Simon McBurney


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Simon McBurney and Theatre de Complicite
Dramaturgical Research by Cam M. Roberts

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Simon McBurney

  1. 1. Cam M. Roberts March, 2011 THE 381: Directing Workshop Prof. Sharon Andrews On Directing – Director Presentation Simon McBurney: “At the beginning of the 1990’s, the mainstream British stage seemed to be the provinceof directors and designers. On the fringes, the initiative had passed from writers to performancegroups whose work crossed generic and artistic boundaries (Forced Entertainment, Blast Theory,DV8 Physical Theatre and Theatre de Complicite). The work of these and similar companieshad an explicitly international dimension. […] Theatre de Complicite were schooledperformance techniques developed by Jacques Lecoq in France” (Luckhurst, ed., 392). “In 2004 the London-based theatre company Complicite, under director SimonMcBurney, presented a production of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure at the NationalTheatre, London. McBurney began rehearsals with an exercise whereby the cast would line upacross the stage. Those in any particular scene would step forward and deliver the words outfront, speaking directly to the audience rather than their colleagues onstage. The exercise revealsstructures and patterns in the play and establishes the basis for a more direct contact with theaudience. It also treats the play in terms of its various ‘bytes’ of information, a series ofcomponents rather than an organic whole” (Luckhurst, ed., 556). “The play is set in Vienna. The metropolis of Complicite’s production was a city-statesubject to modern surveillance technologies. A cameraman wandered around the stage, filmingthe action for a lived feed to on-stage TV monitors. This suggested both the apparatus ofcontemporary news media and a more insidious surveillance function, policing the play’s varioussuspects and criminals. Prisoners wore orange jumpsuits that directly evoked the politicalprisoners held by the US in Guantanamo Bay, a contemporary reference underscored when the
  2. 2. image of George Bush popped up on the TV screens. This might be thought an obvious and easycultural reference, but I think the effect is more deeply embedded. The stage is nicelyintertextual, combing old and new modes of theatre and resonant icons of modern culture. Itslinkages produce a feel for the production, to do with the sense of arbitrariness that hangs overthe operations of justice (an evident theme of the play) and the reach of the state into personallives” (Luckhurst, ed., 556). “Meanwhile the stage remediates its own performance, playing back through TVmonitors and projections onto the floor parts of the speeches and movements of characters. Theaudience gets a different viewing-angle on parts of the action, but also the sense that this is aworld of fractured and multiple perspectives where no single position hold (unless through thediktat of those in power). The production, then, is prism-like, refracting its characters and theirstatements through a hypermediated mise en scene” (Luckhurst, 556). “As its name suggest, the Wrestling School has developed a distinctly physical style ofperformance; and in this, although their techniques are very different, Barker’s work parallels thenew form of theatre represented by Simon McBurney and the Theatre de Complicite…” (Innes,ed., 510). “As with [Caryl Churchill’s] The Skryker where words take on non-logical forms, theresult is a style of performance drama or physical theatre, which has proved one of the mostproduction lines of development over the final decade leading into the millennium. In this itcorresponds with the work of performance-artists like Simon McBurney” (Innes, ed., 528).
  3. 3. Collisions by Simon McBurney [Director’s Note to Mnemonic (October 1999)] “This show is being made through extraordinary and intricate collisions. Collisionsbetween the actors who have used material from their own lives and integrated it with the show.A collision with the words […]. A collision with the work of long time Theatre de Complicitecollaborators…” (Methuen). “Collisions too, between the living and the dead. My father was an archaeologist, aspecialist in the Paleolithic and perhaps something of my wonder at the immensity of the past, onof the most startling discovers of modern times, fins its origin in the stories he told me. Andwhen I hear of new archaeological discoveries, new stories they not only exert the shock of thenew, but also a feeling of recognition. They stimulate my sense of memory. But not merely apersonal memory of my father whose stories are embedded into my childhood. Rather a sense ofstrange familiarity with the very ancient” (Methuen). “Certain bits of music have the same effect. A folk song from an entirely different culturecan suddenly appear very close […]. They’re popular perhaps because they evoke a feeling ofrecognition” (Methuen). “These feeling of recognition, these mnemonic associations have formed part of theresearch we have all undertaken in this project. As a result we cross borders, times, andcontinents attempting to piece together linking strands and thoughts from very different sources.One tiny fragment will set off another. One element of one story will collide with its opposite.In much the same way as we might reassemble a memory from the past or fashion a hope for thefuture. Fragmentary, elliptical, and fleeting” (Methuen). “We live in a time where stories surround us. Multiple stories. Constantly. Fragmentedby television, radio, print, the internet, calling to us from every hoarding and passing us by onevery street corner. We no longer live in a world of the single tale. So the shards of stories wehave put together, some long some shorter, collide here in the threatre, reflecting repeating, andrevolving like the act of memory itself.” (Methuen). “Like all Theatre de Complicite shows this is a new departure. We are searching anotherform to tell our stories. It is not finished. It represents a point of departure rather than adestination. For it is only with the final collision and act of collaboration, that of the one withyou the audience, that we will be able to complete the work. You are, therefore, in a sense alsocritical to the creative development of this project” (Methuen).
  4. 4. Simon McBurney – May, 2003 [Prologue to Complicite, Plays: 1] “In all of the pieces, we are far from a reality that we might think of as ‘ours’ […].Perhaps it is that they are all to do with memory, people remembering things. In The Street ofCrocodiles Joseph remembers when he smells the book he is reading. For Jean in Lucie Cabrol,it is the heat of the fire which brings back the dead and in Mnemoni the physical sensation ofbeing alone in your room in the middle of the night unable to sleep, produces the cascade ofmemories and associations about love and loss. The physical stimulation of memory in a generalhuman experience, common to us all, but it evokes something that is unique to each of us. Itdefines who we are in life and is also our point of contact with the dead.” “They are all compositional pieces that came about through a process of collaboration.[…] they were developed through chaotic and continually evolving rehearsals that involvedimprovisation, argument, writing, rewriting despair and hope. They represent the work of morethan fifty people, coming together over a period of seven years. They were developed as theywere performed. And they have been performed in countries all over the world to audiences whothen influence the way we remake the shows the next time we play. With each change, be theynew actors, new technicians, new producers or new audiences, fresh insights emerge, newdirections are discovered and pointed out. In this way, the pieces have become meeting points,destinations, points de departs (points of departure), we could even say they have become placesin themselves.” “All the pieces are about a common sense of dis-placement. An experience of loss, of akind of banishment specific to our time. The gathering darkness in the stories also prophesies allthat was to be obliterated after… death. […] searching to uncover more distant death… serves tofocus a common desire to know ‘Where do I come from?’” “In the past a sense of belonging was obtained through a continuity of history and theunchanging nature of place. Those who were stationary tended to think of the experience ofdisplacement belonging to the emigrant. But as I have travelled and performed it seems to methat this sensation of ‘homelessness’ – of a rupture with the past, a kind of dismantling of history
  5. 5. and experience – is not only that of the emigrant, forced through economic, social and politicalviolence to tear up all that is known and move to start a new life elsewhere. It seems, now, to bea common experience, a product of our time. Perhaps it is best describe as a loss of continuitybetween the past and the future; a loss of connection between our dead and those yet to be born.And, perhaps, this sensation of loss is what brought the people who made these pieces to thesame space, the site of these plays. It is one of the things that has joined us with audienceseverywhere.” “… the act of collective imagination itself creates a site.” “What can grow on this site of loss? It is strange to suggest that these pieces aresomething as static as a ‘site’, since they are constantly shifting and moving. As are the peopleinvolved in their creation. So if they are ‘sites’ or places in themselves then they are places ofpassage. Passing places. Such as you find on single track roads in the mountains. When a drivetravelling in the opposite direction is forced to give way to allow both to continue their journeys,there is a curiously intimate moment of contact as one waits and the other passes. What ismarvelous is not the passing but what passes between; passed through the look, theacknowledgement, the gesture. And travelling with these pieces to many places in the world it isthis which creates a sense of belonging. What passes between. The pieces become part of a kindof nomad hospitality. As a collaborator I have constantly received this hospitality from myfellow makers, and as a performer it is something I have received from audiences everywhere.This is why I can feel at home almost anywhere. It is also why I feel I can go on.” “This is not simply a personal phenomenon but also reflects and expresses the time weare living in. The feeling of rupture is being modified maybe transcended by a new sense ofintimacy across great distances. To simply call it communication is to underestimate it. It ispassing of secrets. In the same way our forebears attended to the essential needs that gavemeaning to their lives, perhaps we need to give this passing communication the same quality ofattention – the attention that was once given to the eternal” (Methuen Drama, ix-x).
  6. 6. INTERVIEW [1999 – Giannachi & Luckhurst (On Directing: Interviews with Directors)] “Simon McBurney, an actor and writer, was born in Cambridge in 1957. He studied English at Cambridge University and trained at the Jacques Lecoq school in Paris. In 1982 he co-founded Theatre de Complicite with Annabel Arden and Marcello Magni; he is Artistic Director of the Company. His work with Complicite includes: Put It On Your Head (1983), A Minute Too Late (1984), More Bigger Snacks Now (1985), FoodStuff (1986), Please Please Please (1986), Alice in Wonderland (1987), Anything for a Quiet Life (1987), The Visit (1989, Almeida, Royal National Theatre, Riverside Studios), My Army Parts One and Two (1989), The Winter’s Tale (1992), The Street of Crocodiles (1992-4, Royal National Theatre and West End), The Three Lives of Lucie Cabrol (1994), Out of a House Walked a Man (1994, co-production with the Royal National Theatre) and The Caucasian Chalk Circle (1997, Royal National Theatre).What is your starting point as a director? “The sensation is that I start with nothing because nothing exists. The beginning, the origin of a piece of theatre is never clear, even if it is an established play, because the play consists of words on a page and this in itself does not qualify those words as theatre. The words may appear to be something substantial in themselves, but they are not. How many time have I been to a performance of a Shakespeare plays and had the feeling that the play itself was not good because the theatre wasn’t good? There is a curious and very different sensation when you apparently have something in your hands – a play – and when you have nothing but fragments, scraps, and imaginings when you are devising; yet strangely I feel I start from the same place: until I start to feel and experience something, there is nothing. I often ask myself what the origin is for doing piece and I have to conclude that there is no origin: If you start looking for a single point of departure you will never find it – as historians we all impose a neat structure on the past. One of the things I find interesting about the beginning of a piece is what pushed my desire in the first place; I’ll have an impulse and during rehearsals I’ll go miles and miles away from it only to return to it, to revisit and refine the point of departure. The beginning of a piece is something to do with our relationship with time, and this is one of the principal concerns in my work. The beginning is always now. I’m not being deliberately obscure when I say this, I’m always struck by how a piece of theatre varies from night to night, and by how much it is made anew. That crucial percentage of difference has an enormous impact in the minds of the audience. I’ve made pieces that I’ve imagined would be continually successful and then suddenly I find that they don’t function as I thought they would. So the beginning of a piece invokes an incredible tentativeness within me. The ideas that I originally had disappear once work begins. I think I have to say that the work itself is the beginning; it’s only when you ‘do’ that imaginings become reality. Many directors work out everything in advance, and this
  7. 7. kind of theatre is constricted by a straitjacket of ideas and concepts, having no natural relationship to itself, no natural growth.”What do you mean by ‘natural growth’? “When I started working on Daniel Kharm’s piece Out of a House Walked a Man (1994) no one could believe that I didn’t have a script. Where you begin is where you try to prepare the ground, and for three weeks I prepared people. One morning I put half an hour of the show together in fifteen minutes. This could not have happened unless people’s reservoirs had been filled, unless those people had found out what they had in common. What filled reservoir was a ‘common language’, and what these people had in common was an ‘openness’, which allows for growth and development. This is what I mean by ‘natural’ and what the ‘preparation’ was about. At this point it is also important to make a clear distinction between what is ‘natural’ and the style of naturalism. Naturalism is a style in way that melodrama and commedia dell’arte are styles: they are point of arrival and closure, not point of departure. I am talking about the process that happens before the imposition of style. If you cultivate a garden and you plant too many things in it before you have given it a chance to breath, the garden will become choked up and will never achieve its own life. The classical Augustan ideas that you can impose an order on nature and that nature will bend to the human will have disappeared. There is disillusion with the Romantic ideals. We live in times of an unbelievable desire for certainty generated by the notion of the economic free market. In our desire for economic certainties we have lost the sense of time or space to allow for uncertainties. It’s not for nothing that people in theatre work for years with the same collaborators. In this sense the beginning is very important; it is a problematic situation in theatre today because we’ve taken away the centre of theatre – we come at it attempting to predict the outcome. Thus a producer has an idea and goes to a director and designer, who help shape it, then they find an actor and they fill in the rest of the company around that actor. I’m not saying that this system can’t work, but on the whole it squeezes the lifeblood out of the theatre and it works against the natural origins of a piece. In this system the writer has a strange satellite position in the work. Often the writer is no the starting-point, and when the writer is brought in he or she is curiously disassociated from the work because everyone assumes that their work is finished once rehearsal start. There can also be an over-reverence for a text, when people argue that the script is a bible and cannot be diverged from in any way. The structure of work which appears more natural to me is to begin by acknowledging that the company of actor has life of its own which cannot be denied, unless you are a life-denying director. It is the uncertainty, which brings life, which, of course, is why you work for a long time with the same collaborators. Only through the establishment of trust can you venture into uncertainty. If you start from the company of actors together with the script, you admit that whatever the piece is, it is a combination of things and does not come about through the exclusion of one or the other. It is right that the director enables this growth to take place. The designer tills the ground and landscapes it accordingly, and finally the producer enables this piece to be put on. I don’t want to be misunderstood on this point.
  8. 8. I’m talking about the acknowledgement of priorities; a belief in the source of something which needs to be nurtured into life rather than pollarded into a stunted and forced shape. I’m fascinated by this notion of the origin of a piece of work. In 1981 Neil Bartlett and I made a piece of street theatre called Beach Buoys. Initially he wrote to me and said that he had an image of delicately painted clown playing in the faded resorts of the south coast: that’s one origin. But the year before he’d come to see me in Paris when I’d been working with a teacher of clowns: this is another origin. In 1980 we saw each other’s work in Edinburgh and spent a day talking to find out what we had in common, and on that day our mutual delight in the gravestones of Greyfriars cemetery could be seen as a third point of departure. The fourth origin lay in our rehearsals, for which we had few ideas at first but laughed ourselves to the point of collapse. Each of these are points of origin, but I like to think that the combination of observation (the graveyard), preparation (the teaching), proposition (the letter) and action (the rehearsals) were the combination of events needed for any piece of theatre to achieve its aim. I believe that we instinctively followed the right journey. At any rate it culminated in us fronting the rock group Bauhaus at the Hammersmith Odeon before an audience of three thousand and it was one of the most remarkable evenings in my life.”Where do you think theatre comes from? “Gordon Craig said that ‘Dance is the parent of theatre.’” “Intellectually I becomeincreasingly interested in… ‘why’, and I think it connects with my father’s work as anarchaeologist and his concern with origins.” “I see dance as a kind of celebration, as an excess of emotion when rhythms are beatenout is some way. It is to do with an internal journey being expressed in physicalaction/movement; as that action find form you arrive at style, at a framework for the dance; theyrhythm gradually become associated with music, and the music becomes specific and is formedinto sounds and words, then it becomes theatre.” “When you dance together you have a form which represents the collective imagination;it expresses what we feel together at a particular moment. If theatre is to have power it is when itmanages to touch on what is a primal and universal human need. Words emanate from aphysical act in the body, and for me the body is where you begin in the rehearsal room.”How do you begin work with you performers? “The encounter of the first day is always strange. This beginning is a very secretmoment, I think. There is no formula for it. If I sense that people are embarrassed then I mightdo something really ridiculous to relax them; if they’re over-relaxed then I might do somethingto give them a jolt; if they’re tense I try to relieve their anxiety. I get people up on their feetimmediately. I do this not only to begin moving the body but also to make the actors come at thesubject obliquely. The sudden surprise of discovery can often reveal much more about a text, forexample, than approaching it directly.” “Of course you have to stop and think about what you’redoing, but ultimately there is only the doing on stage. I try to discover what the dynamic in theroom is, so I start with the people in the room and try to be as open as possible to what they
  9. 9. propose. I am well prepared for rehearsals, but it is important to do unexpected things and I amready to change my plans at any point.” “I do not prepare people so that they know more about where they are going. I preparethem so that they are ready” ready to change, ready to be surprised, ready to seize anyopportunity that comes their way.” “I have no answers at all. There are no formulae.” “…we’re all terrified of what we don’t know, aghast at the idea of uncertainty. Our faith in priesthas been betrayed and so we placed it in economists, and recently that’s been wearing thin.Perhaps we don’t know where to put our faith now, but beginning a piece with faith isimportant.”Peter Brook has said that there are two questions that a director needs to askthemselves throughout their working life. These are: why am I doing theatre?And how can I make theatre? What do you think about this? “I think the answer lies in the moment of collective imagining.” “People will go alongwith you: they won’t believe you are on a tightrope but they will accept the story.” “Only theatrecan do this, only theatre has this particularity of time. The act of collective imagining creates abond between us which links us to the same society and the same sense of being; it confirmssomething very particular about the communication between us. The need for this affirmation iscommon to all societies, though, of course, forms differ.” “I think most people would not admit that theatre is essential in their lives. That’s why Iwould suggest we need theatre. If we don’t have it we create it.”… “It is a collective ritualtheatre of celebration and we need it.” “… Brook dares to ask these things. Brook asks questions; he also creates and searchesfor a theatre that is ‘alive’. There is a connection, and it is that there is tremendous energy in aquestion – even in the movement of the body, the eyes search, the head turns and the hangs openup. When we demand a hard and fast definition, the answer lies on the ground like a piece ofconcrete; what was imaginative possibility becomes banal reality.”You’ve talked about you fascination with time. Could you elaborate on that? “Theatre has a relationship with time that no other art form has, in that it exists in thepresent, and human being have a need to be present in this life. There is a great deal around usthat appears to bring us into contact with the present, but in fact we tend to live in the recent pastor the immediate future.” “Theatre is unique in that everything happens in the present, and I think that the only waytheatre can develop is to increase its acknowledgement of the present moment instead ofemulating television… Ultimately on the stage you’ll always see that the door wobbles whensomeone closes it, or the theatre lantern gives out. Theatre can only exist if all these elementsare celebrated as an integral part of it, not focused on as shortcomings.” “We tend to be preoccupied with what we will have next, and that is linked to exchangeof money and our obsession with materiality: there is no end to this mountain of money we wishto accumulate. This has led to a desire to spend less and less time on things: … as a result move[we] move further away from the present. The present is no measured in milliseconds.”
  10. 10. What are your thoughts on audience? “Audience and the acknowledgment of audience are fundamental to me: there has to bethat thread of companionship.” “… focusing the way we spoke the soliloquies: we didn’t speakthem to thin air but directly to the audience. That acknowledgement of audience has to happenall the time. When something supposedly ‘goes wrong’ in the performance, far from ruining theatmosphere it makes the whole experience so much more intense… they didn’t stop theirsuspension of disbelief.” “The sense of the present became palpable and the audience was mademuch more aware that anything might go wrong or change at any given moment. On theseoccasions the applause we received had a quite different quality to it than is usual: the audiencerealized that they had a complicit participation in a creative act.” “Historically styles have developed in the theatre that have placed more distance betweenthe audience and the performance.” “One of the problems in the twentieth century has been thedeath of popular theatre: variety and music hall have been swallowed up by television, which hasnothing of the ‘presence’ of theatre. So theatre has become a place for middle-class intellectuals.Theatre has to re-seize its language, its theatricality.”What do feel you are doing as a director?“In the early shows I think we created circumstance in which we were able to imagine andcreate.” “…every aspect was geared to opening our imaginations and amusing ourselves so thatwe could be as creative as possible. We made ourselves writers as well as actors.” “When I direct I come from the viewpoint of an actor, and everything I do is linked toreleasing the creativity of the actor. I want them to understand the form of what they are doing;if they’re acting in a play I want them to understand the themes. I want them to hold the piece intheir hands; but that understanding is not an intellectual process, it is a physical one, they have tofeel it.” “I constantly had to invent circumstances, games, and environments where actors wouldsee what they were doing but still be happy to spiral off creatively. I developed a wholelanguage of transformation with them, a language which enable them to control the imaginativeleap from one medium to another. People talked of the choreography, but it wasn’tchoreographed; instead, through innumerable improvisations the actors physically learned toshift together, like a flock of starlings.” “This required enormous physical discipline and theyworked extremely hard every day; it is this discipline of body and voice that is fundamental inmy work.”Are there preoccupations that recur in your work? “It’s too easy to create a historical pattern for your work. I work instinctively and thensee that there is a formal shape to a piece that I didn’t expect.”Are you aware of influences in your work? “As a child I grew up with pantomime…” “Someone called Enid Welsford lived nextdoor; she loved commedia dell’arte and wrote a book called The Fool and she had quite and
  11. 11. influence on me. I grew up without television; my mother wrote us plays and we performedthem – I loved that. From an early age I was aware of what bored me in theatre.” “I’d go seeanything. There was a sense of enormous freedom, as though things could go in any direction.It was a climate of imagination and creativity which was not bound by economic success and thatrubbed off on me.” It was never my intention to become a director; I’ve always been an actor.” “I don’t feelI have control in the sense of knowing and planning where I’m going. I don’t know what I’mdoing next. I always experience an enormous release of creativity when I’m performing myself.”“… Theatre is a collaborative process and I would stress that all the actors and artist we haveworked with over the years have been integral to what has emerged. I knew the kind of theatre Iwas interested in and wanted. It gradually evolved that I would sometimes stand on the outside,though I much prefer to be on the inside as well as the outside.”Can you talk more about the theatre language you develop amongst theactors? “I am adamant about unifying people through a common language. Parameters ofcommunication are essential in the rehearsal room. You can’t make assumption. Once you’vebuilt up a common language you can work very fast. By language I mean a physical, vocal,musical and architectural language: all those elements which make up a theatre language.Sometimes I leave the actors to prepare something which we then look at; it can be tremendouslyliberating for actors to work without the director. What matters is that when you say something,the other person understands; I mean understanding unconsciously as well as consciously.” “…This work is always linked to the central aim of increasing awareness and communication. Thetheatre language you move towards is not a constant one, it is defined by the material in front ofyou. Hence the quality of the communication between the actors directly helps the evaluation ofwhat the choice you make on a given piece are appropriate or not.” “… There is only thedevelopment of tact, that is, an ability to make the right choice from a myriad of possibilities.” “Theatre is not how you are in real life, but the quality of the illusion you can create onstage.”Can you work as you want in this country? “We don’t work only in this country; we come from several countries and we work inseveral countries. Wherever you end up there is always this problem of space as well as timeand money…” “Sometimes we made very good work in hideous circumstances. Sometime it’sright to do a piece in three weeks; at other times you feel you need twelve months. Sometimes itcan be beneficial if circumstances are not as you desire them to be; this creates an energy ofresistance and a determination to bring something to life in a deathless landscape.” “There are moments when the sheer tyranny of the lack of resources stifles the spirit.Many times in the past five years I’ve felt that I couldn’t go on. Nevertheless there are timeswhen I’m happy to make something out of nothing; it’s an ethos I grew up with.” “It isimportant that everything you wish to play with in the performance is present during the creativeprocess, otherwise it’s impossible to make it live when you get on to the stage. For me objects Iuse are like words on a page; the rules of their movement are like grammar and syntax. The way
  12. 12. they are integrated makes them articulate; their eloquence lies in the respect with which youtouch them. Their stillness highlights their movement, just and silence underpins poetry. Thecircumstances of your work must, therefore, coincide with the respect with which you threat yourart.” “We have to invent our own circumstances, as we have no to reinvent our theatre.”
