The SITI Company
is wrapping up its latest residency at Dance Theater Workshop this month with two plays that made pre-Kane
Orson Welles famous for his stage and radio work in the late 1930s: War of the Worlds
(or Radio Macbeth
, as SITI re-imagines it). Both shows are restagings. SITI Company's War of the Worlds
originally premiered the day before Halloween in 1999 at the West Bank Café, and Radio Macbeth
was first mounted at Ohio's Wexner Center for the Arts in 2007. Both make use of SITI's quintessentially postmodern approach to theater-making—deconstructing texts and reshaping them into theatrical events that turn mirrors back on the characters and the story, as well as the audience.
I spoke by phone with Anne Bogart, the artistic director and co-founder of the SITI Company, prior to one of the company's rehearsals for the shows, to find out why they were interested in restaging these pieces and the changes she foresees in the future for her own work, as well as in the American theater.
The L: Siti has performed both these pieces before. What impulse on your part or DTW's part led to the decision to reproduce them this year?
Going back further than your question, the original interest in Orson Welles came from pretty much a lifelong interest in big American theater artists who are on the verge of being forgotten. I do a lot of work about people who I think I can learn from and Orson Welles seemed to be emblematic of a real problem we have in this country of remembering. He's remembered as this fat guy on talk shows selling wine
at the end of his life. But he was one of the most vital theater and film directors in our history.
I was actually working on a larger play around 2000 about Welles' life, it was sort of a biography of him. While we were working on that piece, we thought, wouldn't it be grand to let Stephen Webber, who was playing Orson Welles, work on the young Welles, in 1938, when he scared the world with his War of the Worlds
. The thought was we would do this little piece that we would give as a Halloween gift for our friends. I wondered if we could reenact what might have happened in the studio that night in 1938 and in the enacting of that, if we could tap into some of the fear that we think would be so quaint now, of people thinking that Martians had arrived. So we put together this piece about the Mercury Theatre with the young Orson Welles making the radio play that scared the world and we opened in 2000, pre-9/11. We opened it at the West Bank [Café], downstairs in the basement, and basically it was so riveting that we've been performing it ever since. As a matter of fact, it's toured extensively around the United States.
I worked with Darron West, who is our sound designer, as co-director because it's really also about sound. We started fantasizing and we both thought, well, gosh, it was such a rich process, what would happen if we look at another piece that Orson did on the radio, again trying to get to the essence of it, and I've always wanted to do Macbeth
. I mean it's the play that's the reason that I'm in the theater.
You mention that in Anne Bogart: Viewpoints, the book that Actors Theatre of Louisville published in 1995 about you and your work, that one of the reasons you got into theater was because of an early experience seeing a production of Macbeth as a teenager at Trinity Repertory in Providence, RI.
It really transformed me. It was really brilliant and I was 15 and I didn't really understand the language. So that play had been interesting to me since then. We decided to do Radio Macbeth
, where it is as though the Mercury Theatre on the Air had just finished performing War of the Worlds
and they were all exhausted and they wanted to go home and Orson said, no, you're not going home, as a matter of fact, meet me later, we're going to rehearse our next radio play. So they show up, reluctantly, but they're all ace actors, ready to rehearse Macbeth
, and as they start to rehearse, the play takes over. You get to all the heart and soul and terror that play evokes in its best form. And all of that again through the theater and its double. What you're seeing is a group of actors in the late 1930s, rehearsing a play, and somehow in the audience's imagination you see the heat and you see the witches.
Returning to the moment that inspired you to pursue a life in the theater. What is it like to take on Macbeth now, as someone who has built a successful career in the theater? You speak so much in your writing about the strangeness and terror and weirdness of your first experiences with theater and spectacle.
Well, I think one of things that makes Macbeth
such a magical play is that Shakespeare, á la sampling, lifted, literally, incantations from witchcraft. A lot of what the witches say, in the years of an Elizabethan, was actually dangerous, because it was calling forth spirits. There is something about that play that makes everybody worry when they're working on it. So in that sense, both because it had such an influence on me and because it's a scary play, I'm trepidatious. Literally. We're going into rehearsal in 45 minutes.
