Supporting creative work by women
Katrin Hilbe is a director of opera and theatre, of Liechtenstein-Kansas origin, working both in the US and in Europe. For Richard Strauss’ Salome for New Orleans Opera she won “Best Opera Production 2012”. With her company, ManyTracks, she co-produced and directed the play St. Joan by Julia Pascal, and won the Hilton Edwards Award for best direction and adaptation at the Dublin International Gay Theatre Festival. Her theatre credits include In Bed With Roy Cohn, Dear Jane, Breaking the Silence and Danton’s Death. For opera she has directed Pelleas Et Melisande, Die Schumann Sonate and Falstaff. Between 2007-2010, Katrin was the primary Assistant Director for Richard Wagner’s Der Ring Des Nibelungen under the direction of Tankred Dorst at the Bayreuth Festival in Germany.
Katrin spoke with Works by Women about theatre, opera and the differences between working in the US and Europe.
WORKS BY WOMEN: What caused your first impulse to work in the performing arts?
KATRIN HILBE: I was drawn to the arts from an early age, decided at nine I wanted to be an actress, at 16 a singer, then I vacillated between the two. Being a director was never something I knew was a “thing”, since I grew up in a village of 6,000 people, and the theatre I saw were traveling productions. What pulls in a kid? It was glamorous, the women were pretty, and, I suppose, I had a performative streak. Hard to say.
WBW: To direct?
KH: When I was asked to assistant direct an opera production, I was a student at the University of Berne, majoring in Philosophy, with minors in Musicology, English and American Literature, and the director was a directing student in Vienna. He didn’t know what to do with one scene. It was an aria of a goddess, singing angrily at Paris and Helen who she felt shouldn’t be doing what they were doing. It was Gluck’s Paris and Helen, a rarely performed 18th century opera. So he threw the score my way and said “You do it.” I had no idea what he meant, but went home, looked at the score and found that I had ideas. I was very lucky that the singers I was dealing with were very open and game, and in rehearsal I found not only that my ideas worked, but that I was able to communicate them successfully. I was immediately a fish who had found her water, whereas in all my other choices my intellectual streak was fighting my creative urges. The rest is history. I decided to finish my master’s degree, since I was halfway through uni, but spent all my time off interning and assisting to learn the craft. I had found my purpose.
WBW: How do you select the material you work on?
KH: Projects come to me, and they either resonate with me or it doesn´t. That can be very different material: serious, comedic, traditional, non-traditional… it’s a bit unfathomable what gets me going. But it’s an instinct I tend to follow. When in doubt I consult my 4 Ps: Pleasure, Pay, Prestige, Productivity. Two out of four need to apply, otherwise I can’t do it.
Photo of Dear Jane. Photo by Russ Rowland.
WBW: Have you noticed any common threads or themes on the pieces you’ve worked on?
KH: Yes, and no. Not necessarily themes or threads, but I tend to be drawn to darker material, even if it often has humor in it. Subject matters that deal with complex issues that defy easy solutions. I use H.L. Mencken’s quote in my mission statement of my company: “For every complex problem, there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong.”
WBW: How do you approach a piece?
KH: I read it, make notes, jot down ideas that come to me, questions, images. I talk to the writer (if available), read it again, create a dynamic dialogue between myself and the material, going in 100 different directions, often free associating, while I form a relationship to the piece. Mentally I begin to put a creative team in place, think of actors, see what happens with me and the piece. This first phase is the most important, as it really creates the basis for how I’ll tell the story, what look it’ll have, the “concept” as you will. Everything follows from that first free-floating phase.
Photo of Dear Jane. Photo by Russ Rowland.
WBW: What has being in the theater taught you most of all?
KH: While there is certainly a learning curve, something like accumulated experience and expertise, you always learn, it’s never the same. You’ll never really figure it out. Theatre is like life that way. So you simply can’t allow yourself to ever be set in your ways. You have to stay flexible, curious, open, ready to learn, to throw away a good idea, to keep fine-tuning the balancing act of listening to your collaborators, while staying alert to your inner seismograph, so that you can stay true to your vision, if you truly feel it holds. It may not, but that’s only for you to assess. And to keep honing your imagination and alertness of what you see and experience around you.
WBW: You’ve worked in the US and Europe. What excites you about both? Are there noticeable differences?