  13. 13. INTERVIEW [The interview took place in the rehearsal rooms of the English Touring Company in Waterloo on February 3rd, 2006 (although it was subsequently revised through email correspondence in 2007-8).]Simon McBurney: Shifting under/soaring over the boundaries of Europe Introduction to Interview – Stephen Knapper [p. 233–235] “[…] the company’s inimitable style of visual and devised theatre with an emphasis onstrong, corporeal, poetic and surrealist image supporting text was consolidated by the invitationto create for the national stage.” “Although many of his productions have dealt with specifically European themes… inthe interview he aligns himself more particularly with an international search for the roots,meaning and vitality of the theatrical event in the world of late modern consumer capitalism.[…] in 2002 he signified an overt commitment to the cause of anti-globalization and makes aplea for recognition of the crucial role theatre plays in the establishment of a collective humancommunity. His acting, particularly now in cinema, informs his directing to the extent that hehas difficulty being defined as solely a director” (Delgado & Rebellato, 234-5). Interview: [p. 235–246] “I would… say that an awful lot of the time I don’t think of myself as a director, simply adirector. I think simply about the way that I have come to do what I do. I began making theatrewith a small group of people in the 1980’s and the intention was simply to make the kind oftheatre that I didn’t see: a theatre which was largely a place that combined several differentdisciplines. So you weren’t just being an actor but also a writer and an explorer, a maker ofthings, and you felt free to do whatever the fuck you wanted to do. My opinion of that time wasthat if I wanted to be in theatre, if I wanted to act in theatre, if I want to make theatre, then Ishould simply do it. I had no time to hang around and say I would like to do this and wait until ithappens. I simply started making it and doing it and tell the stories that I wanted to tell, whichwere often very simple and frequently they were stories about the minutiae of life around me as Isaw it. Very often they were based on tiny moments which were then exploded into sceneswhich were then put together and then suddenly there was a piece of theatre.”
  14. 14. “It was the height of Thatcherism: we felt powerless; we felt kind of assaulted as youngpeople. But looking back I suppose the subject matter… was rooted in a search forunderstanding simply where we were.” “It was also hugely motivated by the fact that we like to make people laugh. That initself gave meaning to the piece because people have always said that the tragic is somehowmore serious: comedy is light, artificial and escapist. But of course, it always seems to mostcomics that the opposite is true: that the tragic very often preserves an illusion of human dignitywhereas if you look at the world around us there is very often no dignity in humanity (certainlyin the way that the Western world is going about its business currently). So glorifying it withgreat and serious tragic intent seemed to me at the time extraordinarily pretentious, and laughterseemed to cut through and expose all that – which was why I hated being laughed at in real lifebecause it exposes the truth and it’s not always palatable to see ourselves for what we truly are.So, necessarily, humor was part of it.” “What I see now, in all the shows, is the constant question: what the fuck are we doing?Who are we and what does it mean to be who we are? On one level everything about beingBritish or whoever we were was completely clear. It was assumed to be a certain set of values, acertain way of life and yet it was quite clear that there was something about the past which wasnot what people said it was. There was a vast nostalgia in the 1980s propagated by Thatcherparticularly” (Delgado & Rebellato, 235-7). “What interested me were the tiny gestures that people lived out in their everyday livesbehind which were oceans of despair and unhappiness (Delgado & Rebellato, 237). “We wanted consciously and unconsciously, to create what I would see whenever I usedto go to rock concerts in the 1970s: an event which people lived through. It seemed to me thatvery often there was more theatre in a rock concert, or more theatre in contemporary dance. Itseemed that dance had stolen the language of theatre […]. If you went to any rock concert at thetime… they took the language of theatre and they exploited it; whereas of course theatre itselfwas kind of retreating into its shell” (Delgado & Rebellato, 237-8). “The action was very important; what people did was as important as what they said – notthat what they said was not important: on the contrary. We wrote our pieces of dialogue and textvery carefully, we tried to make them funny, place the jokes just right and so on. But because wewere living in an era without any particular beginning, middle or end, where there was no greatstory to tell, the stories became tiny stories, which were then explored vertically rather thanhorizontally. Rather than saying this thing happened ant then that thing happened, we said thisthing happened and that thing happened simultaneously” (Delgado & Rebellato, 238). “I had no particular ambitions in theatre. I knew that I loved acting. I knew I wanted todo whatever the fuck I wanted to do and that I didn’t want to be bound by the idea ofconventional social structures as regards that form” (Delgado & Rebellato, 238). “Yeah, I want to see Peter Brook and the Bouffes du Nord […]. You saw everything –dance, theatre, movement theatre, bits of weird mime, sort of séances and performance art andeven saw the Living Theatre […]. But I had no intention to become a director, ever. I was muchtoo irresponsible but I loved improvisation. That was very important to me as it was to all those
  15. 15. people who grew up at that time. That’s the way all the theatre-makers I know who grew up atthat time worked. We worked through improvisation” (Delgado & Rebellato, 240). “To the visual aspect. Simply because as an actor I was used to playing from a veryyoung age. I liked to play, so I liked doing things. On a stage I wanted to do something, fiddlewith this or that and have people watch what you do. Not just declaim to people” (Delgado &Rebellato, 240-1). “I had a teacher who said that if an actor has forgotten what it is to play as a child theyshould not be an actor. The amusement of developing an action and what occurs within thataction; what is involved in playing is living out imaginative acts constantly. Constantlyinvolving your imagination to take you… constantly involving stories which rise and fall andchange. The notion of playing as opposed to acting has always been incredibly important”(Delgado & Rebellato, 241). “It’s very important to have a good time. It’s very important to amuse yourself, I think. Idon’t quite know what my process is sometimes; I mean, you know you tend to do things thesame way, you tend to bring the same things into the rehearsal room and you tend to more or lessstart your day at ten and finish it at six…” (Delgado & Rebellato, 241). “One of the hardest things… is how you bind people together. What is the nature ofsocial interaction? What is it that binds a group together? […] what is it that motivates theatreat all? What’s behind it? Do we need it in any context, in any place, at any time, in the humanenvironment, the human world, wherever we are? We live in the generation that can … get on aplane and go anywhere in the world. We can be within a matter of days anywhere and, ofcourse, we can now be in touch within a matter of seconds with anybody in the world” (Delgado& Rebellato, 241-2). “So we have access to each other and, at the same time, we have destroyed enormousquantities of things which actually root us physically and psychologically to where we are andgive us meaning in our lives. We are constantly going, what does this actually mean? Inreaction, people become ever more obsessed with the exterior of things and become ever moreconfused, have ever more encounter with their darker sides. One of the things I suppose that hasconstantly interested me when you are working in the theatre is what is a piece of theatre? Whydo it? Why is it there? (Delgado & Rebellato, 242). “I think that it is quite clear that everybody acts things out. It’s how our brains work; weare constantly acting. We are constantly producing events and – it seems to me – in the sameway s as we produce music. Similarly, we can ask, is music essential to life? Is it on every levelessential? Well, one of the interesting aspects of music is that part of the brain is dedicated to theunderstanding or the decoding of music and as we know every part of the human body is therefor a reason. So this necessity within us to play and acts things out seems to be a necessary partof what it is to be human” (Delgado & Rebellato, 242). “So why the theatre? Well, the image of the theatre is the image of the humancommunity. You perform to a group of people. One of the aspects of music or dance or an eventwithin the human community is that it binds the community together. It has an essential functionbecause if we are only at each other’s throats we can’t survive. So some sort of social coherence
  16. 16. is necessary for us not simply to go crazy like lemmings and throw ourselves all over the cliff(though possibly something like that is happening to us now…). So the theatre now, in a sort ofdistant echo, reflects the event of making and remaking the human community” (Delgado &Rebellato, 242-3). “We make funny little pieces of theatre, we have dinner parties which are actually inmany ways theatrical events. People applaud when somebody has actually made a dish. ‘Oh!’we applaud. We have birthday parties. We have marriages. We have weddings. We havefunerals. We have celebrations when you are twenty-one, when you are thirty, when you areforty, when you are fifty, when you are sixty, when you are seventy, when you are seventy-five.We are making and remaking theatrical events all the time. People have always signaled theatreis coming to an end, ‘People don’t go to the theatre anymore.’ There’s more people going to thetheatre now than fifty years ago in terms of theatrical events” (Delgado & Rebellato, 243). “People need theatre. So what is going on when they go and see it? What they need isnot just actors or a good play but that the audience is full. Without the audience theatre does notexist. It doesn’t exist like a film as an object on its own. It can only exist with an audience.Further than that, in fact, it only exists in the minds of the audience. It doesn’t exist on stagebecause if you go up on the stage there’s nothing there. It’s a complete illusion. You see veryquickly people changing and pretending and you come up close to them and there isn’t anything.It is only with the distance and in the minds of the audience that the theatre exists” (Delgado &Rebellato, 243). “What happens when the audience watches a piece of theatre is that they imagine andthey imagine almost the same things at the same instant. They recognize this when they laughtogether and they also recognize it when they weep. They recognize it when there is thatmoment of holy silence and when they recognize – perhaps unconsciously – the lie: the modernlies that we are all individual who are not connected with other people, whose internal lives areentirely their own. Because at the moment when you all imagine together you imagination, yourconsciousness is joined as a whole and you know at that moment that you are not alone. This isabsolutely fundamental because we believe more than anything else that only we can think thethings that we thing. Only I – me – only I think like that. Nonsense. We all think and we thinktogether and our internal lives are a much a part of the collectivity as our external lives. Thecollective experience. That is where theatre is important. It tells us who we are, which is not one person butmany” (Delgado & Rebellato, 244). “I’m just talking about the act of theatre. In terms of specific theatres, specific buildings,there are massive variations. […]. So what I say is not true of all theatre but is true of theatre. And the act of theatre can take many different forms; so that, for example, theatre inanother culture doesn’t necessarily have the form that we have developed since the Renaissance”(Delgado & Rebellato, 244). “Yes, but that is the form of the event. It is very different to the form that we wouldemploy, even though most people when they go to theatre will make an event of it. The event oftheatre begins before the theatre. They say, we will meet here. They meet whoever they’remeeting, then they go to the theatre; then they come out and then they discuss it and then they go
  17. 17. to a meal. So the vent of theatre is always something other than the theatre, which is why ofcourse there’s an enormous problem with theatre criticism. Because you have these peoplerushing in to see a piece of theatre and rushing home and writing” (Delgado & Rebellato, 245). “I think they are rarely capable of seeing what is in front of them. Very often becausethey are simply thinking of something else while they are watching it. They are already thinkingof what they are going to write rather than engaging with wheat is in front of them. Mind you,my God, it must be a frightful life being a theatre critic. Imaging seeing all that theatre. It mustbe absolutely ghastly. It must be appalling because you can’t pick and choose what you want togo and see” (Delgado & Rebellato, 245). “[…]. Everybody collaborates. It’s a collaborative art form. Even a playwright mightwrite the play, Then you have to have a director and some actors. Theatre will always becollaborative and some of the least successful plays that I have ever seen have been those whichhave been wholly – and in a holy way – reverent to every word of the writer. All theatre is likelife. Forever changing, surprising and the moment it doesn’t change, it’s not alive and there isn’tany point. Inevitably, if you work in the way that I do, everyone has their own opinion as to howit comes together or about what happens. That’s the way they see it” (Delgado & Rebellato,245-6).