In your May 2010 blog entry you're chewing on the idea that you're done with postmodernism or that postmodernism is done in general. In reading about SITI's War of the Worlds, it seems that it's an extremely postmodern piece, which could be said about much of your work. I wonder how the thinking in that blog entry is playing out, if at all. Is your work changing as a result?
I'm a big believer in the power of words, and I'm definitely a child of postmodernism and all of my instincts are postmodern, so I figure if I say it aloud it might start. People actually believe words. So, it's more of an attempt to strike out into something new, but I don't know what that is. I know it has something to do with storytelling and something to do with asking the questions, who is this for, and whose stories are they.
Following that thought, you also say in that same entry that "you end up living the narrative you describe." It made me wonder if you feel like you've narrated your life or your career in a specific way?
Yeah I do, I absolutely do, and I'm now questioning, what's the next narrative.
Can you describe the narrative that you have used in the past?
There is a narrative which is the typical journey narrative—that I left the United States because I hated it, and I learned by leaving that I'm deeply American. So all of my work for the past few years has been about understanding what that means. That's the narrative that I've lived by and now I'm looking for the next one.
That's interesting given that so many contemporary experimental theater artists talk about having to make their livings in Europe because they can't build a sustainable life in the arts here.
Yeah, I resist that. I definitely resist that.
How have you managed that? So few people do.
I think you just have to put it together. You have to use wile and I think you can't solve it in any one way. Certainly as a company we're looking at that right now, which is how to move forward after all these years—change.
Sticking with that narrative idea, I'm intrigued by the fact that the American theater, if it were to live up to the narrative that it uses for itself, would consistently fail. Because that's so often the conversation that a lot of theater artists are having.
I think you're so right. It's a problem.
But it doesn't fail. That's what so interesting. You've been involved in so many aspects of theater—founding and running SITI, your short time at Trinity Rep, President of TCG for a period, running the directing program at Columbia University. Do you see a narrative in American theater?
It's not what you're asking, but theater is the most important activity that one can be exposed to, either in doing it or being a part of it as an audience. It's becoming more and more rare to be in the same room and concentrate together about issues that are social, because all theater is about social issues—it asks can we get along, can we get along in this room, can we get along in the play. So I think its narrative is about its vitality right now.
In Viewpoints Peter Anderson writes about the fact that in each of your productions you are probing the question, why theater, why make theater, why is that important? Does that question take on different meaning in each show?
Somebody, I can't remember who, maybe George Bernard Shaw, said that every novel should bring the whole question of what a novel is into existence and take it to a new level. I'm sort of in that school. So the language that one is using should question as one's doing it. The event of theater should be brought into question in the act of doing it.
Do you ever feel like you answer that question for yourself within a given production or is it always an open question?
I think it's an open question. I don't think it's ever answered. The minute it was, I think I'd move on. It's still endlessly fascinating to me—what are people doing in this room? Somebody gets up, another person watches them. I think when animals make noise, they're saying "I'm here, I'm here, I'm here." So is that what we're doing?
Getting back to the Welles shows for a minute, it must be interesting to return to War of the Worlds after the past decade, given everything that's happened and the fear-mongering reality that we've all lived in for the past 9 years. In some ways, it seems not so dissimilar to the America in which Welles' War of the Worlds broadcast stirred up a latent panic in the public.
Yeah, I mean every time you go into an airport you hear there's an orange alert, you're told not to trust the person next to you. I think there's some sort of xenophobia that's prevalent, but it's also ancient, you know—what's hiding under the bed. It's not something that goes away.
Have you noticed any change in the way the audience has responded to the piece prior to the events of 2001, and then after that?
The biggest change was that we had a tour booked for the radio play right after 9/11 and a lot of places tried to cancel. They said, "This is not a time to talk about the arrival of the Martians." I remember actually getting on the phone and talking to a lot of venues and saying: "You know what, actually I think people need to get together and talk about it." And I think those performances were extraordinary. We would do talkbacks afterward and people were hungry to be together and talk. I find that, since 9/11, that hasn't gone away. People like to do talkbacks. Our executive director, Megan Wanlass Szalla, joked about it. She said we should stop doing plays and just do talkbacks because we always sell out our talkbacks. People like to be together and to talk about substantive issues.
