PIXELS & DRAMA

 

Sébastien Dupouey on his work for theater.

Itw by Prof. Ming Cheng  for The Shanghai Theater Academy

(04.2016)

 

Chen: You were born in France, but now you are living in Berlin and working for theatres as a freelance video installation artist. Where did you get your training in art and film? How did you start your career in theatre and end up working in theatres such as the Schaubühne (Theatre Berlin)?

 

Dupouey: Discovering theatre came somehow as a fortunate coincidence as I am now looking back reflecting upon my career path. In the mid-nineties, as I was studying fine art in the National Decorative Arts School of Paris, I performed in a music band as a drummer while serving as an artwork designer for the team. After signing our first record contract with a major company, we were asked to shoot our first music video. At that time, our budget was pretty low. The band members asked me if I wanted the job. I consulted a few friends who were already in the film/television business (cameramen, film editors, etc.) and, believe or not, directed my first music video!

 

After having performed in more than 200 concerts around Europe, and designed hundreds of flyers and a half-dozen of artworks for record sleeves, I quitted the band almost the same day that I got my diploma, because I didn't really want to become a musician. Almost the same day, one of my teachers showed me a room fully equipped with new computers and digital software dedicated to graphics and video. Despite the fact that I was proud of my master degree in Engraving/Etching, I switched my career and became a digital art designer, because I was suddenly fascinated by the potential power of technology I saw in this room -- the possibility for one artist to mix graphic images, videos and sounds together in a totally new, free and independent way! By that time, we (arts students) could intuitively feel how important digital technology would be, but without really being able to define how powerful  "visual arts" would become because of the technology just a decade after! We hadn't directly experimented it, as computers entered our school the year I departed from it with my diploma!

 

So I borrowed some money, bought my first PC and started to work as a freelance digital art designer for bands, music labels, concerts, film festivals, and clubs in Paris. After a while, some bands asked me if I would like to direct music videos for them. Although, I was still pretty inexperienced with this medium, I accepted their invitations and started to experiment animation/stop-motion technique (filming frame by frame with celluloid cameras) on some new music videos.

 

 

 

Workshop with the students of Shanghai Theater Academy

 

 

Chen: It appears to me that you are a self-taught digital video artist who pioneered the field in the wake of digital video products running on personal computers.

 

Dupouey: Very much so. I slowly became an independent music video director with a touch of "motion design." I also started to create, design and direct identity programs for broadcasting, mostly for sport and music events, entertainment shows, and sometimes for movies. Between 1995 and 2000, the music industry was experiencing both a hard time in dealing with massive mp3 pirating downloads and an immergence of very formatted "boybands" by major companies. That was also the time when the underground alternative music industry started to grow, and the bands, due to technological advances, could produce their own record CDs in a very independent way. As a young music video director, I had to find a balance between commercial projects with large budgets but sometimes limited opportunity for creativity and underground offers with small budget but room for free expression. I was surfing between these two kinds of projects for a while, and in the meantime, continuing to create graphic identities for TV programs in order to pay for my rent. These graphic identity projects were technologically challenging but intellectually and creatively unfulfilling. We were increasingly asked to copy identities from American programs and the clients were more interested in the size of the sponsors' logos than in any creative ideas. I felt a bit frustrated.

 

And then, there came an unexpected opportunity to discover a new creative field. When I met Thomas Ostermeier for the first time, I was visiting Munich and 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. This was in 2004, when my wife, Nina Wetzel, a costume and set designer who used to work mainly with German theatre-maker Christoph Schlingensief, created the costumes for Thomas’ production of Before Sunrise (written by Gerhart Hauptmann) at Kammerspiele München. During the rehearsals, Thomas suddenly decided that he wanted to have some video animation, which was not planned previously. Nina mentioned my work. This led to our first informal meeting with Thomas. At this meeting, he watched the video that I had just directed for an American jazz singer (Melody by Molly Johnson). In this video I mixed photography, film, and animation. He liked it, and asked if I would be interested in working on his project.

 

Before Sunrise was my second theatre project and my first collaboration with Ostermeier. Initially, I was not planning to get involved in the rehearsal process with actors, but to create cartoon-like animations that would be used as transitions. The animation was based on a few excerpts from Naomi Klein’s No Logo, which Thomas wanted to connect the content of Hauptmann’s play with issues of globalization and its effects on society. I had to understand how German theatres worked and how I could bring something relevant with my own experience of the video medium. So I ended up sitting in the rehearsal room and worked quietly at my computer, observing the daily rehearsal process and dramaturgical discussions. I quickly learned that a lot of young German theatre directors were very interested in using video as they had been using pop or electronic music on stage for more than a decade! (Germany was and still is the centre of the techno music culture.) So, mixing repertoire classics with modern elements (even from pop culture) wasn't a problem at all. However, there were only a very few experimental video artists working for theatre productions and video was, most of the time, still considered to be a medium that is "very expensive," "pretty unnecessary" and "overly trendy" by many production managers in theatre houses -- a situation similar to what the amplified music was in during the mid 60s  and what the digital/electronic music was in during the 70s and 80s; only the most successful or determined directors could afford to have it. Thomas Ostermeier was already one of them.

 

Soon after this first collaboration, he invited me to work on Hedda Gabler at the Schaubühne. Ever since then, we have been making theatre together on a number of occasions.

 

Molly Jonhson Melody - Video stills

 

Before Sunrise / Gerhart Hauptmann - Video stills

 

Chen: According to The Globe and Mail as well as Wikipedia, Thomas Ostermeier is known for putting classics into a new context with "in-yer-face" theatre and capitalist realism. What is your take on this?

 

 I believe, Ostemeier has provided a quite varied oeuvre that may resist classification. It's true that Ostermeier is often searching for precision and mostly very attentive to details. But in the same time, he has tried to explore pretty different formal and narrative ways of presentation. If you examine several of his works from the last decade, Hedda Gabler, An Enemy of the People, The Marriage of Maria Braun, Hamlet, Susn or Demons,... they sprung from quite different aesthetic approaches. Of course, just as in many artists' works, in Ostemeier's works, you will always be able to recognize many repetitive patterns, such as the way of timing, storytelling and gesture precision. In addition, social/capitalist realism, political behaviour in a private setting, women status, paranoia,... are some of Thomas' recurring themes. But these themes have been presented in a variety of forms. I bet someone who is not familiar with Ostemeier's oeuvre could immediately recognize (for example) that The marriage of Maria Braun and Hedda Gabler were directed by the same person.

 

Chen: You have collaborated with him for many years now. What is like to work with Ostemeier?

 

There has been a real versatility in Ostermeier's work over the last decade, which I was happy to have participated in. His way of working has also been very different and entirely depends on the project. Sometimes he had an initial discussion with the entire team about the ideas and concepts for a production, while other times, he prepared the stage more precisely with Jan Pappelbaum (his long time collaborator, the stage designer at the Schaubühne), and then revealed their ideas about the stage to the rest of the team. For me and for other artists, it was often stimulating to work with him as he would allow you to make your suggestions and work on your ideas in rehearsals. He would then arrange the components accordingly. This way of working sometimes led to chance discoveries.

 

Working with Thomas is therefore very much a "work-in-progress’, probably more so for us (musicians and video artists) than for others – I know that some actors consider his instructions to be very precise and find it hard to live up to his expectations. With me as visual artist however, his "visions" have rarely been that precise. In his meeting with the artistic team, he usually brings his ideas to the table and shares some references with us, and then a proper dialogue starts. At times, this way of working can be challenging for me, not only because it may take up a longer time for us to find a common ground, but also because he usually talks relatively little about video while talking much more intensely about acting and music. (Thomas used to be a young bass player in a band for many years!) On the one hand, this kind of unrestricted process of work-in-progress can be a sign of his confidence and trust with his artistic collaborators, which by the way is vital to achieve a good result. On the other hand, such a process can take a long time before all the parties can reach an agreement on a general concept concerning the place and the aesthetics of the video in a project. Nevertheless, what ultimately makes working with Thomas so enjoyable and fulfilling is that he, most of the time, keeps looking for new perspectives, and is still open to try out new things. He frequently makes moves to reinvent dramatic worlds – from the Ibsen chamber plays, to Shakespeare's, to film adaption for theatre like The Marriage of Maria Braun. I guess he often looks for a kind of poetic realism, but sincerely tries not to use video as an effect, and so do I. For us, video ought to be an intrinsic part of the action, integrate with the actors' performance, and contribute something relevant to the play without becoming dominant. Video is rarely the main thing in our creations, but something that adds force and power to a production. And for the video artist, this creates an interesting challenge.

 

As for the production of videos, this is how Thomas and I normally work: I shoot only a few takes, but edit and work on the graphic aspect a lot afterwards. Whether I use found images or material I created, almost no image stays as it was in the original. I experiment a lot with composition, where you combine materials from a number 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 thoroughly. When I first came to Germany, "fooding" in general had not yet become a popular or even fashionable hobby; he was one of a few men who cooked. This made thing easier for us because we were able to communicate ideas or visions by comparing them with dishes or flavours. It may sounds strange, but in the beginning of our working together, this was an helpful aspect for me due to the language barriers. And of course, we could also share a lot of other references because he is very Francophile and shares with me the same interest for some French and Belgian movies directors. This also allows us to easily exchange ideas with a very few words. In addition, there is another thing that we share: we both generally dislike clinically beautiful frames, even with today’s technical options.