  18. 18. Productions: Put It On Your Head [1983] A Minute Too Late [1984-5] More Bigger Snacks Now [1985] Please, Please, Please [1986] Foodstuff [1986] Burning Ambition [1987] Anything for a Quiet Life [1987; revival 1989] Ave Maria [1988] The Phantom Violin [1988] The Lamentations of Thel [1989] The Visit [1989; revival 1991] My Army Parts I and II [1989-91] Help! I’m Alive [1990] The Street of Crocodiles [1992-4; 1st revival 1994; 2nd revival 1998] William Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale [1992] The Three Lives Lucie Cabrol [1994-6; revival 1995] Out of a house walked a man… [1994-5] Foe [1996] Bertolt Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle [1997] To the Wedding (BBC Radio 3) [1997] Eugene Ionesco’s The Chairs [1997-8] – Broadway; John Golden Theater The Vertical Line [1999]
  19. 19. Mnemonic [1999-2001; 1st revival 2001; (BBC Radio 3) 2002; 2nd revival 2002-3]Light [2000]The Noise of Time [2000-2]So Much Things To Say French and Saunders Live in 2000.The Elephant Vanishes [2003-4]A Disappearing Number [2003]Strange Poetry [2004]William Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure [2004]A Minute Too Late [2005]Bertolt Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui [2008] – New York (starring Al Pacino)Arthur Miller’s All My Sons [2008] – Broadway; Gerald Schoenfeld Theater (starring Patrick Wilson & Katie Holmes)Shun-Kin [2009]Samuel Beckett’s Endgame [2009]A Dog’s Heart [2010]Hive Mind [2010]
  20. 20. Praise: “The Street of Crocodiles is inspired by the life and stories of Polish writer Bruno Schulz(1892–1942). It captures the vast landscapes of Schulz’s extraordinary imagination and thestartling absurdity and sensuality of his work” (Independent on Sunday). “The Street of Crocodiles: “… has a lightness of texture that perfectly counterpoints theunderlying gravity of Bruno Schulz stories on which it its based…” (Michael Billington,Guardian). The Three Lives of Lucie Cabrol: “An unsentimental evocation of peasant life, a hymnto the tenacity of love and a Brechtian fable about the world’s unfairness” (Guardian). The Three Lives of Lucie Cabrol: “You follow this Complicite version [of John Berger’sstory] as intensely as you would read a Grimms’ fairytale” (Alastair Macaulay, FinancialTimes). Mnemonic: “Dwelling on memory and origins, it manages to be brilliantly original andunforgettable” (Independent). Mnemonic: “…connects the seemingly unconnected: past with present, you and me, thesongs we share, the stories we once told and the stories we tell now” (Lyn Gardner, Guardian). A Disappearing Number: “McBurney has always had a gift for turning ideas into visualpoetry and making the abstract concrete, and this swirling couple of hours is like watching ajuggler keep all the balls aloft, with help from a superb cast. It’s not just dazzling theatre, butwise and comforting. Picking up the threads of the company’s masterpiece, Mnemonic, itsuggests we are all linked to one another, even – or perhaps especially – in death” (Guardian). “A Disappearing Number is pellucid, puckishly funny and terribly poignant, as thecontingent world of pain is contrasted with the self-sufficient aesthetic beauty of themathematical realm. The fathomlessly intriguing concept of the infinitely divergent series(which move closer and closer, without ever becoming two) is made harrowing flesh in thefailure of the modern couple to have a child and become three…” (Independent).
  21. 21. Awards & Honors:2007 Critics Circle Award for Best New Play A Disappearing Number [winner]2007 Evening Standard Award for Best Play A Disappearing Number [winner]2007 Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Play A Disappearing Number [winner]2005: Appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for Services to Drama2003 London Evening Standard for the Sydney Edwards Award for Best Director The Elephant Vanishes [nominee]2002 Golden Mask Award, Festival Mess, Sarajevo Mnemonic [winner]2001 Drama Desk Award for Unique Theatrical Experience Mnemonic [winner]2001 Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Achievement Off Broadway for Unique Theatrical Experience Mnemonic [winner]2001 Time Out Live Award for Outstanding Achievement Mnemonic [winner]2001 Syndicat Professional de la Critique Dramatique et Musicale, Grand Prix de la Critique for Best Foreign Play Mnemonic [winner]1999 Critics Circle Award for Best New Play Mnemonic [winner]1998 Tony Award Best Direction of a Play The Chairs [nominee]1998 Tony Award Best Revival of a Play The Chairs [nominee] Originally produced by Theatre de Complicite (Simon McBurney: Artistic Director)1998 Drama Desk Award Outstanding Direction of a Play The Chairs [nominee]1998 Drama Desk Award Outstanding Revival of a Play The Chairs [nominee] Originally produced by Theatre de Complicite (Simon McBurney: Artistic Director)1998 Laurence Olivier Award for Best Theatre Choreographer
  22. 22. The Caucasian Chalk Circle [winner]1997 Drama Desk Award Unique Theatrical Experience The Three Lives of Lucie Cabrol Theatre de Complicite (Simon McBurney: Artistic Director) [nominee]1997 Toronto DORA Award for Best Production of a Play The Three Lives of Lucie Cabrol [winner]1996 Belgrade Daily Newspaper Politika Prize for Best Director The Three Lives of Lucie Cabrol [winner]1996 Best Performance of the Belgrade International Festival, voted by the audience The Three Lives of Lucie Cabrol [winner]1996 Grand Prix of the Belgrade International Festival The Three Lives of Lucie Cabrol [winner]1995 Barcelona Critics Award for Best Foreign Production The Three Lives of Lucie Cabrol [winner]1995 The Age Newspaper Critics Award for Creative Excellence at the Melbourne International Festival The Three Lives of Lucie Cabrol [winner]1994 TMA/Martini Award for Best UK Touring Production The Three Lives of Lucie Cabrol [winner]1994 Time Out Theatre Award The Three Lives of Lucie Cabrol [winner]1994 L’Academie Quebecoise du Theatre Award for Best Foreign Production The Street of Crocodiles [winner]1994 Dublin Theatre Festival Award for Best Visiting Production The Street of Crocodiles [winner]1993 Laurence Olivier Award for Best Play The Street of Crocodiles [nominee]1993 Laurence Olivier Award for Best Director The Street of Crocodiles [nominee]1993 Barcelona Critics Award for Best Foreign Production The Street of Crocodiles [winner]1993 Manchester Evening Standard Award for Best Visiting Production The Street of Crocodiles [winner]
