David Hanzal is the Director and Creator of Collective Unconscious, and they are one of the Twin Cities most visionary and versatile theater artists.
I first became a David Hanzal fan after being blown away by their ardent, magical, and exquisite “The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood” in 2016 (https://www.talkinbroadway.com/page/regional/minn/minn534.html) and I have followed them ever since. When I heard they were working up a new original musical (Into the Darkness) I jumped at the chance to interview them. Into the Darkness opens on November 15 and runs through November 24th at Shakespearean Youth Theatre, 550 Vandalia Street, Suite 306 in St. Paul. If you’ve never seen a Collective Unconscious show, don’t miss it. (If you are familiar with CU magic, I’m pretty sure I’ll see you there.)
1) If you hadn’t been a theater-maker and director, what would you be?
I've always been attracted to theatre because it combines my two great passions--visual art and community storytelling. I've always thought of myself as a visual artist who is really attracted to narrative. So if I wasn't a theatre-maker, it would probably involve one of those two interests in some way. Also, about ten years ago, I worked as a pre-kindergarten teacher for my "day job," and that was one of the happiest times in my life, so I wouldn't be surprised if in an alternative universe I was teaching or working with young children.
2) 3 greatest influences on your work?
I'm sorry, but there are too many talented people in the world to limit it to three (ha!). When I was a "young" director (during my undergraduate and graduate studies), I was regularly inspired by directors like Robert Wilson, Anne Bogart, Mary Zimmerman, and Emma Rice. Locally, I've always been inspired by Michael Sommers' work with Open Eye Figure Theatre, and the strong visual aesthetic that Joel Sass always brings to the table as a director-designer.
3) The phrase ‘collective unconscious’ is from Jungian psychology and as I understand it, it means – very loosely –the sum of knowledge and culture that we inherit or alternatively, that is sort of encoded in our psyches from almost the time of our birth. So the question I have is, why did you choose to call your company Collective Unconscious?
I founded Collective Unconscious with the writer Katharine Sherman, who left the company to focus on being a mom in 2017. We arrived at the name Collective Unconscious Performance because we wanted to have a theatre company where we could "re-imagine stories from our ‘collective unconscious’ (such as fairy tales or myth) with a bold, contemporary perspective" (as seen in our mission statement). Having the word "Performance" connected to "Collective Unconscious" has also been very important to me, because while the work is always inspired by an old fairy tale or myth, we're constantly experimenting with, and pushing the boundaries of, genre and style -- the sleeping beauty in the wood was very movement and dance-oriented; Little Red was a very theatrically-influenced short film; Le Cirque Feerique was inspired by biography and history and was probably our most realistic or dialogue-driven venture; and now with Into the Darkness, we are veering into opera and puppetry.
4) The premise of a shared cultural vocabulary of tropes, archetypes, rituals seems evident in your theater. One thing that’s also evident in the CU plays I’ve seen is what you call a “non-hierarchical relation” between forms of artistic expression. In the shows of yours I’ve seen there is a gorgeous fluidity between multiple dance genres, music genres (including opera), puppetry, dazzling costumes, visual effects, along with dialogue and style of acting. And there is no one form that dominates. Can you talk about the genesis of your non-hierarchical approach? And about your process for creating this fluidity between forms?
For one thing, I've always loved puppetry and opera and dance just as much as theatre, and I like to create theatrical worlds where we can fluidly use whatever tools we need to most effectively tell the story in that moment. I also think the genesis of the non-hierarchical approach relates back to my strong interest in visual art. In studio art classes as an undergraduate student, I received a lot of flack from my student colleagues for "ruining" my paintings by weaving in text or by being too focused on incorporating narrative into my visuals. As I became more and more interested in theatre at that time, I always thought of myself more as a visual artist working in the theatre, and sought out ways I could combine my interests in visual design and storytelling. I think my first "aha!" moment came when I saw Carmen at Theatre de la Jeune Lune in 2004. I had been going to theatre with my family on a very regular basis (ever since I was three) but I had never seen theatre like that--I was completely mesmerized by the strong physicality, the choreography, the costuming, the use of the architecture, the lighting, and the opera singing contrasted with the sparse musical arrangements. I still think back on my memories of attending that production on a regular basis, and how much it opened my eyes to what theatre and performance can and should be.
