Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Christina Stead- Darryl Emmerson - INTERVIEWS

Darryl Emmerson
Written by Paul Andrew   
Monday, 20 September 2010 22:35

Described by Patrick White as ‘a novelist of genius’, and generally acknowledged as one of Australia’s greatest writers, Christina Stead (1902 – 1983) displays throughout her fiction, especially in autobiographical works The Man Who Loved Children and For Love Alone, an extraordinary range of character, situation, language, theme and atmosphere. Playwright Darryl Emmerson has written a new play about her life and an insight into her life’s work.

first play, The Pathfinder: a picture of John Shaw Neilson, premiered in the first Melbourne International Festival, was adapted for ABC Radio, later toured four states, and was nominated for a Melbourne Green Room Award.

Darryl EmmersonWay back whenever what impelled you to create a work about writer Christina Stead?
I am passionate that the lives and work of artists can be presented on the stage. Their childhoods, the stance they take up towards other people, the decision to encourage their own creativity, the ambition, quiet or otherwise, that lies behind their decision, where their lives and art lead them, these are all of great interest to me.

Of course, not just any artist, but someone whose life and work, as I come to know them, attract me, and reward the years of research and study a biography requires. Christina Stead seems to me a most remarkable writer. She lived passionately, honestly and was unafraid of the grand gesture. Christina it seems was a rather intriguing personality.

There are so few contemporary stories for stage about Australian women artists, was this a major consideration when choosing to write about Stead?
It was a major consideration. I’m still surprised there aren’t more stories for stage about artists, about creativity as a natural and interesting thing. Let’s explore and celebrate this part of life more widely.

There has been a lot of love sweat and tears poured into this script, tell me a potted history about this journey so far?
I’m not sure how other writers work, but I find myself ‘circling’ around the project for quite some time, in this case, reading her novels and stories, then biographies, considering the time, place and society of her early life (the period when you can’t make choices, but must accept and are moulded, at least for a time), looking at photographs, paintings, going to Sydney, where she grew up, etc. Then you have to find a shape, a way of distilling 80 years of life, and many pages of writing. Not always simple, but always interesting.

You have described this work as both a biography and a showcase?
Christina plunges us into certain defining moments of her life, then ‘performs’ some of her writing in between. That way, I hope, we experience some of what she did, then absorb her imaginative response to it.

And tell me about the form of the play?
The play covers about sixty years in seventy minutes, through a technique of illuminating a certain day, then leaping to another some years later. Audiences are great the way they just come along with you.

And how did you chose this form, did it choose you?
This form was one developed in previous plays, The Pathfinder, about John Shaw Neilson, and Earthly Paradise, which treated Lesbia Harford, and I think it helped the writing journey, gave me confidence to try a new subject.

Christina Stead relocated overseas and married, and yet her Australian experience and memories were seminal in her fiction writing ?
I think her Australian experiences were seminal, in the way that early life always is. It’s also true to say her two best books (in my view), For Love Alone and The Man Who Loved Children, are semi-autobiographical, based on her life in Australia. A child, or young woman, notices things keenly, intimately, personally, in a way that is perhaps less true later, when you make more of your own decisions, are less at the mercy of things.

And what fascinates you about her personal life, her public life and her literary works?
Olivia [Brown] has a good description of this:
I am intrigued by the contradictions within her personality and character, scientific but then sentimental, independent thinker but very needing of support and a champion. I have been struck by her comment on the dream she had of the little boat battling on regardless of all kinds of weathering and difficulty - as she set out on the wide blue seas as a young woman full of hope, and survived upon them for so many years, and in so many ways, more than survived, flourished. Then the dream changes and the boat does not fare well, low in the water and defeated on many fronts, she turns to her original home shore. She lost the strength of youth, as we all do, and then lost Bill and with him all certainty. After her return to Australia I believe she lost more and more of what had sustained her. But yet she battled on. Patrick White's comment that was something like "I wish I had met her earlier" seems, though quite sad, fitting.

Why do you think Patrick White was so impassioned by her work?
I think he recognized and admired a fellow artist of intense conviction and commitment, ambitious, brilliant in technique, yet full of feeling and with a wide knowledge of humanity. I think also he would have liked to meet her earlier in her life.

Has there been a stage work of a Christina Stead novel before, or a bioplay?
There’s a good 1985 film of For Love Alone, with Helen Buday, and there is a script version of that novel, as yet unproduced. I think her work just hasn’t been looked at from a stage perspective.

