What changes can spending extended time with one of the world’s artistic giants bring to the life of a rising young artist? In a telephone conference in May 2009, Australian director, singer and writer Robyn Archer – who benefited in her own youth from an informal mentorship – moderated a discussion with four past protégés of the Rolex Arts Initiative to find out what happens after the year of mentoring.
Robyn Archer: Welcome to this discussion about what happens to young artists after taking part in the Rolex Arts Initiative. Let’s just go round the table and see what everybody is doing right at this minute in their work.
Aditya Assarat: I just finished shooting a short film, part of a bigger project, about Bangkok. The City of Bangkok invited nine directors, all Thai, to each make a short film about Bangkok. It’s all going to be strung together as a long film, similar to the film Paris je t’aime. It’s divided into different districts of Bangkok. The entire project was initiated for television, but then it turned into a big thing with a lot of movie stars, so they’re going to put it in the cinemas as well.
Matthias Weischer: I finished my last series of paintings in February and I showed them in New York. I now have time for several different projects, so I’m still drawing, I’m developing a set design for A Long Day’s Journey into Night by Eugene O’Neill. And now I’m starting to do new paintings at the same time.
That’s really following in your mentor’s footsteps, going into theatre design. Selina, what are you up to?
Selina Cartmell: I’ve just got a show running at the moment called Only An Apple by Tom MacIntyre, a 70-year-old Irish playwright, at the Abbey Theatre [in Dublin], which finishes soon. And I’m developing a new opera called Gas, with an Irish composer here [Dublin], which we’re going to be doing a pitch for the Dublin Theatre Festival in October. The composer is Donnacha Dennehy who has done a lot of work here and in New York with his band Crash Ensemble. His work is cutting-edge contemporary and adventurous, pushing boundaries between music and live performance.
Lara Foot: I’m working on a new project with a dance company, called Jazzart. It’s the only real dance company in South Africa. They do incredible work. And I’m working on a show with them on the theme of trans-generational trauma, and we’re in the early days of development for that project. I’m about to go to London with my play Karoo Moose – we’re going to open at the Tricycle Theatre [in London] in June.
Are you all still in contact with your mentors?
Lara Foot: Yes, I will see Peter next month, we have a lunch date, when I’m in London, and he’ll come to my first night at the Tricycle. So we’re in contact sporadically, but we still keep in touch.
This brings up an interesting question – do you all feel as if now you’re talking to a professional colleague or are you still very much in the presence of the master?
Selina Cartmell: Obviously I respect and admire the enormous amount of work that Julie’s done in all different fields and areas and mediums, but, more and more, I feel – as I’m going to be staging that new opera in the next couple of years – that I’m beginning to view her more of a professional ally rather than a teacher having all the answers.
Lara, how about with the august presence of Sir Peter?
Lara Foot: You know he’s a great veteran of the theatre and I’m very aware of that, and he’s surrounded by a team of people who work with him and love him, so you don’t just pick up the phone and have a chat to him. When I do get to see him, it’s very friendly, but he’s certainly still the mentor, and I think he always will be in the sense that he’s Sir Peter Hall.
Aditya, when you speak to Mira, are you speaking on equal terms as film-makers in the world of film? It sometimes feels to me that’s a more likely convention in films. Young and old film-makers speak together more as equals.
Aditya Assarat: Mira and I have always been friends, colleagues, even when I was doing the Rolex programme. We never felt we had a mentor-and-student relationship. So whenever we’re together, we more like hang out. Another factor is that Mira is relatively young. It would be different if she were 80.
Matthias, can I ask the same question of you about David?
Matthias Weischer: He’s still the master for me, though not in the sense of having a hierarchy. I’m very open to hearing anything from him and he’s always very helpful for me. It’s because he has 40 years’ more experience, and, as a painter, you need a lot of experience. The conversation’s very friendly and he respects me, but he’s had a very long career and it’s very hard to follow him because he has created 70 paintings in the last three years and he’s very productive. I really, really admire him for this. So it’s a friendly conversation, but not on the same level, no.
