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SCHIMMELPFENNIG FOR YOUR THOUGHTS?
Roland Schimmelpfenning (photo by Justine del Corte)
German playwright Roland Schimmelpfennig is one of the most prolific and heralded young dramatists in Europe. At age 38, he has already written 16 plays that have been translated into 20 languages, yet he remains relatively unknown in America. His 2004 drama Die Frau von Frueher (The Woman Before) premiered in Vienna before being produced in Bern, Munich and Stuttgart. Now it is getting its American premiere at HERE Arts Center in a joint production with German Theater Abroad.
The play centers on the lives of Frank and Claudia who have been married 19 years and are packing their household belongings. Their move is complicated by the arrival of Romy Vogtlaender whom a teenaged Frank promised to love forever. Now she has returned to claim possession of her man. As Romy and Claudia both stake their claims for Frank, a Pinterish battle for ownership ensues via terse dialogue and cinematic-like bits of information and narrative that flash back and forth in time turning these relationships into a disquieting drama. A romance between Frank and Claudia’s teenage son Andreas and his teenage girlfriend Tina echoes Frank’s past relationship with Romy. In the end, Romy feels she must destroy all signs of Frank’s marriage in order for her bond of love with Frank to survive and to give herself hope for a renewed life. Schimmelpfennig spoke with New York Theatre Wire the morning after The Woman Before made its American premiere on May 5.
Jeremiah Miller and Christen Clifford in a scene from "The Woman Before" (courtesy German Theater Abroad)
How did you first come up with the idea for The Woman Before? The idea or the basic situation came from a fear that somebody from the past could just pop up and confront you with some things you might have said in your teenage days. It’s an idea I first had a couple of years ago. At first, I didn’t know what to do with it. But it kept haunting me. After one year of intense work on it and not knowing how to do it and form it into the right structure, I finally got to the point. I knew I wanted to do something that would jump back and forth in these spiraling structures. Suddenly, it just happened and I wrote it in about 4-8 weeks.
When did you write it and where did it premiere in Europe? It was commissioned by the Burgtheater in Vienna and it premiered in their smaller Academietheater. They always look for new plays. They asked me to write something big. It didn’t turn out big, but the issues are timeless. It was done in 2004.
When did it transfer to the Royal Court theatre in London? About a year later.
I understand the New York production makes some changes to your original text for The Woman Before. How does the New York production differ from earlier productions in Europe? I had intended the time shifts to be clearly announced through voiceovers or signs. That was not done in New York. Since it was not done here, you had to adjust to it and that made it more cinematic in New York. I liked it though. It was interesting.
The shifts back and forth in time in The Woman Before reminded me of cinema. Has cinema influenced your dramatic writing? Yes, French cinema has probably influenced my writing and Italian cinema as well. I can’t define it precisely, but there is some feeling of French cinema for me in the lighter beginning parts of the play. There is some comedy. It, of course, does have this movie aspect to it in being able to switch forward and move backward in time.
There are scenes in the play where blackouts occur and Tina and Romy are spotlighted as forestage and offstage narrators. How did you want them to function as narrators on the actions in the drama? It’s like a chorus. Tina is narrating. In a way it is like a Greek chorus.
Could you tell me about the stone imagery in the play? These stones are very common on the Baltic Sea. They’re the kind of thing you collect on the beach and take home as a memory. It’s a typical thing to have. The thing about looking through the hole and seeing the past and the future is not what you do with them. Frank is making fun of Claudia. It’s a bitter joke in a way.
The remembrance of this lost love takes on physical, emotional and psychological dimensions in the play. What did you want to say about one’s memory of past events? The relationship must have had a certain meaning for Romy, though I think it had meaning only because the rest of her life wasn’t very exciting. If it had been different, maybe she would have forgotten about him. Looking back on it, Romy sees this romantic thing as growing bigger and bigger for her. It has a different value for her than it would have if her life had been different.
Why did you use the imagery of graffiti tagging to mark Andreas’s presence and identity? Well, that’s a teenage thing to do. It’s a way of marking what belongs to you. He marks it to let people know he was there. But Romy doubts it’s possible that you can leave a permanent stain.
