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NOISE: Insight from Maria Milisavljevic and Birgit Schreyer Duarte

Submitted by on 3/29/2018

In April 2018, the Randolph College for the Performing Arts will present the first English-language production of Maria Milisavljevic’s award-winning play Noise (German title: Beben), directed by Birgit Schreyer Duarte. The playwright and director answered some questions about the origin of Beben/Noise, as well as the process of bringing it to the Annex Theatre stage.

On a hot summer day in 2015, playwright Maria Milisavljevic noticed a group of young men seated under a tree in front of her house in Germany. Aged between 12 and 19, they were not – as she initially thought -- a group of high school students from the next town. They were in fact a group of Syrian and Afghani refugees who had just crossed the border on foot from Austria. Exhausted and dehydrated, they were just some of the hundreds of refugees who had arrived in the next town every day that summer, walking in 38 degree heat alongside the highway in single file, day and night, heading to the local gyms, community halls and concert venues that had been turned into camps. She brought them drinks and food as they waited seven hours to be picked up.

In 2015, the influx of refugees and migrants to Europe reached staggering new levels, dominating headlines and prompting stormy political debate. Hundreds of thousands of people fled across the Mediterranean Sea to escape conflict and persecution in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. Germany, in particular, registered 890,000 asylum seekers-- around five times as many as in 2014. (In 2017, Germany registered 186,644 asylum seekers compared to approximately 280,000 in 2016)

Confronted by the realities of the refugee crisis literally on her doorstep, at the end of that day, Maria started writing a new play Beben (“Quake”), “because it felt like the world, my world, had been shaken.”

Beben made its premiere at Pfalztheater Kaiserslautern in April 2017, and has since been produced at Theater Heidelberg (April 2017), and at Theater an der Parkaue in Berlin (September 2017), Germany’s largest theatre for young audiences. Beben has won several awards, including the German Playwright's Award ('Deutschsprachiger Autorenpreis') at the Heidelberger Stückemarkt 2016 and the Else-Lasker-Schüler Award for Best New Play (Stückepreis) 2016. It has further been shortlisted for the Stückemarkt at Theatertreffen 2016. Most recently it was nominated for the Mülheimer Dramatikerpreis, Germany‘s most prestigious playwriting award.

RCPA: Has the play changed at all in its translation/transformation/transition from Beben to Noise?

MARIA: Noise has not changed much in translation from the original text. The play contains certain references and issues that are very local and needed to be updated. I first worked on this with David Jansen, in 2016, when he directed a reading of Noise at Tarragon. We changed some references to a Canadian context, giving the text more relevance. The text has further been updated for this production: Birgit and her students worked on the text, without me being involved.

I feel it’s tremendously important for the text to be up to date and for all the cultural references to match the place and time of performance. Apart from that, it’s the same crazy text it is in German: with no characters or roles, but just a hetero-/homogeneous ensemble of people referred to as “Us”, with alternating narration and dialogue, and a structure that is deliberately designed to feel like a Facebook timeline.

RCPA: Have you worked together before? If so, in what capacity?

BIRGIT: About three and a half years ago, Maria and I were given the opportunity to work dramaturgically on a play by Maria. We had met the year before through a mutual colleague and had become friends instantly. Soon after, Maria came to see a show I directed for SummerWorks. Afterwards she came up to me and said she could see a connection between my aesthetic and a particular play of hers, Devil’s Daughter, which she was still in the process of finalizing. Together we applied for a weeklong workshop opportunity at the Stratford Festival where I was working as an assistant director at the time. We had the pleasure of spending several days with actors from the Stratford ensemble reading Maria’s latest drafts and getting their feedback, after which she would rewrite and discuss the new insights with me. By the end of the week, I directed a staged reading of the script, which Stratford’s artistic director Antoni Cimolino attended. I learned a lot about Maria’s way of thinking, her approach to story telling and her theatrical aesthetic, and I was excited by the prospect of directing her work in the near future.

RCPA: Birgit, what drew you to direct Noise?

