On Translating Brecht

Thursday, January 28, 2010

posted by Domenique Lozano

A.C.T. Associate Artist Domenique Lozano is creating a brand-new translation of Bertolt Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle with special permission from the Brecht estate. She writes about the process of facing this daunting task.

The experience of translating this beautiful play has been wonderful overall, but I sure am glad I didn’t know what I was getting into. By that I mean, I began the process by just taking one step at a time. I would do this one thing, and then the next, and I didn’t really think about the pressure of getting the script done. I didn’t dwell on the deadline, or the expectation of creating something that would have enough meat on it to feed the cast, stimulate the director, and keep the audience engaged. I would just think, “Well today, I’ve got to sort out the Simon/Grusche scenes.” No one at A.C.T. ever pressured me; there was only support from Carey, Michael, and from John Doyle. As if I’d done this before, as if they had absolute faith in me. So I never really sat in that place of doubting whether I could do this. I sort of wrote in a cocoon of bliss and support. Now that I’m on the other side of it, I think, I probably should have been more freaked out about the whole thing—after all, there is a fair amount of pressure and expectation riding on this—but I remain grateful that I was oblivious to it! As for the writing, there is a solitariness to it that I enjoy very much. At times dense and dry, other times it’s flowing and you’re sailing through it. This is German of the people, not in verse, not fancy in any way. It is a direct pulse, right into the heart of things. People say what they mean for the most part. Subtext is not Brecht’s forte in this piece.

I decided to approach the process of translating very directly. I first scanned the whole play into my computer and did a literal translation, aided by the Collins online dictionary and my mother, to whom I am so very grateful. After that, I worked through and did a first draft letting the language begin to sound like something a human would actually say, leaving the literalness of it. Then after John Doyle decided on the main casting for the roles, I went through the text again, this time allowing who was playing the roles to inform the language. Then John and I spent another weekend together, and we went through the text, thinking about who these people were even more specifically, and that shifted the language again. The whole process has been about layers revealing more layers.

The trickiest thing is translating something that is idiosyncratic, or very specifically German that has no English counterpart. It’s like trying to translate a joke in German to English—it never works. The Germans are roaring over that duck that smoked a cigar, and we Americans are going “Huh?” Some things even my mom didn’t know, so we would just make our best equivalent.

Working with John has been truly wonderful even from the first day in the room, auditioning the Master of Fine Arts Program students. There is something about him that allows people to do their best work. Something that simply and very clearly brings that forth. He is very direct, very kind, very present. He listens like no one I know. He makes me feel as if I know what I’m doing, and I’m doing it brilliantly. And that allows me to do my best work.

Re-envisioning a Set Design

Thursday, January 14, 2010

posted by Christina Poddubiuk, Scenic and Costume Designer for Phèdre

Christina Poddubiuk designed the set and costumes for Phèdre at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival and has reconceived the set design for the show at A.C.T. She writes about this rare opportunity to recreate the world of the play.

When as a set and costume designer you have the good fortune to work mostly in classical theater, sooner or later you’re going to get to tackle the same piece more than once. I’ve done two Hamlets, three All’s Well That Ends Wells, and four Much Ados. What almost never happens is to work on the same play in two consecutive productions, and to have the opportunity to reconceive the set design.

Phèdre was designed for the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, where it was performed in an old badminton court that is one of their four theaters, on a 60-foot thrust stage. The scenery was necessarily minimal, due to the surround of the audience. We focused on a long painted ramp, and a sculptural piece set far upstage framing the main entrance. The costumes were decidedly baroque, but the setting was nonrepresentational. The imagery was celestial—we painted the inlaid floor as if it were a reflection of the sky, and the “cloud” upstage, built on a metal armature and covered with steel mesh and a gossamer textile, recalled an elemental force that could have been sea, sky, or stone.

