Siobhan Davies + Katie Mitchell

“I love giving instructions about place and time because I like the physical and visual outcome of those instructions” Katie Mitchell, Theatre Director
  • Page
  • 1
  • 2
  • SD _ How do you recognise choreography in your work, which I think you do?
  • KM _ Is it possible to tell me what you mean by the word ‘choreography’?
  • SD _ I’d quite like to extend my meaning of choreography through other people’s practice, so I don’t want our conversation to only be defined by my meaning. I mean less the fact that you use dancing in your work. It is things like how you use time, place and architecturally structure the whole, for reasons I imagine of legibility, so that through choreography we make the idea, the action or the sense legible.
  • KM _ Maybe it would be useful then for the purposes of this conversation if I took the word ‘choreography’ to refer to how I construct the action that the audience see and the environment in which that action occurs?
  • KM _ The decisions about how the performers will use the space are determined early on during the preparation work I do with the designer on the environment where the action of the play will occur. We avoid intellectual or conceptual conversations and start instead with a detailed study of all the descriptions of place and time in the text. We often find ourselves imagining that we are the characters in the play navigating our way through the places where the scenes occur - and we always aim to construct an environment or series of environments that the actors will be able to use easily. When we have pinned down place we study the action of the play and look for the moments where things change either psychologically (for example someone declares their love for someone for the first time) or physically (an armed gunman rushes into the room). Finally we construct the characters’ biographies and discuss the ideas underpinning the text. The biographies help us make decisions about costumes and the ideas help us make choices about the tone, textures and colours. (For example, if one of the ideas is death and illness we might emphasise this by using pale yellows and depressing beiges for the walls of the set or by selecting a patterned pale wallpaper which is slightly decaying or damp.) Then we talk about the aesthetic principles that will underpin the design. We might for example discuss placing a critical piece of architecture, like a staircase, on the golden section or enhance the perspective of a scene by positioning a small table right down stage. All the time we are thinking of creating an environment that the actor can use naturally (as the character in the situation) and yet will lead them to position themselves in a way that is aesthetically pleasing and well focused for the audience.
  • SD _ And the rehearsals?
  • KM _ In rehearsals I never tell the actors where to stand or how to move and instead I rely on the design process to provide them with an environment that they can move in naturally and logically without having to worry about being seen by the audience or sightlines. If the quality of the movement or the use of the space is not accurate I give them more notes primarily about place and time.
  • SD _ Can you talk about the instructions about place and time?
  • KM _ I love giving instructions about place and time because I like the physical and visual outcome of those instructions. For example if I ask two actors playing a love scene in a room in a large house to think about the rest of the house (and the people in the other rooms in that house) they will immediately talk faster, shift around more, turn their heads involuntarily towards all the doors into the room or even move away from any doors. Or if I ask actors playing characters at a family breakfast to focus on the fact that they are eating later than normal and will all be late then all their actions will be faster; some may jiggle their feet or legs, others may look at their watches or a clock and the way they all talk will be more tense. I use instructions like this about place and time to calibrate the detail and quality of the movement of the characters in the scenes.
  • SD _ So time and place notes affect how you look at emotions in your work?
  • KM _ When I started directing I thought that emotion had to reside in the actor, so everything I did in rehearsals was designed to help the actor experience a real emotion on stage in front of an audience. Over time however I realised that it was more important for the audience to experience emotions and that the audience’s experience was not always dependant on the actor experiencing an actual emotion. I noticed that sometimes an actor experienced an emotion (for example they burst into tears) and the audience felt one too (they cried), but I also noticed that the audience experienced emotions if the actor simply re-enacted the physical components of an emotion. For example, when someone is sad they can have shoulders that are hunched over or move more slowly than normal or when someone is angry they can have tense shoulders and move objects about more quickly than normal. I gradually realized that re-enactments of the physical components of an emotion were a more reliable way of making the audience experience emotions and I worked closely with the actors to re-enact those physical components. I would also watch the audience closely to see what affect the actors were having on them emotionally or physically.
  • SD _ Are there other tools you use in rehearsals to architecturally structure the whole of the performance?
