Interview by Helen E. Richardson, 12/3/2012.
Leslie Krauss graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University with a BFA in Dance and Choreography in 2003, and subsequently danced with Curt Haworth and Robbinschilds as well as in her own work in New York. Leslie joined Kate Weare Company in 2006. In 2009, she was recognized for outstanding dancing in Dance Magazine’s annual list of “Top 25 Dancers to Watch.” Leslie routinely acts as Weare’s assistant director, most recently for a commissioned work on dance students at the NYU Tisch School. In 2009, critic Deborah Jowitt of The Village Voice wrote: “(Leslie) Kraus is amazing – demon and angel.” She is currenlty playing Lady Macbeth in Sleep No More.
How did you get involved in Sleep No More?
Honestly, I knew dancers just as colleagues that were in the show and one of the people got me a comp and I wanted to go see it. And, I realized that not only did I know this particular person but I also knew half the cast and so I was pretty intrigued because it is a sort of Broadway model and the training that I have received, in modern dance, is not used in an eight show a week constant running performance. And, the show was just pretty amazing and so, much later, I auditioned, but I saw it much earlier than I even thought of being part of it…but once I saw it, I realized it was an amazing project, an amazing show.
So you auditioned, and you were cast as Lady Macbeth?
Yes, I was cast as Lady Macbeth and also as a secondary character as well: one is a heavier character more physical and has a lot more going on and the other is more supportive to the bigger arc of the story; they don’t necessarily have to be related to each other in any way.
Do you alternate those? You don’t play Lady Macbeth and the other character in the same evening?
No, not at all. Yes, you alternate those.
And when you started what kind of training did you have you do? How were you prepared for the role?
You know it’s interesting, one of things that you do at first, before you get layered in it, is just going to the space and literally learning what you are going to do in the space. One of the biggest learning curves for me was just dancing on furniture: I had never done that. So, literally, just learning choreography on furniture was the first step and then understanding that you’re promoting a story. Even though you are not so much using voice or text––you do some, but not really in a narrative way––you’re promoting stories with the choreography: but then, you also have to embody them; that is what you are trying to put across as opposed to just pure movement expression, so that it is really different from concert dance in that way. Of course, it depends on the work you are doing, but understanding that your internal monologue has got to be clear to the audience: If you are having a thought you have to have space for that thought to be seen. So, that took some time in order just to learn how to project internal monologue.
So, character development was that part of it?
Definitely. I watched a lot of Lady Macbeths. Especially the “out damn spot” scene to really see different plays on her madness and mostly the solo scenes because in lots of the duet scenes you are so charged––especially in the scenes with Macbeth––and the choreography is so set. But, there are a lot of times when Lady Macbeth is by herself in the show and she is just slowly descending into madness, and that is what I really felt I needed to research. What does that look like? What does it look like on me? And then you get feed-back: for example, something you feel might not be what it actually looks like; there’s really specific physical transformations that you can use to show what is happening. And the beauty of the show is that you do it every night. That means it really changes, morphs, and grows. You know you’ll make a decision and then three months later you’ll be like this is a really different decision now since you get to do it so often.
What were your role models?
The first one I saw when I had just joined the cast was one of the more recent Macbeths, the one with Patrick Stewart and Kate Fleetwood. She was extremely forceful as Lady Macbeth and her scene where she was trying to get this imaginary blood of her hands was quite aggressive. It was great and her screaming was extremely gutteral as if an animal was being wounded. And then Judy Dench was the other one that I was really amazed by and also just the simplicity of what that looked like. She’s just in this dark space with a candle and her range was a lot more: how quickly she changes emotional states was what I was so impressed with. Her madness is kind of wonderful in that way: she is in one state and then she is in another state so quickly, and, that is one of the things that is promoted in a certain scene that Lady Macbeth does. In the scene her emotional states change very quickly so I thought that was so helpful just to see someone who is such an artist in what they do…to switch…and even the physical angles and how you show a switch with purpose. So, those are the two I probably watched the most. There were some older ones that I watched as well, but I actually didn’t feel much connection to them. There was one that was so delicate: she was a wallflower and I thought that’s not going to work, that’s not going to work in the space to be that much of a wallflower; there’s times for that but…
In your preparations did they give you very specific choreography or were you allowed to improvise?
