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Steven Berkoff berkovian aesthetic






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Creating the "Berkovian" Aesthetic
by Craig Rosen, Ph.D.

Appendix II: Interview with Steven Berkoff

6 June 1998, Liverpool, England

Craig Rosen:  Both you and other critics have used the term “Berkovian” or “Berkoffian" as an adjective, like “Shavian.“  I’ve been able to find out about you [but] no one has just sat down and said, “What constructs ‘Berkovian?'”  There are references to Artaud and Grotowski and your training with Le Coq and Chagrin; The only full length piece I’ve found written about you is a dissertation which was biographical and dealt mainly with your plays. Other than that, you’ve written most of the stuff about yourself.  So, I basically wanted to focus on what makes "Berkovian" . . . “Berkovian.”

Steven Berkoff:  Yes

The elements, and if this is a style that is an amalgamation or something that is gutturally you; and, in the future where it may ultimately go.

Yes.  Well I don’t really discuss it that much, you know.  Usually if I’m doing it I write it myself.  Because I can’t be . . . you know.  Normally when people write about me, they go and look at it and come to their own conclusion.  You know if I see somebody, I can analyze what their doing.  I don’t have to go ask the person “How do you do it?”  because I see it.  I see Olivier and see what he does.  I take from him and deduce what his influences have been -- analyzing his own performance.  But people today, they want to see you, and they want to see sweat on the stage, and they want to talk to you.

It's a bit [like] "just see the work and . . .

. . . yes of course . . .

. . . and do the damn thing."

Like when you do reviews of movies or books.  People can analyze James Joyce -- they don’t have to dig him up out of the grave and say “why did you write like that?”, do they?

Fair enough, but instead of me interpreting it, and putting it down, and saying, “This is what he must have meant,” and then one hundred years from now someone looks at it and says, “what the hell was that about?”  In the long run it is my job to analyze. . .

. . .  yes

but to have something to bounce off of.  Instead of saying, “beyond Three Theatre Manifestos,” which you wrote twenty-five years ago, where has he gone beyond that?  Which I guess is a good question -- Is it fair to take something that you wrote twenty-five years ago and apply it today?

Yes, it's the same principal really.

The place to start would be your style . . . your training.  The first thing that I ever came across which seemed relevant was Three Theatre Manifestos. In it you talk about a street scene which is very similar to what Brecht writes about in Brecht on Theatre.  At the same time, you end up by saying that it should be an actor oriented theatre -- that the actor himself becomes the piece.

Yes. . . yes.

I guess this may be too open-ended, but, in reading it, the first thing that comes to mind when I hear about a “street-scene” is Brecht, and you’ve obviously cited Brecht before as being “the German Master,” yet the way you end up taking that form is going somewhere very different from where he does . . . Do you consciously use areas of Brechtian theatre as in the show last night [Shakespeare's Villains]?

No, no,

So, at some point you read it and it goes in and out [of your consciousness]?

Yes, yes.  I think you know you find associations with other people that sort of confirm what you are doing.  You can talk about Brecht, or anybody, Artaud or Barrault, but they’re kind of elements that are you know, grist to your mill.  You kind of use it to explore, but basically when you’re doing anything you don’t have a particular technique in the way a dancer says, “Well I’ll do Graham or Cunningham or any other . . . Bejart.”   With an actor it's much more of an eclectic mix.  They don’t have the same kind of basic written and documented techniques as exists, say, in painting -- fauvists against the cubists against the impressionists against any other kind of . . . postmodernists . . . The actor has to be a little bit of an amalgram of all those things.  So, when I work, if I read something, say by Brecht, I suddenly say, “Oh yes, that connects with me.”  But you stand a little bit outside the character, and comment on the character; and by commenting on the character you, of course, display its mechanics.  In the same sense you may get modern machinery or you know domestic appliances that are now transparent, so you see the wheels and the things working and everybody seems to enjoy that kind of visual stimulus of seeing the beauty of technology.

Like the Pompidou Center.

Yes, yes exactly.  In a way acting is sort of stripping off the kind of "veneer" and stripping it down and looking at the mechanics and that’s far more exciting, far more thrilling, because it illuminates.  Now, the kind of acting Brecht was talking about when he said, “alienation” has been used by many British actors because they say “How can you not be moved?”  He wasn’t talking about that, of course, what he meant was, which British actors fail to understand anyway, is that they are seeing through, seeing through like a transparent act at the mechanics and therefore making a greater comment on the person from a distance, from a height.  You’re looking at it, examining the character as a George Groetz.  He didn’t paint people literally, he distorted them in order to focus on their characteristics.  So, there is an element of distortion.  What distortion is, basically, is style, it's technique.  And what the distortion enables you to do is examine the social structure in which the personality exists.

