Caroline Steinbeis is fast becoming one of the most respected directors working on the stage today. Winner of the 2009 JMK Award for Young Directors, the 30-year-old runs her own company, Strike Ensemble, and her directorial credits include a critically acclaimed staging of Caryl Churchill’s Mad Forest. Her most recent production, Fatherland – a disturbing and at times surreal
exploration of the relationship between a father and a daughter, written by award winner Tom Holloway – is on at the Gate Theatre in Notting Hill until 12 March.
One Monday morning in late February, between getting off a plane from Germany and heading to the Gate to see the latest performance of Fatherland, Steinbeis found time to sit down in a busy bookshop cafe with Tom Wicker to discuss taking a play from script to stage as well as the pleasures and challenges of being a freelance director.
Tom Wicker: Could we begin by talking about Radikal Yung, the Munich theatre festival for which Fatherland has just been selected for inclusion?
Caroline Steinbeis: Sure. It was a Germany-wide festival until last year, when they opened up the jury to Austria, Italy and France. This is the first year that they’ve been seeing pieces in the UK as well. Essentially, it’s for young directors who are making waves across Europe. And they’ve got some fantastic houses participating, like the National Theatre in Vienna, and then us from the Gate. It’s kind of amazing.
TW: Were you expecting to be selected?
CS: We knew they were coming. I know the festival well because I was born in Munich, so I know their programming. I thought they’d be interested aesthetically in the piece. But we still had so much work to do in the preview [that they saw] that I didn’t at all expect that they would take it. But I’m very pleased they did because it’s a very complicated play. And it’s just really reaffirming for all of us, for the whole company, that they put their faith in it at such an early stage and saw the potential of what it could grow into, which it continues to do with every performance.
TW: On a practical level, Fatherland is a technically sophisticated production with a substantial number of special effects – the bike that comes crashing through the wall, for instance – so will transferring it to a different space be a challenge?
CS: The bike’s the easy part. It’s the retracting stage that will be more difficult. We have a big design meeting about that next week. Actually, [the biggest challenge will be] the time-scale because we’ll be coming in off the back of another production. From that perspective it’s a mini-Edinburgh; although it’s more high profile and has some big players, so I’m incredibly pleased.
TW: Is selecting work which has cross-cultural appeal an aim for you?
CS: It’s not something I deliberately strive for. It’s maybe something I carry with me through what I’ve done and who I’ve worked with – I’ve [directed] in Austria, Germany and America before. Certainly, there’s something to not thinking about theatre as only a linear or single narrative experience. A play like Fatherland sort of demands that of you.
TW: Is its complexity what attracted you to it?
CS: [The play’s] quite interesting in structure because the dialogue scenes are the prevalent ones. The bike crashing through the wall and the heart dropping to the floor are in the script but they’re quite abstractly described. There’s no specific explanation of how or why these things happen. They only take on meaning in the context of the play.
TW: Do you enjoy that? Being presented with vague or ambiguous spaces you can fill yourself?
CS: I never think they’re vague – everything you’re looking at has meaning for you, even if it’s confused. You still take away something of the atmosphere. In that respect I’m quite interested in giving people time to consider what they’re seeing; I’m interested in the pauses on stage and not necessarily having to answer everything. And I know with [Fatherland] that’s something that has frustrated some people. It’s very open ended and it’s about atmosphere; and, certainly, from the second half onwards it moves away from naturalism towards something more emotional and existential. So it’s very complicated. But I kind of enjoy that experience.
TW: On stage, Angela, the daughter, wears a red coat, which isn’t specified in the script. In making that decision you’re evoking everything from Little Red Riding Hood to recent films such as Hard Candy.
CS: I’m pleased that those visual messages are carrying through – they’re very deliberate. They’re important in a play like this, which doesn’t give you much background on the history between [Angela and Mark, her father]. All you ever know is what they talk about with each other [on stage]… you’re given a handful of indications but you have no idea where the mother is or even where they are.
So there’s a responsibility to plant images with people to help them along, or at least to help them form their own interpretation of certain sections in the narrative. There are some things that are inescapably clear in the play and others [that] are much more open. So, yeah, it was definitely something I and Max Jones, the set designer, as well as Johanna Town and Simon Slater, the lighting and sound designers, took upon ourselves to play with.
TW: Much of the work you’ve undertaken seems to be driven by two almost contrary impulses: the need to discuss very contemporary subjects while at the same time making sure they’re not too firmly rooted in a specific time or place. Do you think that’s a fair description?
CS: Well, I think that with something like Mad Forest [which Steinbeis directed at the Battersea Arts Centre in 2009] what was really interesting was that it resonated 20 years on from its original conception. But I don’t know… I’m interested in more challenging material, which makes people think, but I don’t necessarily choose plays by the issues that they’re describing. And certainly not with Fatherland; it’s the collaboration with Tom Holloway that interests me first and foremost. He’s a phenomenal writer.
TW: How long has that professional relationship existed for?
CS: We’ve known each for other about two years now. [And when] the Gate approached me to pitch a production to them it was always going to be in collaboration with Tom.
He’d written [Fatherland] about three years ago in a different draft and shelved it. I read it and thought, “Man this is difficult.” Initially we were both cautious about it. Then it went through 12 redrafts and a lot of things got taken out and put in. It was a massive undertaking to make the play what it is now and there are still complications in that – any rewriting process is delicate and complicated – but there are moments of real genius in it. I think it has fantastic dialogue and it’s also really clear to me psychologically.
Working with Tom is something I’d definitely like to keep on doing. What he writes is challenging and he’s a great collaborator. We’re very honest with each other and we laugh a lot together. Especially through this, we’ve supported each other a huge amount.
