BWW Interview: WaxFactory's Ivan Talijancic on Challenging Stereotypes with LULU XX
To say Ivan Talijancic has had quite the illustrious career would be an understatement. After creating WaxFactory alongside Erika Latta in 1998, Talijancic has been key in helping shape it into the one of the most internationally active multidisciplinary groups that has emerged from the New York downtown scene. With over 20 works with WaxFactory under his belt, ranging from performances, to installations and film and video productions that have been presented on four continents, Talijancic's creativity has known no bounds. And that's not to mention his independent work in journalism, education, producing and freelance directing.
Now, he brings his career full circle as he revisits the character that started it all. Lulu, the iconic creation of German playwright Frank Wedekind from his own plays Earth Spirit and Pandora's Box was the subject of Talijancic and Latta's first formal collaboration together after starting WaxFactory. Presented as a work-in-progress in New York, Lulu fascinated and intrigued the two creative minds and now 20 years later, they bring her back into the spotlight with LULU XX, a new cross-media performance that celebrates WaxFactory's 20th anniversary with Latta in the starring role at the Connelly Theater.
Talijancic took the time to chat with BroadwayWorld about the upcoming production.
What originally drew you to the character of Lulu and Frank Wedekind's work?
This project truly goes back to the very beginning of our company. When my fellow co-founder (and co-creator of this project) Erika Latta began working on devising this work back in the late 90's, the impetus to investigate the character of Lulu came out of a years-long fascination with Wedekind's Lulu plays, which I had read back in college. I was puzzled by Lulu's character, in each act of Wedekind's dramas, she appeared to undergo a transformation, it was as if she kept morphing to a different character. Wedekind was a brilliant writer, so I was certain that a dramaturgical agenda was at work there. But what was it? These plays, and this character had burrowed themselves in my mind and wouldn't let go.
My personal interpretation of this dilemma was that Wedekind wanted to create a sort of an "Everywoman" character, who eschewed easy categorization, defied societal and theatrical conventions - an embodiment of a multitude of tropes that men have resorted to in artistic representations of women for centuries. In LULU XX, the work that Erika and I created, I always like to think of the original character of Lulu as a ray of white light, and what we are doing is putting her through a prism and breaking it down to its primary colors, and investigating those colors one at a time. Wedekind's original production was deeply controversial when it first premiered over a century ago, and I think it still holds up.
Though our work is not in any way an adaptation of his work, I think it still tackles issues of representation and embodies a critique of the male gaze in equally unapologetic ways. In that sense, I think Wedekind was a proto-feminist. He was very much ahead of his times.
You first discovered Lulu and began working on this production in 1999. Now 20 years later, what was the journey like to get this production to where it is now?
It was deceptively complicated. When Erika and I decided to revisit this, our first formal WaxFactory collaboration, I don't think either of us had realized what we were about to embark on. It was like entering a house that had been abandoned for two decades, and realizing that it needed an enormous amount of work in order to become inhabitable again. It's almost as if we kept the foundations but everything else was up for rebuilding. And that is indeed what happened. As was to be expected, we were able to revisit the work with a more mature perspective, and I think it is fair to say that our sensibility had become more sophisticated.
Artistically, I think the work is more layered now than it had been artistically. And production-wise, the process of putting this work on its feet had been incredibly challenging. Producing work independently, as we always have been, is much more difficult now than it was when we first started, there is less funding and more artists competing for thinner slices of the pie.
How has this piece adapted and been reimagined for the 21st century?
We had to consider that now, in 2019, the times, our culture and attitudes have changed quite a bit since we first built the piece in 1998. Even though I believe, as a society, we still have a long and complicated road ahead of us when it comes to the issues of representation, I feel like the work Erika and I were doing these last two years in revisiting LULU was at the same time buoyed by the current feminist zeitgeist.
As well as directing, you also did the design for LULU XX, which is a cross-media production. What was the creative process like?
I had the original idea for the visual installation that is the architecture of this piece. But truly, it has been a deeply collaborative process with a small army of incredibly talented designers who are bringing the design to life. The cross-media aspect of LULU XX has grown tremendously since the original production - I think the current work is almost unrecognizable in that aspect. We are doing some really exciting work with projections, which are being brought to life by a small team of incredible artists, Skye Morse-Hodgson, Tasja Keetman and Jason Batcheller; we are immersing the spectators in a dense aural environment that has been created by Los Angeles based sound designer and composer Yiannis Christofides (as well as a sonic contribution in one scene from Australian composer and vocalist Lisa Maree Dowling), our longtime lighting design collaborator Paul Hudson, and last but not least, I think it is safe to say, truly stunning costumes by Miodrag Guberinic. You will see what I am talking about when you come to the show!
This show marks the 20th anniversary of WaxFactory. How do you think LULU XX applies to the company's mission statement and values?
I am extremely proud of the work that we made as a team, and the collaboration we were privileged to have with a supremely talented and deeply Committed Artists who are making this show what it is. I think, also from that standpoint, LULU XX is a perfect embodiment of WaxFactory's mission and values - it is a truly multidisciplinary Gesamtkunstwerk, it is product of a deeply collaborative process, created by an international team of artists from three continents.
How do you believe the #MeToo Era and feminist movement may have shaped this production?
It is fascinating to create work that is critiquing and challenging stereotyping that women have been historically subjected to, in the wake of #MeToo and Time's Up. Again, I feel that both Erika and I were encouraged to be bold about statements that we are making with this production. Male gaze is not "politically correct", and while there is an aspect of idolizing women in it, it also embodies a great deal of misogyny, and I think we are addressing these conflicting tendencies without any attempt to "sugarcoat" them. I think some viewers might find this disturbing, but we feel that, if we are to move the conversation about representation and agency forward, we must address the issues that plague us as a society head-on. As they did in Ancient Greece.
What do you hope audiences take away from LULU XX?
I think this work cuts really close to the bone when it comes to many issues, glaring and unspoken ones alike, that affect us as a society today. I know it deeply affects us in this way, as creators of the work. It is an emotional rollercoaster; there are moments of utter absurdity in it, where one can't help but laugh, but then there are also some complicated and painful corners we look into, that I feel make this piece a challenging piece of theater in the best sense of the word. I do hope our audience members will lean in and accept the challenge. We raise a lot of questions with this piece, so I hope it will do its part in moving forward important conversations that we are having at this historical juncture.
LULU XX is currently playing at the Connelly Theater until September 28. For tickets and more information visit https://waxfactory.nyc.
Production Photo Credit: Tasja Keetman