Director of Eugenie Chan's "Tontlawald" Reflects on Ancient Primal Music, Hidden Snakes, and Living Dolls

February 25, 2012

This content is sourced from SF Weekly.

Eugenie Chan's Tontlawald has been in previews at San Francisco's Cutting Ball Theater since Feb. 17; it opened Feb. 24 and runs through March 11.

​Tontlawald is based on an Estonian tale from The Violet Fairy Book. Director Paige Rogers heard it from her son's first-grade teacher, and it captivated her. Rogers, who co-founded the Cutting Ball Theater in 1999 with her husband, Rob Melrose, was also inspired by Poland's Teatr ZAR, which uses dance and music in its theater productions and takes its name from funeral songs performed by the Svaneti tribe in the Caucasus, in Georgia. So she asked resident playwright Eugenie Chan to work on a script, got Annie Paladino to co-direct, and Laura Arrington to choreograph.

We talked with Rogers about the difficulty of choosing between music and acting, bizarre ideas such as a snake and a piece of bread in a doll's chest cavity, and how this story is the most interesting one she's ever heard. A world premiere, Tontlawald opens tonight (Friday, Feb. 24) at Exit Theatre.

How did you find this story?
My kids go to a public Waldorf charter school, and I am a Waldorf teacher. Another teacher had this fabulous story she was telling, and she tells it to me, and so I ordered the book it was in, The Violent Fairy Book, and I read it and talked to my boy about it, and he told me the whole story. Eugenie Chan and I had been working for almost a year wanting to do something in the manner of Teatr ZAR, but we had no through-line. I've seen Teatr ZAR in L.A. twice and in Poland twice, and I said to Eugenie, "I think this is the answer." So Eugenie had sort of concocted a story that I wasn't very happy with because it had to do with the death of a child, and I didn't want to deal with that. So I found this story, and Eugenie said, "But this story is about the abuse of a child!" Do you want me to tell you the story?

That would be great.
It's about this girl who lives with her father and her stepmother, and her stepmother beats her. They live in a little village near this forest, Tontlawald, this scary forest, and really bad things happen in this forest, or so people think. So one day she's with her friends and she wants to go in this forest to get these really good strawberries, and all her friends say, "Don't go in there." And she goes into the forest then and meets this girl, and it turns out the girl is a great friend and introduces her to her mom who is the queen of the forest, and they tell her she can come live with them inside the forest. She says, "I probably can't, and I'm probably going to be in huge trouble now for being gone so long." So the queen makes a doll of the girl and imbues her with life and sends her back, and in the story they make her out of clay and leave a hole in her chest. This is what got me when my son's teacher told the story -- I was like, "Boing! What? What are you talking about?" And in the hole they insert a black snake and a piece of bread. Then they take a needle and they poke the little girl to get the blood. Then they put that needle where the heart would be of that clay doll, and it comes to life. Then they take the girl's old raggedy clothes -- now she has beautiful silk clothes -- and put them on the doll.

Then they send her back, and she does the girl's chores. The stepmother beats the doll, and at one point the stepmother is strangling the doll, and the chest opens up and the snake comes out and bites the stepmother on the tongue and she falls down dead. The doll is nowhere to be seen, and the father comes back and eats the piece of bread on the table, and he dies.

What really got you was the part with the snake and bread. Why was that -- because it's such an odd image?
Because, you know, fairy tales, forest, strawberries -- we've heard certain things over and over. This was unique. Putting a snake and a piece of bread in her chest cavity? Something absolutely evil and poisonous and something nourishing -- it was just too bizarre. And she carries that basically in her heart. So not from her head, but from her heart, she's able to open herself up this doll and kill the stepmother. Usually death is just not associated with the heart in any way. To this day I think it's the most interesting story I've ever heard.

Why was this story was a good one to do in the style of Teatr ZAR?
The story was so secondary. Teatr ZAR's style is to have this music that's mined from various parts of Eastern Europe, particularly from Poland, of course. The artistic director is really a musician. He's less of an actor than he is a musician. I was raised with both, and I would win awards in both. I worked professionally as a child as an actor, but I've never wanted to say I'd just do one or the other, but Cutting Ball has required I just be an actor all these years.

So I hear ZAR for the first time in Los Angeles. The members get these grants to go to various parts of Eastern Europe and gather these songs that are not written down -- they are only passed down orally. The music blew me away. If you get online and hear the music on YouTube, that will explain it to you in five minutes flat. And the songs they sing are so ancient and so primal that when you're in the room with them and you hear these vibrations, that in itself is an experience. But then they have these wonderful actors and dancers. The text they use is very minimal, and it doesn't come in much. But the songs they use, oh my God.

Eugenie said to me, "Why don't you do the piece with a more American idea in mind?" And I said, "Well, what music am I going to use if I don't use the ZAR music?" It came to me that it has to be something that means something for me. Well, duh, right? I went with it, and my mom's parents were fine musicians, and my mother and her eight siblings are all musicians, so I have this music that we all know, and then we have a lot of these jazz tunes, so I basically just pulled from the family music. I am the oldest grandchild, so I have most of the copies. But, I did say to the head of ZAR, "Couldn't I just use one of ZAR's?" and he said yes. To me that is the hat tipping to ZAR.

Why is this a good play for the Cutting Ball?
We call ourselves an experimental, avante-garde theater. Rob was thrilled because it fits right in with our mission. Most of the Cutting Ball is my husband's aesthetic because he's the artistic director and he's not home with the kids. This aesthetic, it's new to Cutting Ball, but it's certainly not new to the world. It's a European way of working -- you get a cast together and you work a long time.

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