Supporting creative work by women
Gerda Stevenson is a multifaceted theater artist–actor, director, singer, songwriter, playwright. She was nominated for The LPTW Gilder Coigney International Theatre Award in 2011. Her play Federer vs. Murray received terrific notices when it premiered in New York at 59E59 Theaters in April 2012. It was hailed as “bursting at the seams…a small drama about a large subject” by The New York Times, “remarkable and universally resonant” by Backstage and “entertaining, significant and commendably compact” by TheaterMania.com. The play astutely looks at war and bereavement through a marriage and fanaticism of sports fans who pick sides–tennis greats Roger Federer and Andy Murray.
WORKS BY WOMEN: What inspired you to become a theater artist? What is your favorite piece you’ve ever seen and why?
GERDA STEVENSON: As a child, I was always acting. My father, the composer/pianist Ronald Stevenson, had a long correspondence with the great 20th century theatre designer, Edward Gordon Craig (the son of Ellen Terry). Craig gave my father lots of his original, exquisite woodcuts. I have one of them in my study, of the great French actor, Talma. He’s sitting inside a carriage, and it’s entitled Talma Rides to Brunoy. Mum and Dad used to take me with my brother and sister to the theatre in Edinburgh, and this became my passion. There was another crucial influence: at the local primary school I attended, we had a remarkable janitor, who used to direct musicals at the school. He also painted the back-cloths. He’d let me sit alongside him in the gym hall, and I’d direct with him, and then leap up onto the stage for my scenes! This extraordinary man used to paint pictures – oil paintings – in his tiny janitor’s room, and I’d go in there during break time to watch him working at his canvasses. Nowadays, such a relationship between a child and a middle-aged school janitor would be deemed perverted and dangerous, but he was an inspiration to me. My parents were very creative – my mother was initially a pianist before she became a nurse. One Christmas, my parents made papier-mâché glove puppets for me, and commissioned a local joiner to build a puppet theatre, with curtains on a pull cord mechanism. And I remember my dad once sent home from Germany, where he was touring as a concert pianist, a most thrilling parcel of beautiful German glove puppets, and the hand-written script of a play he’d penned for me and my friend to perform with these wonderful characters. We went on to make our own puppets, and wrote our own puppet plays, which we’d put on at local children’s birthday parties, to earn a bit of pocket money.
I’d find it difficult to pick only one favorite work of theatre that I’ve seen. I’m very eclectic. Three productions made a huge impression on me as a teenager: the brilliant Scottish actor, the late Tom Fleming, performing a solo show called Vincent, about Van Gogh, written by W. Gordon Smith. Fleming stood on stage, in the most atmospheric light, talked to us as if each one of us in the audience was the only person present. It was intensely intimate and profoundly moving, and I felt I had actually been in the presence of the great artist – that he had confided in me.
Around this time I also saw the original production of what has become one of Scotland’s most famous theatre productions of the 20th century – The Cheviot, the Stag, and the Black, Black Oil, written by the great, late John McGrath, and performed by 7:84 Theatre Company, of which John was artistic director. It was a powerfully political play, about Scotland’s history in relation to the iniquities of landownership and exploitation of people and resources. This play, and its production style – direct address to the audience, almost like the old music hall theatre – had a major impact on audiences everywhere. It was asking big questions, taking in the sweep of Scottish history, looking at the appalling injustices of one of our most shameful episodes, known as the Highland Clearances, when people (mainly native Gaelic speakers) were thrown off their land, first of all so that landlord farmers could replace them with sheep (more profitable), then deer, and finally, in the 20th century, global landlords climbing in on the act to make billions from oil. This production was not just a breath of fresh air, it was a bold blast of gale-force wind from the north, and its influence on Scottish theatre still resonates today. My first professional theatre engagement as an actor was with the legendary 7:84 Theatre Company. The other production which impressed me around this period was La MaMa’s Trojan Women, directed by the great Andrei Serban, (at the Edinburgh Festival) – couldn’t sleep afterwards, it thrilled me so, the power of the imagery, the huge investment in the deepest, most painful emotions humanity can experience – war, the loss of your children and family, the horrific subjugation of women, and all expressed in an invented language, but so searing in its eloquence. The physicality of that production was astounding. Recently, I have loved the work of the brilliant Yael Farber. I saw her production of Mies Julie, a South African transposition of Strindberg’s Miss Julie, and this year, 2013, Nirbhaya – both on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Farber’s work is deeply moving – an intensely physical theatre, yet always controlled, orchestrated with great musicality, in terms of rhythm and movement. (I also saw Ingmar Bergman’s production of Miss Julie in Edinburgh, many moons ago, with the Swedish State Theatre, which was superb.)
