Julia Dittrich is a professor of Theatre Studies at ECLA of Bard. She is part of the visiting faculty this fall term and she is teaching the course Acting and Directing. The course aims to teach students the two different styles of acting prevalent in American and German theatres. In our conversation Julia sheds light on her work before joining ECLA of Bard, and what she hopes to do in the future.
1. How did you become interested in theatre and at what point did you decide to study it?
I started theatre in high school and acted in three plays a year. And to get into college I had written an essay about theatre and Ancient Greek theatre, and how these older stories connected to mankind and humanity in general. I got into Yale University, but in the first year I only took acting as a hobby. Eventually I became a Theatre major and did three to four plays a year. I was fascinated by the act of live performance because it is always new, always unpredictable, and always a risk. There is always a different atmosphere and relationship between the audience and the performers each night. You cannot predict what is going to work and what is not. There is an exciting energy and vulnerability for the performers in theatre that you do not have in film. I started as an actor and majored in German Literature and Acting. I was interested in German writers and actors, and after college I came to Germany as the place I was to work for needed a director. It was there I started working as a director.
2. Why did you move to Germany?
I moved to Germany in 2002, and it was mainly because of the style of theatre that I had seen here that I had never seen in America. On huge stages, directors would completely deconstruct plays, actors would improvise, it would rain on stage, and people would ice-skate. I wanted to work in a place where directors had so much freedom. Since I had studied German theatre, I was interested in finding out why would people go to theatre, and why was theatre so important here. In 2004 when I got a Fulbright scholarship, I just stayed here and found more work. In 2007, I went to a Drama school in Hamburg. I chose Hamburg because I felt I would have more artistic freedom.
3. When did you become interested in directing?
I was always interested in it, but I was scared of being the person in charge; plus I also loved being on-stage. But in 2003, I discovered directing in Zwickau, Germany. I had a job at a university teaching English and Theatre when I directed my first two plays, and ever since then I have not gone back to acting. I realized that it was directing where all my interests came together, such as literature, story-telling, creating pictures and visuals on stage. It is also the collaborative aspect of it and working with people in trying to find the ‘now’. I go back and forth between trying to tell a story and to affect people emotionally.
4. Who is your favorite playwright?
Gertrude Stein. I really want to experiment more with form. I intend to continue to work in the German “Freie Szene” or the off-theatre scene. The reality of working at the German state theatres was more restricting than I had thought back in drama school. I think that in order to compete with other kinds of media today and adapt to our changing world, theatre has to change. I think theatre has to explore new forms and search for new methods of storytelling. It is a balancing act of appealing to and challenging audiences. I want to experiment more with bringing artists from different artistic backgrounds (music, dance, graphic arts) together to either tell a story or explore certain questions. I like experimenting with form because this kind of experimentation forces me to put my impressions of the world together in a new way and be more aware of what and how I perceive.
5. Tell us more about the work that you have done on Gertrude Stein?
I loved Gertrude Stein’s idea of trying to create a kind of theatre where the audience exists in the present moment and is a member that is freed from having to understand a story. Stein claimed that if you are trying to understand the story and to tell a story with traditional language, the audience would always think ahead of the action on stage. There is never any connection between the actors and the audience because they do not share the same time. The actors are in the story and the audience is either trying to keep up or think ahead as to what could happen next. So I tried to slow everything down. And I tried to create a theatre piece that was not intent on telling a clear story with a climax, resolution and clear conflict. I wanted moments in the story to emerge slowly and put more of a focus on the language itself and the stage space. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to work with Stein’s language. I treated her text more like a musical score and experimented a lot with my actors to find moments where the rhythm or musicality could take precedence over the transmitting of a simple meaning or story. We tried to do both and switch back and forth. I did not use any specific verbs. But Gertrude Stein did not include many nouns in the play. Characters in “Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights” repeat verbs over and over, like “might” or “bite” or “am” and we found different choreography and vocal exercises to let those verbs come into life.
6. What is the course you are teaching here about?
The course is very much what my life has been about: the differences between German and American Theatre. And what is good acting and directing? In asking these questions about theatre, we are taking these discussions to two different kinds of theatre, acting and directing techniques. The students will first experience method acting and perform an American play called “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Then we will switch to the polar opposite – Bertolt Brecht. The former is about being in the character and the latter is about being out of the character.
Some other prime differences that I feel exist due to state funding for the arts. When there is more funding for the arts, then artists are able to take more artistic risks and enjoy more freedom to experiment without worrying about selling tickets, making a profit, or paying the rent. Germany has the largest state-funded theatre system in the world and artists in the past have been able to take more artistic risks without the pressure of filling the seats. This is slowly starting to change in Germany as the government here is forcing theatres in small towns and Eastern Germany to close.