  • KM _ I shape the overall architecture mainly by working on the moments of change and I call these moments ‘events’. As I said earlier events are either psychological or physical and they are the main cogs that turn the machine of the play. When an event happens the tempo of the action will alter - either slowing down or speeding up or becoming more jagged and so on. For example, if someone arrives and announces that a war has begun the tempo of everyone’s actions will change. Someone sipping tea may stop mid-sip and hold the cup suspended just in front of their lips for a few seconds or even minutes and then they might put the cup down on the saucer four times slower than they picked it up. This is an example of a tiny change but if there are ten people in the room when the announcement is made and they all make similarly tiny alterations then the change is amplified and becomes significant for the audience. For me a play is a series of changes and the changes create the variation in the rhythm and tempo of the performance thereby creating the overall ‘musical’ architecture of the play.
  • SD _ This is relevant to me because the next piece I’m going to do will be at the Victoria Miro Art Gallery. The aim is to make a continuous work without a beginning or an end. The difficulty is, what structure can we have that has vitality over such a long period, one that feels conscious at any one point.
  • SD _ There needs to be a clarity about how an audience enters into our gallery situation, how might they be choreographed as part of their experience.
  • KM _ The subtlety of dealing with the difficult and different physical relationships that every person in the audience has to the performance is one of the biggest challenges of directing well. When you first start directing you think there is only one seat and it’s the one you are sitting in. Then you go through the horror of realizing that there are as many perspectives on the performance as there are seats in the auditorium. For example, the Lyttleton Theatre at The National Theatre has over 600 seats and therefore 600 different angles from which to view the action on stage. After realizing this you go through years of trying to work out how you can satisfy every single different perspective and make sure that every audience member has a fair and equal experience of the action. Then you realize that you have to allow for the fact that some people simply will not see some of the action on stage but what matters is that everyone has something interesting to look at. Working in a gallery space will be fascinating because you will have to focus action for a mobile audience who can shape themselves as they want around whatever you choose to present them with and in whatever place you choose to put it in the gallery. I have never done a promenade production in a theatre and I imagine it will be enormously complicated to choreograph.
  • KM _ Choreographers are much more sophisticated in their use of space than many theatre directors and maybe this is because the theatre is more interested in producing well- polished spoken words than it is in making interesting movement in space. Therefore more emphasis is put on language than on the spatial or visual side of things. I am particularly struck by the emphasis on organizing actors symmetrically – for example the most important action or character is often positioned down stage centre with everything else fanning out from this position on either side. This tendency may go back to the layout of the first playhouses built in the 18th century: there was a special seat for the king in the centre of the auditorium and his courtiers sat either side of him and fanned out from his seat in descending rank. This arrangement was mirrored in the staging of the plays with the king character positioned in the centre and all the less important characters on either side. Many theatre people still organize characters on stages in this way and the language we have for talking about space is very crude, especially the verb ‘blocking’ which describes the process of organizing the actors on stage. This word gives the impression that the process is like banging bits of wood together rather than a subtle and complex craft. The words we use to describe positions on the stage are similarly limited to the terms ‘stage left’, ‘stage right’, ‘upstage’, ‘downstage’ and ‘centre stage’. Maybe the limitations of these terms contribute to a rather crude way of thinking about space in mainstream theatre.
  • SD _ You are right, that is crude. Essential and enjoyable questions in my dance making revolve around different spatial configurations. Where does a dancer or a phrase of action need to be placed in order to have a particular impact and how raw or subtle can that positioning be.
  • KM _ The detail of your use of space is amazing and maybe the reason you can use spatial configurations in such a complex way is because you’re not held hostage by realism and the expectations of the linear narrative in a ‘well made’ play.
  • SD _ So when you look at the geography of your stage, is there anything you can say about that?
  • KM _ I am very influenced by painting and have spent a lot of time studying the history of painting and its usefulness for theatre making.
  • KM _ I was particularly struck by the Impressionists’ use of space and when I studied their work I realized something essential: the Impressionists removed the hierarchy in the organization of people on the canvas, so suddenly every part of the canvas had equal value and meaning. I became interested in directing theatre like that and this is the main idea that determines the ‘geography’ of my staging.