I think a second "aha!" moment happened when I interned for Sandbox Theatre's production of Horse, Bird, Monkey, and Dancer right out of undergrad in fall 2008--that experience was very overwhelming for me because I had never witnessed a devised process before, and I'm just naturally a very, very, very shy person. But what was so life-changing about that experience for me was that it showed me one model for how you could collectively use text, live music, movement, puppetry, and visual design as equal, non-hierarchical ingredients in theatrical storytelling; it was something I had always wanted to do myself as a young director but had no clue where to begin. I learned so much from the artists at Sandbox, and took away lessons and discoveries from that rehearsal process for many years to come.
Around that time, in 2008, I also started to obsessively study directors, choreographers, puppetry artists, and theatre makers who were creating performances that incorporated all of the available ingredients in non-hierarchical ways. I would read every article, book, and interview--and watch any filmed performance or interview--about these artists that I could get my hands on (thank goodness for interlibrary loan and YouTube!). I was curious - how are they making their work? What is their role in the creative and collaborative process? How do they rehearse? What methods and exercises are they using in the room? Not just the directors that I mentioned above, but also folks like Pina Bausch, the Brother Quay, Jan Svankmajer, Martha Clarke, Tadashi Suzuki, Richard Foreman--this list could go on and on.
5) Let’s talk puppets for a moment. How did you come to work with puppets? Like did you perform -puppet shows as a kid in your family rec room?
I'm naturally a very introverted person, and I was a very shy kid. I acted in plays growing up, but I'm not really a performer. Ever since I can remember, I loved finding odd little objects that had been discarded--a cigarette butt, a seashell, a feather, a scrap of sparkly fabric. Working on my own, I would play with them and see how I could give them breath and animate them into existence. I never really performed puppet shows publicly, but this way of thinking about making the inanimate animate was always something that I was very curious about. Growing up, my exposure to puppetry was mostly through Jim Henson and Sesame Street, and since I never really responded to that visual aesthetic, puppetry was off my radar--for a long time, I thought the Muppets were all that puppetry could be, and I've just never been interested in that. I did, however, spends hours and hours and hours playing with Barbies and dolls growing up, and I think that play-time has definitely influenced how I approach puppetry as an adult.
6) I know you have recently added to yours staff the very talented puppet artist (and/or puppeteer?) Eva Louise Cone Adderley! You were both at University of Iowa. Is that where you met? What’s it like co-creating with Eva?
I love working with Eva--she's such a bright, collaborative spirit and a dear friend. Eva was an undergraduate student while I was pursuing my MFA a the University of Iowa. Our paths briefly crossed there--she worked as a designer on a couple of shows that I directed then but we didn't closely connect at the time. When she moved to Minneapolis a few years ago, she reached out over Facebook, and we started meeting for coffee or lunch. She asked if I needed any help on Collective Unconscious' current show (which was the sleeping beauty in the wood at that time), and over the past few years she's quickly evolved from a design helper to an assistant designer to full-fledged designer! She designed and fabricated a beautiful polar bear puppet for Into the Darkness, and she's the sole puppet designer for Maiden Voyage, our upcoming production this spring. Eva is incredibly enthusiastic, very collaborative, and has an entirely different design skill-set than I do--so we compliment each other well when we work on design projects together.
7). Into the Darkness, your latest offering, is an all new musical piece. And the description says that it is “based on forgotten fairy tales” and is “about the transformational power of love.” Transformation seems to be a constant in your work – transformations of gender, transformations from childhood to adulthood and just the motif of shape-shifting. But in this new production you are focusing especially on the transformative power of love. Can you tell us more about that? What was the inspiration ? What in particular moved you to focus on the transformative powers of love?
