A whole new aesthetic world to explore.
Sébastien Dupouey on his video artworks for Thomas Ostermeier’s theatre.
From the book The Theatre of Thomas Ostermeier
by Peter M Boenisch & Thomas Ostermeier
When I met Thomas Ostermeier for the first time, I was sitting in a hotel room in Munich, unable to speak a single word of German. I was then a director of music videos and commercials in France and had never worked in theatre. At the time, in 2005, my wife, Nina Wetzel, who is a costume- and set designer and used to work mainly with German theatre-maker Christoph Schlingensief, created the costumes for Thomas’ production of Gerhart Hauptmann’s Before Sunrise at Kammerspiele München. In the course of the rehearsals, he suddenly decided he wanted to have some video animation, but this had not been planned, so Nina carefully mentioned my work. We met, I showed him the video for an American jazz singer I had just directed at the time, where I mixed photo, film, and animation, he liked it, and ever since then we have been making theatre together on a number of occasions. Theatre is a very peculiar place in this world of creativity, which I instantly liked back then, and which I still very much like today. Also, encountering Thomas and his precise realism, almost naturalism, offered me, and equally Nina who also came from a very different approach to theatre, a whole new world to explore.
Initially, in Before Sunrise, I was not at all involved in any live process with actors, but created cartoon-like animations that were used as transitions. The animation was based on a few excerpts from Naomi Klein’s No Logo, as Thomas wanted to connect the content of Hauptmann’s play with issues of globalisation and its effects. Soon after, he invited me to do Hedda Gabler with him at the Schaubühne, and Thomas helped me to feel at home, speaking French with me. I found this very interesting because language is so essential in theatre – and shifting between languages can offer a whole new perspective on a situation, on a character, or on a sentence. For Hedda (2005), we created a few elliptical video scenes: Hedda walking in the forest, Hedda driving, Hedda shooting her guns. We created a lot of footage, and at the same time, I was also trying to orientate myself in the visual world of Berlin’s chic West End that was entirely new to me. I walked around a lot, took many pictures, and cut them into the video. So sometimes, as the stage revolves, you will recognise an image of West Berlin – but always blurred. This is how I mostly work, probably because I come from a world of postproduction: you shoot only a few takes, but you edit a lot afterwards. Whether I use found images or material I created (in Richard III, the proportion is around 80:20), no image stays as it is. I work a lot with compositing, where you combine a lot of different sources into a single image. I tinker a lot with the material; it is a bit like cooking, which by the way both Thomas and I enjoy a lot – and when I first came to Germany, at the time he was one of the few men who did. Cooking, eating, and food in general had not yet become a popular or even fashionable hobby. It made things so much easier between us that we were able to communicate an idea or vision by comparing it with a dish or flavour. It may sound funny, but in the beginning of our work, this was an important point for me, and it still is. And of course, we could also share a lot of other references because he is very "Francophile", and knows a lot of French and Belgian movies, which also allows us to easily exchange ideas with very few words. Even if these references do not directly reflect what he intends on stage, it makes it much easier for both sides to come to the point without much talking, and to understand what the other wants, or does not want, or would like to achieve. Another thing we share: We both don’t like clinically beautiful images, even with today’s technical options.
In Hedda Gabler, I also tried to fit the video movement into the space and the movement of Jan Pappelbaum’s set design, and to a degree to animate it with the images, and interact with its materiality. I feel very close to the concerns of set design, and of building spaces: questions that occupy me a lot are how you can add to the set, or reduce it, how complete it or enter into an exchange and a dialogue with the space, and not just with the plot, the actors, or the director’s concept. From the very start, I quickly realised that Thomas is almost fixated on details. He wanted to make tiny aspects of the actors’ play large through video, and this was one of his obsessions which we tried to fulfil over the course of few years and numerous productions, including Hedda Gabler and Hamlet. At the time, we tried to capture certain of Tesman’s tics, some odd physical movements that you could not necessarily see on stage, on camera – we filmed them in advance and then tried to show the footage in parallel during the production. But because back then we did not have the opportunity of a live signal and a real simultaneity feeling without having cables and cameraman (which wouldn't fit to Jan's Pappelbaum uncluttered stage), we left the idea aside. A few years later, This trajectory of our work culminated in his production of Lars Norén’s Demons (2010). Thomas’ initial reference was the long tracking shot in Godard’s Le Mepris that follows Michel Piccoli and Brigitte Bardot through the apartment while they are having their argument. I had meanwhile been very fascinated by the stage manager’s camera, a peculiar form of CCTV, and so instead of working with a big film crew, we settled on playing around with this technology.