What research has helped Olivia prepare for her role?
Olivia did a great deal of research and reading, and together we visited Stead’s childhood homes in Sydney. There is also the large body of her correspondence, some radio interviews where her voice can be heard of course, and an ABC television interview, made when she was aged about 75 years of age, all revealing and useful sources. We also discussed at length options and constraints on women and artists at that time. Collaborating with her is such a great pleasure.

What type of portrait do you feel you reveal of Stead in this production?
I hope we present an accurate, varied, rich and quickly moving portrait of a unique artist.

What does her life say about living as an artist today?
Stead was a refreshingly forthright person, and I think she would be calling for more honest, social and political engagement by writers, but of course not excluding the personal and psychological, the emotional. For her all these things really were connected, she couldn’t abide narrowness and deliberate self-limitation.

What heritage does Stead leave behind?
A rich body of fiction, Stead is a great example of artistic commitment despite adversity.

I Write What I See: Christina Stead Speaks, starring Olivia Brown, opens at the Old Council Chambers, Trades Hall, Melbourne, October 14, 2010.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Angus Cerini- Wretch- INTERVIEWS

Angus Cerini edit
Written by Paul Andrew   
Tuesday, 14 September 2010 07:49

Angus Cerini is a writer and performer whose award-winning solo works have been performed throughout Australia and in Germany, Ireland and England.

He is currently touring in the multi-award winning production of Wretch, which he also wrote and co-directed. On the eve of the Brisbane season, he spoke to Australian Stage's Paul Andrew.

Angus CeriniWhat is your seven word pitch for Wretch?
The things we do for love, the things we do despite it.

What inspired you to become an actor?
I did ballet as a kid. My sister went along, then my brother, then the eldest brother and at age six I was kind of dragged along.  Did that for ten years and that’s where I always seemed to be – on stage.

Wretch won the Patrick White Playwright's Award in 2007, what does this award mean for you and for the play?
It gave the play a big lift in exposure. This has been used as marketing collateral (to be cutthroat about it). It also gave me some cash – which was nice. (I like cash ☺) It also gave the play a leg up in getting on…

Tell me about your involvement in the Risky Business arts project?
There were a number of arts projects throughout Victoria asking in quite simple terms ‘do creative projects help young people at risk?’ I was part of a project that worked with young men within the juvenile justice and we were to make a show with them. This show the young men wrote and performed had three performances in Melbourne. Inspiring!

How so?
It inspired me in many ways. Most striking was that overall these young men don’t like what they have done – their feelings of shame, guilt and remorse are so very powerful. To a large extent (at least with those young men I worked with) they had ‘fucked up’ and hated themselves for it. The crimes they had committed were right off the scale – hence their incarceration – yet most of them really never imagined the consequences would be so severe. To grievously injure someone when you throw a punch is not something you expect for example.

The father figures in these guys lives were either the aggressor (i.e. rapist or abuser of them or a family member, their mentor in criminality (showed them everything they know), or the person (or persons) they had never “met” or met countless times in guises different to the last one they met. 

So, the absence of healthy male role models seemed in most cases to be the tipping point, while the mothers were the ones that loved them still, forgave them despite what they had done, and who judged them more harshly than any court or tabloid paper.

The other thing that spun me right out about that project was meeting and working with young men whose crimes I had read about. Having their personality right before me, as any other young bloke (and much like any I would have grown up with really, or any young bloke anywhere in Australia) showed me these things and this intimacy allowed me to empathise enormously with them – once I got over my fear of being in a prison and/or their ability to do real bad stuff to me (as I fallaciously presupposed given their incarceration). Ridiculous fears as it turned out. 

Amazing stuff really. Human beings and the things we all possess. Amazing what each of us has, an original personality that no media article or cliché will illuminate. Amazing, heartbreaking and inspiring.

And with this “At Risk” arts project and with Wretch you drew from your own challenging experiences as a young man too?
Yeah, those guys could have been any one of us growing up as teenagers. Indeed, I had mates that did wrong stuff and they got busted. We all did crazy shit – what teenage boy doesn’t. But it was amazing to look back and seriously shake me nut and wonder how close we/I came to seriously fucking up. I mean, the saying goes ‘there but for the grace of God go I’ or something like that, but its true (though I dispute the GOD bit).

I mean, we did all sorts of shit – wasted, surfing on cars doing eighty clicks on a winding country road, stealing parents cars, eight of us squeezed in, growing dope, getting into fights, pinching stuff…the lot. As times change, as suburbs and demographics change; then so do specific activities of teenagers. But the thing that doesn’t change is the inherent nature and physiological make up of adolescents - risk. The teenage boy and his cock throbbing with newfound hormones, he is wild like an animal. 