So when an audience member comes to see Hamlet, they're coming to see an actor play Hamlet


so he can illuminate him.

To illuminate him.  It depends, you can play Hamlet very naturalistically and it can work and be very moving, very effective and there are many different ways.  Or you can stylize it, but with something like Hamlet it can be somewhat difficult because he is such a universal character would be, I would see, you couldn’t use the displacement in the performance as much but you could still use, obviously you could take it apart and use techniques to comment on him and that would also come into the production.  It is not necessary otherwise the actor is doing it and the production is out of key and it would look odd.  Therefore the performance also has to be geared into the production.  If that doesn’t happen you’ll get a kind of disaster where the actor will either look overdone or the production will look underdone or the production will look sophisticated and the actor will look hammy, and therefore you get a conflict.  The same thing happened with the train crash in Germany.  Because the train is a highly stylized high-speed train, it was running on tracks that were the old tracks for the old trains and therefore there will be a breakdown because the tracks weren’t dedicated.  So, in a sense, the production has to be dedicated to his style.

So consequently you know the actor has to function within a production; that doesn’t always happen.  Sometimes it can merge.  An example of this is when I saw Richard III  with Tony [Anthony] Sher.  He gave, what he thought, was a stylized, exaggerated, and highly specialized kind of performance.  But the production was old fashioned therefore his performance stood out even more so because there was nothing there that kind of held it together.

At this point would you act in somebody else’s stage production?

Yes, I mean you could fit in with anybody else, you can do your own thing, you don’t actually go out to perform a style, it's just natural.  As your acting, your own instincts gradually starts to take over.  But I can do a very, very naturalistic performance, very real.  I can find it very interesting to do that and it can be just as powerful.  So there’s many avenues.  I’m not saying one is better that another, what I’m saying is that one may give you more scope and more ideas than another.  But naturalism as an art form is fairly dead.

Your use of mime seems to immediately free up an audience's imagination.  As in Villain, when you take out the sword you seem to be saying, “I will show you what the sword can be, you make it so” to an audience.


If another stage director said to you, “Steven, will you be my King Lear?”  At this point that you're at artistically, would you give that a shot?

Yes.  Absolutely, it relieves me of a lot of pressure and maybe the director would look for my advice so I don’t see it as an impossible situation.  I don’t see me as being radically opposed but quite often I will find it distressing because of the mandating of the vision and I haven’t had that experience for many, many years.  So now I’m not even asked.  I think that probably directors may be a bit wary of asking me, but I’ve been asked once or twice but for some reason I couldn’t do it.  In the past when I’ve done it its been distressing.  The atmosphere is somewhat . . . cloudy, uncertain.

I don’t like to be directed by directors particularly anyway who are not actors because only an actor knows.  Some directors try to replace you with all sorts of other things because he doesn’t know the mechanics of acting.  The last time I did it was many years ago, there was a production of Titus Andronicus  in which the director talked a good talk about how he wanted to see it and then when we did it -- it was very embarrassing and very awkward and it was the first time in my life that I actually walked out on a production.

Within your directing, how much freedom does an actor have to create within your aesthetic?

Oh, a tremendous amount of freedom.  The more ideas, the more diversity, the more community to kind of experiment with a different character everyday, every hour.  To keep changing, finding, and then gradually honing it down.  An enormous amount of freedom, because we rid ourselves of the block of a kind of naturalistic narcissism of just obeying what they’ve seen before.  Those kind of actors are appalling and they don’t fit in.  What has happened is that they’ve come from the National Theatre or the RSC.  Some have been very good from those companies and some have been very, very bad because they have no real training.  Some have very good voices and very often they have a laziness and an inability to express themselves physically.  There’s little dynamic in them; it's a meandering, kind of slow . . .


They’re not even self-indulgent, I mean a ghastly -- just doing the lines -- not living through the lines; their body being separate from their heads.  So they say their lines, and try to make sense of it, but very often there’s little else going on because.  They become eliminated and they become trapped so their body becomes stultified and eventually atrophied and they can’t function.  When we did Coriolanus we had an actor who had worked with the National for many, many years and when he finally came to me he was like an amateur.  I had to work with him and I was shocked.  In the end, unfortunately we had to part ways (I was very glad).  It was because unfortunately the man didn’t have the opportunity, working for the stultifying type of direction, to explore himself physically.  So the man was dead, I’ve never seen anyone so dead in my life.  I just couldn’t believe it but because I was working with a limited budget I thought, “Well hopefully his scenes aren’t too long and we can get through it,” but, in the end, I had to cut a major role in Coriolanus (and it worked better without it anyway).

