Steven Berkoff: In 1969, this British actor, director, and playwright, legendary for his “In-yer-face theatre,” adopted Kafka’s THE METAMORPHOSIS so successfully that it has been performed around the world by famous actors and dancers, including Roman Polanski, Tim Roth, Steven Berkoff, and Mikhail Baryshnikov.
Rebecca Wright: Philadelphia’s Applied Mechanics is a collaborative ensemble that has been making original, immersive theater since 2009, co-founded by director Wright and designer Maria Shaplin. Wright has done a lot of work at some of the most innovative theatres where she and her group produced shows—from Philadelphia’s InterAct to theaters all across the United States. Her recent project, Franz Kafka’s THE METAMORPHOSIS, is onstage through March 1 at The Sedgwick Theatre in Mount Airy. Henrik Eger talked to her about this work, her company, and her influences.
Eger: In her Philadelphia Inquirer review, Wendy Rosenfield claimed that your production had lost “some of the absurdist humor in Berkoff’s script.” Could you give some examples of your cutting, or re-interpreting of his script?
Wright: We didn’t cut anything from Berkoff’s script. [However,] we also didn’t completely honor his staging, as it was so clearly the result of his own collaborative devising process with his own company. It made more sense, in this context, to take the stage directions as prompts, to interpret them for tone and storytelling potential, and to come up with our own choreography and versions of the moments. I respond very strongly to the comedy and drama of awkwardness, both physical and emotional, so perhaps we skewed more towards the awkward than the absurd.
Eger: The same critic also claims that you traded “Berkoff’s more didactic, Marxist elements (pig masks, for one) to illuminate the human tragedies. [. . .] while the story’s political message gets less attention, Gregor’s more universal existential agonies are displayed for all to see.” Could you talk about your process of interpreting Berkoff’s script?
Wright: We chose to weave in the characters of the Charwoman and the Woman in Fur—such important figures in the novella, who didn’t make it in to Berkoff’s adaptation at all. For us, they were vital and informative presences. Berkoff’s script is brilliant. He also seems interested in the well-worn Daddy Issues lens on Kafka, which interests me less than the network of familial relationships as a whole, and the tragedies born therein.
Rebecca Wright: There are lots of directors I admire and lots of artists who inspire me. I love Ariane Mnouchkine, Pina Bausch, and Declan Donnellen. I also love Richard Sera, Shary Boyle, and David Wilson’s Museum of Jurassic Technology. I’ve worked for a long time at the New England Literature Program, one of the most pedagogically radical education programs in the country. It’s like boot camp for collaborative artmaking and has deeply informed my process. And I love George Eliot. Her sociological fiction is a gorgeous example of translating life into art. I hope to keep encountering new influences as well, with an open heart and a spongey mind.
Eger: When was the first time you realized that you had truly come into your own as a director? What created those breakthroughs?
Wright: I think as soon as I figured out that I should say “I’m a very collaborative director” and explain a little bit about what that means for me on the first day of rehearsal, I started a gradual process of coming into my own. Also, when I realized that I should always wear pants to rehearsal: if I’m going to ask actors to roll around on the floor, I’d better be prepared to do it as well.
Eger: Your company, Applied Mechanics, is based on the philosophy that “art is not a commodity, and that theater is, at its core, inclusive. We make art that dreams a different world into being and invites you into it. Our process is highly collaborative and based on a commitment to organizational and artistic innovation.” Describe the process of collaboration in your Quintessence production of THE METAMORPHOSIS.
Wright: The entire ensemble participated in creating movement, staging, and choreography for the piece. So, I would give prompts like “make a two-person bug” or “make a seven-person bug” and they would come up with all these proposals. Then we would work together to weave them into an order. Gradually, we developed a physical vocabulary for the piece that we could draw from as we discovered how each of its moments wanted to work.
Eger: Your group presents theater as a “radically democratic performance space, performers and audiences come together to explore new forms of community that exist beyond, beneath, or beside current realities.” How does that work?
Wright: In Applied Mechanics productions, the audience is free to move around the space and watch from whatever angle they want. Many scenes are happening simultaneously, and the audience is surrounded by the show. So it’s democratic in the sense that the audience and performers are sharing space and each audience member can choose her own path through the piece.
Wright: I’m interested in theater as a form, and live art as a medium. My personal politics (far left, feminist, anti-capitalist) have a relationship with my aesthetics and my working mode, but I wouldn’t say I have an agenda other than to make art that I think is cool—by which I mean, create things that I want to exist in the world, engaging in a process I believe in, with people I respect and adore.
Eger: What did you see as the main difference between your interpretation of THE METAMORPHOSIS and Berkoff’s?
