First published on 12 Feb 2012. Updated on 20 Feb 2012.
Daniel Schlusser, who will be presenting The Histrionic at the Malthouse in April, has developed an innovative reconstructive approach to adaptating and updating canonical texts, based around a practice of extreme realism. Before heading into Theatre Works for his two-week development residency, he sat down with Time Out to discuss his unique methods and some of his ideas about Bulgakov's classic tome.
Theatre Works will be launching their program for the first half of 2012 on February 18 following a showing of Daniel Schlusser’s work in progress.
So this is carrying on the development you did as part of Hothouse Theatre's A Month in the Country residency program, back in 2010, in Albury, was it?
Yes, we did two weeks with ten performers in that shed, that crazy shed with the cows watching, and made fast inroads.
How do you treat these intensive development opportunities?
I kind of treat developments as shows now, because if think you're just going to show some material that you've generated then you tend not to make very much. Or I don't. So I kind of find myself thinking, all right, I'm going to make a show in two weeks, even if it's rough.
Rather than working on a fragment or developing text or trialling design principles?
Exactly. Or any of those other uses of a development. It's difficult. I almost think that the necessity of developing work has been legislated. Funding bodies have created this idea that you do developments; it's kind of well meaning, but I think that artists have taken a long time to work out how to use them.
Then what would you say the benefit of these developments is for you?
It's of dubious benefit unless you use it as a generator. With source material like this, of this scale, I can use it to work out what my approach is going to be. We did that with the book's Biblical material in the Hothouse development – and that was a good two weeks' work, and kind of worthwhile in terms of fast-tracking a rehearsal process.
Anyway, the benefit being that when you say I'm going to do The Master and Margarita, nobody can possibly know what you mean.
And this helps you nail it down?
Unlike a lot of other source material where you have a book people can say, "yes, of course, that's perfect for theatre", I think The Master and Margarita has got so many possibilities, and stylistically, for me, it's probably one of the hardest things I could do, which is one of my criteria: choosing something that will stretch the form.
Is that criteria though tied to a particular line of critical interest? Are there features that we might loosely describe as being of artistic interest that take you from a Baroque drama like Life Is a Dream to a modernist Soviet novel like The Master and Margarita?
If you follow the sort performance approach employed in Life Is a Dream or Peer Gynt to its most logical, most quotidian, most banal end, working with a version of actor's realism, and then take that and try and tell a story in which witches fly on broomsticks and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse show up, well, that's the nature of the challenge. It's the fact that things don't fit that fascinates me. You try and get some physics going when you jam them together, some fission.
And so the problem is to find a broader canvas on which to force that expansive reaction?
I think the problem of Peer Gynt was a similar problem. How do we move from normal daily life and the representation of normal daily life to where the bottom drops out and descends into an epic life, a life of the mind, the troll life, to the kingdom of stories and the desire to fabulate. It's that tension between trying not to lie as an artist, and yet wanting to tell fabulous stories.
I do think that there are a finite number of texts written for the theatre that have that impossibility in them. Talking about Goethe's Faust or something, where no ideologically coherent form is going to be able to contain that properly if you approach with any sort programmatic approach. You kind of fall over in the face of its canvas, its extraordinary edges which are at the limits of possibility. In fact, that's what I think the Master figure in The Master and Margarita is about: a broken author.
An author who has fallen over? Whose limits have been reached while the canvas still stretches on?
Yeah, and there's a bunch of clichés in that around madness that I feel are really in need of reinvigorating, somehow, or of approaching afresh. Something to do with the everydayness of psychosis.
There's the meta-text, as well, the insane conditions under which Bulgakov wrote the manuscript. That is also compelling.
And his personal relationship with Stalin?
Yes, I think of the story, sometimes framed as the key event in Bulgakov's life, of how Bulgakov, after whinging and whinging and whinging, finally gets this call, and it's Stalin, directly calling him, and he says, look, what do you actually want? And there's some debate as to whether he missed his moment, or whether he told the truth, or what he said to the most evil man in the 20th century. That kind of epic historical detail is compelling to an Australian I think, because we sort of miss those grand gestures, those crazy moments of heightened moral dilemma.
What parts of The Master and Margarita will you be using in this development?
We focused a lot on the Pilate stuff when we were in Albury – partly to do with the country environment, I think it's a little bit rural and elemental – and we got to kind of a good place with that. Now what I'm turning to is what I think is the hardest stuff, which is the Variety Theatre stuff. It's territory which has been mapped out a lot, in the sense that it's theatre that deals with theatre.
We might also look at the hardest, hardest, part of all which is, well, for me, who is not so interested in theatre as illusion necessarily, the book's final image, the Four Horsemen, the triumphant finish. That's something I might fall into.
And is there any material that you take into the development?
I don't know. The I-don't-know factor is so precious. The idle brain, which is the most potent factor, is just circling around. I'm considering all kinds of things. It's sort of like water divining.
I have very strong feelings about the book, and about the Russian-ness of it and what that means. There's this great sequence in Tarkovsky's Andrei Rublev where the village fool entertains them in a hut. It's a kind of foolery, clowning, I think, that the Black Lung boys do, kind of self harming. I'd describe that as a very Russian sort of aesthetic, a Russian view of absurdist comedy, and that's something I want to bring to that book.
Hair-shirt comedy? Part flagellation or penance?
Part holy fool, yeah, for sure. I still have a soft spot for those crazy conceptual artists who do things to themselves. There's something satisfying about it, in a purely priestly way. To do it, that is. I quite like that. But what is it to watch? I don't know. It seems to me that the Russians really, really like knowing that someone else has got it worse than they do, that's a human thing, but it strikes me as a really, really Russian thing, too.
Do you ever try to fix your ideas about theatre, for example in personal theoretical writings, or in notes for your ensemble? I'm thinking especially of the hints about naturalism you've made in various 'director's notes' over the years.
I think if you ask them, the actors, I think they'd probably say I was incredibly coherent about the kind of theatre that I'm trying to create. What I spent most of my master's thesis trying to do is find a theory of authenticity as opposed to a theory of realism or of naturalism. That's a deeply troubled term. I'm not trying to create a new version of authenticity, but I am trying to define what it is to be present, to be making an art form that tries to be present before an audience.
How does that play out in the rehearsal room?
What I think people get surprised by is how catholic that is on the floor. A lot of rehearsal rooms spend an awful lot of time trying to speak the same language, a lot of good directors who direct good theatre, spend a lot of time making sure that everyone is using the same vocabulary, so that everyone understands what is being done. I think what I've ended up with is just the polar opposite, where it just doesn't matter whether people understand or not, whether an actor understands in a different way, or uses a different language or brings a completely different training.
That's a feature of being an Australian artist, or a Melbourne artist – you're constantly working with people who have completely different training. As long as they're not precious about following their Chekhov technique or Laban, they go about working with the tools that they've gathered, and I have almost no interest in engaging with them on a process level.
It seems almost counter-intuitive, because on the one hand it disconnecting the performer, but on the other hand your works are invariably ensemble pieces.
If I treat a performer as a tradesman who already has all the craft that they need, a sense of what works and what doesn't, then the rehearsal process doesn't need to be about any of that, which makes a lot of performers feel like they're performing without a net. There doesn't seem to be any shared goal that we're working to, nothing that we can go back to if things aren't working. But I think that the guys that are excited about working in that way are subconsciously aware that it is a kind of monkish journey into self-knowing. You're stuck with yourself. If a director sets up and says, OK, so I know exactly what we're going to make and this is how we're going to do it, it sets up this false comfort, like a false religion.
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