Issue #150 Preview: Christiane Jatahy by Jay Scheib

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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.

This weekend at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Christiane Jatahy’s radical “mirror game” between film and live performance What If They Went to Moscow? plays for two audiences, one at BAM Fisher Theater and one at BAM Rose Cinemas—then they switch.

Jatahy spoke with fellow genre-defying multimedia theater-maker and Chekhov enthusiast Jay Scheib. The following is an excerpt of their conversation. Stay tuned for the full interview in our winter print issue this December.

Dispensing with the categorical limits of genre, or 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

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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.

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 Because my education was in both filmmaking and theater, 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 Lack That Pushes 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.

JSThirteen hours with no cuts?

CJNone. The actors were directed live, by text message, and the cameramen had in-ear phones. 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.

JSI would love to see it.

CJAfter 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.

CJOnly 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.

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

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

CJFrom 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.

JSDo you operate the cameras yourself in rehearsals?

CJI 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.

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

CJCompletely.

JSI 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?

CJDuring 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.

JSClosing 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.

CJI’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 maquettes in paper. I design and prototype the decor, the furniture, the overall space.

JSI 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?

CJUsing 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.

 

This conversation continues in BOMB’s winter issue #150, out in December.

Jay Scheib is a director, playwright, and artist known for his contemporary productions of classical and new plays and operas, integrating audiovisual technologies and live performance. 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. His live cinema opera based on Ingmar Bergman’s film Persona was composed by Keeril Makan and produced by Beth Morrison Projects and premiered at National Sawdust in New York in 2015, followed by performances at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston and with LA Opera at REDCAT in 2017.

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