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Torch Oxford Q&A with Ben Whishaw and Katie Mitchell on process and performance in the pandemic age

Ben Whishaw and Katie Mitchell were interviewed live via Zoom by Wes Williams for Torch Oxford on approaches to acting and directing, creativity during the lockdown and how performance will evolve for the new Zoom-world.

Ben Whishaw  Katie Mitchell Torch Oxford

Here are the edited highlights and the link to the full hour-long interview is at the bottom.

How did you come to directing/acting?

Katie:  I didn't really feel any connection with any of the work that was happening in the UK as a young woman in the 1980s.

So most of my influences came from a very big trip, I made to Eastern Europe to Russia, Georgia and Lithuania and Poland, where I researched directors' training and saw amazing practitioners and learned a lot about Stanislavski. And also seeing work that was coming into the UK from abroad.

Anyway, I then did about 15 years of working on naturalism in mainstream text-based theatre. But I always wanted to go back to a more visual arts influence, making work that was to do with the crossover between theatre and other mediums.

And so I then have my breakthrough show going into live cinema, which then set off what I would consider my real career.

It changed my life in a way

Ben: I got taken to an audition for a Youth Theatre when I was 13 by my dad, and it was a Youth Theatre in a town just down the road from the village I grew up in.

I was quite a shy 13-year-old and I think my dad must have thought it would do me good and I liked acting I'd done acting in school but I had never explored it further than that.

So I went to this audition and I got into this youth theatre and it changed my life in a way. And we did extraordinary things there. We did Greek plays and we did adaptations of books and we did devised pieces.

I guess it became the thing I loved most, and then I decided to this was what I wanted to do and then I went to RADA when I was 19.

Then I guess I was just extremely lucky and I got some nice work, and one thing led to another and then you meet wonderful people like Katie, who you have been fortunate enough to keep working with over time. 

Ben, would you like to do devised work again?

B I would like to and I feel like I have had experiences that have felt close to what I experienced as a teenager at the Youth Theatre, with Katie actually and some other people.

I've enjoyed sometimes having experiences where a text is just the beginning of a process, and a launchpad. And then it's something that's made kind of collectively, not as much as I would like but I've tasted it and I appreciate it very much. 

Do you have to get into a different place to work on a text like The Seagull that already has a performance history?

B I would try not to think about the performance history. Of course, you can't be completely ignorant of it, but I wouldn't go and watch - not that that would be necessarily possible in theatre but I wouldn't want to go back and watch other actors interpretations or read about them.

I wouldn't find that helpful, you want to come to it in yourself at this point in time, bringing yourself to it.

I try not to think too much but try and treat it like it's a brand new thing. But, also I'm always aware, particularly with plays that are older texts, the director is probably going to be bringing in choices. So you're open to that as well.

We were thoroughly told off with that attempt

K As a director, compared to the actor I think you have to be mindful of the production history, and particularly when you're dealing with Chekhov because with that particular writer and those particular plays the production history has sort of got tangled up with the original material.

So that production history, so late 60s early 70s Royal Shakespeare Company way of staging was very slow contemplative pieces of drama that have been mistaken for the actual original Russian radical material.

When you're trying to work out how to conceive and stage, a play like the Seagull, you have already been forced into a conversation with the production history and the material you've got to somehow cut your way through both.

Remembering the preparing of the Seagull that was quite a challenge to work out how to present it in a way that tried to cut away the barnacles if you like of production history and just get back to that sharp very avant-garde shock of a symbolist play.

We were thoroughly told off with that attempt, it was very interesting. We made it at the National Theatre in London, I then went a couple of years later to Copenhagen and repeated exactly the same production. And it was seen in a completely different way...but, such is the difference of making plays in different countries.

Katie and Ben on the Stanivlaski method of building a character's backstory:

B You collate as much information as possible and then you see where the gaps are. And what happens is a sort of filling out of a backstory isn't it Katie, which becomes a really completely addictive sort of process for me and for most actors I'd say who work with you.

K It's a very, very simple and gorgeous system but it's very detailed and the thing about working with Ben, I mean he's just incredible. He's very, very, very detailed as a performer, which means that he not only works very closely on a very detailed analysis of where all the changes both micro and macro are in the text, but he can also calibrate, all of the psychological shifts of those intentions around those changes in a way that's so refined and nuanced and he likes doing it.

So a lot of people get a bit tired, 'I've got a play that takes about 400 events and tensions I want to play something simpler but Ben is the opposite. He goes, I think we missed an event here Katie can we add 401.

And then every single inch of what he's doing on stage in terms of playing he needs to be precise about. And that leads to a sort of density and complexity, in terms of the psychology, which is his breathtaking level of skill, which very few performers can achieve.

Live performance, digital technology and the future in the Covid landscape

K But we can't make anything live at the moment. And that is going to be for a long period of time, and as we all know more pandemics will come in the future. So we have to have other systems.

And so we have to put our mind to just to relinquish the holy grail of the live experience and accept and welcome in different versions, like this experience now of us communicating by Zoom.

We have to welcome in those versions because we still have the existential needs that live performance was fulfilling... So we're going to have to find other ways of creating which are not us all being together in the same live space but through different digital platforms. 

I have enjoyed having a fallow period

B To be completely honest, I have felt knocked for six by it all. I'm still getting my head around everything. I'm really inspired to hear what you're saying, Katie.

I haven't even really felt like doing anything. It's fortunate because there is no work to do.

But I haven't felt like doing any work, it feels guilty to admit that because so many people are having to work so hard, but I have enjoyed, I have to confess, having a fallow period.

On performing via Zoom (stage acting or screen acting?):

B It's gonna be a really interesting sort of mashup of the two. And something else because acting, I can imagine, like this on a Zoom call isn't like acting for a camera, either. So it's a completely new thing.

K If we think that there are 200 muscles on the face, and the muscles are the things that articulate a lot of the inner feelings or emotions. So there is a sense that everyone's going to get the director's view of the acting eg very close.

The privilege of being a director is you sit super close to the acting, really see the detail of it. That was part of my original wish to bring cameras into theatre so that everyone sees that detail. And, the actor doesn't have to amplify it a bit for the people who are sitting 10 seats back.

So, I think there's something really gorgeous about the detail of Zoom... This is a prelude to our project, isn't it Ben whatever it is, you can really work on that detail but also there's something about Zoom always putting people in their private spaces. I think there's something really interesting about that.

B You hear people talking about wanting things to go back to how they were but I don't and I think people don't. So it is a time to really think about where we want it to go. And what new work we might make and the kinds of stories and how we tell those stories. It's all very exciting really, it's all up for grabs.

You can watch the full interview via Torch Oxford's YouTube channel.