  • SD _ You have spoken about your use of space. Can we talk about your use of text? In my work instead of text I could use music as a principal form but I have shied away from music that is heard being the prime source of the dance’s emotion and structure. I wanted to learn how movement works on its own terms before it has accompaniment. Could it have a developed sense of timing? We began to experiment by using exact chunks of time: ten, twenty, thirty seconds. How could we measure out each of these chunks in different ways?
  • KM _ Do you do it with clock time?
  • SD _ We have done it with metronome time.
  • KM _ That is such a great experiment.
  • SD _ It was. There is something that I found overpowering about the music that is both heard by the audience and artists during the performance as well as being the underpinning to the choreography throughout rehearsals. But we have used the structure of short musical scores to give us a form. We worked with simple Italian folksongs in which each note was attached randomly to one specific move from a family of moves. When the note turned up in the score its relevant move was done with the timing indicated in the score. This discipline and oddly ordered structure was a challenge and although the system dominated the initial work, after a while it produced a disarming but interesting waywardness, especially if the original family of moves had similarity and character.
  • SD _ I’ve only explained that as a way of saying how I tried to deal with the musical score. You are trying to remove aspects of the text, but can you talk about that at all?
  • KM _ I can’t think of anything that would talk to that in terms of what I might be doing.
  • SD _ I think what I’m getting at is that you do shape your work, so if you are not only shaping it through the text, you are shaping it through some mixture of rhythm, ideas and placement and is there a play that might allow you to speak about that. I spoke about dismantling the musical score, could you talk about what you do to the text?
  • KM _ I don’t dismantle texts – the text just gets ‘downgraded’ in my work because I regard it as one ingredient of human behaviour and therefore only one element of what the audience are watching.
  • SD _ So can you talk about the upgrading of the other ingredients.
  • KM _ We use the text to build strong pictures of the past and the future and these pictures help the actors calibrate the way in which their characters behave in the present action of the play. For example, we study the text for information about the past biography of each of the characters and work on how these past events affect their behaviour in the action of the play. Or we look for information about the characters’ wishes for their future happiness and work on how those future outcomes determine their ‘present’ behaviour. This work allows the actor to position their character accurately in clock time and reminds them that the play is just a brief slice of the life of a person, and that they should therefore avoid things like playing all the painful past events in their character’s life as if they had happened two minutes before the play begins. Then we study the present action of the play and diagnose the desires that underpin all that is said and done. This makes the actors aware of the way in which language is a result of these desires and makes it clear that the desires are more important than the words used to achieve them.
  • KM _ These are the factors that determine human behaviour – in life and in plays – and working on these factors leads to acting that is physically and psychologically life-like, and as a result the actors focus less on producing beautifully spoken words. This is just like life when we are not always conscious of the words we are choosing to speak. When you think back to the key events in life, you often don’t remember the words you said, you remember some key sentences or some key words but more often you remember pictures of how people sat, or a close up of a cup with a little bit of steam coming out of it. In rehearsals we also focus on the way the words are spoken. Documentary film footage of people talking in life reveals that the delivery of the words is not always smooth and sometimes our desires or past pictures break up our delivery of words or sentences. We try to replicate these life-like patterns in the way in which characters speak the play text on stage.
  • KM _ Strangely there’s a very angry response to this way of making theatre (from some critics and some audience members) and I don’t know quite what’s causing it. The psychiatrist, Neil Brener, who sees everything I do, suggests that people don’t like the fact that the emphasis in the work is on emotion and behaviour instead of the beautiful speaking of words. The people who do not like my work seem to want still bodies and mellifluous speaking.
  • SD _ Is this because in this country we are well known for our literature. Throughout our history we have valued the written word and precise articulation, but you are extraordinarily articulate.
  • KM _ We value it in a way in which we don’t acknowledge that all language is an approximation.
  • SD _ One of the tasks for the dancers in the second part of the Two Quartets was to make a series of individual portraits using movement. The performers faced the audience and attempted to reveal foreground and background states of being, trying to convey thought and feeling through actions. It was tricky because we don’t think in a single linear direction. We experience ideas and emotions about different subjects at the same time: conflicting memories, questions and predictions. These constant juxtapositions began to be a source of material for the portraits.
  • KM _ It’s a holy grail perhaps, but it’s really one to head for is it not?
