Arts Profile: Matt Alexander ’12 on Translating and Directing “Lost Modern Love”
If you thought it was impossible to find a play composed entirely of German quotations, translate it, and perform it in the Psi U Great Room, Matt Alexander ’12 is here to prove you wrong. His senior thesis, a translation and adaptation of Lord Schadt’s “Lost Modern Love,” wowed theatergoers and fraternity brothers alike this past weekend. In a letter to Alexander that was read to the audience at the outset of the performance (in German), Lord Schadt himself admitted to having intended the play to be un-performable. The Argus sat down with Alexander to figure out how, exactly, he ignored that warning.
The Argus: So your senior thesis is a combination of translating and directing a German play. What inspired you to come up with something like this?
Matt Alexander: I took a translation tutorial my junior year with [Professor of German Language and Literature] Krishna Winston. She’s a really well-known translator from German to English. She’s translated a lot of stuff from Günter Grass and stuff like that. I had the opportunity to take that tutorial with her, and I just really liked it. I really liked translating. I also like creative writing, and have written a lot of fiction here. I’m doing the whole writing certificate thing. I wasn’t good enough at German necessarily to be like, “Oh, I can write short stories in German” or do something like that, because I just started taking German when I came to Wesleyan. But I wanted to do a creative thesis, and I’ve always loved theater. I’ve acted a lot with Second Stage and throughout high school. She actually proposed the idea when I was a junior and said, “What do you think about translating a play and staging it somehow for a thesis?” And I was like, “I didn’t even know I could do that.”
The idea kind of started there. Then, when I was over in Germany, I started thinking about it more. I emailed literally every single publishing house in Germany and Austria before this year started and asked them if they had plays that they thought would fit a project like this. Originally, I’d wanted to do a bilingual show in German and in English, to subject an English audience to German. It’d be a lot of fun, but we just didn’t have the people or the resources to do that. There’s, like, two German exchange students here. There are a few students here whose German is good enough or who act enough that that would be fun, but I think, in the end, the play that I chose didn’t exactly fit that project.
A: What kinds of things got lost in translation?
MA: Oh, all sorts of things. [Laughs.] I’ve been toying with whether I should call this, like, a “transdaptation.” For instance, the first scene is just two characters texting each other back and forth, and the text messages are really corny and juvenile, but they’re a lot of fun. The playwright’s name is Lord Schadt, and what he did was basically build this play and build these dialogues out of quotations from other peoples’ sources from the Internet. So this first one is on a site that’s not really like “Texts From Last Night,” but there are a few sites where they just have these really corny, rhyme-y texts, which were just ridiculous; I mean, how could you ever text that to a person you were into? Well, I guess that would be flirtatious, at least. And he compiled these into a kind of dialogue. So they go back and forth.
I directly translated those because they’re so ridiculous. To keep rhymes, that’s really hard because a lot of the time, things don’t rhyme, and there are a lot more rhymes in German because of the way the language is arranged that don’t work in English, so to maintain the rhyme, you have to get creative. A lot of times too—because it was texting—there’s wordplay, you know, that you might have if you were talking to someone and making a pun, but then there’s all sorts of wordplay you can do if something’s written. For instance, there was one that was “Schrei wann du kommst,” which means “Scream when you’re coming,” and “Schreib wann du kommst” is “write when you’re coming,” so I was like “Oh, that’s really good in German, how do I make that in English?” and then I came up with “Writhe when you’re coming—I mean, write when you’re coming.” It’s really tricky; a lot of it is like a problem set. You sit and ruminate for a while, and then one day it comes to you, and you’re like “Oh, I gotta write that down!”
A: Has it been tough directing such an experimental play?
MA: Yeah, it’s been tough, and this is my first time directing anything. I was in Acting II with David Jaffe when he was here, and that class did a lot of collaborative work with nontraditional texts, so I felt comfortable tackling everything. But going up the week after Spring Break, having such an excellent cast like the one that I do—they’re so busy. They’re doing so many things, and that’s been challenging. It’s been fun coming up with creative solutions. There’s another scene that’s written as a sex scene where the characters speak to each other entirely in advertising slogans, so that was an adaptation, because I can’t just translate the German words. It doesn’t have the same effect on us. You just assemble all of these advertising slogans and you start to write the scene that has a blowjob, cunnilingus, and just, you know…a lot of sex. So that’s a lot fun to do. And then it’s like, okay, how do you stage that? Do you actually stage that? No, I don’t want to see that; that’s gross, and it kind of undermines what the whole thing’s doing, because everything’s written in this subtle form, but it’s so in your face.
A: How long have you been rehearsing?
MA: We’ve been rehearsing since whenever “The Pillowman” ended, so it’s been about, I don’t know, seven weeks here at school? Six or seven weeks. But, like I said, it was really hard since everyone’s so busy doing things, and I wanted to do more of a laid-back rehearsal process. The whole thing going through it was like, we’re not doing Hamlet. So I want people to have fun with this. This is a fun show. I want people to be entertained. I just want to have something to throw up there that says, “Hey, this isn’t my thesis—because it’s through Second Stage so it can’t be my thesis—but it’s nice to have this.” I worked really hard on this, and it’s cool to see other how people access it when they don’t have to go read my thesis and think, “This is really boring.”
A: Because of all the Second Stage traffic this semester, “Lost Modern Love” is going up in the Psi U great room. How has it been working with an entire fraternity as your host for a performance?
MA: Well, it’s been easy for me because I’m in Psi U. And it’s been great so far. I mean, Pat Newman [’14] is the social coordinator, and he’s been as helpful and as realistic as possible. It was either this or a classroom in Fisk, and I wasn’t gonna do it in a classroom in Fisk. In recent memories, as far as all the brothers and the great room, we’ve never had a play there, so everyone’s kind of excited about the fact that a brother’s directing. It’s cool. And a lot of people in the cast are friends with people in the house, so it’s a lot of fun. That’s been a challenge—that we haven’t been able to rehearse in the space, which is what’s really nice about being in a space like the ’92 or Westco or the Nics: you get to go in there, get your actors used to it and stuff like that. So this is a lot more like a sporting event almost, where you practice in one location and you go play the game somewhere else. But I think everybody will be up for the challenge. It’ll be more of an adrenaline thing.
A: Other than this project, do you have any last goals to check off your Wesleyan bucket list before you graduate?
MA: Yeah. You know, someone was asking me about that earlier today. I want to go inside every building on campus. I haven’t done that. Like, what’s that building when you’re on the way from Usdan down to Fisk? Is it Central American… is it American… American Studies?
A: Oh yeah, the American something. I always pass that.
MA: Like, what’s that? I’ve never been in there. And I should go in there. I want to be at the top of Judd and the top of Exley. I want to see those views. I don’t know. Yeah, I’d like to do one last, final, quick thing during Senior Week—theater-wise—that’s really out in the open; we wouldn’t even have a space. Maybe it’s stuff that we’ve written, or that people have had lying around, dialogues we want to try out that are short enough to memorize, maybe a little bit of blocking. And we’d just put ‘em up two nights before graduation out in front of Usdan, and it’s like Shakespeare in the Park—although it’s not Shakespeare in the Park because we wrote it. But that kind of feeling. I think that’d be a lot of fun. That would be a great sendoff for me and some of my friends.