28 Oct Interview with Stage Director Anna Theodosakis
Interview with Anna Theodosakis, stage director of The Medium
Gwenna Fairchild-Taylor (November 2015)
So you have quite a lot of education in voice, both a masters and and undergrad in opera from UBC! What made you decide to become a stage director?
When I went to school I was already coming to it with a lot of theatre experience as an actor, as well as a lot of dance experience. So when I got to UBC I got to do pieces of choreography for the operas that were produced. It’s surprising how many shows have dance components, or a moment where dance is necessary! If not a small moment, then a huge chunk! So that grew and grew and I started getting really interested in watching the directors that we had and working with them to tell a story through movement.
In ballet or opera the dance serves a dual purpose; for entertainment but also to tell a story. Because I had done theatre I was also interested in the difference between the theatre directors and the opera directors I worked with. Eventually Nancy Hermiston at UBC started letting me direct scenes and I took her directing course in my masters. I decided that one summer I would pursue both singing and directing: I did Opera NUOVA as a singer and then after that I assistant directed at AEDO. I absolutely loved it, working on La Bohème with Tim Nelson.
And so I thought: This is it. Yes, I enjoy performing, but while directing I felt a real shift in passion and I also felt like I had a strong aptitude for it.
Do you think part of it is that you like being in the position where you always get to make decisions about how the story is told instead of “doing what the director says”?
Yes I’ve always really liked the creative process. From months before, when you know what show you’re doing, I love every second of it. Coming up with a time period, or how you’re going to portray the story, all the book work as well. The research and looking into all source materials – I love that.
We do that as singers too, but in a different way I’m sure!
Yeah – you always come with your own ideas but when I was working with directors as a singer I would observe and think “oh I like what this is!” or “maybe if we did it this way….” In that way training as a singer definitely helped me to train as a director.
You are in the position of knowing both sides of the table very well! What do you think are the things in your personal directing style that are influenced by your significant training in voice and your own experience as a soprano performing in opera?
I have been in front of the conductor with the orchestra and had to learn how to watch as well as tell a story, so there are some tricks I have picked up! I’m very aware when I approach an opera that there is another person there and that we have to include them and the orchestra as well.
Because of my movement background I try and incorporate physicality that will help the singer. Sometimes I’m demanding in the amount of movement that I require from a singer but I always have it in the back of my mind that it is actually helping them. For instance if they are doing some kind of crazy coloratura run they’re going to be less nervous actually if they have to walk across the stage rather than just stand there. You always get someone to try something three times to see if it works. Some people do well lying face down on the ground, you never know!
I was just directing the doll song for a singer and it was in a very balletic style, so for the super, super high notes I thought “Well, why don’t you just pliée like a ballet dancer and that way you’re grounded!”. I try and make singers look and feel as good as possible.
So what do you think that we need to do in this generation to make sure that opera is still alive in the coming years? In an ideal world what would you like to see happen?
I come from the theatre – so I’m trying to incorporate that style of rehearsing into opera. Sometimes that’s hard to do because of time and money issues. It’s just a bit different. In theatre you have the time to do a table read, and collaborate on characters first before staging. In opera there isn’t always that time but I’m trying to push for collaboration, and in doing so lead to more of a realness. I think we’re already seeing that a lot in opera but I just want to strive so that singers are in the moment every second, even though they do have to watch the conductor and think about technique. I think it’s incredibly important that we create real characters that are nuanced but still read from the stage. With live HD broadcasts, as well as smaller indie companies and venues, there really needs to be a naturalness for singers and one of the things that I try to do to help that is trying to help people to break a habit or to ease a habit.
Or at least be aware that they have it!
You have to be comfortable in yourself and know how you move and how your body moves if you’re going to be another character and move completely differently. In trying to make opera continue to be relevant it is important for the audience to be able to relate to the people they see onstage. Even operas from the past have that humanity that is universal to today. Opera should be less about creating beautiful pictures (yes that’s important) and more about creating interpersonal relationships between characters onstage – that is the most captivating! We encounter all different sorts of people in everyday life, so why can’t that be true onstage? Anyone can fall in love. Anyone can seek revenge.