BIRGIT: Funnily enough, I never expected to be directing Noise any time soon—rather, I was inspired by Maria’s earlier play Devil’s Daughter, and thought it would be the first work by her that I’d get to direct in Toronto. Noise is much more fragmented, open in structure and vast in its coverage of topics than Devil’s Daughter; at the same time, it’s so very current and thus closer to home. Although I am familiar with the kind of post-dramatic writing style Maria employs in Noise, and am generally drawn to plays that are extremely open to the director’s interpretation and to highly subjective associations, when I first heard Noise in Tarragon’s workshop reading two years ago, I didn’t imagine I would find access to the play as a director. I imagined it to be awfully difficult to realize: not only technically, because it fully relies on actors and director to identify characters and settings in the play, but also psychologically, since we follow so many separate narratives. These are intertwined on an ideological level (exploring forgiveness, identity, moral dilemmas), and also bombard the reader with a multitude of stories and personal histories and they don’t all allow for emotional connections right away. It really took the performers I have been working with to crack the text open for me, to bring me closer to the characters and their needs, quirks and charms. I am truly thankful to Tamara Bernier Evans for offering me the chance to direct Noise—it was not an obvious fit for me, at least not in my eyes!

RCPA: Does working with student actors present different challenges/opportunities? What kind and how have you addressed/embraced them?

BIRGIT: Yes, both! Challenges, because it takes a little longer to establish a common language and vocabulary with students who are relatively new to the craft—and are roughly 25 years younger than me—than with actors who share a professional culture with me; in other words, I can’t assume the students know the same shows, artists, styles, terminology, cultural references etc. as many of my peers would. I had to remind myself sometimes that some of them had only started immersing themselves systematically in this art form a short time ago, and not everyone studied theatre theory, for example. They haven’t tried as many styles and approaches, and they don’t all have the same level of technique and level of confidence. Of course, a cast of professionals isn’t always completely heterogeneous either, but chances are that some of them have either worked together before or share a technical and/or stylistic toolbox. I wouldn’t say this is a huge obstacle for a director with a student cast, it’s just something you have to be aware of and consider during the rehearsal process.

I quickly found out that this kind of non-traditional writing for the stage was completely new to most of the cast members, but they were curious and more than willing to throw themselves into this challenge. So I assigned a number of research presentations as part of the production process, to learn what the group was and wasn’t familiar with, and to build a common basis to work from. And I scheduled daily check-ins and discussions, to get to know the students better in their personal and political concerns, their commonalities and differences, and in their cultural and educational backgrounds. We spent almost five weeks creating this foundation, with text analysis, debates and hands-on dramaturgical work on the script. Practically, during scene work, before you can focus on finessing a line or try out different approaches to a character, you sometimes have to work for a little longer on clarity of thought and intention. But in return, I got such an abundance of ideas back from the actors, and they met me with boundless enthusiasm and an openness and a vulnerability that becomes rarer among more experienced and older artists, I find.

Every day it was palpable how truly excited the cast members of Noise were, to be where they are, to be doing what they were doing, to create, experiment, train, fail, try harder, succeed, surprise themselves and inspire each other. They were like sponges and in turn, they showed me what they had done with the ideas we had shared and the new knowledge they’d acquired in the previous weeks.

Moreover, I wanted this production to be a close reflection of these young people, and Maria had given us license to alter and update details in the text accordingly. This approach required the cast to bring to the process an honesty and maturity that I could only admire them for. I am not sure I would have gotten that much personal investment from an older, professional cast—or at least, they would have come to this kind of process with more baggage and potential for conflict, I imagine. With experienced actors—old or young!—you sometimes face resistance towards a particular idea or style, and it can take quite a bit of energy to convince them that it’s worth trying something out first before discarding it. That’s something I never encountered with the student cast. I immensely enjoyed developing the piece in collaboration with them, and I am truly indebted to their commitment, imagination, talent and generosity.

RCPA is pleased to offer a talkback session with playwright Maria Milisavljevic after Noise performances on April 3, 4 and 5. Director Birgit Schreyer Duarte will also participate on April 3 and 5.

Noise runs April 3-7 at 8 p.m. and April 7 at 2 p.m. in the Annex Theatre, 730 Bathurst Street, Toronto. Tickets: