Christiane Jatahy by Jay Scheib

BOMB 150 Winter 2020
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Stella Rabello in What If They Went to Moscow? at the Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater, Los Angeles, 2019. Photo by Vanessa Crocini. Courtesy of REDCAT.

Dispensing with the categorical limits of genre and discipline, the Brazilian writer, stage director, and filmmaker Christiane Jatahy has always been most at home in the spaces between—between theater and cinema, between the concrete surfaces of documentary and the elusive slippages of fiction. For her, difference is a continuum. Hers is a poetics of overlapping, looping adjacencies and a confirmation that experience rises most hotly somewhere in the middle—where singular forms no longer suffice to capture the nuance of Chekhov or, for that matter, any vivid life lived with eyes wide open.

Meeting Christiane was a rare thrill—while we work hemispheres apart, our creative obsessions are philosophically and technically in close conversation. We convened in October to discuss recent work, in particular her production of What If They Went to Moscow?, an ambitious reimagining of Chekhov’s Three Sisters that plays for a live audience and simultaneously in a movie theater around the corner. Generous, courageous, adventurous, and precise, Jatahy’s evolving live-cinema-fueled performance practice is an inspiration.

Jay Scheib Your integration of technology onstage distances our senses but at the same time draws us near. It’s organic and immediate. Everything belongs in the frame. Could you speak to the development of your approach?

Christiane Jatahy My education was in both filmmaking and theater, so the technologies and procedures of cinema have been a part of my work from the beginning. Whether or not I use projection, the point of view of the spectator is always understood cinematically—la contre-plongée [low-angle shot]. My creations are formed at the borders: between stage and screen, fiction and documentary, spectator and performer. I started out doing documentaries. Then in 2005 I made a piece called A Falta Que Nos Move (The Absence That Moves Us). First I made it as a play, and then, in 2008, I made the film. The filming was done with three cameras shooting continuously over thirteen hours at my house on Christmas Eve. That was really the first fiction feature I’ve done.

JS Thirteen hours with no cuts?

CJ None. The actors were directed live, by text message, and the cameramen had earpieces. So everything was part of the film. Later, I edited the montage down to a two-hour feature film. I can show it to you when we meet in New York.

JS I would love to see it.

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Stella Rabello, Julia Bernat, and Isabel Teixeira in What If They Went to Moscow? at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, 2019. Photo by Richard Termine. Courtesy of BAM.

CJ After that, in 2011, I decided to use projection in my plays. In Julia, my adaptation of August Strindberg’s Miss Julie, I started to play with this relationship between cinema and theater, and in each subsequent production, I’ve continued to rethink not only how I use projection but also how I employ cameras on the stage, how the filmmaking becomes part of the dramaturgy.

JS This question about technology leads to a conversation about the space between. With What If They Went to Moscow?, based on Chekhov’s Three Sisters, you occupy this interstice between cinema and theater in a very interesting way. The characters are turning to look at the camera and then again to look at the audience. How did that idea evolve?

CJI first decided to put part of the audience in the theater and part in the cinema because I wanted to place the public, the spectators, such that one side would be a “utopia” of the other. It’s impossible to be in two locations at once. That was the beginning of the idea: to share the two spaces, to have two audiences, different but the same. And then they switch in order to see things from the other side.

The presence of the camera was also a big part of the idea. There are three cameras onstage. Each is a kind of character and corresponds to one of the three sisters. One camera is in Irina’s hands. It’s documentary; there’s movement. In the story, Irina received it as a gift from her father before he died. This camera represents how she sees the others. The Maria camera is held by our cameraman, Paulo Camacho, and it represents Vershinin. In the theater the camera is an extension of Vershinin’s body, while in the cinema we see through his eyes, looking through the viewfinder. When Maria looks at Vershinin, she falls in love with him. But it’s not about a man, it’s about how she can change her life. The camera is like a window, and she’s in love with the other side. She falls in love with the cinema and its audience. Olga is the third camera, on the tripod. That one is more about the setting because Olga, for me, is the space of the house.

JSAn establishing shot.

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Julia Bernat in What If They Went to Moscow? at the Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater, Los Angeles, 2019. Photo by Vanessa Crocini. Courtesy of REDCAT.

