Vanda Butkovic: Riding the post-dramatic theatre in London
Croatian theatre attaché in London, consisting of producer Berislav Juraic and director Vanda Butkovic, is soon to release their new production. It will be a performance of ‘Dead at Last, No More Air’ by popular, yet largely unknown Austrian playwright Werner Schwab. This is a brutal and irreverent piece about what happens when an emerging stage production is sabotaged by outsiders. Following a dispute with the cast, the director replaces all the actors with pensioners from a nearby home for the elderly. But the ‘forgotten and dispossessed’ gradually start to question the director’s authority, leading to a ‘coup d’état’ where the theatre’s cleaning lady is selected as the group’s leader.
In order to learn more about this interesting project, we pulled Vanda’s sleeve and asked her a few questions. Vanda graduated from the Central School of Speech and Drama in London in 2009, specialising in Performance Arts. She was born in Zagreb, Croatia, where, prior to moving to the UK, she was the chief editor of the weekly culture television arts show Dom Kulture on Zagreb’s Open Television. She directed Holy Mothers by Werner Schwab (Pleasance Theatre, supported by the Austrian Cultural Forum in London), the UK Premiere of Woman Bomb by Ivana Sajko (Tristan Bates Theatre, London) for which she also translated the text, and most recently Sports Play by Elfriede Jelinek (UK and international tour). She has assisted and worked alongside numerous directors both in Croatia and the UK including: Paolo Magelli on the production of Wolves and Sheep by A.N. Ostrovsky, Julian Maynard-Smith on the production of Seventh Continent by M. Haneke, Edward Bond during his season at the Cock Tavern Theatre on his production of The Fool.
How did you become a theatre director?
It is not a very romantic story I’m afraid. I always wanted to study drama but when the time to enrol at the university arrived I got cold feet. That year the civil war in Croatia was in full motion and the horror of it made a big impact on me so I decided to study social work. In 1998, I moved to London and I was practicing social work but then one day, I just decided that it was a good time to re-think my future and I applied to Central School of Speech and Drama. Surprisingly, I was accepted and I graduated in 2009.
What inspires you to do this work?
There is nothing like theatre. It is the most exciting place imaginable, because in theatre one can make everything possible. A person can shoot themselves and everybody will believe that at that moment the person is dead. You only have to enter the theatre bar after the show to see that same person having a glass of wine and laughing. What more can a human want then to try dying for couple of hours?
As a director, what are your artistic goals?
My producer, Berislav Juraic and I started a company Just a Must in 2009 and decided to focus on post-dramatic texts. We looked at the repertoire in London and concluded that there is no post-drama staged, so the choice was easy. The aim of the company is to stage important but neglected writers in the UK and further afield. Recently, due to ongoing international success with our previous production, Elfriede Jelinek’s Sports Play, our focus is shifting towards building international connections which enables us to discover new works and writers.
What is your upcoming performance about?
Dead at Last, No More Air is a great comedy that questions the importance of the theatre and very directly asks the question why it is important to us all. This sounds really serious but it is the funniest text I ever directed and just today we had a final run before the dress and I was literary crying with laughter. Austrian writer Werner Schwab was undisputed star of German-speaking theatre when he died in 1994. Shortly before his death 20 years ago, he wrote this rarely performed text.
Why is this topic important?
It is the most important topic ever because where would we be without a “safe” theatre space? There would be nothing to keep reminding us of our weaknesses as species. There would be just reality and I think that we have too much of it. The paradox is that somehow these days what we are offered as a “leisure” time is actually a fake reality. We are watching hairdressers competing to make the best hair dos, amateurs trying to impress Michelin star chefs; super nanny’s giving us the advice on how to control our kids and dog whisperers teaching us how to understand barks. It is insane, or maybe it is just me thinking that it is insane.
What were the challenges in making this performance?
From the show making point of view text is very challenging. Actors in Britain are mostly trained to learn their roles in a certain way. Here they call it “method acting” and I am not a fan of it at all. I do understand that actors need their journeys with the role otherwise it does not work for them. They need to feel, in order to speak. I am interested in a different kind of approach. What if actors say the lines and leave us, the audience, to work out the feelings for ourselves. You see this is where the challenge begins. Actors think that anybody can do that and that in order to be an actor you must feel the role and act it out. I say that this is not true. It is far more difficult to be confident and say the lines relying on the audience to understand it and feel it without crying on the cue. The challenge is how to convince them.
Is it difficult to stage modern theatre in UK?
Modern is easy. Post-modern is a bit tougher and post-dramatic is a real ride.
What happens next? Are you planning some new projects?
Next week, we’re off to Caravan Showcase where we’ll be participating at international performing arts marketplace. Hopefully, this will open up some opportunities to tour Sports Play and Dead at Last, No More Air internationally. After performances in London, we have three shows at the closing of the biggest UK arts festival in Brighton. Then of course, I’ll take some holidays in Dalmatia. We also have a very interesting conference planned for later in the year to encourage debate around postdramatic in the UK.
‘Dead at Last, No More Air’ will premiere this Tuesday, May 6th in Camden People’s Theatre, London. Book your tickets here.