So yeah, I see those guys in those places and I can identify with them. Oh, and I see some of the stuff I did and loathe myself for it. 

It is sometimes said that criminality and creativity come from the same place, the first the shadow/dark side of the second, what are your thoughts?
I haven’t heard that before, but I like it. I spent my teenage-hood being a bit of a knob. I didn’t know who or what I was. This had a lot to do with the environment around me, the suburbs I spent my time in and the people I was exposed to. It also had a lot to do with boredom as well. I suppose for me, that wellspring of creativity got channeled into getting drunk and smoking drugs and vandalising. The avenues for creative self expression – of the non criminal, non destructive type – are few and far between for teenagers. 

We may dispute this as there are libraries and school and the footy club (!). But if you look at what is taught in schools then you get the picture. This entire education system seems to me to be geared around the lowest common denominator of ‘do not offend anyone’. Schools are so very safe. Yes they should be safe, but they should be safe places to explore who we are as humans. 

I am finding it increasingly problematic that real life skills are not taught in schools. The skills of budgeting, eating well, growing things, making things and of doing stuff with a practical nature. How about the skill of self-awareness? The skill of respect, self-care and leadership? The entire learning thing seems to be geared around getting a job. That is the most ridiculous use of preparing for a life that I have ever heard. Spend your teenage years being given limited options, so that when you leave you can contribute to the limited options. 

Young men and prison, have they become increasingly synonymous or is this a myth?
Not increasingly synonymous apart from the howls from the great unwashed that is. The cheapest, best way to change our society is to avoid incarceration at all costs. It is cheaper to buy a car-thief a car, teach those guys to drive, and then give him a racetrack for him and his mates to do stuff on, than to lock these guys up in prison. Simple.

It is cheaper and easier to mentor young people and work with them, than to lock them up.

Social justice means different things to different people, what insight do you hope Wretch provides for audiences about social justice issues?
In using the term ‘social justice’ and describing my work as being engaged with those matters, the term speaks about ‘we’ as members of a community, a society. It also says that justice is an integral part of that society. It says to me that if we don’t have a just society, then we don’t have a community and we may as well just frikn blow the place up.

What has been the most rewarding aspect of taking Wretch on a regional tour?
Counter meals.

Wretch plays at the Brisbane Powerhouse Sept 14 – 18, 2010.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Dion Mills and Adena Jacobs- The City - INTERVIEWS

Dion Mills & Adena Jacobs
Written by Paul Andrew   
Thursday, 02 September 2010 20:03

Paul Andrew managed five “almost apocalyptic” minutes during rehearsals of Martin Crimp’s play The City with resident Red Stitch actor Dion Mills and Director Adena Jacobs.

The City | Red StitchWhat inspired you to become an actor?
Dion: I wasn't inspired, rather the opposite. I'd rather be anything else (…it's so humiliating as a vocation), but I can't be. I can't see the point of being, however playwrights (and other authors of fiction too) try to make sense of the senseless (…well, the more interesting ones do), so why not lend oneself to their quest (…if one's not brave enough to make an early exit…)?

Something we don’t know about you being an ensemble member of Red Stitch?
Dion: That it became an end in itself, not a means to something else.

Highlight so far?
Dion: Lending myself to Martin Crimp and a few other playwrights too.

Greatest challenge?
Dion: Lending myself to Martin Crimp & a few other playwrights (…plus labouring in a car wash for 12 years and counting to make that loan possible).

Playwrights who enthrall you?
Dion: Those, like Crimp, that ask why we bother (…and thrill me by the way they ask…).

Okay, a snapshot of The City?
Dion: The director's note 'There is no fire. They are not sitting.' (…which contradicts the words of a character)?

What do you know about Crimp?
Dion: Not much, except he translates, engendered children (…why?...), and attended Cambridge University (...and a minor public school - founded in 1619 - also attended by Michael Ondaatje).
Adena: Martin Crimp is a British playwright who has been associated with the school of ‘ín ya face’ theatre, although he would reject that definition. He has had seven shows produced at the Royal Court, and was a resident writer in 1997. He is known for his intricate, rhythmic dialogue which casts a bleak eye on contemporary, Western society. Red Stitch has been a major advocate for his work – The City is the third show by Crimp to have appeared as part of the company’s season.

What do you love about this play?
Adena: That it doesn't shy away from being horribly, funnily, true.

Is the city in The City true, or is it a metaphor?
Dion: Suck it and see...
Adena: The ‘city’ refers both to an actual urban location, and to a metaphoric, interior landscape. For me, the ‘city’ represents a manmade construction which at any moment might collapse like a deck of cards.

