A Conversation with Marie Schleef

Marie Schleef is a Bard Annandale ’14 Alumna who spent a semester abroad at BCB. She now lives in Berlin and directs feminist theatre productions; her seven and a half hour show Name Her premiered last year in September, and this Spring her new show, The Tin Drum, is set to premiere in Cologne, providing corona regulations permit it. I caught up with Marie on Zoom, and talked to her about female identity, frogs, and who has the right to be remembered.

Hi! So, first off, can you tell us a little bit about your background?

I was born in Germany and then when I was eight I moved to Austria, then I moved to Swaziland when I was 17. And I lived there for two years and then I went to New York. I started doing theater in high school, but I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do acting or directing. Then I started studying theater at Bard. 

At Bard College Berlin, they didn’t really have a theater program, usually just one theater class per year [this was in 2013 when Marie did her study abroad year at BCB]. That’s when I decided that I wanted to try out directing, because there was no pressure. 

I wasn’t very fond of American theater because I’m not a big fan of realism. In the States, text has a completely different kind of role within the theater world. You’re bound to the text by contract and the author is super important. But I like to interfere a lot in the text, and that’s what every single German director does.

When I’ve seen theatre in Germany, it’s often really enhanced with technology: I’ve seen, for example, pyrotechnics, video projections, and a whole working kitchen, where the actors are cooked during the whole play. How does that fit into your work?

I hardly ever use technology in my work. Set design plays a very big role in my work, which I produce in close collaboration with my costume and set designer Jule Saworski. I would also say in general that any actor who works with me has to give a lot of themselves because it is extremely challenging: I tend to work with extreme actors. 

When I did To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf, the narrative in the second part needed to be the house, which is kind of difficult to do on stage. I sat in the theater for a while, and then realized that I wanted two walls that were three meters tall, with paint dripping down from the walls. So the technology is basically the actor standing behind it and pushing, and then the paint dripping down. The actress painted 70 square meters in 20 minutes during the show. I think we played the show 15 times and we always had a different color. 

In my latest piece that’s coming out, hopefully in April, The Tin Drum, the set design is a ginormous trampoline. For an hour and a half the actor is on the trampoline and just jumps.  It requires a lot of endurance, definitely, but I’m always interested in the process of how someone is affected by the set design.

And then, with Name Her, obviously the challenge is that it is a seven and a half hour long show that the actress, Anne Tismer, does by herself. So there is a very strong set design component that kind of mixes with that, but it’s born out of the text itself.

Can we talk about this piece, this seven and a half hour long piece?

It’s the second part of a trilogy I’m working on. The third part will come out next year in January. 

This trilogy is sort of dedicated to putting the focus on female authors or women in theater. Also on who is on stage, because roles particularly for older women don’t really exist in the German or the American theater world. 

I befriended this wonderful, amazing performer called Anne Tismer when I worked at the Volksbühne Berlin. It was very clear that I wanted to do an extreme piece where we do every single woman’s name from A to Z. I started collecting women’s names. I have a list of 26,000 names. Every time we found a story that went with a name, we put it in the big Excel document. I also told all of my friends that I was doing this. I kept getting emails and names and stories. It wasn’t important personal stories, it could be someone’s grandma. It could be an anecdote that they heard. It could be a historical person. We ended up having 725 pages of script.

Obviously it’s always the question of who has a right to be remembered. At some point we had to make the tough selection of which 150 women deserve to be on that list. That was of course difficult because we were constantly trying to question our own blind spots. In the end we came up with a list that is highly, highly subjective. But at the same time, we’re not trying to reinvent the world. We just want to say these women deserve to be remembered.

A shot from NAME HER (copyright Lea Hopp)

That’s also how it is, right? On a personal level, we don’t just remember the famous people or the people that accomplished a lot. Memory is completely subjective. So, what about this section on your website, a selection of bizarre or interesting images and the stories that accompany them, The Cabinet of Curiosities?

Oh, this is a fun project that I started two years ago because, you know, being a director, often there’s the assumption that if I don’t have actors and I don’t have a theater, I can’t work. 

At some point I realized that this actually isn’t true because, in the theater world, often you do not choose the piece. Usually, a theater says, ‘hey, we are looking for a young person who can do this cannon piece.’ It is very heartbreaking because often you have all these ideas, but if you, a woman, approach a theatre with a very obscure text, they’re going to look at you like, ‘okay, there’s no way to market this text by a nobody.’ 

So I figured I needed to acquire my own repertoire of texts because otherwise, I have nothing to argue against. I started this Cabinet of Curiosities. I write about what I come across that I find interesting and worth sharing. It’s grown into this little collection. 

It’s a source of inspiration.

I can tell you about the frog test, for example: before the invention of the modern pregnancy test, you would often inject a rabbit or a frog or a mouse with the urine of a woman, and if the animals started to ovulate within two weeks, you knew that the woman was pregnant. 

Wow, crazy how that just gets so swallowed up in history and then we never talk about it. So you’re essentially archiving. 

And it’s a way of telling our history, you know, because it’s part of female identity.

So how would you define female identity? 

That’s a hard question. I identify as a woman and this is the narrative that I want to share about my personal experience. You know in Name Her, we never mention if a woman is trans, if a woman is lesbian, because they are all women, but obviously, what is a woman is one of the hardest definitions ever. And I did actually run into a deep crisis at some point, because I realized that a woman has always just been seen in history through the lens of the man. For example, an actress directed by a man, performing a text by a man, has to do a whole mental game.

