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In the Land of Clunk

June 9, 2015 / by Sarah Elizabeth Wansley, Fall Fellow


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***Photo caption: Director Andrei Belgrader on set at CSC.     

 For the past six weeks, I’ve been assisting Andrei Belgrader on Classic Stage Company’s production of Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus. Funny story about how I started to work on this show – my boyfriend Tommy, who is an actor, saw the casting breakdown for Doctor Faustus and noticed that the director was seeking a cast of middle-aged clowns. Tommy immediately guessed that the show was directed by someone from Romania (if you’ve ever seen theater in eastern Europe, you know how he made that leap) and asked me if I recognized the name Andrei Belgrader. As luck has it, Andrei had been a guest professor at UCSD (where I just finished my MFA under another Romanian director, Gabor Tompa) and I jumped at the chance to work with him.

     One of the most fascinating challenges in this production is establishing a clear style. Directing (as the Romanians have taught me) is the art of creating meaning through style. CSC’s theater on 13th street is a very unique space – a real thrust stage with audience on three sides and not much depth to the proscenium. In addition the limits on stage, storage back stage (of scenery, props, etc.) is a huge concern especially when working with a large cast and many costume changes (which we are). I have learned from Andrei that the physical properties of the theater and the modest budget of the show are not practicalities to be ignored until tech, but rather raw materials to be considered at every moment in the creation of the style.

     Andrei has directed in many larger theaters, including BAM, and we frequently discussed how this production would be entirely different with those resources (Flying actors! Pyrotechnics!). For the CSC production, however, Andrei’s approach was to embrace the low-tech nature of the beast. For example, at the end of the play Doctor Faustus conjures Helen of Troy. Andrei imagined her gliding onto the stage in a stunning 6 ft. wide dress. At BAM, perhaps she would have entered on an automated platform or from a hydraulic trap door, but at CSC she is standing on a wooden dolly that is pulled across the stage by our crew with visible ropes. The ropes make sense here, because Andrei has set up the whole adaptation of Doctor Faustus to be a production that a traveling theater troupe creates. The first time we saw Helen glide across the stage, Andrei said, “It is a little clunky. But that is ok. We are in the land of clunk.” The unabashed Brechtian theatricality of this moment has made it one of my favorite parts of the show. This aesthetic carries through the whole production. Our Faustus and Mephistophilis may not get to fly, but puppets of them do (dressed in exact replica miniature costumes) – and the puppets get applause from the audience nearly every night. I think in this age glutted with CGI and 3-D animation audiences find old-fashioned special effects extremely satisfying. Too often in American theater I think we use budget as an excuse to not invent theatricality (“We’re just relying on the text and the actors here”), but what Andrei does brilliantly in this production is to create a spectacle out of some ropes, some lights, a platform and a really good smoke machine. Perhaps we should all spend a little more time in the land of clunk.