Directing Physical Theatre with Roberta Zuric

Spotlight speaks with director Roberta Zuric about her latest, witch-themed creation, The Burning, directing physical theatre with Incognito Theatre, and how it feels to have returned once more to the Edinburgh Fringe.

By Natasha Raymond

[Theatre] is about people and other people and finding the people you want to work with.
Roberta Zuric

Thank you for speaking with us Roberta! How did you first get into directing?

I studied drama at university, and then while I was in university, I did the National Youth Theatre course. And it was through that that I made contacts, I made other friends who were interested and on the same path as me, and I thought I was going to be an actress. But I very quickly realised that I enjoyed working from the outside, and creating and shaping stories and characters. So it was very gradual.

I met a couple of friends who wrote some plays, and we put on shorts at scratch nights and pubs at university. So [there was] that strand of new writing and finding people that you want to work with. And then the other strand is I went into working with youth companies and young companies, and that gave me the taste for figure ensemble directing, and ensemble directing that also uses a lot of movement. And I just kept those two strands going and I think that’s still very true to where I am now in my career, I mean there’s still a long way to go, but you know.

You kind of keep picking away, and you keep meeting people. And I guess theatre is about people and other people and finding the people you want to work with. So yeah, that was kind of the start.

You’ve certainly found your people. This is your fourth year with Incognito Theatre. How did you first become involved with them?

Yes, this is my third show with them. I did All Quiet on the Western Front with them, and that returned to Edinburgh the following year. So it’s been four years and three shows. We share a taste and style. Their style is very specific – much more movement heavy than I usually work with. But I love that side, to work on that strand of physical theatre. So yeah, they kind of scratched that itch for me in a way.

Funnily enough, I was a teacher for 14 years and I taught in a girls school. [It’s] five boys that originated the company [and] I’ve known them since they were 16. They were in school plays that I’d directed as a teacher. So when they left school and I went freelance as well, they went, ‘Do you want to direct this for us?’ We get on and it’s really fun. But yeah, I’ve known them since they were teenagers. It’s scary!

Where do you draw your inspiration from as a director?

I watch a lot of dance, and I absolutely adore Sadler’s Wells. So choreographers like Hofesh Shechter. Check him out – his work is beautiful. I love the work of Yaël Farber, the director. I was looking for those elemental, epic, earthy influences.

There [are] artists who take the intimate and make it quite epic, and link it to society, but make sure it’s always grounded in human interaction. When I work with Incognito, I always watch a lot of dance to get that fluidity of movement in storytelling.

How does it feel to have returned to the Edinburgh Fringe once again?

It’s really exciting. The Fringe is incredible! There’s nothing like it in the world. To have that amount of art at your feet, and artists, and ideas… It’s absolutely incredible! It’s tough for artists, I’m not going to lie, and I’ve had quite a few conversations with other artists. Financially and stuff, it’s tough on your mental health, but when it’s good, it’s absolutely amazing.

So we’ve been really excited. And I guess it’s always scary, cause this project is a lot closer to my heart than previous ones, in terms of I originated the idea, and that always feels a bit more like a baby, so it feels a bit more fragile and precious. But it’s been great. We’ve had some brilliant conversations with audiences.

Is there anything you’ve done differently that you might not have done if this was your first visit to the Fringe?

Yes: nights in to take it easy. [The] way to survive this is to try and treat it as much like your normal life as possible. You know, cause you wouldn’t go out every night at home and engage in that much conversation or see that much theatre.

[For] the cast and I, the first few days was really nice. We stayed in, cooked dinner, watched films, sometimes [didn’t] go to the theatre – [went] to the cinema. So things just to keep living a normal life as much as possible, to keep you grounded.

Incognito’s show, The Burning, follows ‘the lives of witches and their hunters on an epic story through time’. What first drew you to explore this topic?

I read an incredible book by an Italian feminist academic called Sylvia Federici. The book is called Caliban and the Witch, and she proposes this idea that witch hunts in Europe spiked when we started transitioning into capitalism, when money began to take a strong hold of society. And she then examines that relationship of what did that mean, how did capitalism affect gender roles?

And then I started reading articles about this idea of a witch, and how binary we’ve made it in our western culture. When you think of ‘witch’, you either think of some hag on a broomstick from The Wizard of Oz, or you think of, like, sexy Sabrina the Teenage Witch. There’s nothing wholesome about it.

