Nancy Meckler On ... The Caucasian Chalk CircleDate: 22 September 2009
Nancy Meckler is joint artistic director of Shared Experience, a theatre group founded in 1975 by Mike Alfreds which aims at making the rehearsal process an "open forum" for all theatre-practitioners involved. She is currently in rehearsal with her production of The Caucasian Chalk Circle at the West Yorkshire Playhouse.
Meckler's past theatre credits include Mill on the Floss (New Ambassabors Theatre) and The Comedy of Errors and Romeo and Juliet for the Royal Shakespeare Company.
Nancy Meckler wasn’t always set on directing. Born in the States, but a resident in Britain she says, for “a really long time”, she has had an extended, successful career as a theatre director; for example her production of Anna Karenina won the TMA/Martini Award for Best Touring Production in 1993, and more recently she has directed The Comedy of Errors for the Royal Shakespeare Company to great critical acclaim. But initially, for a serious period of her adolescence, and well into her university days, she coveted the occupation that many thousands have also aspired to: acting.
“I always wanted to be an actress, since I was a child, and I kept trying to act at university, and took acting courses, but I never really seemed to get very far. I never got cast very often and so I always seemed to end up backstage. And then I would audition and I wouldn’t get any parts. I was training as an actress but I just wasn’t getting any work.”
The path to directorship for Meckler was initially one of circumspect chance, and a slowly burgeoning reputation for creating successful pieces of theatre, despite any reservations she had about being a female theatre director in a male-dominated profession in the sixties:
“It was just one of those strange things, where, because I had to direct a play as part of my university degree, I guess I was quite good at it without quite knowing what I was doing, and then people would say, ‘Oh, you directed that, why don’t you direct this?’. And I’d reply, ‘Oh okay, I’ll direct that for you.’ But I wasn’t thinking ‘I could be a theatre director.’ I’m not sure why not, maybe because this was really in the sixties, and there weren’t many women as theatre directors, and I didn’t think people would respect a female theatre director. So as the years went by, I just kept falling into it... And then one day when one of my shows went to the Edinburgh Festival and won a Fringe First, I thought, ‘Oh, I’m guess I’m a theatre director, I’m not gonna be an actress!’ And so it was really strange, I just accidentally drifted into it.”
Today, Nancy Meckler is co-artistic director of Shared Experience, a theatre group whose “idealistic” work beliefs appealed to her when a friend suggested she look into an opening they had advertised. Her enthusiasm for their theatrical goals as they apply to each new production, like with their current work on The Caucasian Chalk Circle, even after almost twenty years on the job, is obvious from her thoughtful, pause-filled, articulate responses to my questions:
“We can be very idealistic about our working conditions. We have slightly longer rehearsal periods than people usually have; we’re co-producing this show with West Yorkshire Playhouse and Nottingham Playhouse, and we have kept it in the equation that we have extra rehearsal time. We also work in a very physical way, so we have people coming in to train the actors... We have the time for the rehearsal process to really be a journey for everyone.”
The decision behind directing Bertolt Brecht’s comic-morality tale The Caucasian Chalk Circle this year can find its roots in Meckler’s directorial work on, of all things, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dream Coat at Leicester Haymarket Theatre. The involvement of alternating children’s choruses drawn from the local community in Joseph caught Meckler’s imagination:
“I loved doing it, and I loved the fact that it meant so much to them and to the community. I’ve often said to people, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if you could do that same idea, if you could find a story that would work with having a chorus in it on stage from the community.’ And then I was re-reading Caucasian Chalk Circle, and I guess I’d never been aware before – perhaps because I’d seen it but not read it carefully – and discovered that there’s a real place for a chorus.”
Political satirist Alistair Beaton has written a new translation of The Caucasian Chalk Circle for Shared Experience, and his experience working for TV dramas The Trial of Tony Blair and A Very Social Secretary is sure to give the comedy in Brecht’s tale an edge that will appeal to a modern audience. Meckler is particularly vocal about his goals when approaching the translation:
“Alistair wanted to be very faithful to Brecht in many ways, but he always wanted to write it so that it would be a really enjoyable and accessible evening in the theatre. To get rid of a lot of confusions, things that aren’t easy to follow.” This is sure to be a key part of the production’s success: elucidating the characters’ speech will ensure Shared Experience avoid the pitfalls of some translations of Brecht’s work, which can seem stuffy and prosaic to modern viewers. It helps that, as Nancy points out, “Alistair Beaton is a German speaker,” which will also have contributed a great deal to his ability to render Brecht’s dialogue in as appealing and apt a manner as possible.
Meckler has a fairly defined opinion of Brecht herself, having directed his work before. “I think he’s very remarkable; I think the plays vary hugely, there are some plays that I probably wouldn’t be interested in doing, but this play is a great play: it’s a fantastic story, and it’s brilliantly told. It’s a serious theme, but is injected with comedy. I liken the comedy to almost like political cartoons, because it’s not funny just to entertain, that wouldn’t be Brecht. It’s funny because it is satire (and I think it’s a great play). I wouldn’t say that about all Brecht plays, but this one is.” However, Meckler is absolutely certain about the extent of Brecht’s influence:
“I think he’s been so influential that most modern theatre is very Brecht-like without us even realising it. Just the idea of going to see a show, where you’re very aware that you’re in a theatre, and you’re aware that the actors are wearing costumes, are putting on a play. You know that’s very normal to us now. But when Brecht did it, it was incredibly boundary-breaking. So, I think, most people would agree that the theory and what you actually get on stage are often in conflict with each other.”
The musical element of Brecht’s work is bound to play a part in this conflict: whilst Brecht’s songs are relatively immediate in their representation of emotional turmoil, their context often plays with their impact: “So for example when Grusha sings a song, the singer will say, ‘This is what the girl was thinking’... distancing effects are already built into the piece.” However, Meckler is keen to emphasise the moments of humour that are an important component of Brecht’s ‘morality’ play: “There are going to be great elements of comedy in it, and it’s very physical, because we’re a very physical company. We’re going to be doing things in quite a stylised way.”
Alongside this typically ‘Shared Experience’ approach to The Caucasian Chalk Circle Meckler has kept in mind one perfect phrase that she feels sums up the play’s true message, and it is with this tantalising, challenging question that Shared Experience will surely tempt an inquisitive audience:
“I always like when I’m working on a play to see if I can come up with one sentence that would say what this play is about. And what I came up with for The Caucasian Chalk Circle was a question, which is perhaps more Brechtian: “In an imperfect world, is it possible for justice, and goodness to exist?” And that question is being asked all the way through the evening, because Grusha is a good person in a play that is filled with a lot of people who aren’t, and she’s compassionate, and you just think, will she make it, or will she be crushed?”
Nancy Meckler was speaking to Vicky Ellis
The Caucasian Chalk Circle opens at West Yorkshire Playhouse on Friday (25 September) and continues until 17 October.
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