 

It seems that Thomas Ostermeier's  exploration of new aesthetic forms has slowed down a little bit for the last few years. Today, he seems to focus more on the acting process than to radically experiment new aesthetic forms, which I imagine is also a common developmental phase for a creative person; sometimes you just want to search and experiment within the form that you have developed instead of searching for a radical new form on each new project. It may also have something to do with his huge international success. It is always very hard for an internationally acclaimed artist to deal with the expectations of the audience! It is almost like having a love relationship with someone that you need to take care of for as long as you can. It is not so simple.

 

Anyway, starting as a visual artist for theatre with Thomas Ostermeier as director has been very challenging for me. I had to explore not only this new world of theatre, but also new ways of using video to communicate with audience on a very high level of expectation. Bringing "pixels in motion" into a drama situation on a stage set is still pretty experimental nowadays, even more so than on a opera set or a concert stage, because you have to deal with dramaturgy, plastic concepts and, more directly, the presence of the actors simultaneously. The awareness of video as a young medium in theatre is also very important. There are still so many uncharted territories to discover. This is an exploration which takes place on almost every new project that Thomas Ostermeier endeavoured and which he was never afraid of confronting himself with.

 

Chen: Since video is still a relatively new medium in the theatre, I would like to investigate in how the videos you created functioned in theatrical productions. In other words, how did they help to tell the stories and advance the actions of the plays? In your lecture at Shanghai Theatre Academy, you brought up "atmosphere" as one of your major topic. Could you please describe some moments in the productions, when your video installations helped to convey the atmosphere of a scene, the mood of a character, or the emotional tone of the play?

 

For me, the word "atmosphere" bares close connections with many problems that I have to deal with. Those includes providing social, political and historical context of the play's action, as well as working within a given space. As I remember,  my second collaboration with Thomas Ostermeier was for Hedda Gabler by Henrik Ibsen at the Schaubühne in Berlin in 2005. The stage designer, Jan Pappelbaum, created a pretty minimalistic design, an interior setting which was placed on a revolving stage, while Thomas was trying to bring very realistic situations on stage with the actors. I was trying to figure out how to use video medium to provide a sub-narrative environment that could help to convey the inner thoughts of Hedda. With this goal in mind, we went to shoot a few elliptical video scenes: Hedda walking in the forest, Hedda driving alone at night on the highway, Hedda learning to shoot with  her guns… Previously, I also shot a lot of footage as I was absorbing the visual world of Berlin’s chic West End which was entirely new to me. I walked around a lot, took many pictures, and incorporated them into the video. So sometimes, as the stage revolved, you would recognize an image of West Berlin – but cut out in a kind of animated 3D puzzle. My goal was to convey Hedda's neurosis. Hedda is a very beautiful, strong and gifted women who compromises herself in a "vie bourgeoise" situation that she unconsciously hates and definitely wants to escape from. Furthermore, I was trying to fit the video into the given space and synchronize its movement with the movement of Jan Pappelbaum’s set. I animated the images, and let them interact with the materiality of the set. I felt very close to the concerns of the stage designer in regard to the space. Questions that occupied me a lot at that time include how I could add to the set, or reduce it, how I could complete it or enter into a dialogue with it. So, as you can see, my concern was not just the plot, the character and the director’s concept.

 

So "atmosphere" is a keyword among others that I sometimes use as a gate way to enter into a new theatre project. It allows me to employ the video medium on many different levels at the same time. Those levels include, but are not limited to: space, narration, emotions, and documentary facts. I try to build an interactive process with what happens on stage during the rehearsals.

 

Hedda Gabler .  / H. Ibsen - Video stills

 

Chen: Aside from conveying the atmosphere, video images can certainly establish the settings in which a play takes place. Take, for example, the setting that you provided in the play Eldorado. It is quite unique in that the characters are surrounded by the exterior environment of the theatre projected on screen. Could you explain the reason for your idea of situating the play in the location outside of the theatre where the play was performed?

 

I think that every project is unique. Eldorado is unique because the director, Marius von Mayenburg, wrote this play when he still was "only" a dramaturge; he was asked to direct his own play more than a decade after he wrote it. The story of Eldorado deals indirectly with many post 911 issues, such as: what are the purposes of a war or an invasion of a country? Are conflicts existing nowadays only based on profit, or are they still based on ethics? Are these conflicts not more related to our private life than we think? How do they really affect us? Do we have any direct or indirect responsibility as "private citizens"? …

 

Despite Mayenburg's very narrative and sometimes even surreal style of writing, I tried again to find a key concept for the video medium to guide me into the rehearsal process. Through discussion, Mayenburg and I quickly merged our ideas on the global/local interaction in our so-called "globalized world." Because most of the characters in the play have to deal with real estate business and responsibilities, I decided to bring in construction elements that would help the audience enter into the world of the play while identifying themselves with what was happening on stage at the same time. I started to shoot the urban surroundings outside the auditorium where the production would take place. The architectural environment that the audience had unconsciously experienced on their way to the theatre suddenly started to appear on stage, progressively assembling and disassembling itself. During the play, these architecture elements were slowly moving and "morphing" in a more or less surreal way, while the virtual camera provided different scales of those elements, ranging from those seen in Google satellite perspectives, to those seen in a normal human perspective, and to those seen in close-ups.

 

Eldorado - M. von Mayenburg ( Video stills)

 

 

Chen: Do you mean, by situating the play right in the local area, you brought relevance of what was happening around the world to the local audience?

 

Yes, that is what was intended. Through animated mixed media and virtual camera's tracking, I tried to create a "morphing" environment with continuous moves from local to global… and conversely. In addition, I brought in some elliptic pre-produced footage with filmed actors appearing in these changing architectures. On a last layer, I brought in the aspect of gradual light change from daylight to nightlight, as well as some war images, such as tanks, shadows, explosions, etc. that would convey an original feel of conflict which is both abstract and realistic.

 

Chen: Are you happy with how your video work eventually turned out?

 

Looking back, I'm still not totally satisfied, despite the fact that I found this project pretty challenging, because it required me once again to experiment the use of the video medium on the levels of space and narration. I tried to overlap these two approaches to bring a homogenised feeling on stage. Even if digital video images were projected from the first second to the last second of the evening, the audience could more or less forget about the projections after a while, … and that is exactly what I expect the audience to experience when they are sitting in the auditorium: They could just enjoy the video as they would enjoy the characters' dialogues, actors' performances, or any strong emotional situation, while progressively forgetting the technical process that enabled their experience.

 

Chen: Could you please elaborate on your conceptual choice of mingling landscapes from all of the world in your video sequences for The Importance of Being Earnest?

 

 For Oscar Wilde's play The Importance of Being Earnest, my approach was a bit different. When you work on a comedy, you don't have to be afraid of using "stereotypes". "stereotypes" are one of the device theatre artists use to help audience to quickly identify the type of a certain character. You may distort them in an unexpected way to create surprising effects. One of the main themes in Oscar Wilde's play is the opposition between the way of life in the city and that of in the countryside even in the high-society. The play also deals with the difficulty of fighting against social determinism. All of these conflicts are mainly based on social "stereotypes." But it would be too easy to present them as if these problems existed in Victorian society were exactly the same as it exists today! It is always challenging to revive a classic play regardless the quality of the drama or the writing style of an author. The questions remain: What are the relevant aspects of the play that are still dialoguing with contemporary issues? What can a classic play still bring to an audience? And how can you, as part of the creative team, bring these potential connections to the life of the audience, not only through actors' performances but also through presenting visual and directorial concepts? Wilde once said that the play's theme was "That we should treat all trivial things in life very seriously, and all serious things of life with a sincere and studied triviality." By having this statement in mind, I tried to establish an interactive surrounding for the actors, where some "environmental iconic images" would be recognisable by the audience but in an exaggerated form. We live in a world where each citizen from Western or emerging countries wants to keep or grow his privileges in the society, in terms of comfort, consumption and social status, without being ready for political or ecological compromise. It is this kind of "time bomb" situation and global behaviour that I was trying to express in my videos. I brought together many elements from every corner of the world and mixed them in a satirical way. It is a kind of  "more is more" trivial-pop aesthetics that would mirror a certain aspects of our behaviour as world citizens and that would resonate with Oscar Wilde's very compacted non-sense humour.

 

 The Importance of Being Earnest - Oscar Wilde  ( Video stills)

 

Chen: As you said in your lecture at the Academy, "when you are dealing with a live camera, you are like an actor." What do you really mean by that?

