SITE-SPECIFIC OR JUST MONOLITHIC?Interview

AA 3rd year Stefan Jovanovic speaks to German performer and director Fred Gehrig

26 February 2014
Temple Studios, Paddington, London

 

Last week, Takako Hasegawa and I hosted a symposium at the AA, Performance & the City, where we listened to a number of presenters speak about the captivating, participatory, performative and theatrical work that they produce, in turn questioning how we as architects and designers can use and incorporate similar methods into our own worlds of design. Much of what they create actually resonates with how one goes about setting the premise for an architectural project. As someone that has worked with numerous choreographers and directors in the past, I’m very curious to hear how you perceive the performance and the space, different perhaps to what we think about when designing it.

 

On my way here, I was thinking about my visual arts background and the methods I acquired while studying at Central Saint Martins. Back then I was working as a director. The environment was very similar to the AA. There were very few of us, and we all came from different backgrounds.

 

I didn’t anticipate that I would be in a big show like The Drowned Man (TDM) as a performer again. I have a lot of freedom with my roles now, I’m almost self-directing my own role on a regular basis. I come from Germany, where set design is mostly simplistic, no clutter, whereas in England, the sets are very realistic, they love period plays with realistic, opulent-looking, perfectly crafted environments. I also come from a contemporary dance background, where I have learned to work with little to non-existent sets. There is usually just a room. You inhabit that room, and I reckon that’s what I became quite good at. I would make the environment my home. Now, in The Drowned Man, I work with the reverse, I arrived in that overwhelming set, which is already so rich, that I felt almost lost.

 

A specific relationship is created, between me as the performer, and this vast, very detailed environment, where I don’t actually need to add very much. On the other hand I don’t want the environment to overwhelm the part I’m playing. One of the characters I play is the doctor, and when I walked into the room he operates in, I thought about my own history. Both of my parents were doctors, but are no longer alive. They were working in the ‘60s, when the play takes place. My dad was a GP and my mother, an eye specialist. The role in the play is a conjunction of both. Plus, the room that I operate in, actually closely resembles the room my parents used to work in. Such autobiographical elements and my adoration of the play, Woyzeck, in which the doctor plays a pivotal role, makes me feel very lucky to be allowed to play this role in TDM.

 

There are so many layers to the set and one can find many clues about the multitude of connections between the 35 characters of TDM. One never ceases to discover more, even the company members who have been there from the beginning. Plots seem to keep evolving just as they do in real life. So, when you inhabit a character you feel challenged to become part of such a complex story, and there is a constant underlying adrenaline rush, which you as an actor tend not to expect. The sound and costumes are all very defined. All of these elements are narrated from the moment the audience enters the building. These theatricalities coming together offer the performers a lot of ground to work with, but regardless you need to hit the right level of performance and lead the audience appropriately. One gesture or just even one gaze can shift the audience’s perception drastically. I think this is because the rules from both film and theatre apply.

 

Would you consider TDM as having a “site-specific design”?

 

In a way it does. Looking at images of how the building was in its raw state is very informative. The layout of the rooms and the floors is very specific and one can definitely feel the outer shell of the building. The rooms themselves have been transformed as well, to such a degree that you totally forget what kind of building you are in. It’s like in large film studios outside of London; where a certain illusion is created. I would say for the audience, it’s actually not site-specific.

 

One thing that is brought up, is the notion of legacy, and how the performance or the play can live on after the show is over? How would a play like TDM establish such a legacy? Many dance companies seem to end up making a movie, similarly to what Wim Wenders did with Pina Bausch…

 

Do you know of that film that Tacita Dean made of Merce Cunningham? It’s the equivalent to Wenders’ film about Pina. It captures Merce’s vision and is more of an art product than Wenders’, a more accessible product. I think you could make a very exciting film from TDM. There are however hindrances, such as the lighting being too low. It would be a big project and probably would not work as a mere documentation. Otherwise it just lives on in the memory of the people who watched it and those who were in it. What I find very interesting is what happens in the moments when the audience leaves. Different performers have some rituals in the space after the show. What happens with the space when you walk in and it’s not yet show hour? That’s something I like to ponder. The environment is so loaded; obviously it lives on, on its own, in the dark.

SITE-SPECIFIC OR JUST MONOLITHIC?

How much importance do you assign to context, geographically, historically, and literarily in creating a performance piece? How conscious should a performer be of the context surrounding their performance?

