Double Edge Theatre is the longest running laboratory theatre in the United States, incorporating elements of music, dance and literature into each performance--the culmination of years of research and training. They recently performed at The Flynn Center for the Performing Arts in Burlington, VT. The Republic of Dreams is an exploration of the life and work of the extraordinary Polish writer and artist Bruno Schulz , who was tragically murdered by a jealous Nazi officer in 1942. Lead actors Carlos Uriona and Matthew Glassman speak with nthWORD about their visionary work.
nthWORD: Can you elaborate on Double Edge's mission to create a living culture through the long-term imaginative work of the actor and his/her interaction with the community? Are the two separate or intertwined? Do you modify, change, or transmute your characters in relation to an audience or environment?
CU: Acting is related to a journey that I do with myself. It stems from an exploration of my inner life, so everything that informs that inner life is part of what in the end will be on stage, and will be shared with the audience. My stimuli and reactions are, in a very alive way, connected with what happens to me and then I try to bring them into the form of a performance.
The way then I organize my life, which relates intimately to the performance, to this inner journey, but also to the production of the whole theatre, then the way my life happens, it's organized in conjunction with other things, that have a connection to the creative work. And in that, somehow, by virtue of moving away from this daily world that we live in, we get closer to a somehow more primitive way of life, and that is what I think of as a living culture.
I don't think that the Greeks when they were developing, without knowing, their theatre and their tragedy--one thing was still separate from the other. I've seen this in cultures that are experiencing Marti Gras, where Marti Gras is a performative experience done by a collective that moves away from the ordinary life into this extraordinary month of performative explosion. You can see it in South America, and here in the United States, in New Orleans. And in that thing, I think that life becomes enhanced.
nthWORD: John Malkovich said that theater is more like painting than film, because with each performance you refine your previous brush strokes, and thus the painting as a whole. How does the inner learning experience relate to the extensive research you've done to bring into experience the extraordinary work of Bruno Schulz? With each performance, are you moved to try new things, to build on ideas? Or, like some bands, is it the same great song every time, played the same way, with the impact on the feel of the thing?
MG: I would say that our exploration is more like jazz than a band that is playing the same song to perfection each time with no variation. I would say yes to your question, with each performance we're not only moved to try new things, and to build, but we're constantly trying to find the spirit of improvisation inside the form. So we build the work from scratch, starting from training, using training to go into a connected state with each other, a physical, psychodynamic state where we can be very connected as we are improvising and creating worlds through improvisation. And we do that for a very long time. In the case of Schulz we researched and trained and improvised for a very long time before going to structure and performance. I'd say at least about a year or two years. So the work is growing out of improvisation, it's giving birth to an improvisation, and then we structure it, we sculpt it and we find the arc of it, the narrative, even if it's not a linear one, and the world and what we're trying to articulate. When we're performing, we do have a very set structure, and you could even say a script that is the whole performance, but we're constantly trying to find the spirit of the improvisation of that same presence we had when we were creating it and try to be creating it throughout the course of performing it with an audience. And then we are constantly revisiting it, developing it, changing it on a daily basis when we're performing the piece. Even years into it we continue changing it. Although the structure tends to change less, something inside and relationships do continue to change and develop.
nthWORD: What makes the work of Bruno Schulz so compelling to you and to Double Edge?
MG: What's so compelling about Bruno Schulz is his utmost commitment to the irrational or to his imagination or the spirit. As an actor, what I found most compelling in his work is both the freedom and the vulnerability in his visual art as well as his writing.
