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Sue Balint | rehearsalmatters.org

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Sue Balint

Dramaturg, producer

Interview: Barbara Simonsen
Toronto , January 25, 2009

You have worked both as a dramaturg and a playwright. Is it either-or in the productions that you work on?

I think in my first experiences I would have called myself a playwright and I moved on from that. I think it's very natural when you first start exploring what you want your role to be in theatre and creation, you find a title that's accepted whether it be "director" or "actor" or "playwright" or whatever. Then you gain a bit of maturity and a bit of insight and see that the ownership that you would have had of things you wrote originally (and I made really verbose stage directions because I knew exactly how I wanted everything to go) is something that you want to release.

I don't want to present a finished script, because I think that then carries on through the whole creation process. If you have a finished script that is inflexible and you have a director who has a blueprint before he or she walks in on the first day, that's the least interesting option to me. But I wouldn't have said that when I first started writing. Because I had my idea, and I wanted to just see it on stage.

In each individual collaboration, things sometimes develop so that it's clear that I'm not really the playwright, I'm more of a dramaturg or the person who's putting the jigsaw puzzle pieces together from all these other interesting ideas and all the input that is coming in.

I’m by no means a professional dramaturg in the sense that that’s my specialty and my only role. There isn’t one specific way that I work. "Dramaturg" has always confused me as a phrase because everyone seems to have a different definition of it. My experience as a dramaturg is much more hands-on and not the researcher/analytical side of things, but as a member of a creative team, when we've been doing projects from scratch and starting from day one all together.

A few years ago I worked on what was called The Sarajevo Project by a company in Toronto, Theatrefront. It happened over a three year period, so it was a long development process, and the first stage of it was that five of us from Canada went over to Sarajevo and worked with a director and three actors there, and we started the process with nothing. A month at the national theatre there. They gave us a space, and we started to explore... So where do you start? We were all fairly young artists at that time and we had to come up with a model of how we were going to work.

There were the performers, a director from Canada, a director from Bosnia and myself who at the outset was the playwright, and we all had to find our place and how to work. And we were exploring stories, we  were exploring the linguistics, the sound of the different languages, we were exploring this rich, rich material. During this month of work it became clear that there is no playwright in a process like that, but there is something akin to a dramaturg. Some call that person a "scribe" - another way of looking at the person who basically stands back and takes in the room and takes copious notes. For me it was a really interesting process, I had never experienced anything like it. At that point I was used to sitting alone at a desk. Now this infusion of ideas and the environment of being in a different country and taking everyone’s ideas and then after eight hours of rehearsal each day, going home at night and trying to somehow transcribe that or come up with maybe a more polished or condensed version for them to try out the next day. It was a constant conveyor belt -  and overwhelming.

After this month of work I think there was like a year where we all had time to process, and then the Bosnian artists came over to Toronto and we had phase two of development. Same kind of process - we were back in the rehearsal hall trying to find a story or a through line. At each part in the process there was a public presentation at the end. Certainly well worth the price of admission, you weren’t going to get bored that you'd seen the same thing!

I felt like I was a dramaturg when I was in the rehearsal hall and then a playwright in between each creation phase, where I had to piece things together. The whole  thing culminated in the performanceReturn (The Sarajevo Project) at Tarragon Theatre in Toronto in 2006. And it was lovely, an adventure. And I feel like there were ten plays that could have come out of it. But that was my process in that project; I was in the rehearsal hall every day and an equal voice in the ideas that were coming out of each phase.

It's overwhelming and it's scary and you tear hair out at times, but especially doing that in another country is amazing. Because I'm a big fan of language. Language I don't fully understand is even better. I love the rhythm and the poetic sound of language. So exploring that whole aspect for me could have been a play on its own, removing it from text and literal meaning.

Of the finished script maybe 30% was in Bosnian and the really exciting part for me was to work out: For someone who speaks both English and Bosnian how do I not repeat the same information twice - but if they only speak one of those languages how can they follow the entire play? There were scenes done completely in Bosnian and there were scenes completely in English, and scenes where we had both overlapping, and of course the Canadian characters not understanding what the Bosnians were saying… Comic stuff like that.

It was a jigsaw puzzle and I loved it, being able to piece those two languages together. At the same time you're expressing some of the confusion of not understanding that  we as travelers had experienced, and in general it's a metaphor for all different types of displacement in that situation.

So from your angle of playwright and dramaturg, what would you say is the essential element for a process to be successful?

I'm still looking for the ideal... I'm fascinated by what the ideal collective looks like. Those elements that you put together. I would want from day one of the creation all disciplines involved. It's really important for me that all the elements of the technical set - sound, lighting, all those things - are present from day one. I want a director, and I want dancers, and I want the performers, and I want a playwright, and I want everyone in the room.

And I don't know what the secret is to “release an ego” in the world, so that all those people can get together. I know it happens, I've seen productions where I get a feeling that all those people somehow got on the same page at some point pretty early on, and it worked, and they channeled it the right way. But how that matchmaking works, I don't know. I've certainly experienced elements or moments of it in the different creative processes that I've been involved in.

