The Artist Formerly Known As: Michael Izquierdo

Michael Izquierdo is directing the upcoming production of Frank Wedekind’s Lulu, which will be showing at the Adams Memorial Theater Feb. 11 and 12. The former director of Cap and Bells, he has held such prominent roles as Malvolio in Twelfth Night, Menelaus in The Trojan Women and Stefano in the Melodrama, as well as directing Glengary Glen Ross and The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Abridged). This summer, Michael was an apprentice in the Williamstown Theatre Festival. He is also a member of the Williams Octet.

Let’s begin with a plug. Tell me about Lulu – how did you pick the play, what does it mean to you, what’s your experience directing it so far?

My freshman year, a recent graduate came back and directed Spring Awakening by Frank Wedekind, and the production was amazing. It’s a German Expressionist play, filled with sex and teenage stuff, and it really turned me on, so I wanted to go find something that I could use to kind of evoke those same sort of issues. So I went back to Wedekind, and I found Lulu, which is this enormous play, like 200 pages long, but what I’ve done is sort of cut it down. It really appealed to me because it’s something that I can mess with. It’s an arbitrary text that brings up those issues, and I can mess with it as much as I want to, and sort of play with it, and send it up at times, and hit the hardcore issues.

How did you mess with it?

Messing with it in cutting…it’s very choppy as is, and I’m trying to do a lot of filmic techniques with it, I’m trying to do a lot of montage things, the sound is – it almost has a complete soundtrack underneath it at all times, so I’m trying to go for filmic qualities on the stage, even though the budget’s small. It can’t be crazy, revolving sets, which is what theater is becoming now, which is filmic and theatrical, but I’m just going for the sound experience. And trying to hit an audience here, it’s what I’ve been missing as somebody who’s interested in theater – I always wish that the volume could be turned up really loud at times, or stop with the “talk, talk, talk” play, and just rely on bodies in motion, and just rely on watching people move. And just work through that uncomfortableness, and just say it’s really fascinating to watch a person’s foot move. That’s the sort of thing I’m going for. Getting rid of all the excess preconceptions that people have about theater, I’m trying to strip those away, and just get to the heart of it, and look at how various things work – how music works, how acting works, how people moving in space works, how taking a group of 12 actors and making them a really close ensemble where they have to do tough things, what that’s like. That’s why it appeals to me – because it brings up all those issues, and it kind of hits a Williams audience.

In what sense?

In the sense that it deals with a sort of coming to terms with sex, or avoiding it, or wanting it, and that’s the short, easy answer. It’s more about hiding and pretending and power struggles, which I think are very present on this campus, especially with the party scene. There are a bunch of moments in the show which are heavily techno-based, and I’m trying to carry that baggage along with it and say, look, this is what may happen at parties and look, this is an 1890s play, but at the same time, if you adapt it and bring it up against our generation – or even beyond our generation, because techno is kind of “out there,” or New Age, a little bit – how are those issues in common? How is Lulu’s struggle representative of everybody’s struggle, and the way they come to terms with things? Are there moments in this play where people are so repulsed, they have to look away – what is the reasoning for that? Are the reasons that all of a sudden you become seduced into something that you should not be seduced into? Or how much do you wish that you were on the stage, or how much do you wish that you could turn down the volume or turn up the volume or do all those kinds of things? It’s just sort of playing with what it’s like to go into a theater and sometimes, not necessarily here, people’s conception of theater is at times stogy, especially when you’re doing the classics. And I’m not talking about Macbeth, I’m talking about hidden plays like Lulu.

Would you say that Lulu comes closer to some of these issues than more classic repertoire? Or would you just say that the nature of the play and the way that you’re trying to put it on hits closer to home for the way that Williams students appreciate art?

I think it hits it much harder, and [more] directly, than other plays do, and therefore what I’m doing with it is I’m taking it and I’m hitting it even harder than that, so it’s really hitting hard, I think. And then, also doing the opposite and saying that there are moments where it should be hit hard, and doing the complete reverse – romanticizing, I’m not sure if this is going to happen, but romanticizing a rape scene. What does that do? Is that really just repulsive? Or romanticizing a character who’s horrible, like Jack the Ripper, or someone like that. And at the same time, making that extremely depressing, and making that sort of the central issue in many ways. Trying to gauge audience reaction to that. I don’t know – it may completely fail, it may completely work, I don’t really care.

You don’t?

No, I really don’t. I hope people like it. I hope people say, “what an experience.” I think that just to be overwhelmed is enough. That, I definitely want. But not to break it apart and say, “this moment didn’t work,” or “this moment did work,” or something like that, but just to come away and think, “I was moved at points.” By “moved” I mean enervated to do something, whatever that something is. Or, “I understand at least what the intention is.”

I’ve been hearing about these sort of unusual acting techniques, and I know it relates to a lot of what we’ve been talking about.

Yes, it does. It’s called “viewpoints,” and it breaks down human movement to its essentials in the sense that if I gesture towards you quickly, you will have an innate response to move away, or a reflex, or an impulse to cross the room when somebody else crosses the room. You become hyper-aware of people in space, and their gestures and how they make you feel. You take away the barriers that you put up in daily life, and you trust that, and you go with it. And basically what it does is it allows actor response on stage to be authentic instead of being manipulated every time, saying, “at this moment I have to do this, and I have to do this.” Well yes, externally you do, for a director, this has to be done at this moment. But more importantly, for the actor you need to release and value your innate response. So if you’re on stage, and a pitcher of water falls backstage because it just fell off the table, you can’t just ignore that and say, “well, that’s not supposed to happen in this scene,” and move on. You go for it, and if it scares the hell out of you while you’re supposed to be making love on the couch, well, then that’s what happens. All of a sudden you become a comic, and you flow with it, and you fight against it, but you allow it in at first.

