Erika Latta and I met as graduate students at Columbia University’s School of the Arts in New York where, upon the completion of our studies, we co-founded a multidisciplinary performance group, WaxFactory, in 1998. During our time at the University, we both worked under the mentorship of the American master director and educator Anne Bogart, also one of the Artistic Directors of SITI Company, which she founded with Japanese director Tadashi Suzuki in 1992. We found the time spent studying with Anne to be deeply transformative and, as our artistic practice evolves over the years, she remains an invaluable presence in our lives, a continued source of inspiration and advice.
Earlier this summer, we caught up with Anne over Skype for a conversation about WaxFactory’s upcoming anniversary production of Lulu XX at the Connelly Theater, the challenges and joys of making ensemble theater in 2019, international collaborations, and the evolution of WaxFactory’s multidisciplinary practice over the past 20 years. We are sharing an edited version of that conversation below.
Ivan Talijancic (Rail): Anne, Erika, I’m so happy we are having this meeting of the minds via Skype.
Anne Bogart: Congratulations on your anniversary—what are you doing for your 20th?
Rail: Well, we are doing a couple of things. We are remaking the first piece that Erika and I collaborated on under the WaxFactory moniker, back in the good old year of 1998. Originally called Lulu, now being renamed Lulu XX, we thought it was an interesting piece to revisit because it is looking at how historically women have been boxed into stereotypes, and we thought, well, that somehow suddenly feels very timely again. I'd say we’ve gotten a few more tricks up our sleeves over the last 20 years [since originally creating the piece], so I think it's going to be interesting. We are also putting together a book, which centers around our career-long collaboration with this genius German photographer, Tasja Keetman.
Erika Latta: Also—I've been doing site-specific work with Begat Theater in France since 2000, mostly as a director and doing sound design. Hidden Stories, the show that's been touring quite a bit in France, is now making its way over here and it's going to be at the WOW festival, organized by the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego, then in Portland with Boom Arts, and then in Brooklyn with Downtown Brooklyn Partnership. All of this is happening this fall. So we're also celebrating the collaboration between Begat Theater and WaxFactory. And also looking at Lulu XX. I was 28 when I performed that role, and I'm 48 now, so I'm thinking, “Oh, can I fit into that costume?”
Bogart: Is Begat from Paris?
Latta: No, Marseille. But we’re always working outdoors and looking at material. The kind of works that we've been making lately are inspired by Sophie Calle and Janet Cardiff. Hidden Stories is like live cinema of sorts, but in the streets and dealing with how reality and fiction cross. Working with amazing technicians, we shoot a film in each town, and then the audiences have to navigate with their smartphones, and they have headphones where they’re listening to the characters’ inner dialogue and hidden stories. Then, the next piece we did was called The Disappearance. We're trying to get that piece here, too, but it’s baby steps, always you know: getting visas and funding for international work…
Bogart: Which is getting harder and harder.
Latta: Yes, you know all about that. And then, Lulu, which will happen at the Connelly Theater.
Bogart: It is like a little jewel box.
Rail: It is a little jewel box. At first we thought, “Well, that's kind of odd.” You know, you have this vaudeville-style proscenium stage and our weird futuristic set.
Bogart: That’s ideal.
Rail: It is perfect, in a way, because we are essentially paying homage to Wedekind; the feeling of the space harkens his era through the architecture and then we are superimposing this very contemporary rendition. I think the contrast between the two is going to be quite interesting.
Bogart: It's always seemed to me to be like a Brecht theater.
Latta: Exactly. And you know, Anne, that Lulu also came out of the thesis production I did with you at Columbia, American Silents, where I was playing Louise Brooks.
Bogart: I remember that very well.
Rail: Which brings me to why I thought it would be interesting for us to speak together. Erika and I were just reminiscing the other day that you were kind of the matchmaker for WaxFactory – you know, we both came to Columbia because we were interested in working with you.
Latta: I saw your production of The Medium in Toga, Japan.
Bogart: You saw the earliest, earliest version of it.
Latta: I know, but it burned into my memory—it was so beautiful. I had been studying Suzuki for six years at that point, and I was coming from modern dance, and then I thought, “This woman speaks my language…where does she teach?” And then I immediately set in motion my audition for Columbia.
Rail: I feel like I rode the wave—no pun intended—at the University of California, San Diego because you were there just before I arrived, and everybody was talking about Anne Bogart—didn't you do a piece called Strindberg Sonata?
Bogart: Yes I did.
Rail: The entire time I was there, I was hearing about your Strindberg Sonata, so I was mesmerized. That’s how it all began for me.
Bogart: I just—just the thought of you at UCSD makes me laugh.
Rail: Right? And, you know who taught my first acting class there? None other than your [former company member] Jefferson Mays.
Bogart: No way. That must have been fun.
Rail: He was awesome. Then, we ran into him ten years later—we were both performing at the same festival in Venezuela. So, we ran into him, you know, casually strolling down the crazy streets of Caracas with his fedora.
Latta: Such a beautiful image.
Bogart: As one does, in Venezuela.
Rail: Anne, I have a question for you. We both have theater companies, and I feel that, over the couple of decades that we've known each other, the reality of making work has changed. What are your thoughts about making ensemble work these days – the challenges of it and the joys as well?
Bogart: For me, it's about fundraising, research, talking people into doing it, and doing it. So it's pretty much the same. How do you feel?
Rail: I think we are still all doing it for the joy of creating work, but the financial reality of it has become much tougher. It feels like more of an uphill battle to round up all the resources if one is not working on the institutional level.
Latta: I think that one's drive and the love of being a detective, putting the work together and finding out what it wants to be, is always there. I don't think that has lessened in any way. In terms of the company dynamics, I had a child, so that also slowed us down at some point, just because I had to stay in New York and we are such an international company. Also, there are many more companies that are competing for the same funds. And of course I'm always in favor of sharing resources. I think we have to bond as theater makers—as artists in general, in this day and age—and help one another.