It’s really a balance with that. When you are in choreography with someone else––especially the Macbeths have these big duets––those are actually entirely choreographed, though the way you do them is going to be personal, personal to the relationship you have with this particular Macbeth. So the tone might feel different. You might be like: “Oh, those Macbeths seemed angrier and those Macbeths seemed…” That is the thing that will change and shift, but I would say there are solos that are physical and once you learn the choreography…it depends. Maxine [Doyle] came in and saw me and said certain things: “You could break this open a little more and I am giving you license, if you wanted to play with this.” While still keeping the structure and maybe just something a little more extreme, she encouraged me to go further essentially in everything when she first saw me: ”Go ahead and go further.” So there is that. They definitely want you to drop in to what it is and obviously we are acting in order to be as true as possible, as opposed to putting on, and there are more theatrical sections where you are pretty open. I do have a map. I have a map of what to do and then it‘ll change and that happens because the audience will change and the feeling of it will change, so I think you have to be fluid in that. In general the show is pretty set for me but in certain things one goes in and out, most of us do probably, because the environment changes. The audience determines a lot as to what your show is and they’re so close to you it’s impossible not to feel them and their influence.
How has it been with the audience? You are faced with a group of people with masks on and they all have identical masks and are like a chorus rather than a group of individuals. How does that impact you?
I think it’s really interesting actually how individual they can be. You really get to know what body language says––how loud body language is. Especially, since we do interact with the audience, you can really see how bold they are when somebody, who really wants this interaction to happen, will make it known to you. And then, the opposite, where they are terrified of you. You’re covered in blood, you’re scary, and they are just: “I want to be anonymous, let me be anonymous behind this mask.” And then the other thing that’s really interesting is actually watching a group think: the thought of an entire group really is shown in the show. You’re in the room and all of sudden another character enters and you watch fifty white masks turn at the same time and there wasn’t a noise made. It’s incredible to see how the show is set up to have audience flow and just one person will have a thought and then you’ll see forty-five people have a thought: how sensitive actually the group is to what is happening in the space. You always have people that are totally not great and they are aggressive and you have to stop them. Sometimes you have to move an audience member because they are in the way of something you have to do and they’re going to fight you. You know, that sort of thing, but that’s rare and in general it’s rare that someone gives you that hard of a time.
How is that handled when that happens?
Well, they have handlers: there’s someone in the room to take them out. I have never had someone come in–you just get really forceful. The third night I was playing Lady Macbeth, I was nervous, I mean I still get nervous, but I was incredibly nervous for a month at least. I came into the Macbeth’s bedroom and Macbeth was laying down on the bed and I had to lay down next to him and there was a woman who was laying next to Macbeth; she had just gotten on the bed and she was just laying next to him. And so I just went over and I pulled her off the bed. I grabbed her by the wrist and I pulled her off and I was fairly firm with her. And I later find out she’s one of my yoga students (much laughter as the interviewer happens also to be one of Leslie’s yoga students). After the show, in the bar it was just like….hmm.
Well, that’s good actually because she probably understood why that was happening or at least she knew you from another life.
Well, it was funny, she ended up being one of those people…you could tell she was interested in…there’s a difference between wanting to be a part and interrupting the scene and she was an interrupter of the scene. She wanted to see how much can I push you and essentially you don’t want to give them any power so you just get them out of the way. You know, you don’t have a conversation with an audience member: that’s not going to happen.
They are trying to change the story.
Right, and you just can’t entertain that. So, It was actually just funny because I thought wow this is my first real problem and then it happens to be a woman I taught yoga to, which I thought was hilarious.
When you say you were nervous, what were the things that made you nervous?
I was nervous about…honestly…about the acting being clear enough. I am not a trained actor. Making sure that the story was promoted…that’s not my comfort zone. And not that this is in any way a classical [theatre] situation, but there was that sense of trying to promote the story so I was nervous about that. It’s also nerve wracking. It is dark in there and you are climbing up on a lot of tall furniture. There seems to be a lot of elements that tie in: that are unknowns as to what could happen inside the show; you know you’re just not sure what could happen. Now, it’s kind of exciting that you don’t know what might happen in a show. At first, I was really worried and I think there’s also a very bizarre, for me at least…the first night I was a secondary character and just that alone…just walking into the environment and seeing all those white masks: you know this is just unlike anything else…to have them so close to you. There isn’t a way to prepare for this besides just doing it. Even when we’re in rehearsal-–I now understand this–-even when we’re in rehearsal it’s just so different in the show with the audience. It’s just not the same experience. You can plan––you do plan so you have a solid base-–the feeling of it really changes when they are so close to you and how you’re trying to show everything almost as cinematically as you can so everyone can see: that sort of blocking is very different. If you are doing something with your hands…you have to do it so that everybody can see… so you learn those things later. As they all get closer and closer you realize they can’t see you…so you think let me do this.
