Sunday, October 27, 2013

Humboldt Unbound: Director Michael Fields

“This isn’t an historical pageant,” director Michael Fields emphasized. “It begins with the older Humboldt giving a lecture, but by that time in his life he’d had a stroke, and it fragmented his memories. We use that as a device to create a dynamic visual world that continually transforms before your eyes.”

 “Probably a good 20% of the play is Humboldt’s words, or some version of his words. You see two von Humboldt’s, one old and one young, sometimes together.”

 “Seifert was in a way his last companion, and he’s the audience’s guide through the world of this piece. We get different aspects of his relationship with his brother and mother, with Bonpland, a botanist and companion for his 5 years traveling in South America, and other people in his life.”

 “So we present different aspect of his life but not in a chronological narrative telling. One memory refracts from another, so at one point he’s climbing the highest known mountain in the world at that time, and at another he’s being shocked by electric eels in an experiment, and at some other he’s watching an extraordinary meteor shower.”

 “One of the original conceptions of the piece was to keep shifting the lens and looking for connections. Humboldt tended to look for the connections, not what separates things,” Fields said. “He saw the world as a dynamic and organic whole, where everything affects everything else. That’s influenced how we tell his story theatrically.”

 “Humboldt said he was driven by an uncertain longing to explore the external world, but actually he was seeking an internal awakening that connected all those things together.”

 Still, the explorations themselves were most crucial, which is why much of the play concerns them. “Humboldt believed that it’s dangerous to try to describe the world without traveling the world,” Fields said. “ He felt you can’t do it in a laboratory alone.”

 Humboldt was known for his commitment to precision in scientific observation and measurement, but also for insisting on the necessary role of imagination. As Fields points out, he was influenced by the Romantic movement which began in Germany and spread to England. “He really believed in intuition and emotion and not just scientific rationalism,” Fields said. “We want to reflect that on stage.”

 “Also Humboldt’s feeling for people, reflected in the passionate letters he wrote but also his friendships. Friendship was very important in that era.” Humboldt was also outspoken on behalf of Indigenous peoples, and opposed slavery and racism, even in his visit to a slave-owing President in Washington, D.C. These aspects of his life and his legacy are also reflected in Humboldt Unbound.

 “There are moments of melodrama, comedy, of musical theatre, expressive dance, and moments of direct narrative to the audience. Like Humboldt, the play is very unconventional—it’s not one thing, it’s many things. We hope it all works as a whole.”

Devising Humboldt

Giovanni  Alva as Bonpland
 Humboldt Unbound was created collaboratively, as what’s known as a “devised” work.

 “In conventional theatre, a playwright goes into a room and writes a play, comes back out and hands it to a producer,” Fields explained. “’Devised’ usually implies working with a group of people to come up with something that has not been done before. In this case it was several groups.”

 “We started with a one-unit class here at the university to gather research and ideas. Out of that came a very rough beginning of a scenario—of different ways to look at Humboldt’s life, which was kind of the mandate of the piece.” 

“That kind of research continued informally, as some of us met a few times to go further into it. Then a full semester acting class looked at it from the perspective of acting style, of generating material. That group came up with some text. I worked on text over the summer, and once we got a cast, it adjusted to what the actors did in rehearsal.”

 “At that point other collaborators came into it. For the set, music and lighting, the university allowed me to work with people I’ve collaborated with before, mostly at Dell’Arte. Plus Catherine Brown who I’ve known for many years, doing costumes. All of these influence the piece. Giulio’s [Cesare Perrone] set is a massive world, and it constantly changes. Tim Gray has written songs as well as musical underscoring, and there are dance sequences, so those get incorporated into the scenario."

"I’ve had the pleasure of working with some of the students in the cast before. For all of them the focus is how they work together as an ensemble, because outside of the two Humboldts and Seifert, everybody shifts roles, sometimes in an instant.”

 “ Humboldt became kind of a rock star in his time, but at least in the United States he’s been mostly forgotten. We’re covering a lot of ground but we’re intending to keep the piece at about 90 minutes.”

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