Education Dramaturg Ted Sod spoke with Director Moritz von Stuelpnagel about his work on Bernhardt/Hamlet.

Ted Sod: Let’s start with some biographical information: Where were you born and educated? What made you decide to become a theatre director? Moritz von Stuelpnagel: I was born in Greenwich, Connecticut to a pair of wonderful German immigrants who wanted my name to be as incomprehensibly German as possible. My father was in finance and my mother a visual artist (as well as the director of exhibitions at the Bruce Museum), so I joke that directing perfectly blends their influences of practicality and conceptualization. I actually stumbled into directing because my high school happened to have a terrific performing arts department, including an evening of ten-minute plays written, directed, and performed by the students. It’s a total privilege that I had access to that. And something about being in direct conversation with the writers and actors, on subject matter that was immediately resonant for us, sparked something in me that felt both empowering and humbling. To watch those first plays from the back of the house, as well as watching the audience watch those plays, was to be part of something larger than myself, and I knew I wanted to commit myself to the service of new writers.

TS: Tell us about your response to the script of Bernhardt/Hamlet. How did it resonate for you personally? What do you think the play is about? MVS: I’m fascinated by the questions this play asks about our ability to really, truly see one another, or even see into ourselves. That’s one of the vital roles the theatre plays: to witness one another, to recognize ourselves. Does an audience’s presumptions about women prevent them from regarding a woman’s tragedy the same as a man’s? Can I find Hamlet in myself? Does my lover see my potential in me, or are they limited by their expectations for me? Bernhardt was one of the early proponents of naturalism, and as such, she asked hard questions about representation in the theatre. We’re similarly asking hard questions about representation now. But inside that, inside all the artifice of the theatre, the artists are trying to touch on grains of truth to offer up. Something that pings the soul. It’s not easy to discover something truly meaningful, but in that way, I understand Bernhardt’s struggle.

TS: How are you preparing to direct this play? Did you have to do a lot of research? If so, what did you research specifically? MVS: There’s an endless array of material written about Sarah Bernhardt, and because she loved myth as much as truth, it’s hard to know which of those stories, if any, are factual. But even the myths are revealing. I’ve dug through quite a bit of biography and history, and they have informed a lot about the relationships of the characters and the circumstances around this event. But what has felt most useful is immersing myself in her ethos. Bernhardt’s belief in the power of theatre, and her willfulness to be at the center of it, crystalize what seems so dynamic about her. It’s critical to what drives this play, and it’s framed my understanding of the script and how to approach the design. Research is only ever helpful.

Moritz von Stuelpnagel

TS: The role of Sarah Bernhardt has been played by Janet McTeer during the development process. Can you talk about collaborating with Janet on her role in this play? MVS: Janet is an incredible collaborator. Like Bernhardt, she has a fire of passion, the spontaneity of wit, and the ferocity of ideas behind her. Not only that, but she’s been wonderfully engaged in asking hard questions of the play. Sure, she’s taller than Bernhardt was, but the stage can be a great leveler. What’s harder to replicate is her spirit. And because many people these days have forgotten or never heard much about Sarah Bernhardt, our focus really is on the ideas that came out of these events, rather than representing them with stringent historical accuracy.

TS: Please talk about your understanding of the relationship between Sarah Bernhardt and Edmond Rostand. I am curious what you think motivates both of them? MVS: One of the inspirations for this play was a tremendous book by Francine Prose called Lives of the Muses, in which the author examines the relationship between artists and their sometimes more famous (or even infamous) muses. There’s this question of whether partnership has the potential to bring about an artist’s self-actualization—the best in ourselves—or whether the artist’s unfulfilled desire breeds creativity in pursuit of a lover. I think a lot of people romanticize the former; this idea that your personal shortcomings can somehow be mitigated through the healing power of love: two halves make a whole, or the other person will somehow complete you. That can seem really validating. But it’s


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