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Professor Emeritus Errol Durbach: Teaching theatre

Inspiring a Passion for Theatre in the Next Generation:
In this first interview for How They See It, I talk with Professor Emeritus Errol Durbach, Department Head (Theatre and Film) from 1987 - 94, about his experience teaching theatre and drama at the University of British Columbia.
Several years ago when I returned to the University of British Columbia as a "mature" student to work towards a B.A. in English, Professor Errol Durbach taught some of my most memorable classes. While my content memories from some courses have faded into a jumble of illegible writing on overheads and chalk boards, I still recall clearly many of the ideas and the works we studied in his classes and those of several other inspiring teachers.  Errol, a renowned Ibsen scholar, generously agreed to allow me to take a directed studies course on Ibsen with him. The chance to spend an hour  one-on-one over a semester, each time dissecting one of eight Ibsen plays from The Doll’s House to The Master Builder was a privilege I truly appreciated.
It was great teaching that enticed me from the fascinating but focused world of my medical specialty to the broader world of ideas in the arts. As we wonder how to attract each new generation in to theatre houses, it is worthwhile to recognize that the kind of teaching and exposure to the arts that students receive at schools, colleges and universities will influence how much they value live performance and ultimately, how important a role theatre and other arts will play in their lives.
One-on-one with Professor Errol Durbach

I would like to jump right in to talking about teaching. You have been teaching theatre at UBC for a long time. Would you say your approach to teaching theatre has changed over time?

My approach has changed in the sense that I began teaching in the English Department where theatre was called Dramatic Literature and you taught it as a sub-genre of Literature, like the novel, poetry or drama, so the teaching was geared to ideas, and I guess, to the historical context of the play you were teaching. I then segued into the theatre department and I had to change my teaching method quite radically. Because what you teach in the theatre department is the way in which text translates into action. So you look at a text in a completely different way.

You look at the text as a pre-text for performance, not that the themes aren’t important; they are very important except that you begin to take a somewhat different approach; to language, to gesture, to the way in which scenography and props are used. You teach as it were for the truth of the acted moment, not for the rather abstract theory that the drama points towards in some other discipline.
In a way moving into the theatre department opened me up to a kind of dramatic analytical technique, to a dramaturgical approach to theatre and to drama, and to a different expectation, I think, on the part of the student. And that for me was very liberating.
And I also realized that in order to teach that way I had to make myself available to students who wanted actors for their shows. And so I started acting to learn about the text from inside the language and the action, not merely as an observer of an outside artifact.
And so everything shifted.
So that’s very interesting. I had thought that you studied theatre, with Ibsen being your area of specialty,  and that you were an actor before becoming a professor.
It sort of went the other way around. Not that I wasn’t interested in Ibsen before moving into the theatre department, I was. But I was interested in Ibsen as a dramatic philosopher rather than as a man of the theatre creating absolutely fabulous pieces of stage art. And so I guess it was the stage that really impressed itself upon me and I taught as it were for the stage, rather than for the page.
So your acting experience developed out of making yourself available to students partly in order that you could understand acting from the inside. And what about your writing for the stage, adaptations and all that?
Oh that happened quite by chance. I am not sure how it originated. I guess because I was in a theatre department and several of my colleagues used to write for the Freddy Wood Theatre, I thought it might be something worth trying for myself, on an experimental basis. And so I floated a few of my ideas past my friend and colleague, John Wright, then Associate Professor in the Film Program. John, who also directed shows for the Freddy Wood, has the marvellous ability to combine theatre and film in a cinematic style of directing, allowing me to write impossible stage directions with the conviction that he can pull them off. 

If a director was stimulated by an idea then it seemed to me that I should develop it. And so we worked on a number of adaptations. I think that’s what I do really, I adapt. We started with Dickens’s Dombey and Son.

