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Contemporary Directors

Peter Brook | Peter Stein | Klaus Michael Grüber | Bob Wilson | Anatoli Vassiliev
Patrice Chéreau | Frank Castorf | Peter Sellars | Deborah Warner | Thomas Ostermeier

Peter Brook (b. 1925)

© Pascal Victor
Peter Brook

Peter Brook’s daring productions contributed significantly to the 20th century’s avant-garde stage. His reinterpretations of Shakespeare and such works as Marat/Sade (1964) and The Cherry Orchard  (1981) contained penetrating insights into human nature and a playfulness that juxtaposed the grandiose and the banal. For this notorious English producer-director, the boundaries between the genres were non-existent: he directed films—many of which reflected his theatrical research—in addition to plays and opera. At the young age of 19 he directed his first play, after which he freely interpreted many of Shakespeare’s works, particularly during his stint as co-director of the Royal Shakespeare Company. By eliminating the sets for King Lear (1962) at the very last second, he placed the entire focus on the actors. In 1970 he settled in Paris, setting up shop in a dilapidated theatre. In Timon of Athens (1974) he embodied the theatrical vision described in his famous essay The Empty Space, revealing the richness of simplicity in stage design. His interest in Eastern spiritualism led him to produce The Mah?bh?rata (1985) for the Festival d’Avignon, a nine-hour production set in a quarry based on the Indian epic poem.

By Peter Brook :

  • The Empty Space.
  • Le diable c’est l’ennui, Actes Sud - Papiers.
  • Points de suspension: 44 ans d’exploration théâtrale, Seuil.
  • Avec Shakespeare, éditions Actes Sud - Papiers.

On Peter Brook :

  • De Timon d’Athènes à Hamlet de Georges Banu, Flammarion.
  • À la recherche du Mah_bh_rata : carnets de voyage en Inde avec Peter Brook, de Jean-Claude Carrière, collection culture, Musée Kwok On.

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Peter Stein (b. 1937)

© Bernd Uhlig
Peter Stein

The innovative German director Peter Stein excelled in all genres and styles, from opera to comedy. After studies in art history, he became an assistant-director in Munich. He made his directorial debut with a startling production of Edward Bond’s Saved  (1967), which led critics to describe him as Brecht’s true successor. As director of the Schaubühne in Berlinfrom 1970 to 1986, he advocated a form of collective self-management that would make it one of Europe’s most innovative and successful theatres, with a diverse program and high-calibre troupe composed of such prominent actors as Bruno Ganz. His artistic approach begins with extensive textual analyses in collaboration with his actors; his stagings are thus very much collective enterprises. Among his celebrated productions are Gorky’s Summerfolk (1974), Aeschylus's Oresteia (1981) and Chekhov’sThe Three Sisters (1988); he also directed several works by his friend Botho Strauss: The Trilogy of Goodbye (1978), The Park (1985) and Ithaka (1997). In 2000 he staged a version of Goethe’s Faust, which lasted fifteen hours, and featured several actors in the role of Mephisto. Stein has earned international recognition for the breadth of his theatrical vision, the rigour of his research, the inventiveness of his stagecraft, and his ability to continually renew his art. He has taught theatre arts in Berlin since 1996.

© Bernd Uhlig
Orestes by Aeschylus, directed by Peter Stein at the Russian Army Theatre (Moscow), 1994.

Title: Orestes

Playwright: Aeschylus

Director: Peter Stein.


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Klaus Michael Grüber (b. 1941)

© Ruth Walz/Schaubühne
Klaus Michael Grüber

After studying acting in Stuttgart for two years, Klaus Michael Grüber began his career in Milan as an assistant to Giorgio Strehler. He made his directorial debut at the Piccolo Teatro in 1967, after which he staged works by Shakespeare, Adamov and Kleist. On occasion, he has preferred poets over playwrights, as demonstrated in his adaptation of Hölderlin’s Empedocles (1975) and Hyperion for his Winter Journey (1977). He then went on to work at the Schaubühne in Berlin and at the Comédie Française in 1984, where he presented an acclaimed production of Racine’sBérénice, in which he encouraged his actors to strip themselves of all emotional baggage. Working as much in Italy and France as in his native Germany, Grüber explores the margins and limits of theatre, abandoning traditional venues for such sites as rehearsal halls, chapels or stadiums. His artistic path may appear irregular or irrational but his works are all anchored in the cultural landmarks of the West: Chekhov’sOn the High Road (1984), Büchner’s Danton’s Death (1989), Genet’s The Screens (1994).

