Well, as you no doubt know, Dear Blog Reader, a great deal of time is spent preparing a production even before any actor puts a first foot forward in rehearsal. I’ve known I’d be directing JOHN GABRIEL BORKMAN for nearly a year. Early on, I was, for the most part, dreaming about the play, letting it sink down and in, to take up a place of firm occupation in my psyche. This is a particularly effective process with Ibsen, as he is one of those rare stage-poets (with, to me, Shakespeare and Beckett) who you feel, when working with him, is somehow altering your brain-chemistry, but from the inside out. As though his words, images, etc. have sunk below the level of the bio-chemical and, when called, come sizzling back up through to fill you with vivid ideas, sharp realizations and powerful emotions.
Anyway, these pseudo-poetic musings aside, the time comes when you begin THINKING about the fast-approaching production of the play intensively and specifically. You share ideas and impulses with the designers. And–the special challenge and excitement of the Quantum experience–you encounter the raw space, a space that, in all likelihood, no one ever before thought of as a theater. You cast your thoughts and dreams about the play into it, and it, implacable, irresistible, begins to work upon them.
For example, one day last week I met Christine Casaus, our Costume Designer, at the Broad Street space. This was Christine’s first visit to the space. She and I had had a couple of fairly long and detailed live discussions and exchanged a flurry of e-mails about the play and her designs, but she had reached a place in her process where she wanted to see the space in its raw state, so it might perhaps give her a push.
The space is basically a big, deep storefront. The sidewalls and a pillar in the area we’ve decided to play in are battered red brick. The floors are either bare concrete or covered in greys-spackled retail tile and the relatively low ceiling is uneven white plaster on heavy steel beams. So there’s a contrast of the warmth and fine detail of the brick walls and the massive and expansive cold of the floors and ceiling, about which I had mixed feelings, as
BORKMAN is such a wintry play.
Christine and I had been talking about the costumes–and I am thinking about the production at large–in (and I use the word a bit loosely) “expressionistic” terms. For the costumes, that means incorporating elements to reveal character in a bold way, character in this particularly vibrant time and place–a single very active winter evening. (I steered Christine to Ingmar Bergman’s great film CRIES AND WHISPERS to observe his use of color in this regard.) BORKMAN contains a pair of strong parallel elements that lead me to the “expressionist:” one being a mythic or archetypal underlay that anticipates, it seems to me, the works of writers like James Joyce and Thomas Mann (Joyce, in fact, was a great admirer of Ibsen); and the other, therefore, being a long reach into the very modern, that is manifest in a deep dark comedy that reaches almost to Beckett.
With our discussions in mind, and experiencing the space, Christine immediately began to see ways to use the problematic (to my nervous mind) warmth of the brick in subtle, significant ways in the costumes. She also more graphically realized that the human figures must be truly vivid against the drab cold weight of the floors and ceiling. She saw how there could be both significant contrasts and connections between the lives and images of the characters and the elemental space. I showed her where there would be a tall mirror in Borkman’s lonely refuge, a touch of greenery in Mrs. Borkman’s over-heated sitting room, which would in the next few days clarify some things for her and spur her to fresh ideas.
So…there, Reader, you have a moment or two in the process–which takes place with the designers of the set, lights, music and sound, as well, separately, in various combinations, and all of us together–, a hint of how we go about making a dream into the concrete and specific into a dream for you to have.
Director of JOHN GABRIEL BORKMAN