And Chris, your character, what’s his story?
Dion: Chris & his wife Clair (she's a translator who'd rather write novels of her own) are regular Mr. & Mrs. Red-Stitch-Attendees.

What do you feel the director is teasing out of Crimp’s text?
Dion: Ask Adena. I'm not a director (...nor do I want to be).
Adena: Directing Martin Crimp’s work has been a pleasure and a challenge. His language is incredible beautiful, but also very demanding for the actor, and so it has been a wonderful process to observe how the show has grown over the past few weeks.

Anything funny happen during rehearsals?
Dion: Nothing except Crimp.
Adena: A tree fell on the theatre during our first preview.

What do you enjoy most about performing at Red Stitch?
Dion: That it's the best (…even when worst) that I've done.
Adena: For an independent director, the opportunity to work with Red Stitch is a very exciting one. Outside of a mainstream theatre context, it is rare to be able to direct without having to produce the work yourself. I have also been an admirer of Red Stitch’s work since the company began in 2002.

The City by Martin Crimp opens at Red Stitch, Friday September 3, 2010.

Image Credits:-
Top Right - Meredith Penman, Dion Mills, Fiona MacLeod. Photo - Gemma Higgins-Sears
Cover - Meredith Penman, Fiona MacLeod, Dion Mills. Photo - Gemma Higgins-Sears


It’s Art, For Walls

It’s a street artist’s greatest challenge, making something urgent and beautiful while one eye looks over the shoulder. For Walls, a new gallery “hosted” by Curator and Artist Bo Kitty (pictured right) upstairs at Miss Libertine is a space where “street style art” has found some respite and some cool beats too.

“In Street Art there is a lot of looking anxiously over one shoulder,” says Kitty, “ the opportunity to develop a style doesn’t happen so readily while you’re working quickly on the street . When artists get involved with a gallery like this they can spend some quality time developing their own unique style. Something rare happens for the street artist, there is an opportunity to produce beautiful finished works of art, to create an entire exhibition.”

For Walls is a lively, intimate and professional exhibition space located upstairs at Miss Libertine’s in Melbourne’s oldest and heritage listed Coaching Hotel. This boutique venue produces music events and club nights across hip hop, trance, techno , live bands and sound mashups.

“ We like to keep an open mind here,” Kitty says. “We mix it up, from De La Soul performing to a regular Thursday nighter, Racket presenting new works by sound artists and sound designers from RMIT.”

With three recent street art exhibitions to its credit , For Walls has found a legion of punters who share Kitty’s two greatest passions- art and music. Her curatorial slant for creatives blending street style with traditional techniques like oil painting, drawing, printmaking and installation art, has attracted the interest of artists and collectors alike, “it’s been an overwhelming response so far”, she says, “ For Walls is booked up for the next year by artists who want to hire an affordable space with a low gallery commission, there is an art for charity event with Room to Read early next year and the collectors and occasional art buyers like me seem to be lapping it all up.”

“I worked for a multinational for a while curating various street art exhibitions throughout five countries including Japan. It was a rewarding job bringing together people for the pure love of art. Now I am much happier, working locally, for local art, for local artists. I am surrounded by so many amazing talented people who work with both music and art. Francisco Dos Santos’s exhibition Mind Gap opens this Wednesday.”

“He is producing a club gig during the exhibition too. Octopussy, a DJ based RnB, Hip Hop, Funk one-nighter. For me, this is exactly what For Walls is really about-artists working interactively, engaging actively with different media, different styles, imagining between music and art.”

With For Walls Kitty seems to have tapped into and found a solution to what a lot of people have been thinking: what do you do once you’ve looked at the art, the ideas are flowing and you kinda don’t want to leave just yet. “ It’s a major problem for gallery goers, where to hang out after an opening,” she says. “ We are a music venue too, so people just head into the club.”

“Unfortunately there have been quite a few galleries in the precinct that have closed recently , for different reasons”. Kitty cites Per Square Metre, the 696 Gallery and the McCullough Gallery as a few examples. “ It’s a bit sad really, these were important places and each one of them was pushing underground art and underground artists. So many artists need a professional venue for their works.”

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Aaron Joyner-Magnormos- INTERVIEWS

Aaron Joyner edit
Written by Paul Andrew   
Tuesday, 31 August 2010 18:27

Aaron Joyner is a producer, director, writer and advocate for original Australian musical theatre. He is the founding Artistic Director of Magnormos, a production company specialising in producing both Australian, and landmark international musicals.

