Controversial German Director Leni Riefenstahl Inspires ‘Amazons And Their Men’
New artistic director Matt Morrow kicks off 30th anniversary season at Diversionary Theatre
Friday, September 18, 2015
Diversionary Theater has a new artistic director who wants to showcase new works. But the first play of the 30th anniversary season looks to the past to find insights into the future. KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando goes behind the scenes of "Amazons and Their Men" about German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl.
"Triumph of the Will" (1935)
"The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl" (1993)
Diversionary Theatre has a new artistic director who wants to showcase new works. But "Amazons and Their Men," the first play of the 30th anniversary season, looks to the past to find insights into the future.
If Leni Riefenstahl were judged on her filmmaking skills alone then she might reside in the cinematic pantheon with Orson Welles, Akira Kurosawa and Federico Fellini. Unfortunately, her groundbreaking documentaries "Triumph of the Will" and "Olympia" were commissioned by the Third Reich, making Adolf Hitler her boss.
"She was kind of a political nitwit I think but she was also an artistic genius," Matt Morrow explained.
Morrow is the new artistic director of Diversionary Theatre. He’s directing "Amazons and Their Men," a new play based on Riefenstahl’s life.
"To me her craft and her artistry is undeniable," Morrow added. "She really gave us some of the fundamentals of filmmaking with 'Olympia' and 'Triumph of the Will' and that’s why she’s fascinating because she’s able to evolve her art form to such a profound degree yet she did it at the service of such an evil regime."
Riefenstahl remains controversial nearly a century after she began her career. She was a woman filmmaker in the 1930s, which was rare, yet she cannot be held up as a role model because of the choices she made.
"She’s very much a divisive character. I think that that is interesting, she incites a conversation about art and about the power of art that we should be having," Morrow stated.
"Amazons and Their Men" gives us a character called the Frau who is inspired by Riefenstahl. The Frau is in the midst of filming the mythic tale of an Amazon queen’s affair with Achilles set against the backdrop of battle. But a real war stirs outside of her sound stage, and she must confront the fact that a fascist regime is bankrolling her career. Riefenstahl was fueled by her artistic passions and convinced herself that she was using the Nazis to create her art and was blinded to the fact that they were actually using her.
Morrow said casting the right actress is key to making the play work: "You have to have that magnetic almost likable quality, you have to want to watch them even though they are doing treacherous, horrible things."
Actress Kerry McCue can do that without flinching.
"What I want the audience’s relationship to the Frau to be is it is not love/hate relationship, it’s a respect/hate relationship," McCue said. "That you have to have respect for the things she was doing at the time she was doing them and for her genius, her talent but the way she operated and the means of getting the end result she wanted were not great. So they are allowed to hate me but must respect."
Art and social responsibility
The Frau raises issues about art, the artistic process and social responsibility.
"Themes in the show that she evokes about art making and about the importance of knowing the impact that an artist can have in a community is something that we should be talking about so that’s the conversation I want to have at the beginning of my season here," Morrow said.
Although Morrow is committed to showcasing new works at Diversionary, he says looking to the past is the only way to move forward. He was drawn to the play’s setting as well as its high theatricality, which included bringing film to life onstage.
Bringing film to life on stage
"I’m working with an extremely talented projection designer named Tara Knight," Morrow said. "Every time we sort of go into the on camera world we’re using an immersive projection design and soundscape to sort of take us into that filmic world, help lift it and make it otherworldly and beautiful, as Leni would say beautiful."
Often projection design in theater tends to be merely illustrative. The characters go off to Greece so a video of Greece plays in the background. But that’s not what Tara Knight wanted to do.
"Leni Riefenstahl is one of the most influential filmmakers of all time," Knight said. "So rather than attempting to recreate what she made, it’s to attempt to show what does something on camera feel like in a theatrical setting, right? So a lot of it is the tone, and the abstraction of flicker – I’m using these digital projections to create it but it feels very much like 16mm or 35mm film."
Film grain flickers on the stage and over the actors’ faces as we are transported not just to the 1930s but to a timeless place inside the artist’s mind. Morrow wonders if audiences will embrace this challenging play.
"I hope that they will connect with the idea of what it means to be an artist and the power of art," Morrow stated. "I hope that they walk away mulling over how art affects them in their every day life. And I hope that they walk away feeling inspired and thoughtful."
And that’s what art should always do.
"Amazons and their Men" runs through Oct. 4 at Diversionary Theatre in University Heights.
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