CU: There is a repositioning of the idea in his work, in my vision, his commitment to the irrational and to desire. There are other writers and painters that transit that, not very many, but there are. He was a flag bearer of this, where the idea becomes not the leading force. When you read his letters with other writers, there is a book with his letters, the idea doesn't become the leading force in the work of art, rather some kind of daunting nightmare that is maybe unutterable, but he makes the effort to put it on paper, by etching or writing these incredible short stories of the wild, crazy world, and the idea comes afterwards. And this is how I like to work in theatre. We don't sit down with an idea. We work in an irrational way in trainings. And then the idea comes into place. There is a repositioning in his work, of values of things, and the instinct comes first.
nthWORD: One of the things I noticed when I saw "The Disappearance" and "The Republic of Dreams" was the way the troupe presented at the beginning of the show. I found that very interesting. I was expecting to go in and see a typical theater where the actors come out on the stage and begin the performance, but what I saw was a lot of interesting things happening within each individual actor, separately, and then building their interactions together in a very improvisational way. So what is that like before you go into performance, before you go in front of a new audience? Right before you begin the show?
MG: It's not always the same, what we share with an audience. You'll have to remind me. Up in Burlington, one night we were training as the audience was coming in, and the other night we were all separate and alone.
nthWORD: I must have been there the night you were training, because there were actors sliding around on the floor and doing all sorts of crazy stuff.
MG: Yes, that was us training. What you saw that night and what we decided to do, which is rare, was to open up that preparation to the audience as another reflection of the spiraling mirrors behind "The Disappearance" where you're seeing actors playing actors and the layers of masks. In "The Disappearance" when you come in you're seeing members of the theatre entering and beginning their theatre world. So we were playing with the idea of us preparing as ourselves to become the actors that are preparing to become other characters. What we're doing in training, we always train before we perform, we're waking up our bodies and our voices and we're establishing our physical connection, our group connection, to a very detailed and deep place, where we can sense when we're going to move and how we're breathing. And we're engaging with our physical limits at that time, in order not to be only in our minds, but to be waking up all of our senses, all aspects of our bodies and our minds and our emotional reality. Doing that alone and in partnership with each other, to have a dynamic and connection to ourselves and to each other.
nthWORD: I found it very engaging, as someone who has seen very little theatre and a few modern dance performances, I didn't know what to expect, but I enjoyed the interaction, each actor seemed to be opening the individual curtain to his or her imagination.
MG: I think that's the idea. Our idea of engagement isn't from thinking about engagement or thinking about the psychology behind engagement. We are trying to be deeply engaged with one another.
nthWORD: The last time we spoke here in Burlington you used the word explode when describing the discovery process of authoring your performance. I like the sound of that, but what does it mean? Is it an artistic epiphany or an organic revelation of truth?
MG: I think it has to do with going past your self, going past what you already know. In certain training in theatre or dance or martial arts, you have a form that you are repeating, in a play you have blocking, you have a structure, you're given a script that has all the truths in it, and you're trying to actualize them, you're trying to find that form and bring it to life. At Double Edge, in our process of training and creating, we're trying to take forms and explode them and go past them. In the process of researching and exploring Schulz, we were not trying only to interpret the stories or recreate them, but create from a wild abandon, the way he does, to take our inspiration from him and to create our world that we related to and explode them.
There was a moment in our process where for some reason I was drawn to a training which was like running in place, not like jogging in place, but with the idea of actually running as hard as you can without being able to move forward, but with all of the energy and momentum of moving forward but not actually, but not being able to move forward. I would do this training a lot. In different ways, hanging from a bar, I would do it being carried. And there was a time when we first started working with a curtain, I would do it and watch my shadow as I was running in place, and I had my Bruno Schulz hat on and my costume, and I would run in place with a light projected behind me and I would see my shadow. And I would keep doing this, and sometimes there would be some music that was building up, gaining momentum, getting bigger and bigger, and I would run faster and faster, and I would watch my shadow, I'd reach a place of being tired, or even boredom at times, with the idea of going past what I could do with this run, because it had some meaning although I didn't know what it was. And I would watch my shadow and certain associations would come, and certain things would be evoked, to be running in a nightmare, to be running away or to something, any fears or desires, and in order to keep running, I began to separate myself from the shadow as if the shadow were a puppet, which of course it is, and I was making it run, and then my relationship to the shadow and the story took on another meaning and I found myself really inside a Schulzian world. And my colleagues were also improvising around me in different scenarios. So there's a whole world that's being built of multiple stories and images. It's in that moment when the inner music and the outer music is all building, and you're engaging in some physical way and then you hit your limit and you find the thing that propels you forward past it, and then you're in this place, and that happens rarely, but that's why we work so long, so we can accumulate those rare moments of some form of explosion which can have infinite manifestations.
nthWORD: Carlos, what are your thoughts on this explosion ? How has this worked for you in the past, with your character the Father in "Republic of Dreams." It's a fascinating character.
