Interview with Director Moritz von Stuelpnagel

Posted on: October 2nd, 2018 by Ted Sod

Education Dramaturg Ted Sod spoke with Director Moritz von Stuelpnagel about his work on "Bernhardt/Hamlet."

Ted Sod: Let’s start with some biographical information: Where were you born and educated? What made you decide to become a theatre director?

Moritz von Stuelpnagel: I was born in Greenwich, Connecticut to a pair of wonderful German immigrants who wanted my name to be as incomprehensibly German as possible. My father was in finance and my mother a visual artist (as well as the director of exhibitions at the Bruce Museum), so I joke that directing perfectly blends their influences of practicality and conceptualization. I actually stumbled into directing because my high school happened to have a terrific performing arts department, including an evening of ten-minute plays written, directed, and performed by the students. It’s a total privilege that I had access to that. And something about being in direct conversation with the writers and actors, on subject matter that was immediately resonant for us, sparked something in me that felt both empowering and humbling. To watch those first plays from the back of the house, as well as watching the audience watch those plays, was to be part of something larger than myself, and I knew I wanted to commit myself to the service of new writers.

Dylan Baker, playwright Theresa Rebeck and director Moritz von Stuelpnagel. Photo by Jenny Anderson

TS: Tell us about your response to the script of Bernhardt/Hamlet. How did it resonate for you personally? What do you think the play is about?

MVS: I’m fascinated by the questions this play asks about our ability to really, truly see one another, or even see into ourselves. That’s one of the vital roles the theatre plays: to witness one another, to recognize ourselves. Does an audience’s presumptions about women prevent them from regarding a woman’s tragedy the same as a man’s? Can I find Hamlet in myself? Does my lover see my potential in me, or are they limited by their expectations for me? Bernhardt was one of the early proponents of naturalism, and as such, she asked hard questions about representation in the theatre. We’re similarly asking hard questions about representation now. But inside that, inside all the artifice of the theatre, the artists are trying to touch on grains of truth to offer up. Something that pings the soul. It’s not easy to discover something truly meaningful, but in that way, I understand Bernhardt’s struggle.

TS: How are you preparing to direct this play? Did you have to do a lot of research? If so, what did you research specifically?

MVS: There’s an endless array of material written about Sarah Bernhardt, and because she loved myth as much as truth, it’s hard to know which of those stories, if any, are factual. But even the myths are revealing. I’ve dug through quite a bit of biography and history, and they have informed a lot about the relationships of the characters and the circumstances around this event. But what has felt most useful is immersing myself in her ethos. Bernhardt’s belief in the power of theatre, and her willfulness to be at the center of it, crystalize what seems so dynamic about her. It’s critical to what drives this play, and it’s framed my understanding of the script and how to approach the design. Research is only ever helpful.

Janet McTeer as Sarah Bernhardt. Photo by Joan Marcus

TS: The role of Sarah Bernhardt has been played by Janet McTeer during the development process. Can you talk about collaborating with Janet on her role in this play?

MVS: Janet is an incredible collaborator. Like Bernhardt, she has a fire of passion, the spontaneity of wit, and the ferocity of ideas behind her. Not only that, but she’s been wonderfully engaged in asking hard questions of the play. Sure, she’s taller than Bernhardt was, but the stage can be a great leveler. What’s harder to replicate is her spirit. And because many people these days have forgotten or never heard much about Sarah Bernhardt, our focus really is on the ideas that came out of these events, rather than representing them with stringent historical accuracy.

TS: Please talk about your understanding of the relationship between Sarah Bernhardt and Edmond Rostand. I am curious what you think motivates both of them?

MVS: One of the inspirations for this play was a tremendous book by Francine Prose called Lives of the Muses, in which the author examines the relationship between artists and their sometimes more famous (or even infamous) muses. There’s this question of whether partnership has the potential to bring about an artist’s self-actualization — the best in ourselves — or whether the artist’s unfulfilled desire breeds creativity in pursuit of a lover. I think a lot of people romanticize the former; this idea that your personal shortcomings can somehow be mitigated through the healing power of love: two halves make a whole, or the other person will somehow complete you. That can seem really validating. But it’s inevitable that two individuals, who have their own needs, will at times find themselves in such conflict that they suddenly appear alien to one another. The intimacy within theatrical collaborations is similar to any other intimate relationship. We long for collaborators who inherently strive for the same aesthetics we hold dear. But just as easily, we ask our collaborators — as we ask our lovers — to submit to some narrative we want to prescribe to them. It’s a dictatorial form of possessiveness that’s born out of desire, whose end isn’t partnership or acceptance, but rather validation which has little to do with the other person.

