Ed Atkins and Steven Zultanski on their bold new piece
Andre Durbin: How did you meet and when did your collaboration begin?
Ed Atkins: We both moved to Copenhagen around the same time and quickly became friends. When Rikke Hedeager, the head playwright of the city’s Revolver Theatre, approached me about putting on a production there, the idea of inviting Steve came very quickly and very easily. I was careful not to superimpose some kind of contemporary art project on a theater set, but rather to take the invitation and the specific context at face value, and approach it as an opportunity to do something something new: writing, designing and directing a play.
Steven Zultansky: We wrote the script (Wizard, 2022) in novel form, and at some point we’ll probably publish it as such. It’s full of digressions, confusing formal changes, and descriptions of actions that don’t happen in the play. We see the project as moving through media – theatre, dance, literature.
AD: Wizard is divided into two halves, both of which you describe – in the treatment of the piece – as “quiet, intimate and slightly awkward”. I’m curious about this awkwardness, something that traditional theater often wants to avoid. We hate when an actor stumbles, misses a line, does something off-script – it’s disturbing, anxiety-provoking. Why make a clumsy game?
SZ: We wrote Wizard over the past two years. For much of that time, due to the pandemic, we saw no one but close friends. We were hanging out all the time and, even if nothing new was happening, we kept talking; that’s how we stayed afloat. We recorded some of those evenings and used them to build the dialogue in the play. The transcriptions are clunky and meandering, but also utterly comfortable, placid.
Part of the awkwardness stems from its resemblance to life itself, but it’s also an aesthetic preference that stems from our interest in art film and documentary. We both tend to appreciate extreme virtuosity as well as things not designed, unedited, or deliberately spoiled. For this, we wanted the piece to oscillate between faithfulness, between naturalistic action and wading artifice.
AE: This is something that I have long transposed into other media: the awkwardness that arises from the fundamental volatility of a body that is there – or, in my case, from the heretical simulation of that volatility. My work attempts to reuse the awkwardness endemic to live theatre, in order to draw attention to other types of failing performances and representations. I had an exhibition at the Museum für Moderne Kunst in Frankfurt a few years ago titled Corpseand the specific break that that term evokes – an actor breaking character – is pretty much the effect that governs most formal decisions in my videos and writing.
Likewise, everything on stage in Wizard will be mic. Every creak and stutter will be excessively audible; these auditory coincidences of the performative action will be made evident. One of the things I’ve learned from using animation is the outsized role that sound plays in making things materialize, in making things materialize.
AD: What were some of the theatrical, cinematographic or literary precedents for you?
AE: There are so many. Steve and I constantly talk about our work and the things that inspire us. Our common affinities allow us to speak a common language: they allow us to work with a certain presumed understanding, and without needing to explain too much.
SZ: Chantal Akerman, Pina Bausch, John Cassavetes, Cornholio [from Beavis and Butt-Head, 1993–2011]Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, Jacques Tati, Apichatpong Weerasethakul…
AE: … and Robert Bresson. In that vein, we also love a lot of young songwriters and musicians who work with home sounds and everyday field recordings, like Derek Baron, who does a lot of tracks that sound like friends hanging out and playing music. They have a YouTube channel where you can watch them sight-read 18th-century chorales by Johann Sebastian Bach; something about the combination of Bach’s insurmountable compositional virtuosity and the meticulous, yet slow and broken nature of Derek’s sight-reading makes it a terrific example of what we’re talking about – what really appeals to us .
SZ: We are also interested and inspired by the social effects of intimacy – how it actually feels to be intimate. How the comfort of his closest friends can also be a kind of automation. When you really love others and see them often, you act like automatons together. You don’t have to be smart and the conversation can be a little empty. There is a nice paradox between extreme intimacy and almost empty conversation.
AE: I think it’s related but the opposite of awkwardness. The angst of an actor stumbling or a performance falling apart is about as far removed from that vacated intimacy between friends as I can imagine. Although they are brought closer by the transposition of such intimacy to the stage.
AD: How did the actors modify – and develop – this intimacy?
SZ: The actors – Lotte Andersen, Peter Christoffersen and Ida Cæcilie Rasmussen – quickly found the way to a warm and naturalistic interaction, as if they weren’t even acting. Rehearsals mostly involved the detail work of establishing the tone, then figuring out where it might be broken or overdone. In the second half, Peter is alone on stage, in a sort of solo dance performance, so for him there is the added challenge of finding that intimacy with himself. He works closely with choreographer Nønne Svalholm to both remember and forget his body.
AE: The scene summons and in a way models the intimate. It’s a small, naturalistic apartment interior, but with several showy effects that serve as psychological and sensory substitutes: just in the background stands a bed with endlessly twisting covers; and there’s a huge mirror screen on the back of the set, ready to dramatically magnify anything placed in front of it. Transposing the intimate to the stage to Wizard has meant, in part, the use of theatrical technologies to metaphorize it.
Main image: Peter Christoffersen rehearsing for Wizard (2022). Courtesy: © Ed Atkins and Steven Zultanski