  • SD _ Well, as a group we really felt we have to try this again, we have to see if we can get better at this, but I had some great friends whom I admire a great deal who said ‘Sue, you have to go through this stage but you’ll get over it’. And I’m going…
  • KM _ ‘…this is it, it’s not ‘this stage’!’
  • SD _ I don’t know, I would certainly want to get better with this process, but the performers and I felt stronger through working within this new territory. The using of gesture, everyday movement and developed movement felt descriptive of human experience and isn’t that what we are meant to be trying to get at.
  • KM _ Yes you’re absolutely right, we’re supposed to replicate what it is to be human and experiencing the world, oneself and other people. It’s very hard to find the metaphors and forms that are accurate, adequate and complex enough to fulfill that task.
  • KM _ It’s very funny, I read on a website recently that a theatre in London was advertising a workshop on ‘blocking’. They were advertising it as if that was 90% of a director’s job, and I thought ‘Blimey if it were that easy!’ What a director is actually trying to do is to help actors to replicate life-like behaviour on stage and this is an enormously complicated task – it’s a life’s work to be able to learn how to do it accurately.
  • SD _ Something else that the dancers and I often discuss is how do we find something that is interesting and real to do in performance and what kind of reality could the audience be able to connect with as they enter the gallery.
  • SD _ Next step will be the new work at the Victoria Miro Gallery. We need to be able to produce something that will be scrutinized at close quarters. I do like large scale works, but I am also fascinated by detail. How can we encourage the audience to observe and experience the work more closely.
  • KM _ Detail that will be scrutinized closely like that requires immense rigour from the performer and also from the director and I do not envy you that task. I imagine you’ll have to watch the work as if you were looking at it under a microscope and direct it as finely.
  • SD _ I spoke recently to the ceramicist Edmund de Waal. I think he deals with macro time – long time. He works with stillness and repetition.
  • SD _ Waves Image 1 He makes pots of a closely similar shape and size. The pleasure for us who are looking at them is the slow realization of how different they are. That leads me to a another question, because I also think in terms of long and short time. The problem with long time is how to maintain suspense. When I look at your work I see an extraordinary layering of transparent files with detailed information. I experience short time, for instance in The Waves each performer’s part is made present through film, foley, action and text at the same time. Can you talk about this?
  • KM _ I don’t like one thing to look at, so I create meaning by giving the audience several different things to look at simultaneously.
  • SD _ Therefore the emotion is brought out by needlework?
  • KM _ Yes ’needlework’ is a good way of describing it.
  • KM _ I love the idea that one character is played by several actors at the same time: one actor is the face of the character close up on a screen; another is the hands of the same character in close up fiddling with the edge of a table cloth; another is making the sound of the fingers fiddling with the tablecloth; another is whispering the thoughts in the character’s head into a microphone. For me that way of presenting character is closer to capturing how we experience ourselves and others in life than a linear narrative in well-made play with beautiful language.
  • KM _ Waves Image 2 Waves Image 3 Waves was lovely, because it was lots of different people creating one person or one fragment of one moment in one person’s life and I find that delightful.
  • SD _ It’s massively ‘chordal’.
  • KM _ Yes, that’s a very interesting way of describing it. We’re doing Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot next.
  • KM _ Then we’re doing this Kreutz play that you would love. It’s about the last hour of a woman’s life before she commits suicide and the character doesn’t say a word. She comes home, eats a meal, washes up, does a bit of needlework and then simply lays out the pills and takes them – do you know that play?
  • SD _ No I don’t but it reminds me of one of the conversations I had with the artist Anri Sala. I had told him about choreographing an action. It was catching a ball. We broke this movement down into clear parts and then re-sequenced the parts, disturbing the natural order. Anri asked how we could make this appear urgent. I began to think what would happen if just before a fatal accident we were able to see the simple day to day moves that led up to the accident. The reordering of the actions would bring an urgency, an intensity, even a value to these last physical moments.
  • KM _ It’s very beautiful isn’t it that you break up all the components of a simple thing, but don’t the dancers go mad?
