Talking to Ildiko Nemeth about Cosmicomics

New Stage Theatre's "Cosmicomics" (Photo by Lee Wexler)

New Stage Theatre’s “Cosmicomics” (Photo by Lee Wexler)

Katy Einerson, Dixon Place’s Director of Programming, talks to New Stage Theatre Company‘s Ildiko Nemeth about her new production of Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics opening March 28th at Dixon Place.

Katy Einerson: Reading Cosmicomics, it doesn’t strike me as a text that would be readily or easily adapted for a live theatrical production. It spans eons and galaxies, tackling the very creation of time, space and the universe as we know it. The characters are often bodiless entities. What about these stories first compelled you to adapt them for the stage? 

Ildiko Nemeth: It’s true, the novel does not readily lend itself to a stage adaption for a live theatrical production. But when material affects me, inspires me, I don’t start thinking how practical it is to stage. I need that personal involvement in the material first, and when that’s in place I know the rest will take shape. In fact, it’s artistically engaging to me to adventure into unknown territories. When I feel that undeniable buzz to do something with source material, even though it might seem difficult at first, I allow myself to dream and imagine—hoping that what seemed impossible will find its way to realization.

I was taken by the beauty and symbolism of the writing, the way Calvino draws a connection between the cosmic and the intimately personal. These stories deeply represent our humanity—dealing with relationships; jealousy; longing; our obsession with our image; our identity crises. But it’s all placed against a cosmic backdrop, given a much, much larger context in a playful way. We all recognize ourselves in the stories, but there’s a lot of humor and absurdity in it too, because of the context. In my direction I embraced that sense of connection to the characters, so I sought to represent them in such a way that the audience can recognize dynamics from our own everyday lives. In short, the fundamental and archetypal dynamics that drive the universe also drive our everyday lives. Elemental forces of attraction and repulsion are present from a molecular to a societal level.

All my plays have dealt in one way or another with evolution. In some cases it’s evolution in the sense of a personal journey, with a focus on the process and stages of individuation, as in my productions of Garden of Delights and Some Historic, Some Hysteric. In some works, like Round of Pleasure, I’ve looked at the failure to evolve—the obstacles that stand in the way of personal individuation in a psychologically impoverished, materialistic society. Mapping Mobius actually dealt as well with the parallels between individual and universal patterns of evolution. But all my plays have been deeply concerned with this theme of evolution, and what we might evolve toward—this desire to find an inner unity and a universal connection; this drive—which is always there, even if it’s never fulfilled—to lessen our solitude and give meaning to finite existence.

KE: What was the adaptation process like?

IN: The novel is extremely rich in content, playfully written, and grand in scale, so the hardest part was editing: editing the expression of ideas and selecting the chapters that could serve as a dramatic core for this theatrical production, while holding on to the essence of Calvino’s writing. The production doesn’t aim to make a full adaptation of the novel; it is based on certain chapters only, so the challenge was creating an evening of theatre that doesn’t try to recreate the whole novel but still gives a sense of coherence in its through line and measures up to the scale of the story. The novel is poetic and dense; I felt some chapters could be stand-alone plays. I started with a long script and little by little, partly through the rehearsals, distilled it to what we have now.

KE: For those who haven’t read the book, who and what is Qfwfq?

IN: Qwfwq is our protagonist, who has been in existence since the very beginning of the birth of our universe. He is a witness to everything that’s happened, a witness to our collective past, tracing the path of the universe’s evolution with its big milestones. He is the stardust we are all made from. Less abstractly, he is an old soul (the archetypal wise old man), and through his reflection on his life we witness the important stages of our lives, the individual cycles with all their separate characteristics, from birth to old age. His tales of obsession, neurosis, love and constant transformation are reflections on our humanity, on lessons learned or to be learned on a life long journey. And through his journey we also get a sense of how a deep, ineffable—you could say divine—mixture of love and longing are the driving force of creation and evolution.

KE: I’ve seen a few of New Stage Theatre’s previous shows and have always been struck by the absolutely stunning visual elements of your work. Did you look exclusively to Calvino’s text for visual inspiration? 

IN: His text is highly visual—that is, it suggests a lot of striking visual images—and that attracted me, since visual elements do have an important role in my work. I regard the visual aspects as potent carriers of the thematic content, because of course we are strongly visual creatures and what we see has a huge effect on our emotional and intellectual reaction to material. I would call Cosmicomics very cinematographic, and in the production the video projections are a tool to represent the concepts and to capture the grand, cosmic scale of the stories. But also many times the video projections will give a close-up, intimate look at the action, so I’m using video to recreate the novel’s dynamic—zooming in and out between the universal and personal. Costumes and lighting will play important roles too, as always in my productions.

KE: For me, much of the pleasure in reading the book came from grappling with and relating to these characters and stories as allegories and stand-ins for us humans, but also as distinctly non-human beings with totally different relationships to time and mortality, whose thoughts and ideas we’re just lucky enough to have access to. The characters do and don’t always represent us. How do you achieve that exciting murkiness and distance from humanity when working with live actors who have real human bodies on a stage?

IN: I think Calvino points out that certain dynamics just don’t change; they’re still here as they were from the beginning. If you think of two particles that attract each other, or others that repulse each other—to take a simple example—it’s not hard to find instances of something very similar going on between humans we know. The longing to be connected to someone, be part of a group, is most ancient human desire, we all share that. Our struggles—the questions and problems we deal with—are amazingly constant over epochs; all that changes is the circumstances and the way these dynamics represent themselves in given circumstances. So within this overarching concept, my vision has been all along to have live actors play non-human characters but to play them as recognizable humans. Actors bring those qualities and dynamics to the stage for a living, so it didn’t present itself as a conflict to me.

KE: There is quite a lot of longing and and unrequited love at play in Cosmicomics. Would you agree that heartache is almost the one constant we experience throughout all the stories’ wild and vast transformations?

IN: Yes, it is a reoccurring theme in the novel. To me the novel is almost suggesting that fulfillment cannot happen in the actual, everyday lives we lead; that it’s instead something to be found beyond somewhere, in our common past. We do make efforts to meet a spiritual ideal though, and that pursuit is a pathway to understanding the true nature of love, the divine love that creates and connects.

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