In Conversation with Holger Syme – Adaptor & Director of The Howland Company’s upcoming workshop production of “Casimir and Caroline”
Interview by Ryan Quinn
I got the chance to speak with Holger Syme, director of Casimir and Caroline at The Luella Massey Studio Theatre, presented as part of The Howland Company’s four-day workshop weekend. Syme translated the work and adapted it with the company, and this public workshop production will run from November 19th-22nd, with talkback sessions for audience feedback.
HS: Ah, where to start… a German director said in the 1970s that “To summarize the plot of his plays is mostly fruitless,” and I think that’s right. Casimir and Caroline, as a “story,” is about a whole bunch of people at a party: some hit on each other, some break up with each other, one has a major health disaster, one ends up in jail. But within that kind of banal, kind of mundane scenario, Horváth examines an incredibly rich cluster of questions: what does love mean in a culture in which it’s increasingly difficult to distinguish commercial and emotional relationships? What happens to desire in a consumer culture? What do you do with feelings if you have no words to give them proper expression? And, really, most broadly, how can you live a life that’s in any way ethically justifiable in a world in which everything has become consumable?
RQ: You’ve translated and adapted this text from Ödön von Horváth, and you’re directing it as well. What draws you to this particular text?
HS: Well, first of all, how astonishingly contemporary it feels. I mean, what I just said the play is “about” applies a little bit more to our adaptation than to Horváth’s original, but really only a bit — all of those themes are in the 1932 text as well, although the kind of commodity culture Horváth experienced was of course quite different from ours. He was also writing on the eve of the Nazi’s first major election victory in Germany, and that’s obviously not our political climate. But the broader economic and social picture he’s drawing on — that’s very comparable, with the unspeakable divide between rich and poor, with the widespread condition of living on the brink of social deprivation, in an existence where losing your job can mean losing everything that you think of as “your life,” and so on. So that was the text’s primary appeal: that it seemed to speak so clearly, from the 1930s, to our own moment.
But I also find Horváth’s dramaturgy extremely interesting, and his dramatic language. His plays aren’t really structured as linear narratives — they are panoramic, and that’s a very appealing structure to me. It allows for a sharp focus on character and situation, both of which make, I think, for exciting challenges for actors and directors alike; the “story” is so simple and straightforward that it forces us (makers and audiences alike) to think about the issues that are being negotiated, and it really allows for a focus on the theatrical moment: what someone is doing right now, in front of you. How they’re moving their body, how they’re acting vis-a-vis another person, what they’re saying, how they’re occupying the space. It allows the audience to watch moment by moment without having to think too hard about what happened before and what’s going to happen next.
RQ: How was the process of adapting this text different from translating it?
HS: That’s where the language bit from earlier becomes relevant: Horváth writes in a really, really odd German. His plays read a lot like Sean O’Casey re-scripted by Pinter, if you can imagine such a thing. They’re extremely idiomatic — some dialect bits, tons of clichés, lots of 1930s pop-culture quotations, literary allusions of a not especially sophisticated kind, etc. If you translate that straightforwardly, it’ll sound awfully stilted — and partly, that stiltedness is absolutely necessary. Very few of Horváth’s characters have access to an “authentic” language: especially when they’re trying to express their deepest feelings, they sound like a Hallmark card or a self-help book. So the big challenge is not making the text sound “natural,” but finding precisely the right kind of stiltedness.
I had a first stab at that in my original translation, and then we worked very intensively, with lots of improv exercises, on finding those lines. We also felt that the gender politics of Horváth’s play were the one aspect that needed updating — his broader political perspective felt current, but his women slipped too easily into victim roles. So we made a lot of changes there, including turning two pretty marginal part-time prostitutes into corporate employees with a good deal more dramatic life. And we transformed the two older wealthy establishment figures in the original into two young overprivileged guys working in the tech industry — partly because of the Howland Company’s mandate, but also because it allowed us to focus on economic privilege more sharply, without having to negotiate generational conflicts as well.