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Robert Wilson (b. 1941)

“The body thinks, the mind is a muscle,” declares Robert Wilson, whose images are as startling as they are eerily beautiful. After painting and architecture, this versatile and prolific American artist was drawn to theatre. His work with autistic children was to influence his dramatic approach: slow, almost ceremonial rhythms and a stagecraft analogous to painstaking pictorial composition. In all his works he attaches great importance to our perception of time and to the weight of gestures, often repetitive in nature. With scant interest in psychological issues, Wilson creates characters that move to a rhythm, that rely more on music than text. His multiform works, which include films and videos, have been presented and applauded throughout the world. Since Deafman Glance in 1971, he has staged over sixty theatrical and operatic productions, including Einstein on the Beach (1976), an operatic collaboration with composer Philip Glass, Orlando (1990) based on Virginia Woolf’s novel and featuring Isabelle Huppert, and The Black Rider (1990) with music by Tom Waits and texts by William Burroughs.

On Robert Wilson:

  • « Une expérience directe des choses », interview with Robert Wilson in Mise en scène et Jeu de l’acteur, Tome 2, de Josette Féral, Jeu / Lansman, 1998, p. 331-344 (in French).

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Anatoli Vassiliev (b. 1942)

Anatoli Vassiliev

Those interested in acting theory and research frequently turn to Anatoli Vassiliev. After his university studies, this Russian artist entered the Academy of Dramatic Arts in Moscow; his vision of theatre was thus grounded in both science and art. As a student of Maria Knibel, a practitioner of the techniques of “active analysis,” Vassiliev was exposed to the principles of Stanislavski and such Russian works as Gorky’s Vasa Zelesnova and Slavkine’s The Hoop, which he directed in 1985 after a creative process that lasted three years. Performed in various theatres in Brussels, Rome and Budapest, this production garnered Vassiliev international acclaim. His next production was Pirandello’sSix Characters in Search of an Author, which played at numerous festivals throughout the world. In the early 1990s, he began to direct a number of works abroad, among which was Molière’sAmphitryon (1994) in Paris. An educator who believes in traditional training techniques for actors, as much theoretical as practical, he favours an acting style that is inextricably linked with the text, which is rigorously analyzed beforehand. Vassiliev teaches in both Moscow and Lyon.

© Louise Oligny
Anatoli Vassiliev’s stage direction of Six Characters in Search of an Author by Luigi Pirandello, Moscow Art Theatre School, 1989. Photo: Oleg Belkin.

Title: Six Characters in Search of an Author

Playwright: Luigi Pirandello

Production: Moscow Art Theatre School, 1989

Director: Anatoli Vassiliev.


By Anatoli Vassiliev:

  • Sept ou huit leçons de théâtre, P.O.L., Académie expérimentale des théâtres.

On Anatoli Vassiliev:

  • Anatoli Vassiliev, maître de stage, by Jeanne Pigeon, Valérie Dréville et al., Lansman.
  • « Enseigner la tradition » interview with Anatoli Vassiliev in Mise en scène et Jeu de l’acteur, Tome 1, de Josette Féral, Jeu / Lansman, 1997, p. 287-301.

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Patrice Chéreau (b. 1944)

© Pascal Victor
Phèdre (Phaedra) by Jean Racine, directed by Patrice Chéreau, Odéon-Théâtre de l'Europe, 2003. Photo: Dominique Blanc.

Title: Phèdre(Phaedra)

Playwright: Jean Racine

Production: Odéon-Théâtre de l'Europe, 2003

Director: Patrice Chéreau

Set design: Richard Peduzzi

Costumes: Moidele Bickel

Lighting: Dominique Bruguière.

