Updated: Nov 28, 2022
Excerpts from a conversation with director David Woroner, designer T. Erin Gruber, and dramaturg Brandon Shalansky on collaboration and metamodernism in Ubu Roi.
Brandon: Let's talk about your collaboration process, because it feels like there's a theory of collaboration that I would guess you have talked about but, if not, is certainly obvious in the way I've seen you two working together.
David: I don't know if we talked about it so much as it just arose naturally. There was certainly a desire to work through the play together in great detail — to almost storyboard with words what was happening in each scene very early in the process.
Erin: There’s certainly a culture in our community of theatre-makers — for some very good reasons and for some, you know, other reasons — where there’s very much a kind of pyramid of power in terms of how collaboration and creative ideas are moved forward. And that often exists with this idea that the director is at the top and designers are somewhere below. But I've had many experiences, professional experiences, where I've been able to work with a director who was able to remain the leader of the process without putting me necessarily below them. And that was really important to me in a thesis process, to have an opportunity to have a creative voice and be able to test and try some of the theories that I had been learning. And without the right collaborator, I knew I might not get that opportunity. So I kind of came into this process a little bit, to be honest, from a kind of self-advocacy perspective, saying “this is really important to me and I think we'll be more successful if we can be on the same team.” So instead of this idea of design being in service to direction or in service to performance, the performance is inclusive of all the visual elements and the dramaturgy.
And from my very first conversation with David, it was really obvious to me that this was also a value of his. So we came up with this idea to meet once a week — and this was way back in March. And I think that allowed us to really build a vocabulary with one another, to build a rapport and a friendship and then build the show out of our mutual values and our mutual curiosities.
David: Yeah, it was super exciting to me because instead of developing our ideas separately and then coming together later to have a sort of clash of opinions, we could develop them together and be on the same page from the very beginning. And it's one of those things where it definitely adds some work early on in the process, but it also really clarifies, simplifies and lets everybody have a strong artistic voice in the production.
Brandon: Well, it's definitely part of what drew me to this project. Knowing you guys had already started talking and having heard bits of these conversations — not only did it sound like such a fascinating and exciting project, but it was apparent that it was also a supportive process that was fed, not hindered, by this robust collaboration. And then that was all validated in the first meeting I had with your guys — you had already created this great system where it was so easy for other people to slot in and become a part of the team.
David: And that's something I feel like we've continued into the room in a way that I've never experienced before in a production. We were able to have so much collaboration between design and direction and dramaturgy in the room and it really helped with this type of world that we've created, which is oversaturated with stuff.
Brandon: Yes! The design is so tangible. It's like watching everyone play with all the great conversations we had before as if they were toys — the physical manifestation of these conversations we had, rendered in dildos and vibrators, exercise balls and blow-up dolls and plungers.
David: And I think that directly relates to the metatheatrical, metamodern, postdramatic-adjacent heading that we were aiming for. All those great conversations we had — not just about the theory, but also stuff we just wanted to talk about in general on any particular day. And then it was like, how can we bring all that into the play? I often hear this play described as a blueprint — you can really put a lot of things onto it because it's so loose in the way that it's created. We were able to bring out those conversations so well.
I guess to use the analogy of, like, scrolling through TikTok and getting all those glimpses of so many different things. All these ideas coming up formed into this very cohesive thing. That is the time that we're living in, always scattered with so many different things —
Brandon: — that idea in metamodernism of existential saturation; the digital and globalist “overview effect.”
Erin: And in this play that Alfred Jarry wrote, you know, the image of a blueprint is a really useful one. He essentially created a container into which you can pour all of your frustrations and confusions about the absurdism of reality, of current culture.
So it seems almost pointless to do this play and not engage with the culture, particularly of young people. And David, you brought it to me because as a teenager you loved this play. It spoke to me of this idea that we're actually examining a developmental phase of life. And we have young actors in it. I think something that happens a lot in schools all over the world is that young actors are asked to play up in terms of their age, but really they’re just exiting teenagehood. And something you've done, David, is that you've brought in these two mature adult performers to play these lead roles, which are essentially these foils to the young, vibrant, confused, emotionally charged youth. And you've cast those youth as the spell-weavers conjuring this tale around these two older characters.
