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Adam Marple: Belgrade is not Hell. It’s Purgatory.

This interview is a story about Belgrade, Singapore, New York, but also about Sonja, Andrija, Adam, Aleksandar.

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Adam Marple, a theatre director, lecturer and the Lecturer in charge or the Acting programme at LASALLE College of the Arts in Singapore, visited Belgrade in July for the first time. While we worked together in Asia, I was telling him a lot about my city, and I guess romanticizing so much that he actually wished to visit it. After few years of working and spending time together in Singapore, I realised that Adam could actually see the same things I see in Sonja Lončar and Andrija Pavlović (LP Duo), and that we could work together with them. We contributed a bit to their “Quantum Music” project, but that was actually just an introduction to a larger collaboration that we started. LP Duo is preparing their 2018 World Tour, and Adam and I are part of its creative production team. This interview is a story about Belgrade, Singapore, New York, but also about Sonja, Andrija, Adam, Aleksandar.

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How does a theatre director decide to move from New York to Singapore?

I decided to move to Singapore in 2010 following the financial crisis of 2009. I was living in New York at the time and surprisingly New York was rather insulated from the initial brunt of everything despite being the epicenter of it all. I had a rather successful theater company in New York City that slowly lost all of its funding as our fundraisers, government support, and audiences all disappeared. I had every intention of moving to Italy before the crisis, and had been planting the seeds for more than a decade, when all of a sudden it didn’t seem as safe to head to Europe where austerity measures were being put into place. While visiting Italy one last time I met a group of Singaporeans and an Australian who taught at LASALLE College of the Arts in Singapore. They invited me to come to be a guest artist and to direct a show. I knew nothing about Singapore, let alone its art scene, but as things were starting to get tough in New York I thought why not go to Asia and check it out for a little while.

What started as a six-month artist in residence gig has turned into seven years and a whole new outlook on life.  I’m not so much sure that I decided to move to Singapore rather than Singapore decided it wanted to keep me, because it presented new and exciting challenges and opportunities and continuously would not take no for an answer when I tried to find problems with saying yes.

There’s a book that I’m reading now called “Pivot” by Jenny Blake where she talks about these moments in your life where you can continue going down the path you’re going, pushing through the dip, maybe getting further in the field which you are currently in, maybe not, but instead pivoting and going in a direction that you were previously unaware existed. We normally don’t take these pivots because they’re scary because we can’t see where they go but they actually usually lead to the greatest burst of creativity because of its unknown nature.  It’s about doubling down on your existing strengths and interests to shift in a new related direction.  I am a theater director, I still to this day say that when someone asks me what I do, but really I’m the head of the acting program at LASALLE College of the Arts. I’m a teacher. The pivot to a new field, teaching theater to theater makers, was something that I never saw as a part of my path. That pivot in 2010 allowed me to stay with my head above the water so that I can continue to call myself a theater director.

After some time that you spent in Singapore, as a reaction to the environment, you created a theatre company called “Theatre Of Others”… what kind of idea was behind it?

Most of the theater spaces in Singapore, well most anywhere in the world, are appalling. They weren’t created by theater people. More and more theater spaces are created by architects who are adding a theater to another kind of space. A theater to a casino, a theater to a mall, a theater to a library. There seems to be a cookie-cutter idea of what a theater should be and every architect puts a version of that theater in a space without regard to what’s going to be inside of that theater one day.

Most theater artists would tell you immediately whether a space has a life in it or not and most designers, scenographers, would tell you that their jobs are infinitely harder when space has no life. So their design becomes a Band-Aid and actors have to work against the space.