TW: Did you always want to be a director? Or was there ever a crossroads?
CS: Originally I wanted to be a lighting designer. I also acted, but I was awful! No, [directing] was always what I was most passionate about of everything I tried within the remit of theatre I was exposed to. It’s something I enjoy a huge amount. It can be as much a burden as a joy to do this job because it’s really exposing, tough and it can be hard. But for all of those things, the benefits, like working with the people I get to work with, are phenomenal. And I really enjoy seeing how a production comes together; particularly with something like Fatherland and what Max and Simon have made in only an hour’s worth of theatre. If you compare the first and last scenes, it’s amazing.
TW: Aside from winning the JMK Award in 2009, what do you view as the main turning points in your career so far?
CS: The support from specific buildings in London has been hugely important – the National Theatre, the Studio and also the Young Vic. And finding the dialogue with specific practitioners who I value a great deal has been really helpful for me because they’ve been willing to give me their time, answer my questions and provide me with feedback. That’s been immensely gratifying…. and the Paines Plough [touring theatre company] and assisting Roxanna Silbert was a great time.
There have been various different things but gradually you realise that the work is becoming more and more important to you and clearer as you make it. Obviously that’s more difficult with a play like Fatherland, which is so complex, but I feel, myself, that the work we did on it, it was a really good process.
I think there are always different bench marks when you look back.
TW: Does the idea of being an artistic director attached to a particular theatre appeal?
CS: I really like freelancing – it’s very freeing! When there’s work to do, at least. I enjoy the freedom that comes with it. I wouldn’t rule out being attached to a building later, but I don’t think it comes as naturally to me as it does to others. I think programming’s a very difficult job, actually. The figures don’t scare me so much because I used to produce as well [as direct], so I have an understanding of the economics of plays, but I’m really happy with what I’m doing right now.
TW: Do you think being able to hold your nerve is the key to being a freelance director?
CS: Definitely [laughs]. Every day I probably waver, but that just comes with the territory. Some people are really good at not letting it affect them, whereas others are more vulnerable. I’d say I’m probably more vulnerable because I take what I do so seriously. It means a lot to me. By that I don’t mean I take myself too seriously (I hope) – just the work!
So, yeah, there are times when you have to knuckle down and accept the dry stretches when the work isn’t as fun as it could be and you’re working with difficult people. But I can’t think of anything I’d give it up for.
TW: On a first night, sitting in the front row, do you ever feel as though everybody’s looking at you on stage in some way?
CS: Press night is much worse for those moments because that’s when you don’t have anything to fall back on. Previews are easier in that respect, they’re more forgiving.
TW: Because you know a production is still work in progress at that point?
CS: Yes. But that’s the unfair things about making plays – they’re always works in progress. I think someone like [director Robert] Lepage is a lucky bastard for being able to say, well, nine hours of theatre but we’re still working on it. It’s really honest and it’s a really great thing he can do that; I wish I could. Things are never finished. I hate it.
TW: Are you still tweaking Fatherland then?
CS: Oh, yes, absolutely. In fact it’s likely we’re even making script changes. Tom sent me a few things last week –but [into the microphone] don’t tell the actors yet! – so we’re tweaking all the time. And I’m always noting. For example, I’m seeing the play
tonight after having not seen it for three performances, which will put [it] in a different perspective.
TW: Is there a degree of sensitivity necessary when delivering first-night notes on a production?
CS: Yes, but I think it’s about understanding the whole thing as an art rather than what it is in the moment. With this play, more than any other, it’s been about the process of enabling the guys to hit the marks that they know they want to be hitting.
The first show technically for us was quite complicated: the heart didn’t break, the bike didn’t come through the wall properly, the lighting was still being tweaked and the cues weren’t particularly tight. So there was all of this stuff [to do]. But from my perspective I quite enjoy being able to say, “Well, tonight will be about addressing X specific thing” about the show.
I think you need to give [a play] the space it needs to settle. It’s important that people don’t feel under pressure to be absolutely perfect. You can never achieve it. It’s a horrible position to be in and I don’t want to put others in it. Even three weeks into a run at The National, there’ll be things that actors do that aren’t working and you just have to allow for it. That’s life. That’s theatre.
TW: Between now and the Munich festival you will be directing Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s play That Almost Unnameable Lust at Soho House, as part of Clean Break’s Re-Charged project. Was it your decision to work with Rebecca?
CS: It was actually a different process [to Fatherland] because Clean Break had commissioned six writers to write six pieces but they weren’t in existence when I was asked to come aboard the project. I didn’t know who I would be working with [so] I’ve been incredibly fortunate to work with Rebecca. But through the script submission process and on to production [we’ve had] a really close editing relationship. I’d love to say I was the one who selected Rebecca’s play, and I would have done; but it was the other way round.
TW: And what are your plans beyond Re-Charged and the festival?
CS: There are various different things in the pipeline but nothing’s been signed yet so I’m not allowed to say. It’s exciting!
That Almost Unnameable Lust will be one of a trio of plays performed as part of Re-Charged at Soho House, from 23 March to 9 April. For more information see: http://www.sohotheatre.com/pl2021.html
The Radikal Yung theatre festival will be hosted by the Volkstheater in Munich, from 9 to 16 April. Fatherland will be shown from 14 to 16 April. For more information see: http://www.muenchner-volkstheater.de/RadikalJung/festival.php
First published in Exeunt Magazine
See Exeunt’s review of Fatherland here: http://exeuntmagazine.com/reviews/fatherland/