I was reading Coriolanus in Deutschland, you were given a cast and some of them could free themselves up for your style and some couldn’t.  Ideally when you cast a show, do you go through a long audition process to see what they can do with their bodies?

Yes, I used to do that.  We held workshops where they’d come in.  Sometimes with older actors its more experienced, more difficult to do that, but in the early days we would do that.  We would do exercises, so they could get used to improvisations and gradually see who would thrive on that.  And that’s how we started and that’s how I found some very good actors early in my career.  We would then spend weeks maybe exploring the very play itself and then the leading actors, like anything -- like animals -- and the leading people assert themselves and there becomes a pecking order, you know whatever, gradually asserts itself as well.  You see who’s the first, the second, the primary actors.  You can’t always do that at auditions --  you can get the wrong impression but if you can you have to work and workshop them and do exercises in both text and movement to see who responds.

When ego comes up in the beginning of the process, while your assigning roles, will you ever consciously undercut them?  Is it conscious, sometimes, to say, “You know what we’re going to put you in the chorus and let you do what you can.  Sort of teach a lesson and let you work your way up.”


Within your use of chorus one of the things in Free Association that you mentioned was, as a kid, hanging around with a pack of kids who became a "chorus."  Sometimes they were "furies," sometimes they were this or that.  Is that where the power of numbers comes from in your use of chorus?  There’s no use in having small actors on-stage.  No use in having a spear-carrier when you can be a spear carrier and be part of the castle and be a million other things at once.


Does that come from your background?

I think a background has a lot do with how you perceive your life and your career and your work.  I think that your background, you know, is the seeding bed of all of your early experiences and your imagination.  And I think in working class people, the lower you are on the economic scale, the larger is the pack in which you move.  I think as you go higher up the economic scale, the fewer. You have a few select friends or you play tennis or you go out, you have your school mates.  But in the working class, for some reason, there seems to be many more people in their economic group and therefore you tend to herd together.

A lot of your amusement is in each other.  In the stimulus and response you have between your colleagues and that’s where you get a kind of pecking order and you try to assert yourself in this pecking order working yourself up until you’ve got yourself into more of a kind of a position in the society so its very animalistic.  So that was my background and it was just, you know, the youth club and the lads and everybody in this particular area, and, so I always saw people in terms of groups and then your activities were always in terms of groups.  When you went swimming there often were groups, when you went dancing there was huge groups, so the group seemed always kind of a very natural and normal way which I have experienced my life.

So, I didn’t know that I was lonely within the group even though I was a bit of a loner.  Nevertheless, there was always a large group of people so I connected as I started acting, maybe I connected the group.  Replacing the early life in my youth in the theatre with another group.  So there would still be the group, and within the group there is interaction.  There is often a lot of playing . . . a lot of kind of rituals or ceremonies.  A lot of physical and verbal ceremonies.  A lot of patter, language, play at language.  Then there’s all sorts of other rituals which I think I must have brought into the theatre.  I mean rituals of dress, codes, customs, dance forms.

So, that’s all quite interesting and again very animalistic.  That doesn’t exist in the middle classes where the boys go to grammar school and university.  They are more competitive and more fragmented.  So the group has always been . . . it is common knowledge that the group creates much more.  You create within a group . . . you can’t create in isolation.  But in the middle classes they create in isolation.  They create and become writers or scientists or whatever.  But the group, they create in ensemble.  Whether they are football teams or dancing in the streets in Brazil . . . or in Los Angeles when break dancing in the streets.  Always groups -- that was always interesting to me.  So maybe that background did influence me.  I found that the group was always a bit more exciting.  So when I came to the theatre and I saw the bourgeois way of life.  So, in other words, you saw their background reflected in the theatre.  It was poor, thin, tame, pathetic.  That’s just what they did . . . weak, trivial, epicene, emasculated lives.

