I rise in the morning torn between a desire to save the world and a desire to savour the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.
I came across this quote from Charlotte’s Web author E.B. White last week. I’ve been spending a lot of time developing new work lately and it seemed to capture exactly how I feel about the artistic process. When making art we are creating something that has never existed before. Art, by definition, exists in the unknown. So where do we start? And how do we choose where to put our energy as artists? And why can it be so hard to decide?
Part of the answer lies in the root of the word itself. To make a decision is to cut off all the other possible decisions. The root word in decide is cide, which originates in the Latin word caedere meaning “to kill”. Regicide is the killing of a king. Suicide is the killing of oneself. And to decide is to kill off the other choices we may have made. So deciding something is an act of violence. It’s a big deal.
So I thought I’d try to articulate how we we make the big choices at Barking Gecko. The act of writing about it makes it seem more systematic than it really is. In fact, it’s never a neat and perfect process. But these are the big principles that help us choose where to put our energy.
We listen to children. We spend time with children and listen to what drives them and excites them. Because we’re dedicated to young people, this is built into the DNA of all of our decision-making and informs everything we do. And it’s always illuminating. Children usually have a keener sense of justice than we do as adults – they know when something just isn’t fair or right. They’re often quicker to see the funny side of things. And they are almost always less inhibited and more willing to try new things.
We take time. When making new work, we make sure we take time to try stuff out. We invest time in creatively developing the best ideas. Then we spend time away from the rehearsal room thinking. This means there’s actually a really long period of time when we are developing work when we don’t talk about it with the wider public. But this means that when we are ready to talk about it, the work has had the time to grow into something worth sharing.
We get advice. Before taking anything to production we need input from artists and colleagues. Theatre is the ultimate collaborative form so having trusted advisors is invaluable to any artistic director. There is a small group of wise humans that have made up my National Artistic Advisory Group in recent times (and a couple of unofficial theatre boffins not on the list). Each of these brilliant individuals have offered timely and welcome advice about all things creative at Barking Gecko. Choices of play, feedback on creative developments and late night chats bouncing around ideas about theatre.
We trust our gut. More than anything, an artist needs to trust their intuition. No worthwhile artistic decisions can be made based on logic or a business plan. And no great artistic decision ever came out of fear. Creative decisions need to be made based on passion and conviction. And that may result in work that attempts to savour the world or to save it, or both.
As we began our rehearsals for My Robot today I found myself wondering, yet again, what it is that makes a great rehearsal room.
Earlier this year, I heard a wonderful answer to this question from director Anne Bogart. She was giving a lecture titled What the %@#! are we doing? A question I’m sure many directors asked themselves in countless rehearsal rooms over the years, not always with an easy answer.
Anne proposed a number of things that we are doing when making theatre, but the first was the most compelling for me: we are creating a model society. A theatre audience comes to see a play, but they in fact witness two plays. One is the scripted work: Hedda Gabler, My Robot, Hamlet etc. The other is the way that the actors behave towards one another.
This second ‘performance’ infuses the first. It is felt in every moment. It is subliminal but powerful. The brutal truth is that you can’t hide a bad rehearsal – how you make something will always show in what you make. The culture of the rehearsal room will be patently clear in the way the actors interact onstage.
So how do we do we create that model society? What are the practical steps to take? Honestly, I don’t pretend to have a perfect answer and I don’t think there is one. My working theory is that the most powerful thing a director can contribute to this culture is their curiosity and attention. A room that values openness and curiosity is an inspiring place to be. And an inspired group of artists have the potential to make something truly great together and have enormous fun as they do it.
It feels good to be back in the room, making art with this incredible creative team. The work has begun and ideas are flowing. And tomorrow we meet our brand new robot Olivetti. I’m looking forward to the next four weeks together and to sharing our model society with you all.
We’ve just had a brilliant week of fully-charged creative development on My Robot. Olivetti the robot now only has around 90 electric-sheep-filled sleeps until he makes his stage debut on opening night! We can’t wait to share him with the world!