TS: And Sarah’s relationship to her son – Maurice -- what do you make of that? Do you see that relationship as a matter of parents acting like children and children acting as if they were parents – or something different?

MVS: You know, I think there’s an element of that in there, certainly. Artists require so much freedom that responsibility can seem like it somehow fetters one’s access to truth. Add to that a large dose of personal ambition and one might judge the parent as being self-absorbed, necessitating the reversal of roles as you suggest. But I think Maurice appreciated how much of a trailblazer his mother was. He grew up in the shadow of her celebrity and the wake of her scandals, but they loved one another dearly. Sarah cherished him in a way that she’d been deprived by her own mother. Amidst the rise and fall of fame and finances, he was one of the only constants in her life.

Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet. Credit: Library of Congress

TS: What about Sarah Bernhardt and her desire to play the title role in Hamlet long before it was fashionable to feature gender bending casting in plays – what is your take on that?

MVS: Benhardt’s decision was both practical and political. Then, as unfortunately now, there was a lack of complex, leading roles for woman of a certain age. That meant that just as one was at the top of one’s game, there were fewer opportunities. So why shouldn’t the greatest actress of her day play the greatest role in history? We long to witness true virtuosity, yet so often our greatest performers are sidelined. Frankly, I don’t understand the resistance to female-centered productions unless you genuinely believe they are somehow inherently less substantial, simply because it’s a woman in the spotlight rather than a man. But if you do, there are some hard questions you should ask yourself. I would also say that untraditional casting has the potential to shake up what we think we know about classic plays.

TS: Can you talk about choosing and collaborating with your design team? How will the play manifest itself visually?

MVS: My design team has been absolutely fantastic. First of all, you don’t have to say much beyond “1890s Paris” to capture their attention! I mean, we could have done the play “out of period” and modernized it, but I think the themes are so readily parallel to contemporary life, that we didn’t feel we needed to underline those ideas visually. And yet, we didn’t want to feel obliged to replicate historical, theatrical practices too rigidly, as they often emphasized overly baroque performance and artificially ornate decor (Bernhardt’s actual production of Hamlet was criticized for its length, partly as a result of its 14 interminably slow scene changes). Instead, we wanted to capture the period, with an homage to the aesthetic of existentialism that we recognize in contemporary interpretations of Hamlet. The question was how do we visualize bringing a piece of theatre from seemingly nothing into being? How do we create a space, and music, and dynamic lighting, that frames the performers in bringing the passion, humor, and ambition of the theatre to bear? It becomes a fun design challenge.

TS: What else are you working on? Any advice for a young person who wants direct for the theatre?

MVS: Immediately following Bernhardt/Hamlet, I’ll be working on The Thanksgiving Play by Larissa Fasthorse at Playwrights Horizons. It’s a satire about four “woke” white people trying their best to write a Thanksgiving pageant without having Native American representation in the room, and of course they implode. It’s the kind of play that derives its humor out of human failing, even if the characters are well-meaning. I find myself really tickled by that sort of thing, because we spend so much time in social settings and online curating our self-image, but when we betray our masks, we reveal something more truthful about who we are. Maybe it’s because I’ve always felt others were better about fronting their masks than I was, but I have a lot of curiosity about that relationship between mask and self. Actually, that speaks to what I might tell young artists. Pursue the thing you’re curious about, rather than the thing you’re certain of, and you’ll engage a process of discovery. Anything that’s already self-evident will condescend to an audience and fail to reveal anything to you.

Bernhardt/Hamlet is playing at the American Airlines Theatre through November 18, 2018. For tickets and information, please visit our website.

Related Categories:
2018-2019 Season, Bernhardt/Hamlet

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