Bogart: I really agree with you. How old is your child?
Latta: She's six. And she's a performer. She has this presence that she puts on when she starts to move or dance. She's going to be far better than me, which is good. That's what we want.
Bogart: It’s a huge thing. In terms of our times, Erika, you are an inspiration for a lot of other women—because women want to have children, and they want to have lives in the theater. So you're a role model.
Latta: I didn't think of it that way. I just keep rowing the boat.
Bogart: Exactly. That’s how I feel about the issue that you brought up before, about you know, things get harder. Just keep rowing the boat!
Latta: I think so. Time stops for no one, and in New York, if you slack, you'll get replaced. Then, working with French artists, I used to laugh because they go for smoke breaks. They get generous subsidies for their workshops, you know, and I tell them: “You have no idea, we hustle just to get to rehearsal!” But it was also good because it taught me how to relax a bit. I think all of our international travels and co-productions also fed us to keep going because that's the love of it, the love of that collaboration. I think that is also why we formed the company: we didn't want to compartmentalize art, we wanted to be able to look at the material and see where it wanted to live. And I think that desire has just like kept us going, whether you are dining with the prince of Morocco or looking for quarters in your pocket.
Bogart: It’s so true!
Rail: Something really interesting happened when Erika had her child, there was a shift in gears. I feel like we have now become involved in these interesting, very extended processes. For example, we started making a film called 416 Minutes – which was actually a project that was meant to be a large-scale live performance until it decided to be a film. So, the film has now taken like five, six years – it's almost finished. Then, we also have been working in bits and pieces on what we call “the Chekhov project.” It's a weird riff on The Seagull titled PULL YOURSELF TOGETHER! It's a piece that we've been wanting to do for a really, really long time. I had a really hard time figuring out how to get it started because, you know, it was so huge and so expensive and on a kind of scale that we had never done before. I just kept thinking, where are we going to find the money for this? And you know, Erika had been very good at sort of tugging at my sleeve for several years, going, “When are we going to work on the Chekhov project? When are we going to work on the Chekhov project?” So, I finally had an epiphany one day, four years ago. I thought: “What if I just said yes? What if I just said, we can?” So, we have been doing what we call “studies” – where we focus on one chunk of the piece, and we come together for short but intense periods of time with all the collaborators from both coasts. The studies culminate in a presentation which is always free, so audiences are encouraged to keep coming back and witness the piece as it develops.
Latta: It’s been a beautiful process. Similarly, I've been dreaming up a huge project I want to do called Strange Joy, which is based on Francois Truffaut's Day For Night.
Bogart: I love that film.
Latta: It’s about a film crew and making a film and all the meta layers that emerge when you put it in a theater space with eighteen actors. But it’s also daunting when you have big ideas. I think that's maybe going back to the original question about how do you survive, you know, what changes; I think your ideas change and evolve and that sometimes is not matched with the funding and how a company evolves over time. So we've had to adjust, figure out different ways of approaching larger material, like this piece with eighteen actors or PULL YOURSELF TOGETHER! where it’s like: okay, how can we make it work? And that has been good.
Bogart: It sounds like all those adjustments you are making are what you lived for, for 20 years.
Latta: Well, as artists, we knew when we got into this that it’s not about the success of or failure. It's about accepting the unknown.
Rail: Yes. As a theater artist, you know what it takes to work up the courage to walk into a dark tunnel and just trust that you'll find a way out even though you don't know it when you walk in.
Bogart: Yes, it’s true.
Latta: Anne, has the makeup of your company changed? Are you always working with the same collaborators, or is that changed recently when some people are going outside the company to work on different projects?
Bogart: It's always been that some people go outside the company, and we always bring new people in, so it’s a good mix of the old and the fresh. And that's always been important to do. There's a couple of pieces where it's all the old timers, but I like it best when it's a mixture.
Rail: I feel like it's been very similar with us as well. People always ask if we are like a permanent ensemble. Actually, when I look at the pieces that we've made, even just recently, it's neat because there's the artistic nucleus, which is Erika and myself, and then there's always a select crew of people from the sort of inner circle of productions. We have a very informal, but quite large community of so-called Artistic Associates, people who have been involved in the work over the years. But then, in each project there's new blood coming in.
Latta: Well I think that's important, too, because once you choose certain material—a novel, or whatever you're looking at—I really think that the material sort of governs who might collaborate on it and where is the best way it should go. You keep asking those questions, and then those collaborators come to that material, shape-shifting constantly. That's sort of the base of our company. We shift around and figure out what that material needs. And sometimes it's no technology, jumping on set with the trampoline; and then other times it’s more video-based. So there's constant exploration, and it’s been great to have this pool of people that we trust. It also depends on how fast we have to make the work. Sometimes you’re like, “I need my people by me. I can't get through this one.”
Bogart: Yes, I know what you mean.
Latta: I would say, after 20 years, the depth of the relationships with people where you're not talking is so beautiful. It's just like you're just nodding at each other because it’s as if there are no individuals. You're all molding the clay together. Speaking without words, that continues to surprise me and bewilders me and… and it’s just pure joy.
Rail: Yes, that’s pretty priceless, I would say. We are spinning the web here, and I know we could go on, but we are almost at the end of our time. Anne – do you have any final thoughts for the next 20 years?
Bogart: I have something to say to you.
Rail: Oh yes, please.
Latta: Thank you.
Bogart: It’s a big deal. It's a really big deal.
Rail: Once again, the master has struck gold. Thank you so much.
Bogart: You are most welcome. And congratulations, sincerely: it's wonderful and something to be proud of.