  • SD _ Yes, some of the dancers, did go slightly mad. On the other hand, Sarah Warsop, who made the catching-the-ball sequence enjoyed this reordering. It would send her slightly potty, but she grappled with the idea because she has that kind of polarity.
  • KM _ When I started the multimedia work I encountered similar concerns among the performers I work with regularly. Some really liked the technical precision of breaking down the tiny, tiny details of a character’s psychology into tiny, tiny actions and then playing one action, like a hand movement or a voice over. Others were initially driven mad by it.
  • SD _ During the first of the Two Quartets I worked with four dancers who needed to be co-dependent on each other. Their task was to describe a continuous circle by walking and running: one person at the centre moving slowly, the second then the third and the fourth on the perimeter moving the fastest. While running the circle they had some nifty moves to change their position or rotation, therefore they were forced to change their pace. It was extraordinary how each of them coped very differently with these spatial and temporal shifts: one would need to understand where they were in alignment to the room. Another could only deal with the changes if they understood clearly where they were in close relationship with the other dancers – they needed no reference to the room. Another had to concentrate on their changing speed to mediate where they were, so each one had a completely different method of understanding their part within the whole.
  • KM _ And how did you work with them on it?
  • SD _ We just had to keep rehearsing it until they all knew how they wanted to know where they were, but they couldn’t all do it one way.
  • KM _ And how was the idea itself generated?
  • SD _ I wondered whether I could make the audience see a shape on stage. The dancers would repeatedly mark out a path and then on each repetition add details. Originally the first map that we made was a complicated pathway, but we could not make it clear enough to ourselves, let alone an audience, so we reduced the map to a simple circle. I didn’t end up with what I thought it would be, but it did end up having strengths I hadn’t anticipated. It had a good sense of concentration and changing energy.
  • KM _ And when you said it didn’t end up, why?
  • SD _ The idea had to be simplified
  • KM _ Simplified, yes, you see that’s when we get very unsatisfied.
  • SD _ In the end I think we got somewhere else, but it wasn’t the thing I’d set out to do.
  • KM _ So in that case you’d leave it there for the time being and then you could revisit it?
  • SD _ I need to know better questions to ask in order for them to be able to answer them, in order for us to be able to get to the place.
  • KM _ Would you perceive the dancers as your equal collaborators?
  • SD _ Yes, they experience the movement from the inside and therefore have specific information to feed back to me who is on the outside. We build up a piece through this constant transfer of information.
  • KM _ Do certain performers travel for long periods of time with you?
  • SD _ Deborah Saxon I think has worked for me for eighteen years.
  • KM _ It’s very interesting isn’t it because it’s only at a certain stage with a long term working relationship with a key performer that you become aware of why you have the relationship, in terms of what they can articulate for you.
  • SD _ But it is also that we keep absorbing and renewing information from each other. Deborah Saxon will point out that we are on old territory and need to move on.
  • KM _ I know and I love my close collaborators for their tough critiques.
  • SD _ I think there is a whole debate to be had about this linear structure, that you are the director and they are the performers which puts in place a kind of hierarchy which is both correct and incorrect. I would love to find a way in which the hierarchy was rearticulated, so that we can redefine the subtle relationship between all contributors.
  • KM _ Yes I completely agree and the work I am doing at the moment with film, sound and theatre is certainly a breakthrough in terms of how multi-faceted that relationship can be.
  • KM _ I hope to continue to explore all my working relationships through this genre of work in 2009, especially with the new performance some trace of her with the video designer, Leo Warner.
  • SD _ That’s the Dostoyevsky?
  • KM _ Dostoyevsky – then it’s Request Programme, the piece about the woman who kills herself.
  • SD _ Where are you going to do Request Programme?
  • KM _ In Cologne. The artistic director of the Cologne Schauspielhaus, Karen Beier, is putting together a programme of work which combines visual arts projects, multi-media work and mainstream theatre. After that we do After Dido for ENO and then Luigi Nono’s opera In the Bright Sunshine Heavy with Love in Salzburg.
  • SD _ I have learned a lot through reading, trying to understand how a writer organizes thought and emotion through the structure of their sentence or their paragraphs.
  • KM _ Didn’t you do that amazing bit of text…
  • SD _ …with Caryl Churchill.
  • KM _ How did that come about?
