One of Toronto's most innovative young talents, Ted Witzel joins our interview series today. The Red Light District artistic director is nominated in the independent theatre category for Best Actor in The Witch of Edmonton and Best Director for Woyzeck.
Read on for Ted's thoughts
Can you remember your first experience with theatre?No. I hear it involved a Santa suit though, like every other precious actor whose bio mentions some crap about dancing candycanes in toyland. I'm also told that i was terrified and hid in a bathroom stall.
What first drew you to the directing?Telling people what to do. I was a little chagrined when i figured out that i much prefer working collaboratively. There must be somewhere i can exercise my despotic instincts.
Would you consider yourself more of an actor or a director?Director, absolutely. But I like acting too, and it makes me a better director.
How do you pick your projects? Do you choose them with a specific vision in mind?Usually by accident. Some plays ferment for years in my head and then explode like a keg of beer that's gone bad. Others fall into my lap and end up onstage within months. Woyzeck was the former, Witch [of Edmonton], the latter. We're doing a season of three plays next year and i was much more careful in selecting pieces this time—I wanted to try to find three different pieces that fit loosely together thematically, and that represented a broad spectrum of styles, venues and problems. But they all still have some elements of my old hobby horses. I'd love to be able to pick projects by their financial viability and marketability but I always end up picking stuff like weird polish fairy tales and czech antiwar plays from the 30s.
If you could direct any play ever written, what would it be and how would you approach it?
Last may it was Woyzeck. Then it was Witch. Before that it was Titus. It's usually whatever piece I've picked to do.
I can't really answer that question because the pieces I do are usually a response to the world I live in. And the world changes all the time.
I will say though, that there are some plays I love and can't think of a single good reason to do. Shame. 'Tis Pity She's a Whore is beautiful and has all kinds of good bloody bits and incest and a wicked banquet scene where 5 people die. And it's hilarious.
Who are some of your favourite people to work with? Do you always change it up or generally work with a similar production team?It's a combination. I have a core group of actors, technicians, choreographers and designers whom I love to work with, but I always try to infuse each project with some fresh blood. I like weird, quirky collaborators who like to argue with me. I don't like people who just do as they're told. As an actor, I love to have a director who'll kick my ass and argue with me.
Do you try and go to the theatre often? Is it helpful to view the work of other directors? If so, what have been some of your favourite production?
I try to see as much theatre, music, performance art, dance, etc. as I can.
Some of the best stuff I've seen lately has been here in Berlin. Armin Petras, who i just finished working with here, is fascinating. He works from very simple principles but has a limitless imagination. In Toronto, I loved Fernando Krapp at Canadian Stage; it made me uncomfortable in a really satisfying way. I also saw some wicked buskers in Vancouver last summer playing a wicked musical set on kazoos and noseflutes.
That said, I dislike about 90% of the theatre that I see, but i don't think that's a bad thing. If I was happy with the work being created I wouldn't have any reason to throw my own voice into the mix.
What drew you to Woyzeck?The structure, the story. I liked that it was incomplete, this mysterious structure full of these strange ideas, so brilliantly expressed. That a story as simple as a jealousy killing (one of the oldest storylines in the world) could unfold outwards and encompass the entire problem of what it means to be human, to suffer, to be treated like an animal—it explores the clash between the old world and the new, it encapsulates a world teetering at the edge of modernity, changing faster than the people who live in it can. Then there's the beautiful strange syntax, and this tension between the theatrical and the highly naturalistic, it's the starting point for so many different movements—in short, everything is in there. I think even more so than Hamlet.
Walk me through casting- were they easy decisions to make or did you struggle filling some roles?Finding male actors is always hard in the indie scene in Toronto. Others were natural fits. With my frequent collaborators, I know what their strengths and weaknesses and senses of humour are like. I usually know what they're playing right away and fill in the blanks.
What’s your rehearsal process like? How long did you work on the production?Ha. Over a year. But the first 12 months were research, planning, casting, translating, and editing. Rehearsing was about 5 months. It's silly, strange, and unique to each production. Once i have actors though, I don't like to sit at a table for long. It's a lot of improv, experimentation, and joking around. I like rehearsals a lot—I look at them as a research lab and a playground all at once. Rehearsal is the fun of it all for me. Performances are terrifying.
Explain the thought process behind the circus.There are three scenes in the play, set in front of and inside a circus tent. For me those three scenes encapsulate everything that's thematically in the piece. Exploitation, science, pure theatre, loneliness, a confused animal trying to follow instructions. Then there's the fact that in so many of the other scenes characters behave like cartoonish renditions of themselves—the doctor, the captain, the drum major—Woyzeck sees the world as a freakshow, but he's ultimately the performing monkey in the middle. The circus for me was Woyzeck's attempt to make sense of a world that doesn't.