Wright: His is minimalist (no props or literal set) and masculine (focused on the father-son conflict). Mine is busy (table! chairs! food! violin! Sure, all these objects are the same color, wrapped in muslin, and the chairs are floating on the walls, but they’re there) and feminist (cross-gender casting, presence of the female characters, depiction of women’s daily labor). We also incorporated the “brown liquid” and the “sticky stuff on Gregor’s feet” alluded to in the script, in the form of “the goo” (actually a soap-based concoction developed by Katherine Fritz) that shows up more and more over the course of the show.
Eger: Berkoff’s version of Gregor’s room, which becomes a cage, symbolizes the confined space in which basically all human beings are born into. His transformation into a bug frightens even the people in his family, so much so that they are ready to disown him, deprive him of his humanity, and even kill him. What were some of the experiences that the artistic team shared in discussions with you about their sense of limitations?
Wright: The ensemble is made up of incredibly empathetic artists. Everyone responded strongly and emotionally to the plight of a person who feels alienated and lonely. We talked about our adolescences a lot—such a time of change and bewilderment for everybody.
Eger: Usually a director would either take actors and designers from her ensemble or the best theater artists that had gone through the audition process. Apparently, you went a different route and chose actors and designers from these groups: Applied Mechanics, Bearded Ladies, New Paradise Laboratories [NPL], and The Riot Group. Tell us about that process.
Wright: Actually, I did hold a pretty rigorous audition process and cast an ensemble I believed in who I thought would work well together from the large number of incredibly talented performers who showed up.
My experience is that auditioning is less about finding “the best” and more about finding the rightest for the work. No surprise that the rightest for this work include people who already have lots of experience working in physical and collaborative modes. I want to note that the ensemble also includes members of Found Theater Company and Lookingglass Theatre. I’ll also add that I have long term collaborators in Applied Mechanics and members of the Riot Group. One of my favorite things as an artist is to have ongoing creative dialogue and process with people over time. So engaging Maria [Shaplin] and Adriano [Shaplin] is partly about building on an already rich vocabulary and artistic rapport that’s been years in the making. Kristen Bailey and I have also made more than half a dozen shows together.
Eger: What did you do to prepare for this fantastic piece of world literature where Gregor transforms in front of the audience from a regular young man into a beetle with umpteen legs and wings, all flailing and flapping desperately—performed by your team of actors, crouching over and under Gregor?
Wright: I read a number of different translations of the novella. My favorite two, I read several times. I spent time with Berkoff’s script. I had lively conversations with my design team (assembled, for the most part, before the actors were cast). I did a bit of research on Kafka. I dreamed of bugs and looked at lots of pictures of them and images of artworks engaging bugs (Louise Bourgeois, Shary Boyle, etc.).
Eger: What skills did this team bring to your version of THE METAMORPHOSIS?
Wright: This team is made up of terrifically inventive, playful, imaginative, generous artists. Everyone had great ideas, a keen sense of storytelling, and a willingness to depart from the literal in service of the truth. They’re also all tireless workers. I knew I needed Maria and Adriano because of their astute ability to communicate shifts in time and emotional reality with sharp aesthetic choices. I’ve been eager to work with Katherine Fritz (costumes) again ever since we worked together on Vainglorious, for which she and Maria brilliantly thrift-costumed 26 performers in historical garb. I knew she’d be down to figure out the way to bring in period silhouette and goo alike. And I’ve admired Colin McIlvain’s sets for years.
I knew I needed actors who could help me solve the puzzles of the script. So I was looking for folks who were physically adept and down to explore and communicate. I lucked out to get seven people who are all so great at doing all these things at once. Doug Hara (Mr. Samsa) has a huge amount of experience in this realm. Julia Frey (Woman in Fur/Lodger) and Lee Minora (Charwoman/Lodger) both are versed in the mode from their work with NPL and Found [Theatre] respectively. Gracie Martin (Greta) started working on physical theater and devised work while she was still at University of the Arts. Anita Holland (Mrs. Samsa) worked with Applied Mechanics on We Are Bandits, so I knew something if her great idiosyncratic physical performance mode. Alan Brincks (Chief Clerk/Lodger) just blew me away in auditions: he was so playful! But they all were, really, and that’s a key thing. Not only do Kristen Bailey (Gregor) and I have a lot of experience working together, but when she came in for Metamorphosis, she was willing to throw all that out the window, start fresh, and just play and make new discoveries.
Eger: Tell us more about the multiple metamorphoses that have taken place in this production: Gregor becomes a beetle and dies; his unemployed father who lived on Gregor’s income, throws apples at the beetle to kill him, and gets out of his role as an unemployed clerk; Gregor’s beloved younger sister who always spoke up for him completely turns against her brother, while she herself matures from a little girl who likes the violin to a young woman who becomes a skilled violinist.