Do you have brush up rehearsals?
Absolutely, especially if something happens in the show and you’re thinking this isn’t working. You have brush up rehearsals and you have a rehearsal director come in and watch: the outside perspective is really important in this show. The emotions are so high––you are playing such extreme people––and so you’re going to feel extreme and you need people from the outside to tell you that the story is being promoted or this is too much and this is not too much…that sort of thing. At least for me the inside is a lot…from the outside it’s very different. When I watch my peers do it: they could be having a really hard time with one another and actually you would never know, we would never know, but it’s good to have that outside [perspective].
It seems to me that this is a show that demands a lot of stamina.
A huge amount. More than I have ever experienced. It’s three hours and you don’t go off stage.
And how have you worked on that: how have you built up your stamina?
You just do it by repetition. And then you…I think you do sort of ride the wave of the story and the character. You’re not always at your peak so when you’re not don’t be at your peak. There’s sort of a perspective…there’s this worry at first am I being interesting and you’re pushing that and then you realize you can’t maintain that for so long. And then there’s also understanding there’s the confidence of being in the space and doing something mundane is fine, it’s so fine. It’s three hours, you can’t be flying around constantly. So, when you are actually doing something that is much more human––as opposed to enhanced human when the dancing comes in––just be human, just drink your drink, until you can relax and soften a little bit. If you’re just constantly punching, which you do at first anyway…constantly you’re punching and then you’re exhausted and then, you know…yeah but it’s a long show and sometimes it’s just hard (laughter) and there’s nothing you can do about it.
Do you alternate every night? How do you that?
It depends. It depends on the schedule. Usually you have a couple in a row where you’re the main and then you have a couple in a row where you’re not. It depends really: there’s a lot of people in the cast and they have people switched around. In general it’s fairly steady, but it can flip flop back and forth as to what you’re doing. And different people are hired for different things. Not everybody has a main or secondary…
So there’s new people coming in on a regular basis?
I wouldn’t say on a regular basis, but I would say more that we have cycles of contracts and so we have new people. People decide to leave for whatever reason and then we have a couple of new people, which is always exciting, it’s always exciting to see them, at least for me. I haven’t been in the show that long considering how long other people have been there.
How long have other people been there?
Years. Two years, I have only been in it six months. I am still sort of newish. A lot of people have been in it for a year.
Do you work as an ensemble through group exercises or is everybody working on their own within the group?
I think we do both. I think we would probably do more ensemble work if we could schedule it more easily. There’s just a lot of people in the cast. Yes, there’s workshops where that happens and then you connect with everybody ‘cause often times you won’t dance with a lot of people that you work with. I have very few partners as Lady Macbeth so I don’t actually touch a lot of the cast. Other characters touch a lot of people throughout the show. So that’s nice. And then there’s always physical maintenance classes like Pilates just to keep you in shape. There’s a lot of working on your own show with who you are physically touching in space: because you are doing it all the time, you’re almost doing that work in the show as well because you’ll discover something in the show like “that was better now I know that way as opposed to what I was doing previously.” ‘Cause you are doing it so much you will discover that inside the show.
As a dancer you have worked with the Kate Weare Company, are you still able to work with that group?
Weare’s work can very physically aggressive and expressive so in a sense you were prepared in terms of the physical violence of Sleep No More––maybe not in the same use of space and furniture–-but in adding expressivity and emotion and maybe even an inner content. What was the big change you felt going into this as a dancer?
Honestly, just that story thing: if you have I have a thought you need to see it, as opposed to in Kate’s work. I think that what I was already comfortable with was showing an emotional state or a feeling as opposed to a linear story with my eyes. That was the difference.
That there is a progression happening?
No, that you’re [the audience] seeing everything: that you are seeing every thought that I have; that there’s not a point where I am being energetic yet ambiguous; that I am just having a state; that you can hopefully understand the state that I am in. And, of course, different people might see different things. Kate’s work is very emotional but it isn’t exactly narrative and this is very narrative. That was different.