KH: Money and the established houses. Union rules, entitlement of a resident ensemble, lack of agency, size of talent pool, rehearsal time.
I’ve worked in Germany, Switzerland and Austria, which is a very particular theatre culture, different from the Russian, the British and the French or Mediterranean approach. I can only speak for my little niche.
For one thing: theatre in Germany is not a playwright’s hegemony like it is in the US or the UK. Theatres and directors will make cuts, casting choices, interpretations of even a new script quite liberally. Sometimes in communication with the writer, but not always. The idea that every comma by the playwright is sacrosanct was completely new to me when I first came to the US and started directing plays in addition to operas. While the OCD aspect still irks me at times, I enjoy collaborating with living writers, having directed so many operas of dead composers, where you simply have to make something work, and can’t ask him or her questions about it.
Another big difference is that, unless you work in the indie scene, the established rep houses in Europe have a salaried ensemble of actors/singers. As a young singer/actor the pay is very low, but it’s secure for the first two years, then gets renewed or not on a yearly basis. So there is insecurity, but nothing compared to the US situation. Also, if your contract does not get renewed, you are told at the beginning of the season and have the whole year to go audition at other houses while you still have a paid job. The upside is obvious. The downside less so. After 10 years in the US, I worked in the European system again last year, and while you get ample rehearsal time – six weeks for a project – you lose a lot of this time by having to convince actors who were not asked whether they want to be part of your project to be excited and interested in it. In New York, holding auditions and then casting, creates a first allegiance between a creative and the producer/director. Both make the choice to work together. Already that’s four days of rehearsals saved, which you otherwise spend building trust.
You lose another chunk of time by getting to know and dealing with office cooler politics of established fiefdoms within a theatre of people who have been running the technical, lighting or costume department since God was a lad, and would rather do less work than more. A mixture of being prepared, excited and passionate with a willingness to shmooze but then also to stomp your feet when needed, has served me. But it’s exhausting and takes time/energy away from the task at hand, namely to create the best show possible. I never had to deal with so much ego bs on a contract job in NYC as I had in that theatre in Germany. And they were not a toxic house, quite the opposite. As German houses go, they were very nice and functional. But with 23 openings in a season, the actors have no agency, and they go from opening night to a first rehearsal often within a day or overlapping, and they feel less like lucky bastards to have a job but like slaves. And I get it.
Photo of Dear Jane. Photo by Russ Rowland.
WBW: What does theater and/or opera offer the world at this moment in time?
KH: In the US, I feel theatre can now really become important again as a political voice. By that I don’t mean producing partisan plays for the choir, but productions that raise difficult, complex questions, and we need to absolutely insist on their complexity in this political climate, which is right now dominated by simplistic thinking. Which in my mind is highly dangerous. We need to have our banner up for diversity, intelligence, imagination, creativity, the “Yes, and..” approach to the world rather than building walls. Theatre has always done that, and the world needs us now more than ever.
WBW: Who or what is your biggest influence? Why? What?
KH: Opera. It was my starting point, my first love. I spent 10 years of my professional life in the world of opera, mostly in the tradition of “Regietheater”, or as Americans call it “Eurotrash”, first as an Assistant Director, then House director managing the repertoire of the Frankfurt Opera, while pursuing a career directing opera.
KH: Christof Nel, Rosamund Gilmore.
KH: Mr. Nel taught me to think theatrically, thereby allowing for bolder moves and gestures, as it acknowledges the larger reality of the stage. And it’s a different way to show the inner world of characters or their world, and leaves realism in the dust if need be.
Ms. Gilmore comes from dance, started as a dancer and choreographer, and she creates with singers/actors stagings that on the surface have no psychological approach or obvious textual connections (which drives some singer/actor batshit), but when you watch it, it’s all subliminally connected.
Both have strong aesthetic senses, their vision involves every aspect of production: performers, set, costumes, lights, and they never allow their imagination to be curtailed in the conception of things. Reality of course demands changes, compromises, and they’re very successful at what they do, so they manage, but they won’t self-censor their minds. I love all that and try to keep it in mind when I work.
WBW: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
KH: My first boss, artistic director of the City Theatre of Würzburg, Tebbe Harms Kleen, whom I assisted several times: “Directing means putting obstacles into the smooth path of a person´s course, and as she overcomes them, her character is revealed.” Always served me well.
Photo of Katrin Hilbe by Angus Hepburn.