Caroline Steinbeis is fast becoming one of the most respected directors working on the stage today. Winner of the 2009 JMK Award for Young Directors, the 30-year-old runs her own company, Strike Ensemble, and her directorial credits include a critically acclaimed staging of Caryl Churchill’s Mad Forest. Her most recent production, Fatherland – a disturbing and at times surreal exploration of the relationship between a father and a daughter, written by award winner Tom Holloway – is on at the Gate Theatre in Notting Hill until 12 March.
One Monday morning in late February, between getting off a plane from Germany and heading to the Gate to see the latest performance of Fatherland, Steinbeis found time to sit down in a busy bookshop cafe with Tom Wicker to discuss taking a play from script to stage as well as the pleasures and challenges of being a freelance director.
Tom Wicker: Could we begin by talking about Radikal Yung, the Munich theatre festival for which Fatherland has just been selected for inclusion?
Caroline Steinbeis: Sure. It was a Germany-wide festival until last year, when they opened up the jury to Austria, Italy and France. This is the first year that they’ve been seeing pieces in the UK as well. Essentially, it’s for young directors who are making waves across Europe. And they’ve got some fantastic houses participating, like the National Theatre in Vienna, and then us from the Gate. It’s kind of amazing.
TW: Were you expecting to be selected?
CS: We knew they were coming. I know the festival well because I was born in Munich, so I know their programming. I thought they’d be interested aesthetically in the piece. But we still had so much work to do in the preview [that they saw] that I didn’t at all expect that they would take it. But I’m very pleased they did because it’s a very complicated play. And it’s just really reaffirming for all of us, for the whole company, that they put their faith in it at such an early stage and saw the potential of what it could grow into, which it continues to do with every performance.
TW: On a practical level, Fatherland is a technically sophisticated production with a substantial number of special effects – the bike that comes crashing through the wall, for instance – so will transferring it to a different space be a challenge?
CS: The bike’s the easy part. It’s the retracting stage that will be more difficult. We have a big design meeting about that next week. Actually, [the biggest challenge will be] the time-scale because we’ll be coming in off the back of another production. From that perspective it’s a mini-Edinburgh; although it’s more high profile and has some big players, so I’m incredibly pleased.
TW: Is selecting work which has cross-cultural appeal an aim for you?
CS: It’s not something I deliberately strive for. It’s maybe something I carry with me through what I’ve done and who I’ve worked with – I’ve [directed] in Austria, Germany and America before. Certainly, there’s something to not thinking about theatre as only a linear or single narrative experience. A play like Fatherland sort of demands that of you.
TW: Is its complexity what attracted you to it?
CS: [The play’s] quite interesting in structure because the dialogue scenes are the prevalent ones. The bike crashing through the wall and the heart dropping to the floor are in the script but they’re quite abstractly described. There’s no specific explanation of how or why these things happen. They only take on meaning in the context of the play.