 

Dupouey: "Reality's considerable advantage over fiction is its uniqueness," said once one of our most famous French photographer and documentary filmmaker, Raymond Depardon. By using a live camera on stage, you are directly confronted to this paradox: "real" people (actors) bring a "fiction" to life again and again in every evening. In this situation, a visual artist is like a cameraman or a photographer, but also somehow like an "actor," because he becomes an active participant of a "live" artistic process. He has to make spontaneous choices on what, how and when he is going to show to the audience through the live signal in response to what is happening on stage. For me this is one of the most difficult things to achieve, because the use of the live signal puts you constantly in the "in-between" field of documentary and fiction. You have to keep the original aesthetical concept while responding to what happens on stage every night, which is never the same. Moreover, bringing a camera on stage implies the interpretation of what is going on in the performance. So the question is: how to set up an interesting visual concept while being flexible enough to allow the freedom of acting and to preserve the unique character of each performance?

 

During the last decade, I tried to explore possibilities of using the live video signal on stage. From Hamlet to The Marriage of Maria Braun, from Much Ado About Nothing to The Stone, from Demons to The Rise of Glory,… and the results are vastly different.

 

During our production process of Hamlet (directed by Ostermeier at Schaubühne, Berlin, in  2008) for example, Lars Eidinger (plays Hamlet) was using the camera as a kind of diary, a means to show and connect with his inner feelings. The camera was also used as a "weapon", with which Hamlet films everyone, in particular his mother; it is his form of witnessing the events. I think the use of the live video signal to show Hamlet’s perspective in real time adds a layer of complexity to the central question of whether he is mad or not. Since we wanted to allow total freedom of movement for the actors who was holding the cameras during the performance, we tested different wireless technologies for the camera. Among the choices of transmitters, we deliberately opted for one which would bring a stable signal but also would make a very strange digital noise. The dark and grainy video signal fit perfectly for the state of mind of Hamlet.

 

Lars Eidinger in Hamlet

 

For The marriage of Maria Braun, the live signal was used to film situations or objects on stage and to mix them with pre-produced "documentary frames." Nina Wetzel, the stage designer who had often used the video medium on many of her previous stages, suggested to project video directly on the set or parts of it. So I started to experiment the projection of the signal on different set elements (a back curtain, a dress, a coat, an actor's back, a suitcase,…) which brought strange and unexpected feelings. The video merged "real time" actions with historical documentary elements, which were projected from different angles and in various scales. Here again, every technical video element (beamer, cables, camera,…) were manipulated live on stage by the actors in a kind of choreographic way, which intimately include the video medium as part of play's action. Generally I like to put the technical video process as much as possible in the hands of the actors (even if in most of the time, an operator still does the live edit and run some media players simultaneously in the backstage).

It is also very important to me that audience accepts the live signal (and the video medium in general) as an intrinsic part of the play's action rather than just a decorative or superficial element. One of the best way to achieve this goal is to establish the technical process as part of theatrical convention, to clearly expose to the audience some or all parts of the technical process, in a kind of a "in-the-making" conceptual approach, but in fact, the production team can still "manipulate" the footage after it is taken by the actors. This is also what I tried to bring to the Shakespeare comedy "Much Ado About Nothing" directed by Marius von Mayenburg. During the play, the characters are constantly playing "hide and seek" in a sort of big "masquerade." This time, Nina Wetzel created a review cinema hall on the stage, with moving screens and curtains hiding or revealing the backstage. In this production, the audience had hard time figuring out whether or not the actor was really in front of the camera or if the scene was pre-recorded, whether or not the actor was using the camera to manipulate the other characters, or the scene was still part of the real set (filming live actors backstage on a retro projection screen), and which video sequence has been already pre-produced… The performance had a very strong connection with the original text, even though the aesthetics was that of the 40's and 50's, when there was a closer connection to cinema.  You could feel the audience's excitement. They were like children who would see a magic trick but only understand the half of it!

 

 

Much Ado About Nothing / W.Shakespeare ( video stills)

 

The play The Stone written by Marius von Mayenburg, concerns a German family going through three generations, from the rise of National Socialism in the30s to the fall of the Berlin Wall in the 90s. This play was written in an episodic structure, in which the story is told in a way that skips large gaps of time span. Here, the main character, an old grandma, is the only figure who can communicate with the characters from the past. Because she has lost a bit of her mind, the audience could  never tell which scene is what really happens and which scene is only a fragment of the her memory until the end of the play. To convey this strong dramaturgical concept, I proposed to Gianni Schneider, who had directed this play in Lausanne (2013), a simple stage where the characters from the 30's would be hidden behind a wall. Those characters include the grandma's husband who died during the war, the deported Jewish "friend" who sold the house to the grandma's husband at that time. During the performance, the Grandma was constantly dialoguing with these hidden figures that were exchanging dialogues with her like they were on stage. However, what the audience was actually seeing were images projected on the walls. They constantly asked themselves where the actors were, why they could communicate and react so well with each other as if they were in the same room. Not until the last scene, when the wall is open, the audience discovered the technical devise used throughout the play: that is all the live actors had been interacting with each other through the video medium from the beginning.

 

For Demons (written by Lars Noren and presented at Schaubühne in 2008), we used the live signal in a very different way. Thomas Ostermeier had always wanted to use video camera to zoom in on details of the actors performance. This trajectory of our work culminated in this production. 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. However, I had been fascinated for a long time by the stage manager’s camera, a peculiar form of CCTV (Closed-circuit television, also known as video surveillance) that one can find in every German theatre. So instead of working with a big film crew, I proposed to test and play around with this technology on Nina Wetzel's stage proposal. The synchronous multi-perspective set (operated live backstage by myself or a technician) could suddenly show in a large scale a hidden nervous skin-scratch, a clinical preparation of cocktail, a detailed still life in a room, a close up image of a character's gaze … and thus allow the audience to experience a new perspective on actors performance through a new aesthetic proposal.

 

Demons -Lars Noren ( Video stills)

 

The Rise of Glory was a play based on a lecture presentation by Michael Serre at the centennial commemoration of the end of World War I. In our production of the play, this presentation was transformed into an interesting evening of multimedia performance. Utilizing documentary elements, such as photos, letters, and video reportages along with live signal, the production tried to reconnect the audience with the grandfather of Michael Serre who was one of the first army pilot in the history. It is a kind of surreal investigation of the past performed by the actor, the musician and the v-jay (me) together on stage. We dialogue and respond to each other and again incorporate the use of live signal trough different transmitting devices such as smartphone, mini cam, computer cam… to reinforce dramatic situations.

 

I could give many other examples.  But most of all, the use of live video signal has to bring a perspective that tells more than what the actors are already conveying on stage, or tells it in a different way. As soon as you put a live video recorder on stage, you are simultaneously rewriting or interpreting the moment. A visual artist, in this case, can and should participate in the live creative process as the actors do, even if it is sometime a bigger responsibility and more challenging than it appears to be.

 

Chen: You emphasized in your lecture presentation at the Academy that concepts should always come before the means to accomplish them. Could you provide examples in which you made strong conceptual choices for your video works and examples in which you later succeeded in finding the means to fulfill your concepts. Have you ever had an experience in which you have to compromise your concept later because you end up not being able to come up with the means to realize your original idea?

 

It's a bit more complicated than that. The reason that I sometimes push the students to bring up strong concepts based on dramaturgical analysis is because they mostly cannot fully experiment a whole production process as is in a real life situation (dealing with directors, stage and costume designers, musicians, and actors …). Moreover, during the course of their study, they are able to focus on conceptual choices without suffering severe consequences. In the real world, they usually will have only two to three months of production process, interacting with their collaborators, which means that they not only need to come up with concepts quickly, but also need to adapt, even reformulate these concepts depending on the evolution of a production. During my workshops with students, I tried to prepare them for the real world situation that would come to them in the near future.

 

For myself, it depends on the kind of production I am working on. I always first try to read the play for myself. Then, we (the artistic team) meet with the director who shares with us his global concept or interpretation of the play. We start a dialog on what our research fields need to be, and start to share ideas, sketches, visual and audio references. Before the rehearsals start, the global artistic concept is strong and clear to every member of the design team, while allowing each of us to develop an artistic concept. But there are exceptions, especially when you are working with new colleagues. You  have to find a common artistic language with them and it can take a lot of time. During the rehearsals, each of us look and listen to one another and go through a give-and-take process in the development of the production. Having said that however, in recent decades, my own experience made me realize that some European directors are more interested in a "work-in-progress" process, or so called a "collective creation process" during the rehearsals than in bringing a strong and rigid concept to the actors. Let me give you three examples:

 

In 2012, The Residenztheater of Munich proposed Marius von Mayenburg to direct a play which he co-wrote with three other renowned international authors (Rapfael Spregelburd, Albert Ostermaier and Gian Maria Cervo) on the theme of "the Washington beltway sniper." The result was the creation of a play entitled Call Me God. Long before the completion of the final draft of the script, Marius had already shared with Nina Wetzel (stage and costume designer) Malte Beckenbach (music composer) and I some thoughts about the direction this writing was heading for. It had become pretty clear to Mayenburg that if the story of Call Me God was about the "Beltway Sniper," the main theme of the play would be how the media were exploiting such tragic events and, as a result of the media's exploitation, how the audience would always ask for more of it. So, even if the text was not finished, Nina Wetzel was already designing a stage that mixed TV sets, a sound studio, a death room and a kind of CSI crime laboratory and in which acting, music/sound and video would interact with one another. In the same time, I started to produce animations, to reshoot and reedit some documentary fragment.