David: It's been repeated over and over and over since it was first staged in 1896 that the play is a way to talk about every single despot or person in power at any time, and to really slam them down. But I always go back to Alfred Jarry's opening speech at the premiere where he said “you are free to see in Mister Ubu as many allusions as you like, or, if you prefer, just a plain puppet, a schoolboy’s caricature of one of his teachers who’s represented for him everything in the world that is grotesque.”
And it's that idea of being able to represent “everything” that's grotesque.
Brandon: “Everything” is such a big beast to tackle.
David: And that’s why this idea of metamodernism works so well here, why this play works. Because it’s such a mutable text.
Brandon: And metamodernism is so attuned to that mutability. It allows us to look at everything. Or a sort of absurd, nonsensical, hyperreal version of “everything.” I think it’s such a brilliant strategy, really. It worked so well in Everything Everywhere All at Once, which I remember we talked about as an influence on that first day.
And it’s a new strategy, a new theory! So we also have the benefit of being able to sort of define what meta- and hyper-modernism mean for us as we go along. In that first meeting where I came in and you guys were talking about all these ideas of saturation and hyperconsumption and whatnot, and I was like “oh, that sounds like this metamodernism thing I've just started reading about.” And then it seemed like something clicked — from that point on that was the word. All these things suddenly came together and created a springboard for all these other things.
David: It really defined it for us.
Erin: Yeah, it really supported our work to have the dramaturgy interject at that point, because this piece has no focal point, you know? And that has become a real point of challenge at times for David and I. We do at a certain point need to make it a real thing — it can't actually exist as just an ideal, as a collection of values. Being able to have a kind of framework, which metamodernism offered, helped us to put the blinders on. Because I think that this project kind of multiplies on itself.
David: Oh yeah.
Erin: It's like having a mouse problem in your brain: you start with one or two or three and you put out traps, but if you don't get them then they take over. So our specific idea of this piece — the way it kind of expands exponentially within our creative world — is a bit unwieldy. So we need the metamodernist framework.
Brandon: And it requires and is a testament to that excellent collaboration you guys set up. We can create these many, many layers that grow — new layers of discoveries over time, and none of them are weights or anchors or ends. They are new directions. They are springboards. And then these actors have this room to say, you know, “I'm gonna add this layer, I'm gonna add this new thing.” And we're building this beautiful… I don't know, what has layers? Cakes? Onions. We're building a beautiful onion, to go with a Shrek metaphor.
David: I'm just thinking about the actors too. It’s stunned me that the actors really gravitated towards this world — not only the silly world we’ve create for the play but the world of creation itself, where they also have a say. It was our ideas first that we brought into the room, but then they could make these offers, they could play with the theory, they could play with the text. I think is important to point out that it's not just our collaboration at this table but everybody in the [rehearsal] room.
Erin: And its also important to note that it certainly hasn't been without confusion, you know?
Erin: This script brings a high level of chaos. While this process has been really fun and really playful, it's also been incredibly challenging. And it's worth saying that people have been willing to rise to that challenge and that absolutely people have been willing to take the risk associated with this piece with us. I think that's a testament to the way David has been running the room, but also to the very high level of curiosity and inquisitiveness that this program instills in people.
David: It's interesting, I keep thinking back to the fact that Jarry always wanted to stage this play with puppets. A part of me wonders, maybe he just couldn't figure out how to get actors collaborating on the same page with design and direction. Because if you stage this with puppets it's so much easier to be direct and say, “this is what you do, this is the zaniness that happens here.” But I think it's a much more interesting show with people rather than puppets — or to have people stand in as these puppet-like characters that are so overblown and exaggerated, but to also allow them to find that in the room collaboratively rather than treating them like the übermarionette actors of the time.
Erin: Also in that era the use of technology in the theatre was very different than it is now and the ability to create an alienating effect for the audience was more challenging. A puppet could really turn a person into the idea of a person. But I think now in what we're doing with live camera — where we're seeing a double image, which is essentially like live puppetry — in concert with live performers, that those tools allow us to transform the actors in certain moments into the idea of a person, the idea of a character.
Brandon: There's also something in what the actors are doing too. They have this nonsense that they bring that elevates them beyond naturalism. Almost to a point where they even create a new naturalism, a naturalism within this world of crazy.
David: Which is sort of what metamodernism does.
Brandon: It looks at all the crazy, the “everything everywhere all at once,” the existential saturation, and doesn’t care that sense falls apart. It challenges us to find new sense in nonsense. And we need collaboration to make that work, the kind that you guys have created here — a good-faith balancing act that can take on “everything.”