He spoke to Australian Stage's Paul Andrew.

Aaron JoynerWhat inspired your journey into musical theatre?

The first musical I really remember 'getting into' was Phantom of the Opera, although my mother took me to a lot of theatre shows growing up, and we had regular family sing-alongs to the Grease soundtrack! I was given a copy of the cast recording of Phantom by a family friend and I became obsessed, listening to it on my little cassette tape walkman over and over until I stretched the tape so far I couldn't listen to it anymore.  From there I ventured out into other Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals and then I discovered Stephen Sondheim through Into The Woods, and I've been a fan of all of his works ever since. 

What do you love about Sondheim?
I love the detail in Sondheim's writing, that every time you listen to one of his scores, or see them performed live; you can find something new and have a brand new discovery. 

I also love that he has chosen to stay true to the art of writing, and not indulge in spectacle or fluff (not that there's anything wrong with fluff) for box office success (and not that he hasn't had that). His music sets the perfect mood to tell the story, and his lyrics are equally poetic and character driven. I've had the pleasure of performing in two Sondheim musicals (Into the Woods and Assassins) and it is so very gratifying as a performer to 'sink your teeth' into the characters he creates, and the journey's that his songs take the characters through.

And what do you love about the abundance of musical theatre on the stages right now?
In Melbourne it is so great to have so many wonderful theatre experiences on offer all through the year. We're really lucky to have theatre at all levels of the spectrum, from the major commercial works, the independent theatre companies, and right down to an extremely strong amateur theatre community. Australian's love musical theatre and we have so much talent in our industry that we are able to put on world-class productions at home without having to import stars in any more. We still import most of the actual musicals, but that is starting to change too, with Australian writers starting to 'break through the barrier' in getting their works performed. Television shows like Glee have helped to make musical theatre 'cool' for the younger generations, so the future is looking very bright for the art form indeed!

What do you feel all this tells us about the zeitgeist right now, its darker side, what audiences want and need?
Audiences today are very savvy. While there is still a huge market for the spectacle-driven works, there is also a strong market for musicals that have genuine issues to explore, or complex themes. In 1964 when Anyone Can Whistle premiered (the third musical in our Sondheim Triptych) it ran 9 performances. It's a highly political musical which takes pot-shots at American values such as religion, consumerism, conformity and corruption in government, and at that time, not all that long after the McCarthy era - it was rare to explore these issues on the major commercial stages, and in musicals they were a definite taboo. But nowadays, the climate is completely different, and an audience can not only appreciate dark satiric humour but they revel in it. Due to the editing in film and television, modern audiences are also highly attuned to pacing in theatre, and would not suffer the long delays that once were necessary to move bulky scenic elements between scenes. In the classic Rogers and Hammerstein musicals, there was almost always a refrain of a few more verses after a song finished, to give the stage hands time to change the sets for the next scene, but nowadays an audience sits through these repeats tapping their feet in impatience waiting for the next thing to happen because we're used to fast cuts and snap changes into the next scene. 

For those not in the know, tell me about [title of show]?
[title of show] was originally conceived as an entry into the inaugural New York Music Theatre Festival. The festival called for new musicals, and two 'nobodies in New York' Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell decided to write a musical to enter, and found that the best things they were writing about was actually writing about writing the musical to enter. So [title of show] - which is the first question on the festival's application form - was born, and it is a cheeky insidery look at the process of developing a new work of musical theatre in a culture dominated largely by revivals and reality TV shows. In fact, it's kind of like watching a reality TV show on stage, as the two writers and their lady friends Heidi and Susan (with the help of Mary on the keyboard) put the show together and enter the festival, then develop it further and find investors and backers, and eventually open on Broadway, receive a Tony Award nomination, and win themselves a legion of fans across the globe. If you love your musicals, there are plenty of insider references that will have you chuckling with self-appreciating humour, but even if you're not a musical fan, the writing is so clever and accessible that you can't help but be taken on the journey. The musical actually pokes fun at the conventions of Broadway musicals, so if you're the type of person that laments when someone just suddenly starts singing in the middle of a scene - this is quite possibly the one musical that you would become a fan of yourself.

And what is different about its Magnormos return season?
Well for starters we have a new cast member, as our original Hunter, Michael Lindner, was cast in the Australian premiere season of Mary Poppins so he wasn't available for the return season. Darryn Gatt, who has replaced Michael, has brought a brand new energy to the piece, and this has inspired changes in the rest of the cast as well. We've also 'touched up' some of the staging and tweaked the design slightly, but we've stayed true to most of what we originally created because it was so well received the first time, and we think we got most of it right then anyway! We were fortunate to have members of the original Broadway company (Jeff Bowen, Heidi Blickenstaff and director Michael Berresse) fly out to Melbourne to see our last two shows in the original season, so it's wonderful to know that we have their blessing with this production.

You founded Magnormos in 2002, tell me about the premise behind the company, tell me more, tell me more?
Magnormos was originally created to be a production company that would support Australian writers, and premiere landmark international musicals, and nearly a decade later - I'm proud to say that we've stayed true to this mission. Of the 17 musicals we have staged, 10 of these were written by Australians, 6 were Australian premieres of international works, and 1 was an Australian adaptation of a Broadway work (WORKING), written in collaboration with the writer Stephen Schwartz. We've also produced the annual OzMade Musicals concert which has supported over 50 Australian musicals, and workshopped two brand new musicals by Australian writers. I've met amazing people through my work with Magnormos, extremely talented and generous artists who have supported the Magnormos mission and ensured that our quality is always above the standard of our ticket prices! 

Receiving a personal email from Stephen Sondheim recently would quite possibly be up at the top of my 'highs', as well as having dinner with Stephen Schwartz when he was in town for Wicked but seeing a writers face as they watch their work going from 'page to stage' during a rehearsal process, and then receiving accolades on opening night is always a special experience for me as well.

I haven't had that many lows, but all of these would be around the difficulties in making all of this magic happen on the budget of an unfunded independent theatre company (we have survived on the generosity of artists, project support from the City of Port Phillip and key sponsorships such as Yamaha Music Australia and Theatre Works). I've learnt to be a scrupulous budgeter, but there really isn't anything more depressing than an empty bank balance! Fortunately we've managed to make a profit (however small) or break even on all of our productions, so we're still around while many other initiatives have unfortunately dissolved or dissipated, but it is very challenging when theatre is a business that you need to outlay a lot of money before you start seeing any return.

Who has inspired your own journey so far as a director, writer and performer Aaron?
I've had a few amazing mentors in my career, Jean McQuarrie who was a lecturer at Monash University when I studied there (Jean was the musical director for most of the Melbourne Theatre Company's Sondheim productions), and also Peter Fitzpatrick, who was the head of the Centre for Drama and Theatre Studies (and funnily enough is the father of Laura Fitzpatrick who is playing Susan in [title of show]). Both Jean and Peter have taught me that passion is just as important as talent (and both of them have equal amounts in abundance), and that treating people with respect is paramount to creating a good team environment. From his own career, Stephen Sondheim himself has inspired me that you can stay true to your artistic vision and not feel you have to 'sell out' to achieve success, and I am frequently inspired by the casts, creatives and administrators who come to work for Magnormos.

[title of show] is now playing at St Kilda's TheatreWorks. Until September 11, 2010.

Nadja Kostich- INTERVIEWS

Nadja Kostich edit
Written by Paul Andrew   
Tuesday, 31 August 2010 18:15

Bare Witness by Mari Lourey draws on the real life experiences of photo journalists and foreign correspondents in the Balkans, East Timor and Iraq, roles which have become increasingly dangerous, while their moral validity is increasingly questioned.

Australian Stage's Paul Andrew speaks to Director Nadja Kostich ahead of the show's Melbourne season.

Nadja KostichWhat stories do you feel are most urgent for theatre right now?
Stories with heart.

Real stories about us.

Difficult stories.

Poetry of the people...for the people.

I’ve made a lot of work with community performers. It’s rough as guts sometimes but can absolutely wind you when the stars all line up in the heavens for a performance! I’m used to bringing out their words and shaping them in ways that I think sings out. You hope others think so too. 

There has been an element of scripting in this project from the actor’s improvisations. The script has changed and evolved because of who the performers are, who the team is, what each has contributed. Highly collaborative. Very satisfying.

You see it doesn’t take me long to take this conversation into a way of making theatre rather than the content and ultimately that is what drives, thrills and inspires me – a process of making. It could be the best script in the world but if the process doesn’t agree with me, it doesn’t matter to me much and ultimately I don’t think it matters to the audience. I think they get the vibe subliminally. I think a deep process will be reflected in the product.

Who inspired you to become involved in Theatre?
My mum was a singer in the former Yugoslavia before I was born, her aunt was a theatre and film actress in Belgrade and her aunt’s grandson who still lives there is now a famous Serbian actor! There’s a bit of something in the blood anyway! My great aunt used to take me backstage and I remember sitting at the lit up mirrors watching the actors get ready. I pretended to put mascara on with my fingers. When I was about seven I had a small non speaking part in a play at the National Theatre. I still have a body memory of waiting backstage, the smell of it all; I remember the fringe of the shawl of the actress who played my mum trembling as she guided me on. I simply had to run on, stay there for a bit next to my ‘mum’ and run back off. It was part of a dream sequence. I bought my first bike with the money from that job. 

Tell me a little more about your acting journey Nadja?
I came to Canberra from Belgrade Serbia when I was eight. It was the classic story of a family seeking a ‘better life’. I got into the VCA after studying arts law at the ANU for a couple of years. I kept looking around thinking – god, I’m in the wrong place, what am I doing here? Before that I’d got into Monash Uni to do medicine but deferred to go overseas. When I got back, Melbourne felt too far so it was law. (Back to the classic migrant story – choosing the ‘respectable’ professions to make good in the new land) But when the VCA called I jumped for joy, packed my car to the brim and arrived in Melbourne wide eyed. I’ve pretty much worked professionally in the theatre in some way, shape or form since I graduated 22 years ago. I love it even when it’s hard.

This play by Mari Laurey received the 2005 R E Ross Trust Script Development Award, and a lot has happened since then?
Well I can tell you how I first came to be involved and that was in 2006. I was invited to play a character called Violette for the first moved reading of the play. Directed by Stefo Nantsou. (Maria Theodorakis plays that role now – a gutsy actress and human being). At the time the play only had the first act written and a little bit of the third. I always have a ball working with Stefo Nantsou. He is an absolute character - a multitalented theatre maverick. The audience loved it.

It gave Mari great courage to keep writing it, which she needed because it took her another year to write act two. Then I was invited to do a second reading in 2007, again with Stefo directing. It kind of stalled for a while after that despite awards and being shortlisted for the Patrick White. It’s like people didn’t get why they should put it on, see it, and fund it. It was so frustrating for Mari. Then in early 2008, Mari saw Tenderness which I directed, by Patricia Cornelius and Christos Tsolkias. Stefo had dropped away as director, he had other projects and she saw in my quite physical and abstracted rendering of these scripts, a marriage with Bare Witness and where she wanted it to go. 

Bare Witness is set in the Balkans, East Timor and Iraq. It follows the shared passions of war photojournalists. They seem like quite amazing characters?
My falling in love with these characters has crept up on me. I don’t know when it happened. Was it after the development I did last year with pretty much this same team, when I asked Mari: ‘What’s your intention? What do you want to say?’ Something was eluding me. The core premise of the play. She was so simple: I just want people to walk away thinking, questioning wanting to know more about why these journalists do what they do. It surprised me. I started to crystallize a new thought – this is not a war play. It’s a play about people at work. 

Very extreme work.

Then started a deep dramaturgical process which was collaboration with Michael Carmody also our video designer.

As we cleaved away some unnecessary characters and simplified and honed... Something happened along the way; I am now totally immersed and in love with this project, these characters, this story. I want to know about them, to care about them. I want to know how they can do what they do, how it affects them. 

I’m not sure if I’m giving too much away, but something happens out there in the field that deeply scars our lead character, Dannie. And the play begins some time after that with her on a mission of remembering the pieces of memory that are accessible to her, which may give her some ‘relief’, some way of living with the scars (not removing them). So she takes us back to the first tangible turning points that catapulted her into taking pictures in war zones. And then we’re away. We travel with her and a group of close friends and associates – her tribe – over a span of more than a decade. It’s done jump cut style. Much like our memory works. Things don’t connect neatly, they come out of nowhere. Faces, voices, conversations and events morph, repeat and go in and out of focus. Until she returns to her ground zero.

For many of us the "experience" of war is through the lens of people just like these characters?
Sounds kind of dangerous doesn’t it?

It’s a big responsibility to connect the disconnected. Sometimes the messenger gets shot, literally. It’s also alarming the way people who are removed from a situation jump on a band wagon and try to ‘fix’ the issues they see as wrong. Some of these dilemmas are grappled with in the play. 

I remember doing a work called Home of a Stranger directed by Renato Cuocolo for the Melbourne Workers Theatre. Coincidentally it is where I first met and worked with Daniela Farinacci – a very fine, very deep actress. It was simply about migrants learning English as a Second language. But beautifully rendered by Renato with simple evocative movements. I remember I got up on a desk as the Serbian character called Mira and sang this bawdy song about how I loved war and killing.  Of course it was ironic. And there was also the cheeky thing of subverting that with the fact that I am Serbian. Well, a particular Anglo Saxon woman in the audience wrote a 10 page fax of complaint about the scene and its racial slurring and continued to harass the MWT staff for approximately 2 months. No one could talk her off her moral high ground. She had lost the capacity to listen. Is that what people do when they feel so powerless? 

