British contemporary artist Ed Atkins and American author Steven Zultanski are staging Sorcerer together at Revolver, a theater in Copenhagen, which dares to commission international and Danish visual artists to create theater.
Ed Atkins, an acclaimed British contemporary artist best known for his video art and poetry, and Steven Zultanski, an American author of several books of poetry and also a critical writer, are bravely staging a theater play together at Revolver in Copenhagen. They are both interested in documentary strategies and varieties of realisms. To my knowledge, they have not worked with theater before.
I met them in the lobby at Revolver after a long day’s work with the rehearsals of Sorcerer. They seemed tired and a bit silly, joking with each other. They behaved like close friends, which is what their play Sorcerer at Revolver is also about.
Would you please tell me about Sorcerer? It introduces three friends hanging out in an apartment, right?
Ed Atkins [EA]: It’s really not about much. What happens is that three friends hang out, and then two of them leave and one stays at his apartment. And he then does some things that you would do alone and no one will know and never see. And the stage reacts to those versions of reality. In the second half some quite obvious effects happen, technical things. Everything is highly amplified: the floor, the couch, and the sink. Reality is amplified, all the little accidental noises are turned up so they become effects.
In a way, it’s a play for perverts. So it’s a play for everyone.
Steven Zultanski [SZ]: It’s voyeuristic. The audience is looking in on a friendship from a distance. The characters enjoy the warmth of each other’s company, and then someone enjoys their alone time. So the audience peers in at someone’s little world
EA: It touches on performances for others and for oneself, and the pleasures and neuroses of those kinds of performances: what you want your friends to know, and what they know without you wanting them to know. And what you want to be to yourself. All of those things are in it.
So it’s kind of flat, mundane and everyday stuff?
EA: Yes, and odd things.
EA: Well, there’s a levitation object, and a bed that constantly squirms at the edge of stage, almost as if it’s another dimension. And the character who is alone for half of the play makes quite dance-like movements. Not really dance, but ways to emphasize mundane gestures or self-pleasuring. These become dance-like because they are on stage. The choreographer, Nønne Svalholm, is really amazing at navigating this space between dance and performance and poise and control – right down to the level of what it means to move your hand across a surface, really sensitive stuff. And the actors – Lotte Andersen, Peter Christoffersen and Ida Cæcilie Rasmussen – bring it to life, fill the characters with affects that are difficult to pin down.
So you are playing with the tension between mundane and flatness and the technicalities of theater?
SZ: Yes, there is a tension between very bland reality and very high artifice. Those two poles are emphasized at the same time and are both connected and disconnected.
And is there a structure of the play?
SZ: It’s bifurcated. There is a period were the friends are together and a period were one of them is alone. Those two things resonate with each other. You feel the characters aloneness even more because the conversations with the friends are still hanging in the room. The structure is built on the contrast between these two parts, so it’s rather a split than an arc.
EA: It kind of builds to climax and then sort of denies and dismisses it. It does not revel in victory or revelation. You don’t learn anything. (laughing)
Why the title Sorcerer?
EA: It’s the best title we came up with. And we went through a lot. We spend a long time talking about titles; what do they do, what are they for?
SZ: I don’t think we want to give too much away talking about why we chose that title, except to say that we hope it will cast a certain tone over the play. The question of why it’s called Sorcerer or just the knowledge that it is called Sorcerer is interesting in the context of what the play is.
EA: That’s great actually. It’s already called Sorcerer, so there is no point in asking. Its like asking why am I called Ed.
SZ: Why are you called Ed?
EA: Haha. No, I think the relationship to titling things and categorizing things is tonal and textual.
SZ: In our separate works, we both tend to title things from odd angles. We are not titling things to explain what they are, but to ad another dimension and open something up in the work. The point of the title is to add ambiguity, not to take it away.
And how have you been working together?
EA: Really well, it has been a real joy. None of this would have happened if we hadn’t been working together, and it has been much easier to feel confident about very strange decisions – not that we don’t do that in our individual work – but it has been easier. We come from such similar places so a lot is shorthanded. So we can get straight to odd points.
How did you start, did you write together?
SZ: Ed got the commission, and he basically invited me on immediately. That was two years ago. We had a long period of brainstorming, endless conversations.
EA: And we agreed early on that we wanted to make a play. Not an artwork or installation on stage, not contemporary art or poetry on stage. Basically there wouldn’t be any point in doing it if we didn’t wholeheartedly want to try to make really good theater.
We have both been working with documentary modes for a long time, and during the pandemic we hung out with a very small group of friends with very little to talk about, so we talked about odd things, entertained each other and drank a bit. And then started recording those conversations. The script is made of transcriptions of those conversations, it’s a collage.
SZ: Yes, all dialogue – mostly – is from our lives. And sometimes we were not entertaining each other, we were just being together. To be clear, it is not a pandemic play. But it has documentary qualities and it was written in that moment.
How have you thought about the relation to a live audience?
EA: The set-up is a standard proscenium. The audience sits in the dark and watches the play, there is nothing interactive. It felt exiting to do something that had particular limits. The repetition of theater is a very novel idea to us. It plays every night for a certain period of time. It’s a machine that we constructed, and that works.
And the connection between the actors/performers on stage and the audience?
EA: What do you mean?
I mean that one of the special things about theater is that every night is different because of the different connections between the performers and a collective audience experiencing together…
SZ: Yes, for sure.
Maybe I’m putting words in your mouth, but I was thinking if this is a mundane play where nothing happens, it might give a space for the audience to imagine something?
EA: I would be careful not to overemphasize the banality. There are a lot of bits of nothing, but also lots of odd things happening, which are not at all banal, even if they were couched within banalities.
SZ: Yes, it’s not really banal. It is true it is made of many mundane things, but it’s actually very dense. Even when something mundane is happening, when a character fills a glass of water, it is amplified, the floors are squeaking and a plumbing and a plumbing system is surrounding framing the stage. There is a lot happening even if something looks like an everyday action. The play is made of banal actions but with way too much presence and density. It’s like nothing and a little too much.