October 7, 2015

Meet Abyss Playwright Maria Milisavljevic

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Playwright Maria Milisavljevic photo by Cylla Von Tiedemann

Playwright Maria Milisavljevic photo by Cylla Von Tiedemann

  1. What led you to write Abyss? What were you interested in exploring with this play?

There were two impulses that factored into the writing of Abyss. The first one was the image of this man popping into my head (I met him in a dream in fact. On some subway stairs. And he said: “Hello, old friend!”). I started writing Abyss to explore who he was or could be. He became Vlado, the protagonist of the play.

The other impulse was a more sinister one. A girl my sister had gone to school with went missing a few years back. She simply disappeared on her way to the cinema. I remember the search for her well. Not only because my sister was involved in it, but also because it was her friends who were looking for her, sending out e-mails, putting up a website, distributing flyers – not the police. The police did not care. Because she was in her 20s, because she was an arts student. Those get lost sometimes. Eventually her body was found. A few dozen yards from where she’d disappeared. But this was months later. In Abyss I tried to explore the day to day fears and hopes and grief the ones who loved her went through.

  1. How did you start writing plays and why theatre in particular?

I came to writing out of a very practical reason. I started out training to be a director. But after my son was born theatres let me know that it was hard for them to work with me, as I wasn’t reliable and flexible enough, being a mother. So I started my own company. Now, the theatre system in Germany is organized a little differently than the American, Canadian and even British ones. There is hardly any flux of talent between the independent and the subsidized sector. They are strongly divided. The independent sector is mostly considered amateur or – euphemistically – ‘semi-professional’. The idea being that only companies at venues – i.e. the city theatre, state theatre, in short all subsidized stages – are professional. Another difference between the systems is that playwrights in Germany hardly ever have agents. It is their publishing house that promotes their plays. And if a play is new and exciting these publishing houses would only give that play to a professional company. As a ‘semi-professional’ I wasn’t even allowed to read the new and interesting plays, let alone direct them. So I started writing my own plays.

  1. You’re a director as well as an actor, how does that influence your writing?

The last time I acted was actually in university, so I wouldn’t say I’m much of an actor (laughs). But being a director has certainly influenced my work as a playwright. Though I must say, I don’t allow myself to envision a staging when writing a play. That would simply lead to myself pre-directing the whole show. And I believe as a playwright it’s not my job to direct, in any way. In my own company I directed my own plays and I’m happy that I don’t now. I think it’s very healthy to hand a play over to a director, actors and a creative team and to allow them to newly envision it. In that respect, I would say, also working as a director has largely influenced the way in which I understand myself as part of the creative team as a writer. I like to be involved; I like to rewrite and to help in making the text more accessible to a particular actor’s voice, director’s vision or theatre audience. But – also being a director (and in Germany, which is a theatre culture that is a director’s theatre; it doesn’t include the playwright in the creative process) – I know how important it is for a director to work on an artistic vision and to be able to shape a production without a writer telling you how ‘it’s really supposed to look’. Also being a director, I feel, I can now make a conscious and informed decision in ‘just’ being the playwright.

  1. Abyss has had productions in different countries in the last couple of years, have you noticed different responses in different countries and cultures? Are there any changes you’ve made to the play in response to different cultural contexts?

Abyss had its first production at the Deutsches Theater in Berlin. Since then it’s been produced in Toronto, London, Vienna and now in New York. I have adapted it every single time: for once because of the different directors’ visions and also simply because the different places and companies have very different audiences. I sometimes describe the differences between the audiences: “German theatre goers just don’t mind to leave the theatre utterly confused.” That’s, of course, not fully true. But I do believe that a play in Germany can be more experiential (and with that maybe experimental, too). A German playwright does not consider herself a storyteller. That’s a concept I only met when adapting Abyss for Tarragon Theatre in Toronto (which was a 2-year process). As such the biggest compliment friends in Berlin would make me about my play was: “We spent two weeks talking about it. To figure out what it all meant.” That was the worst thing a person could say about the English version of Abyss. If they hadn’t gotten ‘what it all meant’ by the end of the night, I had failed to do my job as a storyteller. As such the adaption of Abyss into English mainly ran along the lines of making the storyline clearer and the intentions and objectives more tangible. I also added scenes: in the German version the inciting incident happens three days before the play starts, in the Canadian version I wrote those extra three days to have it in the play. I think in Germany the notion of a ‘proper play’ has been abolished decades ago. Just read Heiner Müller. (Also, even if I decided to write a proper play, a German director would probably take it apart anyway.)

  1. What are you working on next?

I’m working on a few new plays and one adaptation. One play that I’m really excited about was just commissioned by Tarragon Theatre. It deals with the environmental exploitation by the gas industry in rural Alberta. It tells the story of a family trying to fight the industry. In a similar way an adaptation of Ibsen’s Enemy of the People I’m writing for Saint John Theatre Company in New Brunswick is turning the focus on local politics and industry interests versus First Nation land claims and environmental protection. Coming from a country like Germany that is very advanced when it comes to renewable energy, I’m simply amazed and appalled to see what is happening in some places in Canada. I feel it’s something people need to have an option about and then change their perspective on.


Born in Arnsberg, Germany, Maria is an award-winning playwright, theatre creator and director. She is the International playwright-in-residence at Tarragon Theatre.

Over the past fourteen years, Maria has worked with various theatres and companies across Germany, Canada, the U.S. and the UK. She is the artistic director of the TheaterTruppe which she founded in 2005. Through the TheaterTruppe she has directed, created and written a lot of her work. Maria’s work includes productions of classics, modern classics and her own plays Annas Fest (2008), hell/warm (2009) and Hero of the Day (2010). Before moving to Canada in 2011, Maria directed The Visit at Landestheater Niederbayern. Maria has worked as a script reader, script coordinator and assistant director at Tarragon Theatre.

Maria’s play Brandung won the prestigious 2013 Kleist Promotional Award for Young Dramatists and opened at Deutsches Theater Berlin, where it played in repertory until 2015. In 2015, the English language version of Brandung – Abyss – opened at Tarragon Theatre and at Arcola Theatre, London (UK). Abyss was nominated for the Dora Mavor Moore Award 2015 in the category ‘Outstanding New Play’. Maria is further the recipient of a three-year scholarship grant by the Bavarian Ministry for Sciences and the Arts. In 2009, she also received the John McGrath Scholarship in Theatre Studies of the Scottish Universities for Hero of the Day.

Author: buzzadmin
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