Tell me about some directors that you have worked with that you admire or you feel have taught you lessons that are going to be important for the rest of your career.
I’ve worked with a lot of great directors so I don’t want to leave anyone out by accident!
I will say that just having worked with Tim Albery last month for the second time was super awesome because he is so creative in the way that he approaches material. He always finds a different perspective in looking at things. He’s given me the courage to really take risks and take chances and push myself to think outside the box.
Working with Joel Ivany is awesome. Directors all have such different personalities and whenever I’m assisting a director I always have to adapt. Joel is so admirable because of his collaborative nature. He directs singers in a way that sometimes they don’t even know that he’s directing. But he is, because he’s a genius! He really allows himself to take feedback in from the the cast and create a piece all together. It just makes everything so much stronger. I’m really trying to focus on that in this piece and all my other pieces.
And of course, Michael Albano…what is there to say? He is so well versed in everything. He’s so versatile. He can try something all different ways. He knows the whole scope. He has a breadth of knowledge about drmaturgy, librettos, lighting, carpentry. He knows the business well and he knows how to put all those elements together to make something magical. And he is also just super positive. That kind of positivity in rehearsal allows for people to feel safe, and for singers to be able to push themselves and he helps people push themselves with a friendly hand. He’s someone that you just want to work with over and over again!
They are all so smart and so kind! So with all of that in mind, how are you approaching The Medium? What did you do when you first opened the score?
Menotti is very stirring because he is so theatrical in that he is not afraid to disrupt line or melody if there’s a dramatic reason. Everything has a purpose and is super clear, and so it is fantastic to work on! Everything in the orchestra is dramatically driven. It is an absolute gift. Menotti just seems to master two things: amazing tunes and exciting dramatic moments. The Medium is a shorter opera taking place in one apartment room with a cast of six. It has a very play-like feeling. I don’t think there’s too much difference between something that is operatic vs. theatrical – there isn’t really a division like that, but if there was, I would say that The Medium leans towards the realm of theatre, just in scope. Patrick’s design also speaks to that and the way that we focus on the work – drama first and then music. Even people who haven’t seen many operas can relate to it because I’m sure they’ve seen some sort of spectacle like this and the music is super easy to relate to.
What’s your concept for this production and how did you decide on it?
My concept is 1930’s New York, lower east side tenement apartment. I went with that because Menotti had lived through that period himself, but also because in that time was the Great Depression and Prohibition. So having our show set in the Great Depression means there is a lot of desperation surrounding it. Nobody has a lot of money, so Baba seeks this fraudulent profession in order to provide for herself, her daughter Monica and, Toby. She’s desperate and it makes her more vulnerable and sympathetic as a character. She has to have this livelihood to make ends meet. The guests that attend the séance are also down and out to varying degrees. The fact that they’re investing the money that they have into spiritualism makes it a more powerful fraud and their belief in it is also more powerful. They’re so anxious to see their loved ones that have passed away. It is clearly their highest priority if they are funnelling their funds in that direction.
The desperation is so high that they are willing to overlook whatever clues they have as to its validity.
Yes, absolutely. They want to believe so badly. Baba’s character is an alcoholic but it is the time of prohibition. Prohibition in the States kind of added to alcoholism – I’m not an expert but I can see that by hiding this vice from family as well as the law makes it stronger. Baba is also trying to give up alcohol so she’s going through withdrawal symptoms through the piece. Desperation combined with prohibition is a dangerous cocktail, if you will, for her mental state! I love pre-WWII America. Its both beautiful and harrowing. One of the fantastic elements of Patrick’s design is the aspect of decay- the wallpaper is peeling in the apartment – it’s gritty but also so beautiful. I think The Medium as a work is exactly like that. There’s as much grit as there is beauty and romance.