Billy Bob Thornton, we have learned, will stonewall you if you even breathe a word about his acting career when you interview him about his music sideline. But Johanna Schall, a German theatre director currently in Toronto helming a production of Molière's The Misanthrope , has no such vain concerns about being asked about her grandfather, Bertolt Brecht.
That would be the Bertolt Brecht, revolutionary playwright, director and founder of the Berliner Ensemble. Schall is used to it - and she appreciates that her lineage has been helpful at times. She also knows her grandparentage doesn't really tell you anything useful about her work.
"I don't channel him," says Schall, over coffee on an unusually wintry April day. "His ghost doesn't speak in my ear." Schall sneaks a glance out the window at the whipping snow. "In Berlin now, it's 16 degrees," she notes - matter-of-factly, though, without the trace of a sigh.
Schall likes Toronto, despite the weather. As a German Jew, she especially appreciates the mix of races, languages and cultures she encounters on the streetcar. (And she wonders why she doesn't see that Toronto reflected on the city's "too white" stages.) Schall, who ran the Volkstheater in the German city of Rostock for five years and now freelances out of Berlin, first came to Canada's biggest city last year at the invitation of University of Toronto professor Pia Kleber, one of North America's foremost Brecht scholars. For the university, Schall directed a well-thought-of production of Friedrich Schiller's The Robbers . She greatly enjoyed working with the students, particularly one named Ted Witzel: "What do you say, we clicked?"
So now, Schall has returned to direct The Misanthrope with Witzel's company, The Red Light District.
Why a 17th-century comedy of manners with this cast of Canadian twentysomethings? The inspiration came when Schall, 50, was out with many of them at Toronto's trendy Drake Hotel last year.
"I was interested in that place and the kind of people who spend their nights there." She saw despair in the eyes of the Drake's well-dressed in-crowd, and they brought to mind the courtiers who used to spend their days and nights in the halls and anterooms of Versailles during the reign of Louis XIV - an incestuous social circle whose hypocrisy and back-stabbing Molière's Alceste rails against in The Misanthrope .
There, as Schall writes in her program notes, "social interaction was turned into a profession and entertainment became duty. You HAD to have fun!" Schall and The Red Light District then decided to actually present The Misanthrope at the Drake, a venue that has an uncanny knack for incorporating dissent. The show is in the hotel's underground cabaret space on and off throughout April. And so, like Alceste - who is played by Witzel - it has become a part of the very scene that it satirizes.
Schall's production uses a translation by British poet Tony Harrison, but switches a couple of characters' genders around (thus making most of them bisexual), adds in lots of breast- and butt-fondling, and has colourfully anachronistic costumes that mix 17th-century cloaks with hipster hoodies. (They're designed by Jenny Schall, the director's sister - another Brecht granddaughter.) You wouldn't exactly call this vibrant, funny, cameraphone-laden production Brechtian, then. Or would you? Schall says she's not sure what that term even means any more. According to her, too often so-called pupils of her grandfather's school of "epic theatre" think it means productions that are "grey, boring, and that shouldn't touch you emotionally." And yet Schall remembers her grandmother - the original Mother Courage, Helene Weigel - being quite an emotional actor and her productions being anything but dull. (Her grandfather, who wrote Mother Courage and Her Children and a dozen other classics of the theatre, died before she was born.) If Brecht were alive today, Schall believes, he'd have moved with the times and wouldn't care very much about the theatrical theories of a man who died a half century ago. Her youthful Misanthrope - with a couple of excellent performances, and many more that fall in the promising category - takes its primary inspiration not from her grandfather but from the emerging theatre artists she met at U of T.
"I would have never done this play at this place without these actors," she says.
The Misanthrope continues until April 26 at Toronto's Drake Hotel (www.theredlightdistrict.ca).