I knew we were onto a good thing in Monday’s rehearsal, when I noticed something happening outside the window. We were rehearsing on the first floor of the State Theatre Centre, which has a glass wall overlooking Perth’s Horseshoe Bridge. People on their morning commute had stopped on the bridge and gathered in a group. They were pointing as they peered into our rehearsal room window 30 metres away. Of course it was our prototype Arthur the robot taking his first roll around the room. Arthur waved to them and they broke into massive grins and waved back.
It has been a busy and productive five days. The team we have assembled are massive legends and it is always so much fun to get together. Over the week, we got to climb a big mechanical pile of technical whizzbangery with robot designer Steve Berrick (shaggy hair, back row). And we’ve dived into a deep and deeply satisfying pool of aesthetic lusciousness with designer Isla Shaw (front row, improvised blonde beard).
We’ve also spent time on building and deepening the text with writer Finegan Kruckemeyer (stylish jumper, back left corner). The story we are exploring is sheer inventive delightfulness – all about a girl and her robot. But the story also asks some challenging questions.
Whenever I work on a play I try to tackle something that I don’t fully understand. No matter how playful or absurd a play is, it needs to have a question that provokes or challenges me in some way. The genesis of My Robot, was a growing sense of our society’s unease at the speed of change. This seemed to be a fear that crossed generations – a sense of insecurity about a coming technological age where our familiar place as humans might be challenged. These fears ought not be too easily dismissed. Like many fears, they are grounded in what we don’t yet understand.
It seems to me that in a changing world, one of the things that is needed is a clear sense of what is important to hang onto. Enter Ophelia! Arielle Gray’s Ophelia is a perfect embodiment of a child’s bravery in the face of change. She is a passionate, positive and immensely practical hero. She is compassionate, inventive, thoughtful and brave. And she is a hero who ultimately refuses to simply accept things as they are.
My wish is that My Robot encourages a deep and thoughtful engagement with our changing world for our youngest theatregoers. Rather than facing change with fear, they can choose curiosity and bravery as companions.
I find it touchingly poetic to think that as our technology grows more advanced, we may grow more human. When labor, science, manufacturing, sales, transportation, and powerful new technologies are mainly handled by savvy machines, humans really won’t be able to compete in those sectors of the economy. Instead we may dominate an economy of interpersonal or imaginative services, in which our human skills shine.
But not all of the questions we grappled with this week were so deep and complex! Below are a few of the practical answers we came up with over the last five days:
Yes our little robot can make things fly across the room.
Yes he can roll very quickly in many directions.
Yes his head will stay attached while he whizzes around if it’s stuck on really well.
If it falls off a pot plant holder will do the job in a pinch.
Yes he can shoot silly string! And it’s awesome.
No he can’t roll over an electrical cable.
Yes St John the actor can make all his costume changes.
No, he can’t do it without losing a litre of sweat.
Yes Arielle Gray fits into a packing box (and it’s adorable).
After a great week of development, we are one stainless-steel step (or wheel rotation) closer to revealing everything. Bring on November!
When you’re on the other side of the planet, your entire body is aching and you’ve not slept properly for a fortnight, this is not a combination of words you’re hoping to hear.
I’m halfway through an exhausting, month-long theatre training in New York when our instructor Barney O’Hanlon shares the above insight. My first thought is: if someone had put that on the promo would this training be quite so popular? It also briefly crosses my mind that I may have joined a theatre cult.
These thoughts pass quickly. The training is in fact mind-blowingly good and immensely rewarding. And it has good reason to be. SITI company has been running this particular month-long intensive every year for a quarter of a century. The same group of artist-teachers has turned up in Saratoga Springs each summer for 25 years to take students through a series of elegantly structured classes. Brilliant and provocative, the course is rightly famous for being a transformational training for directors and actors.
The gruelling, foot-numbing half of the training is a series of physical exercises developed by Tadashi Suzuki, who was there for the genesis of SITI company. This leg-trembling brutality is set to a seemingly lovely soundtrack of Shakuhachi (Japanese flute) that, as it turns out, haunts your sleep. I learnt yesterday that Brian Ritchie from the Violent Femmes now plays the Shakuhachi and it would be the single thing he’d take to a desert island. I have made a mental note to never be in a situation where I might get shipwrecked with Brian Ritchie. The Suzuki training is punishing but builds an actor’s ability to control their breath, energy and centre.
The other half of the training is called Viewpoints. SITI company are masters of this improvisational theatre technique which grew out of the postmodern dance world. And the month in Saratoga Springs each summer, where they train a small group of practitioners from around the globe, has helped to spread the practise worldwide.
Barney’s quote about standing in space is repeated regularly over the training. All explorations in time and space undertaken in the viewpoints (and there are many) are building towards this simple goal. The aim is for a performer to reach a place of assurance and ease where they can simply stand on stage, wholly embodied, entirely present.
It is an immense privilege to be trained by the masters of this form. SITI’s co-Artistic Director Ellen Lauren captures the importance of lineage in instruction:
Everything that’s worth learning in the theatre has to be taught in person. That’s the only way this gets passed on.
And in fact the Viewpoints themselves predate the SITI company. This particular system of thought originated in the 1970s with director and choreographer Mary Overlie. Profoundly influenced by the Postmodern, Conceptual Minimalist Art Movement, Overlie sought to answer the question:
What are dance and theatre made of?
Quite a question! Overlie’s answer proved to be world changing. Her research took her through a range of experiments in theatre and dance and the final result was her development of six fundamental Viewpoints:
Emotion (or presence)
Story (or logic)
Sometimes also described as the materials of performance, these viewpoints are essentially ways of seeing, understanding and experiencing the stage. In Overlie’s theatre cosmology these six ideas are the guiding lights: the principles from which all action follows. It has taken her decades to finally publish her work, which she did in 2016: her inspirational book Standing In Space. The oracle, the original source of these mighty ideas finally on record.
But it is SITI’s brilliant founding Artistic Director Anne Bogart who is known as the international face of the Viewpoints. Anne Bogart and Mary Overlie worked together in the late 1970s in the Experimental Theatre Wing at NYU. Anne learned the viewpoints from Mary but developed them in her own unique and wonderful direction. In Bogart’s rehearsal rooms Overlie’s original six viewpoints expanded into nine, along with three vocal viewpoints. And these became the bedrock of SITI company’s methodology and a phenomenon in world theatre. This work coalesced into The Viewpoints Book, co authored with Anne Bogart and Tina Landau of Steppenwolf Theatre Company.
After 4 weeks, the training is winding to a close. The concepts from the Viewpoints training will take years to unpack but have already profoundly reframed my thinking about time and space in the theatre. And I feel certain that a small handful of colleagues in the course will remain part of my growing network of brilliant, likeminded international theatre artists.
But more than anything else I’m taking away a sense of how the SITI company work together. What has been most valuable for me has been the opportunity to be in process with a long-term, functioning theatre ensemble with a shared language. This group of artists is like a family: one that has had regular reunions here every year for 25 years to practise together.
Honest collaboration involves collisions. The agreement to disagree is important.
As Anne says, the company are used to disagreeing; to the rough and tumble of collaboration. Disagreement is necessary and allows the best ideas to emerge.
We train with rigorous compassion.
Co-Artistic Director Leon Ingulsrud defines rigorous compassion as the ability to forgive failures, but still point them out. The goal of all of this is to be able to create the best possible theatre.
What we are training for is the crisis of the stage.
Bogart says scientific testing has shown that an actor simply standing onstage is under more stress than an Olympic athlete. So training for this moment is crucial. But an audience is not interested in an actor’s preparation, nor their perfect execution of a part. They want to see a human being struggle moment-by-moment through a real situation, fully present and alive. The SITI training is all about developing the presence and courage to simply stand in space.
After 25 years of teaching this content together you would think there might be a sense of teaching by numbers for the SITI company. In fact, each class is taught with care and presence and packed with hard-won insights. So despite the sore body and sleep deprivation, I wouldn’t have been anywhere else. Thank you SITI company!
Each line in Shakespeare is an atom. The energy that can be released is infinite – if we can split it open.
The above quote is from director Peter Brook. It has been coming to mind quite a bit over the last week. We have just begun our Shakespeare term at Barking Gecko, featuring our annual, interactive Living Lecture Series. This year our Living Lecture is based on Romeo And Juliet, a play packed with explosive potential from first line to last. A play so rich it has inspired countless imitations over 400 years, surely the most surreal of which is pictured above: Tim Burton’s love story between a land mass and the sea!
Living Lectures are now in their second year. We again have an ensemble of extraordinary artists attempting to split theatrical atoms – Amy Mathews, Ben Mortley, Taryn Ryan and Will O’Mahony. In an action-packed two hours the actors bring vivid and surprising performances to extracts from the play, as we unpack the story’s origins, interpretation and big ideas. It’s a fast paced session, with little time to draw breath, much like the play itself.
The responses so far from our teenage audiences have been great. You expect squeals of delight at the kisses, but the quiet attention and gasps are what have been the most satisfying (punctuated by occasional outbreaks of laughter at the smutty puns and stage violence). It’s a far cry from a performance I gave of Romeo many years ago. I was about to drink the poison when a kid at the back of the audience, bored of the performance, started yelling “skull, skull, skull!”
Well, what is so special about this 400 year old play? A great play can often be summed up in a single image. For instance we all know the image below, even if we have never read or seen Hamlet.
A healthy young man stares at a human skull. This single image gives us the essence of the play: its meditations on death, its macabre humour and the central question: To be or not to be?
Or this image.
A man tries to grasp an imaginary, blood-soaked dagger he sees floating in the air. This image gives us Macbeth with its supernatural temptations to murder. Is this a dagger which I see before me?
For Romeo And Juliet, this is the image that people know without even seeing or reading the play.
A young woman above and a young man below, staring into each other’s eyes. This moment is the play in many people’s imagination. Two young lovers, kept apart by a barrier they didn’t create (although in the original Juliet doesn’t appear on a balcony – only at her window).
But the play is not just two hours of unremitting romance. Thankfully. That would be pretty boring. In the words of William Butler Yeats:
…only two topics can be of the least interest to a serious and studious mind – sex and the dead.
Romeo And Juliet does not let us down on either front. It has a body count of five by the end of the play and more smutty puns than a Year 9 locker room. Sex and/or death almost on every page.
In fact, the image that really captures the spirt of the play play may well be this one:
Ten years ago, this pair of human skeletons was found in a tomb between Verona and Mantua – the two cities featured in Romeo And Juliet.
The bones are 6000 years old. They are from two young people who appear to have died while holding each other and gazing into one another’s eyes. For millennia the lovers were locked in an embrace. Immediately labeled a Neolithic Romeo and Juliet, the pair captured the popular imagination. The embrace cuts to the heart of the play’s concerns with sex, death and a passion that transcends this world.
Some things in the story do need to be carefully questioned with a young audience. The notion of a tragic fate, for instance, is one that I think needs scrutiny. Does Juliet have to die? Well, yes. Her fate is written in the stars (and in the script): two star-crossed lovers, and their death marked love. There is only one way this particular story can end. But this is where art differs from life. In real life we always have choices.
The current critique surrounding the Netflix season 13 Reasons Why is based on a very real need to avoid romanticising suicide. And it is important when presenting these stories to make sure we don’t do this. We need to emphasise that each of us has agency. In the society we live in, young people can get help from friends, family and organisations such as lifeline and beyondblue. We are not alone.
The Living Lectures are a highlight of our year at Barking Gecko, a time when we can share great works of art with our teenage audience. But it’s one thing to watch and another thing to get involved. So this term, everyone at Barking Gecko is exploring Shakespeare. All of our young actors in Gecko Ensembles around the city and the state are performing various Shakespeare plays.
Why do we still study and perform these great works? Young people need big stories to provoke and inspire them. Great big sweaty, unapologetically human works of art. In a world where attention spans are dwindling and communication is fragmenting, Shakespeare presents a universe that is deep, complex and rewards attention. We need Shakespeare’s humane, compassionate and ambiguous portraits of ourselves. John Keats described it beautifully:
[A quality which] Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.
The Shakespeare term at Barking Gecko is always my favourite. From past years we know that young people love it too. Long live these big-hearted stories that make us think deeply and feel alive.
Hang around the theatre long enough and you’ll hear the stories: actors going to the ragged edge of their psyches for a role. Daniel Day Lewis sensing the presence of his dead father on stage while playing Hamlet and being too traumatised to return to the stage… ever. Adrien Brody selling all his possessions and starving himself in order to play a Holocaust survivor in The Pianist. Or Kate Winslet taking months to recover from her role in The Reader and describing the experience as being like an escape from a serious car accident.
Our culture lionises these actors for the lengths they are prepared to go in pursuit of truth. There is a mystique around these performances. We know these actors are “really working” as they suffer for their art and our enjoyment.
But does it have to be this hard? Are there ways for actors to create gripping and truthful performances without sacrificing their physical and mental health? A recent report tells us that Australian arts workers experience symptoms of anxiety ten-times higher than the general population, and depression symptoms five-times higher. Much of this is to do with the insecurity of the industry, rather than the work itself. But it’s vital to help actors stay mentally healthy when they are in work. To choose an approach to acting training that avoids the feeling of being in a traffic accident!
This is the mission of the Perdekamp Emotional Method or PEM, an acting technique developed by German writer and director Stephan Perdekamp. I’ve just returned from a four day PEM training in Sydney, hosted by 16th Street Actors Studio.
The training was led by Sarah Victoria, Master Instructor in PEM and an exceptional teacher. Sarah explained that the technique was developed by Stephan Perdekamp in Gemany in response to the repressed national psyche after World War Two. At this time it was dangerous for Germans to express too much emotion. Passions were considered suspect and there was a consequent shrivelling of the emotional life in the theatre. When emotions did burst out, actors were often uncontrollable. Sarah tells us that this led to a German law that actors were not fully responsible for their actions for a number of hours after a performance!
A new technique was needed which would allow for safe, powerful access to emotions. Developed over ten years, the PEM technique was founded on detailed scientific research and precise experimentation with actors. The latest independent research supports PEM’s philosophy that emotion manifests in the body the same way the world over. It turns out, when we go below cultural conditioning, we are all the same kind of animal. We have the same energetic systems. Our deep emotional centres are shared everywhere on earth.
Of course there are national differences between the way that cultures shape us. Sarah’s experience is that Russian actors ask an enormous number of questions, but once they understand the technique, their emotional connection is very strong. Australian actors usually have quick emotional access when doing the exercises. And for some reason Australians have a particularly powerful access to grief.
Thankfully, the workshop was a huge amount of fun. The small muggy studio theatre at the University of New South Wales was quickly filled with sweaty actors, fully engaged physically, vocally and emotionally in the work. Sarah proved to be a gifted teacher, communicating with passion and specificity. Skills scaffolded one on top of the other and after four days we were creating complex, layered characters with deep emotional lives vibrating below the spoken language.
I found the exercises incredibly powerful and effective. The crucial aspect of this method is that the emotions generated rely only on the body. There is no need for psychological gymnastics. Actors do not need to draw on their personal experience or memories to create emotion. Regardless of what emotion is explored, it leaves the body moments after each scene.
PEM is now being used therapeutically in prisons; as an emotional education for autistic children and to help executives communicate in the corporate world. But the success of this method and approaches like it should come as no surprise. Well-designed theatre programs have great power to develop resilience and emotional intelligence. It might not make headlines in the same way as “I saw the ghost of my dead father!”, but the fact is that in the right hands, theatre is a profound force for physical and mental wellbeing!
At Barking Gecko we are committed to creating mentally healthy rehearsals for our mainstage work. Similarly, our Gecko Ensembles are all about creating an environment where young people can express themselves and thrive. Act Belong Commit sponsor our Gecko Ensembles in recognition of this powerful positive relationship between theatre participation and mental health.
The PEM technique fits beautifully with our existing philosophy, allowing for safe and powerful emotional access without asking actors to trawl their personal lives for trauma. Thanks to Sarah Victoria for a wonderful workshop!
Sometimes I can’t quite believe this is my job. We’ve just spent a week playing with robots, joysticks motion capture technology and even a laser! Six year old me is well impressed!
This is our second week-long creative development on our new show My Robot and the show is taking on clearer form each day. We’ve taken the fourth draft of Finegan Kruckemeyer’s script into the week, which means we can focus our time on design. How will the set function? And how to bring our robot to life?
By now we know that our robot will be built from a typewriter (his name is Olivetti) and a bunch of junk. We even have a tiny prototype, Odd Eyes, to test controllers. Olivetti will look completely different to Odd Eyes, and he will also have to do an enormous number of things that Odd Eyes can’t. How will he navigate around the room? What voice will he have? And how will he send things flying with his suction and magnet robot arms?!
To help answer these questions, this development brings together a stage manager, two actors, a puppeteer/roboteer, set designer, lighting designer, robot builder, robotics expert, writer and magician. Regardless of the outcome, you know it’s going to be a fun week!
Isla Shaw, our set designer, is an incredibly quick and intuitive artist and although her final set model isn’t due for months, she brings in a draft design of the set that we work from. Designers often work from a model box – a kind of miniature version of the stage where they can experiment with architecture without having to build the real thing. During the week we shape and reshape the space as each theatrical challenge calls for a slightly different configuration of doors, walls and windows.
Halfway through the week we realise we will need to build a soundproof booth onstage for Sarah Nelson, our robot-controller. A great discovery. We also realise that the swift costume changes will be incredibly challenging for St John Cowcher our male actor. There isn’t really a solution for this: St John will just have to get used to being sweaty.
Steve Berrick, our robot builder/designer, brings in an amazing array of technology. This includes the prototype robot Odd Eyes. We explore various joysticks for controlling the robot. Voice distortion software allows us to test various robot voices. Sarah and Steve even experiment with controlling the robot through motion tracking of Sarah’s head movements!
Richard Vegas, our magician-consultant is full of illuminating ideas. I won’t mention what we discussed in case I break the magician’s code and get trapped in a hall of mirrors. But there are lots of exciting things to explore…
And of course the actors. Theatre is nothing without actors, and Arielle Gray and St John Cowcher add a phenomenal amount to the process, throwing themselves into their characters, suggesting solutions to tricky bits and squeezing the joy from Fin’s hilarious script.
I can’t wait for the next development in July when we put it all together!
FRESH INK is Australian Theatre For Young People’s national mentoring program that has supported more than 50 playwrights over the last four years. FRESH INK is the only program of its kind in Australia. Barking Gecko Theatre Company are proud to partner with ATYP to bring FRESH INK to WA.
The program is designed to create opportunities for committed and talented playwrights to help bridge the gap into professional practice.
The program pairs emerging playwrights with a mentor for a series of workshops that will result in a 15 minute three person script delivered for rehearsal with professional actors and a 30 minute script that will be rehearsed with a professional cast.
Last week I spent five days in Hobart with legendary playwright Finegan Kruckmeyer, working on a brand new script for our play My Robot. It’s pretty wonderful being part of the process as a playscript takes shape, especially one as unique as this. So I thought I’d give you an insight into how the script came about. And a sneak preview of what’s in store…
I have rarely seen a writer work so quickly. The script went from draft one to four in the space of a week. The resulting text is brimming with brilliant ideas, touching moments and scenes so hilarious that a bit of wee comes out when you read them.
Finegan’s story centres on young Ophelia, who has moved to a new town by the seaside. This place is odd, the people are weird and she misses home. So when a pile of junk arrives from the junkshop downstairs with the instructions “Make Me”, Ophelia can’t resist. But what kind of friend can you make from:
A typewriter, cheese grater, switch and a spring.
A pipe, lighter, alligator clips and some string.
A biscuit tin, fan belts, a torch, some hair rollers.
A broken alarm clock and three wheels from a stroller?
The story goes on to answer this in the most imaginative of ways. And of course I can’t say much more at this stage…
Every writer-director relationship is unique. Strange as it may sound, Finegan and I only met face-to-face in Hobart last week as I turned up with my notes and questions all over his first draft. So it was a great relief to slip into an effortless working rapport. Fin’s work is playful and joyous but also detailed and precise, so I am cautious about how we talk about how it might evolve and change. But he turns out to be entirely unafraid of provocations and challenges. His eagerness to work through my pages of notes and questions on day one sets the tone for our working together. The cogs turn quickly as Fin shapes and reshapes the story, character and dialogue, always into something better than I could have imagined.
I think back to eighteen months ago, when Fin and I first spoke. Back then, I thought we were going to commission a very different play…
I remember ending our first phone call with a strong desire to make a show together about the intersection between science and art. I had called Fin during a break snatched from rehearsals, rugged up in a patch of Sydney winter sun. He had talked about the importance of treating children with deep respect. He told me he loved the idea of exploring science with young people. And he said how much he liked being given new ideas to work from, sometimes even more than inventing them himself.
Perfect, I thought! We’ll dream up a play about the natural world. One of my favourite books is The Oldest Living Things in the Worldby Rachel Sussman – a stunning photographic book about living things that have a minimum age of 2000 years. I imagined a work drawing on these kind of big exciting ideas – science and art woven beautifully around a central idea.
But many months later, it was a very different branch of science that got me excited enough to pick up the phone again. When the idea of a play about a robot emerged from conversations within the Barking Gecko team, I immediately thought of Fin. His curious and playful mind was a perfect match for the technical brilliance of our Western Australian robot boffins.
Of course, Finegan has form working between Hobart and Perth. Usually on scripts with short, snappy titles. Most recently he wrote Those Who Fall in Love Like Anchors Dropped Upon the Ocean Floor (Jo Morris + Themoxycollective). And previously This Girl Laughs, This Girl Cries, This Girl Does Nothing (Barking Gecko, directed by Noel Jordan). Hobart and Perth: two vibrant corners of the country working together. What’s not to love?
Back in Hobart, I’m getting an insight into Fin’s inspirations. Fin writes in his study at the top of a steep hill with a fig tree outside his window. The house is right next to the Hobart CBD, but his overflowing vege garden, coop of lively chooks (“the ladies”) and view of the river make it feel more like a country retreat. The neighbours often stop off metres from his writing desk to collect figs throughout the day.
When you pay attention to it, you can feel Hobart as a muse for Fin’s writing. You notice the presence of Hobart’s hills and oceans in his imagery. The network of relationships he creates feels grounded in a lived experience of a tight-knit community. His stories and themes seem to continually circle around making peace with that community, or with family.
In fact, it turns out that the whole of Hobart is a pretty inspiring city to explore if you’re working on a script. Our discussions ramble through laneways surrounded by great street art, the lounge at the vibrant Alabama Hotel, a conference space at Arts Tasmania and Fin’s sunlit back room.
Topics of discussion range over robot ethics and philosophy, story structure, poetic techniques and mechanical eyebrows. We explore whether you can make a robot catch a ball (not without a lot of money as it turns out). There’s even time for some lateral exploration at MONA’s latest exhibition On the Origin of Art. The new exhibition has a huge number of inspiring works, including some great anthropomorphic machines.
On Thursday our amazing set and costume designer Isla Shaw pops down from Melbourne to get us thinking about aesthetics with dozens of stimulus images. We hear the play aloud with two terrific local actors Craig Iron and Karissa Lane. And we squeeze in a Skype session with awesome Robot builder Steve Berrick back in Perth.
We confirm that the robot will roll, not walk. That it will have a typewriter for a torso. And that it will not be catching any balls.
Our next creative development is in a little over a week’s time in Perth. We’ll be testing Robot protypes with Steve as well as fleshing out the set design with Isla. And we’ll be putting draft four of the script through its paces in the mouths of some of Perth’s best actors. I can’t wait!
My Robot will premiere at the State Theatre Centre in November this year. You can book tickets HERE.
Actor Emma Thompson describes Complicite as the greatest trailblazers in our theatrical history.
It’s always fascinating to spend time exploring another artist’s creative process. This afternoon, a group of twenty two of Perth artists did just that, taking part in a workshop led by Richard Katz, the lone performer in Complicite’s work The Encounter, now showing at PIAF.
The workshop was hosted by Black Swan State Theatre Company as part of the PIAF Connect program. PIAF Connect is a series of events that allows artists and arts lovers to engage with some of the brilliant minds visiting our city. As one of the most isolated cities in the world this kind of artistic cross-fertilisation is crucial for our arts community.
It is a great pleasure to work with an artist from such a remarkable company. Founded in 1983, Complicite’s 34 year body of work includes breathtaking devised work and boldly reimagined classics. Over this time the London-based company has remained in both the technological and imaginative vanguard of the theatre world. The Encounter is no exception. The show features “3D sound” as a single storyteller takes his headphone-wearing audience on a journey deep into the remote amazon rainforest.
‘The Encounter, by a quantum leap, is the most effective and affecting use of the technology I’ve seen to date.’
Sydney Morning Herald
In person Katz is warm, curious and funny. He begins with a framing that there is no one single “Complicite technique”, as each show requires its own approach, and each artist from the company has their unique perspective. But the company is built on some shared principles and some shared ways of working together. Part of that culture includes an endless refinement of work: each show is in a constant state of evolution, even to point of tweaking elements before the last performance in a ten year run (The Encounter, for instance, has been modified since its Sydney season).
Some of the key ideas that Katz shares in the session include cultivating a heightened awareness of stumbles, mistakes and rough edges when making work – the imperfections are often the most interesting parts of any exercise and can be an entry point into story. He encourages performers to find ease in the work as we improvise, to “watch sideways”, developing an awareness of the group as a whole. And he recommends always just making something, rather than sitting and talking: “until you have material, you have nothing to talk about”, so getting on the floor and making things is crucial.
Is it good enough?
What are we watching?
What are we listening to?
What is the story?
There is a limited amount of actual work you can do in a single workshop session, but in a way this is beside the point. The priceless thing this kind of event provides is a window into a theatre maker’s sensibility, their way of being in the room and their quality of attention. And it was a much needed chance for some of the Perth arts community to get together in a studio and play! Thanks PIAF Connect!
Richard Katz, left, with elevator full of Perth legends
You can catch The Encounter at His Majesty’s Theatre for PIAF until 25 Feb. The work sold out in Sydney, so be quick!
Want yet more Complicite? For a very limited time, you can stream their latest work here for free: a critically lauded production Beware of Pity, produced in partnership with Berlin’s Schaubühne theatre. The show promises to be a “devastating depiction of honour, love and betrayal, realised against the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian Empire”. The filmed version will only be available live for another ten days (until 26 Feb).
But do go see the live one too. It will be pretty special…