Moving the production to the American Conservatory Theater, we took the opportunity of restaging the play for a completely new setting to explore different possibilities. Now the actors are enveloped in a world we’ve created, instead of embraced by the audience. They enter at times through the house, much as they did in a thrust-type theatre, but they can also inhabit the depths of the world beyond the proscenium. Some of the physical elements of the design have been used in new ways: there is a metal mesh screen, and twisting steel tubing. There’s a painted floor that recreates our original “runway,” but the imagery is new. The pulsing music and the raw emotion, tautly sustained in the text, have been translated almost as body parts—as blood vessels and nerve bundles. They lend themselves to many interpretations. They provide a landscape, a force of nature, a divine intervention, or a tangled thread. My hope, at the same time, was to provide more ways, and more visually powerful ways, of bringing actors into the space. And at the time of this writing, I am very much looking forward to how our lighting designer, Jim Ingalls, will sculpt the space and define moments in the play.

Set model for Phèdre

For Young Writers

posted by Philip Kan Gotanda

January is new-play development month at A.C.T. Although we continue to work with playwrights on new works throughout the year, First Look heats up this month with a series of readings and workshops. The readings are not open to the public, but you can find more information about this program here

One of this January’s featured writers, Philip Kan Gotanda (author of the A.C.T.–commissioned hit play After the War) shares his thoughts about making a career in playwriting.

Young writers: I would encourage working to cultivate relationships with theaters you respect. More specifically artistic directors. This is as important as the work itself. A playwright is someone who writes plays that are produced, not sit in someone’s hard drive. I think it wise to have working relationships with more than one theater. Ideally a larger, nationally respected institution, then a smaller black box experimental house, and finally, in my case, an Asian American–centric theater. They can’t individually serve all the specific aesthetic and political needs of your work, but collectively they can serve you more fully as a total artist and career playwright. A.C.T. has been my large institutional home and allows me to have the highest production values possible, access to the very best talent in the nation, and a launch that will receive national if not worldwide profile. The black box experimental house has been Intersection for the Arts: Campo Santo, which has allowed me to push my work to the edges without feeling I was not allowed to fail—artistically or in terms of audience attendance. In some form or fashion you have to go beyond your known aesthetic skin to grow, and that sometimes means failing. Not that you want to. It’s simply a by-product of making work that is inventively cutting new artistic territory for you. And, finally, the local Asian American Theater Company provides a place to return home—to help other young artists, pass on knowledge; to work with others who share a common social, political, ideological shorthand in hopes of expanding its definition and maintaining its relevancy to current times; and to remember one’s beginnings.

I Dream of Chang and Eng

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

posted by Philip Kan Gotanda

January is new-play development month at A.C.T. Although we continue to work with playwrights on new works throughout the year, First Look heats up this month with a series of readings and workshops. The readings are not open to the public, but you can find more information about this program here.

One of this January’s featured writers, Philip Kan Gotanda (author of the A.C.T.–commissioned hit play After the War) shares his thoughts about playwriting and his new work I Dream of Chang and Eng.

I have this thing where I sit on plays for years before I write them. I can literally feel them inside of me. It’s a kind of amorphous nonspecific locus of knowledge that bumps around inside of me sucking up whatever it deems necessary to building a particular literary house. And it pulls in stuff from every conceivable exchange or encounter, waking or sleeping. My play Ballad of Yachiyo waited around for a good seven years before a night in the hospital keeping company with my convalescing wife cracked something open. (She is fine!) Chang and Eng has broken all records, and I’d frankly abandoned any thoughts about writing it. See, I’ve been trying to write this play about the original Siamese Twins for some 20 years. Yup, 20 years. I have notebooks of research and errant drafts sitting around. But last year while codirecting my play Fist of Roses with UC Berkeley Theater, Dance & Performance Studies students, I began to write in spare moments. I didn’t go back to my notes; I decided to just let it go and not worry about anything that came before. Just let it go.

The title is a bit odd for me: I Dream of Chang and Eng. It intimates me, the writer, appearing in the work. The title came a few years ago and I used it, never thought anything more about it. Then yesterday I began to notice the title. Hmm, perhaps it’s my way of saying this is my version of Chang and Eng’s lives. That is, a telling with more regard paid to my necessary imagination than historical fact. And that is fine by me. I’m telling a story, my story, and I openly state that. And in fact, despite the fact that there is a wealth of literature out there regarding Chang and Eng, there is very little firsthand information, only a few letters and shopping lists of items for the farms. Almost all that you read is taken from reportage, secondary sources, and speculation. As far as authentic voice, from their primary point of view? Almost nil. All else is gleaned from other people’s versions of who they were. So I imagine them. I dream them.

