We’ve been covering director Ted Witzel and his indie company The Red Light District since My Theatre first started in 2010. He’s created some of Toronto’s most memorable avant-garde productions, pushing the boundaries of our comfort zones as we travelled from the heart of Trinity Bellwoods to a Queen West sex club to see his adaptations of classic texts. When Ted took time off from the RLD to get his MFA from York University, his absence was sorely felt on the Toronto indie scene (or at least on the pages of this site). In November 2013, he came back and brought with him a crowd of inspiring young BFA grads to bring his Brechtian ideals to life once again.
The resulting collaborative production of the RESISTIBLE rise of arturo UI (capitalization choices all Ted’s, more of them to come) is one of our most-nominated of the year, scoring Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress and Best Ensemble nods in addition to Best Director for Ted (an award he won back in 2010, the first year it existed). We made him join the Nominee Interview Series for a second time so we could grill him with important questions about stage makeup.
First thing’s first- in your last interview you admitted to being afraid of audience participation and always sitting in the back. I picked as remote a seat as I could and refused to make eye contact and yet your Ui cast still got to me multiple times before the show. So my question is- why do you keep doing this to me?!
and for me, one of the things i love about live theatre is the fact that the performers are there, with you. i try to exploit that. i like an audience to feel complicit. and to feel like we’ll notice if they fall asleep or check facebook.
What made you go back to school for your MFA? Why York?
what i liked about the sound of the program, when i was invited to apply, was that it was a way of continuing to do what i was doing (apprenticing with directors who excited me while making my own work), while expanding my skills and vision for larger-scale production.
self-producing is also exhausting, and i liked the idea of working with a company.
to be honest it was less york that attracted me than canadian stage. i like what mj [Artistic Director Matthew Jocelyn]‘s about, i believe in his programming, and i think berkeley is becoming a hub for some of canada’s most interesting artists and work. i wanted to be in the thick of that. if i was going to commit to canada for two solid years (and maybe more), i needed it to feel exciting, vibrant, and necessary. i thought that contributing to an institution that is attempting to expand the toronto audience’s horizons was a good use of my time, and there was a lot i felt i could learn from being a part of that institution.
What was the most important thing you learned in the program?
it sounds boring, but the most exciting tools i gained were those that fell under the umbrella of what kim collier called “capacity building.” we’re always short on time and money in this country’s (english) theatre ecology, and there is no one in this country better than kim collier to teach a director how to maximize a production’s efficiency — and, by extension, artistic potential.
York’s partnership with CanStage meant that you spent your summer directing for commercial audiences at Dream in High Park, a fairly big departure from your usual crowd. How did you attempt to adapt your style to make a Taming of the Shrew for picnickers?
Your next project was Yukonstyle, also for CanStage. What attracted you to that text?
mj was really set on us doing canadian plays.
it probably won’t come as a big surprise, but:
i. dont. like. canadian. plays.
most of them, at least. not for myself. i don’t mean to dismiss a whole culture of playwrighting that has been described as “vibrant and exciting,” and “culturally essential,” but as far as plays i want to direct go, the canadian plays on that list are few and far between.
(i should here say that this is all based off of sweeping generalization and that i recognize that there are case-by-case exceptions to the following…)
maybe it’s a protestant tendency to moralize, or the prevailing mode of naturalism. maybe it’s that too many plays in canada feel designed to be rehearsed in 3 weeks, or thematically based off of grant applications.
canadians tend to like plays that undertake to discuss an ISSUE. the ISSUE should be mildly controversial and evoke a mess of moral and emotional reactions. but most importantly, that ISSUE should be something that the lefty theatre-going community can all clearly see the “right” side of (i.e. safe injection sites, gay marriage, cyber-bullying, women’s rights, racial profiling, etc.). we need a clear perspective on the right side of the argument. then we have a little evening of theatre that purports to explore both sides and put forward a mildly compelling argument for the “wrong” side of said issue, so that we can all feel like we’ve been open-minded and fair and had our values lightly challenged. but in the end, we’ve got to re-align on the side we all knew was “right” from the start.
