Marketing and Communication Coordinator, Josiane Dubois sat down with Visiting Professor, Michael Pinkerton this September to talk about his career and his move to Salt Lake City, Utah.
J: What led you to want to move to Utah?
M: Well, this is really the first time I’ve ever spent any extended time in this part of the country. Anywhere West of the Mississippi is new territory for me, growing up in the South. My last residence in the U.S. was in Washington D.C.. That’s where I lived for five years in grad school. Then I moved to Europe. My wife’s family lives in Florida. So when we come back to the U.S., we go to Kentucky, where I’m from, and Florida. We also travel to New York quite a bit. We have great friends –who are actually relatives in Seattle. So I’ve been there and I’ve been to Alaska a number of times. But this amazing expanse of beauty right in the middle I’ve always flown over and wondered what it really looks like.
J: We’re really happy to have you here. Did you work in the U.S. after grad school?
M: Yes, I worked in Washington, D. C. two years after grad school. Then I got a scholarship to study in Vienna, Austria. So I left the U.S. and went to Europe.
J: I know you have a very accomplished career as an educator, producer, artistic administrator and stage director. You were the department chair of Voice and Opera at the Konservatorium der Stadt Wien, which in English means the Conservatory of the City of Vienna. How long were you there for?
M: Ten years, right before coming here.
J: Could you tell us more about that experience? Any specific shows you got to do, people you worked with or highlights?
M: I would say some of the highlights of that time were getting to work with artists outside of the university conservatory who happened to be in the Vienna performing at major the big concert halls and the opera houses, or theaters. We would try to book them while they were already in town to come and speak to the students. We had very little money to pay them. It was always just a matter convincing them that they would have a meaningful and fun time with the students. What’s so exciting is that generally the more famous the artist, the more willing they were to give their time, usually for free. We would present master classes or sometimes talks to the students in an open forum. Daniel Barenboim was a particularly memorable guest – he came several times. It was really fun and inspiring to experience him in an informal, really intimate conversation group where we could ask questions and discuss all sorts of topics, not only music. He is such a strong political-minded person, as well as a genius and legendary musician. This was very inspiring for everyone present. It was an honor just to be able to experience this man’s aura.
J: How are you adjusting here? You’re working with a lot of students and people that are trying to learn, how’s your experience here?
M: One of the things that I’m realizing, learning, is that the learning process is exactly the same wherever you are in the world. There has to be a plan, a goal. The student has to give it a try. Then we have to think, ok, what’s good about it, how can this be better, how can it be improved? We communicate that, and then the student tries to get it. As simple as it sounds, this is like a cycle that never stops. That’s the same, really all over the world. One of the things that really fascinates me is the role body language plays in communication. Particularly when we’re working with multiple languages. In Vienna, German is the native language. Many students speak English, but not as their first language, and some don’t speak English at all. International students (and teachers) are confronted with many Asian languages, Russian, and several other complicated, eastern languages. Without a common language, how do we communicate? It’s so interesting how the intonation of the language, the melody, the eye contact, and body language reads almost as clearly as the words do – at least in basic conversation. That’s fascinating for me.
J: What advice would you give to the students here in the Department of Theatre and at the University of Utah with the experience you have?
M: I think what I would say –it is extremely important for everyone to experience cultural/social ideas and situations that are not familiar. Things that are different from their personal norm and comfort zone. Then use all of the energy that you can to try to understand, AND make yourself be understood. This applies to whatever you’re doing. Translated to the world of theatre and music, we must keep trying to make communication simpler. The situations or ideas are usually NOT simple. Just assuming that the audiences, or our students, will understand what we mean is NOT enough. There must be an intensity of purpose – the desire to express a specific idea. If an idea is presented with passion, conviction, intensity of purpose, and simplicity, the odds are very good that it will be understood. It’s fascinating. It’s so simple. Most of the characters that actors portray, or all the characters, are complicated. Maybe it’s more accurate to say, the situations in the stories are often complicated. But the characters themselves are quite simple. We (and the audience) get confused if there’s more than one emotion going on at a time. The audience can’t filter all those varied emotions at the same time. They need one specific idea or emotion to concentrate on. When the audience (like the actor) can focus on one emotion at a time, then as new emotions, desires and situations are presented, the audience understands that the character is experiencing the complexity of the story. The actor should play one emotion at a time, simply. However, there can be many new and contrasting thoughts that pop into the characters mind. These new elements can appear slowly or super fast. This series of clear, contrasting, simple thoughts reveals the depth and complexity of that character and/or story.
J: I’m sure that they’re all going to appreciate that advice. What do you see yourself doing in the future? I know your title right now is Visiting Professor. What do you hope to do? Would you like to stay in the States?
M: I would like to stay in the states, that’s one of the reasons I’m doing this now. In most European countries there’s a mandatory retirement age. This is part of the social system. Although I’m not at that age yet, it is in the near future. The majority of my professional life has been outside of the United States. It is an adventure for me to come back “home.” Much of my professional life in German-speaking Europe involved helping American and British creative teams deal with the concerns and fears that their musicals would not be understood in German. Their language of expression and experience was/is English. Can and will their intentions be understood? My job was (also) to help them trust in the universality of storytelling. This has been thrilling for me because bridging both cultures, I could help them trust that emotions and human situations are, indeed, translatable. Now here I am back in the U.S.A. working in my native language. I am learning so much! Our American culture is constantly changing, evolving, adapting. I love what I do. I adore teaching. And I feel that I’m getting better at it, too.
J: There’s a lot happening around social media thing here and the news, things happening in the U.S, a lot of social change that people are fighting for–do you think some of that affects your teaching or your students learning, things they think about or want to learn?
M: I do think it affects all of those things – what the students are thinking about, what’s bothering them, what’s on their minds. The same goes for me. We are all trying to put it together and figure it out, why is this happening, what’s going on, what does it mean? Where is my place in this story? When I can get some perspective and compare events here with what’s going on in Europe – that’s really exciting for me. Everything seems so immediate with the social media. It’s right up in your face, which has I think, for the most part, is good. But it has to be dealt with, we have to work through it. I don’t think we really know how to really work through it, yet. I know I don’t.
J: Personally, I think that theater is a great platform to express some of that, even if there’s not a resolution, it’s a good space to observe and explore.
M: That’s really true, theatre is very therapeutic that way. We’re lucky that we get to have an outlet for some of these thoughts. So we all try to think and articulate what is the role of the theatre in the 21st century. Maybe this is one of them, to help facilitate dealing with these issues. Maybe role-playing and dealing with these questions in a community situation can be helpful.
J: Thank you for coming and meeting with me.