April 8, 2010
From a POW camp to Berlin to Stanford: an avant-garde director's career
By Cynthia Haven
Every kid in theater dreams of that lucky break when the big star falls ill and he walks into the spotlight.
For Tony Kushner, who would go on to write the Pulitzer and Tony Award-winning Angels in America, one such moment happened in 1984, when his mentor, the internationally renowned director Carl Weber, was ill after a trip to Mexico. Weber called on Kushner, one of his promising graduate students at New York University, to assume his role directing Bertolt Brecht's Happy End.
It was, as Kushner admitted, "a big deal" but then, Weber, one of the foremost interpreters of Brecht, was himself a big deal: "Carl was a spectacular teacher. I feel like a great deal about what I learned about writing plays came from working with Carl as a directing student," said Kushner.
Weber, now professor emeritus of directing and dramaturgy at Stanford, worked with Brecht at the Berliner Ensemble from 1952 until the director-playwright's death in 1956, when Weber became resident director.
And though many hailed Angels in America as one of the top American plays ever, it has its roots in the German avant-garde theater Weber brought to America.
"Carl is a spectacularly erudite man, vastly well-read and enormously fluent in art and in music and cinema and history," Kushner said in an interview with Stanford Report. "Having somebody who was a serious intellectual and thinker and politically engaged gave me permission, in a certain sense, to take theater very seriously. It mattered. It was a serious way of thinking about the world and the meaning of existence."
Weber's own "lucky break" came in the most inauspicious manner imaginable. In a conversation in his office at Memorial Auditorium, he shook his head, remembering his days as a teenage World War II soldier: "Thank God I was sent to France and not to the Eastern Front."
Usually, a discussion with the octogenarian director plunges the listener into the world of experimental theater of the last few decades. But for a few minutes, Weber revisited a more distant past, recalling his career as an unwilling German soldier.
"At the first opportunity" he recalled, and then put up both hands in the universally accepted sign of surrender "I was a prisoner of England in Belgium." He was sent to Colchester, Essex, as a POW.
Brecht and the 'visual narrative'
Within weeks of his capture, he was performing Friedrich Schiller's The Robbers as one of a handful of performers at the Christmastime play in a mess tent, with tables for a stage. The group had a captive audience literally.
But the event was a turning point: After Weber returned to a Germany that was "cold and miserable and in ruins" in February 1946, he finished his studies in chemistry at the University of Heidelberg and went to Berlin in September 1949 to pursue a career as an actor, director and dramaturg.
A second turning point occurred soon after: Weber saw Brecht's Mother Courage, a production that launched Brecht's famous Berliner Ensemble: "It is still to me the most impressive theater I have seen in my life. It was a totally different kind of theater. Simply stunning. The way of acting was different, the staging was very different."
Weber knew right away: "I have to work with this man."
Brecht is remembered in the United States mostly as the dramatist who brought left-wing politics to the stage. He was much more than that, however: He tore down the "fourth wall" barrier between the stage and audience. It wasn't enough to sit in the theater and be entertained: Brecht wanted you to question society's values and your own.
Brecht's values exploded other conventions, too, by emphasizing the visual "telling the story by the way the visual production unfolded," said Weber.
"When I work with students here, my first, foremost focus is to teach how to create visual narrative by the way you move people and objects in space; by the configuration of what you see.
"In Brecht's staging and directing, psychology was not particularly important. Brecht quite rightly thinks the audience has no idea what the actor is thinking," said Weber. "Actors don't think only with their heads, but with their bodies. The sooner they move, the more they can internalize the text with what they're doing with their bodies."
Weber said that Brecht's oft-repeated phrase to actors was "Don't tell me, show me."
A soulmate in Shakespeare
Weber's 1952 "audition" for Brecht was a series of essays: Weber was asked to sit in on a few rehearsals and write not a critique or review but rather what he actually saw onstage. Not surprising, given Brecht's desire for absolute visual clarity what was happening in a play should be evident even to a deaf person watching the scenes unfold.
Weber was headed for controversy, for Brecht was a double-edged sword in the politically charged atmosphere of the Cold War years.
When the Berliner Ensemble's production of Mother Courage premiered at Théâtre des Nations in Paris in 1954 (it received the festival's prize), the Communist Party in East Germany denounced it as "decadent." Greater problems lay ahead.
In 1961, as Weber was preparing a Lübeck production of Brecht's Trumpets and Drums, the German border was closed without warning, and construction of the Berlin Wall began. Weber never returned to his East German home.
Much of Weber's time especially in recent years has been devoted to the work of one East German writer trapped behind the Wall. At present, Weber is working on a forthcoming volume of Heiner Müller's Shakespeare adaptations, "Macbeth" and "Anatomy Titus Fall of Rome."
Some dramatists behind the Iron Curtain found an unexpected kindred spirit in the Bard of Avon: "Shakespeare, with his way of treating stories and history, offers the most complex presentation of politics and history we have onstage," said Weber. "I think that's what attracted Eastern Europeans to Shakespeare. It's immediately understood as a criticism of regime."
Müller, East Germany's foremost playwright, reconstructed and reused Shakespeare's plays beginning in the 1970s. His cut-and-paste intermingling and juxtaposing of material created a postmodern way of looking at texts.
Weber brought Müller's work before English-speaking audiences for the first time, as the translator of his works.
Weber's signature production in New York the one awarded two Obies brought Austrian Peter Handke to the American stage in 1973. Handke called his Kaspar "speech torture." Clive Barnes of the New York Times more charitably termed it an "aggressively avant-garde" play about "how we become what we speak how language has a life and power of its own quite distinct from the things its words, as it were, symbolize."
In an innovative move, Weber brought technology to the stage with 15 closed-circuit TV monitors that frame the proscenium opening, showing the character sometimes with a delay break, sometimes on film, sometimes in close-up, creating, Barnes wrote, "a sense of uncertainty, a dimension of strangeness, that is perfect for the play."
For students at Stanford, "Carl makes you aware of your talents, needs, curiosities," said Florentina Mocanu, who came from Romania in large part to study with Weber. "He very gently pushes you to achieving what you need. He loves to see you develop your own voice and vision. That reflects on the way he treats his students with enormous love and discipline."
He also brought a sensibility and skill to the Stanford stage that won recognition beyond the Bay Area.
Weber was a graduate of a tougher school even than Stanford. Many of the "alumni" of Camp 186 in Colchester went on to have remarkable careers: German stage and TV actor Günther Stoll; Werner Düttmann, city architect for Berlin in the 1960s; and actor Klaus Kinski, collaborator with writer-film director Werner Herzog. Kinski made his stage debut on the tabletops of a mess tent with Weber, where the angelic-looking Kinski was acclaimed for his talent in female roles.
Seven years after Kushner directed Happy End, Weber was ensconced at Stanford, and Angels in America received its world premiere, in May 1991, at San Francisco's Eureka Theatre. Weber was in the audience.