Alkinos Tsilimidos with Bert LaBonte and Zahra Newman in rehearsal for 'The Mountaintop' (MTC 2013)

From the Reading Room | Q&A with Alkinos Tsilimidos

Behind the Scenes / Interviews /

For years, Director Alkinos Tsilimidos worked exclusively in film, creating a series of award-winning films including Tom White, Em 4 Jay, and Blind Company. Then in 2012, he turned to the stage to direct his first play for MTC, John Logan’s Red, about abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko. He must have enjoyed the experience, because he returned in 2013 with Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop, and he’s back again in 2014 to direct David Mamet’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Glengarry Glen Ross.

With rehearsals for Glengarry Glen Ross now underway, MTC’s Paul Galloway spoke to Alkinos about the differences between directing for film and stage, and the sort of adjustments he needed to make to direct for the stage.

PG: So how did the move to theatre come about? How did you get the job directing Red? Did you approach MTC with the project?
AT: No, it was Colin Friels. He was asked if he wanted to play Rothko in Red and he said that he would, but the condition was that I direct. That was the deal and so he called me …

PG: You had worked with Colin on Tom White
AT: On Tom White and Blind Company, two films. We had a working relationship. When he called me, he said, ‘Let me do something for you: let me bring you into my world.’ That was a great invitation.

PG: So you had no ambition to direct for the stage before then?
AT: I thought it might be something to do some time in the future. A general sort of ambition if the opportunity came up. So I read the play and I thought, yes I would really like to do it.

PG: What was the attraction?
AT: Red was a terrific play, but it wasn’t just the idea of doing a play but also the idea of doing this sort of play. So those two things – and to work with Colin again.

PG: Because the play was a two-hander or because it was about Mark Rothko?
AT: Because it was about Rothko, especially about where art stood in that world. I think it spoke to me directly in that way. The two-hander aspect didn’t worry me, because I had done a two-hander on film, so I knew the territory.

PG: Did you find the adjustment to theatre hard?
AT: No, hard isn’t the word; I found it interesting. It taught me patience, you know? I teach acting and I have always respected what actors do. Love what they do, love the craft. And to work in theatre has brought me closer to the craft. I felt it all became pared back, the acting. The process became organic for me, getting back to the rawness of actors acting live. It made me realise how important theatre is to actors, it holds a special place; it’s their playground.

PG: Because they get immediate feedback from an audience.
AT: Yes, and you can’t cheat on stage. There are tricks with film, many tricks, but the stage exposes a performance. It really is immediate and if feels as if there is a lot less control if you are directing. For a film director, theatre is like calling ‘Action’ and not being able to call ‘Cut’ for ninety minutes.

PG: What about the size of performance for theatre, did you have to make any adjustments for that?
AT: No, not that I was too aware. I think size of performance is natural. The adjustments that actors need to make in terms of volume and connection to the audience, I think, is inherent in the craft of acting. It’s what I expect an actor to be able to do and understand. It’s more important for me to look for truthfulness. I’m always looking for a truthful performance and that transcends film, television, theatre – all the media. Truthfulness is the common denominator.

PG: You say that there are tricks with actors in filming …
AT: No, well, the trickery I’m talking about with film is the luxury to go again, to repeat the scene, and the luxury in editing and the whole mise-en-scene with filmmaking. So, if you need to, you can carve out the performance you want partly out of the process of filmmaking.

PG: Theatre doesn’t seem to have the absolute time restrictions of film, of having to keep moving, changing set-ups, needing to get it in the can and move on to the next shot.
AT: There is certainly a luxury in rehearsal in theatre, but the weird thing I found was that in theatre the production is slowly taken out of your hands. And I like the way a theatre director’s function is really to become the show’s first audience – that’s the big difference. In film, it is very hard for a director to become the audience, because of the way a film is shot, the process.

PG: Because the shooting is out of order and in bits …
AT: That’s right. Where theatre demands of the director to be the audience’s eye, to shape what the audience will see.

PG: We are going to talk about David Mamet in a moment, but what you just said reminds me of David Mamet’s summing up of theatre, his slogan: ‘Theatre is the art of giving things away.’
AT: Yeah, you become less and less central to the process as the thing goes on.

PG: Becoming redundant as others – the actors, the stage management – take control. Whereas in a film …
AT: Yeah, the author of a film is the director. We have the screenwriter, the cast the production team, but ultimately it’s a film by the director. You are involved in every aspect. That’s what the genre demands. That can drive you mad; making films can actually drive you insane.

