Michael Thalheimer by David Levine

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Fritzi Haberlandt & Hans Löw in Michael Thalheimer’s Lulu, a play by Frank Wedekind, presented by the Thalia Theater of Hamburg, Germany, as part of the Next Wave Festival at BAM. All photos by Richard Termine, courtesy of BAM.

David Levine spoke to director Michael Thalheimer as he prepared to bring his version of Frank Wedekind’s Lulu to New York. This interview is a part of the Select Equity Series on Theater.

In 2004 I directed a version of The Duchess of Malfi where I got rid of every character I couldn’t stand; every single thing that no longer made sense. I changed lines; I wrote new ones; I had the actors talk about their time at Vassar. It was like discovering a new continent: a more faithful, more honest, more energetic expression of Webster’s play.

By trying to be faithful, most productions of classic plays, torque the fuck out of them. Classic scenes, characters, and arrangements were premised on conventions and forms of social knowledge that we no longer have access to. The attempt to assume such knowledge leads to productions that, more often than not, are misshapen: compromised, mildly academic, full of forced feeling on both sides of the house, and ultimately not at all “faithful” in any profound sense of the word.

So I can sympathize with Michael Thalheimer. Since his breakout as a major force in theater directing in 2001, he’s been cutting classic plays to the bone; stripping casts to the bare minimum; eliminating any visual element—props, sets, whatever—that doesn’t correspond directly to the human drama onstage. Thalheimer uses any means he can to bring subtext out into the open, forgoing any “tasteful” ambiguity. This combination of forces can make for an experience so immediate that a thousand-person auditorium suddenly shrinks. You are drawn into a world so intimate that there is nothing else exits there outside of you and the character.

Thalheimer’s directorial personality is manifested in the performances of his actors. At times their movements seem sublime, at other times spastic, and often seemingly at odds with what’s being said, but not with what’s being connoted, the unconscious, the primal. Thalheimer’s approach raises controversy both in Germany and America, and as he brings Lulu to BAM, he poses some timely questions: when you go to see a classic play, do you want the experience of seeing a classic play? Or do you want an actual experience? Do you want to feel as though you feel moved? Or do you want to actually feel moved? The answers to those questions are worth far more than the price of a ticket.

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Fritzi Haberlandt & Maren Eggert in Michael Thalheimer’s Lulu at BAM.

David Levine What are you rehearsing now?

Michael Thalheimer The Rats — it’s a very famous German play from the Nobel Prize winner Gerhart Hauptmann. This is my third staging of a Hauptmann play; last season I did Rose Bernd in Hamburg at the Thalia Theater. And two years before that I directed Lonely Lives here in Berlin—it’s still in our [The Deutsches Theater’s] repertoire.

DL How far along are you with The Rats? When’s the opening?

MT Three weeks from now, so I’m in the middle of the work. That’s why I’m a little bit busy.

DL Which part of rehearsal do you find most stressful, the beginning, middle or end?

MT It’s hard to say. There are a lot of moments in staging a play that I really enjoy. I’m more nervous toward the beginning and calm down a bit toward the middle, and if things go really well then I’m actually the kind of director who relaxes at the end rather than really stressing out before the premiere.

DL What are those phases of rehearsal like for you? What sort of work is covered in each?

MT The first phase is very lonely and can be intense in its focus; I’m pretty much by myself, getting a feeling for the text. Then the dramaturge and the stage designer get involved, and only then do I begin working together with the actors. So while the first work is lonely, it can also be relatively relaxing because I’m by myself and not confronted with any sort of audience. The stage when things get more exciting and also nerve-racking is when, as a director, I’m confronted with my ensemble, my actors, because this is the moment when I am presenting my ideas to an initial audience. I have to see how these ideas translate. It’s more tense in both the positive and the negative sense. This is when the normal rehearsal process starts, when you’re with the actors. The aim of that process is to form the ensemble into a kind of family where it is possible to really get into the subject, to get the actors to understand your thoughts. What’s created is this feeling of togetherness and belonging, an intimate circle. It is necessary that the actors understand not only the piece but the director’s intentions. A good actor is someone who has deeply embodied your thoughts and ideas rather than somebody who is acting on orders. It is absolutely impossible for me to work in opposition to them or in a confrontational way because it is crucial that this process be friendly and kind. The second phase can also be a rather precarious situation because that is when it becomes obvious how deeply the actors understand your intentions, how deeply they can actually get into the piece and to what extent they understand the text—and finally to what extent they can embody all that. Something completely different might come out of this process that you couldn’t foresee, and this is the exciting moment. When that preparation works well, then the third stage begins, your structure, when you order the actors and the piece. Then it’s just a matter of arranging things, a more relaxing moment because you’re calmer, you can see that everything is falling into place. This third stage is an intellectual process more than the emotional one that marks the second stage.