It's so interesting that you have noticed the theme of transformation in my work! Events that were swirling around in my life and the world about a year ago led me to think about the transformational powers of love, which ultimately led me to create Into the Darkness. I started working on this piece last winter, right after my last piece, Le Cirque Feerique, had closed. I had been incredibly proud of that piece and I had wished that production would have received more attention than it did. I was pretty down in the dumps and to make matters even worse, I was extremely troubled and unhappy with the state of the world. Before it had seemed that even though there were troubles from time to time, everything in the end would be OK—and yet, now it seemed that every time I opened a newspaper or turned on the TV or put my lens out into the universe it seemed like someone out there who had power was choosing fear over love.
Everything seemed hopeless, and I kept asking myself: Why is love so difficult? Why do we keep choosing fear? Is it because love so is so infinite and so difficult to define? Does love even exist? In a heated moment of existential outrage, after probably a couple of vodka stingers, I think I blurted out something to my partner like, “I just want to invite all of my friends over for a bottomless glass of wine and present puppet shows about love in my living room! With live music!!” Whenever there’s an issue in the world, I always go back to an old story to make sense of the present. It’s what I’ve always done. While researching another project four years ago when working on a different piece about sleeping beauties, I was recommended to read the tale “The Dark Princess.” I still remember the first time I read the story, and by the time I was reading the last sentence, I remember thinking to myself “I have to adapt this story.” But I also knew I wanted to wait for the right time. And with all of the chaos – and fear – and lack of love in the world – I felt it was the perfect time to adapt “The Darkness Princess”. At its core, the “Dark Princess” tale makes us question and ask ourselves: What is beauty? What is love? And, even more deeply, it somewhat cynically – or darkly – questions, Does love even exist? When I decided to adapt “The Dark Princess” for today’s audience, I very quickly realized that in a performance setting it was not a stand-alone tale and we needed to pair it with a second tale that would offer a counter – or different – perspective.
Love is too rich and complex a topic as something that could be boiled down to one perspective or one idea. This was not an easy process. After much searching, I finally decided on “East of the Sun, West of the Moon” – a Scandinavian fairy tale that unabashedly (perhaps naively) celebrates the transformational power of love. When adapting “East of the Sun,” I maintained many of the core characters, events, themes, and images, but removed the problematic animal groom aspects – giving it my own feminist and queer twist.
8) The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood and Skins were based on princess tales. In those shows I remember getting a sense of the protagonists’ being constrained by narratives that diminish their complexity or their freedom of movement – and we witness their various attempts to break out of the imposed passivity. One of the source tales for Into the Darkness is-East of the Sun, West of the Moon- which kind of famously features a princess who does exercise a great deal of agency. I don’t know the other source tale – but I’m wondering about how this latest revision of a princess tale compares to your other princess play adaptations.
Yes, you're exactly correct on that one -- "East of the Sun, West of the Moon" has always been one of my favorite tales in that it has a female protagonist who is strong, courageous, and will stop at nothing to achieve what she wants--she literally walks to the ends of the earth to rescue the love of her life. Into the Darkness is a collection of two inter-related fairy tales for adults--my re-imagining of "East of the Sun," alongside a lesser-known tale, "The Dark Princess." The princess who is at the center ("The Dark Princess") is a very internal character; while this particular princess is externally constrained, she undergoes a tremendous journey of the soul and of the spirit by the end of the tale. I paired these two different tales together, because they riff on many of the same questions and themes but have contrasting points-of-view, and ultimately come to very different conclusions. I've told my cast that "The Dark Princess" is like our dinner, and "East of the Sun, West of the Moon" is like the dessert that follows. As far as comparing Into the Darkness to some of my other work, I'm not sure. I'm too deep in the weeds right now to look at it in comparison to the bigger picture of my work as a whole.
10) What’s your favorite fairy tale? What’s your favorite Disney movie?