 

Call me God -Marius von MAyenburg Rapfael Spregelburd, Albert Ostermaier and Gian Maria Cervo

 

 

A few months after, I started to work on Children of the Sun by Maxim Gorki. Despite the fact that this play had already become classic in Europe, the way of working with the director, Mikael Serre, on this play was far from conventional! Mikael studied theatre at the Jacques Lecoq School. His approach to theatre, even for repertoire plays, is usually based more on movement and improvisations. He stresses on the connections between art and life in the plays he directs. Mikael is  also known for his establishment of a theatre ensemble made of actors and even dancers coming from different fields and countries throughout Europe. Following a thorough discussion with the stage designer (Nina Wetzel again!) and the musician (Nils Osterndorf) about the possibilities of a modern reinterpretation of the play's themes, Mikael approved a stage set that would  become a kind of "open installation," a rougher space arrangement than usual, to invite all the members on the production team who mostly didn't know each other to participate in its evolution. It is through the first weeks of improvisation on this "installative stage" that everybody, including the musician and I, really developed ideas and create situations for the play. Once again, I had conducted myself in the same way as the actors did. That is to play and create a dialog with the others in the team, to be creative by taking risks, and to stay flexible and be responsive to each other's progress.

 

Last year, I've been working again with Thomas Ostermeier on Richard III. When he first discussed his vision of the play, Thomas showed me the stage model by Jan Pappelbaum, which was obviously inspired by the original design of the Globe Theatre. He wanted to establish a very dark world that would not immediately evoke contemporary references. He had the imagery of the works created by American photographer, Joel-Peter Witkin, in his mind. In the world of Witkin's photographs, one cannot discern a reference to where the place is, but references to Caravaggio and Renaissance paintings. I had prepared and projected video materials on the "Bauprobe" -- a mock up of a stage design used specifically in German theatre rehearsal processes -- but joined the production process almost three weeks into the rehearsals. By that time, I could already see a world on stage that was very dark, with loud and powerful music arrangements, the acting, and 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. In addition, it was unusual to introduce video into this kind of space, because the space was very enclosed, the set position was so close to downstage, and above all, the set was extremely tall. Initially, I thought why not indulge ourselves in a "more is more" approach. I first tried to bring some stage elements to life through "sound responsive" and "mapping" technique, but it was too much for Thomas. So we eventually created a more abstract world, using video almost as a source of lighting that reinforced the organic plasticity of the stage. It seemed to be suffice to work with very simple means and careful, unobtrusive frames to create a world that develops through other forms, such as the paper streamers, birds, dust, and fog. The challenge was to connect the images of paper streamers, birds, dust, fog in, the clouds, heaven, fields in wide landscape scenes with Richard’s inner state. As I was confronting this challenge, the state of Richard's illness started to surface more and more in rehearsals. I employed microscopic stock-footage, minute things shown in close up. I discovered that images of a cancer cell could look identical to satellite images from Google Earth. Through this abstract mixture of satellite maps and microscopic landscape, I could reconnect Richard's growing empire to his inner growing illness.

 

The idea of using live camera only came in later. I found the use of microphone in the middle of the stage interesting. It could create a sense of intimacy through acoustic means. The actor would be able to step back and retreat into his character's inner thoughts, and still reach everybody in the auditorium with his voice projection. Therefore, I suggested to hide a mini live camera with a very wide angle under the microphone. It suddenly revealed the deformation of the images on stage, and at the same time, evoked the metaphors of the mirror. It also solved a lot of issues in the later part of the play that emphasizes Richard’s loneliness as soon as he ascends to power. The camera was also used by other characters, like a kind of "door" to Richard's head, merging what happened on stage to his inner nightmares and paranoia.

 

Richard III / William Shakespeare

 

Through these three very different experiences, I learned that whatever your expectations on a new theatre production is, the working process is as important as the result of the production, and it is the only way to stay creative by sharing your visions and doubts as much as you can with the others in the creative team, not only in the conceptual stage, but also during the rehearsal process. Staying creative is not always easy, especially when you take into account the egos of the artistic partners working together in the same dark room for months! These experiences also showed me that, whatever your skills set is, theatre rules are there to be learned, practised, but sometimes, forgotten for the sake of achieving an original concept.

 

Chen: Back in Greek period, people used chorus to comment on characters and stories in plays; in early 20th century, Bertolt Brecht used alienation devices, such as captions and songs that cut across the action of the play and set a counterpoint to the message sent through the storyline. While watching the video clips of your work, I can clearly see how your video help to tell the story, "walking" in a parallel line with the actors on stage in terms of telling a story. My question therefore is: do you have examples in which you used video images to set a counterpoint to the play's action?

 

This is a very interesting point. It is the reason why so many 20th century theatre makers tried to find new ways to restore the role of chorus in Greek time. In contemporary theatre productions, we can see how songs, projected texts or images, have somehow replaced the role of chorus to set a "counterpoint" to the story. It has become one of the "must have" element in almost every contemporary theatre productions. But there is a danger that a counterpoint becomes a "comment" on the scene.

 

I 'm not particularly interested in any kind of didactic or pedagogic theatre. My colleagues may not agree with me. I think theatre makers ought to respect the audience by not delivering dogmatic messages. They do not need to instruct the public by bringing their own thoughts "on the plate"! You have to leave a space for the audience to discern their own opinions. Mostly, art should ask questions rather than give answers.

 

Chen: I would argue though, the very purpose of setting the counterpoint in the play, at lease for Brecht, is to ask questions, put audience into thoughts and let them discern their own opinions.

 

But my point is, even if I am aware of and attentive to the "counterpoint" technique and find its useful and power in every kind of drama, for me, it can sometimes become too didactic, almost like a bad caricature of Greek chorus. That's a discussion we often had with my friend Nils Osterndorf (a regular musician in Thomas Ostermeier and Mikael Serre's theatres) on many productions. A rough musical background for a sweet love scene, a laconic abstract video for a bloody fight, etc… have been lately become some kind of "very easily recognizable theatre tricks," a kind of insider's rule to help to advance or enlarge dramatic action. Anyhow, even if we are regularly using the counterpoint technique on almost every production, we try to tarnish it under more global concepts, atmospheres or metaphoric elements.

 

Let me give you an example of us using counterpoint technique. In Susn by Herbert Achternbusch performed at Kammerspiele, Munich, and directed by Ostermeier in 2010,  the first scene takes place in a confession room where Susn, a young Catholic Bayern teenager confesses herself to the priest. She starts to speak very naively about her first sexual encounter, expressing unconsciously, in the same time, the violent behaviours taking place in her village. During this first monologue, which is more than 15 minutes long, there was at first a big "live" close up shot of the actress projected on the screen, which conveys the confessional atmosphere. But after about 10 minutes, this "live" signal gave place to a very slow and continuous ride in the Bayern's landscapes. Here, we tried to bring a double-counterpoint effect to the scene: the atmospheric slow-motion ride suddenly brought the audience to the romantic "surface" of the Bayern's countryside which seemed to reflect the opposite (or to tarn) of what Susn was saying on stage. But after a while, the landscape slowly became not so beautiful as it was, … more gloomy, empty, sadder… And while Susn is sarcastic about the embarrassing stories she is confessing (may be to protect herself), the video landscape-ride brought us very progressively close to a rather depressing farmyard, where the audience can progressively feel or fantasize that everything Susn told at the beginning of the scene might had happened in this place.

 

Susn - Herbert Achternbusch ( Photos : ©Arno Declair)

 

Here is an example of a more classic counterpoint: For Richard III, directed by Ostermeier for Schaubühne in 2015, I was working essentially with imaginary satellites view of the earth, as well as landscapes of skies and birds. During the play, we set the counterpoint of the killing of Richard's enemies with very peaceful atmospheric moments, projecting the rise of hundreds of birds in a densely populated cloudy skies with time lapses.

 

On the mother's birthday celebration in The marriage of Maria Braun, all happy family members are dancing in tone with a traditional German "schlager" (hit) while the audience can see on the projection screen a progressive acceleration of an alienating video clip of commercials from the 50's.

 

In Children of the Sun by Gorki, (directed by Mikael Serre at Vidy Lausanne in 2013), the more the epidemic disease seems to become a major threat for the characters inside of the house, the more the video suggested that the so-called disease might be only the mass of the revolutionary people outside of the house. This idea was presented through progressively transforming projected images of insects invasions to that of massive crowds of Arab spring demonstrations.

 

In the comedy Piece of Plastic (written and directed by Mayenburg for Schaubühne in 2015), while the contemporary artist, Serge Haulupa, brutally criticizes the society (the public) and presents himself as a solitary controversial artist, the audience can observe his silhouette projected on the wall in a kind of video collage, representing him as a naked Caspar David Friedrich, (probably the most famous German painter of Romanticism), in different landscapes created by the painter himself, bringing a tragic-comic romantic perspective on the character.

In reverse, when all the other characters of the play are dealing with their private and social issues on stage, you can see on the LED screens below some bizarre slow motion portraits  that suggest Serge Haulupa (the artist, a character) sarcastic artistic comment on their problems.