Strictly in terms of process, the difference was that between sitting alone at home, translating the text; and spending many hours in rehearsal rooms, recording totally free and more guided improvisations, and then turning those into scenes by picking and choosing lines (alone at home). What’s really important to me, though, is that while we “adapted” Horváth’s text in the sense that we found contemporary equivalents for his own historically situated language, we are very faithfully following the original play’s dramaturgical structure. His first stage direction says that the play is set “now,” and that’s been my guiding principle: you can’t be “true” to this play if you set it in 1932 and in Munich. It’s not a history play.
RQ: You’ve done a lot of travel, and taken in theatre in many different cultural and historical contexts. How does that inform your process as a director?
HS: That’s an incredibly difficult question. Partly, this is a research project for me: I wanted to see what happens when you bring theatrical texts and practices from other cultures into contact with actors who are trained to work in the context of our own, Canadian assumptions about theatre. But of course I’m usually “just” an audience member outside of Canada — and what you see on stage relates only in a very complicated way to what happens in the rehearsal room!
It’s definitely true that because I see so much theatre elsewhere, especially in Germany, there are things I just don’t care about that others might consider very important. And there are things that I find totally crucial that others might find silly or negligible.
RQ: Do you find that you find yourself mixing elements of world theatre with Canadian theatre practices? What would you say any uniquely Canadian theatre practices are?
HS: OK, specifics? Er… “world theatre” doesn’t really exist, as far as I’m concerned. And what I find important keeps shifting as well. But here’s a few things: there’s a kind of spontaneity in German performance that I desperately want to see more of — the ability to move while speaking, to respond immediately to anything and anyone around you (in a way that’s going to be different, often radically different, from night to night), the freedom to mess with the text quite a bit, and so on. So I’ve been pushing hard for that. I’ve tried my best to reassure my cast that whatever they think might “make sense” probably does, in that moment — and that my role really is just to tell them if it doesn’t. The impulses should come from them, and they should be empowered to offer whatever they can think of. On the other hand, I also really care about stage images — spatial relations between bodies in particular. So some moments have to be very strictly blocked. There’s a tension between those two directorial impulses.
Uniquely Canadian? I’m not sure. Certainly a focus on story — though that’s a general Anglo theatre preoccupation. A general grounding of everything in psychology, rather than, say, politics. That’s for “straight” theatre such as this — there are other, very powerful “Canadian” theatre practices, in the fields of devised theatre or movement-based theatre, but that’s not really what we’re doing.
The big challenge for me, but also the really exhilarating aspect of the work, has been to put the show on stage in a way that allows the actors to play to their strengths without giving up on my own desire to keep the project focused on politics and dramatic situation. Things like allowing a moment to keep going past what the “story” might require, because it’s interesting, or entertaining, or compelling as a theatrical moment — that’s not something I see very often around here, and it’s something I really love in German theatre. But I think it’s pretty counterintuitive to Canadian actors; I suspect it feels a bit self-indulgent to be so uneconomical. But I don’t think it is. I think it’s exciting.
RQ: What do you think is the importance of companies like The Howland Company? Is there an eventual reshaping of the Canadian theatre landscape happening?
HS: Companies like Howland are all about creating opportunities for young actors to put thrilling, fresh work on stage — and I thinks that’s crucial if we want our theatre to remain as anything other than a social occasion (or obligation) for well-to-do people above a certain age. If I’m honest, I wish companies like this didn’t need to exist as independent outfits: I wish our larger, established institutions would make more room for this kind of work, and for these kinds of actors. There’s nothing more exciting to me in the theatre than to see actors who are still growing on stage; though it’s even more thrilling to see such actors work with very experienced colleagues, and to see those older actors having to respond to someone who’s doing things in a very different way than they’re used to. But in our current system, that’s very rare, because the young people mostly make their own work and opportunities (and can’t pay well enough to attract many more established figures), whereas actors that survive in the theatre industry for long enough to become established mostly work in a different world. There are exceptions, of course (David Ferry comes to mind as someone who frequently crosses that divide, and Soulpepper has been exemplary at integrating young performers in major roles), but it’s a real problem, and a real limitation. I hope we can figure out a way of changing that.
