by Sky Gilbert
I have had the privilege of working on two of Hillar Liitoja's productions as an actor: on The Panel (an early version of Sick), and Hamlet. Describing Hillar's process is fascinating but it is also an inscrutable quest; so much is left to chance and the mysteries of Hillar's inspiration. And yet working with this genius is a truly collaborative process. Paradoxically, one feels at the same time very much a part of the process and at the same time at the mercy of a rather sadomasochistic hallucinatory imagination.
This is because there are parts of Hillar's process that he seems to have planned (or dreamed) months before the play has started rehearsals, and there are aspects of the play which are not settled until (or after) opening night (and of course, aspects of the play which are NEVER to be settled!). It is this jolting contrast between fascistic rigidity and frighteningly anarchic spontaneity that gives Hillar's work its danger and beauty, and makes it so unlike conventional theatre.
Take, for instance, the lighting, I have not yet seen a production of Hillar's which did not involve lightbulbs hanging in rows from the ceiling, augmented by mirrors. This seems to be a very rigid aspect of Hillar's scenographic conception. The rows of hanging lightbulbs are, in fact, a DNA trademark. The unpredictability comes, of course, in where they will be hung. One never knows. After the lights go up, they are usually changed every rehearsal after that, and one never knows when one is going to be standing on a table and confronted by a lightbulb in the face.
The sound design is also a fascinating and scary mixture of the predictable and the surprising. Again, I have never seen or been involved in one of Hillar's productions where there were not short (10-second to 3-minute) blasts of music, usually played with deafening loudness (keep in mind, Hillar is partially deaf; sometimes I think he wishes we all were!). As to what these musical excerpts will be, the scope is as wide as musical history itself - from jazz to rock, to scat (i.e., scatologica1!) to classical, to obscure Mahler, to Judy Garland. Since Hillar's plays are rarely plotted, and the mood swings violent from moment to moment, there is no predicting what the music will be. In fact in The Panel the musical selections for that particular evening were chosen by the audience every night. Since we had specifically choreographed dances to execute during each musical selection, it made the experience an exciting one (to say the least) for the actors! Which musical selection would it be tonight? Well, the audience would decide; each selection was numbered and when a number was announced we would get ready to do our bit. I remember having one particularly gruelling bit of "choreography" in which I had to simply stack and fold as many XTRA magazines as was humanly possible. I hope the audience never heard my voiceless groan when that particular musical number was picked. Since Hillar was sitting in the audience announcing the musical selections, I couldn't help noticing him watching my tedious deliberations with fiendish glee.
Yes, tedious deliberations and fiendish glee are both aspects of Hillar's "technique". I find myself imagining Hillar now, in rehearsal, and I think I can put my finger on the key to his imagination. Hillar is essentially a child, artistically (though not an innocent one - are children ever really innocent, anyway?). His favourite thing is springing surprises on both the audience and the actors. How many times have we as actors sat around in rehearsal waiting for Hillar to be inspired? In these instances Hillar is a bit like a cartoon caricature of a director, and if his instincts were not so achingly beautiful, it would be very easy to make fun of him. In other words, we as actors never know where we will be standing or sitting or what props we will be using, sometimes to the last moment of rehearsing that particular scene.
I remember in Hamlet this element of childish glee in surprises was particularly personified in Hillar's direction of the Ophelia "mad" scene. The rest of the cast was not allowed to view rehearsals of the "mad" scene and we were all in some suspense. True, strange vegetables had been spied in the kitchen of the theatre, and I was never sure how they were to be used. For a while, rumours did abound and the cast was awash with morbid speculation (what can you DO with vegetables, anyway?) Well, it was somewhere around the dress rehearsal when I, as Claudius, a performer in the scene was able to actually VIEW it. Kirsten Johnson spread the fruit and vegetables all over her body until she was streaming with natural juices. In the scene I (Claudius) was supposed to be shocked. I'm sure that our suspense, and the in-camera nature of rehearsals made this scene much easier to play. Quite certainly, for the first few perforrnances at least, my shock at the Ophelia scene was quite real.
And yet, lest you think that Hillar's ideas are imposed on us from his lofty imagination somewhere above, keep in mind that Hillar's directing technique and set design are indigenous to the actors themselves; both are very much based on the actors' particular personalities. The table of The Panel was strewn with what may have appeared to be random garbage, and yet each object had some sort of meaning for the cast. The cast encouraged to bring in objects, and though it is true these objects had to be approved by Hillar, those moments when actor imagination and director imagination coincide were quite inspiring:
Hillar: Darling darling yes yes yes! That is it, it must have some horrible INSTRUMENT in front of you that you can examine. And of course a staplegun is just the thing. Oh yes and the noise. THE NOISE of a staplegun! I LOVE IT. Yes. YES YESSSSS!
This is, of course, an imaginary quote from Hillar, but anyone who has worked with him will corroborate the childish glee with which he responds to a cast which is imaginative and creative. Perhaps this childish aspect is one of the reasons why Hillar so often works with children; he feels comfortable with them and they with him.
This is, again, the key to Hillar's directing technique: he is frightening and yet benign. He is a child running up behind you and yelling Boo! in your ear (or more accurately still, a DEAF child running up and yelling Boo! in your ear VERY loudly!) And like the child, he sits in the corner afterwards, laughing, watching your reaction with fiendish glee. And if you, the viewer, are to complain that you didn't expect to be frightened, that you didn't expect the unexpected, Hillar would quite aptly reply - then don't go to the theatre. Stay at home, dear child, stay at home.
CANADIAN THEATRE REVIEW | spring 1992