Frances is a student at Bremen University and one of the founding members of MTT. Besides directing Gallathea, she has vast theatre experience, which you can read more about in the interview below.
On Alice Arden:
Alice Arden has always been prepared to be a wife, hostess, homemaker. When she finally finds herself matched with the formidable Thomas, her dreams seem to have come true, but from the “I do” onwards, her marriage turns out to be very different to what she imagined. Soon, she is desperate to find a way out.
On her role as composer and dramaturg:
Please explain what you do in this production.
Apart from playing the role of Alice Arden, I am the dramaturg and composer for this production. That means, I shortened the script, counted all the iambs, added some EME->ME translations, talk to the director about character and plot development and things that can be gathered from the text, do background research on the play and our concept, I talk to people about their text issues aaaaaand I spend hours on the internet trying to find Shakespearean insults to turn them into songs.
Is this your first time working with MTT? Do you have any prior experience with theatre?
Well. Since I am one of the founders of MTT, I was pretty much there from the very beginning and I’m loving what is becoming of this baby and how much it has grown so far. In Gallathea, I had to do much more than this time around, since it was our debut and we didn’t have the huge team we’ve got now, but directing a whole semi-professional play was great fun. However, I’m SO happy to have Jules on the team as our director as it means I can really focus on my tasks and…well…do more acting myself. Theatre. I’ve been doing that pretty much as long as I remember. When I was still in high school, I founded two drama societies because there simply were none. I adapted a novel for the stage and directed it when I was about 17, I was a member of the Youth Drama Club at Staatstheater Mainz and when I moved to Bremen, I joined the Parlement of Foules for….10 productions. I did a couple of things on the side, the most curious of which was a performance at the Bremen Whisky Fair a couple of years ago. And yes, we were paid in Whisky. Oh and I went to drama school in London for a summer. It was epic. I think that counts as experience….
What do you like about your work?
My composer answer would be, that I don’t have that much confidence in my own composing abilities as I started writing music only recently (for a production of Twelfth Night with the PoF). But since then, and especially through Gallathea, I found that I enjoy it quite a bit. I find it fascinating to add music to theatre pieces, since music is such a wonderfully universal language for emotions we can’t always express in words. Even if audiences don’t understand the text itself, they will hear the music and immediately know what’s going on. On the other hand, you can also use music to influence the audience in ways you want. You can evoke emotions, feelings and thoughts and influence they way they perceive what’s going on on stage. Well, and with our visual concept, the music of the era/genre is just really cool and I enjoy listening to playlists all day to get in the mood. My dressing habits are starting to be influenced by it a bit…
As a dramaturg, I have the privilege of doing many things at once and be working very holistically in a way. It’s something I’ve always enjoyed and sometimes missed during my university studies. Especially with dramatic texts, it’s just not enough to pick apart every trope and figure of speech for meaning. You have to see it performed in your mind, hear the words spoken out loud in your ear, if that makes sense. You always have to put the language into its context. The time, the culture, the author, the audience, the place,… all of that matters and it’s absolutely fascinating to explore the text and search for those clues. But don’t get me wrong, simply following the iambic pentameter is lovely. This old language has a beautiful music to it, that, if you spend time learning it, just feels so natural to me. People who’ve met me will be nodding annoyedly when I say, that I’m noticing iambic pentameters in everyday speech by now. And I don’t regret a thing.
How do you go about your work?
As a dramaturg, I usually just start by reading the text of the particular scene I want/need to be working on. I mark the stress patterns and words I don’t know or the actors might not know and then I take it from there. Do I understand what’s being said as well as what’s meant? Are there aliterations, metaphors, repetitions, elipses? At which points are there irregularities in the metre, or pauses? And most importantly: What do all these things tell me about the character who is (not) speaking them? What do I need to research more? Are there references to real places or people in there? It’s basically finding questions and then also finding the answers. But I love it. It helps the director and the actors so much to understand their roles, the plot archs, the play and its meaning, all of it is in the language. And that fascinates me. You also learn so much about the time the play was written in. Let’s face it, people in the 16th century weren’t so different to us. And no, Elizabethan theatre was not intended as “high culture”. It’s entertainment for the masses. And the masses of all times and ages love dick jokes and innuendo. Only teachers won’t tell you that. But the dramaturg will.
Writing music is a very different sort of animal. People might say you need to wait for the muse to kiss or strike you (depending on what you’re into) but I feel you can work your way towards a piece in a way. First, I talk to the director and the dramaturg (those are the best conversations) about what kind of music might be needed at which point of the play. Then I inform myself on the kind of genre that might fit. If there are lyrics, I usually try to go with lyrics that already exist. I’ve spent hours searching for Elizabethan poetry which is immensely inspiring. Did you know Queen Elizabeth herself wrote sonnets? I didn’t either! But one of them will feature in the play now, which I love. I can insert so many references and intertextual inside jokes. Like one of the songs which is made up of 50% my lyrics and 50% just Shakespearean insults. Once I’ve got the text, I sit down and write a melody, then add the chords and arrange the whole things for the instruments I think will sound good. Or rather which we can afford. Finally, I type everything into my laptop and have my horrible midi instruments play the piece back to me and show it to people. I mostly try to sing the songs myself to give people an idea of what it might sound like later. And then I make changes depending on the peoples’ skills and reactions. With Gallathea, we recorded everything in advance, so we actually had studio sessions with musicians, this time around,…well, we’re trying our hand at live music, so that’s going to be terrifying and exciting!