canadian audiences are also desperately insecure about feeling stupid or things going over their heads, so our playwrighting seems to avoid overt intellectualism.
i think it’s theatre’s job to be a little more challenging than that, and to intervene in standardized value systems with more complexity and nuance.
as far as yukonstyle goes, i spent a whole summer reading what probably amounted to over 100 canadian plays. i liked 2 of them. yukonstyle was one of them. mj liked it too.
i liked that it didn’t provide any tidy answers, and raised a whole mess of questions. it ventured into some pretty difficult territory, and i was particularly nervous about presenting the aboriginal content in a way that ensured the material’s brutality was advancing a discussion, not regressing it. (i have a particularly personal investment in a really frank discussion about how horrifically this country has treated its aboriginal population).
i liked that sarah [Berthiaume, the playwright] was experimenting with form and poetry, and i liked that it felt like a play for my generation, and one that could provoke a discussion that we aren’t taking nearly seriously enough. i recognized the canada that i had experienced in it, which is not the case with most of the canadian plays i read.
In your final months in the program, you developed your production of Brecht’s the RESISTIBLE rise of arturo UI on the students in the undergrad theatre program. What were some of the rewards and challenges of working with students?
students are the fucking bomb.
maybe it’s just those students, but in any of my experiences teaching, i have had access to collaborators with raw and unjaded energy, passion, and enthusiasm, and they’re still idealistic about “the power of theatre to make a difference.” i think that’s crucial for young actors to have, because experience in the real world gradually crushes that, so you’ve got to have it stockpiled to make it through the desert. sure, maybe their technical prowess is still being developed, but you get an energy in performance that compensates for that.
i also like to direct really breakneck, athletic pieces, and young bodies can pull those off well.
and best of all … no fucking equity rules!
Why did you choose that text?
to be honest it was proposal #11 or something.
the york teachers had noticed my proclivity for texts with a strong dionysian, erotic element. they shot down (in no particular order) spring awakening, don juan, puntilla, baal, lulu …
they wanted me to focus on something text-y and that played on argument rather than sexuality.
i actually was a bit worried i’d picked a lemon because the standard (mannheim) translation is so brutally clunky. but i had heard that there was a great translation by a canadian woman from the west coast (dr. jennifer wise), and when i got my hands on that it was like reading a whole new play.
when i first read it, it seemed very specific to its nazi context and i had fears i wouldn’t be able to get away from that. i was surprised by how much i grew to love the piece and appreciate its craft and construction.
i also love the text because, unlike a lot of brecht’s other writing, this one was written quickly and without revision; one clear strong urgent impulse. he just barfed it out (in verse).
How much work did you do on your own before taking Ui into the rehearsal room with the students?
the usual. i spend a lot of time with a text before i’m ready for actors. first is research and editing—the time i spend completely on my own googling the shit out of everything relevant and slowly honing the piece down to a length that i think is sustainable in performance.
along the way i’m sketching and doodling ideas for staging as well.
then there’s the design process, which takes some back and forth to create a space for the piece, and a look.
then i get actors.
the joy of this process was having three creation phases; a 2 week workshop in november, where we roughed out the entire staging, and then 3 weeks in january when we edited the shit out of that first staging for the studio production. then there were another 3 weeks in october for the remount.
from the 1st to the 2nd phase, we cut out more than half the material we’d made. i think i cut more than 10 characters (of 60). i like to work in drafts, and i like the space to make a lot of junk before i figure out something good. my process is one of failing a lot before i feel like i’ve succeeded. and there’s always that one night where i go home and figure the whole thing out and come in and in a 6 hour rehearsal readjust the whole thing to make sense of itself.
You’re a very collaborative director. How did that process change when working without any of your usual collaborators?
not really all that much. i didn’t have my shorthand at first, but it was quickly developed with all three casts.