I thought Peer Gynt was your first adaptation.
No,  that was before Peer Gynt.  John and I  had lunch one day and I said that I really like Dickens and I think his novels are extremely theatrical, sometimes even quite melodramatic and it seemed to me he was drawing on all the techniques of the theatre of the period.
John said “which novel do you like?" and I said that I’ve always liked Dombey and Son which is a relatively unknown novel and I have been thinking about trying to make a play out of an extremely long and convoluted novel. And John seemed excited by the prospect. So I sat down and did it, and we staged it in the Freddy Wood Theatre and it was quite good. We used some of the techniques of the melodrama and so it was a way of looking at and exploring theatrical style and seeing how you take the melodrama and deepen it and give it genuine human feeling.
And that’s how it all started.  It was a collaborative partnership and we went from thing to thing to thing. And now we are working on another Dickens project and I have just given John my fifth draft for Great Expectations, which he is interested in doing for the Blackbird Theatre Company.
So getting back to the whole business of play as text versus something to be brought alive on the stage. Do you think that it would be better for the genre of drama to be taught in theatre departments because by teaching them purely from a textual point of view you lose the whole richness and could turn students off from the theatre? For example, it never occurred to me to read a play for pleasure, like a novel,  until I had actually taken your courses.
Well, if you are teaching a play simply as literature what you want to draw out of it is an idea, a thesis. I mean this is what we are trained to do in English departments - to find the theme and show how the theme works in the texts. I think if you are working in a theatrical context what you realize very early on is that there is no definitive meaning to the play as a piece of literature. That meaning is multi-facetted and derives from a collaboration between the director, the actor, the text and their consideration and that you can play it in twenty-six different ways. That any moment is susceptible of multiplicity of interpretations and that what you have to do is work towards the truth that works specifically for that particular production. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But it’s a completely different approach. It’s an opening up of yourself really to the possibilities of the text rather than a closing down of the text to conform to your particular reading of it.
And so in literature departments you are expected partly by the discipline, but more specifically by the students to come up with a more or less unequivocal thesis. Students are vey fond of certainty;  the theatre is very fond of uncertainty. Theatre really thrives on ambiguity, on doubt or nuance. It thrives on a reading that may shift if you go to see a different production of a play.
There was a friend who, when I said I am going to see Hamlet in London, asked “but haven’t you seen it before?"  And I said “yes but every time you go to see Hamlet it is like a new experience because no two performances of that role are ever the same.” So what you have are nuanced differences which shift the meaning and place it in a different kind of context. And therefore drama is like that river- you can never step into it twice.
You have not discussed an important component of the director /actor/ writer interface and that is the audience.
And the audience of course.
So do you buy into the concept of ‘’the death of the author”; that an authorial work is only really completed by the perception of the reader?
The author is never dead. You have to somehow respect the deep structure of the thing you are reading. There is that wonderful scene in a Neil Simon movie where they are doing a production of Richard the Third or something and they turn him into a gay limp-wristed king and they just ignore everything in the text that grounds it in a particular personality so you shift the personality and you shift the play beyond the boundaries of its possible meanings. I don’t think that one should do that. I think you have to negotiate with the text but not necessarily wreck it.
Alright  so here is an interesting example to discuss. The Bard on the Beach 2006 season’s production of Troilus and Cressida was set in the time of the American Civil War. And I don’t usually mind when a play is adapted to another time or place but to me that play was so quintessential Greece and Troy and of that particular time period time that I found the geographical and chronological dislocation to be disconcerting. [See Rants, Raves & Reviews July 2006]
Oh I quite liked it. I mean you have the Greek civilization and Trojan civilization in the original and they are both defined by their value systems
The Trojans are the old medieval world, well-established, aristocratic, and hierarchical while the Greeks are the New World. They invade and they are pretty ruthless, self seeking, individualistic. You have a clash of value systems. It seems to me that’s what needs to be preserved. If you can find two cultures, at odds with each other, who never the less maintain the same kind of clash, the same dialectical opposition of value systems which are roughly analogous or equivalent to the original, that seems to me ok.
The director chose to make the old South, Troy, and it seems to me that that the old South did manifest a lot of those Trojan values which were beginning already to erode, to implode. They were too rigid really. So I don’t think you can be arbitrary about your choice of value systems in collision. They have to be at least consistent and if you want to modernize the play I think it’s a very difficult thing to do unless you can find a clash between two dispensations that manifest as roughly the same kinds of ideas and systems.
Back to teaching: When did you actually switch to the theatre department? And do you see any change in attitude or approach between students now as compared to when you started?
I can’t remember the exact chronology but I remember that the theatre department was having a problem replacing some one who had resigned. It was a point in Vancouver’s property history when housing was so expensive and unaffordable that nobody could actually afford to come to UBC and so they borrowed me, took me on approval for a year from the English Department and sort of tried me out and then decided that I’d do but I don’t remember exactly when that was. Around the mid-nineteen seventies.
So you would be dealing with lots of changes in student attitudes between then and now?
Yes, lots of changes. I taught acting students and a mixed bunch of other students who were taking theatre as a general interest. But my sense at the time, and I don’t think it’s really shifted, is that the really good acting students are among the best theatre students as well. You know the image of the acting student or the theatre technician, the technical student is that they are just in it for the professional training and they don’t really care about the liberal arts aspect but that seemed to me not to be true at all. The very best students I had were the students who were passionate about the discipline itself. And that passion was manifest in stage management as well as directing, designing and acting. They wanted, and they needed to know as much as they possibly could about the historical context.
You are known internationally as a leading Ibsen scholar. I am interested to learn how this came about. Why Ibsen? But first where did you do your undergraduate and post-graduate training?
When I was an undergraduate at Cambridge Ibsen was regarded as an honorary Englishman. Henry Gibson and some of the best teachers were in the English department which was where I took my degree at Cambridge. So as part of my English curriculum I took three courses taught by absolutely magnificent people. They were John Northam who had written a book on Ibsen and was teaching a course on Ibsen, George Steiner who was teaching a course on tragedy in which Ibsen figured very largely and a famous Marxist scholar, Raymond Williams (Drama from Ibsen to Elliot) who was talking about Ibsen. Everyone was talking about Ibsen in an English Department and so I started to read Ibsen and was turned on by truly great teaching and you suddenly realize that these people are talking with such enthusiasm about the topic that you had better read it. All of a sudden a Scandinavian became a kind of English author, certainly for the British.
So which was the first Ibsen play you read?
I think it was Hedda Gabler. It still remains one of my favorite plays.
It was not mine, perhaps it’s because I have only read it and never seen it produced.
I have seen so many productions that they begin to run one into another but again like Hamlet, each one is so different. She is one of those creatures you can’t really pin down.
What would you say are your favorite genres within drama?
I am a tragedy guy really.
And do you have a few favorite plays or authors?
Well Shakespeare and Ibsen.
Modern or contemporary?
People tend not to write tragedy anymore. Who do I like?  There is such an incredible wealth, such a richness of modern drama that it is hard to single out just a few people. 
Arthur Miller because he’s dead doesn’t quite count but I have always much admired him as an American writer of conscience, of integrity and sympathy and I guess as a critic, like Edward Albee, of the American Dream. I guess those are the writers in the United States that I really like.
Edward Albee?
Yes Albee. I mean a play like Whose Afraid of Virginia Wolf? really takes the dream apart.
Yes it was an incredible play but what about his later style? I mean that was sort of like a one shot wonder.
He has never been quite as good as Whose Afraid of Virginia Wolf but that was an incredible achievement.
I saw a remarkable play when I was in New York last. It was called August: Osage County [playwright Tracy Letts]. And it went on for about 3½ hours like a good O’Neill drama and it was about a family …at each other’s throats. It was about the coming together of the family and the dispersal of the family and it just struck me that the intensity of the writing was so remarkable that you don’t get that so often anymore in the modern theatre. 
But what about Doubt? I originally saw it in New York and I just saw the production here and thought it was a remarkably powerful and well constructed play. I like the kind of play that leaves you thinking and “in doubt”. I think that was one of the best plays that I have seen recently.
Yes I saw the local production of Doubt.

So did you think he was guilty as Sister Aloysius insisted?
I think he is sort of discredited in this production
Because of the intensity of his reaction?
Yes, and I thought at the end of the play similarly that she was discredited by her extremely emotional acknowledgement of the fact that she might have been wrong
I remember commenting after I saw the play in New York that I thought this was one of the best constructed plays that I had seen recently. And the other play that I think was similarly brilliantly constructed  was Mamet’s Oleanna – it’s the way the tension builds.
Oh I really liked that. Again it’s a play that discredits both of them really. Uncertainty is one of the great virtues of the modern theatre. Where instead of the manic pursuit of a certain point of view you are left, in fact, in the state of the world in the 21st century – where everything is uncertain, where there are no absolutes any longer and where you have to keep questioning yourself before you take decisive action.
There are also lots of great British writers. I am really looking forward to The History Boys which I am going to see tonight. Have you seen it?
Yes I saw it in London, saw the film version and then I saw it here. [See the review: The History Boys.]  I think Bennet's strength is in character – he creates these powerful unforgettable people.
As we wrap up I would like to talk briefly again about getting the next generation in as audience. Most of the major theatres are supported largely by an older audience. Part of the reason is that it’s more expensive to see a play than for example, a movie. On the other hand productions are expensive, actors, technicians and crew - all have to earn a living wage. Any thoughts on theatre attendance?
I agree that it’s a really big problem. Even if you go to a matinee at the Arts Club  or Playhouse it’s fifty dollars, beyond the means of most young people. And with the credit crunch more people are going to regard theatre as a luxury. I don’t know how you make it more accessible, it is very expensive.
Although there are a lot of small companies that will have something on for ten or twelve dollars, but they suffer from not having funds for publicity.
And publicity costs too. So don’t cut subsidies to the arts.