Growing up, my favorite fairy tales were always "The Little Mermaid" by Hans Christian Andersen and "Cinderella" by Charles Perrault, hands down. I was so obsessed with "Cinderella", that when I was six or seven I checked out every published version of "Cinderella" that they had on the shelves within the Ramsey County Public Library system. I loved comparing the different versions, adaptations, and illustrations across all of the different books. As an adult, I regularly revisit the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen, and I was surprised at how many interconnections there are between our lives after I read Hans Christian Andersen: The Life of a Storyteller by Jackie Wullschlager several years ago. Speaking of, I saw the Disney movie of The Little Mermaid in the movie theatre when I was four, and it was one of the most life-altering, brain explosion-y experiences I've ever had--it completely changed the trajectory of my life. It made me realize that I wanted to make art and tell stories--when I realized I couldn't be a sparkly mermaid, I thought "well, I can still make art and tell stories" (I initially dreamed of being an animator, but found animation dull and repetitious). I have some pretty serious concerns about the social and political value systems that Disney promotes through their films, not to mention their reductive gender and cultural stereotypes that they have often portrayed (don't even get me started...that could be an entirely different interview...!). I think my favorite new Disney movie is Frozen. Coincidentally, so much of my life-long love/hate relationship with Disney princess animated musicals has really influenced the music and visual aesthetic of Into the Darkness.
9) And this time you have composer-lyricist Dan Dukich working with you and your musical director Sarah Modena describes the score. She says, “Stylistically the music has an echo of ‘golden age’ musical theater and Disney animated musicals, but it’s less ‘shiny’. There’s a darkness, a sharpness to it.” Can you talk about this collaboration --about that tension between darkness and “golden age musical” whimsy and /or Disneyish animation-- and how it complements your own aesthetic?
As I've mentioned, Disney princess animated musicals were a very profound influence on me when I was very, very young--I was completely obsessed. I sometimes think of these princesses as my first drag queens, before I knew what a drag queen was. Cinderella and Ariel and Sleeping Beauty and Belle and Snow White offered me this glittery fantasy escape world of heightened femininity and glamour that I wanted to run away to as a child. As troubling as I find the Disney machine to be (more on that later), I still have this odd affinity with these princess animated musicals, and I still watch them on a regular basis as an adult. When I was developing "The Dark Princess" section of Into the Darkness, I was making a collage (I make collages a lot when developing projects), and I intuitively pasted an image of a Pina Bausch dancer wearing a tattered red nightie striking an expressive pose, on top of a flat, 2-D, medieval tapestry-esque background from Disney's Sleeping Beauty. Suddenly, everything clicked! I knew I wanted Disney-like music for this piece...but filtered through a dreamy, poetic aesthetic. I immediately thought of using Dan Dukich to write the music and the lyrics, and I commissioned a concept album of songs from him. He read through a super early proto-draft of the script with me, and we identified opportunities for music, as well as various Disney songs and tropes that he could use as his source inspiration. Dan then filtered that Disneyfied inspiration through his own eccentric musical and lyrical sensibilities.
11) So, let’s end with a fantasy “once upon a time” question. Once upon a time the artist David Hanzal had all the treasures --or rather resources--of the theater and art worlds at his feet! He had then to choose how to employ them in a dream production in his dream theater space? What would that show be and where would you stage it?
I think I have so many potential projects jumping around in my head, that my dream would not be about having unlimited resources for one specific dream production. I like restrictions--and I like making theatre because it is all about art-making with concessions and restrictions and deadlines and collaborative problem-solving. Instead, my dream would be about having more opportunities to create work and collaborate with other like-minded artists. I dream about continuing my work with Collective Unconscious Performance, but also directing and designing for other theatre companies. I also dream about leaving my full-time administrative day job and focusing more on art-making and community work, as well as finding ways to help make theatre more sustainable and inclusive.
David Hanzal is a Minneapolis-based theatre artist. Previously, their stage direction and design has received awards from the Kennedy Center American College Theatre National Festival and the University of Iowa. They completed their Master of Fine Arts in Theatre Directing at the University of Iowa, where they regularly developed and directed premieres of new plays and devised work with writers from the nationally-recognized Iowa Playwrights’ Workshop. David has also intensively trained with Anne Bogart and the SITI Company, Kari Margolis and the Margolis Brown Adaptors Company, Czech master puppeteer Miroslav Trejtnar, and the Wesley Balk Opera/Music-Theatre Institute. They have also worked with The Guthrie Theater, The Jungle Theater, Children's Theatre Company, Nautilus Music-Theater, Skylark Opera, Red Eye Theater, and Pillsbury House Theatre, among several others. Visit them online at http://www.collectiveunconsciousperformance.com/ & https://davidhanzaltheatre.carbonmade.com/.