  23. 23. Random Facts:Born Simon Montagu McBurney on August 25th, 1957 in Cambridge, Cambridgeshire,England, UK.His zodiac is the Virgo.He is currently based in London, England.Simon McBurney began acting in Shakespeare at nine but later switched to comedy atCambridge. After graduating, he left Thatchers Britain to study mime with JacquesLecoq in Paris, co-founding the theatre company Complicite (formerly Theatre deComplicite), which he serves as Artistic Director, now Britains leading exponent ofvisual drama.His portrait was taken by Richard Avedon for inclusion in the Metropolitan Museum ofArts special exhibition "Richard Avedon: Portraits" and appears in the book of the samename.He is the former partner of actress Jacqueline McKenzie.He was awarded the O.B.E. (Officer of the order of the British Empire) in the 2005Queens New Year’s Honors List for his services to drama.He has been a best friend of Emma Thompson since they were teenagers.Ranked #31 in the 2008 Telegraphs list “the 100 most powerful people in Britishculture.”Height: 5 6½" (1.69 m)Many have commented on his uncanny resemblance to the controversial Academy AwardWinning film Director Roman Polanski (b. 1933; Paris, France).Mnemonic / ni’monik / adj. 1 assisting or intended to assist the memory 2 of memoryThe total Box Office Gross of films (Since 2001) in which he’s starred is $655.3 Million.
  24. 24. Filmography: (partial)Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (post-production) – set to star Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, Mark Strong,Ciaran Hinds, Steven Graham, Benedict Cumberbatch, Roger Lloyd-Pack, Christian McKay.2011Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (post-production)Kreacher (voice)2011The Borgias (TV series)Johannes Burchart2011Jane EyreMr. Brocklehurst2010Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1Kreacher (voice)2010Rev. (TV series)Archdeacon Robert2010Robin HoodFather Tancred2009Boogie WoogieRobert Freign2008Body of LiesGarland2008The DuchessCharles Fox2007The Golden CompassFra Pavel2006The Last King of ScotlandStone2006Friends with MoneyAaron2005Torte Bluma (short)1994-2004The Vicar of Dibley (TV series)Cecil / Choirmaster2004The Manchurian CandidateAtticus Noyle
  25. 25. 2004Human TouchBernard2003Bright Young ThingsSneath (Photo-Rat)2003SkagerrakThomas2003The ReckoningStephen2000EisensteinSergei Eisenstein1999OneginTriquet1999Inside-Out (short)Market researcher1998Cousin BetteVauvinet1997The Caucasian Chalk Circle (video)Azdak, the judge1997Bicycle Thieves (short)1996Der UnholdBrigadier1994MesmerFranz1994Being HumanHermas1994Tom & VivDr. Reginald Miller1994A Business AffairSalesman1991KafkaAssistant Oscar
  26. 26. IMAGES:
  27. 27. BibliographyBarry, Peter. Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory. 3rd ed. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009. Print.Barton, Robert. Style for Actors: A Handbook for Moving Beyond Realism. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2010. Print.Brockett, Oscar G., and Robert J. Ball. The Essential Theatre. 7th ed. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 2000. Print.Collins, Jane, and Andrew Nisbet, eds. Theatre and Performance Design: A Reader in Scenography. London: Routledge, 2010. Print.Delgado, Maria M., and Dan Rebellato, eds. Contemporary European Theatre Directors. London: Routledge, 2010. Print.Giannachi, Gabriella, and Mary Luckhurst, eds. On Directing: Interviews with Directors. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1999. Print.Heddon, Deirdre, and Jane Milling. Devising Performance: A Critical History. Basingtoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006. Print.Innes, Christopher, ed. Modern British Drama: The Twentieth Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Print.Luckhurst, Mary, ed. A Companion to Modern British and Irish Drama: 1880-2005. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2006. Print.McBurney, Simon. Complicite: Plays: 1. London: Methuen Drama, 2003. Print.McBurney, Simon, and Matthew Broughton. Light. London: Oberon Books Ltd, 2000. Print.McBurney, Simon. Mnemonic. London: Methuen Drama, 1999. Print.McBurney, Simon & A Disappearing Number Presentation/Handout from the Fall semester of 2010. ENG 394: Contemporary Drama. Professor Brook Davis [WFU]. Print.
  28. 28. Internet Broadway Database – Broadway Database – Movie Database – – & Transcript –
  29. 29. Further Reading:Connor, Steven, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Postmodernism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Print.Geis, Deborah R. Postmodern Theatric(k)s: Monologue in Contemporary American Drama. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993. Print.Harvie, Jen and Andy Lavender, eds. Making Contemporary Theatre: International Rehearsal Processes. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2010. Print.Mitter, Shomit and Maria Shevtsova, eds. Fifty Key Theatre Directors. London: Routledge, 2005. Print.Schneider, Rebecca and Gabrielle Cody, eds. Re: Direction: A Theoretical and Practical Guide. London: Routledge, 2002. Print.Shevtsova, Maria, and Christopher Innes. Directors/Directing: Conversations on Theatre. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. Print.Watt, Stephen. Postmodern/Drama: Reading the Contemporary Stage. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998. Print.
  30. 30.!/SimonMcBurney