The most ideal creative experience I've ever had was here in Toronto. It was called The Large Glass, done by DNA Theatre in 2005. Essentially we were given - I mean it's a dream come true to begin with - a month of free time and space on the 24th floor of the Toronto Star Building. Through some miracle of real estate… It was a bare office building with no dividers, so it's huge, and there were 360 degree  windows all around it, overlooking the harbour in one direction, overlooking the city in the other, so it's beautiful to begin with. The DNA Theatre is an interdisciplinary company by nature, and the concept from day one was labyrinths, which is something that I love. Sacred geometry and labyrinths,  and “The Large Glass” refers to Marcel Duchamp, and there was this whole image of what that might evoke. Co-conceivers David Duclos and Hillar Liitoja picked the people that would each create a space within this environment, and they did a wonderful job. Some had dance as their main interest, and my idea was more text based, and there were beautiful things going on in that space, and we had a month to play.

The last two weeks, but only maybe for about three-four hours each night, guests would walk through one by one. They had dings and bells to tell them when to move on to next space. From sunset the show started in two-minute intervals until maybe 10 o'clock at night, so you got to see the whole outside environment of the city and the way the light was shining through.

The elements that were perfect were that we had the time, we had the space, we had this group of people that was open to every idea. And yet there was safety because we were all given our own piece of the puzzle, and we were all given a space that we owned. Maybe that's what appeals to the ego enough to allow for a collaboration in the larger sense. I don't know. It worked well.

And good matchmaking.

Definitely. Obviously we were all visible and audible to each other while we were performing within our own spaces, and interactions would spontaneously occur. Because there was no script, there was no predictability of how any given night was going to go. The interactions would spontaneously occur; a sound would occur in another area of this huge building and the response would come from someone else, maybe an audience member. The audience was equally involved in the experience, it was like the unknown cast member that would walk in. Or a certain rhythm would start with the sound design that would completely influence the way the dancer worked for that evening. That interaction was actively encouraged, it was part of the process and it was ongoing. It wasn't like 8 pm on opening night: This is how the play is going to be for the rest of the run - and I loved that. The spontaneity.

So again, from your point of view, what is the problem of the rehearsal process?

Shall I return to ego? Does everyone say that? It’s a given, it’s human nature, and I think the traditional model of theatre is also built on an assumption that there is an answer that we have to arrive at and usually the director has it. And if the director doesn't have it, it's in the text. So between those two everything can be resolved and like I said before, that's the least interesting option to me. It's not that you're going to end up with a poor, poor, poor product, but it's not an exciting way for me to work. To always have a person or a timeframe at which you arrive at a definitive answer.

And a lot of that comes from time restraints. Rehearsal processes are too short, I think. That's kind of universal... If we had more time, more freedom, more energy to experiment and less fear. I think there's a safety net that people fall back on too much, and we know what an audience responds to, and even if we don't like what the audience responds to it seems to be the fall back position. Finances play a large part of that as well. But in my ideal world, I would remove ego and I would remove rules.

For you personally, how does it feel to hold on to the ego?

I aspire to remove myself from ego. That’s completely ridiculous, right? … Everyone has too big an ego. Sorry that I'm speaking in these metaphysical terms! But it's extremely scary - when I go back to my initial work as a playwright, the ego is there and the ego is attached to the verbose stage directions and the very clear idea of what the visual images should be. Or the particular line that you loved when you wrote it and you just don't - no matter how much you know that it shouldn't be in the play anymore - and it refers to the character that got cut three months ago and you still want it there. Because you think: "That's proof that I'm a good writer", and you want everyone to see it. So it's impossible to catch yourself every time, and I can see it in myself. It's very scary to try to release that and it's really scary to get in a room with a bunch of  collaborators and hope that everyone else is trying to release it as well.

I think you know sometimes when you've encountered a collaborator where it's not going to happen. So this whole model you have for the ideal situation goes. And I don't know what happens at that point. Do you pack it in for that production or find a better offer for them? It's hard. It's something that you’re still working on when you're 80 years old.

Apart from these ideal scenarios, is there something that you would like to try out? Something completely impossible, something that you would change?

I would like to do more work outdoors. I really love large scale environmental work. This maybe off on a completely different tangent, but the past couple of summers I've been working on projects with Murray Schafer, a Canadian composer. Beautiful man. He lives out on a large property a couple hours east of here and he writes “environmental operas”. He has surrendered most of his property to a group of 30-40 people coming in camping there each summer and building this environmental set for a production of his called Patria and it's fantastic! The freedom of the space and the mentality of doing all this work and living in a sort of commune. Sleeping and eating and living with all these people for a month at a time, which is what I did the first summer that I was there long term. It's fantastic. It's not even interdisciplinary, it's more than that, because it's not just artists, it’s landscape architects, it’s an astronomer and just people who want to be a part of that environment and are there to cook, maybe, but just want to be part of this creative place. So it's much more of a 24 hour a day feeling rather than checking in for rehearsal.  And I would like to do more work like that, which feels all-encompassing, and find those other people that want to do that as well.

Here also the audience members walks through one by one and explore the space on their own, and his operas can be nine hours long. He'll write specifically: " This is meant to take place on a beach at sunrise", and people travel and camp overnight and wake up at 5 am, and they canoe out to the place where the opera is taking place. He has so many people interested in his work for a reason, because there are very few things like it, and it's not just a piece of theatre, dare I say, it's more of a spiritual experience and there's a commitment. I firmly believe in audience members having made a commitment and I love them having to make a physical journey of three or four hours and having to find a place to camp overnight before. As an audience member myself I want to meet a creative process halfway. It's not interesting to sit with a programme and a safety net in front of you. I appreciate creators that force those experiences on people as well.