RQ: What do you hope people are discussing on their way back home after seeing this show?
HS: How to live. How to love. Whether to have a donut, a popsicle, or a rotisserie chicken.
RQ: As we’re heading toward the new year, what changes would you like to see happen in the Toronto theatre community next year? What would you like to see continue?
HS: Ha! See above. I always say the same thing, boringly. I want to see fewer new plays and more classics done in a new way. I want us to stop seeking inspiration on Broadway — because, seriously, why? When has thrilling art ever been inspired by rank commercialism? If we need to look for inspiration in the English-speaking world, look to London (but not the West End). Look to the Almeida and the Young Vic, and occasionally the National Theatre. Continue? To let our actors take all the risks they want. (Or would that be a new thing?) Believe more in performers and less in storytellers.
RQ: You’re the the Associate Professor of English and Chair of the Department of English and Drama at the University of Toronto Mississauga; as well as being a Harvard Graduate. What is the relationship between the academic landscape of theatre and the performance community? Is there enough of a conversation?
HS: In short, no. But that really is a HUGE conversation topic! I’m worried about the anti-intellectual climate in many parts of the theatre world — not just here, but everywhere, really. I’m troubled by a certain kind of aloofness towards theatre people on the part of quite a few academics. I find it really unhelpful how many theatre people and academics think they know right from wrong, and think that the “others” don’t. On the other hand, I’m also always baffled by how similar some academics and some theatre makers are, in a bad way: take Shakespeare. With any given performance, you’ll have plenty of disappointed academics and theatre people who object to performance choices because they don’t reflect their own understanding of the play — but that’s not what they say. They’ll say those choices were bad, or ill-conceived, or stupid, or just “wrong.” There’s too little willingness to let a show speak for itself, to see it as simply an intriguing theatrical event that is valid and compelling in its own right, not because it “interprets” a text. And that’s true for many academics and for theatre makers and critics alike. In general, I think both academics and theatre people should take theatre itself more seriously. (And again, I could name many exceptions to all of this!)
RQ: Any parting thoughts?
HS: Brecht said that theatre had to be entertaining before it could be political. I think we’ve tried to be true to that in Casimir and Caroline — entertaining, exciting, moving, all of those things. But then, political. Or at least I hope so…
Casimir and Caroline
A workshop production
By Ödön von Horváth
Translated, Adapted, and Directed by Holger Syme
Presented by The Howland Company
Featuring: Alexander Crowther, Sophia Fabiilli, Ruth Goodwin, Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster, Cameron Laurie, Michael Man, Jesse Nerenberg, Hallie Seline, Mishka Thébaud, Kristen Zaza.
Lighting Design: Jareth Li
Sound Design: Samuel Sholdice
Stage Manager: Jordana Weiss
Producer: James Graham
When: Thursday Nov. 19 – Sunday Nov. 22 at 8pm
Where: Luella Massey Studio Theatre, 4 Glen Morris Street, Toronto
(One block North and one block East of the Spadina/Harbord intersection)
Events: Talkbalk sessions to follow each night. All are welcome.
Tickets: $15. Buy here.
*On Sunday, November 22, presented with Casimir and Caroline as part of The Howland Company’s four-day workshop weekend , at 2pm there will also be a reading of take rimbaud, a new performance text in development by Toronto playwright Susanna Fournier, workshopped by The Howland Company.
Admission will be free for this reading.
“We are all terrifying creatures these days. The Restless ones. What do the Restless seek? Comfort? Or, oblivion”
By Susanna Fournier
Presented by The Howland Company
Time: Sunday November 22nd, 2015 at 2pm
Location: Luella Massey Studio Theatre, 4 Glen Morris Street, Toronto
(One block North and one block East of the Spadina/Harbord intersection)
Tickets: Free admission