Thomas is prepared to take such risks and, if necessary, to throw everything overboard. His way of working can be very different, and entirely depends on the project. Sometimes he has an initial discussion and exchange with the entire team about his ideas and conception for a production, while at other times, he prepares things with Jan, and then reveals their ideas for the world of the play to the rest of the team. It is for me and other artists often stimulating to work with him as he allows you to make your own suggestions; he then arranges them and you continue to work on your ideas in rehearsal and thereby arrive together at something sometimes altogether different. Working with Thomas is therefore very much ‘work in progress’, probably more for us (music and video) than for others – I know some actors consider him as very precise and find it hard to live up to what he wants. With me, as video designer, artist, however, it is rarely that precise. He brings his ideas to the table, shares some references, and then a proper dialogue starts. At times, this can get frustrating because it can take up a long time to find a common path, and to see and really understand whether one’s ideas fit in with his vision – also because he talks relatively little about video, and exchanges much more intensely about music. So my work with him can be very free, but at times also very lonely. What makes working with Thomas so enjoyable, is that he keeps looking for new perspectives, and is very open to try new things out. He makes different aesthetic attempts to invent dramatic worlds – from the Ibsen chamber plays, to Shakespeare, and productions like The Marriage of Maria Braun. I guess he often looks for a kind of plastic or narrative poetry but he is never interested in video as an effect. It has to add and integrate, and to contribute something relevant without becoming dominant. Video is always an addition, never the main thing, but it adds a certain force and power – and for the video artist, this creates an interesting challenge.
The Marriage of Maria Braun, originally created at Kammerspiele München in 2007 just before he started his work on Hamlet at the Schaubühne, was, in this and many other respects, quite an important landmark for Thomas. It opened for him a whole new perspective on directing, as staging a film presented him with new, different problems. The team initially did not feel sure about having video in the production, for they were concerned about using a visual medium in the adaptation of a movie. But on one hand, Thomas wanted to use photos of hitlerian young girls for the beginning of the play, and the other, Nina wetzel, the stage designer, insisted on the potential strength of the use of live video signal on stage to get rid of kind of a "movie adaption complex" ! So I tried to convey both ideas together and started to work with found material and documentary footage: short fragments, the initial images of the war, the fascination of the young women for Hitler, the later advertisements from Wirtschaftswunder Germany. Additionally, there were moments with a live camera that conveyed a sense of the intimacy between Maria and her lovers. I was very intrigued by the delicate and somehow graceful poetry of this production, which took place in a single space, in which he managed to move from one scene to the next with only few, sparse means that opened up dramatic spaces – something that became important for Hamlet. Also at Kammerspiele was another very beautiful experience in our collaboration, Susn (2009). It was a particularly interesting challenge to build a world for this play by the Bavarian author Herbert Achternbusch, which was so close to Thomas’ heart. He was initially quite concerned whether I can do this at all; he said ‘Ah, you are not from Bavaria…’. But he took me around, and we spend two or three afternoons where he showed me his family home, the villages where he grew up, some farm buildings, and other places of his early life. I eventually filmed a kind of sad road movie with landscape, driving very slowly through the countryside while filming from the car. These are almost still lives, very quiet and photographic, that then accompanied Susn’s monologue. I think most Bavarians did eventually like what I did there.
In addition to his fascination with tiny details, Thomas’ second obsession, which has also been occupying us for a number of years, is using the camera as a kind of diary, as a means to show and direct connection with the characters’ inner feelings; this leads from Hamlet straight to Richard III. I found this idea very interesting, as he first introduced it in preparations for Hamlet (2008). During the rehearsal, other ideas came in, and very soon, Hamlet used the camera as a weapon. He filmed everyone, in particular his mother, and it was his form of witnessing the events. The use of the live video to show Hamlet’s perspective in real time added quitter a different perspective to the central question, whether he is mad or not. Practically, we wanted to use a wireless camera and tested a number of transmission technologies. After ta few tests, we deliberatly chose a transmiter with a bad and noisy strange signal. Yet this dark, rough, and dirty video signal perfectly matched the contrast of Jan’s dark and cold stage architecture with the living elements that Thomas adds to it. For me, it was an important production, not only because I had just at the time permanently relocated to Berlin. But also, artistically, I tried to go further and position myself between the acting and the stage design, and to negotiate between the two with my video work. The golden chain curtain of course lent itself to show abstract video images. An important theme was the idea of chaos, of a post-war world that was out of joint; at the time, all of us were still preoccupied a lot with the aftermath of 9/11 and the images of this day, which certainly raised a lot of questions for us working with media images in the visual arts. Initially, I projected a tiny fragment of footage, just paper and dust flying through the streets, but you could not recognise what it was. I then began taking images of objects that were on stage – old paper, beer cans that remained from the initial wedding party of Gertrude and Claudius – and introduced them, too.
