Interpretations of Hans Canosa: Talking Theater With a Student Director
Recently, The Harvard Crimson spoke with Hans Canosa, a Harvard undergraduate who directed more shows at Harvard this past semester than any single director has in the past four years combined.
The Crimson: Your last two plays have been Strindberg scripts; do you find anything particularly resonant in his work for you?
Hans Canosa: What fascinates me in his work is issues of--you know, Brustein always used to say excrementalism, that just means shit obviously--that fascinates me, the same way that Brecht in his early plays obsessed with images of shit and sex, and every sexual character was a pimp or a whore...the same thing with Strindberg where he's always talking about the dirt, rising out of the dirt.
The thing that was strange about Dream play was when I first conceived of it, I thought I would have dirt all over the floor, shit everywhere, people shitting and pissing in colors. I mean, I knew colors had something to do with it...but as it evolved, everything became clear and pure and light. I don't know how that happened, it just happened through the process, because everything is discovered there.
The other thing is that he's so personal...Strindberg's so personal, he's writing his autobiography through his work. The challenge to me was that if it is just him, him speaking through his work of himself, what is there for a director to find? Can you discover something outside of what Strindberg was saying?
I know so many people who scream that you have to be responsible to the author. I believe that maybe you have to be responsible to the essence of the play, but never the author. My best friend, she told me there's nothing new to be discovered. I fight her, I fight her all the time. I don't want that to be true, I want there to be something new.
I hate words, I think words have...there's a line in Dream Play that says, "could words ever express your utmost thoughts?" That to me expresses a philosophy, expresses why I've done more Beckett than anything else, because of a frustration with language.
I hate talking to you right now, because everything I say just sounds dead. Physicality...is much more powerful than anything I can say to you.
Like O'Neill, I have no idea, it's so talky, every one of the characters sit there, with their head on the bar for 30 minutes...unreal, unreal, seems like no life, but there's something to be discovered.
The Crimson: Do you believe in the integrity of a text, of a script?
Canosa: Last semester, people were calling me an auteur-director, that's ridiculous, I'm so young, I don't know anything, it's so vast. I take every class I can, I have to suck up everything I can about theater.
The Crimson: Do you care about the actors' input on the script?
Canosa: I don't sit down with a cast, I hate table rehearsals, I never sit at a table, we never read the scripts, if anything we read it running around the room, I never do read-throughs. My actors always hear me harping on how America forgot the second part of Stanislavski, the physicality, the gesture, movement, the purely physical. I like discovery through the text, through physicality, through play.
I met Bina [Martin] halfway when we were doing Miss Julie, she was coming from a very different approach. The other two [actors] responded to my process, which wasn't about building a character genealogy, i.e. what did this character eat for breakfast?
Although Bina said to me, when we were doing character work, I had told her "yes I do know what your character [has] eaten for breakfast", and we were walking down the street, and Bina said to me, "so what did she eat for breakfast?" And I told her. We did cut out a lot though about her character background, I don't know if you noticed.
The Crimson: I noticed that, I also noticed that you added lines, for example when the stable boy tries to compel Miss Julie into saying the word "fucking." I don't remember that in the script, although I could be wrong.
Canosa: No, you're not wrong, but I went back to a transliteration of Strindberg that demonstrated that Strindberg really did use words like fuck and shit, because he was an excremental poet, but it wasn't well-received in the theater of the day.
The Crimson: Are there any limits to the theater of "our" day, in profanity, sex, violence?
Canosa: I don't think there should be any limits or rules; on the other hand, what will be dramatically alive on stage? I think nudity on stage is often very boring, sex on stage is often very boring, because it's not that interesting to see two faces smushed, but it is to see two faces coming towards each other, and the tension, and they can't kiss.
Watching Cinema Paradiso frustrated me so much, that part when they have all the kisses spliced in, because I realized no matter how much I do, I will never shoot an original kiss, because they've all been done, look at them, they're right there. Kissing is a whole other thing. Usually, there's a lot more interest in subtlety, something that's held back.