There is a scene in Bare Witness, not unlike this, where the journalists are in East Timor and back in their hotel room drinking after a hard day, all discussing the politics of the region and slagging each other off and getting on their high horses... I love this scene. And throughout it the Timorese character, played by Isaac Drandic (of Indigenous/Croatian descent) pretty much stays in the background not saying anything while these outsiders pontificate about his country... I don’t know... we are removed from the pain of others, we are helpless, we are selfish, we are overwhelmed – we try to block it out, we ignore it, we are cold to it, then we cry about it and do nothing, or we become knights in shining armour and go try and save them...all of it.

But the play asks the question, or a character in it does, well would you have me leave them (whatever the atrocity is) in the dark so no one will see it? See it!

You have mentioned a fascination with this sphere of journalism, that photojournalists work with images, as metaphors, as information, as testimony?
Firstly, gosh, I don’t know that I carry philosophies about it as such. Each moment especially working on this project brings up a thousand questions. Just when I think it’s this way it gets undercut and it turns that way... The thing about photographs, these moments in time that have a frame around them, is that they have a chance of bypassing the analytical mind and grabbing you, leaving some kind of deeper impression on you... But just a chance. More than an article in the paper I think or even a stream of video imagery. These frozen moments are framed in such a way, the good ones, the lasting ones, that put the viewer in the picture somehow... Something has to bypass the thing in us that keeps ‘the other’ the other, if you know what I mean? It’s everything I would wish in making a theatre work, but my god that’s hard. It’s hard to pierce through that veil of indifference.

Your work often employs multi-media to enhance the narrative, tell me about this?
It takes me a long time to enter a work. I feel really slow. I’m best at dramaturgy a play on the floor not just on paper – I feel how it should go in my body, so I need the time with the work so it all seeps in through me. Obviously, by my language, I’m visceral.  I hope though never to be called anti intellectual. It is for me a relay between articulating the findings on the floor and then going back into it. Following the gut. The way I work is I have to absorb it all and then the piece yields its secrets to me. It’s too slow for some. Perhaps the danger is that by the time the work has to be up I haven’t distilled it to the degree that I could, I still have juice left in the tank so to speak. That is frightening for an artist but I really have no choice but to push the team on. It takes courage (I should be making work somewhere in Europe with 6 months up my sleeve – I coulda been a contender!). I love the actors – they take heart stopping risks. I give them my unwavering support – I would hope they would feel that. 

The design teams are just like the actors to me, and we have the great fortune to be working in an organic way as a team throughout the rehearsal period. What that means is that video, lights, music and sound, set and costume are all players in the space very early in the rehearsal process. They also are ‘characters’, energies to be responded to. 

Dialogues evolve between all the players so with 5 actors and 4 designers, I’m weaving together 9 strands to tell the one story. And what I think this method does when it is successful is that it reveals the layers of the one story, the subtexts, and the poetic. Multiple realms and dimensions. It’s not for everyone. It can get busy, and it takes years to learn how to craft the moments so that each moment is focused as you’d want it. I am still an apprentice but cracking open the unsaid and unnamed in this way calls me. 

Do you feel that a multi media or technological theatre design approach like this lends itself well to enhance the storytelling in contemporary theatre?
Again, philosophy aside, the act of each day in the rehearsal room can feel like going into battle and you have to have your wits about you and turn and swerve and stay still and listen and throw and challenge and deflect and round up in every moment as best you can. And then there are the brief seconds in the loo where you close your eyes and breathe out and look in the mirror – hey you bloody dickhead, let’s get in there again... You know... So yes to the above but in the end it’s got to speak to the people and it’s got to engage the artists. You ask yourself each day can I do that, am I doing that?

Multimedia has the reputation of being cold. My time making raw community theatre shaped a raw approach to multimedia, something low tech, grungy, a bit dirty. I’ve used it in ways that have moved me and I think, hope others. It can have heart in unexpected ways. It can’t be about cleverness or showing off. I don’t work with a team that has any of those tendencies. I like to use this multiplicity to attempt to make a crack in the armour of the audience and speak about unnamable things. If a work makes my soul cry or soar that is what I love to see. I’m not saying I can do this with my theatre. But I am saying that is what I would love to do. Ultimately it is for others to judge.

Bare Witness opens September 10, 2010 at fortyfivedownstairs. Further details»