Director Friederike Heller on her Schaubühne production of the avant-garde classic The Black Rider.
William S. Burroughs, Tom Waits, Robert Wilson: all icons of the American post-modern aesthetic, none known for their optimism. The Beat godfather, whiskey-soaked balladeer and surrealist director came together to create a new “musical fable” and premiered it in Hamburg in 1990. Based loosely on Carl Maria von Weber’s 19th-century opera Der Freischutz, the piece follows the story of a man who’s given magic bullets by the devil and accidentally shoots his lover – interspersed with anecdotes from Burroughs, who killed his own wife during an alcohol-laced re-enactment of William Tell.
In her version for the Schaubühne, Heller strips away the stylised visuals of the original production and brings the words and music back into the spotlight, challenging the theatre world’s expectations and delving straight into the dark materials at the work’s core.
How did you come to direct this work?
We were looking for a piece for me and someone said “Have you ever thought about The Black Rider?” as if it were a joke, and everyone seemed surprised when I said “Why not?”
Was it scary to take on such a well-known piece?
It’s scary because people will expect a lot of costumes and a strong aesthetic. There will be a number of voices saying, “Well, what’s left if you cut that out?” But that’s the game we’re playing: Is there something more serious there, darker and more grown up? What the others were doing was a sort of a burlesque clowning – which is very nice to look at – but if you don’t do it, there might be something interesting left over, so why not try it?
How did you balance text and music in the rehearsal process?
For me, spoken word is much more driven by logic, syntax and rational aspects, whereas you cannot be cynical when you’re singing: you have to be emotional. I just love the “Crossroads” track because that’s the point just past the middle of the play where music and spoken word come together and the concepts are flipping around. That’s also the text that I’m starting the evening with: we see a very self-controlled person who tells the story and after an hour or so it sort of flips over and self- restrained spoken word turns into a sort of howling… Then we end up with a scene where you visit the leftovers of a rational mind, where it’s totally mixed up and you’re dealing with suicide. You start in a very directional way and during the process everything gets topsy and turvy and you lose control. I’m trying to fix that into the frame of the night, and not just have it on the narrative level.
So the form echoes the content?
That’s what I’m trying to do, but it’s very complicated. I don’t want to start off telling the fairytale and then get into a kind of nightclub feel. Or start with a concert staging and then get lost in the fairytale. I don’t want to play pretend. I think that’s boring. You have to be more dialectic. We won’t leave the setting of the concert, but still I want to lose control within this universe.
How much are you referencing the original source material of The Marksman?
The fact that Burroughs, Waits and Wilson took away the happy ending is a very significant thing for The Black Rider: it says a lot about their views about life. When Der Freischutz was composed, there must have been some sort of valid feeling toward the existence of God. And then 60 or 70 years later God died, in the words of Nietzsche. Then they come along and tell the story as if drugs have become the replacement for God. They have this very pessimistic, or realistic depending on how you look at it, approach to this kind of story. The pressure of being successful ends up bloody.
In some ways, this dark side of success is a common American theme…
I think that it’s constructed in a different way in Germany, because of this black romantic thing – the blue flower of romantic literature and music. It’s part of history, and we can’t get in touch with it, but it’s something that still lurks somewhere. You have this civilised, suburban, boring life but you know there are so many dark things in the history of the Germans. You feel connected and disconnected at the same time: it’s very interesting to investigate this point.
How is this darker side of humanity creeping into your production?
I came up with this sort of foolish thesis that in American tradition, the Devil was seen as the big Enlightener, the bringer of light. In a very crude way you see this idea today when fundamentalists say that the enlightened society is the Devil’s society. And I’m struggling with whether I want to look at the Enlightenment in a positive or negative way… A basic question in our Black Rider is this: is the Devil the big cynical voice or the great seducer? If you watch past productions, you have a feeling that there’s no reason for the devil to take action because everything is done for him already. He doesn’t have to fight against anything: there is no God present.
Are you taking any inspiration from current popular culture?
I’m very into True Blood because they are taking all of these darker sides of human stories like vampires, werewolves and witches, but confronting them with a very satirical perspective on small-town life. It sounds weird, but it works. I would so much like to present an evening that is similar but a theatre story: tear down the fourth wall, talk to the people directly and start to reach the point where you feel uncomfortable. And it’s some effort for the actors to deal with that.
So how is this affecting the team as you work on it?
The feeling of being exhausted and sad is very strong in this production. It’s fun in rehearsal, we’re not being hypnotised by the subject, but still you’re always dragging on the nightly parts of your existence. There’s a price to pay in that.
When did you decide to become a director?
I still didn’t believe I was going to be a director when I was studying directing, but then I found out that this lack of self-esteem was a positive quality. Because I was dealing with the fear of failure and being ridiculous, I was a step ahead and that’s still how I work with actors today. Looking for resistance gets you to the point where a character gets weight or gets some realistic status. I’m not a pushy director at all: I’m a family type, a Mutti. But I also have an extraordinary stubbornness.
Directing is still very much a man’s world. Did you ever experience discrimination based on your gender?
I guess I did, but I thought it was because I was young or foolish. There are still sometimes male actors or male colleagues who have trouble taking direction from a woman. But at the same time I was always very frank in taking advantage of being a girl with big eyes. It’s not sleeping up the ladder, but I was never very touchy with the subject. I felt safe all the time… and it’s a very flirty job.
The Black Rider | Dec 6-9, 20:00, Dec 31, 18:00, Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz (Kürfurstendamm 153, Charlottenburg), U-Bhf Adenauerplatz.