news, updates, and conversations from Volcano Theatre

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Q&A with Michela Sisti

Michela Sisti is working with Ross as  as the Assistant Director for Century Song through Theatre Ontario's Professional Theatre Training Program. Michela takes us behind the scenes as she learns more about creating experimental, interdisciplinary theatre here in Toronto: 

Michela Sisti

Q:Why did you want to work with Ross Manson on Century Song for this training opportunity?

A: I want to get really good at creating interdisciplinary theatre.  I started directing when I was living abroad in London and I began by staging plays quite conservatively.  Then I got into devising work with actors and found it incredibly nourishing and eye opening.  The realization that we can make anything, do anything, speak anything we want was utterly revolutionary to me. What I learned from our experiences was creating good theatre that honours all of the talents involved in the creation process is difficult. It’s difficult and it is worth spending the rest of my foreseeable future learning to get it right.

My first encounter with Ross’s work was going to see A Synonym for Love. It was opera uncorseted, gleefully liberated from proscenium arch-land and it was genuinely playful.  I loved it.  I moved to the UK the following year and it was there that I began reading up on Volcano’s other shows.  This company was kick-ass.  Not only were they bringing together music, movement, strong visuals and spoken dialogue in their work, they were also crafting their shows around poetry, history, science, and things that were happening to people in our world, now.  I kept thinking to myself, this is what art is supposed to be: absolutely bottomless.  The small, the big, everything in between.  Life is too short.  While I’m here, I want to make some of that!

Putting on a piece of theatre is kind of like inviting a whole neighborhood of people over to your home for dinner. Some of these people might be old friends; most are complete strangers.  Your job as the host is to serve up a fresh, well-made meal.  (I might have stolen that phrase from Mike Alfreds.) By the end of this meal you might want your guests to feel nourished.  Or you might want to leave your guests not quite satisfied and wanting more. You might want to give your guests a burst of inspiration, that could cause them leave half-way through the dinner in order to cook up their own suppers. You might want to delight your guests with the array of flavors you’ve drawn together, or the presentation.  (Some of those flavors might turn people off - that’s cool, you’re not going please everyone.)  People might be stimulated, galvanized, provoked by the dinner conversation. Whatever goes on at that table it’s the relationship with the people you’ve reached out to and who’ve come, that has to be honoured. When people are taken for granted, ignored, forgotten, art can become tyrannical and abusive.  This is something I want to try to stay vigilant about.

Q: What have been some of the highlights of the experience so far?

A: The people! Playing around together with ideas! Problem solving!

Century Song’s final development week was focused on reinterpreting a movement from Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, which will be replacing a semi-improvised musical section from the show’s previous run.

Messiaen’s quartet was originally written for piano, violin, cello and clarinet.  The challenge was to reinterpret the piece for piano, soprano voice and whatever else the combined musical genius of Gregory, Deb and Neema could come up with.

In the B section of the chosen movement, "Vocalise, for the Angel who announces the end of time", a cello and violin drift along the same winding staircase of notes, in their upper registers, three octaves apart from each other, in pure, sustained tones. 

Early in the process the team decided that Neema would sing the cello line on a pure vowel. After a bit of experimenting, it turned out an ‘oo’ sounded best. But what instrument would sing above her? 

The team came up with an eccentric list of candidates: the Theremin (a contact-less instrument you play by manipulating an electromagnetic field with your hands!), the musical saw, the Ondes Martenot (1920s synthesizer) and an array of sounds Deb conjured up on his computer.  We had two restrictions to work with. The first was a practical one: whatever was chosen would have to be something Deb could realistically learn to play between now and the performance. The second restriction was artistic: if we were going to honour the original piece Messiaen had written, we would need to have two joined voices, moving as reflections of each other over the glass footsteps of the piano line.  So we needed to find a sound that had the same bare, vibrato-stripped quality of Neema’s "oo"s.

Finally this idea was proposed: Neema would sing with… herself! 

Deb had found a way of capturing Neema’s voice through a microphone and producing a live, three-octave-higher, Neema doppelganger.  Fun! Brilliant!

I learned early on that a big idea expressed during Volcano’s development process is a wonderful, dangerous thing.

In Volcano-land Ross and the team give ideas the dignity of formal experiment.  The idea is put into action and tested.  A hundred and one questions emerge, and offshoots of offshoots of questions, which are tested in turn.

Neema Bickersteth
Photo by John Lauener 

Q: What moment in the show takes your breath away?

A: Neema’s semi-improvised ‘Blood Dance.’  I watched it first through a computer screen - Ross had given me a recording of the Ottawa performance to look at  - and it was one of those moments when you have to pause the video and ask, did I just see what I just saw?

When I attended the final development week of Century Song I saw part of the dance live, with the percussion rattling and cracking through the room. Witnessing the live performance was a whole other experience– much more visceral. You feel in your own body the sonic vibrations that are moving the performer.  And there was a meditative quality to Neema throughout all this, in spite of the frenzied nature of the dance, which drew all the explosive energies of sound and movement to one deadly centre. It was as if a vortex has been created on stage.

The Blood Dance percussion now rips out of the tranquil, undulating belly of Messiaen’s  "Vocalise, for the Angel who announces the end of time".  And Neema now wears a boiler suit and a red head-wrap – the uniform of a female munitions factory worker of WWII.

The sum of all these images is grim, but there is something regenerating in conjuring up these events of from past into the present, and all of us looking at them, together, in the face.

On a lighter note, wait till you get a load of the fettFilm animation. I defy any jaw that does not drop and swing from its hinges.

Q: What artist from the past century do you wish more people knew about?

A: I think a lot of the artists whose works I love are already pretty well known…or at least within the circles of the people who like them!  Two 20th century composers I keep coming back to are Gyorgy Ligeti and Arvo Pärt. Both composers have this ability to dissolve a room with their music. Ligeti builds landscapes of sound that take you hostage. When I listen to his Atmospheres or his Requiem I feel as though I am being pulled deeper and deeper through shifting, transforming worlds.  And then Pärt – it’s as if the man composes with light!  There is a beauty and a spiritual clarity to his music that demolishes anything peripheral, that lays everything else to rest. 

I would love to take an armful of art and music and literature from the 20th century and drop it into the lap of a completely different era from the past and see what people make of it.   What conclusions would they draw about us?  What would they reject? What would they be moved by?  I think it would only be worth the time travel if I were allowed to get in on the communal art discovering.

Q: What moment from the past century do you wish you had witnessed?

A: Excellent, more time travel!

I actually don’t know if I’ve ever wished to be present as a witness during moment from the past century. So much of what comes to mind when I first hear the words 20th century is the stuff of nightmares – wars, genocides, state terror, mass disillusionment, environmental degradation.  But then, on the other hand, the 20th century also brings to mind people who were brave and compassionate, people who had visions of a better world and who devoted their lives to creating the good kind of change.

This prompt question is actually a really good exercise because it essentially gets you to be honest with yourself about how you want to be spending your time now, in the present moment.

My first instinct is to go somewhere quiet. I would transport myself to a forest somewhere, in the early hours of the morning, 1921, let’s say. There’d be a lake. And I think there would be no people around. I would want to see the world without human markers of time.

But then, I could stand in a forest anytime I wanted and pretend it is 1921!

Second instinct is to drop myself on a large city’s busiest city street corner at the turn of the century. Can I make it a world tour of busiest street corners? 

Third instinct is – no, I actually don’t want to visit distant ancestors in rural Italy.

I just want to find some one I could talk to, really.  I think I want the peace of knowing we are all existing/we have all existed together on this earth.  I don’t want to feel alone in time.