You've got to have fun.  You’ve got to make it a kind of Bacchanalian rite.  It has to be a ritual dedicated to the art of sacrifice.  And you’ve got to sacrifice yourself by allowing yourself in a way to become a kind of medium to whatever comes in.  So when I go on-stage I don’t have too much that I am thinking about -- I might just say anything.  I try to be a medium but sometimes I get bugs . . . I suffer from bugs . . . mechanical bugs in my head.  But I try to have fun, to enjoy it, and also be a lightning rod taking on the energies of the universe coming through me.  So, I’ll have a little thought, and as I’m going through it, I’ll heat up enough and ideas will spark and I’ll lose self-consciousness and I can be totally free.  I can be absolutely abandoned and that’s a marvelous feeling . . . almost like being in a state-of-grace . . .  where thoughts just fall and fall, and images and patterns and ideas and the audience laughs.  Then also, the audience is like a piano and you have to play certain keys and there are all of these keys out in the audience.  And the keys are made up of social strictures and structures and attitudes . . . so that’s like a great orchestra.  His prejudice . . . his greed . . . his feminism.  So you work against, like a comedian does, all sacred cows.  You’ve got to hit the sacred cows.  You talk about Lady MacBeth or MacBeth, he becomes feminine, he can’t make up his mind.  All the men start going “Hey, hey,” and the women become male, “Yeah, why don’t you go get it?” and the men start to laugh  So suddenly your playing on their prejudices and that can be quite exciting, too.

You're known as an outsider,  you write a lot about loneliness in your autobiography and your short stories seem to really hit on loneliness; Kafka obviously writes a great deal about loneliness.  Is this what brings one on-stage, to share with people?

I think so.  I think a lot of actors and people who go into the theatre are lonely people.  I think, first of all, they’re lonely from their family.  Something about them is a bit different.  They are isolated, have different sensibilities, they can’t communicate within their family and then they decided to enter the theatre.  Theatre is a big family.  I know it’s a bit of a cliché but it becomes a family group and is united for a period of months.  So you have a family with brothers and sisters, very supplicating -- a family again.  So it becomes a family for misfits.  My loneliness I have communicated but I think many people suffer from this but they may not have the ability or the desire to write about it.  But for me, it seemed to be rather intense, intensely acute.  Therefore I could articulate it and you see when I am articulating it I will exaggerate it and stylize it to give it more poignancy.

So loneliness has always been in my head, I think, since youth.  It’s a pattern that can happen very, very subtly,  It can happen merely because you move and then you have to meet new friends and then because you have no time to make them it becomes more awkward and you become more awkward and then you don’t make friends.  I mean I had friends when I was living in Luton then we were evacuated, and then merely moving to a new environment, say the East End, I had three friends there then moving again.  We moved a third or fourth time it became difficult to make friends.  I don’t know why.  I remember being incredibly lonely and of course that allows you to kind of dwell in your own world and fantasize and become more at ease with your own company.  And developing, writing, keeping your journals . . . forming these things and maybe one of these start to stick with you.  It’s uncomfortable.  I remember at school I would dread the weekends when you wouldn’t be seeing anyone until I gradually got into the environment.  Loneliness is a particularly spectral thing.  It’s a religious experience because it means that you’re not having to diffuse your isolation and your feelings by kind of constant gibbering and chattering -- which can also be good and fulfilling.  But you have to dwell within your life, you have to excite who you are, therefore its purer.  So when I write in my journal it’s much purer -- my journal becomes a friend and I communicate with that journal and then I am able to distill the whole patterns of the world and the universe making of it a very clear structure that might have been chaos.  Merely writing it helps it take on a form.

Was there any kind of a stigma going to the same school as Harold Pinter?  People always seem to mention that . . . “Berkoff was taught by the man who taught Pinter? ” Does that mean anything to you?

There has been a lot made of the fact that he had a very good teacher.  I remember him -- he wasn’t a very nice guy but it didn’t make a difference -- but no stigma.  Every school has two of these or three of those.

I’m hearing you talk about yourself as an actor first.  But would you consider yourself to be an actor or a director or a playwright first and foremost?

Well I think they’re all interchangeable.  They are all interchangeable because as I’m acting I’m writing and thinking and working.  They’re all interchangeable.  Sometimes I think of myself as an actor first because that’s where I earn the money.  Sometimes I think of myself as a writer because that’s where I put down my thoughts and people do my plays but I actually wrote the plays to give myself roles to play as well.  So, I’m a bit of everything and I see myself as a director first and foremost anyway because I like to help and teach and direct and conceive so it becomes like a sculpture or painter and I really adore directing and creating fascinating movement. You don’t often get the opportunity to do that therefore I fall back and do the one man shows.

Do you enjoy more or less -- or does it matter -- if you are performing in your own show or do you enjoy watching the others on stage?

Usually watching the others.  When I direct something I put all of my acting skill into them then sometimes it work out to be incredible.  It can be an incredible production like when I did Richard II in New York in ‘94.  Very good -- very good one.

Is there a point where a revival has to die -- it becomes stale?  Can there be another Metamorphosis?