Is the cast international?
Oh yes. Definitely. My Macbeth right now is Australian. There’s French…all sorts.
Looking at where theatre and dance are going, it seems to me there’s more of this immersive dance theatre happening, have you seen anything else as a dancer that seems to be going in this direction.
No, I haven’t seen anything that’s gone in this direction at all: I do know that there’s companies that are…but not really…but I did go yesterday to see Kidd Pivot at the Joyce and that’s Crystal Pite’s work and it was extremely narrative- she did The Tempest (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=160_fRFWzlU&feature=youtu.be) and it was, in general, unbelievably satisfying. I was really moved by it: the sense of story, and video, and costuming, it was just elaborate. It was pretty amazing, so yeah, I think this is the fusion. She is an amazing choreographer, and so here’s like—and I don’t know this for sure-–but here’s her first stab at a play. It got panned in the NY Times but I don’t agree with anything they said. I don’t know why we are going in this direction but I do like it. There’s something about a story and someone saying something and then there’s a point when the emotions get so high that words don’t––at least for me––words cannot express what is going on…then the physical steps in: for everybody watching, it’s not so dictatorial as to what is exactly happening. That’s why I love modern dance because it’s not a dictatorial art: you can walk out having your own impression. And I think when you marry [modern dance] with something like Shakespeare, it just puts another one of the million lenses that you can put on a person’s work. The emotional content of it is so high that when it becomes physical it makes a lot of sense: it’s not out of order to do something like that.
The experience of being immersed in the audience as a dancer, do you see this as a positive step forward and is this something that you want to keep doing? It seems that for the next generation this idea of immersive theatre, this idea that there isn’t a boundary between the audience and the stage, is becoming more and more popular: that seems to pique the interest of the next generation. Where do you stand on this as a performer?
I do think––especially at first–it seems very risky, especially when you are being very vulnerable: for example Lady Macbeth has a particular scene where she is very vulnerable; her bathroom scene where she is very exposed. So you are completely exposed. At this point, in the slow progression of learning this character and the work, that level of vulnerability––just sitting in that uncomfortable state––is very powerful. And, you also learn in the environment how to project a certain amount of safety. And, someone really has to be a jerk to do something to you in that place. And, you are protected: there’s people there but I do think it is quite something when somebody is so upset by what you’re doing that they [the audience] have to help you. And that’s when you feel that something very solid just occurred in this room. The idea that you have to be covered and somebody covers you because you’re so wrecked: you’re destroyed and somebody has to cover you. And, the idea that you get the audience or the work gets the audience to feel responsible, that’s very interesting: they can come in and do something. But yes, and I am sure, I personally really don’t anymore feel that risk in it. I don’t feel like I am in danger, I should say. Though it is kind of a creepy experience-–every time it happened––I never felt really in danger. I think that I was nervous. I was nervous again about: am I being the right theatrical component in this? I was worried about that. Am I showing this correctly?
Do you think this keeps your performance more interesting for you to have this kind of experience, as opposed to when it’s set and there is a distance between you and the audience?
Oh definitely. It definitely does. But also, like when somebody helps you, that doesn’t happen every time and I don’t force that. Like that’s how much the audience plays into what you’re doing because sometimes they ‘re terrified of you and they plaster themselves as far away: they want to watch but they’re not going to get close. And, in no way would I then make someone come across the room. It’s really when you read that they are so concerned; you know that sort of thing. And that doesn’t happen all the time. And then you’ll go through stages where it doesn’t happen at all and then you’re like it’s probably me then. You know, like I’m not hitting vulnerable enough: I’m not hitting––and sometimes it has nothing to do with you, it’s the audience you know. There’s a lot of play in there, which of course keeps it exciting ‘cause it’s very different. The show does not feel the same, really: that’s extremely satisfying.
Helen E. Richardson is editor of signals: a contemporary performance journal, professor of Theater and head of the MA Program in Theater History and Criticism and faculty in the PIMA (Performance and Interactive Media Arts) Program at Brooklyn College. She was Artistic Director of the Stalhouderij Theater in Amsterdam, the Netherlands during the nineties, and has directed internationally. Her expertise is the Théâtre du Soleil, a Paris based international ensemble under the direction of Ariane Mnouchkine.