  • SD _ I asked Caryl to come in and watch rehearsals with no pressure to produce anything. We know each other and each other’s work and enjoy conversations. After a period of time watching she produced this extraordinary piece of writing which begins with one short phrase set in the middle and then with several repetitions circles out into a longer and funny story. The work that Caryl had been watching in the studio was based on the idea of whether one movement could generate an entire role for a dancer, one move as a piece of DNA from which the rest of the actions evolve.
  • KM _ I just love the thoroughness of it – it’s a really simple idea, ostensibly, but it’s enormously complicated in it’s consequences for the performer.
  • SD _ It was hard to achieve. Every time a dancer began to evolve some movement they would cry out that they had advanced too quickly and needed to start again. It was during this turmoil that Caryl produced her beautifully structured and witty piece.
  • KM _ The piece was so beautiful.
  • SD _ and so human.
  • SD _ I think we have both been interested in some of the work done by neuroscientists. One question I had for them was ‘is the eye or the ear quicker to absorb information?’ I was trying to understand if the audience received sensual information in any particular order.
  • KM _ And does it ?
  • SD _ I couldn’t quite get to the bottom of it. I don’t know how much study there is on that, except that primitively your ear might have been more useful than your eye, because you could hear what was going on behind you, so your ear would be more alert.
  • KM _ I brought the neuroscientist Mark Lythgoe to watch a performance of Iphigenia at Aulis and I said, ‘I want you to tell me how you’re understanding what’s going on’.
  • KM _ He said that when the actors are doing lifelike, behavioural gestures or actions which are not modified because the performer is being watched, the audience can accept it. These actions include things like fiddling with a wedding ring when someone is anxious or making involuntary head turns towards a door if someone is late. Then he observed that the audience can also accept the actors doing conventional theatrical gestures (like arm movements to illustrate points made which would not be there in a real life situation), but what the brain can’t manage is the lurch between the two different types of action. It was really useful to have the experience of these different modes of physical expression on stage described in this way.
  • SD _ Is that something to do with the cusp between figurative and abstract?
  • KM _ Maybe. If we say that in my field ‘figurative’ describes lifelike gestures, moves and actions, and ‘abstract’ describes any modification of those lifelike gestures or actions caused by outside forces. Those forces could include the way in which the fear of being on stage generates tiny involuntary movements in the actors’ bodies, or the way in which the actor movement is predetermined by non-naturalistic voluntary actions that a choreographer has asked a performer to do.
  • SD _ Choreography can be both abstract and figurative.
  • KM _ Yes, but in both our fields we are limited because we can only work with the human figure. We can’t dissolve that figure in the way that the art movement, Abstract Expressionism, removed human figures altogether and just constructed meaning with colour, shape and light.
  • SD _ But the body can and does use timing, dynamics and patterns. These tools that are more aligned to the use of numbers, help pull the figurative into different structures. This flip between the abstract and figurative is where choreography has such a strength. We can demonstrate in action something that the brain does all the time.
  • KM _ I think that’s right, but do you think there’s then a lurch problem? Do you think if we asked Mark Lythgoe to come and watch dance that flipped between the abstract and the figurative that he would experience the same disconcerting lurch?
  • SD _ He may have lurch factor, I think that could be a problem.
  • KM _ For me the big problem about Mark’s observation was that I realised that I wasn’t aware of the lurches. There was information therefore reaching the audience that I wasn’t in control of and this led to a lack of clarity in the work.
  • SD _ Choreography: clarity in action.
  • KM _ Yes and I use the word ‘legible’ to describe this clarity in action. I have noticed that you use it a lot too. The choreographer, Kate Flatt, taught me that word during my NESTA research project when she educated me about the work of choreographers like Merce Cunningham. Legibility is a word rarely used in the theatre to talk about what is going on on stage.
  • SD _ But legibility may be something more to do with the eyes?
  • KM _ Yes, you are right – it is a word that is almost entirely about how you read what you see and therefore make sense of it. But maybe some theatre-goers are more interested in sounds and words than images.
  • SD _ I suppose that is going back to our brain idea. They are satisfied because they are getting their information through one sense, whereas you and I are thrilled that we were born with five senses.
  • KM _ Exactly.