Setting the Stage

by Ulf Dietrich and José Gonzalo Pérez B.



Ulf Dietrich

Ulf Dietrich is the senior director at the Schauspielbühnen theater in Stuttgart, Germany. He has authored over 10 plays and shows and has directed over 40 productions.

José Gonzalo Pérez B.

José Gonzalo Pérez B. is a technical manager, lighting designer and theater teacher. He is an honorary instructor at the National Experimental University of the Arts in Venezuela and also teaches courses in the Dominican Republic, Ecuador and Peru.

Can you describe your work and a typical day?

Ulf Dietrich: Every day is different. There is no such thing as a typical day. The Schauspielbühnen in Stuttgart has two theater houses, the Komödie and the Altes Schauspielhaus. Every two to three weeks, a new play opens in one of these theaters. So, after planning each new season together with the director and the dramaturge in the winter, we build teams around each production in the spring. I also direct three shows a year and look after all other production work.

José Gonzalo Pérez B.: From early in the morning, I usually have a meeting at one theater or another to assess staging system maintenance requirements. I often go around to price electrical materials, wood, rubber, paint, tools, etc., to set a budget for the work to be carried out. During the afternoon, I almost always have meetings to design lighting for various kinds of productions—plays, dance productions, operas or musicals. Toward the end of the afternoon or in the evening, I attend rehearsals.

related article Buddhism Takes Center Stage Buddhism Takes Center Stage by  Marina Salas, Ferran Vilajosana and Roser Vilajosana,  Spain Actors and Soka Gakkai of Spain members Marina, Ferran and Roser talk about how their Buddhist practice has helped them bring forth their full potential as artists. What role does imagination play in making your work successful?

José: I believe that, particularly with my specialization as a theater technician, observation is the most important element that feeds the imagination. I have to sharpen my senses and be very observant of everything that is going on and how things work. I also need to have a good knowledge of equipment, materials and tools. With both of these skills, I imagine and create different solutions for staging proposals I have to design.

Ulf: Imagination is absolutely necessary. As a director and as a producer, you live from your imagination. It’s wonderful when the imaginations of everyone involved in a production come together and culminate in a magical moment of work.

What are some of the challenges of actualizing your artistic visions?

Ulf: The limited time between set changes is my biggest challenge. We only have three days to prepare lighting, sound, costume changes and makeup. You can’t allow yourself to make a single mistake because there is no time available to correct any such error. So I must be totally sure of what I am doing. You have to trust your decisions. It is during such times, especially when I am under pressure, that my Buddhist practice helps me very much.

José: It is challenging to have to work on multiple projects at the same time. I need to have a different vision for each project, one that satisfies the managers, producers and stage directors, as well as cultural institutions, without losing or compromising my own artistic sense.

How does your outlook as a Buddhist help you at difficult times?

José: Sometimes the poor technical condition of a stage or theater presents a lot of challenges, and performances must be designed to adapt to these limitations. Each new project presents the challenge of achieving the best quality without compromising the artistic or technical aspect. I believe it is very important to create value—to create the best out of every circumstance. My Buddhist practice helps me have an open mind to resolve the challenges that come up when things get difficult in the process of staging a production. I always keep in mind a passage from a letter Nichiren wrote to one of his disciples in which he says, “Though worldly troubles may arise, never let them disturb you. No one can avoid problems, not even sages or worthies. . . . Suffer what there is to suffer, enjoy what there is to enjoy.”

Buddhism inspires me to strive to value and respect each person and to engage in genuine dialogue.

related article “I Am Master of My Mind”: Unleashing the Power of Transformation in Prisons “I Am Master of My Mind”: Unleashing the Power of Transformation in Prisons by  Sabra Williams,  USA Sabra Williams is a Soka Gakkai member and a successful film and television actor, whose career includes credits in Mission Impossible III and recurring roles in ABC’s Injustice and CBS’s Three Rivers. After making her mark as an actress and TV presenter in the UK, Sabra moved to the US in 2002, where she created the Actors’ Gang Prison Project. Launched in 2006, the project employs highly physical theatrical techniques based on the emotive 16th-century Italian “people’s theater” culture of commedia dell’arte. The work has proved transformative for inmates of the California prison system and has significantly reduced recidivism rates. Sabra was recently honored as a Champion of Change by the White House. Ulf: As a writer, it is most challenging if you are in the middle of a project and suddenly you have no ideas anymore. I use my Buddhist practice very much when I write. Ideas for my plays come to me when I chant.

Once, I was having difficulty with an actress I was working with. I thought that she would ruin the entire play if she didn’t change how she was acting. I was chanting that she would change, but to no avail. Suddenly, I realized that it was a waste of time to chant for someone else to change. Instead, I chanted to change myself so that I could become a director who could help her grow and develop her skills. As a result, from one day to the next, the atmosphere changed and she could relax and open up.

In our daily work, it’s often easy to think that other people around us should change. I learned that change must start with me.

What aspect of your work is most satisfying?

Ulf: I am most touched when I hear actors speaking my lines on stage and when the audience laughs or is moved in some way; when I see that my work directly impacts my audience. These are moments of tremendous joy.

José: It’s satisfying to know that all the techniques I use for a show are a part of a work of art. I enjoy sharing the experience with the technical and production teams that work with me. I also enjoy being a teacher, passing on my knowledge, educating future professionals who will continue to give art its value.

How has your Buddhist practice helped you achieve your dreams or develop your creativity?

José: It is my daily Buddhist practice, including studying the teachings of Nichiren and following the guidance of my mentor SGI President Daisaku Ikeda, that allows me to understand life and human nature more deeply and give expression to this on stage in the most creative, dynamic way.

Students seated on a stage getting acting tips [© Hill Street Studios/Getty Images]

Ulf: I started taking dance lessons when I was 21 years old. I had so much fun that I decided I wanted to try to do this professionally. Everybody said that I was too old to start. But I tried and started to fight for this dream. It was at that time that my dance teacher told me about chanting “Nam-myoho-renge-kyo,” and as a result my life changed. Ten months later, I was on stage, and since then I have never stopped working in theater. I wouldn’t be where I am now without my Buddhist practice.

What do you hope to achieve through your work?

José: My hope is that through my work I can contribute to the development of culture and education in my country.

Ulf: I think that my Buddhist practice helps me view and interpret the world differently. I think that my plays reflect this. There is beauty in everything and there is horror in everything. But most importantly, there is always hope and everybody has the ability to change themselves.

Courtesy July 2014 issue of the SGI Quarterly.

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