 

Stück Plastik  (Piece of Plastic) Marius von Mayenbuurg ( Photos : ©Arno Declair)

 

For the production of The Miser by Moliere (directed by Gianni Schneider at Lausanne, Geneve in 2015), the artistic concept is based on a counterpoint. Nina Wetzel (stage designer) proposed to situate the action on the deck of a chic yacht sitting somewhere in the middle of the Mediterranean seas! The play was intended to ask the following questions: What is the difference between avarice and greediness in our globalized world today? Why politics are increasingly depend on self declared financial authorities? I tried to use projection images to provide a counterpoint to the play's action. On the projection screen, the audience could observe tax-haven shiny coasts while Arpagon was trying to make believe that he was bankrupt. Then, tons of trashes were flying into the sky during Arpagon's famous monologue where he can't help but to identify himself with what he owns. Later on, as the images of young refugees' embarkations lost in oceans appeared on the screen, Harpagon is hysterically trying to limit the dinner menu for his guests. When Marianne and Elise are sent to the so-called "fair," the images of roller-coaster mixed with the skylines of European Financial Center appeared drowning into the sea on the screen. The content of the set design and projections were controversial yet successful. As the background of one of the most popular comedy in French Repertoire, the set and projections revealed the fragility of Europe society today.

 

Chen: You used live captures in many of your theatre works, such as in Ghosts (props) and Richard III (facial expressions and nightmare vision of Richard III), etc. In your opinion, what are the advantages of live capture over pre-recorded video footage? In other words, what can live captures bring to a performance that the pre-recorded images cannot?

 

 "Real time" is what theatre always brings you back to. As a visual artist, you are often tempted to tinker your sequences on your own (even abstract backgrounds), then bring them on stage when you think that they are ready. But sometimes you feel that your work become too decorative (and a bit boring), or your sequences are not connected enough with what happens on stage. Whenever I can, I personally prefer to mix live signals with pre-produced footage. It allows me to be more involved in the project, especially with the actors during the rehearsals. It allows me to connect what happens on stage with the overall concepts or aesthetics of the play in a way that is more organic to the live performance.

 

In Hedda Gabler, we tried to capture Tesman’s certain tics, some odd physical movements that is not obvious on stage. On camera however, we filmed them in advance, and then showed the footage in parallel with actor's acting during the performance, because back then we did not have the technological means to create synchronous live signals. After a few trials, I abandoned the idea because the real time synchronicity was not there; what we saw on the wall looked like a commentary, rather than a new perspective of what really happened on stage. But eventually, like I said earlier, we met the challenge a few years later. In Demons, with the use of CCTV survey cameras hidden on stage, we achieve the effect of synchronicity with live signals.

 

With directors' approval, sometimes I like to record actors' actions against a green screen, then edit and pre-produce sequences with backgrounds that include some staged and/or imaginary elements. Most of these sequences are storyboarded first, and later tested with quick "animatic" (edited storyboards) during the rehearsals before it is formally produced. These sequences mostly serve as transitions between scenes or acts. Occasionally, they are used as parallels or counterpoints to the stories, interacting with the play's action. With the complexity of its function in bringing many fields together, it sometimes becomes difficult to define precisely what category a video belongs to. Is it stage design or actor? Lighting or dramaturge? It can influence every aspect of a project simultaneously, and evolve over the duration of the play. The example of its roles in the theatre can be found in the use of video for Oscar Wilde's The Importance of being Earnest. The video created for that production realized the power of bringing pixels-in-motion "pixel drama" surrounding or environment on stage!

 

Chen: Live capture devises you used in Rise of Glory is interesting in that you, as a cameraman, are in the full view of the audience improvising and interacting with the characters in the play. Could you reflect on this kind of experience?

 

We started this kind of experience with Mikael Serre in 2012 for L'Impasse- I am what I am, a play mainly based on a modern classic German play titled Wunschkonzert by Franz Xaver Kroetz. Kroetz had developed an original dramaturgy for the play by not using any dialog. Wunhschkonzert is one of his famous plays that was written without dialog. It clinically describes a solitary 40 year-old women in her city apartment during a "real time" evening until she probably commits suicide. It is a minimalistic, precise, realistic, and silent play, which deals with human solitude in our modern cities. As we were reading the play with Mikael, we couldn't stop thinking about all these "big brother " reality TV programs that began to emerge  in the late nineties. These programs made us realize: as our communication world became more and more sophisticated with the consumption of televisions, smartphones, internet, sms, apps,…our relation to each other as human beings and to the world became more and more perverted and remote.. For this play, I designed a minimal set to allow more freedom in the interaction among music, video, space and acting. To convey this idea of solitude common in modern society, I arrange an Ikea furniture set (a couch-bed, a table, a kitchenette, a toilet set, …) in a way that they would sometimes be displayed in furniture shops. All the furniture pieces were painted white and lined up in a black space. I added two tables in exactly the same manner on each side of the "apartment" for the musician, Sylvain Jacques, and myself. The result was a kind of minimal "Big Brother" set which also permit the technical processes of video and music production to be seen by the audience. In addition, we installed  cameras and speakers everywhere, and added the musician and v-jay to follow the main character played by Marijke Pinoy. Some parts of her movements were clinically filmed and mapped live on different parts of the set, while others were pre-recorded but projected in real time. We intended to give the audience a critical perspective on our contemporary voyeuristic culture. The challenge for this deliberate attempt was to involve the musician and visual artist as characters. By doing so, we could intensify the play's conflict and bring new perspectives to the play. A very unexpected yet sensitive touching in the evening was to closely connect the technology to the acting, which is the heart of the dramatic action.

 

With The Rise of Glory, which was produced in 2014 at Gorki Theatre in Berlin, we tried to explore this experimental form further: a comedian (Mikael Serre), a video maker (I) and a musician (Nils Osterndorf) put on stage a funny performance through the telling of an autobiographical story of Mikael Serre's grandfather, who was a pilot during the 1st World War.

 

Once again, I installed a very simple set on stage - a white curtain running from the floor to the background, with all kinds of "sprayed" props (a chair, a suitcase, an old gramophone, a gas mask, a few costumes, mini-cams, microphones, a photo album, an old iPhone and a laptop…). These props helped to connect acting, music, video, documentary elements, live video games, live web browsing projections. Again, the main idea was to explore possibilities of new technology and push the boundaries that confine disciplines and to experiment on new forms of storytelling. In contrast to working with "big theatre production machines", I sometimes prefer to involve myself in intimate work relations with actors, in which I can explore and achieve new aesthetics. Furthermore, when I'm working on stage, I feel like being part of the performance as a musician would feel. What is new with bringing such kind of experience on stage however is that you can feel yourself as part of an orchestra composed of actors or any kind of performers, musicians, and visual artists. I can't stop relating this experience with some early Fluxus performances, where one had the impression that the visual artists were trying to feel emotions of the musicians, inventing their new vocabulary as they went along. Today, thanks to the development of new technology, we can now experiment a lot of things as a visual artist in the theatre, including being an active v-jay, a role that becomes closer to the heart of the performance as any actor,  stage musician or dancer.

 

The Rise of Glory - Mikael Serre

 

As we looking to the future, we want to develop a kind of theatrical form with one or two actors, a musician, and a visual artist working together on a minimal stage environments. This small ensemble would allow us to explore new narrative paths, to experience unexpected dramatic constructions, by bring dramaturgy, acting, sounds, music and video material together in a very intimate, spontaneous and efficient environment. This kind of theatre "laboratory" can sometimes liberate you from habits you subconsciously developed in your constant working on big theatre projects, and relish and recharge your creativity. Although the main goal in theatre making most likely will remains the same -- that is to tell a story to the audience, the audience like to be surprised!

 

Chen: Could you provide us with some examples in which you made seamless connections between what was happening on stage and what was happening on the screen.

 

One of the areas in video creation for theatre that I would like to explore further is to connect stage situations with video sequences in "real time."

 

The classic way of connecting off-stage actors to on-stage actors is to connecting them through the use of cameras. Such examples can be seen in my design for productions like The Stone, Much Ado About Nothing or The Miser,… By projecting the backstage actors communicating with the actors on stage, you get a feel of "real time interaction" even if some characters are not physically present on stage. It often brings unexpected perspectives to the audience and can sometimes even help the dramaturgy.

 

As I said before, I often try to push the concept further by merging stage elements (mostly props), actors' actions and pre-produced video sequences. In the opening scene of Platonow by Chekhov (performed in München, Kammerspiele, in 2009, directed by Stefan Pucher), the high class widow, Anna Petrovna, gives a reception in her garden. While some characters and props (chairs, tables,…) were already one stage, others were projected on the back of the stage in a kind of desert landscape extension. Some characters even appeared twice (in the film and on stage) simultaneously with same costumes and gestures. As actors were progressively disappearing from the landscape video sequence, they appeared in a very synchronic way on the stage. Suddenly a subway (in the video sequence) coming from nowhere arrived and stopped. The doors of the subway in the video opened and the live actress appeared from behind the column as if she was just got off from the train.

