interviews: chris gates on woyzeck
We sat down with Chris Gates, who's directing our production of Woyzeck at this year's Brighton Fringe (7th-13th May), at Sweet Dukebox.
Chris, as director and writer (adapting Woyzeck from the original 1836 text), you've been the driving force behind this production. Can you tell us a little bit about the play?
It’s a testament to the importance of the story that Georg Buchner was trying to tell nearly 200 years ago, a testament to its persistent relevance, that it’s been told over and over again.
First and foremost, Woyzeck is a story of social injustice. I think there’s something magnetic about that theme, which is why so much theatre revolves around it.
What interests me the most is Buchner’s statement that the idea of moral freedom is absurd; it’s a lesson that we as a society seem incapable of learning. It’s still a largely popular myth that poverty is a symptom of a lack of moral character and not, as is actually the case, the symptom of a systemically unfair society.
Whether or not we can forgive Woyzeck, he is as much a victim as he is a murderer.
How did you find the process of adapting the script from Buchner's fragmentary text?
The play’s fragmentary nature is exactly what attracted me to it; Woyzeck has a history of being rewritten and reordered, so I felt a lot of freedom to make it my own.
Now that I know the play more intimately I’d be interested in directing it as written, but I’m very proud of the version I’ve put together. I’ve stripped it down to it’s most visceral elements; the absurd comedy, the bitter tragedy, in my version there are only 6 characters as opposed to the original 13. I’m telling the same story that has been told for 200 years, but it’s more stark and less whimsical.
As a director, can you tell us about your approach in the rehearsal room?
This is my directorial debut. I trained as an actor, and I’ve had many excellent directors, but I’ve also had one or two who I’ve found very frustrating to work with because they felt they needed to micromanage their actors’ performances. I think actors work best when they are given the opportunity to explore their characters.
With that in mind, I set out to work collaboratively. As a director, I saw it as my job to lay out framework for a scene and to allow my actors as much freedom as possible within that framework to discover their characters. I’m lucky enough to be working with some really talented people, so at the start of rehearsing a scene I’ll describe as briefly as I can what I think the scene is about and what I think needs to happen and then just let them play.
We had a few rehearsal sessions where we didn’t do any script work and focused exclusively on developing character; for example, I had them all carry out a Myers Briggs personality test, first as themselves and then as their characters.
This production takes place in the intimate setting of Sweet Venue's Dukebox, and will be performed in the round. What kind of challenges come up from working in this kind of stage configuration?
So much of theatre involves creating a ‘stage picture’ which tells a story. There’s a language of space which can communicate so much about the characters as individuals and about their relationship with each other, and if a scene is blocked sloppily then the story you’re trying to tell can be undermined. Working in the round is a balancing act between giving the entire audience a good stage picture and keeping the interaction between the actors in the space true to the story we’re trying to tell.
My rule of thumb was that as long as the audience can see one face at all times then the scenes would work; if, for example, you were to film two people having a conversation, and you shot each person in a separate close up, you could get the sense and meaning of that conversation by watching either close up in isolation, as long as you could hear the dialogue of both people. You might pick up on different nuances depending on whose side you were watching.
Are you excited every year, when the Brighton Fringe comes around?
I love the Brighton Fringe dearly, and I honestly feel like a kid as Christmas now that it’s here.
Woyzeck will be showing at Sweet Dukebox from the 7th-13th May at 6.10pm. Tickets available now: