Many of you will have known Rani Middleton. Rani was one of the most extraordinary individuals in our community, who tragically passed away in 2018. Rani was a passionate and gifted artist and educator and a dear friend to many of us at Barking Gecko. Rani was only 34 years old when she died of bowel cancer, but her impact on so many of us and on the lives of numerous young people will be felt for many years to come.
Late last year I was approached by a group of Rani’s friends who wanted to do something to celebrate Rani’s life through Barking Gecko. So, with their generous support, we have decided to create the Rani Middleton Scholarship. This scholarship will fund a child from regional WA without the resources to attend a Gecko Ensemble to come along at no cost to them. Recipients will be chosen each term with the aid of our regional teaching artists.
I knew Rani as a teaching artist, first through Bell Shakespeare where she won the Regional Teacher’s Scholarship, dazzling us all with her passionate love of theatre, her gift for teaching, her joyous presence and her infectious zest for life. Then for the last three years Rani worked with us at Barking Gecko, during which time she was at the heart and soul of our regional teaching artist team.
Rani was one of those rare and luminous individuals whose manifold acts of kindness and inspiration will continue to illuminate and inspire for years to come, as the children she has taught carry her lessons into adulthood. None of us in the arts find our way without these wise and enigmatic guides to light our path. Rani was a mentor, educator and friend for countless young people over the years. Her heart was always with the battlers. She looked out for those kids struggling to be in the room, whether through financial difficulty, shyness or social circumstance. Rani’s advocacy for the importance of art in the lives of all children in Broome and the Kimberly was a continual inspiration to us at Barking Gecko, and a provocation to provide creative opportunities to those who need them most.
Rani’s death is still raw for many of us. But we are determined to remember her for who she was and try to live up to the work she did. If you would like to make a donation towards the Rani Middleton Scholarship, please email us at email@example.com or donate via this link.
This week A Ghost in My Suitcase opens at the Melbourne International Arts Festival (lovely review from The Age here). The play has taken three years for us to develop at Barking Gecko, from the first impulse to a series of world premiere seasons in capital cities around the country. It has been an epic journey for myself, my co-director Ching Ching Ho, playwright Vanessa Bates and our brilliant team of creatives as we have painstakingly transformed Gabrielle Wang’s beautiful book into a stage play.
There has been a contractual need for secrecy around these upcoming seasons with national festivals, including soon-to-be announced dates in 2019. So until now I haven’t been able to give updates about what we’re up to in the same way I usually would. Today I’m making up for lost time!
A big, beautiful Australian fantasy
The child of a librarian, I grew up devouring fantasy books, my spare hours spent in strange worlds created by the likes of Ursula Le Guin and Philip Pullman. So when I found Gabrielle Wang’s book, a ghost fighting epic set in an ancient Chinese water town, with a brave young Australian protagonist, I was excited to share it with our young audience.
A Ghost in My Suitcase is the story of Celeste, a twelve year old Aussie girl with French and Chinese heritage, who travels to China for the first time to scatter her mother’s ashes. There she learns that her Grandmother is a ghost hunter and the power is passed down the female side of the family…
The story is a thrilling supernatural adventure, pivoting around a series of increasingly high-stakes ghost battles, as family secrets are uncovered and loyalties tested. But alongside the adventure plot, the story also works as a subtle meditation on grief, family, and embracing your gifts.
Almost everyone living in Australia has roots elsewhere. Many of us feel the pull of this history very strongly. So although the story is set entirely in China and full of the fantastical, it is also quintessentially Australian in its exploration of diaspora and belonging. And as such it’s an important work for us as an Australian children’s theatre company.
Beginnings Begin as you mean to continue, is a useful maxim in art as well as in life. So a big question in adapting A Ghost in My Suitcase was: Who has a seat at the table in the very first development? When our creative team first met in early 2016, there were five of us. Ching Ching and I had already chatted about our ideas on the book and how we wanted to proceed.
What seemed vital was that alongside novelist Gabrielle Wang (who read us Lao Tzu’s Daoist philosophy and taught us Tai Chi and later ink painting) and playwright Vanessa Bates (who filled butchers paper with themes, locations and plot points) we also had designer Zoë Atkinson, dreaming up possibilities around space, time, architecture and imagery. On many new projects designers are not part of these initial conversations and are poorer for it. What a gift to have Zoë there from the start! This beginning has imprinted itself on the way Vanessa has written and the way Ching Ching and I have directed this work. The show has continued in this spirit for three years with investigations of design and use of space given equal weight to explorations of text and the body of the actor.
This has been a busy three years. Among our several creative developments across various cities, the team has travelled to the story’s locations in China. This has allowed us time and space to think deeply about questions of cultural representation in the work, a process in which Ching Ching Ho has led the entire team. Media Artist Sohan Ariel Hayes came on board early and part of his job has been to collect and select imagery for the show from these Chinese field trips. The sound design and has been lovingly crafted by Perth composer Rachel Dease and features her hauntingly beautiful compositions which bring Celeste’s ghost songs to life. Matt Marshall has effortlessly sculpted light to give each ghost its own unique energy and ambiance. And amongst all this, we’ve had multiple rounds of nationwide casting over two years to find five extraordinary, mulit-talented performers: Amanda Ma, Frieda Lee, Yilin Kong, Imanuel Dado and Alice Keohavong.
Literature and Theatre
A novel is by definition a literary form. Film is usually thought of as primarily a visual medium. Scripted theatre sits somewhere in the middle. Great theatre performances are often elegant combinations literary and visual languages – both artfully combined and each contributing to the overall meaning of the play in different moments.
So how do you choose what to use and when? Part of the secret to a good adaptation seems to lie in somehow capturing the spirit of the original in its new form. Our season is at The Playhouse at the Arts Centre Melbourne. The week before the same stage hosted another play based on a novel – Watt, adapted and performed by the brilliant Barry McGovern from Samuel Beckett’s book of the same name (pictured above). I was so impressed by the adaptation that I saw it twice. McGovern’s is a virtuosic performance – almost entirely focused on narrative from a single voice and perspective, full of dexterous use of intricate text combined with carefully selected gesture, used sparely and effectively. It’s an effective adaptation because it captures the spirit of a novel full of wordy, ambiguously-plotted existential philosophy. This approach, brilliant for Watt, would have been entirely inappropriate for us. For A Ghost in My Suitcase we have needed to pare back the words, to find the essential action and conflict and to be especially mindful of ‘negative space’.
The uses of not
Thirty spokes meet in the hub.
Where the wheel isn’t is where it’s useful.
Hollowed out, clay makes a pot.
Where the pot’s not is where it’s useful.
Cut doors and windows to make a room.
Where the room isn’t, there’s room for you.
So the profit in what is is in the use of what isn’t.
Lao Tzu, from Tao Te Ching, translated by Ursuala Le Guin
One of the ideas we have played with strongly in this adaptation is ‘negative space’. As you can see in the above daoist meditation, this is something that poet-philosopher Lao Tzu understood 2500 years ago. It is not always easy to define in the theatre, but I like to think of it as space left intentionally empty for an audience to fill. This is vital if an audience is to be truly engaged.
When and how to use negative space is a big question in particular when creating a work of fantasy like this one. There are times to lean into the literal depiction of spectacle and fantastical imagery and, vitally, times to leave space free for the imagination of the audience.
As you would imagine for a work of fantasy, in our show there are elements which are pure spectacle: a kabuki drop where a silky fabric descends from the heavens as night falls over a haunted house, cloaking the stage in darkness; or a highly detailed filmed ‘tracking shot’ down the canal of a water town, projected on every vertical surface in the space; or the cacophony of real-world image that is Shanghai Airport, or the climactic martial-arts style battle with two ghosts.
But then there are scenes where very little is illustrated. One of our young test-audience’s favourite scenes was our depiction of a bus full of frogs, created only with the artful composition of actors’ bodies and sound. Here the audience enlisted to create the image with us – the frogs, the bus and the world of rural china beyond the foggy windows. Or we have the ghost of the French Chef, who never appears on stage but whose earthquake-like energy manifest in actors bodies and in sound.
Negative space can exist in text itself: language constructed in a way that invites interpretation via omissions, inferences, ambiguity and mystery. Or it can be seen in the way a we use light: in a ghost story it is vital to choose carefully what parts of actors, objects and the stage are illuminated and what parts are left dark. And perhaps most clearly, it manifests in the use of physical space: for example in how actors and objects are arranged and what use is made of the offstage space.
Show or tell?
One of the challenges when we first tested this play in front of children in Perth, was that too often we were using both these techniques at once: we were showing and telling. How you strike the balance for a young audience is particularly delicate – children need enough information to make sense of what they are seeing for themselves. But they don’t need images over-explained to them. The worst and most condescending kind of children’s theatre spells everything out.
So for our opening in Melbourne we have cut at least five minutes worth of text including two pages of dialogue from the scene pictured above. Beautiful ideas and descriptions that work so well in their original context, but are not needed alongside the visual language in a theatrical context – whether those visuals are of canals in the watertown of Wuzhen or narrow streets in the French Colonial district in Shanghai or of bodies performing martial arts.
A book has no inherent tempo – it is as quick or as slow at the reader. One reader may want to linger over each word, another may want to rush to the end barely pausing for breath. But for a performance the tempo is fixed. Each moment in each show has a specific speed and the entire performance has a specific duration for everyone who watches it. These rhythms are selected with care – a silence, a piece of action slowed down to allow it to be considered more fully, or simply a juxtaposition of speeds which makes us aware of the space between moments. For this ghost story we’ve tried to stretch the extremes of tempo, to build suspense and then release into frantic action.
After all of our exploration, we have landed on a specific style of storytelling that we defined in our rehearsals as “Poor theatre, with selective use of exquisite technology”. Poor theatre is a term made famous by Polish director Jerzy Grotowski to describe a theatre centred on the voice and body of the actor. Ching Ching and I have been very demanding and specific with what we’ve needed from the exceptionally talented cast in this regard. But alongside this focus on precision of body and voice, we are also exploring an abstract and (for me) an entirely new style of visual storytelling.
Almost from the first moments we met, designer Zoë Atkinson was drawn to the idea of boxes. Boxes recur again and again in the novel from mama’s ash box and camphor chest to secret rooms with their hidden treasures. We explored many design possibilities, but returned to this idea eighteen months later. Our entire set is now a series of different-sized boxes that the actors can climb on and through – places where things can be concealed and revealed – a perfect performer’s playground and a great setting for story of secrets and of ghosts. It’s an abstract set, so we felt that the visual storytelling of the work would be best served with highly detailed projection mapping of images onto the moving surfaces of these boxes. Our ensemble of “shadowy movers” arrange and re-arrange the configuration of the set, as we move fluidly and instantly in time and space.
Stage Magic I love stage magic. The show is all about ghost battles, so we were also determined to include some genuinely thrilling moments as well as moments of wonder. I don’t want to talk too much about how we achieve it all, but one especially satisfying sequence involved designers Zoë Atkinson and Matt Marshall creating a ‘black light theatre’ setup, to bring our ghost-bed to life in a carefully controlled channel of light. For this season, puppetry guru Michael Barlow has helped us tweak the choreography to make the bed especially terrifying. It has been wonderful to sit near children and hear them react to this scene in particular, as well as hear them confidently describe “how we did it” afterwards, in lots of very imaginative ways!
Responses from Children
Already our trial audiences in Perth have loved the story, from the child who wrote us a poem about his newfound love for kabuki drops, to the one who said “it made me feel completely void from reality”, to the child who told us “It was my first time attending the theatre… it made me feel like I was in China”. We hope there are many more young people who see the work and have such powerful reactions! And we can’t wait to bring it home to Perth after our seasons her and at the Sydney Opera House.
Finally, the process of inspiration can travel in unexpected directions. After our first development, Gabi began work a sequel to her novel Ting Ting the Ghosthunter. The novel is dedicated to that first group of creatives that met in Melbourne Arts Centre way back at the start of 2016:
Matt, Felix [Ching Ching], Vanessa and Zoe – fellow ghost travellers and play makers
It is a deeply satisfying thought to feel that we have somehow contributed to Gabi’s next novel which I am currently in the middle of reading. It seems that in pulling the original work apart to adapt it unleashed some of the latent potential in the character of Ting Ting. In the acknowledgements, Gabi says:
I would like to thank Matt Edgerton, creative director of Barking Gecko Theatre Company for the initial inspiration. During the process of adapting A Ghost in My Suitcase to the stage, he helped me realise just how strong the character of Ting Ting was, even though she was the antagonist in that story. She called out for a book of her own. And so it came to be.
Final thanks It has been a genuine privilege to work alongside our remarkable creative team on this project – one of my real career highlights so far. Nothing in theatre gets made without great producers. I do want to particularly thank our Executive producer Helen Hristofski whose belief in this project has made it possible. And also our Production Manager Andrew Portwine who has been the backbone of our team. Case in point: Porty shipped not one but two stage floors across the Nullabor so we could screw our actual stage floor into a warehouse rehearsal room, and rehearse with our own markup here in the east.
Thanks to the visionary AD’s on our national festivals who believed and invested in the work: Wendy Martin, Jonathan Holloway and Wesley Enoch.
And thank you to everyone who I have not yet mentioned who has helped to make this possible – Michael Maclean, Jessica Rogerson, Emily Stokoe, Tim Collins, Matt McCabe, Jake Bamford, Andy Fraser, Michael Barlow, Sara Walker, Nicole Marrington, Libby Klysz, St John Cowcher, Rhiannon Petersen, Hannah Smith, Sue Stepatschuk, Joy Crocker, Aimee Hughes, Ziyin Gantner, Carillo Gantner, Stephen Armstrong, Anna Kosky, Tim Watts, Rachel Macdonald, Arielle Gray, Joe Lui, Taryn Ryan, Courtney Stewart, Sue Fenty, Tim McGarry, our amazing production team creatives cast and crew, and everyone else who has advised and helped us along the way. Thank you!
We die to each other daily. What we know of other people is only our memory of the moments during which we knew them. And they have changed since then. To pretend that they and we are the same is a useful and convenient social convention which must sometimes be broken. We must also remember that at every meeting we are meeting a stranger.
T.S. Eliot, The Cocktail Party
I love this quote from Eliot. Everyone we know has changed since we last met them and it is entirely our fault if we fail to notice. Plays, it turns out, are exactly the same.
Revisiting a great script should be like meeting a stranger. And here, too, it is our fault if we fail to notice what has changed in the play, in us and in the world during the time we’ve been apart. There are great rewards in ignoring a play and then being reintroduced! The danger is in assuming that we know a play’s true and singular meaning, particularly for those that teach drama.
This week I am revisiting Shakespeare’s Macbeth, in preparation for our Living Lecture series that is set to tour Perth schools. I will be working with four talented actors – Ben Mortley, Alexandra Nell, Giulia Petrocchi and Nick Maclaine – who will each add their own unique perspective to our version of the play.
Plays are mysterious creatures, great at asking questions and often terrible at answering them. It’s very tempting to reorganise their complex web of ideas into a set of simple themes – tidy, straight-edged and known, universal and unchanging – that can be taught, learned and regurgitated for marks.
I had this in mind last week when I re-read Macbeth. I have worked on this play eight or ten times as an actor and director. One of these was a nine-month tour around Australia in which we played the show 167 times. It is a play whose language comes to my mind without much prompting and whose ideas often feel like a piece of familiar clothing, well worn through use.
And yet coming to it this time, the play feels very different. It is as if the words and ideas have shifted not just in their relationship to me, but to one another. It feels new and strange. I was most struck with the play’s ambiguity. Motivations and ideas that have previously seemed fixed and clear to me seem less so. Other muddy moments have become crystal. Whole speeches feel like new pieces of text, fulfilling very different functions in the story.
The play is full of references to a Christian god, but in this read I rediscovered the deep pagan and animistic roots growing under the play’s Christian topsoil. It is a world of trees that speak, of signs and symbols in nature, of black magic and fortune telling and of spilt blood that can only be satiated with more blood.
I felt the presence of kids keenly this time round. Children, childhood and the desire for family legacy are woven into the drivers of every major character and every significant decision made. I have found a play haunted with lost children and lost childhoods.
The play’s exploration of an evolving mental illness also feels very immediate. Here I feel I have met a more complex and humane story. Macbeth seems a fragile and imaginative soul brutalised by violence. His thoughts turn quickly and easily to ‘horrible imaginings’. His inner world is one of terrible dreams, floating daggers and the psychosis of whispered voices. He is deeply unwell, his mind stung by scorpions, constantly flooded with fear and in the end deadened with by the overload of sensation.
And on this reading gender in the play seems turned on its head: less a fixed set of ideas and more an unanswered riddle. In fact, gender seems like a very shaky construct indeed – an edifice that the characters are fighting to tear down and build anew, much as we are in our world today. Huge gender stereotypes seem to be delivered with a twinkle of dramatic irony, as if the audience realises this simple binary does not and cannot exist. The seemingly gentle and courtly Lady Macbeth is not suspected of her bloodthirsty crimes until it is much too late. The avenging hero of the play, Macduff, is at pains to redefine an emotionally intelligent version of masculinity. Categories like man and woman just don’t seem to cut it any more.
It’s funnier this time round too. I can feel the play’s dark humour breathing through each line. There is an almost joyous life force in Macbeth’s self-awareness of the downward spiral of his life. The blackest of self-mocking humour sits under his decisions to relish the release into rivers of bloody violence and then to fight his fate against the odds. I might be unusual in this, but I find this lightness to be a very loveable trait. Particularly in today’s world, so full of forces beyond our control. It is a gift to find the lightest touch of humour in the darkest of times.
Living Lectures are touring Perth schools through July and August, and I am very much looking forward to seeing how the play has changed for all of us. And surely this is the joy of revisiting these great works and why we can keep doing it – we are meeting strangers.
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!