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University of Minnesota
University of Minnesota

Inside a character's head

October 10, 2008

Michael Sommers.

Michael Sommers, one of the three brains behind the Woyzeck production on the Twin Cities campus.

The U's production of Woyzeck challenges us to piece together the play in our own way

By Camille LeFevre

Georg Büchner's unfinished stage play Woyzeck has tantalized the imaginations of many artists who took it upon themselves to "finish" it. Werner Herzog made a film of the play. Robert Wilson and Tom Waits crafted it into a musical. Written beginning in 1836, the play is based on the life of Johann Christian Woyzeck, a Leipzig wigmaker and soldier who, while in a jealous rage, murdered his lover and was subsequently beheaded.

In Büchner's telling, Woyzeck is the father of an illegitimate child by his lover and subjects himself to degrading tasks and medical experiments to earn money. Woyzeck's poverty and exploitation at the hands of the upper class foment his visions, insanity, and murderous impulses. When Büchner died in 1837, the tragedy was mere fragments. But Büchner is credited with creating the first working-class main character in German literature.

In part because of its fractured structure, investigation of madness, and social-justice themes, Woyzeck also appealed to three innovative performance faculty in the University of Minnesota's Department of Theatre Arts & Dance: Michael Sommers, Luverne Seifert, and Carl Flink. After a six-week workshop with U students last spring, the trio decided to add The Woyzeck Project to the department's performance docket this fall—but with a twist.

The students' experimental staging of the play will take place inside Norris Hall gymnasium, where both the women's athletics program and the dance program originated. The gym was converted to carpeted office cubicles years ago and is now being decommissioned.

The directors called on students from architecture, visual arts, dance, and theater to collaborate on creating "dioramas, peep shows, and tableaux vivants (posed and costumed actors), almost like State Fair booths," in and around the gym's cubicles that reflect aspects of the play, explains Sommers, assistant professor in the Department of Theatre Arts & Dance and the Interdisciplinary Program in Collaborative Arts. The students have only cardboard, lumber, and other low-cost materials with which to construct their booths. "The gym is really a studio or laboratory for them to work in," Sommers says.

The performance will also include the character of Büchner as a docent-guide of sorts, a choreographed work by Flink, and a circus-like sideshow in the green space outside Norris Hall. "It'll be a raw, visceral world—quite a contrast to the other U productions with their big sets, heightened design, gorgeous costumes, and regional-theater approach," Sommers says.

Sommers hopes that "each audience member will piece together the play in their own way and have a singular experience. Our Woyzeck is one of those productions that could fail, but in a really beautiful way. We're trying to have this be a learning experience for the students that goes beyond just ‘doing a show.'"

The Woyzeck Project plays October 10 through 18 at Norris Hall on the East Bank of the Minneapolis campus. Call 612-624-2345 for tickets or visit the Department of Theatre Arts & Dance Web site.

Related link
Video: The Woyzeck Project