 

Sometimes the connection between the on stage situation and video sequence works in a more subtle way. The Ghosts by Henrik Ibsen (directed by Thomas Ostermeier - for Statsschowburg Amsterdam  in 2008 and for / Vidy Lausanne in 2012), is a story about a young adult son who returns home in the deep Norwegian countryside. In this lonely house, he is progressively facing the lies of the past (regarding who his dead father really was) while his mother tries to hide and repair the past trough charitable actions, including the financing of an orphanage. Although the action mostly takes place inside the house, I projected pre-produced "atmospheric"  landscapes (again!)  on Jan Pappelbaum's black cabinet walls,  to bring to live this feeling of loneliness as well as comments on the suffocating situation inside the house. Landscapes were changing according to the situation in the play: abstract slow-moving dots of the city lights were shown on screen when the son talks about the disease he has caught in the city. It morphed into bright, sad and cloudy coasts when the pastor is talking about morality and God. I projected waves of  wind hovering  over a wide field  which is surrounded by thousands of frightened birds to suggest the fire at the orphanage. In a semi-abstract form, these video sequences were simultaneously used as a counterpoint (the outside world as a mirror to the inside family world) and as a metaphor that blend the moods and the "off-field" house environment together.

 

The Ghosts - H. Ibsen

 

Chen: I found it fascinating when I was watching a video-taped performance of Platonow and  discovered the trick that you played to connect what was on the screen with what was on stage. I must say that it is an seamless integration of the two.

 

In The importance of being Earnest, as some of the characters disappeared under the suspended screen through the turning of  the revolving stage, they simultaneously appeared on the video screen and continued their actions (falling in a pool, embarking an helicopter, fighting with angry sheep, etc…) in a pre-recorded sequence.

 

Whatever the aesthetic of a project is, I often like to explore the possibility of mingling its components into "ultra homogenised" short moments. I even like to progressively deconstruct or blast these short moments in the next scenes. I think one of my obsession in theatre is to reflect construction/deconstruction options trough a time-space "collage".

 

Chen: The visual relationship between what is projected on the screen and the live actors that are placed in front of it seem to be a challenge that is common to designers who work with stages that does not have much depth. They are afraid of the fact that, on the one hand, a strong front light on the actors will wipe out the images projected on the background, while, on the other hand, the brightness of the video work on the background will upstage the actors performing in front of it. What are your words of wisdom for this challenge?

 

 I'm not particularly interested in technical challenges even if I constantly have to deal with them. Most of technical problems can be solved through artistic statements or vice versa. You just have to find the hardware/software configuration that suits your ideas and defend your concept while having conversation with the director. But most of all, there is no one aesthetic better than another as long as your work establishes interesting concepts and/or convey emotions to the audience. If you think a grainy, low resolution video style better suits the project you're working on, try to share the idea and defend your positions at the meeting with your colleagues. If you're more interested in perfect clinically hyper HD frames, the procedure is the same. That is to say to share your ideas with colleagues concerned. In the end, it is a matter of feeling you want to create. I think Brecht once said, "Art is not a mirror of the reality, but a hammer to shape it." Even if it is a pretty ideological statement, it still implies that there are infinite solutions or methods to reinvent new aesthetics. In Europe, most of the famous directors have created their own forms by transgressing pre-existing aesthetic dogmas and defining their own. It should be the same for visual artists.

 

Chen: Are you suggesting that we should not be afraid of upstaging the actors with bright video projections on the background, but promote such effect as "new aesthetics"?

 

There are ways to negotiate between light and video. Do not be afraid of experimenting dialogs between these two mediums. I believe that video should not only serve as a background of the acting, but also serve as an intrinsic part of the action. I've been experimenting video images projected on actors or props, sometimes in close collaboration with the lighting designer. The projections for Rise of Glory and Maria Braun are such examples.

 

The Mariage of Maria Braun  ( phots :© Arno Declair)

 

But here are some other examples: in 2008, we worked with Thomas Ostermeier on Shakespeare's play, Othello. The play Premiered at the Epidaurus Festival in Greece. The antique outdoor theatre of Epidaurus was built in 400 BCE and can house over 12 000 spectators, with a very unique scenic view on the landscape. Surely, it is one of the most beautiful place in the world, especially for theatre lovers! It is a theatre convention of ancient Greece that the show starts at the sunset. When the sun slowly disappears, you see the landscape changing colors until it becomes completely dark. If the legendary exceptional acoustic of the place provides an almost perfect intelligibility of unamplified spoken words (wherever you're sitting in the auditorium), dealing with light and video in such a huge classic outdoor space is another story.

 

For this project, J. Pappelbaum built a quadratic metallic space with semi transparent moving fences, a place for a live band and a ground floor changing from dark waters to sand. Because of the scale of the theatre (and the stage), we decided to test the use of video on many levels: filtered cctv camera signals would give  close-ups shots of the actors during certain scenes, while preproduced animated abstract "neon" elements would be mapped on the stage and would sometimes following moving actors ! So I worked very closely with Erich Schneider (the light designer of the Schaubühne) to bring all these elements in one homogeneous form. We had to find a global concept together that could meet all different challenges: how to light the actors simultaneously for a live film scene and for the stage, how to deal with the outdoor changing light, how to deal with limited light and video material in such a huge place, how to follow actors simultaneously with a video projections and light? And, last but not least, how to deal with the setting while rehearsing on the original location in a very limited time: four nights from 09:00 pm to 05:00 am ! (reserving daytime for the visitors)

 

Once again we had to tinker a lot together, change some video design or light elements, adapt them to the uniqueness of the place (having simultaneously in mind that the play should also play in "normal" theatre audience like the Schaubühne, later on). You can only bring these kind of experience to success with a strong team spirit that allows to focus and react on problems solving or jump on new ideas very quickly. This time like never before, I really had the feeling that video and light-design were almost the same and that almost every artistic and technical problems on both sides could only be solved through an open collaboration.

 

Another interesting example is The Maid of Orleans by Friedrich Schiller, directed by Mikael Serre at the (Maxim Gorki Theater - Berlin -December 2015). Even if it had been written by one of the biggest German author of the 19th century, this play deals with one of our most famous French Saint named Jeanne d'Arc. A woman who fought against the English to bring back Charles VII to the French Crown. Because she always said that her mission was sent by God himself, even after her mission was accomplished, she would be betrayed, sold to the enemy, judged and burnt alive as an heretic at the age of 19 (in the year of 1431).

 

For the contemporary adaption of this classic play, the stage designer Nina Wetzel built a kind of sacral space, a sort of "white cube" with neons on the walls. At the first sight, such a space is very appreciable for a visual artist: it is like becoming a virgin 3D screen projection where you could "map" every kind of image everywhere, even on the floor. But once actors are performing in it and the light concept evolves, it becomes tricky because white spaces attract light very much, every kind of light ! And the paradox is that it becomes pretty complex to bring original light and video signal together, constantly fighting the fact that one would destroy the other.

 

So concerning the video, I decided to bring two different kinds of aesthetics during the show. At first, video would work as surrounding field of abstract/symbolic interactive landscapes. To achieve this effect, I had to "choreograph" the video sequences I've  had produced, according to the actors position and movement, in order that projected frames would not cross the actors silhouettes. This was only possible with the help and support of the light designer who accepted the visual concept we slowly brought up a few weeks before during rehearsals.

 

But for some other scenes  (the "battle" scenes), we deliberately let the video signal run over the actors, without almost any other light at all except for a few neon flashes that bounced off of the walls. By projecting sequences showing a chaotic army of hundreds of avatars (played by the actors themselves) and re-projected them on these same five actors performing on stage, we could simultaneously play with the concepts of depth and multiplicity of the battle scene. A kind of modern "epic" and grotesque battle scene where real people were mixed with their own projected avatars. After a few experiment, it became clear to everyone that we didn't need any extra light for these scenes.

 

Je suis Jeanne - ( The Maid of Orleans) F. Schiller

 

So, in conclusion, I would say that whatever your aesthetic vision is, whether or not you need a special light or even sometimes no light at all, try to make friend with the lighting designer and connect your work with his/hers as soon as you can!

 

Chen: What were your creative processes like for the productions? Of course, in the conventional production processes, the script will serve as a blueprint. However, when you compose a video sequence, do you usually have a music score to base on, or music will come later in the process?

 

Like my colleagues, my initial ideas usually will emerge as I am reading a script. Then I will discuss these ideas with the director, the stage designer and the rest of the artistic team. There must be a reason why the director wants to direct this play, and this reason is probably the single most important information for all of us as regard to the world we will all be striving to define, a world in which the story would take place and a world that will fulfill the director's vision of the play.

 

Once we have defined such a world, each of us starts to develop it further during the rehearsal process. The interaction among various participating artists is slowly coming to life during that process. For example, in response to an actor's stage appearance, the musician composes a small music piece, involving projections that I create. Or in reverse, I quickly shoot a sketched scene with an actor and project it on the screen. This in turn may give the director a new idea for a scene, and so on … Making theatre together is a bit like preparing a meal with friends. I often consider my work to be a bit like "cooking." It's all about mixing skills and ingredients together, discovering new tastes and flavours. That is mainly because I like the "composing/collage" process. In theatre, you can mix different media (acting, sounds, videos, drawings, photos, music, etc.) together to achieve a desired result on stage.

