This year’s TISCH DRAMA STAGE spring lineup started with The Threepenny Opera–a satirical musical drama that critiques capitalism and the corruption that can stem from it. The mid 20th century work, written by Bertolt Brecht in collaboration with composer Kurt Weill, explores important themes that remain relevant today.
The production’s director Ashley Tata recently shared Tata's artistic vision and the ways in which students’ varying lived experiences impacted the interpretation of the piece.
What attracted you to working with Tisch Drama?
Some of the people who have influenced me the most or mentored me have directed works at Tisch Drama. Clearly this has been an environment that supports bold, inventive productions. I'm always attracted to that. I also have a particular affinity with the design process. So being in a situation where the real point of focus from an academic standpoint is the designers' process was very compelling.
What is your vision for “The Threepenny Opera” and how has collaborating with our students impacted it?
I've worked on a number of other Brecht pieces and Brecht/Weill pieces–this is the first time I've focused on Threepenny. During this process I took a different tack than I usually do and let the years of experience I've had with these creators be the foundation for everything we did. I focused on engaging the material like a close reading. How could it (or couldn’t it?) resonate with the artists comprising the company here and now? Could I be responsive to that resonance rather than imposing a rigid preconceived idea on the company from the outset?
At the same time, I know that the themes of Threepenny provided a lot of material that I was hoping would strike a nerve for us to expand upon during our work on the piece. Some of these include the increasing automation of production that not only alienates the worker from their labor, but decreases the sense of inherent worth every human being could possess if that was valued in a capitalist society.
This is also expressed in the awareness these characters have of the intensely transactional relationship they are all engaged in, and the fear that turns to violence when it has been ingrained in a person that they are only worth what their bodies can produce. These themes only sounded more loudly over the course of the months we were engaging in the material. "It's the machines, they say,” is a line that felt much more a product of mid-20th century anxiety around the means of mechanical reproduction a few months ago. However, since working on this and the proliferation of chatbot conversations and whether or not they can output "creative" works, this is a topic that now generates a bit more anxiety to a person–like myself–whose practice is based on what I naïvely presume to be human creativity.
Fortunately, for our production, the students have all been willing to touch on their own anxieties in this regard. But, more importantly, their energy and enthusiasm for material that they have mostly read in class–or analyzed the theory of–has really injected a level of liveness to our production than I could have possibly hoped for. And of course, the collaboration with the music director, Sean Forte and choreographer, Joey Kipp has only added and expanded whatever inklings of a vision I had at the outset. The three of us have been in pretty close collaboration to make sure that the production of sound, physicality and performance language have built off of each other to create an overall theatrical aesthetic.
Some of your creative output also deals with immersive entertainment such as environmental, multi-level escape rooms. Can you tell us how this might be presented in “The Threepenny Opera”?
In the same way that working on escape rooms has influenced all my work. Namely, that making a work of art is like creating escape room puzzles in that you will never know precisely what knowledge or references your audience will be coming into the space with. So you have to create the ability to see the puzzles and the tools to unlock it within the content of the work itself. Get a group of people with a wide range of lived experiences to develop a common language and vocabulary that they learn to decode during the performance experience.
You’ve mentioned that you encourage young artists to “explore a work from many different angles and to find what is interesting and will hold their fascination as a way in.” Can you explain how this manifests itself in your work with Tisch Drama students?
I start every process asking the company why they are in the room–because it's important to remember that we are fortunate to be engaged in a profession of our choosing. And I really listen to why people are in the room. It can alter my approach to the material or the areas that I ask individuals to investigate as a point of focus at various stages of the process. And then things come up and present themselves. Whether it's a film that is clearly influenced by the material, or an artist who can have an influence on our developing aesthetic, or a current event that reminds us why we are telling this story right now to this audience and how we hope it will awaken something in an unsuspecting audience member at any moment.
I think many–though not all–of the students who came into this production were interested in working on "Brecht" and expressed a love for the "Brechtian" aesthetic. Which was exciting to me because I don't know what that aesthetic is. So I was excited to learn from them. And I think that what we learned was that in bringing ourselves to the work we create a Brechtian aesthetic that is specific to this company of artists. And another company will create another aesthetic that conveys this material. There is no universal way or set of rules to follow so that the work is done the "right" way. It is absolutely dependent upon the makers who are embodying and breathing life into it at this moment in time in this space to make it their own offering to an audience. And of course this creation of a product that is so ephemeral as to exist at exactly the moment when it makes audience contact and then disappears is the kind of thing that can only occur in live performance.
Working with this generation of students who have lived through the pandemic and theatrical shutdown is so poignant to me. We are all here because we believe in this. Being aware of the fragility of our medium only makes it more powerful and precious. Watching the cast offer this work to an audience over these last few nights has been a true gift that I'm very grateful for.