Beverly Blankenship is a professor at the mdw’s Department of Vocal Studies and Music Theatre. In this interview, she explains why you need thick skin to work as a director, how rehearsals run in an international ensemble, what she’s learned from her students, and what she thinks of German-language “director’s theatre”.
What personal qualities do you need in order to work as a director?
Beverly Blankenship (BB): You need a huge dose of conviction: you have to absolutely want to direct, so you’ll be strong enough to handle criticism and setbacks. You’ve got to be able to bounce back, because you’ll inevitably get tons of stuff thrown at you. At the same time, team spirit and a love of theatre or opera are also important. As well as curiosity about the world and about ways of transforming it onstage. In theatre, you can’t afford to be a hermit.
Did it used to be more difficult to gain recognition, as a woman?
BB: It was nearly impossible. Back when I started out, I was the first woman to direct in most places where I worked. And lots of artistic directors fought it—they would have preferred to engage men. That’s another case, I think, where you need to be very thick-skinned. Even if it’s since become easier for women, of course—and we now have lots of young, gifted women stage directors. Still, this profession is a tough one: you have to weather a lot while remaining sensitive in terms of the art itself. I see just how much of a challenge this tightrope act is with my students, as well. Some of them are extremely talented, but I can’t know whether they’ll have the necessary strength for the job.
You’re currently working on the Purcell opera King Arthur with your directing class. What kind of process is it? Do you spend lots of time talking together around a table, or do you quickly switch over to trying out actual scenes?
BB: Everyone does this differently; I begin rehearsing pretty early. In part for pragmatic reasons: I have a lot of students whose German isn’t that great—they come from Japan, Thailand, Korea, Taiwan, Finland, Iceland. Being such an international bunch, it doesn’t make much sense to spend forever talking. So we discuss things using our bodies. I’ve worked out a method that we use to communicate where I say: “Show me what you thinking of, a scene or an image.” And by the way: sitting around a table is something you do in spoken theatre. We start out by sitting around a piano!
What’s your interpretation of this baroque opera going to be like?
BB: We’ve invented a new and pretty crazy version. Most operas are set in stone, monolithic; you hardly have a chance to change anything. In opera, you have a lot less freedoms than in theatre. But King Arthur is a semi-opera: spoken drama interspersed with sung scenes. So I thought it would be a good thing to experiment with.
It used to be enough for the singers to sing well; great acting was the exception. But that’s since changed quite a bit.
BB: In the opera class, students learn that they have to both sing and act. I have great people at the university, and I’m in a good position to help them because I studied acting myself and have also worked in spoken theatre. And I come from a family of opera singers, so I know both sides of this work: performing and directing. That’s a useful background to have, as a teacher.
What have you learned from your work with students?
BB: Directors are like little Napoleons: they want to hold all the strings in their hands. But my teaching activities have taught me that I don’t have to control everything all the time. I can let go and say: “You’ve got talent, so just go for it. I’ll trust you to do good work.” In King Arthur, two of my directing students and myself are responsible for the end result. And the students are bringing a lot of youth and freshness to the table, which acquaints me with entirely new worlds.
Did you always want to teach?
BB: It just sort of happened—and I’ve actually been teaching ever since I was 26. At first, I did it because I got asked, but after a while, I started wanting it for myself because it’s fun. Opera is expensive: actual productions are subject to great pressure, so I found doing workshops relaxing. You knew that you could experiment, play around with things. And many of my directing ideas arose while teaching at universities.
Are there differences in teaching between Europe and the USA or Australia?
BB: The Anglo-Saxon world really is quite different. And it’s more in tune with how I teach: I’m about teamwork, self-responsibility, and trying out various differing styles. In Australia, it always astounds me just how independent singers and actors are. They approach you with great ideas. In the German-speaking world, on the other hand, the director’s role is often overestimated; the product gets too intellectualised. But theatre is above all a magical place where people breathe together. And in our digital world, that’s really precious.
But strong directorial concepts are something that German-language theatre is known for throughout the world.
BB: Sure, but concepts aren’t enough: theatre has to be filled with life. I don’t think that people in ancient times were absolutely dying to see Antigone no matter what. It was a sad play that made you cry. But the audience back then merely got tormented, not scorned. And it got told a story. I think that no matter how difficult a play or an opera may be, it’s essential to take the audience along on a journey—so that they’ll discuss the content and not who was directing. Because concepts aren’t the objective; they’re just a tool you use to approach the content.
– who did two of the photo shoots for this issue of mdw Magazine, completed her bachelor’s degree in Instrumental and Voice Education (recorder) with honours and is currently studying for a performance degree in recorder at the MUK. She devotes herself to her main line of work, photography, with similar enthusiasm. Both interests are long-running ones, and she finds it easy to combine them in everyday life. “I need both passions in order to exist. They go hand-in-hand and provide me with constant nourishment.” www.theresapewal.com