CJ Only at the end does this camera leave the tripod and change its orientation, when Olga enters the basin of water upstage.

The performance is a big challenge. How can the acting sit in both spaces, the theater and the cinema, and exist fully and uniquely for each one? Making the camera part of the fiction helps this.

JS I see that. The performances have these beautiful and extreme gestures. How early in the process do you introduce the camera to the performers?

CJ From the beginning in rehearsals we set up the positions of the cameras and the actors’ relationship with them. And—you probably know this feeling—it’s a bit schizophrenic because some moments I’m looking from the viewpoint of the theater audience and then I change and look from behind the camera.

JS Do you operate the cameras yourself in rehearsals?

CJ I do. Together with my photography director, Paulo Camacho. He’s really part of this process with me. To discover the frame, it’s important to have the cameras in my hands.

JS Because in a way, it’s like you’re writing in space.

CJ Completely.

JS I loved this production’s commentary on time. You take into account space in relation to time, which is fantastic because usually in theater everything is just about real time or speed, etcetera. But real space is quite difficult to get a hold of. I was excited when the character Olga said, “Sometimes the past is more real than the present.” It’s a beautiful introduction of space-time.

Did you know before you began the project how you would organize space?

CJ During rehearsals, I always see my original concept anew and adjust. I discover a lot in the collaboration with the actors. The quote you mention is actually the first sentence I wrote when I started the project. I’m always working with the past, present, and future because film is a record of the past. But it’s present for the audience. This friction in time forms the foundation of the work. This production is a continuation of a body of work that began with Julia (2011), followed by What If They Went to Moscow? (2014), and finally The Walking Forest (2016). The trilogy, a series of multimedia investigations of classical texts, is a research-forward inquiry into the possibility of confronting the space of theater with the procedures of the cinema.

In Julia, the actors are making a film in front of the audience, using Strindberg’s script. The audience experiences both the movie and the live theater of its production simultaneously. Each is distinct, and you can see the apparatus. Footage is projected on multiple screens, which move and flip open during the action, revealing the actors, different parts of the set, and the camera itself—it’s all there to see.

And then comes What If They Went to Moscow?. Here the cinema audience and the theater spectators are split, sitting on either side of the space of fiction.

The third entry in the trilogy, The Walking Forest, is based on Macbeth. This is an installation, and the camera’s placed behind a mirror. It’s the public that does the play. I film them live, make a montage, then show the film to the same audience that effectively made it.

JS Closing the theater with a screen is a radical gesture. And then making that screen collapse reveals a space of reality behind it, and the cameras.

CJ I’m thinking about how I can change the relationship of the camera to the scene and to the space. Previously the camera was kept separate, but then I decided to completely integrate it with the space of the theater, which creates a more dynamic stage. This is why I make paper maquettes. I design and prototype the decor, the furniture, the overall space.

JS You create 3-D models of the stage with paper?

CJ Yes, exactly. I can show you. I have a lot of curiosity about the way you work. It’s really interesting to meet someone with so many creative parallels.

JS It’s quite rare. We weren’t so familiar with each other; we are geographically far apart. But we have very similar obsessions—such as thinking about space in this way. I too continue to experiment with it.

CJ Do you have something in the theater now?

JS I just closed a production last week, a sort of big musical—Bat Out of Hell—at New York City Center, which was just bananas.

CJ Ah, yes, I read about it.

JS I used the same techniques and rigor I would bring to a venue like The Kitchen but this time in a commercial musical. Fortunately I had my usual team, including the cinematographer Paulina Jurzec and others I work with all the time.

CJ You do a lot with opera also, no?

JS Yeah.

CJ I don’t know if you know, but I did Fidelio in 2015.

JS Where?

CJ At the Theatro Municipal in Rio de Janeiro. With cinema in the theater. When I read that you had done Fidelio, I thought, Oh my God.

JS Yes, we are siblings.

CJ It has really beautiful music and a story I love.

JS It’s so good. I’m beginning to work on a production of Parsifal, which I will do three years from now in Germany.

CJ And what will it be about?

JS I don’t know yet. I’m trying to figure that out. It’s a lot about Christianity.

