Mirenka Cechová, one of the leading proponents of physical theatre in the world, hails from the Czech Republic. Last year, Washington audiences were privileged to see her work when she appeared with Synetic Theater as the much-acclaimed Fool in King Lear for which she received a Helen Hayes Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress.
Mirenka Cechová and Tantehorse Theatre Company will present the American premier of her newest work, S/he is Nancy Joe, at the Mead Theatre Lab at Flashpoint November 8-12 for 4 performances only. This work uses a unique physical language, a kind of “street ballet,” to tell the story of someone questioning gender identity in a journey that leads to self-awareness, discovery, and transformation.
Here, she is interviewed by DCTS writer Susan Galbraith.
Susan: Why this project? And why now?
Mirenka: Since my first written manifesto, I believe that the obligation of the artist is to answer the burning questions of something here and now. I always want to create an answer but in work that does not go far away from myself. It is very important to me to explore a new physical language of theatre and to bring an experience of authenticity to a given subject.
This is a very personal issue to me. My brother changed gender and now is a sister.
But there is another aspect to this work. To speak about gender is a very contemporary issue that is before us. Not just because change is in the air, especially in Europe, but we are all being asked to address the issue of gender, and it has become a hot social and political issue.
I was interested to tackle the subject to start to balance some of the misconceptions flying around out there with an experience that could bring about understanding and some positivity. I hope that S/He is Nancy Joe could have some influence on people in the U.S. I have discovered through my working on this topic that it’s not what people see from the outside, their dress or their behavior, but that only people born in their own bodies can tell what they do or don’t feel is their own gender identity. We need to know about these issues, to go to the heart of what is at stake in one’s identity.
Do you see a difference between how the issue is discussed or understood here in America vs. in Europe, say in your own country of the Czech Republic?
Mirenka: Well, in the Czech Republic we belong to a pretty free country since after the fall of the Soviet curtain. We are very aware and conscious of hard-won freedoms very much. But that doesn’t mean we are necessarily an open people to new experiences. What I have found in the U.S. is that citizens are, even more than Czechs, willing to get to know about things that are not familiar to them. This is great. But perhaps there is a judgment that comes from a strong set of values. The issue of freedom and openness and how they relate or not makes for an interesting discussion.
Do you think that Czechs want to know what they feel in terms of an in-depth internal terrain, while Americans feel and are curious about a lot of issues and all manners of things outside themselves, but maybe are not as interested in knowing what is going on in the inside?
Mirenka: Czechs feel very strongly about freedom, but I think, for instance, I as a Czech artist feel that speaking too loudly about a thing will lose its value. In America, it feels that sometimes everything has to have a very direct approach.
You have been a professional dancer, a musician (born into a musician family) and now a performer specializing in many forms of physical theatre. What drew you to make this your life-choice as an artist and why such different forms from dance to mime and from contemporary street forms to Japanese butoh?
Mirenka: I am indeed interested in many theatre movement forms and dance, anything that can serve as a means of expression. I am interested in serving as a channel between the actor and the audience and to find the right physical language to communicate what is at the heart of a work. In this piece, for instance, I felt that what could best express what I was going for was a blend of street art and comic book art and a kind of street dance coming from some background that could not be found in what I will call “stone theatres.”
Do you mean what we call “brick and mortar” traditional theatre venues?
Mirenka: Exactly. Young people are angry and want to express something they feel is truly their own. This got at something I felt inside this character. And I also felt that street dance – by this I mean pop and lock and hip hop – are pretty masculine forms. These forms express one phase of my character. For the female phase or discovery, I went back to my roots in classical ballet, which felt a very feminine form of expression in my body. I wanted to put together masculine and feminine movement-art to express the two genders and to create a kind of “street ballet.”
I have seen your work and also worked with you. You go very deeply and very courageously, to my mind, in your exploration. What did you learn about yourself in exploring in this way the issue of gender in your own body?
Mirenka: As much as we want to learn about ourselves, I think it is sometimes useful to go into what is opposite or seems to be outside of us. The more we can do this, I believe, the more it can enrich us.
In my case, I am still a girl in a female body, but the more I explored this other possibility, the richer I felt. People who only seek to experience or express what is comfortably masculine or feminine parts of their personality and approach it from the standpoint of “we should be like this” are poor, it seems to me, in the unity of personality. At least that’s what I feel I discovered for myself. The kind of reflection and exploration that a work like this offers can be helpful and richly influential for all people.
Do you think that most of us fall somewhere along a spectrum of what we think as gender or even sexual identities?
Mirenka: Ah, and that’s the thing, we speak about both of those things, sometimes confusing them, and gender and sexuality are quite different things.