Traveling for Phèdre

Friday, January 8, 2010

posted by Seana McKenna, cast member of Phèdre

Seana McKenna—a company member of Canada’s Stratford Shakespeare Festival, where she played the title role in Carey Perloff’s production of Phèdre—recently arrived in San Francisco, where she will reprise her performance in the A.C.T. production of Racine’s 17th-century classic. McKenna writes about her struggles in trying to get to San Francisco from Toronto for the first day of rehearsal.

This is my first blog. For a relative Luddite, this is a major step into the 21st century. A decade late, I know. But I have an 11-year-old son, so the last ten years are a bit of a blur.

As are the last few days. I have just finished my first week of rehearsal for Racine’s Phèdre at A.C.T. I left, or rather, tried to leave Toronto on December 26th. Yes, December 26th. My fellow cast member Tom McCamus and I were in the center of the maelstrom at Pearson International, when increased security measures resulted in delays of more than six hours, more than 100 cancelled flights, and lineups of hundreds and hundreds of people. We stood in one line for two hours to get luggage tags, then in another line for customs for three hours, for a flight that was to leave at 5:30 p.m., but was rescheduled for 8 p.m. At 7:30 p.m., we were told our flight was cancelled and we should all go home and reschedule our flight. Flights were booked for us the next day, by A.C.T.’s wonderful interim company manager, Tim Cole. We arrived four hours early for our noon flight to Charlotte, and then for a flight from Charlotte to Newark, and then from Newark to San Francisco. If you check a map, connecting those dots does not make for a pretty picture. We would arrive in Newark six hours after we left Toronto. And we were not driving. We would arrive in San Francisco at midnight our time.

We had various holdups in customs: we stood in line three times, being told to sign forms by one agent that were not required by the next agent (the wrong form was ripped in half before my eyes with what might be construed as relish). For reasons unknown to me, I was sent to secondary inspection. Perhaps it was my paperwork; perhaps it was my profession (did I detect disdain when I said “actor”?); or perhaps it was my confession of a box of chocolates in my suitcase. Tom’s agent let him through. Same paperwork, same profession, but no chocolates. That had to be it.

So, I sat in a room where no cell phones are to be used, for an hour, while three agents fingerprinted, photographed, and interrogated the 12 to 15 people in the room. My agent was very kind—a man with a Spanish accent who was intrigued by the play I was going to do. He asked me many questions about the plot, why Phèdre wanted to kill herself, why they thought my husband was dead, who was the stepson. He asked if he could see the play in Toronto. I said no, it had finished its run in Stratford, and we were recreating it in San Francisco. He seemed genuinely disappointed, wished me luck, and stamped my passport.

I was relieved and shaken. I met Tom and we made the flight. A good thing we had come four hours early.

The flight from Charlotte to Newark was delayed by an hour, and we were sure we would miss the connection to San Francisco. We booked a backup flight for 6 a.m. the next morning and imagined a nice dinner in Newark and a hunt for a hotel. Our flight arrived in Newark at 6 p.m., the connecting flight leaving at 6:15 p.m. We ran. We went through security again, as the gate was at the other end of the airport. When we arrived at the gate, no attendant was at the desk. We looked through the locked door, and banged on it. Two air attendants came to the door and took our tickets! Out of breath, we had barely sat down when the plane started moving. We arrived in San Francisco at 12:30 a.m., and, miraculously, our luggage had also made it onto the plane.

We were met by A.C.T. Company Manager Dianne Prichard, and arrived at our lodging by 1:30 a.m. Landed. I had sacrificed my cell phone to the gods, though. Must have slipped out of my vest’s half-zipped pocket when I was trying to spaghetti myself into some sleeping configuration in the middle seat of a three-seat row. But it was found, and was overnighted to the theater. From Philadelphia. Don’t ask. I didn’t.
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