Rob Faust (Faustwork) interviews Birgit Schreyer Duarte of:
THE PIANO TUNER
Q1: What is your background? How do opera/music/ theatre inform and influence your work?
I grew up in Munich, Germany, went to a music-oriented high school, and have sung in choirs throughout my whole life. Opera was always part of my life there, first as a kid in the opera’s children’s choir, later as a directing intern or as audience member. I then studied dramaturgy and theatre studies at the Bavarian Theatre Academy, before coming to Canada to do research in Canadian drama and cultural studies. Music has continued to influence my approach to theatre, either as dramaturge or director, be it as a key theme, a play with leitmotifs, or through my passion for integrating music strategically as a dramaturgical tool.
Q2: What is the primary message you want people to come away with after seeing “The Piano Tuner”?
There are so many thought processes and emotions the novel by Pascal Mercier, which this play is based on, evoked in me as a reader, and that I hope to convey in the adaptation of it. But the most immediate concern for me in this piece was the story of the twins, and the discussion about the power that music holds over the human soul came second. My own identical twin and I have been faced with both the immense advantages and the sometimes complicated emotional and psychological situations that result from being so close to one another. It can be hard to define one’s own identity and to claim one’s own realm of experience. This applies to both professional and personal definition. For the partners, too, it can be hard to accept that there is no human connection for the twin that will ever be as strong and limitless as the one to the other twin. So I am thrilled to stage a drama that processes the phenomenon of growing up as twins, but then I soon realized that this is also a love story that may resonate with everyone who had to go through a traumatic break-up to find back to themselves. The “message” of sometimes having to let go in life can also be applied to the story that the play tells about their father, the piano tuner, and the family as a whole. More than sending any specific message, however, I want audiences to be as much emotionally touched as intellectually stimulated.
Q3: Why should people who normally don’t see opera come see your show at SummerWorks?
The play’s form itself is not operatic, and there are no opera singers involved—although, I am already toying with the idea of making this into a libretto one day—all the elements of a good opera are there: murder, passion, heartbreak, jealousy, incest, tearful reunions and departures, shattered dreams… Otherwise, the play is actually only on two levels connected to the world of opera: an event that happens during an opera performance becomes the catalyst for the dramatic action, and the influence of music on a disintegrating family is one of the through-lines in the narrative.
Q4: What is the most and the least fun part of your creative process?
Most fun: Seeing the whole thing through from start to finish is amazing: from the translation from the German original, to adapting it with my collaborators into a stage play, to seeing it come alive through the actors.
Not so much fun: Cutting lines! I am horrible at cutting my own work, be it academic or creative, I get really attached to stuff. Oh, and chasing after sponsorship partners…
Q5: Talk about identity and transformation in your work.
Questions about identity have somehow become a marker of my academic and directorial focus—my doctoral thesis explored issues of Canadian identities and how they can be represented in the theatre; a recent production I did was connected to the identity of space and urban geography (what makes you who you are and how is your environment part of this process?); but this show is perhaps the one most obviously related to the discourse of identity formation. The Piano Tuner plays with the painful paradox that sometimes we need to create boundaries from the ones we love the most in order to become whole as an individual. In the end, all characters in the play are in fact able to be transformed through the traumatic events they encounter.
Q6: Is there a surrealist element in your work? Would you say your work is a fusion of different genres?
I would call this show only surrealist in so far as large parts of the action we see on stage take place in the memory of the twins, and often we can’t be sure what exactly comes to life in their retelling of the events, and what is in fact taking place in the present. The play is definitely a merging of genres: crime story, memory play, epistolary piece, romance, psychological study, family saga…
Q7: How important is your identity as a twin in your creative process? (and/or) How are non-twin individuals different from / same as twins?
I am very spoiled by being so in sync with my twin that we almost automatically know what the other one is thinking and feeling, so that any creative process with her is extremely intuitive and efficient. We don’t have to start from scratch all the time, we have nearly identical histories and backgrounds to draw from, and we feel totally safe in each other’s company. I think (we think!) we work extremely well together because we don’t really compete for attention and territories anymore, perhaps especially now that we have established our separate realms in different places and cultures, so that we both also bring our own, newly acquired experiences to the table (she is a photo journalist and lives in Italy). Yet I don’t think all this isn’t occasionally also possible between other artistic collaborators who aren’t twins!
Q8: What are the dominant themes in “The Piano Tuner” and/or your work in general?
I think I answered this in some of the previous sections: family ties and histories, the search for self-identity, the transformative power of art…
Q9: How important is narrative in your performances? Are they more about story or about experience (experiential)?
Despite the fact that often, both in Canadian and in German contemporary theatre I believe, traditional narrative forms are now slightly looked down upon, and physically devised and image driven performances are more sexy these days—I have to admit I also love a good narrative! I am also a visual person, I think in images as much as in words, but a collection of mind-blowing images in the theatre that in the end amounts to no captivating narrative can be disappointing for me as a theatre-goer—I want both!
Q10: What makes what you do unique? Do you feel your work transgresses the limits of traditional opera and theatre, or is it embedded in tradition?
Hmm… my work is probably both traditional and transgressive. What certainly influences my way of thinking in theatre is my background in a more “traditional” dramaturgy as well as coming from a culture that has a long theatre and opera tradition, Germany. But I am also inspired by the bold innovative approaches to opera that are popping up all over Europe that treat opera as a challenging contemporary piece of theatre rather than a way to preserve dusty conventions. I am also curious and open to new forms of performance and writing and have been observing exciting Canadian theatrical developments for almost a decade. So perhaps it is my positioning between both the “old” and the “new” world, and between my two languages (I truly enjoy the challenges of translating plays), as well as between “spoken theatre” and the operatic genre, that make my work somewhat unique.