At the age of 21, the French director Patrice Chéreau made a name for himself with his third production: Marivaux’s L’Héritier de village (1965). A sojourn in Italy from 1969 to 1972 (where he worked under the direction of Giorgio Strehler at the Piccolo Teatro) was to have a major influence on his career as a director. His reinterpretation of Marivaux’s La Dispute (1973) was widely praised, as was his cycle of four Wagnerian operas, DerRing des Nibelungen, which he staged in 1976 with conductor Pierre Boulez in Bayreuth, Germany. In 1982 he was appointed co-director of the Théâtre des Amandiers in Nanterre, where he directed most of Bernard-Marie Koltès’ works, which he helped to make famous throughout Europe. In close collaboration with set designer Richard Peduzzi, he has directed works that take advantage of the resources of the Italian stage. Fascinated by contemporary drama, Chéreau is widely regarded as an artist of outstanding creative power, which he demonstrated in such productions as Genet’s Les Paravents (1983), Heiner Müller’sQuartett (1983) and Botho Strauss’sTime and the Room (1991). Since leaving the Théâtre des Amandiers in 1990, he has concentrated his efforts on opera and film.

By Patrice Chéreau:

  • L’homme blessé : scénario et notes, éditions de Minuit.
  • Si tant est que l’opéra soit du théâtre (production notes on Alban Berg’s Lulu, adapted from Frank Wedekind), Ombres.

On Patrice Chéreau:

  • Portrait de Patrice Chéreau, video by Pascal Aubier and Fabienne Pascaud, Institut national de l’audiovisuel (France), 60 min.

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Frank Castorf (b. 1951)

© Thomas Aurin
Frank Castrof

The Berlin director Frank Castorf is a self-described “quarrelsome” individual. After studies in theatre arts, he worked in the provinces for twelve years before being named director of the Volksbühne in Berlin in 1992. There he created a veritable “people’s theatre,” since young people paid the equivalent of $4 per ticket. Known for his acts of provocation and daring, Castorf has not hesitated to adapt novels for the stage: his adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s The Insulted and Injured, presented at the 2003 Festival de Théâtre des Amériques, presented pathetic and laughable characters in kitsch costumes. Fascinated by the methods and subject matter of the mass media, he uses cameras and microphones and large- screen projections to reveal what actually transpires on stage, much like reality TV. With its imposing stage set, he presented Endstation Amerika (2000) at the FTA, based on Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, in which actors perform songs by Britney Spears and Lou Reed. The productions of Frank Castorf contain a dimension that is at once political and decadent, which provokes, defies and mocks the audience.

© Thomas Aurin
Endstation Amerika , adapted from A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams, directed by Frank Castorf, Volksbühne am Rosa-Luxembourg-Platz (Berlin) and Salzburger Festspiele coproduction, 2002. Photo: Katrin Angerer, Henry Hübchen, Silvia Rieger, Bernhard Schütz, Brigitte Cuvelier, Fabian Hinrichs.

Title: Endstation Amerika

Adapted and directed by: Frank Castorf, adapted from A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams

Production: Volksbühne am Rosa-Luxembourg-Platz, Berlin and Salzburger Festspiele, 2002

Director: Frank Castorf

Set and costume design: Bert Neumann

Lighting: Lothar Baumgarten.


On Frank Castorf and the Volksbühne:

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Peter Sellars (b. 1957)

Ajax by Sophocles directed by Peter Sellars at the Kennedy Center (Washington) in 1986.

Title: Ajax

Playwright: Sophocles

Production: Kennedy Center, 1986

Director: Peter Sellars.

A prolific—and truly unique—figure in American theatre, Peter Sellars has had a lifelong penchant for updating the classics and provoking the audience. At the age of 10 he joined a puppet theatre troupe, and went on to study in China, India and Japan. After graduating from Harvard, he quickly made a name for himself with his arresting and disconcerting productions. He linked works of the past with contemporary American society, exemplified in his production of Mozart’s opera Cosi fan tutte (1986), staged in a roadside café. Concerned with such socio-political issues as interculturalism, he has made a practiced of hiring actors from diverse cultural backgrounds, reflecting the pluralism that can influence the reading of a text. In tune with the technological advances of his era, he staged Shakespeare’sMerchant of Venice (1994) with projection screens, microphones, amplifiers, cameras and video monitors. This playful artist, who at the age of thirty had already close to one hundred productions to his credit, has developed a style that interweaves all genres, both human and artistic. In conjunction with artists from other disciplines, he presented the acclaimed Nixon in China in 1987.

On Peter Sellars:

  • « Une mise à l’épreuve » interview with Peter Sellars in Mise en scène et Jeu de l’acteur, Tome 2, by Josette Féral, Jeu / Lansman, 1998, p. 295, 318.

