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Setebos Interviews: Nicolás McCormick

By Cymbeline Anthropocene on Jun 19, 2022 at 02:33 PM in Project News

In this fifth and final interview with the cast and crew of  Mónica Maffía's Setebos company, Randall Martin speaks with Nicolás McCormick, the production’s Assistant Director and Sound Designer. Here, Nicolás recounts how the play’s soundscapes helped the cast to channel the more-than-human characters they embodied onstage.

Cymbeline in the Anthropocene: Hello Nick, thank you for joining me today. Tell me about how you first met Mónica Maffía and started working with her.  

Nicolás McCormick: I’m a sound engineer, but I’ve also spent time studying diverse kinds of art. Theatre, music, film, fine arts. And a few years ago I took some singing classes, and that’s where I met Sophía [Drever]. She taught me. 

CA: Yes, she told me today about being an opera singer and a voice teacher. 

NM: Sophía served as a bridge to Mónica. A year ago Mónica was working on her play Carpe Diem, and that’s where I started working with her. They wanted to do it on Zoom, and they asked me for technical advice. And I felt an attraction to the way she thinks, and the passion she has for all the nerdy stuff. But I also liked I could add my own passion for arts to those details, rather than leaving them behind. I really appreciate Mónica’s interest in that. 

CA: Yes, I get the impression Mónica likes multiple contexts for her artistic creativity – academic, philosophical, technical. She likes to engage with all of them. Has your collaboration with her continued mainly as a sound engineer? 

NM: When Mónica asked me to work with her on Cimbelino, she wanted me to be her assistant director. But because she has a wide range of interests, being her assistant is not just stage direction. It’s also production, communication, press. In my case I did all the sound work because I had this profile. She also understands what your potential is, and your tools. Actually, when she talks about actors and their skills, she always says “tools” [herramientas] to refer to their skills. She never says, that was not a good interpretation, or she is not that good. She is always saying she does not have many tools, or she’s got the tools. She gets to know what she is working with. And as a director, that’s a very good skill. I learn a lot working with her! 

CA: Let’s find a way from that into Cimbelino. Can you tell me specifically what you were doing with it, and how your approach did or did not follow hers in terms of producing the play?

NM: The last two months were very active, with a lot of ups and downs as a group, emotionally and artistically. My work began with taking notes about all the details that Mónica could not pay attention to with her eyes on other things, and I synthesised and digested them, and then gave them to her. I wanted to make it easy for her. I also was always present in the music and the sound, finding sonically how the concepts or elements are going to be heard, or how the music is going to set a mood for the actors to enter into.   

CA: Was there a particular scene where you were especially conscious of creating a mood or atmosphere for the actors? 

NM: Yes. There is the scene of the transformation or metamorphosis of Setebos at the back of the stage [in a silent tableau or dumb-show]. We knew that scene needed a very strong force to blend the mystical and the spiritual parts [with the dramatic action]. And all the actors are doing a sequence of movements that also refer to the dream sequence [of Posthumus] in Cymbeline. So it’s like a miracle scene, very different from everything else that happens in the story. That was a scene I worked on much more than others, trying to find the right sounds, looking for different music, audio layers. 

When we rehearsed and we didn’t have the music yet, Teo [the mother of Setebos, played by Rocio de León] said, “ah, she is a cloud.” But it wasn’t until I found the music and we rehearsed with it that she said, “now I am a cloud!” She felt like she could really go to that space and visualize something. 

CA: Interesting! 

NM: So I thought of optimizing the communication in the group with the sound. I was thinking less about how the sound would generate ideas for the audience. I was thinking about how this type of music would make  Sophía [playing Ínogen], for example, to feel inwardly, and in her head, to make her performance more authentic.  Her brain doesn’t have to worry about going there, because the music takes her there. And that was also another bridge between Mónica and the group, with me in the middle, receiving, translating, and sending messages and information. 

CA: You were an artistic go-between. 

NM: Yeah. So I think that was my main role as an assistant director. Because sometimes Mónica would say to me, say this to the group, etc. But I knew I had to change the wording, the package, the tone, because I know how they are going to react. And I think I did good work with that. I think the real challenge was more with this communication stuff than the technical work. 

CA: In your role as assistant director, did you feel you were conveying environmental messaging about the production? 

NM: Yes. I think Mónica and I constantly had this search for ecological aspects of the play. Like we did a lot of emphasis on the connections with nature and with the earth, with bigger things. We really wanted to have that presence in the interpretation of the play. Honestly, I would have loved to have had a little more time so the group could really connect to those feelings, as Mónica’s play suggest. But it’s hard to do that in the rhythms of the city, and in the daily context we live in. Now I remember on the Friday after the first performance, a friend of mine said it was hard for him to enter into El Chaltén. And that reminded me, it was hard for us too. And so we had an extra meeting about how nature is affecting us here, even in the city. 

CA: I can see that, without actually being on site at El Chaltén, that would be a challenge, especially through the lens of city environments. How different would the play be if it were performed outdoors? 

NM: A lot. At first, when we were in the artistic residency [at El Centro Cultural San Martín], I had this deep connection with what we were doing because I went to El Chaltén a year ago, and it was an incredible experience. So I had very fresh memories of its nature, its spirituality, and its art. My mind was full of la Patagonia. And last November I had this opportunity to go on the road with a company and we did a three-week tour through la Patagonia. I loved that opportunity to study nature, and the Tehuelches, and Shakespeare. So I really had this profound bond with what we were doing [in Cimbelino.] I felt very in the moment, and it was magical. 

CA: I’m sure that’s an experience you brought to the actors when you communicated with them, as you were talking about earlier.    