The Crimson: Do you find major disadvantages working in theater rather than film, or vice versa?
Canosa: When I first thought of doing theater, I felt, 'why do that when I can be so much more powerful manipulating film as a director,' whereas theater is only there for a second, but [at the same time] that's the great thing, that transitory moment, anything can happen, you can't rewind it, or freeze frame it.
That's what I love to do when I'm watching film, I can freeze frame it, watch exactly how the director frames it, how the audience sees it through his frame. Whereas in theater, there's a phrase that always crops up when I'm speaking to actors, about multiple points of focus, or multiplicity of perspective.
There's something meta-theatrical about everything I do, I love the sense of theatricality invading its own medium. I love designing to implicate the spectator, to put them into it.
The Crimson: Why didn't you go for the big moment at the end of Dream Play, the chrysanthemum?
Canosa: The chrysanthemum opening is supposed to be an orgasm at the end of Dream Play. But to me, the very first thing is she is born into the world, to me the end was like the womb closing back up, sucking her back up. Not about any chrysanthemum opening. No. [With] Dream Play, I'd say, I violated more of the integrity of the text than any other time. Because I didn't tell that story. It came from when I wanted to be a painter in theater, now I think storyteller is something I need to be as well.
I don't know if you saw New Tenant, it was like an explosion of ideas thrown at the wall, but it stayed that way. You know, like buckshot. There was no tying together.
The Crimson: Are you a director's director, as opposed to an actor or author's director? Do you always privilege the director's concept?
Canosa: I work with my actors, I tell them, inside this magic space, you can do nothing wrong, morally, ethically--maybe physically, I don't want you to hurt another actor. On the other hand, you can do something that represents the hurt of another actor.
The Crimson: But no one in your plays ever stands out individually, no one would have been recruited from your fall plays for notable performances, none of them have their own signature, it's always your signature on the play.
Canosa: One of my biggest problems is that I am always more interested in process than product. A week before the show, actors are always screaming "What the fuck am I going to do on stage?"
My biggest problem is that the discovery for me is more about the play and the process, I haven't branched into discovering character, although I did that with Miss Julie to a certain extent.
I am aware of all of these issues, I would like to wonk the audience on the head with a bat, I send the actors down as puppets in Dream Play and had them manipulated.
We didn't spend enough time weaving together, we were so busy exploding ideas. The rehearsal process I have, it gets so big, so huge. They didn't have a text, they only had a bare-bones text one week before the show.
The Crimson: And what are you going to do with Supposing Rommilly?
Canosa: It's my first musical. Manfred Kuhnert, who's directing the Lowell House Opera, Magic Flute, I've been talking to him about this new medium for me. I don't want anyone to ever say I'm going to see a "Hans Canosa play" and know what that is.
There's two ways to get stuck: do a "good" production, be faithful to something, or [the second way is] trappings, images, effects not rising out of the heart of the text. I know I can be accused of trappings, but I know that trappings in the end are empty.
I feel like there are so many opportunities wasted in so many productions. I waste so many opportunities, but at least I know there are those opportunities, I've opened them up, at least I can say, "I didn't get it," rather than not even explore it.
I'd kind of like to take all the other infinite possibilities done in rehearsal and project them on big screens during the play--although, that also is not new, it's been done before by other people. I want every play to have a new style.
Although, in Dream Play, we did do a lot with cloth and paper, and Rommilly will have a little cloth--a scene with a lot of bed sheets was written even before I joined the project-- and a lot of paper, because he's a writer, there's a lot of paper.
I love Jenny [Giering]'s music, she's a wonderful composer, every time I listen to her music, I get excited about the show, then Brad [Rouse] and I write more. It's a really exciting collaboration.
I love to take from everything, everything that is done now has to be built on what came before. I admit it, I steal, suck in from every source, that's what I want to do--I want to be a vampire and a thief. That's what I want to do.