Wright: Your description of the metamorphoses is interesting. I think there are many transformations within the piece: each of the family members has a journey, and then each ensemble member plays multiple roles and takes on multiple shapes—a series of theatrical metamorphoses. Everyone, at some point, is a bug.
Eger: You said that this play is a story where every character transforms and deals with isolation and miscommunication. You also reminded us that all human bodies change and that, no matter how dramatic and extreme, changing is part of being alive. How did you translate these insights into visual, audio, and dramatic theater?
Wright: We played a lot with isolation in the lighting: Maria [Shaplin] designed a plot that enabled isolating certain areas, including following Kristen [Bailey]‘s climbs on the wall. Adriano [Shaplin] enhanced and distorted certain lines of Kristen’s to add to the miscommunication effect; a lot of miscommunication is written into the script as well. Each actor worked carefully to pronounce certain individual physical transformations. The shifts in and out of bug body are one example, but Doug’s posture changes gradually throughout the piece, and so does Gracie Martin’s. Her costume changes rather strikingly as well, and Anita Holland’s gestural language shifts from nervous to grounded over the course of the play.
Eger: You presented the outside world in form of medieval characters that looked in through small windows—done brilliantly by lighting designer Maria Shaplin, as if Rembrandt himself had designed those light and shadow effects. Tell us more about that process.
Wright: The feeling of the outside world pressing in on the characters was very important to me. It’s a big presence in the script and the novella alike, and we wanted to represent it physically. Colin McIlvain and Maria worked together to make the window-scrim concept work. Sometimes the outside world peers in from outside, and sometimes it invades the Samsa home more directly, like when the Charwoman comes in to clean, or the Chief Clerk comes to call, or during the dream.
Eger: Had you seen or heard of productions in which Gregor is played by a woman, or is this the first production of its kind, as far as you know?
Wright: I haven’t heard of a production in which Gregor is played by a woman before.
Wright: I thought about putting something about the cross gender casting in the Notes, but then I wasn’t sure what to say. I’m tired of seeing shows with a majority of white male bodies on stage. That’s what most shows are. It’s become inherently boring to me. We’ve entered an age where it’s more and more generally acknowledged that gender is a performance. The female body has a lot to say about transformation, what with menstruation, pregnancy, and menopause.
Gregor is often seen as a kind of Everyman. If that’s true of the character, then he’s a kind of Everywoman as well. I auditioned lots of women for the role of Gregor, but Kristen was the best. She’s a phenomenal emotional actor, as well as a physical performer. Not everyone gets how to access realistic psychological feeling while engaging in expressionistic physical movement, but she does. The show is not really about gender, though, which is why in the end I didn’t mention it in the Notes. It’s about people and their daily lives and something extraordinary that happens to them.
Eger: Kristen Bailey, the star of THE METAMORPHOSIS, grew up in Salt Lake City, Utah where she saw friends coming out, and “their families treated them like a giant beetle.” Going by the long applause and the standing ovation at the end of the show, I had a sense that the audience related, not only on an artistic, but also on a personal level.
Wright: In the end, I think the crossgender casting makes Gregor more sympathetic and accessible. With Kristen in the role, Gregor really speaks to everyone.
Eger: According to your latest blog, “Applied Mechanics is in development! [. . .] We are not yet sure where it will all land, but we have been throwing lots of ideas up in the air, checking out which ones float.” Where do you see Applied Mechanics going, given the ever shrinking support from funding agencies?
Wright: Applied Mechanics is in early development stages for a new piece. We’re also working to arrange a tour of the piece we premiered last summer, We Are Bandits, a big immersive feminist punk play with original music. There are some amazing funders in Philly, like the Wyncote Foundation, who have consistently believed in our work and supported us. We believe in what we’re doing and have to have faith that the money will come. We work very hard on fundraising, and so far have been able to grow our budgets and our income pretty steadily. But our focus is on people and art.
We throw biannual community dinners—free meals, anyone is welcome to attend—and share a homecooked meal together at every rehearsal—so people are always taken care of, even if the budgets are small. We’re in early development stages for a little piece, After Bandits, which was huge, and Vainglorious, which had 26 performers. We’ve started wondering what tiny versions of immersive theater might look like.
Eger: Thank you, Becky. Keep us all posted. Just one confession: I have few regrets in my life. One of them is that I missed your production of Vainglorious: The Epic Feats of Notable Persons in Europe After the Revolution, the much talked about panorama of all the greats during Beethoven and Napoleon’s time—a theatrical masterpiece, by all accounts. If ever you remount it, please let me know. I’ll buy the first ticket.
"Meta-morphing Kafka’s Gregor" was published by Phindie on February 23, 2015.