So when I arrived in Singapore I was appalled at the theater spaces that Singapore was using and almost immediately I said “no, I’m not going to use them”.  You run into a problem immediately with the Singaporean government however because the Singaporean government owns all public space and the licenses that are required to access public space or property or buildings are particularly difficult. They don’t want you to access them, they don’t want you to go to these places. But for me it wasn’t just about the inherent life or lifelessness that such spaces have, it also became a political act because Singapore is a country that is 52 years old yet it is very hard to find a property in Singapore that is older than 15 years. Singapore is constantly tearing down and rebuilding itself so that places of heritage, places of memory, places of History and nostalgia are being swept away. Singapore’s really made up of three generations. The first generation, its founders, is called the pioneer generation. The next generation is the generation that truly made Singapore the amazing first world industrialized country that it is now. And the third generation is the generation that I am teaching at my university. This generation of students was raised by their grandparents who founded the country while their parents worked hard to create the country that exists today, and these students have grown up with tales of places and things and objects that they cannot see or go to anymore because they don’t exist, because they’ve been torn down. So there’s a nostalgia for a past or present that doesn’t exist. There’s a story I always tell when people ask me about my theater company. It’s about the very first production that we did, we commissioned a play from our resident playwright in New York City Stephen Gaultney called Negligence. It’s a post-apocalyptic tale about one of the last men on earth who while scavenging happens across a baby and the inherent moral reservations that one has about taking a life and protecting life. We staged it in a very industrialized area, surrounded by auto mechanics and construction sites, and we moved the audience through this area of Singapore that normally they never would come to and one of the scenes took place behind the building in a field, a giant field, with a lone tree in the distance. Scenographically the tree was everything you could ask for, so we lit the tree and played the scene on the field with the audience behind the chain-link fence at the industrial complex. It was a gorgeous moment, a beautiful image, something that you take a photograph of and save. It became more resonant the next day after the show closed when within hours of us having an audience and lights and beautiful theatrical magic they were putting up boards and walls around this field and looking to tear up the ground and the tree to build a car park. I was stunned, not only that we were able to get our show up and closed before this happened, but that this beautiful tree, this tree that we passed by so many times before, that people probably never even took notice of, was going to disappear and that the only way that this tree now existed in anybody’s mind was through our show. Anybody that saw our production now has this tree implanted in their mind. History continues to exist for them and it has more resonance because it doesn’t exist anymore. Theater is a crucible for memory, at the end of the day all we have from theater is the memory of the event.

If I can use theater to point out a space, to point out a place, to point out something that is going to disappear, that is in danger of being washed away, is on the endangered species list then through the power of theater I can keep it alive and I can maybe change some minds about whether we should get rid of it in the first place.

The ephemerality of theatre met the ephemerality of Singapore. You can only say a tree is ephemeral in Singapore. “you’re bored of it, don’t worry, it won’t be here long.”

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Your first infroduction to LP Duo from Belgrade was first through their “Quantum Music” project. You met Professor Vlatko Vedral and Andrew Garner from Centre for Quantum Technologies, National University Singapore. What was it like to you communicating with quantum physicists?

It was like communicating with a seven-year-old. But I don’t know if I’m the adult or if I’m the seven-year-old. They clearly live in a different brain space than I will ever be able to arrive at no matter how much I read or study or look into. I’m only ever going to get a very surface level interpretation of what it is that they live with on a daily basis.  And that’s okay, but what that means is that there’s a gap in between where we can communicate. Just as I found that when I was discussing space, theater space not space space, and audiences, and emotions with them they were left silent and I imagine feeling like I felt when they were discussing Quantum mechanics. Before I got to know them I found them to be extremely pretentious and not wanting to work with us.

We come from two completely separate worlds’ and they see their world as being the most important thing in the world and I don’t understand what they’re doing and why I should care? Of course everything was solved over beer and cevapi.

In a way, as a result of the “Quantum Music Project”, we both ended up being part of the creative production team, working on the re-positioning of LP Duo, and working on their next tour. What is your motivation to work with Sonja and Andrija?

I think that I’m at another pivot point, and I think that Sonja and Andrija are also at a pivot point, and when I met them there was this unspoken something between us where we all seemed to recognize it but couldn’t quite put our fingers on. We hit it off immediately, became friends instantly, it felt like I knew them for a long time. So I knew that anything that I could do to work with them I would do, without any idea of what the project was going to be. This was still supposedly going to be part of the quantum music project. I didn’t know why it needed to be quantum music but the idea that sold it to me was Sonja and Andrija. I think they are phenomenal. They’re world-class musicians who have dipped their toes into almost every single genre and form of music and have come back wanting more. To come back going “I don’t feel comfortable here and I don’t feel comfortable just here” and yet there’s not something that exists within “this” and “this” and “this” so therefore they have to try and make it their own. I asked them a question “what is a piano” and Sonja said the two pianos themselves, the two panels that they play, allows for a full symphonic experience, it can do everything that a full symphony can do. And now that they’ve created this hybrid piano it can do everything beyond everything that a symphony can do. That kind of thinking is fascinating.

I want to be around people that are curious and hungry and want more.

What makes LP Duo unique?

Following everything that I was just saying before what makes them unique is this classical meets electro meets retro meets “who knows what” aesthetic that they have. They have this amazing background in classical music, probably some of the best pianists in the world, who were completely unsatisfied with that being their life, realizing a passion for analog synths, and started to play more contemporary piano music, while also doing this LP Electro thing, while also experimenting with creating a hybrid piano, while also dipping their toes in this quantum music project, while also, while also, while also! But what really makes them unique to me and what ties into my work and why we got on so well is the way they communicate.

The way that they live as a duo onstage is a beautiful metaphor for how I hope and wish that humanity can live.

If you’ve ever seen great jazz, or heard great jazz, there are these great moments when these musicians almost preternaturally know when things are going to change. The flexibility and adaptability of everyone to change with it, to take an accident and turn it into an opportunity. The same thing happens on stage and theater. I train my actors and work with people in my shows to be alive in the moment and to change and adapt as needed. To be able to listen so intently to the room to feel what is needed at this moment, to keep it fresh and alive going forward, does the pace need to quicken, does the audience follow this train of thought, you need to slow down the tempo this moment, can I help my partner out by adjusting my space, something happened that was unplanned how can I use this accident to further elucidate my character’s situation?  When I watch Sonja and Andrija play, when I watch LP Duo play, I see and hear these shifts, micro shifts, and intense listening, and diplomacy, and adding to while making their partner better. It’s not always “yes and” it sometimes becomes “but also” and that kind of working attitude, that everything is an experiment and any failure helps us become better and success is measured in how well we make the other look, is a beautiful way of working and thinking in a way that I hope isn’t dying in our sociopolitical sphere.

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You spent 10 days in Belgrade in July. What would be your definition of Belgrade?

Hot, Fucking Hot.  It was 44° and I didn’t have a fan.

No but all kidding aside I’ll never truly understand Serbia. I only maybe get glimpses and then reflect on my own experiences to try and find correlations. When I first arrived you played me this song by Joss Stone and Karolina Gočeva. I said “why is all of your music so sad” and you laughed at me of course. That thought was in my mind as I went to the museum where there was an exhibition on Serbia and Belgrade, 1915, during World War I and how sad that exhibition was, it was in my mind as I rode the tourist bus pass the bombed out Army headquarters, it was in my mind as I walked past the American Embassy that looks like a bunker hidden inside of a hill. And I am going to museums and reading up about Yugoslavia and the wars and conflicts, of course it’s sad, it’s a lot of pain, it’s a lot of energy and that’s ultimately what my answer was at the end of the trip. Andrija asked me at the end what I thought now, do I still think that Belgrade was sad?

Of course not, I think of it as beautiful. I think there is so much energy in Belgrade. There’s so much energy, and people don’t know if they want to be constructive with the energy or they want to be destructive with the energy.

And I come back to Singapore, a place that has so much money, so much ability with resources, government support of the arts, a willing literate and wealthy population who should have an interest in the arts, and I realize its energy has been diverted to building malls and high-rise apartments. That all the conflict that Serbia has endured in the past hundred years has only sharpened the creativity of its population, whereas all the lack of struggle that Singapore’s had in 52 years has blunted its creativity and then I got really depressed.

Why did you eat so much meat in Belgrade!?

Why did you provide me so much meat to eat? Do you have vegetables in the Serbian diet? Good Lord it was just grilled meat and cheese for 10 days. You even took me to Cobanov Odmor for that sandwich on the hottest day! The last meal I had at Homa restaurant, there was a dish made of tomatoes, just tomatoes, and I thought it was the best thing I’ve ever had in my life. Vlasta asked me what I liked, asking did I like the truffles and the beef tongue, the rabbit, the pork sausage? I said the tomato dish, and he was surprised, it’s not the dish that I’m sure he’s got the most praise for from his restaurant. But by that point I’d had like 50 pounds of meat during that week. I can’t read Serbian, I don’t know what I’m ordering, so it was all left up to the people who took me out for lunches and dinners to get me something to eat. God so much meat. 44° weather and having the meat sweats. All I wanted was a carrot, a leafy green, some ice cold water. Next time you should treat me like a rabbit. I wouldn’t mind.

After your visit to some of the clubs in Belgrade, are you closer to understanding what hell is?

After visiting that awful club (“Port”) I’m close to understanding what hell is. Belgrade is a beautiful city and I look forward to coming back. I don’t think I could live there; I think you’re right to say that as a place to be based out of it’s perfect. I think Belgrade can be dangerous for people like myself. I’m more of a melancholic personality and I could see it in some of the faces of the people in the city the kind of destructive energy: smoking too much, drinking too much, eating lots of meat! But then I meet up with Sonja and Andrija and they’ve got so much creative energy, smiles on her face, passion in their hearts about what they’re doing.

Belgrade isn’t Hell, it’s Purgatory. It feels like it’s waiting for something or someone. It remembers this ripe time when for 50 years or so it was starting to flourish and grow and become something phenomenal. Then it all halted, it got stunted in its growth, and it feels like it’s waiting to blossom again.

What do I know I’m just an outsider who came for 10 days

Tomorrow, outside the “Kirćanski” bakery, 9:30am?

I feel like that needs to be the name of the book that we write about this entire project after it’s over. Meet me outside Kircanski bakery at 9:30 AM: A behind-the-scenes guide of the 2018 LP Duo world tour

 

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