DL How long do you usually have to rehearse?

MT In Germany, about eight weeks. It depends how big the play is; Faust took almost 12 weeks but for The Rats, for example, it’s eight weeks.

DL And so the technical part, lighting and everything, starts when?

MT That whole technical apparatus is the very last stage of the rehearsal process. That’s usually the last week, when rehearsal is basically from morning well into the evening. It’s highly focused and very demanding work. The problem to solve is how to come up with a structure or timing within the piece that can be repeated in exactly the same manner among actors and technical support. At that stage it is quite clear what you are going to see in the end; but it’s a very demanding process to make sure that everything is working smoothly and can be automatically repeated at any point.

DL Do you find that the actors contribute a lot to your staging?

MT I’m lucky to have great continuity in working with the same group of actors for six or seven years. A core of actors forms the basic ensemble, and some actors are joining, others leaving. On average two or three new actors come into every play. It’s important to have this close connection between you and each of the actors whose path or career you’ve been following for years and who you also know on a personal level, because the actors contribute emotionally and psychologically to the play. There’s a notion of stripping the artist, not in a literal sense, but of the actor stripping his soul and therefore bringing [forth] all the intensity [inherent in the play]. That is only possible when there is trust and confidence, and that only comes through having this continuity or repeatedly working together.

DL Do you know how theater-making works in America?

MT Yes. It’s not easy in America.

DL To say the least. That’s one of the reasons I stopped doing it there.

MT But a different example is the Wooster Group; they have one basic ensemble with Elizabeth LeCompte. In the past, there were a few who worked together as ensemble groups.

DL Well there was Living Theater, and Group Theater, but the Wooster Group is not the norm.

MT Yes, I know. And Richard Foreman also has his crew, right?

DL Yeah, he does. But Richard Foreman and Elizabeth LeCompte function independently. Whereas theaters on the scale of the Deutsches Theater…

MT For me it’s wonderful to work here.

DL I’ve always been resistant to repertory companies, because I would think that one would get tired of trying to put the same face into different roles over and over again. Is it that the intimacy increases, and that’s better, or do you ever wish that you—

MT That problem doesn’t come up, because I am working in Berlin and Hamburg with two different ensembles. Having said that, there’s this long-standing relationship and a degree of continuity with both ensembles. That seems to be what many directors in Germany do: that they have at least two theaters where they’re active and where they can build up this relationship with a lot of different actors. That gives a feeling of change. In theory, it is more of an advantage to work with the same actors and to have that feeling of trust. But when it comes to the point that I feel bored with having the same roles impersonated by the same actors, then it is time to do something about it. Ideally the actor and the director work together to develop a character and one can observe that the actors get better with every piece as opposed to things getting tired.

DL To me, the thing with celebrities or with repertory companies is that they create a situation where as an audience member you say to yourself, How is actor X going to do this, this time? Like when you see a new Kim Basinger movie, you never forget that it’s Kim Basinger doing the movie. And in the same way, at this point, people come to see your work asking, “What’s Thalheimer’s going to do with Lulu? What’s Lulu going to do to Thalheimer?” In a sense, it’s like a death sport. After so many successes, do you ever wish that you could not do a Thalheimer thing? Or that the expectations weren’t—

MT In Germany there’s a great degree of competition because there are so many theater groups. People know each other very well: audience, directors, and actors. And that’s of course why that happens. People go into a theater, as I do myself, to see how that actor performs under this director. This expectation is always there, but it is also a challenge, and always intriguing to see how certain actors perform with particular directors or in certain roles. So yes, there is this expectation of seeing a Thalheimer piece every time I direct; a director is easily put on a pedestal because of his or her reputation. The key is to liberate oneself from that, a rather difficult process, but in rehearsal you try to be in a black box where you are free from this social pressure of delivering what people expect. It’s a pressure that I feel very strongly before every premiere, where the audience is full of critics.

DL Do you find that your style has changed since your first big successes?