 

Once being a drummer, I'm particularly sensitive to rhythm and timing. I also often use my background as a music video director to create sequences and short films based on music compositions. So I'm always very happy when I can edit a sequence based on an existing score or an original song. But as I said before, we, visual artist, composer, costume designer, and actors are developing our work simultaneously. So even if you want to bring  pre-produced sequences on stage, you have to stay flexible until the completion of the production.

 

Anyway, creative process can take various forms. Here are a few examples: A un Endroit du Début (directed by Mikael Serre and performaned at Theatre de la Ville/Theatre du Luxembourg in 2015 -2016) is a project we've just finished working on. It features Germaine Acogny, one of the most famous contemporary African dancers. The project was based on her biography, dealing with the French colonial impact on her family and her education, with her wanderings and fights to preserve her independent women status and keep her own African culture identity. It also deals with her animist practice and some difficult parts in her life. Mikael Serre wanted to add some excerpts from Medea, a play by Eurypides and other texts from her father's autobiography and her grandmother's stories. Having virtually almost no experience of African culture, we were invited by Germaine to go to the Toubab Dialaw village in Senegal for a few weeks. Toubab Dialaw village is a place Germaine settled and founded her Dance School 20 years ago and still lives today. When we arrived, Germaine introduced us to the fishermen village's chef. The next day, we were allowed to film the villagers, interview some of them if they agree to, and attend some ceremonies, school activities, or any kind of village activities, including animist celebrations and sacrifices, … in a very informal way. We started to acclimate ourselves, share ideas and rehearse in a "work-in-progress" mode. We rehearsed every morning with Germaine and went to film every afternoon. A few days later, I started to project some selected video footage while Germaine was choreographing her first movements and rehearsing monologues with Mikael. Then I shot and re-edited loops or sequences between the rehearsals and brought them back on screen the next day. I was in a continuous dialog with Germaine and the villagers in and out of the rehearsals through the "eye" of the camera. Even if, at the end, our project became a pretty narrative one, it has taken its roots in a "documentary process" that helped everyone in the team to share thoughts and impressions. This is a very unique experience.

 

A un Endroit du Debut  - M Serre

 

 

In 2008 Lars Ole Walburg decided to adapt Snow, one of the most famous novel by Nobel Prize winner, Orhan Pamuk, for Münchner Kammerspiele's production. Most of the story takes place during a winter, in the east end of Turkey. The play concerns a Turkish-German poet who decides to go back to his birth place, Kars city, where a number of young veiled girls are suddenly committing suicide. The difficulty of adapting such a complex and atmospheric novel resulted in an unexpected stage design proposal from Robert Schweer - a "mountain" made of 50 old TV screens, which surprised me as soon as I heard about it.  I was both happy and feeling sceptical at the same time. I was happy because I would be getting fifty vintage TV screens to feed; I felt sceptical because, on the old image-splitting system, it only allowed to split eight canals on fifty screens. Visually, the first result was like an unfinished chaotic and repetitive puzzle. But once I accepted this perimeter, I tried to use it as the basis of the creation, working on repetition and deconstruction patterns, which could also convey a very atmospheric perspective of the city of Kars. I started  searching and cutting out some documentary images of the city, dispatching architecture and landscape motives in this strange TV mountain and mixing them with original snow (grainy) digital footage. The audience would get a kind of weird, exotic impression due to the deconstruction or even abstraction of the sequences. All the video footage was constructed with reinterpreted pattern developed from the original images of the city.

 

Snow - Orhan Pamuk

 

When Mayenburg proposed us to work on Much ado about nothing at the Schaubühne, Berlin in 2013, he wanted to include songs performed by actors. Nina Wetzel created a kind of vintage 50's cinema/revue hall while I suggested to reconstruct different film universes, referring to B movies from the same age. The overall ideas was to inspire ourselves with these early "genre movies" (Horror, Sci-fi, Jungle movies, etc.) that,  due to the lack of budget, looked more like a filmed theatre. We found our inspiration in a cinema period which was itself inspired by theatre aesthetics! On a second note, we also wanted to play with layers of reality such as those in Woody Allen's movie, The Purple of Cairo, in which the actors are going in and out of the "film world" to merge into the "real world".

 

In such big projects, where you want to deal with strong visual concepts, you'd better test and secure the visual results as soon as you can. So we tried to anticipate and decide with the director which scenes could  allow us to seek embodiment of this concept. Mostly I would draw storyboards and test them on rehearsal sets, sometimes adding live signals. In parallel, I would start to deal with actors, costumes, props, lighting and set to prepare everything that I want to shoot (mostly against a green screen). This initial process is a bit like the process of producing a short film, using the skills and help of many theatre departments. After shooting the footage, I usually make a quick edit and test it on the rehearsal set. I would then bring new elements, effects, and rhythms to the existing material everyday, depending upon how the directing and acting are evolving during the rehearsal. This process of dealing with many different loops and sequences simultaneously would last until the opening of the show. So, in the end, it is all about rhythm and flexibility. Whatever your concept is, the more you stay flexible and connected to the stage during the working process, the more "alive" and integrated your work will appear.

 

Chen: Your works, rather complex, often exhibit a feel of eclectic (collage like) in terms of the use of medium and material. Overlapping moving images is also a distinguishing feature of your works. Where did the images in your videos come from? What types of medium did you often employ?

 

 It really depends on the project. I sometimes use found footage, open source photos, or even documentary footage when the theatre can afford to clear the rights. Every kind of medium, even abstract sound, is a source of inspiration. Images can come from almost anywhere, but mostly from my cameras and smartphones, which constantly run out of memory! I believe in the power of artificial and critical "pop-collages" which are somehow my personal key to connect my imagination to the theatrical world. I like to mix all kinds of media together, sometimes in a very "more is more" approach, sometimes in a more minimalistic way (depending on the project). I guess I obsessively try to build some virtual mirrors of a certain state of the human condition, to create a dramatic environment of "protean pixels" that could witness the complexity of our chaotic contemporary world.

 

Chen: How did you manipulate the aspects of movement, timing, tempo, and/or rhythm in your works? Do you have guidelines or principles to offer to students who aspired to be a video artist for theatre ?

 

Open mind, determination and flexibility were for me some keys to success. Like I said earlier, I feel very close to the concerns of space and time. Through filming and composing animations, I often focus on making meaningful and/or atmospheric backgrounds/foregrounds images. That is why I often think in terms of "polymorphic loops" that can merge action and space together. It's a bit like when you compose an electronic music tune in a studio: you first bring an inspiring loop (a finite music phrase or sound which you endlessly repeat with the use of the computer), then gradually add some other loops, fragments or any kind of sample or recorded stuff on it to arrange them on the same timeline composition. When I want to bring an animated video to a theatre scene, I first sketch different looped elements together (an actor's grimace, a palm tree, a burning car, a landscape scene, an abstract paper stream, a sheep eating a trash can,…). I test it on stage with the actors as soon as I possibly can. Then, I constantly build and adjust my sequence based on how the scene evolves during the rehearsals; I bring in or remove elements to find the right balance between what I hear and what I see on stage. These loops can gradually progress to become interactive cinematic scenes, mingling pre-recorded actors with sometimes very minimalistic and abstract motives. They can also disappear forever, even if I've sometimes worked on it for weeks! That's also what one must be prepared for if you are to work in the theatre - to "kill your darlings" - the infamous, painful, yet necessary aspect of theatre making. This is the moment when each of us in the team have to abandon some of our favourite creations such as a monologue, a score, a video sequence, etc. in order to preserve the unity and economy of the production as a whole.

 

Workshop with at The Shanghai Theater Academy.

 

 

Chen: What software are you using for video editing and presentations, and why?

 

In modern theatre, compare to music, the video medium is less advanced in terms of standardization. Most of the musicians are using the same software platform to communicate with technicians and bring their mix to the stage. In Europe, I hear that a new V-Jing or media player software comes out almost every month! Due to the fact that motion pictures eat up a lot of hard disk space and memory, and the digital-video definition standard is constantly increasing (from HD, to Full HD, to 2K, to 4K,…), the evolution of the video industry implies a fairly rapid renewal of the video system almost every 3 years. It's a discipline that is still "technically in progress" in every one of its aspects: capture, diffusion, editing and fx compression, without even taking into account the development in internet, smartphone/pads apps, interactive software, 3D movie,… all of which seem to tell us that the best is yet to come! Despite the excitement resulted from a rapid development in the video industry, the pace of change seems to present a problem in terms of artistic creation. As a theatre professional, I often notice how some visual artists are using a new plug-in or software to catch up with the latest fad when the purpose is not relevant enough. That sometimes often annoys me. It happens a lot with students. When they develop their concepts, they already have a visual result of a plug-in or a filter in mind, rather than to think what they really want to achieve. Thinking only in terms of effects won't necessarily bring you art to challenge perspectives. Technology, no matter how fashionable it is, is only means to an end, but not the end itself.