 

When I make, I want it! When I learn, when I want to know, I want to live it, I want to be it! Maxine (Doyle, who co-directed TDM) is great; she gave me a list of references to look up when I first joined the team and even gave me one of the books the play is based on, The Day of the Locust. It’s the luxury of working in the arts; you can learn more, you read more, and become more. I’ve worked in different settings however, like on the movie that came out last year, World War Z, where they didn’t care less if you had read the original novel or not. I find that very weird. They almost prefer if you don’t know, because they can handle you better that way and you don’t ask any questions. For the directors, it seemed completely irrelevant, how your mental headspace is linked with the work.  For me, that’s just strange. The more everyone knows, the more you can be on the same wavelength and bounce ideas off one another in the rehearsal room or when you’re onstage. That’s another thing I like about Punchdrunk, you are constantly able to exchange ideas and suggestions with the other actors.

 

Woyzeck by Büchner is the other literal reference play for TDM, which is also German; I grew up with Woyzeck and have seen many stage versions of it. It’s so well written that you can’t really fuck it up! And if you haven’t read Woyzeck, but you’re in it, that would just be inappropriate.

 

I definitely agree with that! Now, the fact that we’re currently in Paddington, that TDM is on show in this specific building, which used to be a sorting office, but is now known as Temple Studios, versus if it were on somewhere in Bethnal Green or Dalston or maybe somewhere like the Royal Academy of Arts; how does that change the perspective, or does it even matter so long as it’s an empty space when you first move in?

 

To me Paddington is glamorous. I always found the railway station very romantic. It’s atmospheric, quite small, and has an old-world feel to it. It’s almost a privilege to have to come here every day, but I reckon wherever I would be – either a rough neighborhood or a trendy area like northeast London, I would like it. For me, I think it’s more about who the audience is. When I worked in Africa, you really paid attention to the audience, you were very aware of the social context and where you are. Then, you become very aware of how you relate to such a specific fabric as an artist or a performer. I don’t really have to do that here, with the large masses. The other actors comment a lot on the audience and their participation, I don’t have that need, maybe not yet. The audience doesn’t annoy me; I don’t really have issues. As both of my roles are quite powerful, I can easily address an audience member and verbalise what I want from them, and they will do it!

 

It’s different when you use a space in the heart of the city, completely constructing its interior reality, whilst leaving a nondescript façade. What it does, is create a cult of followers that know of its existence. It’s also curious to consider the extent to which the surrounding environment can influence the performance and the spectacle. At what point does the spectacle begin for you? Before you arrive at Temple Studios?

 

From the moment I wake up in the morning, I’m already in character. My awareness changes, and my view of my surroundings are related to who I am that evening. When I then approach the theatre, I am half Fred and half my character.

Now, going back to the notion of the city as stage set, have you seen that Norman Foster recently unveiled a plan for ‘SkyCycle’, a system of elevated cycling routes throughout London…

 

Very close to the idea behind Metropolis!

 

In New York, Diller Scofidio + Renfro are now beginning to think about how the pathway through the Highline can become more of a social space. They’ve actually appointed Jenny Gersten, a theatre director, to develop the public arts program for the Highline, essentially finding new ways of creating a new type of urban spectacle. Pop-up stores and eating spots have started to appear all along it. It’s interesting to think what Foster’s proposal could develop into, eventually…

 

In the Southbank, you may have seen what they make there every year – these weird theme stands about sand and holiday, with various booths; a really awful example of how you could make a river bank more interesting… you overload it. That takes us to the beginning of our conversation. I get irritated when a lot of distracting elements with no real substance begin to appear in the city. I like an urban environment in which you can breathe and let your imagination and feelings run wild, rather than being cluttered.

 

At the moment all the ‘70’s buildings are getting torn down, because they are not listed. And nearly unnoticed, a whole era is being wiped out. We should look at the environment that we already have, like the river. And then this monolith, which is the Southbank. Why add anything more to it?

 

For more information:

Fred Gehrig is a German-born performer/director, currently based in London. A combination of a fine arts and contemporary dance background led him to work for a number of world-renowned choreographers in the past, such as Angelin Preljocaj, Bill T. Jones, and Matthew Bourne; Michael Clark, Lloyd Newson, Wayne Mc Gregor and Aletta Colins, as well as Martin Creed, David Rosenberg and Phillida Lloyds. In his own practice as a director he focuses on the notion of ‘word’ versus ‘movement’ and how the two co-relate and compliment each other. He is currently performing at Punchdrunk’s latest production, The Drowned Man and lectures regularly at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music & Dance.

Performance and the City symposium 

 

Above image: Icebear, credit: Thierry Bal
Homepage image credit:  Sheryl Tait