WBW: You were nominated for The LPTW Gilder Coigney International Theatre Award in 2011. What did that mean to you?
GS: It was a great honor to be nominated for this award, in the name of such extraordinary women as Rosamond Gilder and Martha Coigney. I felt surprised, humbled and excited. It was wonderful to have the opportunity to meet some of the other nominees, and fascinating to attend the sessions led by Odile Gakire Katese, the winner of the award. Her work in Rwanda is inspirational.
A scene from Federer vs. Murray
WBW: How do you create your work? What is your process?
GS: I am fairly fluid in the way I work. I’m also a writer (playwright and poet) and tend to think in images. Unlike many theatre directors in the United Kingdom, I have never attended university. Music is fundamental to my way of making theatre. My family is full of musicians – composers and instrumentalists – so music is second nature to me. My process is not set in stone. It depends on the piece, and with whom I’m collaborating. I absolutely love working collaboratively. Whether I’m writing, acting or directing, I always do a lot of research. My work has not been in the commercial sector. In Scotland, most theatre is subsidised by the government, via our arts council, which lends itself more to an ensemble style of theatre, rather than a ‘star’ system, the latter being very alien to my way of working.
WBW: What is one thing being a theater artist has taught you? What does working in the theater impart?
GS: There are so many things one learns from being a theatre artist! I’ve learned to listen. I’ve learned, over the years, that there are times when it’s best to quietly solve your own problems (particularly as an actor) if you can, rather than appropriating too much of everyone’s rehearsal time. As a director, I’ve learned to have the confidence not to feel the pressure of having to know all the answers to all the questions – it’s important to be open to discovery in the rehearsal process. Equally, I’ve had to learn when it’s necessary and appropriate to hold my ground, both as actor and director. Also, as a director, I’ve learned that it’s absolutely crucial to work only with people who are open, generous and curious as artists. People who are hanging on to their own personal ambition by their claws are almost always closed, and destructive to the creative process. As a writer, I’ve had to learn to trust the director – not always easy, but important! The whole process is, in one sense, an enormous act of faith – but you’ve got to do your research, and get the right team together from the outset.
WBW: What is your dream: for yourself, for theater in general, for the next generation of theater artists?
GS: We’re living in uncharted territory. Frightening times, globally. Theatre is an urgent art form, a powerful way of story-telling, and of dreaming. I hope that theatre will resist the deadening impact of the commercial sector’s increasingly dogmatic and overwhelming demands. Here’s a poem I wrote, which perhaps expresses something of what I feel:
To An Old Clown
“What’s Art for?” people ask,
and I’ve asked myself the same.
But I’m glad, dear jester, jouster,
rowdy old clown, I’m glad
we dance and sing while earth spins,
even if the stories we tell
are just a fleck on time’s stage –
that grand design of infinite entrances
and exits, with no horizons ever – glad
we don the daft motley, paint
our faces, and, at the very least,
make each other laugh;
though when new light shines
down years to come, who knows
who’ll remember, and, if they do,
who’ll understand the spot-lit lies,
floodlit truths, and shadowed ambiguities
in our retellings of the world’s old tales?
The LPTW Gilder Coigney International Theatre Award will be given again in 2014. To learn more now, visit the League of Professional Theatre Women website.