An account of a three day workshop with Theatre Director Thomas Ostermeier.

This piece goes over the ground we covered in a three day workshop with famous German theatre director Thomas Ostermeier. Ostermeier shared with us his thoughts on the nature of drama, his approach to developing as an artist and how he approaches working with a text.

An account of a three day workshop with Theatre Director Thomas Ostermeier.
The Scottish Play / Das Schottische Stück

I've written a good number of plays and worked in theatre for a good time. And a number of times in the past, I've tried to educate myself a bit more (I've mainly learnt on the job). Reading about major theatre makers, their theories etc. And a lot of times, I've come away with no real idea of how to translate these things into practice.

That's the first of Ostermeier's gifts to us in this workshop. He makes that link. He simplifies and distills what you need to know and how it applies practically.

A second gift is just to see how a person like this works, how he is in the room. He's articulate. He asks a lot of questions and he is thoughtful and challenging. He often doesn't go off on a spiel unless asked a question himself.

So here are some of the main things I gleaned. I've got three sections.

The first:

Was about the nature of drama.

We did an exercise on the first day, where we all act as if we're in an airport waiting lounge. The flight is called. Then we're told there is a delay. Time passes. We're told that we can't leave the room. Time passes. We're told that there's a bomb scare which is being investigated. Time passes. We start running out of food and water. A night passes. We're told that it's a dirty bomb etc

This was to show something about the nature of drama. For Ostermeier, it's the situation that drives the drama. Our reactions to these circumstances, trying to adjust the outcome, something changes, we again re-adjust expectations and our strategies to get a better outcome for ourselves... it was quite illuminating. The mask of civilised behaviour slips and the situation becomes dramatic.

This relates to how he examines a scene. He uses a bit of Stanislavsky here - he collects the circumstances relating to the scene ie it's night, we're tired, there's a bomb scare... and then he arrives at what he thinks is the dominating circumstance. This is what is then given to the actors to play. He doesn't ask the actors to pretend to be emotional. And interestingly, when we started talking, all the dialogue was active. Every line was someone wanting something. The 'characters' using language to modify the situation.

To come at the circumstances needs a deep reading of the text. The situation... is the sum of given circumstances. And his main question - what is the most important circumstance of the situation?

The dominating circumstance is that which 'makes me take up action'. So when he comes to this, and agrees with the actor on what the character wants, then he leaves this space for the actor to achieve using their skill.

What is character? You can't know that at the start. It's only when it adds up that you know.

Pretty cool, huh? There's more.

The second section:

Was about your life as an artist. About what drives you to make theatre. Interestingly, on going round the circle, everyone gave their own answers. For him, it was to see things which were taboo, behaviours you couldn't access elsewhere, a place where we can examine the darkness.

We did an exercise about creating a 'concept' for Macbeth. What would be the bones for our own version of the play? What would the three witches looks like? Again, everyone had very different idea. Again he was very concrete and practical. He made the point that we tend to have concepts that nobody can read when they see the show.

He also asked - what was it about? What was Macbeth about? What was Hamlet about? Everyone gave different answers. But he encouraged to link it to our own lives, what we as artists want to talk about.

What have you go to say? Why are we doing it? Why are you doing it?

The third section:

This was where we got to see how he worked - which he said was a combination of approaches. This was one of the most interesting parts of the workshop, when he talked and made connections between how these approaches sat together.

So here goes.

He uses a bit of Stanislavsky, analysing the drama in a certain way. Collecting the circumstances. Coming to the dominating circumstance. Doing all that underpinning with the actor.

Then he might do an exercise with the actors, where they do an improvisation drawing on their own experience. After this he makes comments such as - "notice the speed you are talking at" (much faster). It brings a more real way of acting to the piece.

Then he uses a bit of Meissner. All that means is - look up. The actors look up and react to what the person in front of them is doing. Instead of creating feelings inside you which you call up, your head is up and you're in the moment, reacting to the person in front of you.

So the scene of Macbeth they were doing started to sing along at this stage.

He talked about Eiseinstein - another influence. You can see this in his plays from how he creates montage. (Eisenstein wrote about how this worked in film).

And he talked about Meyerhold, that is, bringing a physicality to the work ie it's not just words. How to work with actors on a score of movement.

All of these elements he fitted together to create a really interesting, practical and useable approach to directing. He created tools out of theory and he was kind enough to share them with us.

So, I really recommend that you read these two books about him 'Ostermeier' and 'The Theatre of Thomas Ostermeier'.

Also on the Scahubuhne website, there's a paper in English on directing Ibsen which is also very illuminating. All these resources go deeper into his thinking on theatre, but like I said, it's the simplicity, practicality and effectiveness of how he works that really made an impression on me during the three days.

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