Where does your inspiration come from?
As a dramaturg, my inspiration just comes from the text and the knowledge I’ve already got, so that’s easy. As composer, my inspiration comes from the play itself, the production design, chats with the production designer and the director, shower thoughts, lying awake at 3am, pretty much everywhere. I usually try to immerse myself into the kind of music I want to write. For Gallathea, I created an epic 90s pop playlist and listened to that all. Day. Long. But it worked. So for Arden, I’m now listening to a lot of swing, jazz, blues, chansons and such. Old-timey 1920s-40s stuff. I watch actual films noir and pay attention to the kind of music they used there,… And time pressure. Time pressure is a great source of inspiration.
Is there anything in particular you want to achieve in this production?
The same thing I always want to achieve, really. I want people to see that 16th century English isn’t that different to the variety we speak today. That you don’t need to unserstand every single word of sth to grasp its meaning. That 16th century theatre is brilliant and timeless, that its acting characters have the same issues (well, in the case of this very play, let’s say….similar….ish….) as we do today, that human emotions are relatable in any context, that theatre and culture can be fun and educational at the same time, that you can achieve a lot with very little if only you’re dedicated and are willing to give up much of your sleep. And (speaking as Alice Arden) that you shouldn’t get married until you’re really sure it’s what and who you want.
What do you find interesting about Arden?
The person? The play? Well, the person is something you should ask Alice about, so I’m going to talk about the play. Every time I get a new script, the first thing that blows me away is the language. And in Arden, it’s just really very good. The metre is flowing, the imagery is gorgeous and the characters speak each a little differently, just as they should. It’s kind of a shame that we don’t know who wrote it, even though it’s so apt for this kind of murder play. I love the versatility of the text. It’s such fun to keep the language but still have it feel very modern and accessible because of the visual context we’re putting it in. Because the jokes still work and the text allows space for individual stage directions, ideas and references. To me, that and the three-dimensionality and relatability of the characters make it a truly timeless piece and I can’t see why it isn’t performed more.
What do you like about this production?
First of all, I love the team we’ve got. We are working together incredibly well on and offstage. That’s rare on this scale. It’s such rewarding and productive creative work that allows every one of us to contribute their talents and individual ideas but still work together towards a common idea. About the production, I love how cool it’s going to look and I love our concept idea in general. It just emerged really organically from the text and I like working that way. I think the audience are going to have a lot of fun with it.
Do you think Elizabethan Drama is still relevant today?
Elizabethan theatre is the birth-mother of modern theatre. The time around 1600 was when theatre as we know it today first emerged. So exploring that is very important, I think. But I’m a history nerd in general, so I always love looking at where things came from. Elizabethan theatre offers such an incredible insight into the minds of people of back then. It just really shows that humans, in their essence, haven’t changed a bit over the past 400 years. Yes, we’ve got smartphones and globalisation and all that jazz, but in essence? In the ways we feel and think, love and hate, grieve and joy? Naaaah, that has stayed exactly the same and that can be a very good lesson to all of us. Yes we are all individuals, but we’re not _that_ special. We’re all humans, we all share this glorious experience that is life on Earth and we’re all the same in that. I find it a very humbling experience on the one hand, but on the other it’s just plain fun to hold up a mirror to humanity itself and see how we puny humans just won’t learn from our mistakes. From a non-subjective non-linear point of view, I find that somehow hilarious and very necessary from time to time.
What makes good theatre in your opinion?
Being human. Exploring and sharing the human experience. Going on a journey through a story and taking the audience with you. Sounds cheesy? Sure! It is! But if you’ve ever sat in a room full of people who have come in from all kinds of days in all kinds of lives and then sit there, just literally sit there, for two hours or even more and forget that all they see is mainly cardboard, a bit of wood and some people having a LARP fest with assigned text, you know how magically immersive it can be. Much more uniquely so than film in my opinion. A theatre performance is unique every single time. And that immediacy is part of what makes theatre so incredible to me. When that works, when you suddenly feel happy for the villain or pity for the protagonist, when you can see that there are people on stage who are giving up their own persona for the sake of the story, to use their whole being to tell you something and help you explore yourself in the course of it, that to me is good theatre. And when you are privileged enough to be a part of the whole preparation process as well, be it backstage or onstage (which to me personally is just the best thing in the world), well that is the pinnacle of joy to me.