PG: And that includes the process of getting a film up. I expect you have film projects in the pipeline?
AT: Oh, yes and it’s always a very long pipeline. It has become increasingly more difficult to get films financed. That’s because the door to distribution has actually narrowed. The world-wide web seems to be opening things up, but actually we haven’t found an audience yet or a model that will work. So distribution has closed up. People aren’t seeing many Australian films because they’re not being screened. I look at theatre and the percentage of people in theatre audiences who come to see Australian plays – it’s much higher, the appreciation of Australian work in theatre. I look at that and wonder what’s wrong with the film industry? Why aren’t we making that connection?

PG: Let’s discuss the play, David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross. It is a modern classic, but it was also turned into a film with Al Pacino and Jack Lemmon. And I’d like to get your opinion as a film director about the two versions, the play and the film. The film has a new scene with Alec Baldwin as a tough guy from head office laying out rules for the sales competition.
AT: I saw the film first and then read the play. In the film, the Alec Baldwin character is actually a device, a classic one, where perhaps the producers got a bit nervous and wondered if the audience will understand what the set-up is. Mamet took his own play, which in its raw form is fabulous, and kind of tried to fit it into a cinematic story-telling form that’s more conventional, put it into a safe place. The film works on many levels and on others it doesn’t quite. Reading the play, I realised that the heat of the play lies in the theatre of it. I am glad that we can go back to the 1984 play. The Alec Baldwin character, that whole scene with him, is just not necessary, because it’s all there in the original if you’re paying attention. I like that the set up isn’t spoon-fed to you. There it is in the first act. And then the story drops like a rollercoaster into the second act.

PG: Did you get a sense when you were reading it what a breakthrough play it was?
AT: Oh, yeah, I can appreciate what the play did in terms of subject matter and its language, what it said in its place and time. Its language was completely unique. The style has been reinvented and reinterpreted many times since then, so we are used to it.

PG: Almost all playwrights punch up dialogue with a bit of robust swearing nowadays.
AT: But Mamet brought in a naturalism that, if you look at it now, you see that it is not natural at all. It’s a heightened street language – there’s a rap quality to it. The rap of the theatre for its time. If you look at the way that rap, in the eighties, broke away from contemporary rock, well Mamet’s doing the same. His dialogue’s not real. The naturalism’s heightened. The great thing I think he did with that language is bring along a whole world with it. There’s no disconnect, it feels as if the language fits the culture, those guys, the suits and ties, the sweat in that office, that masculine environment. I was blown away by the play at that level. The swearing is part of that.

PG: He brought swearing into the rhythm of language. It becomes punctuation.
AT: You would like to think that real estate hustlers would watch the play and say ‘I recognise that’. He captured how men in that situation relate to each other, you know.

PG: He’s the poet of male bullshit.
AT: Yeah, the poet of crap – all the crap that men feed each other. That male dynamic – it’s important to find that. You have seven characters, seven men who want to survive, and you throw them in a room and you have drama.

PG: It’s an aggressive environment.
AT: Aggression underpins the whole thing. The possibility of violence is always there. I mean they don’t get to fisticuffs, but you know it’s there and what’s great is that in that second act, you feel it build, you know something is coming.

PG: Have you plotted out how those dynamics between the various men are going to work?
AT: No, I haven’t really thought too much about the intricacies of all those conflicts. I just know they’re there to find in rehearsal. There’ll be plenty to explore. At this stage, I’m ‘gently does it’, but I know where it’s going to go.

PG: You have, I suppose, the luxury of so much more time with the actors in theatre. You don’t have a film crew standing around impatient to do their work.
AT: That’s right, but let me tell you the big difference between theatre and film has been the text, the importance of it. Film language is not text; theatre language is text, it’s the play. In film the script’s not the last word. Going into Glengarry the text is the bible and we need to make sure that we get it on stage, that text, fulfil that voice everyone hears when one reads the play. That’s what I want to achieve, to capture.

PG: Did you choose it?
AT: No, no – [MTC Artistic Director] Brett [Sheehy] offered it to me, Brett in his wisdom. And I thought fantastic. Because I think it’s great timing for Glengarry Glen Ross. Since the GFC, you look at all those rogue traders, and competition and desperation and risky practices, and you look at these guys in a real estate office in 1984 and they’re the same guys; they are the GFC in a nutshell, same guys, same behaviours.

PG: Yes, the ‘Kings of the World’ mentality. Those guys laying down the foundation of the US economy on dogshit mortgages, Fanny Mae’s …
AT: Exactly, and our guys in the play selling this worthless land. It’s the selling that’s everything, not the product. They’re being part of the dream, but they’re trapped in a system. They’re working for the man. Glengarry is really a working-class story in every sense of the word. They are all trying to make it big, but they’re all answering to the big guys downtown. They’re under the thumb.

David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, Directed by Alkinos Tsilimidos, is playing at Southbank Theatre, the Sumner from 5 July to 9 August.

Alkinos Tsilimidos spoke to Paul Galloway.

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