That ties in with the themes of possessiveness and ownership of another person in the play. How did you want to portray possessiveness and ownership in relationships? That’s the way it looked in the New York production. I didn’t really want to stress that in the play. It’s not about her not letting him loose. It’s about love.
Romy’s entrance into Frank and Claudia’s stale domestic life forces them to express themselves passionately again in their life. But Claudia wants to lock out any such expression in her life. What is Claudia’s development in the play? Yes, that’s right. Claudia is actually one of my favorite characters in the play. She has the courage to face this irritation that is standing outside her door. She says, ‘I’m going to close this door now.’ When she says there are two possible reasons why Frank has not told her about Romy, she is completely right. Of course, this pops up some questions about her husband Frank. We have to ask, ‘What kind of person is he?’ Claudia has some temper. She knows how to fight, but she can also forget it at a certain point. She’s mad at him. She’s angry at him. That’s understandable, but she can forgive him. But things don’t turn out that way.
What role did you want violence to play in these characters’ lives? Romy throws boxes around the stage in the New York production, but that wasn’t in the play. The London and Vienna productions actually had more violence. The killing of Andi was Hitchcock-like with the suffocating thing of the plastic bag. They also had the ending the way I had intended it. There is this long scene where Frank is stumbling and falling over the toy cars and ends up naked and bleeding. They followed the play more in that sense than they did in New York. I wanted it to be bitter rather than just have people smile about it.
Why did you want Andreas to die near the end of the play and is his death related to a Medea myth? It is Medea-related, but there’s more to it than revenge. It also involves punishment. Andi does not deserve to die, but he ends up being Romy’s first victim. She wants to turn back time. That means for her that everything has to be destroyed that is related to Frank’s marriage. Andi has to die and Claudia has to die as well.
Yes, like Andi, she wants to leave a mark of her presence and she wants to efface any signs of Frank’s marriage with Claudia. She wants to destroy all of that. Without that action, she can’t fulfill her sense of romantically bonded love that she has for Frank. Yes.
What do you want to reveal about the bonds of love and commitment in relationships in the play? That’s a good question (he laughs). It’s hopeless really. This guy Frank is really trapped because he does not remember anything he said to Romy in his youth. But he really doesn’t like the idea of his life being boring and normal. Of course, he is the way he is and he hasn’t changed in all these years.
Schimmelpfennig wrote his most recent play, Auf der Greisswalder Strasse (On Greisswalder Street), in 2005. Using shortcut scenes and over 50 actors, the playwright created small sketches of big city life. The play premiered at the Deutschestheater in Berlin in Jan. 2006.
German Theater Abroad in association with HERE Arts Center presents Stadttheater New York at HERE Arts Center, 145 6th Avenue (between Spring and Broome Streets), New York City. Through May 26. Roland Schimmelpfennig’s The Woman Before May 24-26 (8:30 p.m.). Subway: C or E train to Spring St. Mainstage tickets $18. Student tickets $12. Staged play readings in Die Kantine are free. Ticket Hotline: (212) 868-4444. For more information, call (212) 524-5089, or visit www.stadttheaternewyork.org.
Schimmelpfennig’s 2001 play Die arabische Nacht (Arabian Night) derives from his experiences working as a journalist in Istanbul. The Absurdist drama is full of dreams and nightmares. Its five characters experience an erotic urban fantasy set in an anonymous housing project somewhere in Germany. Part fairy tale, part noir thriller and part nightmarish adventure, it tells the story of two lovers, a beautiful insomniac, a voyeur and the building’s caretaker whose lives become intertwined on a hot summer night when their building’s water supply disappears and they are drawn to an apartment to meet their fate. The Play Company presents the New York premiere of Arabian Night at The East 13th Street Theatre, 136 East 13th St., May 31-July 1. Opening on June 12 at 7 p.m. Mon.-Sat. at 8 p.m. Sat. matinee at 2 p.m. Preview tickets are $20. Opening and subsequent tickets are $35 for evening performances and $20 for Sat. matinees. Student rush tickets are $5 with valid I.D. (212) 279-4200, or www.TicketCentral.com.
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