Richard and Hamlet are of course very connected, and for me there is far more of a direct link than to the other Shakespeare-plays Thomas had directed since. This might have to do with the fact that it is almost the same team, there is the same lead actor, Lars, but there are also certain decisions about the set that invite you to make connections between the two productions. With Richard, things were more complex than usual, however. I came in three weeks into the production, and by that time, the entire set design and also the music were already very much decided. Thomas had only given me very few prompts. He wanted to build a very dark world that would not immediately evoke contemporary references. He had the imagery of American photographer Joel-Peter Witkin in mind, where you never really know where you are, and there are many references, to Caravaggio and Renaissance imagery, yet nothing that is pronouncedly ‘contemporary’. When I joined the work on the production, I could see on the rehearsal stage a world that was already very dark with very big music, and the acting, the black- and white costumes – there was already so much that I found it hard to get in and to find my own way, and my place. It was also not really clear to me why we were using video within this space at all – other than that it was unusual to introduce video into this space, because it was so close, so frontal, and so high. Initially, I thought, if we can get away with it, why not indulge in this very straight ‘more is more’ approach. We worked on a version of the initial celebration scene, which offered a nice connection with the chaotic world we created for Hamlet, and I then suggested to work with the set design and experiment with mapping, but it got too much for Thomas. So we eventually went into ever more abstract worlds, using video almost as a source of lighting that adds to the very peculiar plasticity of the stage.
It seemed to suffice to work with very simple means, and also with only very careful, unobtrusive editing: a world that develops through other forms, the paper streamers, birds, dust, and fog. The challenge was to connect these images of wide landscapes, clouds, heaven, fields, with Richard’s inner state, and this is how the idea of illness came up. I started working with microscopic stock-footage, minute things that look huge. Images of a cancer cell can look identical to a satellite image from Google Earth. The images are huge, for sure, but it has been a long time since I have been so non-narrative. The camera only came in later. I found the microphone in the middle of the stage remarkable in the way it created closeness through acoustic means. The actor was able to step back, to retreat into his inner thoughts, and still reach everybody. I therefore suggested to add a camera, not least as I thought it might help those up there on the second balcony. The camera has a very wide angle and is therefore clearly situated within the play’s imagery of beauty and deformation, as well as the mirror metaphors. I think it was not at all a bad idea, since it solved a lot of questions about the later part of the production that foregrounds Richard’s loneliness as soon as he gets into power. Maybe, with Richard, after exactly a decade of working together, we have now hit a limit where there is too much on stage, with the music, the acting, the images, and I feel we might scale things back again in the future – but the audience certainly seems to like it.
In the course of these ten years, I have been able to witness how Thomas has developed and refined his own ‘school of working’, which he shares in this book. Storytelling, in particular, is still a relatively new addition, yet I feel it has noticeably liberated him in his work. Previously, he only had his words (and Technique) to communicate with his actors, but through this method of improvising, everyone, even we as creative team, can become references that are shared, and this has made the dialogue between the director and the actors much more interesting, and also brought much more fun into the work. Especially when I know that we will do some films or there will be live video, I am also able to take away a lot from the storytelling and from what I see in these moments, so I always take a lot of notes as I do not know yet what I might need in the later work and development of the production. Coming originally from the world of television and the music industry, I still cherish the luxury of working in the theatre: the fact that you can focus together on a project. In the art world, you usually work alone, or you work for someone else. In this respect, it is also always an interesting experience to realise that theatre is to a large degree a craft, which can be frustrating at times for directors or stage and video designers who consider themselves, first and foremost, as artists. Yet, in theatre, you have got to work with others, you have to build something, you have to tinker and fiddle around with actual, material things and with real people. And there are limits that you have got to consider in your creative process. Video, in particular, takes time, not least because the technology still continues to develop further, whereas sound and lighting is pretty much where it is, and changes seem far more incremental. Every theatre space is equipped with sound and lighting, but if you build a new set, like for Richard III, you have to install, and mostly that means to buy, new equipment, a new projector, new lenses, other new video technology. The work of a video designer in theatre therefore starts with finding a technical solution that suits both creative ideas, the space and the budget, and these negotiations, in fact, take up a large part of the work on a production; and at times, it can be a bit frustrating because you eventually cannot but work around the technical means you can afford to have. The payoff, however, is that this collective, shared, and more or less democratic world of making theatre, where you do not have to fulfil expectations or think about audiences and markets, is something very unique. Of course your work should be a success with the audience, but you can still be edgy, and each project has no other purpose than itself. There is such great liberty in theatre, which, when I began, was something entirely unknown to me.
Interview by Prof .Peter Boenisch - (2014)