Interview conducted by Julija Pesic and Teodora Djuric
We’re returning to indoor performances with a workshop production of Bertolt Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, part of the BMO Lab Residency Program in partnership with the Centre for Drama, Theatre and Performance Studies at the University of Toronto.
For director Johanna Schall, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui is not just a timely political work, but a cherished family heirloom connecting three generations of theatre artists. The play was written by her grandfather, Bertolt Brecht, and the title character of Ui was played by her father, iconic German actor Ekkehard Schall, in more than 500 performances over nearly 20 years. Now a celebrated actor and director in her own right, Johanna brings a fresh take to the play’s legacy, by adapting and directing this new production.
In this edition of CS Grid, U of T researcher Julija Pesic and cast member Teodora Djuric interview Johanna on her relationship to the late Bertolt Brecht, why she chose to direct this play and hear her spin fusing modern technology into live performance.
What is your relationship to the legacy of Bertolt Brecht considering both your personal and professional connections to him? Do you feel more responsible when staging his plays, since you're his granddaughter?
Not really. He died two years before I was born and as a child I wasn't interested in theater that much. Both my parents worked in the theatre and I spent a lot of time there and enjoyed it, but in a child’s way.
I know Brecht is a very important dramatist and really like some of his plays, not all of them but quite a few and I think it's astonishing how well they work on stage, even though they’re quite old by now. The fusion of acute political thinking, a feeling dramatic effects and well written parts for actors make them still relevant and entertaining today.
Of the 100 productions I've done in my life, maybe six or seven were by Brecht, so I had to study his theories which are surprisingly practical and clear.
And I love his poetry, which is unique. He can make the German language dance.
Why The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui?
We were working on a course of the BMO lab over zoom and all the while the election campaign in the US was in the news and on our minds. Mr. Trump is rather, let’s say … peculiar in the way he gives speeches and “argues” his points. A demagogue of the people. That was the first spark.
Then I thought this play would be well suited for the use of the technology the BMO lab is developing. Politics are using and misusing the media, every available technological resource and all the terrible possibilities of deep fake and this is a play about politics.
And because I would be doing it with a group of very young actors, that it might be a play that they could form a bond with, because it's about something they know. They know about the partnership of corporations and politicians, the misinformation campaigns, the big and small lies.
How they get spoken to, how they get enthusiastic for something and then get a fright when they see it's not like they thought it was, and how hard it is to form a personal political opinion in these times. And it’s a good play, a very good play.
Does that mean for you that theatre can anticipating future moments of history and how history repeats itself?
I don't think so. You know, we are grappling with the same questions that everybody has. And making theatre is our way of trying to find ways to shape those questions into images and scenes. It is not about giving answers. Theatre is about asking questions. Maybe someone in the audience will get the feeling that he's not the only person grappling with certain problems. But I don't have the right to say I will give you an answer that will solve the puzzle of existence. No.
What were some of your aesthetic inspirations for this production?
Apart from superhero movies? I knew this play all my life because, when I was a child, my father was playing Arturo Ui in a production that was on for about 20 years. Then I did a production of it in 2005, in Germany. And the good thing is that each time I think about it, it changes with the times that I'm in.
This time it's deeply influenced by my work with the BMO Lab, because it gives me resources and technological instruments that I never had before. The whole stage design is based on the technology. We use scrims, and avatars, motion capture and triggering, and all these things that are integral parts not only of the look, but the storytelling of the production.
How did you feel about the technology, and that this play has the opportunity to be seen though a different technological and theatrical perspective than what you did in say, the 2000s?
I was excited because theatre always sort of absorbed whatever was happening in the world technology-wise. We saw so much theatre on streams and Zoom during these last two years and I often had the feeling that everyone wished to be live, sweating, and spitting on a stage with others but they had to make do. That is the enjoyable part - to get the technology into live theatre; to be on a stage, even though we are still wearing masks but one day at least the actors won’t, they will be acting. And the AI will be another actor. I'm looking forward to it.
What is the value of humor, when addressing the dark events of Hitler's uprising and how does humor help us cope? What is the role of humor in this play?
It is my survival tactic. Actually, I have to be careful because my humor tends to be pretty… either pretty stupid or pretty dark. And I'm trying to keep in check the darker sides of it because I think that they don't always fit the lovely Canadian politeness.
I'm pretty much with Monty Python on that; everything can be laughed about.
Johanna Schall is a freelance director living in Berlin. Before starting her directing career, she was an actor at the Deutsches Theatre in Berlin for 15 years, working there with a wide range of directors like Thomas Langhoff, Frank Castorf, Alexander Lang and Heiner Mueller. In the mid 90s she directed her first play, Strindberg’s The Pelican, and from 2002 to 2008 Johanna acted as the artistic director of the Volks theater in Rostock, Germany, where she directed more than 50 productions. Her stagings were produced all over Germany and in Canada, where she taught as guest professor at the University of Toronto for one year. She is currently working (remotely via Zoom) with the artists-in-residence at the BMO Lab due to COVID restrictions.