So I was really fascinated about what the link there was, and how did we get to that point, and where the roots of that were, and so I used this book as a kind of start, a starting point to explore this relationship.

And then I brought on Zoe Guzy-Sprague, who’s a brilliant player and dramaturg, and we kind of [went], ‘Okay, so what’s the story? How can we tell this so it doesn’t feel like a lecture?’ and I think we’re still working on that. I think, after Edinburgh, we’re going to gather all this feedback and keep developing it. As I said, I’m really interested in how did we get here, how did we get to these gender relationships today?

This isn’t the answer, but it could be a strand of the answer. It’s that thing of women have their place, and it’s not money – it’s home and babies, and so anytime you deviate from that, it’s really interesting what that does to that gender dynamic.

You used true historical accounts of witches to flesh out the play. How did you go about researching these accounts?

We found probably about 50 witches - we trolled the internet! But then we also worked with this incredible historian who’s written a couple of books on the witch hunt and witchcraft from that time period, and he just introduced us to a couple more.

But yes, it was just months of research, and then trialling it out in a space to go, ‘Okay, well which witches actually are fruitful for pushing the story forwards, and which will help us to feed this narrative and this angle we’re taking?’

And then obviously the witches spanned countries, so we made this very active choice to focus on the UK. But my gosh – there are some incredible witch stories from Germany and Spain. It’s brilliant!

What made you want to include live music in the show? It's such a great touch.

I felt like it needed [it]. [The Burning is] quite epic, and the space we had in the Pleasance had the opposite effect – it [needed] a more epic space. But I thought, ‘Okay, we can make it epic with sound!’ and I went to see a show, and Phoebe Parker was in it singing. And I just remember I was blown away. I turned to my friend and went, ‘Oh my god, I think I need her for this!’

She brings this ethereal yet super grounded and earthy and guttural sound. I knew I wanted live music, I wasn’t sure what kind of music, and then I found her and [it] was just one of those weird moment where you’re just like, ‘Oh my god!’ She’s super young and super talented. She’s brought so much to it, and I think we’re going to keep pushing it as well. I think we can go further with her.

Incognito are known for their physical style of performance. Could you talk me through how you go about planning the physical section of a play?

We start with mood and atmosphere. So we go, ‘Okay, what is the general feel of this?’ And there’s a lot of improvising. So I set quite a few tasks which are movement-based, and we really push to never illustrate the language. Or, if we do, it’s very precise and it’s deliberate. But [for] a lot of it, we try and make sure the movement is supporting the text.

So it’s kind of giving another level and another layer to what’s being said. What you’re doing as an audience is you’re listening, but you’re also seeing something that will hopefully deepen the text. But yeah, it’s a lot of improvising, and then I edit, and I work with the movement director as well, and we see things and we edit.

We edit together as a group, and we see what skills are there, and it keeps growing. Some pieces, obviously, are specced quite quickly, cause you’re like, ‘Yep, we’ve found it!’ Some things I kept changing till the first performance, because I was like, ‘This doesn’t feel right. The mood isn’t coming across.’ It’s very collaborative. As a company, that’s why we love working together, because we like that everyone shows their ideas.

What would you like audiences to take away from The Burning?

If anything, I want them to have conversations about their understanding of witch hunts and how badly that shaped the way we view women. If next time they see a witch, or hear the word ‘witch’, they just read beyond the obvious and they just read beyond the cultural stereotype that’s being presented, that’s great. I want people to just examine a bit deeper and reconsider the way history’s told and who tells history, and how that shapes the way we view people today.

Also, I think there’s that element of the question, ‘How do we move forward? How do we change things? And what does change mean?’

What would be your advice to anyone who wants to get into theatre directing?

I would say go and make stuff. Go and find people and make stuff, whether that’s in a pub, or in somebody’s living room or something. But I think just keep practising. You need to figure out what it is that you enjoy, and what are the stories that you need to tell.

But it’s all practise, and that doesn’t have to mean in big theatres, it just means keep creating, keep doing, and find your people, because then, around those people, you’ll get comfortable, and people will challenge you as well, which will make you grow as an artist.

And see lots of things. Not just theatre – everything: art, films. Get a sense of what it is that interests you in the stories you want to tell.

Thank you Roberta for sharing your insight. You can find out more about Incognito Theatre by visiting their website, and don’t forget to check out our other content from the Edinburgh Fringe here.

Image credit: Mark Senior