MT Yes. Absolutely. This assumption that a director has one particular style is more or less an image created by journalists, an automatism: the press feeds off itself, or lives off itself, and repeats what one person has been saying against the same backdrop. However there is of course the fact that people can’t get out of their skin, so a personality, or a personal experience comes into play, literally something from which you can’t detach yourself. Still, there are great changes, for instance, the way in which Lulu was staged at the Thalia compared with the Faust here [at the Deutsches Theater]. They’re completely different aesthetics. A painter has a certain level of recognizability when you see his work throughout a long career—it may change but one can still recognize that artist’s work. The same is probably also true for theater directors.

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L to R: Hans Löw, Felix Knopp, Norman Hacker & Fritzi Haberlandt in Michael Thalheimer’s Lulu at BAM.

DL Both your Lulu and Faust are very stark. How would you characterize the difference in aesthetic between the two plays? Was it a different sort of rehearsal?

MT The obvious difference arises from the texts and authors—Goethe and Wedekind. Faust is much more of an intellectual contemplation, whereas Luluappeals to the instincts of both the audience and the actors. Since I’m trying to work very closely with the text as a starting point, and to remain true to the author’s intention and to the words, there derives a completely different approach to how each piece is staged. These different characteristics of Faust and Lulu — one is cerebral and the other more sensual — are clearly visible in working with the actors.

DL Do you think you could’ve done this Lulu 10 years ago?

MT No.

DL So what’s changed in you or in your approach to the text?

MT All this is said against the backdrop of Lulu having been staged now for two years; with experience comes a completely different approach to staging a piece. That experience brings a great deal more security; you don’t need to prove to the audience or the actors or to yourself that you are capable. When you have that knowledge, you can actually focus your intention on the blanks that occur in that piece, or rather looking at things that do not function rather than looking at those that do. You focus on where frictions arise and work on those, because you have the security and freedom to detach yourself from the pressure of having to prove something to other people.

DL You began as an actor?

MT Yes. No—well, yes. I’ve been staging for ten years now. I used to be a musician, a drummer, and then I worked as an actor, and then as a theater director.

DL Did you want to be a theater director all along? Or did one too many bad directors make you want to become one?

MT It was more of an organic process. One thing evolved from the other. Being a musician, there was contact with theater and with actors. From that situation to becoming an actor and working with other directors, watching their work, evolved this wish to become a director myself. This notion of good or bad, or worse or better implies a certain degree of taste. It was more a desire to do things in a different way from what, as an actor, I had experienced working with other directors. My professional and private life have always been very radical. I completely abandoned being a musician and an actor. And now I’m completely focused on being a theater director. I have this idea that living in Berlin I might combine all these things again, and have a band, and be an actor, and be a director all at once—but that’s all a big maybe.

DL You have time.

MT (laughter) I hope so.

DL But you didn’t study any of these things in an academy?

MT Acting. I studied acting when I was in Switzerland. Directing, no. But I was already involved in the theater world, so it was an easy transition, and once I became a director, things went very quickly. It was a very rapid process, which has also provided a lot of success, which is now taking Lulu to New York, for instance. Entering the theater world from within was a much easier, smoother, and more organic process.

DL What do you feel that German theater was waiting or looking for? What did you bring to German theater?

MT There has never been a wish on my part to radically change the German theater scene, but apparently it has been perceived as that from the outside. The main point of my work is to completely focus, to boil the plays down to the maximum, to the intensity, to the core of the piece, to get rid of everything that is superfluous. And that apparently is something that had not been done to such a radical extent by other directors and in other German theaters. Nobody else has ever performed this radically, or has really reduced things to the core of the text and to the absolute essence.

DL You see that reluctance in German opera all the time, and you also see it in America—that’s what I mean by a death sport. You can do Shakespeare, but you’re not allowed to change or cut anything. Which means you have these scenes that worked two centuries ago but they can’t work now. The obvious solution would seem to go straight for what does work. But these plays are so sacred.

MT I know, I know. It’s less boring in the German-speaking world because of the intensity and the sheer number of theaters that one has, and because of the support that theater receives as an art form. Why, for instance, are directors in America so scared of changing, or boiling down pieces? The key issue is to not necessarily be a slave to the text but to be true to the work. The piece exists as a text, it can be read, it has been read, sometimes for centuries, and will be read by the following generations. There’s no way of destroying the piece, and so therefore directors shouldn’t be afraid to modify and update them.

DL That said, there’s still a difference between your way of changing a piece and say, Castorf’s.

MT Yes, there is. To stick to newspaper language in the cultural section or the feuilleton, Castorf is often regarded as a deconstructionist, whereas the opposite is true. Rather than condensing pieces to the minimum, he’s pressing them together. The piece remains intact; it’s denser, rather than being taken apart or reassembled.