NM: Yes, and I showed them the photos and videos I took. And I know the characters of the play were influenced by the group personally. There’s a lot of me, and  Sophía, and Teresa, and Diego [Verni]—and Ángel [Evia] brought a lot to what Dewi, his character, is talking about, the Tehuelche beliefs, and their stories and legends. He really feels passionately about them. And not irrational passion: it’s the knowledge, but it’s also something more … 

CA: … under the skin? 

NM: Totally. It’s a poetic, emotional bond. 

CA: That’s one of the personal “tools” Dewi uses to transform the company into humans who are connected to both animal and wider nature, including the spiritual life across generations of the Teheulche people. He’s like a (anti-)Prospero figure, a theatrical magus and impresario, but engaged in a decolonising project. He’s making the actors from different provinces in Argentina see that their identity is not singular, but multiple, ancestral, and more-than-human.   

NM: Yes, it’s interesting too that you get to hear once or twice in the play about the Welsh colonies in Argentina. Which is interesting because it was a peaceful colony. 

CA: The Welsh were first colonised by the English in Britain. So in Argentina they were both colonized and colonizers. They had a multisubjective perspective. And that’s reflected, but in a different way, by Dewi in the play, who is both Welsh and Tehuelche, whose being includes animals, plants, trees, mountain culture. The play is very layered in that regard, and Mónica has captured its complexity. That includes humans whose natures are like the rodents, the birds, and the gods in Tehuelche mythology. Sophía was talking the other day about developing not just a human psychology for her character, as in the classic Stanislavsky and Method approaches, but also an animal character—in her case, also a molita psychology [for Ter-Wer, the grandmother-rat who raises Setebos]  

NM: I remember very well the rehearsal in which we worked on that. That was in the investigation phase in the residency, and that is a good example of what I was saying before about the sound and the music; I was playing music for them made by an Argentinian orchestra which uses Indigenous musical instruments, as well as new technologies. It’s a very strange mix!

CA: It’s fusion.

NM: Yeah! And they specialize in reviving Indigenous music that is “dead.” They study all the instruments, they recreate the music, and they give life to it from centuries in the past. So now we have the chance to hear it. 

CA: Like a Tehuelche soundscape. 

NM: Yes. A lot of sounds, but they are not traditional sounds. Very weird masterpieces, but really connected to ancient and instinctual animal sounds. So that orchestra and their music was really key to the artistic creation process for the actors when we were listening to this album, letting the animal sounds “pass through” their bodies. Five minutes you had each actor in a corner of the room, finding their “own” animal. It wasn’t rational at all, but it felt real. It was the sounds, close your eyes--let it flow, let it bloom. I love when that happens! And you see it the actors’ movements, or a shaking of the head, or a fragile voice.  

CA: I don’t think I’ve ever heard of character-building done in that way, using animal sounds which are the deep origins of human music. It was transformative in the same way that Dewi is doing by immersing the actors in the more-than-human and Tehuelche environments. They’re absorbing the sounds and atmosphere in their bodies, especially during the breaks from performing Cymbeline, when they’re identities are being reshaped. 

NM: Totally. Because I also think that text turns on the rational side, which is good. But you need a balance with the emotional side. 

CA: Yes, and rational and instrumental mentalities are often colonizing ones—it’s like what Dr. Cornelius says about the Queen about her poison experiments with cats and dogs. She’s hyper-controlling, and therefore inhumane, and Cornelius knows she’s going to rationalize progressing to humans. It’s a colonial mind-set, and an Anthropocene one, as in: we’re going to use the world in a technical-rational way to serve our selfish ends—it’s like Putin and Ukraine, even. So Cornelius tells her, this is going to harden your heart, and he decides secretly to subvert her plans and give Innogen a sleeping potion. It's ultimately an environmental as well as humane intervention in the play.  

NM: Yes, very much. It’s very existential. And for some people it can take away your sleep, or make you over-analyse some stuff. It’s interesting to see that it’s not just a modern situation. 

CA: This is really fascinating. We’ve been talking a long time, so let me ask just one more question. Did the production change much over the two-month rehearsal period? Specifically, in terms of concept?  

NM: I would say no, overall. We had these elements and layers and ideas of how it was going to be seen, and which elements needed to be more prominent. Yet there was also a lot of improvisation. And Mónica was often waiting to see how the poetic aspects of the play came through, and how they blended with the tools that each actor had. Sometimes it became hard for the group, because they wanted you to tell them what to do. “I want you to do this.” 

CA: In an efficient way, to get from point A to B. 

NM: Yes. And sometimes Mónica is waiting for something to happen that will find new pathways and change the direction of the performance. So there were a lot of changes, but it wasn’t about how to get there [to a preconception of the play]. 

CA: So it was quite an organic process.   

NM: Yeah, it happened a lot in rehearsal. And sometimes Mónica said, “don’t do that.” And the actor says, “but you told me to do that;” she would respond, “not any more. We’re going to try this instead.” So many things were added in the process, and a lot of stuff thrown away. For example, one day Gustavo [Gusman, playing Cloten] went to the rehearsal riding his scooter. And Mónica said to him, “I want that scooter on stage!” 

CA: [laughs] 

NM: You’ve got to be careful what you say and show to Mónica, because there’s always the chance she is going to use it! Always. 

CA: You’ve explained very well how she collaborates with the actors. It’s a give and take process, it’s exploratory, it’s balancing direction and openness to change. And I imagine that’s why she’s a great director. Actors like to have direction, but they also like to feel their individual artistic tools are being valued and incorporated. Nick, thank you so much! This has been really interesting. 

NM: Thank you!