CU: Explosion to me has to do with something unexpected, I surprise myself and I get lost, literally lost in what I'm doing. Sometimes I get lost in my own emotions. Over the years, I've learned how to frame myself to crop things out, to not hold on to certain emotional things, to be surprised. I don't have a predetermined journey with a character. If I am going to start the Father, today I have a beginning that relates to something that is happening to me, but tomorrow that thing is not happening, so I start to follow that thing that is happening inside me. What am I experiencing? Is it sadness or a deep melancholy or am I so excited I can barely...If I try to bind the actions of the character, or the score of this music I am playing, this is a preconception of the emotion that should be attached to it, and I wouldn't know how to do that. So I have learned to play the score and craft or sculpt those emotions. So I surprise myself, which opens up something for the audience too. Like a story teller, you don't know exactly what I'm going to do, so for the audience it is something really unexpected. So the audience is like, 'What is he going to do next? How far is he going to go?' And really I don't know. It's an impulse and that's where the explosion happens. Ok, I have these notes and this text and these movements I'm going to do, but how I'm going to do them is the surprise. Now, of course they happen within a certain frame, because the plot work needs to happen a certain way in a place and in a time, and there are words uttered that are the same words, but the intonation, the attacks, the breathing, the tempo, I play with that ad infinitum without a preconception. And that's the explosion.
nthWORD: It brings a real vitality to the stage, as I witnessed in Burlington. How does your dramaturge, or literary editor, aid you in your own process as you develop your art?
MG: The outside dramaturge helps identify patterns in the creation stage. It's important that we're distinguishing how different this is from the majority of what's conventional in theatre today in our country, where the world is being created by the writer and then handed over to a director and then actors are brought in for a short period of time to interpret the words of the writer and the vision of the writer and the director, but in this case we are all writing the whole of the performance. The dramaturge is very important on the very base level of research, researching with the actors. In the case of Schulz, it's his work, his essays, the context, the history, and his visual art as well. Most importantly, because each actor does that on his own, the dramaturge will watch the long process of training and improvisation, of études that the actors make, of directed scenes, visual and design-based experiments, and is working with each actor to help identify the patterns, some of the worlds and the floating signs, and say 'I saw you do this here, and I saw you do this over here on this night, and that might be interesting to think about how those are juxtaposed, or how closely you are unconsciously or consciously relating to this image in Schulz's artwork.' And help draw those connections. In the course of creating it, the actors are doing a lot of his or her own homework and writing their parts and making etudes. But in the course of so much improvisation, and in trying to go past our minds and our rational way of conceiving things, the dramaturge is very helpful in identifying patterns, structures, arcs and other connections in the work.
nthWORD: That sounds really innovative, as far as my knowledge of theatre. Like a music producer with a band. Each band member is writing and playing what he feels as it occurs to him, not necessarily what's on paper.
MG: I think this is a much more European approach to Dramaturgy. I really love this way of approaching Dramaturgy. It's a combination of editing and writing and producing in a way, but really seeing each person's work and the group's work and drawing those connections you can't always see from inside. And the process of identifying the structure, and the arc, what will become the performance, is a very difficult stage, going from stage one, which is total improvisation, total freedom and exploration, to stage three which is a performance which has an idea of narrative, has a specific idea of narrative, and is relating to an audience. So in the second stage there is part of the journey that is about structure, and meaning and sense as Schulz might say.