By Peter Sellars:

  • Conférence, Actes Sud - Papiers, coll. « Apprendre ».

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Deborah Warner (b. 1959)

© Copyright Trimark Pictures
Deborah Warner

Born into a family of British Quakers, Deborah Warner studied at the Central School of Speech and Drama in London before working as a stage manager. At age 21, with neither subsidies nor fixed venue, she formed her own company: Kick Theatre. There she explored the great repertoire works, including Brecht’sThe Good Woman of Setzwan (1980), Shakespeare’sKing Lear (1985), and especially Titus Andronicus (1987), in which her emphasis on language and interpretation, rather than spectacular effects, brought out the bestial cruelty of the text. As director-in-residence at the Royal Shakespeare Company, she staged Richard II (1995) with Fiona Shaw, her actress of choice, in the title role. The Waste Land (1995), an adaptation T.S. Eliot’s landmark poem, was presented in Montreal, Toronto, New York, Paris and other European cities. Recent works include Medea (2003) and The Powerbook (2003), an adaptation of the novel by Jeanette Winterson, again featuring Fiona Shaw. Holding up a mirror to the passions of our time, the play depicts a romantic idyll on the Internet; through projected images, the stage becomes a site of passage, from the second into the third dimension.

© Pascal Victor
Fiona Shaw in The Powerbook adapted from Jeanette Winterson, directed by Deborah Warner, Royal National Theater and Théâtre National de Chaillot coproduction, 2003.

Title: The Powerbook

Adaptation: Jeanette Winterson, Deborah Warner, and Fiona Shaw adapted from Jeanette Winterson

Production: Royal National Theater and Théâtre National de Chaillot, 2003

Director: Deborah Warner

Set and video: Tom Pye

Lighting: Jean Kalman Costumes: Nicki Gillibrand

Music: Mel Mercier

Sound: Christopher Shutt.


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Thomas Ostermeier (b. 1968)

© Linus Lintner
Thomas Ostermeier

Thomas Ostermeier defines acting more in terms of action than in the recital of lines. Born in northern Germany, Ostermeier studied theatre arts in Berlin, where he learned the Meyerholdtechniques from Bogdanov at the Ernst Busch school. He made his acting debut with the Berliner Ensemble before working at an experimental theatre, Baracke, where he quickly proved himself with his productions of works by Sarah Kane, Mark Ravenhill and Maeterlinck. His staging of Brecht’sMann ist Mann (A Man is a Man, 1998) at the Carrefour International de Québec in 2002 featured actors in physically demanding interactions, with sets dominated by wood and tons of earth. At the end of the production, the sets are torn apart plank by plank by the actors, who previously juggled chairs or leapt from walls. Ostermeier has also staged works by such contemporary authors as Lars Norén and Enda Walsh.  Since 1999 he has directed the prestigious Schaubühne in Berlin, where he continues to produce corrosive works in collaboration with his actors, from whom he demands a high level of physical energy and technical prowess.

© Wolfhard Theile
Mann ist Mann (A Man’s a Man) by Bertolt Brecht, directed by Thomas Ostermeier, Baracke am Deutschen Theater (Berlin), 2000. Photo: Martin Engler, Ronald Kukulies, André Szymanski, Petra Hartung, and Tilo Werner.

Title: Mann ist Mann(A Man’s a Man)

Playwright: Bertolt Brecht

Production: Übernahme einer Produktion der Baracke am Deutschen Theater Berlin, 2000

Director: Thomas Ostermeier

Set: Jan Pappelbaum

Costumes: Marion Münch

Lighting: Gerd Franke

Trainer in Meyerhold’s biomechanics: Gennadij Bogdanov.

Music: Jörg Gollasch

Vocal coach: Ute Falkenau.


With Thomas Ostermeier:

  • « Ludisme et libération » a debate between Thomas Ostermeier and Jean Jourdheuil in L’École du jeu de Josette Féral, L’Entretemps.

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Others who merit inclusion in this gallery of contemporary directors include

Ingmar Bergman, Iouri Lioubimov, Claude Régy, Mathias Langhoff, Trevor Nunn, Terry Hands, Jan Fabre, Krysztof Warlikowski, Ricardo Bartis, Georges Lavaudant and Josef Nadj.