She is embodying two images of how a man pictures a woman.

Then there’s the issue of including an asterisk at the end of every word in the description of Name Her, which means this would encapsulate everybody who defines as a woman, but then there’s another discourse that says we don’t need the asterix because woman is already inclusive.

But there is an aspect of the play that also has a certain pedagogical aspect; I want to open the conversation. I want to bring in older women, you know, 60 or 70 year old women who will ask, what is the asterisk doing?

Working on the piece was also extremely heartbreaking at times: there was a lot of arguing.

The piece is basically a conversation between me and her. I am in the piece, but I’m only a voice. If Anne doesn’t remember a line, because it’s seven and a half hours of text, then she can just ask me and I’ll tell her. A lot of the time there were also women that she refused to introduce, so I’m introducing that person, because we fought over whether or not we should include some names. For example, there’s a Nazi doctor in there, who wrote a book called The German Mother and her Child. She advises women to let their babies cry or says that the baby from the beginning on should have her own room.

This woman was a very vicious Nazi doctor and had five children that she raised by herself. And the kids even had to ask for an appointment if they wanted to hang out with their mother. That book was published up until the eighties in West Germany, they had just taken out all the Nazi language and kept publishing it. 

I wanted terrible examples of women to be included. I didn’t want to say that women are the better sex. But Anne on her end said, ‘Why do we need to focus on the negative? Why do we need to give her a floor?’ That’s a very legitimate question. So in the play, I am the one introducing her because she said, if you want to do it, then you do it. 

It was very shocking to realize that we don’t see eye to eye in terms of feminism. 

Feminism isn’t one cohesive term; it’s also tension and disagreement. 

In the last couple of years, a lot of feminist theater in Germany has been about the female body, but this piece doesn’t go with the body whatsoever.

I think it’s important to step away from art that’s all about the cis female body. Of course it’s impossible to ever step away from the body, but the attempt can let more interesting and important ideas appear. 

So, I’m also interested in this idea that you were talking about: creating a platform. You want to question the cannon. This is a huge topic at BCB right now: the cannon is so often only old white men, but we don’t want to ignore and forget history, or gloss it over and pretend it was always progressive and feminist. We need to acknowledge what has shaped us, even if it’s bad ideas. I would say, we should still read it, but we should read it in a critical way. But other students say we should give that platform to other, more progressive thinkers. What do you think?

I mean, the story of Faust was written by a woman, Hrotsvitha von Gandersheim, 700 years before Goethe wrote it. We don’t tell that story. We could actually have a German history that went back thousands of years, but instead, we decided German history started in the 18th century when these brilliant men slowly started to have the idea of the nation state, which is very upsetting.

We can read all these men and it is an important foundation, but it’s upsetting to think that these are the most important texts, because this is an isolated amount that has been preserved.

As a director, if I take a Shakespeare play, I have to do all the work to rethink it, and figure out how I could stage it in a way so that it fits with my thinking of 2021. That’s an amount of work I can do. I have fun doing it. 

But I could also use all of that energy to say I’m going to retranslate something that’s never been done before, because I’d like to invest energy into something new and unacknowledged, rather than constantly thinking, for example, that there’s a problem with the female gaze that doesn’t exist in the play, and how can it bring it in? Why do we always have to do that kind of labor?

I read a beautiful definition of culture the other day that essentially called it a way of passing knowledge after death. When I think of all of the wisdom and experience of women, which is so often not passed on at all, – untranslated or unread or not in print – I think about how much less knowledge we have as a society. We’re only reproducing the knowledge over and over again, and excluding the experience of so many. We could be so much more creative and have so much more experience under our belt if we acknowledged this silenced culture. Will Name Her ever be available to stream, or be screened? 

I don’t really know when yet. I hope that we get an English translation going to translate the play because we don’t have a script. She just tells the story as she remembers. 

It’s cool also that there’s no script and that she’s just telling stories, because it also makes me think of this oral tradition, passed generation to generation, often by women, by mothers and grandmothers. Embodying that way of culture, of passing information down, makes a lot of sense in this context. 

Yeah. I mean also, particularly in the 19th century, a lot of women were actually buried under their husband’s full name, so there’s no textual base for finding them whatsoever. So oral tradition is even more important because that’s often the only way we have an anecdote or remembrance of someone.

Thank you so much Marie!

After I logged off the Zoom call with Marie, I kept thinking about how many different meanings the word “feminist” has. Later that day, I happened to come across a passage in Donna Haraway’s A Cyborg Manifesto that I had forgotten about.

“It has become difficult to name one’s feminism by a single adjective (…) There is nothing about being ‘female’ that naturally binds women. There is not even such a state as ‘being’ female, itself a highly complex category constructed in contested sexual scientific discourses, and other social practices. (…) Painful fragmentation among feminsist (not to mention women) along every possible fault line has made the concept of woman elusive, an excuse for the matrix of women’s dominations of each other. The recent history for much of (…) feminism has been a response to this kind of crisis by endless splitting and searches for a new essential unity. But there has also been a growing recognition of another response through coalition – affinity, not identity” (8). 

I felt that this passage very much related to our conversation – although we both agreed that defining woman and female identity was an almost impossible task, I felt the importance of telling the stories of all the scientists, artists, mothers, grandmothers, and humans who had been forgotten. Marie tells the forgotten stories without the need for “a new essential unity;” Their stories are told with their own names.  

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