Director Max Truax has made a splash in the last couple of years with a set of daring, expressionistic productions that transport a downtown New York sensibility to Chicago’s traditionally naturalistic storefront scene. Whether tracing an Eastern European crime spree in A Couple of Poor Polish-Speaking Romanians, updating Brecht’s In the Jungle of Cities and Strindberg’s The Ghost Sonata, or turning Heiner Müller’s forbidding Hamletmachine into a chamber opera, his work weds conceptual integrity to impressive visual imagination. I had a chance to speak to the 35-year-old director recently at link=Oracle Theatre, with the formidable set for his upcoming production of Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck looming over us.
Looking back at your last several productions, you’re certainly not afraid of choosing projects that audiences might find challenging.
I tend to be drawn to plays that, I would call them almost broken, or incomplete. With powerful ideas, but not lending themselves easily to a production. Something like In the Jungle of Cities rarely gets produced, and when it has gotten produced, has been received poorly, for a number of reasons. That challenge, or the feeling that it’s like a puzzle: to find those ideas that are so exciting in it, and bring them to life, show them to an audience, to resolve the issues that would ordinarily undermine a production.
Do you have a general strategy for approaching such texts?
I don’t have any specific, consistent strategy. I tend to look at the broader strokes. Lately I’ve been interested in frame analysis, the social theory of sociologist Erving Goffman. I’m looking at how he breaks down experience into these organizing frames, and using that as a way to access theater. Thinking about the frames that exist in a scene is quite similar to the more traditional theatrical approach of beat structure, there’s a lot of overlap, but then I’m also linking that to Jung’s archetypes, playing around a little with that.
My approach tends not to be psychological—I lean away from that. I think of that as the actor’s realm, something that they’re more adept at.
So you focus more on visual and kinesthetic aspects?
Yeah—I think of a play as a series of pictures. Stories are told on many different levels, and one of them is as a series of images. You can look at the text itself, just the pure words; the actors’ interpretations of those words; or the soundscape, all those different layers are telling the story, and one of those layers is images. Those things don’t have to be in sync. They have the same goal in mind, and they play with one another: sometimes they can be in opposition, and that’s what I try to do with the visual imagery. I’m pretty influenced by Robert Wilson’s work, especially when I was younger. But my entry point into theater was performance and visual art; when I was a visual artist, I was creating, like, graphic novels: series of paintings that would tell stories over time. That’s how I ended up doing theater: I found a medium that could do that.
Do you ever find that actors resist your anti-psychological perspective?
Yes. I like to think I’ve gotten better at speaking in actor. But I find a real difference between the actors I’ve worked with before and actors I’m working with for the first time. Their expectations are different, they know how I’m going to think about things. When I was younger, there was more resistance because I didn’t really understand what an actor needs. The stakes are really high for an actor, they’re putting themselves in front of an audience and, there are probably more complicated ways to put it, but they don’t want to look like an idiot. And when you’re throwing new or unusual ideas at them, it can be frightening. I constantly have to work at being able to understand how to give the actors what they need from me, so that they can then give me what I need from them. It’s one of the more fun parts about directing.
And when I say I eschew psychology, it’s not really true. I can think in broader terms about the play, but you have to dig into the psychology of the characters, because it exists, and that’s where the play comes to life. Otherwise, it’s a very cold, beautiful dance.
Tell me more about your early visual art. Were you making things designed to be printed as books?
Most of my work was series of paintings. I did do some work where they were pages, but only did a few where it was one story over several pages. Even the page, I was treating as an object: If you know graphic novel illustrators like Bill Sienkiewicz, his work tends to treat the whole page, and he was one of my big influences, along with Dave McKean, who did the Sandman series.
