the U.S. A founding member of Latitude 14 (Red Fly/Blue Bottle), her plays include Eloise & Ray, Tally Ho, and The World Speed Carnival. She is an alumnus of New Dramatists, and has received grants from NYSCA, NYFA, and the NEA, among others. She is currently working on a new music-theater work with composer Christina Campanella, and, as a resident artist at American Lyric Theater, The Long Walk, an opera, with composer Jeremy Beck. She is published by Playscripts.com, and teaches playwriting at Skidmore College.