You have somewhat of a trademark visual style. How did that develop? (Translation: what’s with you and whiteface?)
personal taste i think. my stupid sense of humour.
there’s probably a bit of my queer sensibility in there. and a definite reaction against the blandness of suburban southwestern ontario.
i like a mix of trashy and baroque. and i like pink things a lot.
and whiteface. apparently.
actually the whiteface has only been in about a third of my pieces. but even when i don’t use whiteface, i often like a stylized makeup design—kind of a mask. i like to set up a clear boundary between audience and performer to break down (in appropriate instances).
i guess one of the nice things about whiteface is that you can erase some of the signifiers of personality that the actor bears and replace them—especially with all the women playing men. it’s easier to draw a mustache onto a whitefaced face. i like to cast kind of wildly against type, and makeup can help me turn a young woman into a middle-aged man, or a young man into an old one.
there’s also a lucky jerry can that has made it into about half of my shows. watch for it; it’s kind of like where’s waldo but with gasoline.
Your Ui featured an almost all-female cast in an almost all-male play. How much of that decision was the breakdown of York’s program and how much was a directorial commentary?
i try to turn my limitations into tools that reinforce the discussion the play is having. i was given that group. so both, equally.
Two of your actresses are nominated for My Theatre Awards this year- Daniela Pagliarello, who played the titular mobster/dictator Arturo Ui, and Sheri Godda, who played about 7 different roles. Tell us a bit about working with them.
dani asks really great questions and works like a dog. it’s a clear process with her of building and layering day by day. i really appreciate her intellectual understanding of the dynamics of the entire piece—she thinks like a director. but on the other hand she’s incredibly instinctive.
i pity any actor who is expected to keep a straight face acting with sheri. she shows up with a suitcase full of crap and is constantly making new offers. that fucking bald wig made its way through every one of sheri’s characters before i just relented and said she could have it for her smallest character. well, second smallest. i didn’t think it was appropriate for the french maid.
The tap dance gun shots- was that a product of Daniela’s dance ability or did you have the idea then cast a tap dancer?
the tap routine was always planned. i knew dani could tapdance. about a week before the first staging she asked me when she should sneak offstage to put the tap shoes on. … bing! … thankfully dani had a really secure grasp on what was going on and was able to integrate yet another element in short order.
You often trap your audience into being complicit in the tragedy by the end of your story. In Ui, you made us vote for him to take power. How often was that met with resistance?
At my performance, the one hesitant audience member was physically removed from the theatre. Did you have a gameplan for if the audience banded together and refused to elect Ui?
i gave minimal guidelines. i liked to see how the actors dealt with it.
one option was starting the play again. another was a strike—the actors just sitting down and waiting.
i put faith in the fact that canadians are polite and the majority wouldn’t want to ruin “the plan.” there was also a fine line of harmless danger that we tried to tread so that it would feel like a vote in favour was of no consequence. which is kind of what terrifying autocrats generally do.
How important was it to you that the audience take the snarky cues from the projector and make the appropriate modern day connections?
well i really didn’t want it to be a play that was just about hitler. we all know that the holocaust was bad and shouldn’t have happened. i was more interested in the narrative of capitalism as a flawed system that can be exploited to achieve that kind of power. holocausts aren’t the only bad things tyrants do.
How did the play change (if at all) between its York incarnation and the remount in the context of your indie company the Red Light District?
about 20% of it was new. the intermission was new. i didn’t want to do the intermission but 1h55 of political argument can be a bit heavy. i thought people would follow it better if i gave them some respite.
Do you have a favourite moment in the production?
i liked the weird zombie-walk group exit after the courtroom scene. it was super simple, but i think it was effective. it was a moment where the audience could viscerally engage with a haunting image.
What are you doing now/ what’s your next project?
i’m in vancouver doing a lot of writing and a creation phase on a project based on the letters of heloise and abelard; a medieval abbess and her philosopher lover who got castrated.
next projects are in the process of being lined up. somewhat surprisingly, i’m working on another canadian play by a really exciting writer (marianne apostolides). i’m also laying out groundwork and writing grants for another 3 or 4 productions.
Do you have anything you’d like to add?
i like your questions. they’re a good reflection of my habits. one day i’ll do something with no whiteface or pink shit for you. i wonder if i’m any good at what i do without those things.