Pamela Carter is a UK playwright, director, and dramaturg. Her 2009 play Skåne was selected by this year’s TT Stückemarkt jury as one of this year’s five selected entries. It will be presented tonight, when the Stückemarkt opens its gates. I spoke to her on Skype about Sweden, doomed love affairs, and not being able to direct her own plays.
You studied English Literature at university. Why write a play and not a novel?
I have no other better reason than that that’s what I’ve learnt to do. I really like making theatre and have done since I was quite young. I meant to go to art school, and I made a very late decision to go to university and study literature, so it was quite arbitrary really – I suppose I’m a slightly frustrated visual artist. The real reason I started doing theatre was that you got to meet boys, because I was at a girls’ school. So you made theatre and you got to go to the pub afterwards, it was a real social thing. What I really love is the process, although I do often, well, sometimes quite enjoy going to the theatre too.
You work with the Swedish artists Goldin+Senneby. Is that where the idea for the setting of your Stückemarkt entry “Skåne” came from?
No, that’s a separate Swedish connection actually! I’ve been working with the director Stewart Laing in Malmö, and the last time we were there in 2007 I met someone who told me a story from his own experience, about his mother running away with another man, and it had always stuck in my head. Then in 2009 I had five weeks to write a play and I decided to go back to that story. It seemed wrong to transpose it to Britain; I started to get into very boring conversations with myself about where the characters work, and where the couple could run away to when the furthest they could get would be Sutherland. There’s all kinds of things like geography and class that you can forget about if you imagine the setting in another country. So it’s not an attempt to fetishize Swedish culture, which Goldin+Senneby accuse me of doing! But there is a certain something about the flat landscape and the quality of light that I really like in Skåne that infused my writing of the play.
It’s not only the setting of the play that takes it out of the realm of our everyday experience; you also tell the story backwards. Was this a way of moving the audience’s focus from the “what” to the “how” of the narrative?
Yes, I think that’s absolutely it; it’s about what they say to each other and the minutiae of that rather than about ‘what happens next’, so I think the audience is asked to watch and listen in a very different way. When I was writing the play I knew that I wanted to write a big finale, this confrontation with the two families, and I also wanted to attempt a love scene with no subtext at all. In the chronology of the story the love scene is at the beginning, but I was in this doomed love affair at the time and so for me the love scene wasn’t the beginning at all. It’s about that feeling of ‘I just want to be in this impossible place’. And as soon as I flipped those scenes around everything seemed to make much more sense to me; that it would end in this impossible place.
You’re also a director. Is it difficult to trust your work to another director’s hands?
Well, I haven’t directed now for about two years, and part of that is that I’ve realised I’m not very good at directing my own work. I get quite bored – there’s nothing to discover in it – and therefore I think I’m not the best director for my own work.
Are there any German theatre-makers or productions that have made a big impression on you?
Pina Bausch – I saw Café Müller in 1992 and it sort of changed my life actually in terms of what I thought performance was. And then similarly I saw Peter Stein’s production of Der Kirschgarten in 1995 and was completely blown away by it. I really loved Thomas Ostermeier’s Hamlet – I had actually stopped going when I realised how many productions of Hamlet I’d seen, but I made an exception for Ostermeier.
Length and time are the big topics at this year’s Theatertreffen. John Gabriel Borkman is 12 hours long…
That’s an installation though, isn’t it?
Arguably! Your own work is much more succinct – what’s your take on these marathon productions?
Yes, it does seem that length is the prevailing form at the moment. A friend once told me the saying that some writers are anorexic and some are bulimic. I’m an anorexic writer. I sort of pare away, I’ve never been able to write anything longer than two hours. But I admire it, whatever feels right for the content and form – they have to match up in a meaningful way.
All the plays in the Stückemarkt have been translated and will be performed in German at the staged readings over the course of the next few days. Is there a paradox in entering a writing competition in which your writing will have to be re-written by someone else?
The reason I entered the competition is because a lot of my friends said that my work would do better in northern Europe than it does in the UK, so I thought I’d test that theory out. So I really wasn’t thinking about it very closely because I didn’t ever expect to be in the position of having been selected. I suppose I come from a world of performance art – after university that’s what I was looking at and I never intended to become a writer – and for me it always seemed like continental Europe was where the bar was set, whereas new British theatre functions in a certain way – it’s a writer’s theatre as they like to say. It took two years to get Skåne on in England and so I was starting to wonder if it might do better somewhere with a slightly different theatre sensibility. I’ll be very interested to find out what the audience response is on Thursday night.
Were you able to get involved in the translation process, despite not speaking German?
I’m told Hannes [Becker, the translator] has done a really good job and that it feels right, but I could see just by pattern recognition and a bit of Google Translate where the difficulties were and I was able to ask questions. I quickly came to realise how ambiguous English is compared to German, even just in the pronouns – Hannes would ask “Who is the ‘you’ here?” and I would say “Does it matter?” We did it in a very short space of time actually, it would be nice to carry on, it’s a very interesting conversation to have. But it will be very strange watching on Thursday, I really won’t have a clue what’s happening!
We’re all very much looking forward to it – the reading that is, not your confusion!
The Stückemarkt will be opened with a speech from playwright Dennis Kelly at 20:00 this evening in the Kassenhalle of the Haus der Berliner Festspiele, and Skåne will have its staged reading at 21:00.