What are some of the other things you brought to the play that were unique to your production?Well, the new text—our own translation. Then the bearded lady character was something that Whitney [Ross-Barris] and I spent a lot of time talking about. It happens that she's a brilliant singer and songwriter and she just started sending me songs she had written about the piece. It was more her invention than mine, but it was new. There is no bearded lady in the text either—I just told Whitney that she was playing a whore, a neighbour, a jew in a pawn shop, and a circus performer, and then we tried to make sense of it—the beard helped.
Also, the dance and movement. My boyfriend is a brilliant choreographer and he started off just creating the waltz for the piece. I then realized that this foreign quality of movement was exactly the theatrical quality the actors needed to fulfill the sense of hallucination I needed.
Oh, and the execution framing device. The speech at the beginning was from the trial of the real Woyzeck, it was the condemnation by the doctor who examined him. I hate the way so many people take the open-ended ending as a cue for Woyzeck to be struck by some divine understanding of his place in the universe and dutifully kill himself—I think that kind of self-awareness is foreign to him. Büchner wrote the piece as an argument against a miscarriage of justice. This guy goes crazy, gets abused, mistreated, and exploited, and then does the only thing he can to assert some kind of personal power—he kills the only person he cares about in a fit of jealousy. But it's perfectly natural to him, as a man brought up as a trained killing machine. It's like a dog shitting in a corner and then looking confused when you yell at it—Woyzeck is done away with by his society, not his own guilt. I added that but it's there in the play already. What i did was draw attention to it.
How about The Witch of Edmonton, why that play?It'd been a play that i liked but didn't really think I'd do. Then I thought it would be wicked to do something in a park at night with flashlights and lots of murder and this one fit.
I love revenge tragedy. It's bloody and violent and extremely contemporary. I'd been wanting to do one again since Titus. I love the multiple plotline, the chaos, the ridiculous staging requirements. There's one beautiful piece where someone kills all his banquet guests by dumping molten gold all over them. that's so fucked and beautifully theatrical.
(I guess I'm coming off as borderline psychotic with all these murder plays but I'm actually quite well-adjusted, I swear. And because we have so much fun chopping each other up in rehearsal and onstage I'll never go all Vincent Li on some unsuspecting Greyhound passenger. A healthy outlet is what everyone needs. And i'm freaked out by blood. Probably why i put it in my theatre.)
Witch hunts never go away either. Scapegoating is one of the first things people started doing when they began living in communities, and we have been doing it since.
How did you develop the dog character, did you do anything specific to prepare?I have lived with dogs my whole life. I just rolled around in the grass trying to act like a dog and got Catherine (the other director) and the other actors to tell me if i looked inappropriately stupid.
What were some of the challenges in the site-specific staging?Dog shit, used condoms, and syringes. We had to rake those up before anyone played a death scene on them. Also, no dressing rooms and rain. And real dogs getting overly enthusiastic about me.
One of my favourite aspects of the production was the way it seemed to challenge the audience to step in and help. Did the response or lack thereof surprise you?People are usually terrified of audience participation. But we tried to play off of that as the point—not participating in theatre is like not helping someone asking for money on the street. You're asked a direct question, or dared to act decisively, and you don't. That's fascinating. I was shocked when someone did help. I'm guilty of it to—I'm terrified of audience participation as an audience member. I try not to sit too close to the front in the theatre here in Germany.
What are you working on now?I'm in Berlin right now. I just finished working on a production of Grapes of Wrath at the Maxim Gorki theater and am leaving next week for Ingolstadt to work with my friend Johanna on her production of Master and Margarita. In between i've been planning next season and writing grant apps. Sometimes i feel like theatre creators spend more time writing grants than they do making theatre.
Do you have any dream roles you’ve always wanted to play?I don't read plays like that. I think of how i'd stage them or whether I'd want to. All my favourite parts I've played have been things I'd never think of for myself. Franz in The Robbers was some of the most fun I've had onstage because Johanna's production was so physically demanding. Alceste in The Misanthrope for the same reasons. I would never have thought of myself for either of those parts. I gravitate towards walk-on clowny roles without much text. I'll play any part in any show that Johanna [Schall] directs though. She's a brilliant director who knows how to kick my ass. I like when directors demand more from me than I think I can give.
Is there anything you’d like to add?Uh. Just a shameless plug to watch out for our next season of work. We'll be announcing in March and then presenting the lineup at a launch party in April.
For more information on The Red Light District visit their website.