That was quite interesting because Peter and David are the two older mentors. It sounds like the mentor’s being closer to your age makes a big difference to the relationship.
Another issue, in the period since the mentorship, what do you think is the most exciting development that’s happened in your careers. Lara?
Lara Foot: That’s a difficult one. I feel my career or my life experience is one thing really, it’s like an arc of experiences and they all add up, and add to the next project and inform the next project, so I can’t really talk about the most exciting thing, but for me Karoo Moose has been a play that’s done incredibly well, and I had an amazing time working on it and staying here [South Africa]. After my time with Peter, I directed Betrayal [by Harold Pinter], and I directed Amadeus [by Peter Shaffer] which were more the kind of work that he did, and kind of more conventional, classic, and then I went back to African story-telling which is my love, working with a cast of really amazing, young actors on a new creation. That was really exciting.
Matthias, is it the same for you? I noticed reading some recent updates on you that you’ve actually developed a kind of range of styles which seem to have followed your encounter with David.
Matthias Weischer: It was more a very good coincidence to get together with David at that time. I was ready to make a change, and I was lucky to be able to see him working and his way of painting, and his attitude to his art and to the world. This enabled me to change some things, and specially to start drawing again. I found new ways of getting ideas for paintings and this has, I think, come out of the mentorship. My style before was very narrow and now I have the feeling it is very open, I can go in many directions. I’m very happy about this.
That’s fantastic. Selina, is it the same for you, do you feel like working with Julie was an opening up or more a confirmation of what you were doing?
Selina Cartmell: I think it was a bit of both. I would never have thought myself as qualified to go into opera, but it was the experience of working with Julie, watching her work in the rehearsal room on Grendel in Los Angeles that made me realize it’s not such an alienating medium. Up to then I always thought opera was very elitist and now I just feel, well, it is possible. Since the mentorship I’ve been working in [theatre] institutions both here and in London, and I feel more than ever now I need to go back to my own company and my roots. I’ve kind of come full circle in a way. When I first started the mentorship I was just working with my own company, and then I did a lot of work here in Dublin at the Abbey and the Gate, and the Royal Shakespeare Company in London, and now I need to go back to my own company and create work for alternative spaces. I suppose follow my own path more for a while and see where it leads me.
Aditya Assarat: For me, it was more like an exchange of ideas. I always say the thing that I took personally from the mentorship was actually just seeing Mira work. It gave me a lot of confidence because it demystified the process quite a bit. Before you become a film-maker, you always think that it’s a very complicated thing, but then when I went to see her work, I saw that I can already do everything that she does. That’s when I realized that there was nothing that she knew more than me. And that gave me a lot of confidence.
Matthias, what effect did watching David Hockney work have on you?
Matthias Weischer: Before the mentorship, I was doing a kind of professorship in Leipzig. A completely different situation, like having 30 students, [compared to the mentorship with one student]. The privilege for me was not just to see David working, but also getting into his life and seeing how he develops his paintings. This is very rare, and normally you can’t have this in an institutional framework. It’s only possible on a more private basis.
It’s very interesting to hear Aditya say what he saw was really a confirmation that he’d basically learned. Can any of you think of any specific technique that you took away from the mentorship by observing or working with these mentors?
Lara Foot: I think for me a lot of my learning was about myself. Having to sit very quietly for a very long time [observing Sir Peter at work, at the start of the mentoring year], about six weeks, was very difficult for me. And it was about growing into shape, you know, like taking that space to be quiet and observe. If I learned anything directly from Peter, it was in terms of analysing scripts, he’s really amazing. But also there was a sort of affirmation or confirmation that most of what he’s doing I know how to do. And I learned a lot about the politics of theatre, he’s a real empire-builder, he has such a sense of what is needed to put companies and energies together. And he’s also almost jealous of the people around him – he wants you to achieve, so you become one of his followers. Once he had read my writing, he decided that I was a writer, and then he told everyone and that did it because he said it. So, within a couple of days I had a publisher and a gig – because, you know, he believed in me as a writer, and he pushes that.
