‘THE GREAT DICTATOR’ – A Q&A WITH OUR VISITING DIRECTOR KATE GUELKE

Kate Guelke, Director.

Q. Why was ‘The Great Dictator’ chosen by Stage Beyond?

I noticed immediately working with Stage Beyond that the company has a huge natural affinity with comedy. Chaplin’s masterpiece – combining slapstick humour with a serious subject – seemed the obvious choice. This is a massive undertaking, but knowing the company’s track record tackling classics – most recently their award-winning Hamlet – I knew ‘The Great Dictator’ would work. 

Q. What are the key messages and objectives of this production?

Many members of the company are very politically engaged, especially when it comes to disability rights activism. We wanted to shine a light on how people with disabilities and learning difficulties have been persecuted in the past. The T4 programme in Nazi Germany targeted this minority through a campaign of systemised murder. This was a pilot for the Holocaust. It was important for us not to shy away from this but address the historical reality. Whilst like Chaplin we have replaced real place names and figures with our own fantasy country and dictator (the great nation of ‘Pandora’ and Emperor ‘Heidi’), we have devised scenes based on first hand accounts of what happened to this minority during the Third Reich. 

If there’s any objective as such, it’s to inform the audience of this historical episode. What they do with this information is up to them. 

Q. What are the main challenges for you as director and also the cast?

We have worked extremely hard to engage with the historical material. This can sometimes be upsetting in rehearsals. The history of this episode is  truly shocking, and acting is essentially an act of imagination and empathy. So balancing laughter and tears has been challenging! 

Q. How are the company members dealing with the themes and challenges involved? 

I can’t fault the company’s engagement with the themes ‘The Great Dictator’ has thrown up. The commitment and interest in the subject matter and the bravery to face it head on has been extraordinary. 

I would never have had the courage to look at this subject matter without the company’s encouragement. They have really championed the ‘not about us with us’ principle here. 

Q. How important is it for Stage Beyond to take on this production? 

For me it’s less important what Stage Beyond takes on than how they take it on. I absolutely love ‘The Great Dictator’ and its combination of pathos, screwball comedy and silent movie tropes. But it’s the process that’s been really special – workshopping and devising the material thoroughly to make the piece together. 

Q. How do you hope the audience will respond?

I hope the audience will laugh, cry, cheer and feel as much as we have in rehearsal! 

Q. What would you say to encourage theatre-goers/others to come and see ‘The Great Dictator’?

This is a truly unique theatrical event! 

Q. What do you enjoy most about working with Stage Beyond?

I love working with the Ensemble so much. I am so proud of them for the work they’ve done on this project. And the company is just so supportive. The thing I enjoy most is watching the piece slowly but surely come together, informed by EVERYONE in an inclusive open process. It’s very rare to get to work like this and it’s a total privilege. This company is doing some really important work.