In a 2016 interview for BOMB Magazine, Lisa Dwan and Walter Asmus talk to Michael Coffey about their collaboration on Beckett’s late plays
Michael Coffey: Lisa, in performing these plays, do you draw on personal experience? Or is it all technique?
Lisa Dwan: To be perfectly honest, it’s a combination of both, but it’s the technique that saves me from cracking up. I had a very humiliating experience on tour. I had done over 300 performances [of Footfalls]. I am tired, I am in Birmingham, it’s a Wednesday, I can hear that the audience has brought their lunch in with them, thinking that perhaps this performance is some other thing. Do I want to pick my most traumatic wounds, and lead with those up on stage, or should I question what theater is about, what am I doing, why am I doing this, does anyone care? It happened to be the day that the American journalist Daniel Pearl was beheaded, and I think we were all deeply traumatized by that, and we had reached a whole new low, a different sphere, so I decided to use that as a control—and within seconds, within seconds, I felt I had lost the audience. They were shifting in their seats. They weren’t with me. I had had them by the scruff of the neck at the very start, and I lost them, they weren’t with me, and the only thing I could think of, to account for it, is that I had changed the image of the play in my mind. The discipline and the parameters are so narrow; I straight away realized I was being grandiose, I was being sentimental, and Beckett taught me that sentimentality is the language of gangsters. I very quickly came back into my own story. I went back into my personal stuff. Which is not half as powerful as that image of the hooded figure on his knees. But it was true, it was mine, and because I went to my space, I gave the audience space to go to theirs. Beckett wants audience participation. He gives them space.
Michael Coffey: Walter has been quoted as saying that he is interested in “the misery in the music.” As an actor being put through these challenging paces, what do you say to that?
Lisa Dwan: I have accepted that. I want to run out of the theater too! Often when I am rehearsing, and I pull up the blindfold in Not I, I see someone in tears. Some people come backstage and they are completely inconsolable. Now my niece, she is four years of age, and she watched me rehearse Not I last week in my apartment, and she didn’t flinch, she didn’t lose concentration for a second, you couldn’t hear her breathe. She was transfixed, and at the end her mother asked her what she thought it was about, and she said, “It’s about the whole world.” A four-year-old! It’s an extraordinary thing that Beckett provokes through an amusement. It is highly visceral work confronting the most daunting and human aspects of our situation. Beckett, through this kind of human sound—the music, as Walter says—is speaking to all of us.
Walter Asmus: It takes courage to dig deep and face the misery in these works, courage from the director and the actor, but it’s worthwhile to take the pains. Beckett has composed very precise imagery—the image of a talking mouth, in a completely dark theater, simply requires an absolute precision to prevent the mouth from getting out of the light’s focus. Lisa’s performance, being extremely physical, requires certain measures to fulfill the needs of that image. The image of a woman walking to and fro on a strip of light [in Footfalls] is a composition of light and darkness, sound and stillness, stasis and movement. Beckett’s texts are written like pieces of music, themes, repetitions, variations of themes, and so on. If you analyze the music of the texts thoroughly, the actor finds profound material to become a so-called “character,” that is, they get connected with the deeper implications of a narrative—and the often subconscious self. The formal construction helps the actor to become creative in the context of the play itself. It’s no longer the actor’s enemy, but a partner, an accomplice, a friend. It is a liberation.
Read Michael Coffey’s complete interview with Lisa Dwan and Walter Asmus over at BOMB Magazine.