CJ Have you ever done a feature film?

JS I’ve done outputs from plays, where I’ve edited single-take multi-camera shoots down to a film. But only Platonov, or the Disinherited was a true multiplatform performance that played live in a theater and then also as a film.

CJ Two audiences—some people see it in theater and some in the cinema?

JS Yes.

CJ Good!

JS The performance and the film played simultaneously, so people had to choose. Some went to one location then the other on a different night, but many regular moviegoers just saw the film.

CJ When did you do this?

JS In January 2014 at The Kitchen in New York.

CJ That’s the same year that I premiered What If They Went to Moscow?!

JS Really? That’s crazy. We actually began the Platonov project a year prior in San Diego, as a drive-in movie. The progression all made sense somehow, as a logical extension of these ideas. I love how you can contain all possibilities in one dynamic experience. Seeing the making of a movie but as something whole and vibrant—and theatrical. Once you start to move down that path, if you have the courage, it opens into these elegant problems of space and time, and the technique evolves out of necessity.

CJ And it’s a way that the people see the work now—it’s really an aspect of the formation of the audience, no?

JS I appreciated how deeply your exploration of Three Sisters delves into the characters’ anxieties. How did you develop the characters and their actions? Were there improvisations?

CJ Using the structure and the text of Three Sisters as a base, the actors and I began by trying to find life in the everyday. So we worked somehow more on reaction than in the action. I want to put the actors in a space of risk, where they can embrace the potential of accident and the positive impact an accident can have. When I speak about accident, it’s the new, the surprise, the something that we don’t know. For me that surprise is what pins us to the same moment. To be in the same moment, I need the actors to be completely open to not knowing the next step. They need to react. So I prepare the structure first; it’s very much a spider’s web, really strong and complex but permeable. The actors enter the space of this web, which is engineered to require reactions; the process invites them to improvise. The unexpected can happen and may become part of the final text or not. And this possibility to improvise continues beyond rehearsal. The play is not finished when it opens. I never stop working with the work and I also, for this reason, remain a part of the performance.

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JS Do you rehearse every day?

CJ Not exactly. But we talk about how to maintain this presence every day. Because in the case of What If They Went to Moscow?, I am making a new live-edit every night of the performance—a new montage, a new film, mixed live that night. I’m there not only as a director but as someone who’s actively participating in the process.

JS Are you speaking to the camera people, calling the shots live?

CJ Yes. They have earpieces. Because—you know because you’ve done this—shit happens. Often. And I don’t have a problem with that. I can use it. But it’s important to work together and communicate.

JS It’s inspiring to have a tight team.

CJ Yes, it would be impossible to do this work without artist partners and technicians.

JS For What If They Went to Moscow?, you’ve worked with the same actors for over five years.

CJ Actually six because before this project I did a documentary with these actors called Utopia (2013). We traveled to Frankfurt, Paris, and São Paulo to meet with people who had left home—immigrants, refugees, or people who were just looking for change. I wanted to investigate Chekhov’s metaphor of Moscow, to learn about past and future homes. And these three actors—Isabel Teixeira, Julia Bernat, and Stella Rabello—went with me, as the Three Sisters. We met real people and talked about dreams, about home. This was the beginning of the research that led to What If They Went to Moscow?.

JS Were the artists part of other productions of yours?

CJ I’ve worked with the set designer, Marcelo Lipiani, for a long time. The actor playing Irina in What If They Went to Moscow?, Julia Bernat, also played in Julia and The Walking Forest. Stella Rabello too has worked on various creations with me, and the same goes for Isabel Teixeira. The last three years I’ve developed an important dialogue with Thomas Walgrave, a set and light designer. But these collaborators, just like myself, keep the liberty to work with other people. It’s not exactly a company in the traditional sense but a group that I work with a lot. It’s like a free marriage.

JS An open marriage?

CJ (laughter) Yes. We call our group Vértice—the point where surfaces and distinctions meet. It’s this line between fiction and reality, between theater and cinema. I’m the artist who decides the projects. But it’s really important to me to keep the people together. To develop a language.

JS It takes time and trust.

CJ Exactly.

JS And over the years, everyone is getting older and changing. Has that influenced their understanding of the work?

