Interview with Anna Gustavsson and Michele Collins by Johan Petri
Updated: Nov 14, 2021
JOHAN: You have worked with a number of texts by Gertrude Stein. What is it about her writing that captivates you?
ANNA: The musicality, rhythm and patterns. In a way, it has become like codes. It feels like it is something we are coding together.
MICHELE: What do you mean by codes?
ANNA: I think her language needs deciphering. The more you do the more you understand, more reveals its power, it kind of opens up. One must work with it to understand it.
MICHELE: Yes, like clay, it must be shaped in order to understand it. I definitely like the avant-garde feel of the text, and her American roots, which I can relate to.
JOHAN: You say that you must work with, knead Stein’s texts to understand them. But what was it initially that grabbed you, that made you want to work with them?
ANNA: The humor, that they have a lot of humor, they’re funny. And also, on one level, it is a relatively simple language that provides opportunities for so many different interpretations.
MICHELE: Well, there is a simplicity to the language, but also a depth. Then, there is also the fact that since I grew up in California, Stein has been a part of my vocabulary. Her name has always been present and then often associated with the rumor that she – and her texts – are a little crazy and silly, which they are not at all: she knows exactly what she’s doing. Her reputation in the USA has changed a lot. Nowadays, it’s much better than when I was growing up, and she is seen as quite important actually. She is so much more than A Rose is a Rose is a Rose, which I have figured out now.
ANNA: Michele and I, in other words The Rosehips, we’ve worked together quite a long time, I think since 1998, but when we latched on to Stein’s texts, it created a new way of working. It became a common denominator that felt so obvious, something of an eye-opener. It just made sense.
MICHELE: It was probably that her texts have such a clear structure. Anna and I usually work more fluently, and it becomes what it becomes, but Doctor Faustus is a play. A fun play.
ANNA: Yes, and for me structure triggers my creativity.
JOHAN: Over the years, you have not only worked with Doctor Faustus, but also with other texts by Stein. How would you say that your relationship and understanding of Stein has changed?
MICHELE: At first, I thought her texts were rather simple but now I see and understand, more and more, that’s not the case. There is a depth, I understand her depth now, much more than before. Her intellect is certainly more advanced than mine, and not only because she has read the Bible. Which I have not. She seems to have such a solid knowledge of things, a knowledge she transforms into simple language.
ANNA: My relationship to Stein’s texts gets less and less tense and more fluid, the more I work with them, obviously. In the beginning I had a lot of respect for her and her texts and how they could be used. Now though, it’s like she is a musician in our ensemble, the texts become like phrases and melodic lines. From the start we have worked quite intuitively and not intellectualized so much and I have felt that it is a material that continuously feeds the creative process.
JOHAN: I know you have worked with Tender Buttons and Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights. What about other texts by Stein?
ANNA: Well, we worked a bit with The World is Round, which is a children’s book.
MICHELE: Yes, that was a pleasure. It gave me a lot of visual ideas and inspiration and we made a short performance in which I moved round and round on roller skates. It was a fun beginning.
ANNA: Now we’re going to start creating a performance based on Portraits and Prayers.
JOHAN: If we turn back to Doctor Faustus, what would you say it’s about, for you?
MICHELE: For me it’s about selling your soul. Which I think is such an acute and relevant aspect of our time, which is all about money and jobs and more money. It is about not being satisfied. You have everything but are still not content. Something is deeply wrong with humanity and the text points this out, how humans are.
ANNA: And loneliness, I think the aspect of loneliness is clearly there. She talks about the light, about enlightenment but in the midst of it all you’re still alone. Wherever you turn, however bright the light is, you still need to face your loneliness.
MICHELE: When we worked with Doctor Faustus we talked about this idea that one hears quite often nowadays, that technology will save us, that technology is the answer to all our problems. And that light, the ever-burning continuous light that we are surrounded by, is kept lit in order to keep the darkness and the evil away.
ANNA: Daylight, moonlight, twilight, electric light, there's always some sort of light.
JOHAN: When did you start working on Doctor Faustus?
ANNA: I think it was 2015.
JOHAN: And you have made different versions and performed it at different places, right?
MICHELE: We might get a request to perform it in a cellar, and sure, we can do that. Or somebody may ask us to perform in an apartment, and we say of course, in a theatre, yes that’s fine. As a group and as a performer you need to be flexible. The circumstances are not always the best and often I can imagine how fun it would be to perform it in a large theatre with a high-end technical setup.
ANNA: In the beginning we thought that we should work with a very simple technical setup, you know, something that could just be turned on and off. We have used floor lamps, torches and other small lighting devices that have actually made it possible for us to perform in quite a few odd places.
MICHELE: But to perform in different locations is also a choice, not just a necessity.
JOHAN: So, you started working with Doctor Faustus in 2015, and now you’re doing it again, as a radio drama. Do you view the play any differently now?
MICHELE: When I go through my notes, I can see that our intuitive understanding of the play was right. However, when I read more of and about Stein I understand how extensive her knowledge was, and much more complex than what I first grasped. It’s like I start to see her intelligence. In the beginning I approached it very intuitively, I just liked her tone and her approach. Now though, I can understand how good her writing is.
ANNA: I actually think that an intuitive process also can be an analysis of sorts, one you do unconsciously. When we started we experimented with rituals and prayers, forms and energies that maybe aren’t obvious in the text, but now somehow the biblical and the mythological have become quite important. That was a theme and an approach that came intuitively. As I said, I think one analyzes much more than one is aware of.