I'm interested in the fact that your work over the past few years has focused so much on these iconic, mythic figures. Welles, to me, is extremely well-known in the film community, and as you point out, almost unknown in the theater community, or vaguely remembered for things he did during the Depression era. What is that attraction to mythic figures about for you, or do you not see them as mythic?
I see them as iconic. Because they are considerable. Because they are big. I like the size of them. I like big things.
Because that provides you with a lot of material?
Because you meet with people of a certain size and they change you. You don't want to meet with people who don't take up space, you want to meet with people who've really put their feet in the ground and tried something. Usually you're transformed by your interaction with them.
I guess I tended toward the word "myth" because someone like Welles is a fairly complex and conflicted figure and we tend to remember what was good about people of his stature. I think of Welles as being a more complicated character than he's often painted as; there's a lot that remains hidden, that people have no real access to, so he becomes mythic. I know that when you're developing a piece, you're interested in approaching your subjects from many angles and biography is fair game. Are you interested in rounding him out at all?
No, absolutely not. I trust the rehearsal process, that something true will be revealed that none of us really know. And I actually believe that theater is able to conjure people from the dead. You can call me crazy.
In your own career, and that of the SITI Company, you've achieved a lot of success at this point. And you've been working with some of the same collaborators within the company for a long time now. There must be a lot that's changed for all of you during that time. Looking again at that blog entry in which you're talking about a new narrative, do you feel like, as a company you're headed toward a new trajectory?
Absolutely, and it's at such a moment that I can't even articulate what the answer is. It's definitely present in a big way.
More so than in the past?
What are the projects you're looking forward to? Or are do you stay focused on where you are at the moment?
I'm always thinking ahead. We're working on a production of The Trojan Women
with a new adaptation by Jocelyn Clarke. We're looking at a new Chuck Mee
play called soot and spit
. And we're looking at the Le Sacre de Printemps
, it's the 100th anniversary coming up and we're looking at how to make a piece about that. We're looking at The Visit
by [Friedrich] Dürrenmatt. We're also looking at a new take on A Christmas Carol
Who are some of the American artists, who are not affiliated with the company, whose work you're really excited by?
I'm always a huge fan of Robert Woodruff
. He's about to do Dostoevsky at the Baryshnikov Center
. I was particularly blown away by what Marina Abromovic did at MoMA
The whole exhibition, or her new piece in particular?
The whole thing. The whole idea of re-performance and what it means.
What do you think that impulse speaks to? In some way your pieces at DTW are re-performance.
Yeah, they are. It's the idea of embodying ideas that can pass through time. Martha Graham
is an amazing example. I mean, you watch those dancers dance those pieces she made when she was a young woman and you see their lives transformed by performing those roles, by jumping that high. It's very moving.
The other thing that knocked me out was "This Progress" by Tino Seghal at the Guggenheim
. There's something about presence, about performative presence, which they are dealing with,that is so mind-boggling to me right now. It's not just about bringing the past forward, but about the presence. And, you know, the name of Abramovic's piece was "The Artist is Present."
I find it interesting that you, as a director, working on something like American Document, would be interested in taking on and re-examining a finished piece, even taking some of the original choreography.
That's exactly the point. That's what's so fascinating about it. I mean with Martha [Graham], that she's dead and those shapes exist and you can put them on—it's more interesting than inventing something new. It's why I resist "avant-garde." I've never been interested in taking on something new, but rather putting on the clothes of the past and giving people a voice.
But then there are the tweaks and changes that naturally come out of the rehearsal process. I guess that's what's fascinating to me—the "same but different" aspect. What about that is attractive to you?
It's exactly that, the same only different. When you try to be accurate, you never will be, and that's interesting. I actually have to go to rehearsal.
(photo credit: Michael Brosilow; Actor: Will Bond)