Selina was there anything specific – you talked about daring to approach into opera because of the experience of watching Julie do Grendel, but anything specific technically that you took away?
Selina Cartmell: I can’t think of anything really specific, but what I did get was that [opera] wasn’t that much different from a theatre rehearsal room. I mean I think I had just thought it was so alien to me. And it isn’t, it’s really as much about collaboration as theatre is and using those same skills. It just made me realize – watching how the rehearsals were run, watching Julie work with singers very much as actors and how the conductor worked on more musical detail with them – that it was possible. Also from that experience I went straight into Sweeney Todd [a musical by Stephen Sondheim] pretty much afterwards, so that really made me feel I was one step closer to having my first opera experience.
It sounds much like Aditya’s experience of demystifying.
Selina Cartmell: Absolutely. As important as anything really, because once it is demystified, you know it is possible to make that first step as it’s not so daunting. That really does help.
All of you have said such great things about the experience you’ve had, but was there a downside to the mentorship? For example, do you believe that there have been unrealistic expectations, either an unrealistic expectation you’ve had of yourself or that others have had of you because of the mentorship?
Lara Foot: I haven’t felt that at all. In fact if anything Peter was so gentle about it, and there was so much integrity about the whole thing, if anything there was no expectation.
Aditya Assarat: For me there was no downside at all. The only downside was that it ended. It was a great opportunity and I feel very lucky to have been able to experience that.
Looking at your experience, do you think that mentors and protégés need to be friends or is it more a matter of simply mutual respect?
Matthias Weischer: You can’t say before the mentoring whether or not you’re going to be friends, but, on a professional basis, there is, naturally, interest, and maybe out of this a friendship develops between mentor and protégé. But it’s not necessary.
Lara Foot: I think there’s a huge amount of care between Peter and me, I think he cares about me, and I care enormously about him. But I wouldn’t call him a friend. He’s not going to phone me if he’s having a bad day! [LAUGHTER]
It sounds to me as if the great thing I’m hearing about all of you is that you’re all just working, getting on with it. Are there any long-term benefits from the mentorship that are allowing you just to keep working?
Lara Foot: I think we all would have worked anyway because we all pursue a sort of a dream. But certainly, coming from a small country like South Africa, I have now had a taste of the objective that I had set out for myself just in terms of more international exposure – and the Rolex programme set that up for me. Maybe also because Peter’s so ambitious – and that word hadn’t really entered my vocabulary in a positive way before and perhaps it has now – to get my work seen more internationally that it has become quite important. And this has been happening quite a bit.
Matthias, you’ve had phenomenal exposure since the mentorship. Would you say it is because of the mentorship?
Matthias Weischer: It’s partly Rolex, of course, but I think the mentorship was more important for my personal development and not because of my career. My personal development was the focus. Of course, I was always working a lot and I just kept on working like before.
Selina, what do you think the greatest long-term benefit is, the one that you think you’re carrying through in the next few years?
Selina Cartmell: Becoming a protégée to Julie Taymor came at a time when I was beginning to get a bit of exposure in Ireland and these last three years have been back-to-back shows for me here in Ireland and the UK. These projects have varied between a performance art installation, new writing and classic texts. The more you work on such a diverse group of projects, the more you realize the importance of doing the work you really care about. Ultimately, this is what drives you and allows you to respond to the world around you through your work and not to be artistically pigeonholed. Julie really made me think about both these elements during the mentorship and I still think about pushing myself artistically in different ways.
Clearly, all of you have experienced the mentorship and the post-mentorship differently, but it seems the time with your mentors helped you to focus better on your goals and your gifts, gain confidence and take on greater challenges. In short, you’ve all become stronger as artists. Thank you all for your participation and best of luck in everything you do.