Yeah, it can go on and off.  I mean I did ten, that’s why I wrote the book.  had had enough -- I’m sick to death of it.  But I had found different ways of doing it, it was still fascinating in the end.  It was becoming highly stylized and as it became more stylized it became more real to me.  When I did it in Japan the movements were more perfect and I liked that.

Does that come from the Japanese training . . .  Kabuki?

I think so . . . particularly for the women.  The forms were so good.  I mean -- it had become Kabuki in a way.  The women never really have a chance to play Kabuki, so here, we tried to use it as means to experiment a little bit.

Your use of color -- or lack of color -- you often have black stages, actors dressed in black and white, is color bad?  Does color give too much away?

It gives you too may opportunities to be indecisive.  But I like color.  I think color is very good . . . there’s no particular reason.  I like the plainness . . . the simplicity of black and white.  I like the grizzliness, like an old photograph.  When I did Metamorphosis, I did it in black and white.  And The Trial in black and white, more or less -- on occasion with splashes of color.  With Salomé, because of dresses and the period was more colorful, it had beautiful colors.  Back to Coriolanus, again more blacks and whites.  So, I think black and white is more dynamic and colors can interfere unless they have a purpose, a point.

Same thing with your lighting effects?  The most vivid lighting effect that I’ve seen is from Metamorphosis.  It’s very expressionistic . . . basically a bug reflected from the actual steel poles.  I was speaking to your lighting designer and he also agreed that lighting to you is very important.

Yes, in some productions.  I haven’t done any productions for a while.  I haven’t bothered with lighting, I used to be obsessive with lighting . . . absolutely obsessed with getting it right.  And some of the lighting effects on the stage -- you see with Metamorphosis -- were startling.  Beautiful as were the music as well. The lighting . . . you can really shape the stage through the light.  Music, music, working with light.  Movement working with music and with light;  all of it working together creating an orchestra of the sensations.

Music . . . music should be created during the process as the acting evolves with it?

Yes . . . yes.  the music is your unconscious mind.  The text is fixed.  The play no longer interests me when I come to do it.  I’m interested in what’s underneath it.  So, when I come to do any play, even Salomé, anything, the musician is the most important thing; because that will stimulate.  Then the language will come.

So, when we first did Salomé, I couldn’t get it going until I heard the music, and then, when he played some music . . . aaaah . . . there was the movement.  It just came from the music.  So then he improvised during the whole process.  Unlike, say, conventional directors who will say, “We want some music here.  Go away and come back”; it’s too dangerous to work the way I do . . . not so much dangerous as it is more risky because you don’t know how it will turn out.  Directors are reluctant to risk, but I will risk.  I will not say “How will it work?”  And I will have musicians -- I have a very good musician named Larry Spivac -- and when he came to New York to do both Richard II  and Coriolanus  (the two shows I’ve done for them) [New York Shakespeare Festival], I said, “Play the drum first before we start rehearsal.”  I tried to think, to somehow go into a meditative state.  The actors are there and I know that the citizens will come on but how they come on I wasn’t sure.  So I said, “Play the drum” -- bum, bum, bum, bum [mimicking a drum].  I got very excited and as I heard the drum I didn’t worry any more about the direction or what to do;  I heard the drum and I thought all of the actors were excited because they heard the drum.  So I told them you run on, and then race on like this explosion of citizens to perform . . . the chorus again, the ensemble.  Basically the ensemble is my big defense out of my loneliness.  So you create an ensemble so therefore you have your friends . . . it comes from that need.  o I’m playing so I don’t need to say, “Are you in John or should we go out?” . . . Fuck it, I have all my ten friends . . . all each different types and they come on and they become your friends and they become your brothers, they become your family.  So therefore I’ve got a high respect for them.  Because I have such a high respect for them I don’t want them to be spear carriers because that’s abusing your brothers, I want them to be the star of the show because they’re the underdogs.  So very often, when we do the curtain call, the ensemble gets the biggest round and that satisfies them because they also have a huge responsibility.  They become all of the elements of the play.  They become the actors, the dancers, the movers, the court, the senators, the generals, the ensemble, the soldiers, the everyone.  They are kind of an amorphous, malleable group . . . I’ve written about it.  The music comes in and we have it and they are a dance group, then suddenly we’re an athletic group like we are a sports team.  Then suddenly I want them to move and suddenly I want to become a choreographer.  So you freeze -- drum beat . . . umph . . . just turn your head.  It’s exciting.  We’re taking life and breaking it down into pictures, stage by stage.  That all requires technique . . . a technique you evolve over many years.


© Craig Rosen 2000



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