I’ve noticed in some of your work, you approach your theme through the language of movement in what Emily Dickinson would say, “tell it slant”, or what we might see as using very consciously an abstract physical vocabulary. How does this work differ?
Mirenka: I am usually having to defend myself because I don’t naturally approach things through a literal narrative form. I believe that audiences are not stupid, and people can follow a non-linear narrative. I like to create moments that are open enough where people can use their own experience to create new interpretations as they reflect on the movement.
But in this piece I wanted to tell the story from the first point to the last point. I felt that this work was so important to me, and I discovered there were not as many places for abstraction. But I still wanted there to be moments where emotions and the unconscious could give expression. Now after completing the work, I think those moments are perhaps the strongest.
You integrate projected images in S/He is Nancy Joe. What were your thoughts in incorporating these elements?
Mirenka: I wanted this comic book element projected on two screens as a popular and easily accessible form. The comic book form also offered a second narrator, “the helper,” that brings the concrete aspect of the creator into the story. Also, the projections bring a kind of visual structure to the piece. I hope that audiences can put their own personality and experience into these images.
The comic book actually creates layers of characters in Nancy Joe. There is the writer and the painter or illustrator of the comic book images. The relationship of the three means that the truth of character is not hidden behind a character, but stays in front in that the creators are also present delivering themselves in the present moment. Theatre then is not representation, the “lie.” I am interested in existentialist theatre and in what is happening in the moment.
For me having a performer access any emotion and then going into that moment to change the state of his/her being, that’s what brings the authentic experience to the audience.
You are a professional artist but you are also a scholar, in fact recently receiving a PhD for your studies. Why was this important to you?
Mirenka: : I think a performer should be a scholar, at least for himself or herself. If I want to go farther as an artist I have to do my own research in themes and forms. If I consider myself only an artist who interprets, there’s a loss of vitality and depth. I have to be an artist who is also, in some way, an author, as when I am composing stories and developing skills that brings unity and dimensionality to a work.
As a scholar, I confront ideas and transform them to written form to share with students. So I live as creator, teacher and scholar, and there is great unity for me in that. It demands that I continue to develop. I look at something from different positions as I create something. I look at something as a scholar because I want to get inside the research by critical thinking. I look at something as a teacher with students so that themes and forms can be transferable.
All three aspects are important. I also believe that my students learn most when they put themselves inside a process and in the middle of all the problems that come with performance preparation and performance. I put my students in the moment when we can truly contemplate the musical moments and the production moments and where we both critically analyze the possibilities but we also are experiencing the possibilities in our own bodies.
I think all big artists were great scholars in this sense.
Alliance for New Music-Theatre has engaged you while you are here in early November to continue the work you started with that company last year in a workshop that will help singer-actors access emotions through exploration of physicality. Can you talk about this work you do with performers?
S/He is Nancy Joe
November 8 at 7:30 PM,
Saturday, November 10 at 3 PM and 7:30 PM
Sunday, November 11 at 2 PM.
Mead Theatre Lab
916 G Street
Tickets: $20 general admission
$10 for students.
Details and tickets.
Mirenka: I want to invite performers into the art of creating beyond interpreting. As director, my role then shifts, not telling performers how to do things or what to do. It’s about giving these performers a safe place to get inside their own process. The process becomes a kind of secret ownership of the individual’s internal landscape and then, say in a rehearsal period, that becomes a kind of gift to the whole collaborative process. What is discovered in that this deeper individual “research” of the inner self, all happening simultaneously but not with each other, will turn into powerful images and memories which then can be transformed – and that’s key otherwise it’s just a form of therapy or something – into a higher level of art that is experienced as spontaneous and authentic.
You came to Washington DC as a Fulbright Scholar. Can you describe what you have discovered here working with American professionals and students? And how has this shaped your own thinking about developing a professional presence both here and in the Czech Republic?
Mirenká: I was immediately impressed when I came here with the openness and ability to listen and to understand something – even when my way of working might have been different and quite new for them. I was especially excited to work with singer-actors, many of whom came from a classical singing and operatic tradition. Their courage and enthusiasm to move into new territory was something for me quite incredible. And I learned so much from their vocal talents. I very much want to continue this kind of collaboration and to experience ways that we can all take more risks and grow with this collaborative richness.
What you bring to Washington is very exciting, and I look forward to seeing more of your work next year when you return in other works, and perhaps to a situation which will allow you to advance this “unity” as you call it as performer, teacher, and scholar.
“I was born as a girl. But I know for sure that it’s a mistake.”
Mirenka Cechová performs S/He is Nancy Joe in Prague.