JOHAN: In Doctor Faustus, there are the characters Mephisto, Faustus, Marguerite Ida Helena Annabel, The Viper, The Boy and the Dog. I am curious about how you see and understand The Boy and the Dog. What’s their purpose?
MICHELE: The Boy for me is Man’s naivety. The Dog too is also a symbol of naiveness, I think.
ANNA: Maybe they also represent something pure. All the other characters have some kind of baggage, they have done things, but not The Boy and The Dog.
MICHELE: They don’t stand for thoughts but signify the preciseness of here and now. And that, in turn relates to Stein’s ambition to conjure a presence, without history, and that’s where The Dog comes in …
ANNA: … and children.
JOHAN: And what is the child for Stein?
ANNA: Something undamaged maybe. The child is also somebody who observes, an observer.
JOHAN: Michele, you work as an actress, as a performance artist and a singer. I am wondering if Stein’s texts demand something particular from you as a performer, if they are challenging in a different way from other texts?
MICHELE: No, they are actually easier. You need to be on your toes of course, you can’t relax for one moment and you kind of need to chew the words. I feel that her writing is very close to singing and I like that, it helps me. The musicality of the writing is what makes it possible for me to handle it. I don’t feel that I need to make a thorough analysis but instead can play with it, start with playing with the words and that’s what our processes look like. When I say the words, when I sing them something happens in my body and it’s like images come to me. Anna writes melodies and that really helps me too and somehow creates a sort of subconscious contact between us. So yes, for me working with Stein’s texts is easier than other texts. When we worked with you as a director it was a bit of a challenge. You gave me very little direction, but since I don’t usually work with directors it was a challenge. If we made our performances together with a director I might find difficulties, it might be more complex.
ANNA: I think that’s what saves us, that we haven’t really understood how difficult it is, how complex Steins texts are.
JOHAN: Yes, maybe the director just makes creating more difficult.
MICHELE: Well, we can laugh about that, but for me it is really important to embrace the material in my own way and in my own tempo.
JOHAN: Would you say that Stein generates something that surprises you?
MICHELE: Maybe sharp contrasts in the dynamics, in temperament, between the softer Marguerite Ida and the sharper Mephisto. Those swings or changes are something I can feel unsure about, if I can manage it, but her texts have helped me to be more articulate. Also, her visual world gives me a lot, produces images that inspire me.
ANNA: Without a doubt, Stein feeds my urge to improvise, and that has to do with what I said earlier, that I feel there is a code to investigate, to decipher, to play both with and against.
JOHAN: In your version of Doctor Faustus you take on, more or less, all the parts, Michele. You skip from one character to another. Is there anyone who you have gotten closer to than the others?
MICHELE: Yes, I would say Marguerite Ida Helena Annabel. Anna has composed some very beautiful songs to some of the texts, that have fostered in me a soft and warm relationship to her. But it is also fun to play Mephisto, since we use different sound effects that can surprise me in their intensity.
JOHAN: I am interested in how you work as an ensemble. How is it to create collectively?
ANNA: We start by reading the text out load, over and over again. Actually, some parts of the performance that were based on Tender Buttons included recordings that I made without Michele knowing, when we were sitting, analyzing different formulations and possible meanings. This we do not only to try to understand but also to feel the rhythm and the sound of the text. So, we read and read and laugh. With Doctor Faustus we knew from the start that we wanted to create a kind of avant garde musical, that we would write songs. So, in that performance we worked with trying to create a musical structure from the text. When we created Tender Buttons it was much more improvisational. We took one part and improvised, then took another and another, creating through continuous improvisations. I remember one part that included the words “Lifting a temporary stone”. Michele gave it a really dark heavy expression and that conjured up in me a very stark image which in turn generated energy for the music. In short, improvisations that create ideas, that create new ideas, and that’s how it grows.
JOHAN: But, as you said, in Doctor Faustus you very early on decided to write songs. Why?
ANNA: I think it had to do with a change in how we related to the language. Somehow a more solid respect had emerged, and we wanted to create a clearer structure that mirrored the language.
MICHELE: In the last few years I have improvised more and more with my voice, and together with Anna and her playing it has become an exciting and important method to develop our esthetics, as an ensemble. That feeling of improvisation and spontaneity is important for me to keep, even when we create more solid structures, like in Doctor Faustus.
JOHAN: And Georgia, who plays double bass in your group, is she interested in improvisation in the same way?
MICHELE: Yes, absolutely. She loves to improvise and there are longer parts in our performances where she and I improvise, voice and bass.
ANNA: Georgia is always part of the ensemble when we play as The Rosehips. But then Michele and I sometimes make performances and concerts just as a duo.
JOHAN: Your version of Doctor Faustus is, one could say, a musical drama, or music theatre. That music is such a major part of the performances you make, is that something Stein generates, or would you work and think musically with any material?
ANNA: Music is the foundation for everything we create. We would not be able to do anything without music. That’s how it is. But now, when we are about to make a performance based on Portraits and Prayers, we’ve invited two artists and one dancer so we will work more with the spatial and visual aspects. But again, the music is the foundation.
Translation Dana Johnson
The interview with Anna Gustavsson and Michele Collins was made 30 August 2021.
Together with the double bass player Georgia Wartel Collins they form the group The Rosehips. Anna plays different percussion instruments, keyboards, live electronics and sings. She also composes music for their different performances. Michele Collins is an actor, performance artist and singer.