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Fritzi Haberlandt and Norman Hacker in Michael Thalheimer’s Lulu at BAM.

DL Your changes to the text seem to come from strict dramaturgy, understanding what the play was trying to do, and what it can no longer do with that language, and what you need to do to make it do what it did originally. If you’re willing to cut the text and repeat lines, why wouldn’t you be willing to change the text? What’s invested in keeping the text intact, in keeping this core? Why don’t you just go off and rewrite half of it?

MT There is absolutely no changing or altering of texts in my work. I stay true to the texts because I’m absolutely not interested in working ex libris, with new amendments, or with recent texts. My interest is to see what kind of frictions arise from working with texts from a hundred years ago, like Wedekind’s, or from antiquity, almost two thousand years ago, to see what happens if such a text is used in contemporary times, as understood by contemporary people. Does that text still have currency and validity today? That is the essence, or aim of theater: to work with this friction within a text that has been around for a long time, and to see how it behaves, and what that text can do, and how it can develop in contemporary times, rather than amending things to it from a contemporary perspective. There’s also this pleasure in the original words. When you read Goethe, or Shakespeare, or Wedekind, the language is amazing and powerful as compared to contemporary language. There’s also the way that writers have invented figures or personalities, the setup, the whole play; that needs to be respected rather than changed.

DL And yet you get rid of characters sometimes.

MT Yes, but I never make characters. These are only figures that can be subjectively removed without impacting or influencing the flow of the piece, or the main message of the piece; I don’t touch the characters that are important to the main line of the play.

DL Did you always work like this? Or was this a slow realization, that you could actually purify—

MT Always, always.

DL What made you so impatient?

MT Why do you consider this as impatience?

DL Because one of the impulses to make it shorter, to purify it, is to say: This part is nonsense, and I don’t want to have to stage it. I want the absolute core, and I’m willing to violate two centuries of tradition to get at this. That was considered scandalous in Germany. But to do such a thing demands a certain sort of impatience.

MT There’s no impatience involved. It is rather a pleasure in the purity or the essence of the work. Such a cut version is not staged from the very beginning of the rehearsal process, but is something that develops over time. It requires much more time, work, and intensity to boil a piece down to its essence. That involves a high degree of patience, rather than impatience. One could compare it to the cooking process. When you boil it down, and filter it, and boil it down further, the essence can be full of content and intensity. The cut version has to be something that is very strong rather than something that is cut for the sake of being shorter.

DL In Lulu, the actors don’t look at each other. They face out, they look at the walls, they look past one another. It’s very stripped down, and stripped down on a visual level as well. And like a lot of your work, all that stripping, all that internal self-focus, generates a certain intensity that suits tragedies. But would you apply the same approach to a comedy? Could you see yourself doing a comedy?

MT There have been comedies during my career. They are the exception rather than the rule. Laughter is very important in theater; it’s a kind of liberation or relief. But from a personality standpoint, I’m more drawn to dramatic or tragic subject matter. It does seem that the general perspective on the world is dark rather than light. It’s a personal inclination. Even in Lulu, there are comic moments. Of course every good tragedy would involve that, because as in life, the two genres are very closely related: serious laughter and serious crying. A good tragedy as well as a good comedy would touch on both of these aspects.

DL I guess my question is more about this boiling-down process—I wonder if a comedy turns into a tragedy when you boil it down that far.

MT (laughter)

DL Or if you could subject a comedy to the same kind of laser-like—

MT Yes, you’re right. The comedies have been stripped down to a certain extent, but not to the same degree as the tragedies. One of comedy’s features is that it lives off the superfluous.

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Fritzi Haberlandt and Hans Löw in Michael Thalheimer’s Lulu at BAM.

DL Let’s talk about Lulu. You’ve worked with the lead actress [Fritzi Haberlandt] a lot.

MT Yes. A lot.

DL What did she bring to it? You knew you were doing it at Thalia, you knew you wanted her to be Lulu. I mean, did you see her as Lulu?