Another big influence has been film. For some reason, the grocery store in my hometown, Northfield, Minnesota, had an incredibly small but rich collection of art house movies on VHS, mixed in with the new releases and family pictures. My brother was obsessed with bringing home movies all the time, and since I was in 9th grade, he was forcing me to watch movies with him. Now, thinking about staging, I’m often talking to the actors in terms of film concepts: How can you achieve a theatrical close-up? How can you achieve depth of field? Those sorts of illusions that the camera can create, I try to create a theatrical equivalent.
What particular films influenced you?
One that, no one will agree with me on this, but Keith Gordon directed The Chocolate War, from the young adult novel, and his direction of it was bold and odd and arty—for some reason this one piece I find sort of masterful and sad. I was the right age for it. I got to see Naked Lunch by Cronenberg, and Brazil was a big awakening for me, like for most people in my generation.
What were your parents doing in Northfield?
Now my parents own and operate their own insurance agency. But they’re closet artists: My father was a singer, quite a talented singer, and my mother is a painter and sculptor. But both of them put their artistic pursuits by the wayside to support the family, got distracted by other careers. And because of that, when they saw I was interested in the arts, they encouraged me every step of the way. They get scared every time I get a real job. I just took a job doing corporate training, and they’re warning me about it.
And what led you from visual art to directing?
I went to Oberlin College and studied art there, focusing on performance and installation art. I stayed at Oberlin for a year after graduation, and wrote and directed an opera with some colleagues that had become part of a collective company I’d formed. After that, I worked in a factory in Minnesota, trying to figure out what to do with my performance art/installation vision, and I ended up applying to CalArts for their directing program. I got in, and that was a transformative experience.
Travis Preston was my mentor. There were only two of us in my class, which meant that my relationship with Travis was a strong one, stronger than I’d ever had with a professor. And he was able to force me to focus on the things that were getting in my way, rather than using my tricks to just avoid them. It was frustrating and frightening and a wonderful learning process, like boot camp. I went in promising myself I wasn’t going to direct theater, I didn’t want to be a theater director—I wanted to create my own art form, and then I left directing theater.
Turning to your current project, what ideas are you bringing to Woyzeck?
The conceptual idea that allowed me entry was that there are only two people in Woyzeck’s world. There’s Marie, and there’s the other man. That’s all he can see. I was trying to answer the question, which I think is the problem question for the play: Why does he kill her? I find that most of the conventional answers are dissatisfying: That he’s insane, that he’s malnourished, that he’s stressed out, that she betrays him. These all seem too easy—there’s something much more complex going on in this play that’s driving him to its conclusion. She’s the only thing he cares about in the entire world, the only thing that gives him solace: For him to destroy that, there needs to be a really big reason. So trying to uncover that was a part of my sense that there are only these two characters in his world.
Now the stage here also is a literalization of something that happens in one of the scenes, where he references the ground being hollow, there are voices under the ground. I wanted that to be real. In this world, Woyzeck is literally trapped on the stage. Everyone else can come and go, but he never leaves. And when characters leave, they go underneath. On or off stage, they’re visible throughout. The characters that torment him, the ones that he’s afraid of, they exist in his mind throughout, and that stress is contributing to his visions, to his sense of the world being against him, and his sense also of being the hand of God’s wrath. He has this vision early on where he sees fire coming from the sky—he knows the Bible really well, and God’s a presence in this play—and I think a big part of the reason he kills here is because he believes he’s enacting God’s will.
What I like to do in my staging is to create a network of ideas and possibilities—let them play out and find how they’re connecting to each other, to create an intricate tapestry and weave these ideas together and let them play out to the end. Let the ending tell itself, so if you were to ask me what the answer is, I don’t know. I have an idea, but I don’t know. The responses I got from Hamletmachine, for instance, I had no idea what that play is about, to be honest. I have feelings, but I don’t know. I was specific in the network, and the result was a lot of people feeling passionately that they got it, but it led to many different interpretations. That’s a wonderful thing to see—engaging people with the play, rather than telling them what I think about it.
Woyzeck opens Saturday 19 at Oracle Theatre.