Music and theatre have always held a close, interlinking relationship – as performance arts, it could be argued that one is incomplete without the other. Both are emotive, structured and able to open discussion and debate about a myriad of other issues that are pertinent and observant in society. But to what extent does the format of one influence and educate the format of another? Classical music form often has clearly defined structure, be it the sonata form that opens almost every classical symphony, or the steady 3/4 rhythm that immediately identifies a romantic waltz. Theatre too requires similar levels of definition, but Theatre Counterpoint take this one step further, directly utilising musical form to format and structure their theatrical performance.
I caught up with the director of Am I Pretty?, Dadiow Lin, and performers – Tori Zdovc, Mira Yonder, and Valentin Stoev – as they began the rehearsal period to get their thoughts on the concept of plastic surgery and the idea to use jazz as the framework for this improvised performance:
Thanks for chance to speak with you all together today. How are rehearsals going so far?
Valentin: We’re still figuring out as we go!
Tori: In terms of rehearsals we are at the early stages, but we devised the performance last year so we’ve been working on it for ages up until now.
Dadiow: I wouldn’t separate it that clearly. We knew where we going when we were generating and we always invent things. This part is more to clarify, to make sure we know what kind of message we would like to come across on stage. We’re not criticising or praising the idea itself, the questions we ask are more about certain aspects and how these could be very conflicting from another point of view.
Mira: Or in a way allow people to decide a bit more on a case to case basis – there could be many different reasons as to why you want to go through cosmetic surgery. Not all of them good, or bad, if there is such a thing at all. For me it’s more of a general discussion of how far you want to change you look. Not only for cosmetic surgery, but something like losing weight, why is that a good thing? The issue is around changing your appearance and is that still you when you look so different. You can have a different relationship with yourself when you change your appearance, so there are many layers.
Dadiow: We use the issue as a lens to talk about how we are perceived in society and who we are. If I change, how do I change the perception from other people? We keep saying that it’s about cosmetic surgery, but it’s also about self-identity. Identity is important to what we are talking about – who we are and how we see ourselves, how is that related to the way we look?
So where did the initial idea around cosmetic surgery as a performance piece come from?
Dadiow: I’m originally from Taiwan where cosmetic surgery is a really big thing. Coming from this kind of background is the starting point – I was thinking about extending my jaw and then when I looked into the mirror, I thought about what that actually means.
Who am I if I carry something that does not belong to me from the beginning?
So, I brought this conversation to everyone – what would you want to change if you had £10,000 that could only be used for cosmetic surgery? We had to research how much it costs to do a nose-job, or liposuction, and to know more about the industry
Tori: Before I thought I would never have anything done, but suddenly I thought about what I would change and it wasn’t so straightforward.
Valentin: I wouldn’t want to change anything because I don’t know how I would react if I were different – would that change me? And what would that change be? I’m OK with my body, of course there are things here and there but this is me.
Dadiow: Some people look perfect but can always find something imperfect on them. This kind of mindset is what we’re trying to figure out.
Mira: Each one of us [in the performance] will play 15 characters each within an hour and within those there is always going to be one that is really close to what I feel about cosmetic surgery, but there are some others that might feel very differently. We represent a lot of different perspectives – people in the industry like surgeons and nurses; friends and family; the person that goes through the surgery. We each swap characters and present a spectrum of different opinions. We’re not just one thing, we’re trying to show that there isn’t black and white about this.
Why did you decide to incorporate jazz as an element that frames the production?
Dadiow: I did a similar piece last year where I used a classical fugue and was intrigued by improvisation in theatre and the underpinning rules. Jazz is a musical form with very strict rules, but at the same time has improvisation. It’s very interesting for us to play with this idea – very clear instructions to follow but at the same time, space to move.
When you read the score, you can tell it’s jazz. But in the room, it’s the energy and we are trying to recreate and sustain that on stage. Hopefully you feel the flow when you watch it – we’re currently working on that!
So is this the core idea behind Theatre Counterpoint?
Mira: Yes, examining how to use musical structures in theatre and what can you take from that in the devising process. When you devise, you have so much material at the end of it, how do you put it together? Music is the best way that we’ve found to put it in a way that works. It directs you, grounds you so you never get lost, as long as you analyse it.
Dadiow: [Mira and I] met two years and produced another show called Don’t Turn The Lights On – that was based on the fugue. After that was done, we wanted to expand the idea, doing workshops to get to know people and see whether we could work together. Valentin and Tori got involved and we started on this piece about nine months ago.
So what is the plan after these performances at Camden People’s Theatre (on 6 – 8 April)?
Dadiow: We see these as the final version of the performance. Then I want to start something else – to analyse a piece of music form and talk about something new. Using musical form as a conversational strategy is very helpful, so we will also plan to start organising workshops to share and develop the method in future. There’s something very organic that comes out of conversation – that’s how we are going to start the next work.
Mira: It would be really nice to tour it too – fingers crossed!
Was there a particular reason behind the specific jazz piece you used as your inspiration – All The Things You Are, by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein?
Dadiow: In “All The Things You Are” the chord progression is very subtle in changing from one chord to another. We’re using that in altering the characters – it’s not that difficult a piece to understand, but we found a way to translate that which is why they’re playing 15 characters! Another piece would have been different – here we can create a subtle shift from scene to scene like from one chord to another in the music. It gives us the space to create while sticking to the rules.
Tori: It’s funny how such a simple jazz tune becomes such a complex piece of theatre.
Quick-fire round time! In one sentence, why theatre as a career?
Valentin: Because nothing else makes sense.
Tori: It’s just always been there.
Mira: You can’t get rid of it – you know it’ll ruin your life but you can’t keep your hands off it, it’s my guilty pleasure.
Dadiow: It just makes me happy.
Who or what inspires you the most?
Dadiow: Eugenio Barba – I love energy on stage.
Tori: People I see that I think are interesting and strong characters, mainly women.
Mira: Certain situations – I’m in this place with these people and we’re talking about something that really touches me.
Valentin: Good stories and the truth.
Am I Pretty? plays Camden People’s Theatre from 6 – 8 April 2017. For more information and to book tickets, visit the website.