MT It was a process, as always. The decision to work on Lulu did not come from the theater. I was in a position to suggest pieces rather than do commissioned pieces. The decision to work with Fritzi Haberlandt arose from the fact that she did notembody any of the images in which Lulu is usually received, or in which Lulu has, throughout theater history, been presented: either as a Lolita or as a femme fatale. The irony in this is that when she left theater school, Fritzi was told she would be a fantastic actress, but the one part she would never play in her life would be that of Lulu. It was my intention to stage a Lulu that would not repeat or reinforce the usual interpretations of the character, but rather to present a woman whose main feature would be to fight with absolutely every fiber in her body for life, who would have this vitality in her. Fritzi brought a very innocent approach to that part, and that was the great advantage: She was just a woman, and that offered a possibility to start all over again without having to repeat that particularly male gaze and perspective that has usually been projected onto Lulu throughout the decades. Plus, she’s wonderful.

DL Yeah, she is. You decided to use Wedekind’s original version of Lulu, which is not usually used. Is that an unusual choice?

MT There are only two versions of the text. One is the original version, and then there is a censored, edited version. The original version is much more precise; it’s tougher than the censored version. Only twenty years ago Peter Zadek was the first to stage this uncensored version that Wedekind had intended to bring to the stage. It had something of a world premiere on Zadek’s stage. To be true to Wedekind’s intention, it was obvious that one had to work with this original version. Today this is the version that is performed. But it isn’t performed very often, because it requires a very strong actress to fill that role, and that is something that most theaters do not have at their disposal—somebody of the quality of Fritzi Haberlandt.

DL Your work centers on the actors and the actors’ bodies. There’s no symbolism in your work, which allows you to avoid what theater generally does badly. In that sense, it’s naturalistic, regardless of how strictly the actors’ movements are rehearsed and adhered to. But the projection at the end of Lulu really struck me; it seemed so different from all your other work, because suddenly we were faced with a symbol, a face raised to the level of symbol. Why this sudden movement into metaphysics?

MT You’re right. One of the essences of the piece is that everybody involved, as far as the audience goes, does “paint” an image of Lulu. In the literal sense, the screen, that white [rectangle], is seen on stage as a refusal of the femme fatale image because it represents a painter’s canvas as much as it represents the screen in the movie theater. To not show anything on that canvas but simply have it on the stage as a blank space, makes a clear statement about the refusal of showing that image in any sense, even metaphorically. Fritzi Haberlandt is not living up to any of those clichés or traditional, conventional images that people retain of Lulu. This piece refuses Lulu’s image except for at the very end, when she is killed. Then her portrait is shown to memorialize what people have seen on stage; it memorializes her image in the play because the audience has just seen a new kind of Lulu as she has never seen been on the stage before.

DL There’s also another meaning. Once she’s dead, she can no longer resist this objectification. You finally get her portrait once everyone can say what they want about her, and there’s nothing to contradict it.

MT Yeah.

DL Last question, which is a double question. How did Emilia Galotti go over in New York, two years ago? And why do you think Joe [Joseph V. Melillo of the Brooklyn Academy of Music] picked Lulu, of all your pieces? How do you think it’s going to go over?

MT Emilia Galotti was not sold out… . (laughter) Having said that, there were five performances in the really huge theater, and the audience was very focused and concentrated on the piece. So the feedback from the audience was overwhelmingly good. Criticism in the press was very mixed. Some journalists were very enthusiastic. Others were wondering whether this was the new German theater and what it was all about, and wrote very negative reviews. Probably the reactions to Lulu will be pretty much the same.

DL You’ll be sold out for Lulu. Everyone knows what Lulu is, they’ve seen Pabst’s film, Lulu, and it sounds sexier automatically.

MT Lulu sounds sexier, and in New York, some people have heard about Lulu. But Emilia Galotti? Lessing? What the hell is this? But it is already a success for both ensembles, the Deutsches Theater and the Thalia Theater, to be invited to New York. Why Lulu was chosen is hard to say. The piece is better known, more appealing, and sexier, but certainly one of the reasons why Lulu was invited is due to the great performance of Fritzi Haberlandt. It’s certainly not because of me. (laughter)

David Levine is the founder of CiNE, an interdisciplinary collective dedicated to examining the conditions of spectacle and spectatorship across a range of institutions (http://www.cineinitiatives.net). He has shown performance work in Documenta XII, Cabinet magazine, Gavin Brown@Passerby, HAU2, Rohkunstbau XIV, Prelude ’07, and Galerie Magnus Mueller, Berlin. His theater work has been performed at Sundance Theater Lab, the Atlantic, Primary Stages, the Vineyard Theater, New York Stage & Film, SPF, New Dramatists, among others. He was the recipient of a 2007 NYFA Fellowship for Cross-Disciplinary/Performative work. Levine is the Director of Performance at the European College of Liberal Arts, Berlin and lives in New York and Berlin.