By creating that, and working a lot with people working around each other, you get a very tight ensemble that has an action-and-reaction response. They’re very able to be there for each other and be comfortable with each other. A lot of the movement in the play is very tough and very sexual and very fast and people running across the stage in movements, and they have to be aware of exactly where the architecture is on the stage, where everybody else is on stage, and taking care of the space so that there aren’t any blank moments. The performance is given over to them; on stage they will do it by themselves, and it’s not necessarily exactly blocked out, so that at this moment this happens and then this happens. There are moments like that, of course, but a lot of it is sort of come upon by them, live, on the night, which is authentic and it’s not acting because it’s real, but at the same time, as an observer, you realize that it’s acting. And some people do it well, and some people don’t – I’m not saying within the cast (laughs) – but it does take a talent, and it takes a lot of release and a lot of trust, and that’s why we worked for two weeks in the beginning of rehearsal without even looking at the text. And maybe we’re paying for that, but whatever, it was worth it.

That’s viewpoints – it’s an authentic reaction. A lot of physical stuff, a lot of working to carry people across a space. It’s really revealing, and kind of scary, to all of a sudden be bearing somebody else’s weight, and not just doing it with complete tension, but actually holding them for five to ten minutes on your back, and feeling really how difficult that is. Physically, but also mentally and emotionally. And the same thing with staring into someone’s eyes for a long period of time – you don’t usually do that in real life. And just being aware of those natural human experiences and accessing them more than you would, at least more than you do typically in an acting class, though more and more acting classes are becoming this way.

Where did you pick up these techniques?

I picked them up this summer at WTF – we did a show with no words in the play; it was all about walking across a space. I know it sounds really boring, but it was all done to music, and what was fascinating about it was that when you’re watching it, the ability to look at bodies moving and all of a sudden the audience’s natural interpretation is to interpret and to assign narrative to something that has no narrative, it’s just simply people moving in space, and that’s kind of what I’m going for with the viewpoints. The training was three hours of yoga a day, a lot of body stuff, and you become really physically fit, and you carry people around all the time, and you become very aware of your body and how it reacts to people and the emotions it brings up, and all that kind of stuff. I learned a lot about body, which is what Lulu is about, I think, so that was pretty much the training.

Lulu has a narrative.

Lulu has a narrative, a very long narrative, that’s kind of boring at times. But I tried to cut the boring parts out – not all of the time, but some of the time – and it has a very solid narrative, but it’s also in montage form, and what I’m trying to do, is I’m setting pieces that are people walking across a space, and blocking, at times, looks between two people. And I’m hoping that an audience member will say, “Why the hell are those two people looking at each other?” and then remember later on in the show, when those two people are having a scene together, that maybe that look was something that was akin to the scene that’s taking place. So that each look that happens in the beginning of the show is an interpretive moment where later on in the scene, these people interact. In daily life, you see people interacting with each other, and you see people having a conversation, when in fact, that conversation could be so much more, if everything were taken away and put on a stage. If they had 15 minutes of time to actually get together and talk about stuff, this is what would happen. Doing that within the hustle and bustle of a lot of people crossing, and doing that at different moments. And also using the characters as a basis for assigning narrative.

Do you want to explain that?

I’m not really sure about that myself…I’m trying to create an orgy feel to a couple of moments in the play, and in order to do that, I’m hoping that simple gestures that are kind of arbitrary and maybe are not meaningful, that are not typical everyday gestures, that somehow evoke what I hope them to mean, or what they in fact mean. Generally, that can be anything that an audience member wants. But that through this kind of sequence of gestures the audience member will create a narrative line between the various gestures, and that’s not in Lulu at all. So that while a scene may be taking place, center stage, in the background a series of gestures or movements – the rest of the ensemble is moving – the two can happen simultaneously, and although we may be listening to one narrative, we’re creating another in the background. So that this moment here, the moment down center, is important and valuable, and at the same time, that is occurring in many other moments in the play, and in the world, and that’s the sort of expansiveness that I’m trying to go for. And people may just be like, “what the hell is going on?” (laughs)

How did your experience at the WTF affect you?

It gave me a huge outlook onto the world, the theater world, simply. It’s hard sometime up here, with a small department, in the middle of nowhere, and there’s no real access to theater beyond what the school offers. It was a wonderful experience to become involved with not the performance aspect of theater, but the behind-the-scenes, the nightlife, what the people are really like, what it’s like to live with a troupe of 400 actors.

What was it like?

Scary! (laughs) Scary and wonderful. You know, as in any group, there are people that are off-the-wall, and there are people that are hometown, homegrown, good, down-to-earth people. And you find your niche, but at the same time you have your big stars, and some of them are wonderful and some of them aren’t…. You become highly aware of the status game, and how there are certain people beneath you in rank, and certain people way above you in rank, and all of a sudden how you innately respond to that, and how you get nervous and how you don’t get nervous, and how you overcome that. It’s just a wonderful way to make a lot of contacts, and a lot of friends, but it gives you, as an actor, it gives you a certain amount of confidence in what you’re doing.

For any artist, as you gain confidence, you invest yourself more into what you’re doing, and you say, “this is my gesture, this is what I’m going to do.” And you don’t really care exactly what everybody else thinks. Especially in a place where you’re not going to the Oscars, you’re just going to have fun and to do your piece, whatever that piece may be. That confidence comes from being recognized a little bit. It’s a small recognition – it’s not like you’ve been cast as a major actor next to Tom Cruise – it’s just a little confidence builder, but never in a way that becomes hindering. It makes you realize that you should have always trusted more what you had.

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