CU: There is something important here that I want to underline. There is not just one meaning or sense. Meaning is complex and a multiple phenomenon that happens to a human being. So the dramaturge connects dots that aren't necessarily being connected to the work. Like I might have all the inner meaning that I want, but it's not making the right connections to the outer structure of the work. So we are confronted with a puzzle when we're doing this kind of work. And I think that any type of artistic work, whether it's writing, painting, movies, I think it is a puzzle. The multiplicity of examining, or the meaning presenting itself as a multiplicity of things is one of the challenges that as artists we all face if we want to transcend a certain place we're in. And I do want to transcend that, so I get all the help I can with all the meanings I can. Having dramaturges work with me and helping the director put together the visuals, it's like an outside eye telling us, this is what I read and how about all this other stuff, how are you going to bring this into the picture. And we're creating pictures over and over again, and training to understand all the meanings we are juggling with.
nthWORD: Going back to the research piece, what did you learn when you traveled Drohobycz to speak with refugees who'd studied under Schulz?
MG: That expedition, Double Edge has been inspired by Schulz since its inception, and in 1994 the company made this research expedition to Drohobycz and met the remaining Jews in Drohobycz and met people who knew Schulz and had a lot of cultural exchange with both the Jewish and non-Jewish community in Drohobycz, now the Ukraine. Neither Carlos and I were part of that expedition. But one thing that we did do, which was really incredible for me, was we did travel and do a specific trip to Poland, where the company has been working for over twenty years. And we got to see all Schulz's original drawings and prints at the Mickiewicz Museum (of Literature) in Warsaw and it was incredible to be up in this little attic in this museum to see all his drawings in the flesh, because they are so vibrant and so alive and so strong versus what we see in a book. And that made a further imprint on me, and I think Carlos might agree with me that we immersed ourselves so deeply in Schulz and all of his work, so that each encounter we have with his work is going deeper.
CU: One thing I think is important when you do an expedition, let me go back to living culture. When you are in Drohobycz, even seventy years after the tragedy happened, 80 years after his life happened, there are still the same buildings, there are still remainders of a certain kind of substance that people are still carrying around. And you can see it. And if you can't see it, you can perceive it. And when you go and you have a dinner and the family opens up their home and they receive you, they have a certain way of doing things and a certain way of honoring you and honoring everything you're doing. And this woman, after a while, a Jewish woman, who was related to Bruno Schulz, she tells the story of what happened after the Nazis, when the Soviets came, so the Soviets were not allowing them to practice anymore. So the synagogue became a stable for the horses during the Nazi occupation, then it was turned into a Nazi furniture factory. And right now, after the end of the communist era, it was becoming a synagogue again. So they were recuperating. So this woman is having our people, I wasn't there, for dinner. And during the dinner she felt compelled and moved and she went to her library and she opened the shelf and there was a second library, a hidden library, where the prayer books that were used in 1890 probably by Bruno Schulz's parents in the same synagogue were still there. We have them. She gave them to us and we have them here. And in that act, or in the act of toast or eating together some fish, and the way they prepare it and the way they smile and the way they breath, you begin to understand art again, and that's also living culture, to give you the other side of living culture. So that's what you learn when your are researching and you travel and you visit people.
nthWORD: You made a comment about rediscovering art again, and I thought that was a profound thing to say, because how many times can you discover art in your lifetime...So what questions do you think "Republic of Dreams" tries to answer? Or does it?
CU: Or what kind of questions does it try to pose? I think there is a question related to what you just said, how many times can you discover art? It's a question to our own imagination, and our imagination as an antidote to tragic stupidity, or fate, because "Republic of Dreams" is dealing with, all the time, his tragic death is looming in the story, and also when you look at his art, you have that perception that he is forecasting that something terrible and really stupid is going to happen. And it does. He gets shot out of jealousy by somebody who had the power to do that. But still the words that we chose to end the performance are those that he wrote that "no dream goes wasted in the universe." So I think that that is a question, How many times can I discover art? and How many times can I discover life, or discover love. I think that's the question we are still trying to ask. I hope that the answer is infinite. And I suspect it is. But more than what I suspect, is that I hope it is, that it keeps me going somehow.
nthWORD: Thank you for your time. This has been a revelation, learning about your theatre. I think it's really incredible what guys you do. nth.