 

Concerning the use of hardware/software, I try to negotiate between the best way to serve the concept I have in mind and the budget that a specific theatre can offer. As I said earlier, it is about finding a technically feasible solution that can be realized by the department of production design. Anyway, the first real challenge is to have a solid aesthetic concept, then choose the appropriate software that will produce the desired visual effect, including the use of diffusion devise. Personally, for the last decade, I've been creating sequences by using more than fifteen different software products and various hardware systems. It's easy for everyone to find a list of these software on the web, to download free demos and test the different capacities of each with the guide of online tutorials. I already know that for each of my next three projects this season, I will be using completely different media players! So the only thing I can advise is to stay a bit aware of what's regularly coming out, but always focus on your own artistic vision, instead of trying to let your idea fit to the trendiest software at the moment.

 

Speak of the very exiting workshop I did with the students at Shanghai Theatre Academy, I chose to introduce them to Isadora,  an affordable software that I think better serves theatre performances than the one that they used to practice. The one that they have been using is designed more for V-jing purpose. Isadora is a software that based less on real-time effects and spontaneous interactions than on the organization of sequences, effects, live signal capture that evolve as the dramatic action unfolds. A play has always had a beginning, a middle and an end. The matter of how you manage your sequences (or the live signal) and mix them together through time is vital. You have to be able to not only create your sequences, but also arrange them in the duration of a play. For example, you need to ask yourself questions such as: how long a certain loop is going to last, when the live signal is going to appear in conjunction with it, when the video is going to interact with music or actors' performance and then disappear, etc…  As musicians and visual artists, just because you do not run the show most of the time, it is important for you to find the right balance between the elements that you want to repeat in every performance and those that you want to evolve based on the actors' performance each night. It is like writing a kind of video score that you will then give to a video technician who runs the video during the show to interpret. Some software allow you to program it, others don't. The way you become interactive with the others (actors, musical score and sets) will eventually pay-off. The interaction among all the elements for me is the real issue of a theatre project.

 

 

Chen: What are your favourite projection devises and surfaces, and why?

 

Dupouey: I open to every kind of surface, although I always try to convince directors and stage designer to let me project on the set from back or front with beamers (multimedia projector). A gauze, a chain curtain, a concrete or wood wall, a floor, a bow window, a sand surface… whatever, for me, video sequences will have a much more "organic" relation to the whole if they are projected on the stage set. I think it suits better to the real-time process of a theatre performance. If I feel bored to have a screen next to (or upon) the set,  I would try to take the advantages of LED projection, which are very powerful and can free yourself from the problem of getting you signal visible. But this solution becomes a new problem in the same time: it's very hard to integrate LED screens into a set and to justify their use in serving a concept, not just because of their technical facilities or light power. I often see big LED screens on a theatre set, which makes the event appear more like a television program or a rock concert than a real theatrical event. Unless I want to bring these kind of aesthetics on stage, I try to be prudent in the use of  LED. The second problem with the digital video, especially with LED projection devise is that the video medium attracts a lot of attention from the audience. I think most of the good theatre projects are those that brings the fusion among different media in which one media doesn't overshadow but complement the others. The paradox is, making your work too present can weaken the quality of your work.

 

Hamlet - W. Shakespeare - (projetcion on chain curtain)

 

 

Chen: As I observed, in many plays you worked on, a turntable was often used in conjunction with a device for the display of video images. Since it would be hard to incorporate wire connections into a turntable, how did you manage to solve this practical problem for theatrical productions?

 

Revolving stages have been one of Ostermeiers signatures in the last decade. As a visual artist, I tried to find the most appropriate technique for each project, sometimes using professional broadcast wireless connections, other times using infra red trackers, pre-programmed frame displacements or manual joysticks, because I found them being able to follow moving surfaces fluently. For the production of Ghosts by Henrik Ipsen, directed by Ostermeier (performed at Vidy Lausanne in 2013), Jan Pappelbaum designed a revolving stage with moving panels. In order to be able to follow the projection surfaces that moved in three-dimensional space, we had to experiment various video manipulation devices before being able to choose one. We finally opted for a 3D joystick frame manipulator, knowing that the play would tour in more than 50 cities and that each auditorium configuration would be different.

 

Again, each technique involves the use of completely different software. I even remember that for Hamlet, we experimented in the first years of my collaboration with Ostermeier (2008). By that time, the most affordable solution was We had to build a manually manipulated axis for the beamer and have to change the scale and the size on the frame almost manually when the chain curtain ran from the back to the front of the stage. This problem was solved through the introduction of  new software a year later…

 

 

Chen: What do you see as major differences between working on a music video or tv-film industry and working on video production for theatre?

 

When you direct a music video or any kind of broadcast project, you mostly have to control every aspect of the production aside from dealing with the client and the producer's expectations. And it is possible because those aspects do not need to happen simultaneously. You first write or adapt a script for the screen, then make a story board. After that, you bring your team together to do the shooting. Then, you will base on what you have gotten to edit the footage and add the sound and visual effects, etc… You work with each collaborators separately, one after another. At the end, you get your finished product with a start and an end, and exact duration, which can be viewed through a household or private device such as a TV or computer monitor, or a display screen of a smartphone,… ).

 

After entering into the theatre world, I discovered the possibilities of a much more intense interactive working mode, especially the interaction with a real audience, because the event happens in the present tense with the artists and audience in the same room! There is a unique feeling of communion and sharing, by being part of a theatre event and being so close to "real people" performing on stage or watching the show. This feeling often inspires me to come up with new ideas on how to use the video medium.

 

Concerning the working process of a theatre production itself, it is clear to me that the sharing of thoughts and creativity among many talents in a production team, such as actors, stage designer, dramaturge, music composer, etc, is done in a more simultaneous, constant and reciprocal way. Everybody has to work hand in hand to bring together a performance that happens in real time. From the conception, rehearsals to the premiere, everybody works in parallel with each other, experimenting things together. That's why, to me, most of theatre directors are more like "arrangeurs" (Eng. arrangers) or conductors than complete "demiurges" (Eng. makers or creators of the universe). They choose their team (actors, costume and stage designers, etc.) and coordinate the creations of all the talents into an unified artistic whole. During the process, each rehearsal can be a new experiment. You can give many trials and share ideas or perspectives before fixing on a situation or a scene. This kind of simultaneous way of working based on dialoguing may has something to do with German contemporary culture, where people can sometimes be sceptical about hierarchy structures and more interested in interactive dialog and communication process (but also in the same time be very pragmatic and organized). This is the main reason that made me slowly quit working in the broadcast/music video industry and shifted my concentration on visual arts for theatre. What attracted me most in theatre are things such as confronting thoughts and ideas, focussing more on intellectual/artistic challenges than on industrial/commercial issues, experimenting some kind of democratic creation processes that is based on dialog and skills exchange, questioning the world by mixing tradition and modernity (theatre is one of the oldest art form and still one of the freest medium of expression in Europe) and probing new aesthetics between the virtual world and the real world.

 

Coming originally from the world of television and the music industry, I especially cherish the  uniqueness of working in the theatre; the fact that you can collaborate all together on a project simultaneously. In the art world, you usually work alone, or you work with other individuals separately. It is always interesting to realize that theatre is, to a large degree, a craft which can be frustrating at times for directors and stage and video designers who only consider themselves first and foremost as solitary artists. In theatre, you've got to work with others. You have to tinker around with thoughts, material things, as well as real people. In addition, you have to learn to compromise should you choose to work in theatre. Compromise is not necessarily a bad thing. Artists are like children. Usually, the bigger their toys collection is, the less creative they are. At the end, like Orson Welles use to say, "the enemy of art is the absence of limitation." I believe in the power of restrictions that are caused by technical limitations and artistic choices. Most of the time, the technical and artistic restrictions can bring you to a higher level of creative challenges and results. That's also why creative jobs are so joyful and painful at the same time!

 

Producing video in particular takes time, because the technology continues to develop. In comparison, the technologies in sound and lighting are pretty much where it has been for quite a while, and the changes seem far more incremental. Every theatre space is equipped with sound and lighting, but if you build a new set, like the one for Richard III, you have to install, and mostly that means to buy new equipment, such as a new projector, new lenses, and other new video technology.

 

As a video artist, my work simultaneously starts with finding a technical solution that suits both creative ideas, the space given, and the budget. Negotiations in these areas can take up a large part of my time in a production process; and at times, this can be a bit frustrating, because one eventually cannot but work around the technical means you can afford to have. .

 

The payoff however is that, in this collective, shared, and more or less democratic world of theatre making, you do not have to fulfil expectations of the audiences and markets. This is something very unique. Even if you hope your work will be appreciated by the audience, you can still be edgy and experimental, because each project has no other purpose than itself. At the beginning, it was fully unexpected for me to find such a free creation field in theatre. This liberty is what I still cherish the most.

 

Chen: Thank you very much for the opportunity of this interview.  I wish you continued success in your upcoming projects.

 

Thank you very much for your interest in my work.

 

Ming Chen

Professor / Resident Scenographer

Department of Theatre, Performance Studies

College of the Arts

Kennesaw State University