CJ Yes, and we use this. For example, with Isabel Teixeira, who plays Olga, we altered some of her lines because it’s different when you talk about making a big change in your life when you’re forty years old compared to when you’re forty-five years old. The task becomes heavier in some way. But it’s not only changes on an individual level that have an impact on the work. The political developments in Brazil, for instance, have urged me to adapt the texts as well.

JS Do you know this director in Buenos Aires named Daniel Veronese? He has a Chekhov production, I think maybe it’s still running—

CJ Yes, Uncle Vanya. I saw it. It’s in a very small house with three or four actors.

JS Yeah, because they’re the only ones left. They are not replacing the performers when someone leaves. And it’s been running for,

I don’t know, thirty years or something. And so they’ve all gotten much, much older. And they’re going to just keep playing it until there’s no one left.

CJ Oh wow.

JS I will try to go when there’s one left.

Where in Brazil are you from?

CJ I’m from Rio de Janeiro. Have you been there?

JS No. There’s a possibility I will make an opera in São Paulo. It’s a coproduction between an American company and the opera house in São Paulo.

CJ The Theatro Municipal. It’s a beautiful place. That’s the place to work now in Brazil. Rio is in a very bad moment. It’s a complex time for Brazil. Because of this president.

JS I’ve often shown work in Europe but rarely in South America, which I feel kind of bad about. There’s not so much exchange. I would really like to understand more.

CJ Yeah, it’s been a big year for me, showing my work throughout Europe and then for the first time in the United States—in Seattle, and then in Los Angeles. I showed the trilogy: Julia, What If…?, and The Walking Forest. There were a lot of similarities in how the audiences in Brazil and in the United States reacted. It’s amazing and strange in some ways because they’re completely different cultures, different languages. Brazil is in South America, but because of its size and our history, there are many connections with the United States. I know the language is a kind of barrier, but it would be interesting to try to develop more encounters between these cultures.

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Julia Bernat in What If They Went to Moscow? at the Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater, Los Angeles, 2019. Photo by Vanessa Crocini. Courtesy of REDCAT.

JS We might have to work on that. I mean, no one else will, so we should.

CJ Okay. Let’s do it.

JS And how did the reaction to your work in the US compare to Europe?

CJ It depends on the piece. The relationship to the audience, the public, is essential. I show work in a lot of different countries—when you really communicate with the other, it creates understanding. It’s about using the perception of the audience as material, intellectual material. But when you touch a human being, their senses, it’s no different across cultures. For sure, some people are more open than others to participate in the piece, but in the end, their reactions are similar.

JS And somehow this space that is opened by media technology is such a common language. Of course, some theater people, who are accustomed to going to see plays, don’t always know where to look: “Why is there so much happening?” But I think they too end up having an emotional reaction, sometimes without knowing why. It’s a powerful way of using the theater.

Do you know what you’re doing next?

CJ I’m working with the Odyssey.

JS Something small. (laughter)

CJ Again. We’ve done two works related to this. One is called Ithaca, which premiered at the Odéon in Paris last year. And now I’ve just premiered The Lingering Now—Our Odyssey II at the Festival d’Avignon in France. Next, I’m going to show it in Brussels and then in Germany. It will tour extensively. It started as a documentary, a meeting of artists and actors who recounted Homer’s epic and through these words talk about their own life stories. I filmed in Palestine, Lebanon, Greece, South Africa, and Brazil. So it’s about displacement, about immigrants and refugees, the people who live real odysseys. It’s a film, but there are performers in the audience who start to compete with the dialogue of the film—that’s when the live cinema starts. It becomes a dialogue that tries to remove the borders between theater and cinema while also minimizing our geographical borders. And I also participate as a performer.

JS Is it personal?

CJ Yes, my family’s story is in the middle of it. So it’s a different work in this way. And in the future, I’ll have a lot of projects because I’m an artist associate in some theaters in Europe, so I have a bunch of commitments. I also have a film project to do. I will change a bit, the future.

JSYou’re trying to change the future?

CJ Yes, my future. To try to think about what’s happening in this very complex world.

JS Yeah, these are very complex times.

CJ And as an artist, it’s really important to speak about this.

