JoAnne Akalaitis: 'I Don't Consider Myself Avant-Garde'


05 Sep 1997

JoAnne Akalaitis: 'I Don't Consider Myself Avant-Garde'

In her career as a director, now spanning 22 years, JoAnne Akalaitis has infuriated some and delighted others with her non-traditional approach to theatre. Among the infuriated, count Samuel Beckett, who attempted to revoke his permission to do Endgame in 1984 when he discovered that Akalaitis was staging the production (at MA's American Repertory Theatre) in a subway with African-Americans actors.

In her career as a director, now spanning 22 years, JoAnne Akalaitis has infuriated some and delighted others with her non-traditional approach to theatre. Among the infuriated, count Samuel Beckett, who attempted to revoke his permission to do Endgame in 1984 when he discovered that Akalaitis was staging the production (at MA's American Repertory Theatre) in a subway with African-Americans actors.

Akalaitis' doesn't restrict herself to a single period of theatre history. Instead, she mixes and melds styles and periods to create her special brand of post-modernism. Not only is she an acclaimed director of Beckett's work, she has introduced American audiences to the disturbing plays of German playwright Franz Xaver Kroetz. And let's not forget her controversial stint as artistic director at N.Y.'s Public Theatre where she directed such classics as John Ford's 'Tis Pity She's a Whore and Shakespeare's Cymbeline, Henry IV, Parts I & II and Buchner's Woyzech.

Chicago audiences will have an opportunity to experience Akalaitis' original style, when her production of Euripides' The Iphigenia Cycle arrives at the Court Theatre, beginning previews Sept. 5 with a run from Sept. 15 through Oct. 5.

"I don't consider myself 'Avant-garde'," Akalaitis told Playbill On-Line in a recent phone interview, "I think I'm a very classical, old-fashioned director."



When asked about her upcoming production of The Iphigenia Cycle, (her first 'Greek' play), Akalaitis said, "I'm just doing the play that Euripides wrote . . . I think -- the Greeks, there's a grandness about it, but compared to, say, a big Shakespeare play, this is a modest production. It's not a big theatre, so the production should not overwhelm the theatre. The scenery is very simple. I mean, basically, it's stairs, and the clothes are contemporary clothes."

"Modest" and "simple" are two words not usually associated with an Akalaitis production. Is this a different JoAnne Akalaitis? "There's a lot of things that are exciting about this project, there's a video installation in the lobby and that's going to be amazing because it's all of the characters in the play in sort of a fake docu-drama about the House of Atreus. I think it's going to be incredible. So that the lobby is a part of it, and I'm hoping to do some sound installations in the bathroom."

Akalaitis is quick to point out that directing the Greek classics is very different from staging another slice of modern American realism. "It's hard," she said. "It's very hard to direct the Greeks. I think it's a combination of the format's so odd -- it's not what we're used to in theatre -- long speeches then a chorus, then a long speech and a chorus. The subject matter is very wrenching and emotional so that makes it really hard. I mean, I don't think I've ever felt more exhausted and kind of beaten up by a project as I do by this one. But, also, at the same time, very stimulated. So, for a director, the problem is how to make it work."

"The only other experience I've had that was sort of like it was when I directed Woyzech, and I think the form of Woyzech is odd, and the material's very wrenching, and it's new. There's something very new about Euripides and I'm always interested in doing something I haven't done before. I'm not interested in repeating an experience. I'm interested in directing stuff I don't understand."

Akalaitis points out that even after a career that spans more than 20 years, including six Obie awards and numerous prestigious grants, there is no room for nostalgia. "I tend to be in the present. I'm always the most proud of the last show I directed. I tend not to be a historian about myself. But, actually what I'm most proud of is the deep relationships I have with people in the theatre community. I mean, that, for me , is the most precious thing in my life -- not so much the work, but the humanity of it. I have fond memories of every show and I have some not-fond memories of some shows."

Akalaitis, who also teaches at The Juilliard School (which she calls "a pure joy!"), says it's becoming more and more of a challenge as a theatre artist to making a living doing theatre. "I love [the theatre], but I was considering doing something else for a living, like cooking or something, just because it's increasingly -- I know this sounds strange -- but it's increasingly difficult for me to earn my living as a director. In fact, I can't earn my living as a director."

"It's clear to me that I need another source of income," Akalaitis continued, "and I think that's very strange. Because I am a mature artist, considered to have some reputation. And it's not just the case with me. It's the case with many of my colleagues -- we cannot support ourselves directing in theatre. And if I were a lawyer, or a doctor, or even sort of a visual artist -- I would have a decent middle-class life."

Theatre funding is very much on her mind -- but not in the way you you might expect. Asked about the financial future of experimental theatre groups, including N.Y.'s Mabou Mines, which she co-founded, Akalaitis said larger, more mainstream theatre institutions are, paradoxically, in greater danger.

"(When I started in theatre) it was very easy to put a show on, a lot of it having to do with real estate. It was really cheap, you could throw a show up anyplace. I do think that there will always experimental theatre. I'm concerned about bigger institutions whose funding is being cut back, and it means they will do less and that they will do safer projects. And it will be increasingly unusual for a director like myself to be hired by a major institution because they don't want to risk it. And I can't blame them, because they can't! You see things being cut back and you see theatres looking for that one musical that will help them out. I think it's a shame."

"Currently", Akalaitis continued, "I'm sort of inspired by books, and I like music. I listen to a lot of music. . . painting has always been important to me, or sculpture. I've been reading and it's reading in no particular field or order, just odd random reading and it's something I haven't done for a long time. I used to read a lot, then for many years I only read in the field of what it was I was directing. But now, the glory! I mean, last summer, I read Anna Karenina and War and Peace again and it was so much fun. And last month, I read A Tale of Two Cities and I thought it was incredible, it's really fun to go back to literature."

"Like many people in theatre I'm not interested in anyone else's work. I have to say I'm sort of more interested in certain designers, but I'm not interested in other directors and I don't think other directors are interested in me. So that's fine. I'm not that inspired by theatre."

Theatre may not be that inspiring for Akalaitis, Opera seems to be featured in her future plans . "I'm directing an opera, Katia Katanoba, by Janacek (for my next project). Then, I'm doing a piece about Jack Kerouac, sort of my own piece for the Humana festival and I'm hoping to do a piece with (ex-husband/composer) Philip Glass, a sort of mini opera group with string quartets, based on Kafka's Penal Colony."

Akalaitis' production of The Iphigenia Cycle will be at Chicago's Court Theatre, beginning previews Sept. 5 with a run from Sept. 15 through Oct. 5.

-- By Sean McGrath