What can a 17th century Spanish novel lend to the 1980s feminist scene? Based off of Kathy Acker’s revolutionary 1986 novel Don Quixote: Which Was a Dream, To Name Herstory subverts gender roles and adds sex appeal to the classic tale. NTGent’s current production, directed by Florian Fischer, takes Acker’s nominal work as a starting point to achieve considerable shock value. On the opening night a month ago, it’s safe to say every audience member felt the electricity, as Fischer’s creation oozed with raw emotions and power-plays. It’s your last chance to catch the jaw-dropping production, and Fischer gives his own interrogative take on Acker’s intentions and discusses the challenges of transforming her work into theatre for the occasion.
What were your performance’s starting points?
It all started a few years ago, when I stumbled upon one of Kathy Acker’s texts in an exhibition about bodybuilding, next to huge photographs of Arnold Schwarzenegger and pumped-up guys. The text in question was about bodybuilding studios, where she wrote about the impossibility of using language in these spaces – the only thing you can utter is either repetitive counting or moans and groans. The omnipresent gaze is speaking to the body, and the body back to the gaze. Kathy, herself being a rather petite person, trained in a studio too. She wanted to rewrite her own body, give it a more muscular Y-shape – it was all about power with her. The power you have over yourself and sometimes others. But that’s more in terms of sex.
Did you have any preconceived directions you wanted to give the performance?
We really wanted to follow Acker’s proposition in a way that would involve us in the discourse: not by reinterpreting her text, but rather by amplifying her voice without adding a layer of interpretation, or trying to own the discourse. We basically tried to erase ourselves by phonetically re-enacting someone else’s voice.
Where did the research initially take you?
Deep into her oeuvre… I read everything she wrote, from her novels to poems, correspondences and even critiques for an art forum. I wanted to get her taste and became totally obsessed with her. I think her own obsessive behaviour infected me and I couldn’t let go until the day of the premiere. Now I’m finally able to leave my house without always carrying one of her books in my bag. It feels light!
She never handed herself over to the illusion that language can be understood exactly the same by everyone.
How would you describe the novel that is used as a starting point?
Something like mistresspiece.
In a more general sense, how would you describe Kathy Acker’s work, her approach and aesthetic?
She’s always been labeled as a punk feminist writer hailing from New York. I myself would call her a poet, especially in regards to the language she uses and the manner in which she builds up a narration. Using her own words, she writes in a language “on the edge”: her sentences have multiple meanings and reference points. She never handed herself over to the illusion that language can be understood in exactly the same way by everyone. My blue will always be a different blue to yours. She writes on the unreliability of language, and works on depicting the complexities of the world as we know it, rather than reduce it to a kind of a one-dimensional male, rational clarity. Also, she goes against psycho-realism, which makes me really happy. I’ve had my fair share of Faulkner, Roth and Auster and am totally bored with the lame idea that a character goes from a to b, with an irreversible and analogically connectable transitional phase. I think all these features present in her writing are way more about the reader: the need for close interpretation is what makes her work intriguing and sucks the audience in so much.
From research to scenography, can you discuss the various different people involved in the performance? How closely did you work with them?
It’s not my piece, but rather ours. It’s super important for me to be able to collaborate with well-rounded artists. There’s a notion in theatre that someone like the scenographer doesn’t necessarily have to be an artist, but rather more of a craftsman because they’ll need to fulfil the wishes of the director, or even worse the author. I reject this idea, and enjoy other people’s desires to draw me into places and situations I was never aware of. Sometimes I can be hesitant or reluctant initially, but I learn to adapt – in this way my tastes and horizons widen.
It’s a hardcore avant-garde novel that might be more of a poem.
Can you talk to us about the selection of the text?
It’s a hardcore avant-garde novel that might be more of a poem. It’s annoying to read – a real pain. But then, when you work through it you come to realise how brilliant it is and appreciate the many levels of understanding, interpretation, sources, and intonations it has to offer.
How easy, or not, was it to assemble a new piece from it?
I tried it several times alone at home and failed every time: all my attempts were clearly domesticating Acker’s text in order to make it straightforward, consequently removing the qualities that made it such a special book in the first place. So I brought the book to the rehearsal space and simply said, “This is our material,” motivating the team to start working really hard to get it done.
As a director, how important is your relationship with the actors?
It means everything – at the end of the day, they are the ones who’ll be standing on stage. It’s my role to make them dare to do things they wouldn’t normally. However, I’m not the kind of director who needs to be friends with their actors; I like to keep it professional with a lot of empathy and love for what they’re doing. I feel extremely grateful to be the only person they are playing for during rehearsals, when they perform in an empty theatre and I”m their only audience. Crazy, isn’t it?
What do you feel is the performance’s main statement?
With no speech, I speak. It’s doing the impossible – and that’s beautiful.
If I had to formulate what the audience should to take from it, I would probably highly underestimate them. I don’t want to produce theatre with a specific takeaway.
And how do you feel it fits in with your oeuvre in a more general sense?
Difficult question. To be honest I try not to think about “my oeuvre” – I prefer listening to external perspectives, mainly because they’ll diminish it anyways by giving it meaning and reducing it to something legible. I can’t read myself, but someone from the outside can identify a certain linearity and a psychology in my work. This individual in turn might feel happy because they’ve tamed the world a little bit more.
What do you hope the audience will get from visiting it?
Everyone will get something different. If I had to formulate what the audience should take from it, I would probably highly underestimate them. I don’t want to produce theatre with a specific takeaway – that’s nonsense. If that is what you’re looking for, you can always go see a Hollywood movie or even go to a shopping mall.
On a more personal level, how has working on this performance enriched your understanding of Kathy Acker’s work?
It’s funny because the material is very intimidating. My initial feelings were fear and insecurity – and they never left. The first time the actors read Acker’s work at the rehearsal space, they all expressed their fears. Instead of overpainting society with some we are all equal mantra, her work encourages you to endure the reality, which is clearly about inequality and injustice.
Instead of overpainting society with some “we are all equal” sentence, her work encourages you to endure the reality, which is clearly about inequality and injustice.
And of (feminist) literature more generally?
Kathy wasn’t really liked by her feminist contemporaries. She had a pretty strenuous relationship with Andrea Dworkin, for example. For every book Acker released, there’s a sequence against her ideology.
Would you say any influences or references played a major role in shaping the performance?
I think the presence of the people who were at the rehearsal or preparation space was way more important than any kind of genius artist’s influence. It’s all about the people.
As a director, how do you select the themes you work on?
The process is quite similar to when I’m curating: first, I get excited by something I read or see, dedicating time to it. I mainly try to learn to follow my desires and develop the ability to carry them out, without getting denominated on the way. I basically think that everyone has the ability to act upon one’s desire – circumstances just cover it up, and normative behaviour or the punishment of normative relationships means that they become hard to follow through.