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“I didn’t want my gender to be an issue”

INTERVIEW. Katie Mitchell is back in Berlin for the world premiere of her adaptation of The Yellow Wallpaper, a classic early feminist text in the American canon.

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Photo by Stephen Cummiskey

Freshly honored with her second invitation to the 50th annual Theatertreffen (German theater’s Berlinale and the highest honor a play in Germany can receive) for Reise durch die Nacht in Cologne, British director Katie Mitchell is back in Berlin for the world premiere of her adaptation of The Yellow Wallpaper. A classic early feminist text in the American canon, Charlotte Gilman Perkins’ short story is a semi-autobiographical account of a woman who begins to hallucinate while staying in a room covered in the titular yellow wallpaper. This version adapted by Lyndsey Turner and translated into German by Gerhild Steinbuch uses Mitchel’s now-trademark live filming techniques to create a multimedia thriller.

How did you translate the short story into dramatic form?

The first thing we did with the text was we took it to a psychiatrist friend of mine for him to read because I wanted to understand whether it was literature, poetry or whether it was a very accurate psychiatric portrait of a condition. He read it and he said it was a text book portrait of postnatal depression – totally accurate. So that was quite exciting! We realised we had a piece of material which was psychiatrically very precise. And once we discovered that we decided we didn’t want it in its 1890s period, we decided to set it in Germany now: a couple from Berlin go out to the countryside in Brandenburg. We modernised and updated it, and came up with a nine scene film script for using these live cameras to tell the story.

Your use of live filming has become so integral and so extensive that it begs the question: why not just make a film?

It’s a good question, but the thing is: as a director you’re always in this privileged position to the actors, you’re really close, you can see it all. But by the time you’re in row six, you’re not seeing all the detail. So on one very important level, everyone gets access to all the subtle details of the acting, and it’s live. What could be better? It’s still true to the details of live theatre making but people can see all the details and it’s very fair. And an auditorium is not democratic, even though they say it is.

Do you find yourself getting comfortable or bored with the use of live filming?

It’s never boring, we’re always trying to find new ways: at each gig we set different artistic targets. In Cologne we had a train carriage and we had to shoot a film with a moving train so we had to make all the shots look like the characters were on a moving train. We’ve tried to push it here with special effects: you try and do the woman behind the wallpaper, that’s really hard. Each time we push the boundaries of what’s possible or set ourselves a new target. Here it’s the thriller and the hallucinations.

And there’s certainly many thrillers in the history of film…

It’s in the long tradition of short thrillers about people in very claustrophobic strange houses and things that go really awry. We were also looking at Repulsion by Polanski – a film about a woman going slowly mad – and also thinking about Hitchcock. In the construction of the live filming, we’ve had a great time referencing dark film noir thrillers as we put it together. And I suppose the good thing is the title is not well known here in Germany, so they don’t know the end of the story! That’s very exciting for our purposes.

In the original text the description of masses of women being stuck behind this wallpaper can be interpreted as characterizing the societal position of women at the end of the 19th century. How strong are the feminist themes in this production?

To some extent that only has force if you set it in its historical time. So if you uncouple this story from its historical time then it isn’t this feminist event that it was in the 1890s. Although it has to be said that there aren’t many plays that deal with postpartum depression even today, and that really says something about our culture. People still don’t like things about menopause or menstruation or postnatal depression; all these things that happen around the woman’s body are not so often dramatised. You have to put up with acres around the male body. I mean it’s interesting but there’s a lot of it. (Laughs)

Do you feel a responsibility to take on these issues of feminism, especially now that you have a daughter?

Of course, young girls are sexualised so much more early on now. I feel in my actions as a woman, I have to be accountable to my daughter so I can’t duck my gender in relation to my work. I have to lay a path for her of belief and political structure. When I was younger I used to feel boxed in and I wanted the world to be fair, so I didn’t want my gender to be an issue. I just wanted it to be work for work’s sake and judged separately but as I’ve gotten older, I feel I have to be accountable now.

The economic crisis has also had an effect on funding but Germany has managed to keep their subsidies relatively stable…

I don’t know entirely but I imagine the worse things get, the more you need art! If things get worse economically it should be the last to go! But of course you need health and education so in our country we’re in quite a pickle. There are a lot of cuts.

And the arts tend to be cut first. What have you noticed over the past few years in UK?

Commercialisation. It’s a sector which is led by the balance sheets. It’s very buoyant economically and that’s what is driving the sector right now: money making not art making.

How have you managed to still make art then?

By being cunning.

What advice would you give young British directors?

Accept the fact you won’t earn a living and make the work you want to make.

So accept that you will be a starving artist?

My generation started out in the 1980s, so it was really difficult because of Thatcher. We really were starving artists, and today they’re emerging with big debts from university. But I would say find other sources of earning a living and don’t get tugged into the commercialisation: follow a very pure artistic line. Even if that means setting up alternative structures and ways of working outside the traditional commercial structures. I think that’s the thing to establish: an alternative culture that goes, no, the values of theatre are important and you can’t always put them on a balance sheet.

How would you characterize the values of theater then?

We all know the moment when you’ve read a book and watched a show and it chimes so profoundly with us that we understand something about ourselves or the society we are in, and our behaviour gently shifts. The problem always will be that you can’t easily make the value of reading a book, looking at a painting or watching a performance concrete, but everyone can cite a moment when reading a book, looking at a performance or a bit of art has affected and changed their behaviour, or their way of looking and understanding the world, in a way that, over time, led them into a better place at a deeper level, rather than, oh I’ve made some more money now. No, it’s deeper; I metaphysically shifted and became enriched. And how do you quantify that! (Laughs) Imagine the world without music, dance, theatre or paintings. Just imagine that. Woah!  Maybe one has to come at it from that point of view. How impoverished a world it would be.

Another interesting trend is increasing international collaborations

That’s really important: as the environment issues shift and there are more economic issues we’re going to become more and more insulated and turned in. So art is still a place where that isn’t happening. There are still wonderful collaborations and exchange.

THE YELLOW WALLPAPER, Feb 16, 18, 19, 20:00 | Schaubühne, Kurfürstendamm 153, U-Bhf Adenauerplatz