If the posters around town are to be believed, Julian Crouch and Phelim McDermott are about to change the world—or at the least bring about world peace—with their production of Phliip Glass’s all-Sanskrit opera about Gandhi’s early life, Satyagraha. Crouch and McDermott, better known as the guys behind England’s Improbable theater company (responsible for dark, comic successes like Shockheaded Peter) spoke with Rebecca Milzoff about their love for Glass and his eating habits, and why puppets in opera aren’t really all that bad.
How did this project start?
P: Ehhhh, blimey. I guess originally about two years I had a meeting with Philip because we’d considered doing Einstein on the Beach with the English National Opera. We were not thoroughly convinced that was a good idea, there having been a definitive production. But I did want to meet Philip, so we met in a coffee shop, and we ended up talking about the possibility of doing Satyagraha.
Were you both fans of Philip?
J: I was always very interested in that film Koyaanisqatsi, which I never knew how to spell. It’s actually been quite an influence on much of the visual stuff I was doing even before I met Phelim. Many years ago, I think I was still at college then, I remember seeing Philip Glass in the street, and thinking, “ Ahh! There’s Philip Glass!” I followed him, and he went into a sushi bar—and there were no sushi bars in London at all, and they were very expensive—and I remember thinking [gasps] “Philip Glass eats sushi! How exciting!”
Well, what about Philip, besides sushi, made you think he was so cool?
P: It was a kind of modern classical music I really connected to. I remember playing it to my parents and my dad going “Uggggh!” but my mum kind of loving it. Working on this piece, one of the cool things was that I think Philip was interested in being hands-off, to see what might happen. He’s said that we discovered little things in it that he didn’t know were there, which has been quite pleasing to hear.
J: The things that are appealing about it are maybe the things that are a bit frightening about it; that it’s all sung in Sanskrit, there’s not a lot of action. Once you get past the initial “What are we going to do for three hours?!” there’s an incredible amount of space to dream into.
So how did you go about the production design?
J: With Gandhi, you have to connect with a sense of poverty; the challenge and the exciting thing was to say, ‘What humble materials can we use?’ We picked corrugated iron. And newspaper, we’ve worked with on a smaller scale. So we thought we’d take these materials and push them along as the opera unfolds.
P: This is a kind of world where the imagery and what we do with animation or puppetry is very related to how the music unfolds and changes. It challenges a listener to relate to it in a different way from a normal linear story. It’s a bit like saying, here’s this key moment—notice that it’s not just about this event happening, it’s about the mythical story happening behind that.
J: We’ve always had a interest in very simple materials; even being asked to do an opera is strange for us. We’re not a very opulent pair.
The posters around town certainly imply it will be a life-changing event—is that putting pressure on you guys to dazzle?
P: These posters that say, Can an opera change the world? On a weird level I’ve found myself thinking this question of whether opera is an old form, is it still relevant, and actually I think it’s the only way you can talk about this kind of subject in an artistic way. Which surprised me.
J: In a way we’re in this building of a huge reputation but we come from a very different place, we’re not quite in our own world. As such we’re not quite nervous in the same way; it seems almost ridiculous that we’re here.
P: The other thing about those posters is that they’re a question—they’re not saying it can. It’s just saying, ‘Think about this.’ A piece of work that’s really good asks you a question.
You’ve both been involved in opera parodies, like Jerry Springer—The Opera and Tomorrow La Scala! But is this your first real opera?
J: It’s the first we’ve done together.
P: I’ve sung in an opera, very badly. At Glyndbourne. It was a community opera called Hasting Spring, by Jonathan Dove. I was an Airy Spirit—a Water Spirit, I think.
Ah. And did being a Water Spirit come naturally to you?
P: Not at all, in any way whatsoever. Well, the watery and spirit bit did, but not the singing.
J: I didn’t even know you sang in that.
P: It was the beginning and the end of my singing opera career, on the end of Hastings Pier.
You’ve used puppetry a lot before, usually in more fantastical works. But have you found there’s a puppet stigma in opera?
J: Puppetry can get trapped in a fairy-tale world—it gets pigeonholed there. Puppets are actually really good at sex and death and violence, and there’s a lot of that in real life.
P: We ourselves have a kind of love-hate relationship with them, really. For a while you go, “Ugh, enough with the puppets for a bit.” But I think the work we do in this is less about well-made puppets and more about how people work together to create images. If it’s just about making a really good puppet, the story is over. The reason we like using newspaper is that you can’t actually make a good puppet with newspaper. It’s bit like fire-watching or cloud-watching—the imagination has to come into it.
The gigantic puppets in Act Two are especially eye-catching. How did you conceive of them?
P: I was thinking a bit of German expressionism, but also of my own roots theatrically, with a company, Welfare State International, which was like Bread & Puppet here. They’d put big puppets on the streets in protest of Vietnam, and I wanted to pay tribute to them. In some ways, it’s a bit how Gandhi worked. To me they’re like the figures of the city, other people see them as politicians or leaders, and I’m quite happy for that to be ambiguous. I was also keen that they’d be a bit broken, that they would not move in a sophisticated way. Deliberately awkward.
J: Every now and then someone in the building comes up to us and says, “I wish the big puppets were on longer!” Which is reassuring to hear because the opposite is, “Oh God, the puppets.”
By the way, where do you get all that newspaper from?
J: All around the world!
P: And the big ones are running out as we speak. Halfway through rehearsals, one of the papers changed its size; there were all these things saying, “It’s great, we’ve gone tabloid!”
J: The last three weeks we’ve gotten all these papers from Italy and Germany, papers that are still a bit traditional in format, black and white.
P: There’s a very complicated list of demands that we irritate the props people with. Different bits of paper are better for different scenes. The paper that changed its size was Italian; the original size was great, but it wasn’t all that great for screwing up tight and keeping its tightness. It’s a very fine art.