JS I think in the United States we have a similar problem with so much untruthfulness… It’s just endless. For the first time in my life, I’ve watched national politics map its problems onto even the smallest organizations. The same politics happening in government appear in the grocery store and the cafe and the university. But it’s also in small behaviors—

CJ In microcosms.

JS Yes. People feel like they are lying when they say, “Good morning.” You know?

CJ For sure. Because it’s a completely fake world now; you just never know what is true. This fake news is not only about political issues but everything. Reality and fiction are so mixed now.

When I work with fiction, I want to realize the space where reality can make its entrance, but doing work now, about nowadays, it’s impossible. It’s really a miasma.

JS It’s physical then but also fugitive.

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Isabel Teixeira and Julia Bernat in What If They Went to Moscow? at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, 2019. Photo by Richard Termine. Courtesy of BAM.

CJ Yes. When I work with Three Sisters or Miss Julie or Macbeth, it’s about how reality and liveness can enter these plays; the fictional source material helps us to see reality. And when I work with documentary materials, it’s just the opposite: the material comes from reality in order to create fiction. I did a work in 2005 that started as a documentary in which I interviewed people who live alone, to talk about their pattern of being and the way in which it’s not life when you are alone, whether you decide to live alone or life puts you in this situation. The project’s about loneliness. And the documentary became the material for the fiction. Finally, it became the film A Falta Que Nos Move. It uses the actors’ memories of the dictatorship in Brazil. It’s about our parents and what’s happened to them. So it’s a documentary, in a way, but not a cinema documentary. Rather it’s documentary as research. It’s not just about doing but about finding, always searching.

JS I think Paul Virilio said that virtuality will eventually kill reality. Or ultimately destroy reality. And I don’t think that’s true, but I do think it has accelerated the rate of change. Do you think much about virtuality?

CJ Yes, I think it’s active in my new work dealing with the Odyssey—that sense of “there yet not there.” Because when you put the cinema, which really is in the past, in dialogue with the theater and the actors, for the audience, space becomes confused, and it’s resolved through moments of connection through the dialogue.

I aim to use virtuality not to create a 3-D cinema where the images come closer to the audience but to move the audience closer, to bring them into the action. I’m always looking to create a third space. Not to create illusion, where you forget reality. But to create a space of transformation, where you can provoke new kinds of relationships with the present and the past.

JS When you stand between the notions of past and present, it’s a way of slowing the images down and suddenly you experience liberty. You can choose what to look at. You even have a responsibility to choose. And that can be very scary for people who have forgotten how to choose. This is what makes art revolutionary.

CJ Yes, in the sense that you respect the intelligence of the audience. You trust they will do this with you.

JS Is Chekhov performed often in Rio de Janeiro?

CJ His most famous works play every so often, but a lot of the productions are very classical. I don’t understand the impulse to do a classical play as a museum piece. Why?

JS Time disappears into artifice. Images slow till they no longer carry any meaning at all. They ossify. It’s the opposite of liberty.

CJ When Chekhov wrote these plays, each was about the moment, his own present moment. How we can find these texts now in our present moment, for ourselves? This is what matters.

The Select Equity Group Series on Theater

Jay Scheib is a director, playwright, and artist. His recent works include the musical Bat Out of Hell (after the album by Jim Steinman/Meat Loaf), which premiered at the London Coliseum/English National Opera in 2017, followed by performances in Manchester, Toronto, and New York City.

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BOMB 150, Winter 2020

For our 150th issue, we have redesigned our flagship print magazine. This design reaffirms our mandate to deliver the artist’s voice, supporting the vital discourse that appears in BOMB with vivid imagery and innovative juxtapositions that encourage dialogue across the arts—from conversations between artists, writers, and performers to exciting literature. We present exchanges in their formative state: revelatory, fluid, and iconoclastic.

This issue features interviews with Bruce Pearson, Anthony Roth Costanzo, Jacolby Satterwhite, Cathy Park Hong, Christiane Jatahy, and Seth Price, as well as fiction from Amelia Gray, Deb Olin Unferth, and Jenny Wu, and poetry from Sawako Nakayasu, Andrei Monastyrski, and Bob Holman.

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