Monday, 15 June 2015

'We know that we are cruel': a conversation with theatre-maker Sarah Dunn about comedy, kindness, and the Theatre of Compassion - part one

'It's so easy to laugh/It's so easy to hate/It takes guts to be gentle and kind' - Morrissey, 'I Know It's Over'

This post represents a few firsts for Marginalia, not the least of which is its format: an email-based conversation between myself and a theatre-maker. I wasn't sure at first whether I would make this conversation public or if it would simply inform a more structured piece of writing. The more it progressed, however, the more certain I felt that it was interesting enough to warrant a readership without (yet) being bludgeoned into something more scholarly. As it is, both interviewer and interviewee are still thinking through some of the issues raised during the course of the discussion and anything more 'definitive' than a conversation would probably be premature. I hope it is as stimulating to read as it was for me to take part in.

First, a little context. Around a month ago I attended a performance of Melancholy Play by American playwright Sarah Ruhl. The production was directed by my friend Sarah Dunn and was her graduation piece from Flinders University Drama Centre. The play, described as a 'contemporary farce', premiered in 2002 at the Piven Theatre in Evanston, Illinois. Its protagonist is Tilly, a bank teller whose allure seems irresistible to all around her: boyfriend Frank, therapist Lorenzo, and lesbian couple Frances and Joan. The play's other character is a cellist (Rachel Bruerville in this production), who remains unacknowledged until close to the end. 

The play's idiom is a complex one, drawing in satire and absurdism, and fusing conventions from farce, melodrama and musical theatre. It's also thoroughly camp, in the sense that Susan Sontag defined the word  as a sensibility built around artifice and exaggeration  in her classic 1964 essay 'Notes on "Camp"'. I had a strong and, for me, unusual reaction to the play. I left the theatre feeling elated, moved as well as amused in a way that seemed to belie the play's lack of depth. It was a feeling I couldn't (and still can't) completely articulate, but one I instinctively felt I had not often experienced in the theatre previously, and certainly wanted to have again. It was for this reason that I felt compelled to engage with Sarah about what for me had been a surprising and revitalising encounter.

I am grateful to Sarah for taking the time to share (at length) her thoughts with me, and for allowing me to publish our conversation here. The second part will appear next week.              

Ashton Malcolm (l) and Holly Langridge (r) in Melancholy Play. Photo: Yvonne McAuley 

Ben: It’s very rare that I leave a performance feeling genuinely uplifted, which is a very different thing from feeling as though you’ve simply been entertained or amused. Is it the same for you, and if so, why do you think theatre makers don’t attempt this more often?

Sarah: Absolutely it is the same for me. It is a rare experience to feel, when you leave the theatre, that you are a complete person and that you’re enough, just as you are. I don’t know exactly why theatre makers don’t attempt it, although I have a couple of theories. One element is surely that it is challenging. To be, as one audience member said to me, 'light but not shallow', takes a fair amount of thought and preparation that isn't very funny or uplifting. Rehearsing Melancholy Play was often incredibly tiring and depressing because of the subject material that we were working with, and it’s difficult to then find the humour again.

It also takes a huge amount of vulnerability from the creative team. They were displaying very raw and traditionally feared/rejected/mocked/discouraged emotions and experiences, and, furthermore, allowing people to laugh at them. Their courage in doing that was monumental, and took a great deal of kindness and support from one another, and a sense that we were creating a space for the audience to be vulnerable too. We trusted our audience to do that, and I think it’s quite rare for audiences to be trusted like that. They respond very well to it, however – it feels similar to how people respond to nudity on stage. I have never in my life experienced an audience treat a naked performer with anything but total respect and deference. I think it’s such a raw expression of vulnerability, and people respond to it with great kindness.

I think finally that there might be a kind of fear of doing anything light because people might feel that you are being less thoughtful. I feel this often in my life, too. Positivity is somehow less legitimate, or an indication that you haven’t thought hard enough. I find this interesting because the people from history that we remember are rarely those who spoke of hopelessness and fear, but rather of hope and love. But it makes sense, too – it is difficult in Australia for theatre makers to be seen as doing an important job. I completely understand why people don’t want to appear to be having too much fun, lest they be valued even less in our culture. Ironically, I think that is perhaps what makes a lot of theatre unappealing to so many people, and why comedy, music and big scale musicals are flocked to at numbers far outstripping our own.

My partner, Annabel, is an actor, and when I asked her about this she said that when she tells people what she does, she is often asked whether she can cry on cue. There seems to be this sense that it’s difficult to make people upset, and that if you can do that, you’re somehow magical. I can’t tell you how much I disagree with that common assumption. It’s much harder to make a room of people fall in love with you than make a room of people cry, I think. We’re all easily wounded. We’re not so easily taken off guard and made to feel trusting.

B: It strikes me that a sort of fetish has been made in performance of making the audience feel uncomfortable and ill at ease. There’s this idea that ‘proper’ theatre must always challenge, provoke, confront etc. and that anything that doesn’t is trivial, commercial or bourgeois. But I wonder if a different kind of audience exchange – one based on generosity, embracement and/or intimate connection – is the truly radical idea, especially under late capitalism where our interactions with other people are increasingly utilitarian and transactional. I wonder if there is a danger that ‘challenging’ performance actually reinforces the status quo by showing no hope of change.

S: Yes, I think there is a very strong bent towards a particular kind of challenging of audiences, one that makes them feel deeply uncomfortable and complicit in the negative aspects of society. This is a complex phenomenon, but I think it’s because of two main factors.

The first is due to looking at plays from other periods of time, understanding their impact but not taking into account the greater dramaturgy of the surrounding social climate. Brecht, Artaud, Meyerhold – and more recently, Osborne, Beckett, Kane, the list could go on and on – were all dealing with a world markedly different from the information rich, highly connected, news saturated world in which we live today. They were also speaking to a theatrical context that was entirely different to the one we are in now. It is not enough to say that the same techniques (alienation, shock, confusion, existentialist dramaturgies etc.) will do something of worth for contemporary audiences. This is a problem I have with a lot of theatrical work. One would think that the very medium itself – a live art form that is happening in the immediate present, moment to moment – would instruct theatre makers to pay attention to what is happening around that 8:00pm to 10:30pm time slot for the audience. But often it is divorced from time, or pretends that it is somehow outside of time, and that I find very confusing and odd.

The second is not moving past initial reactions to injustices and going on to consider how art might be able to redress the situation. I completely understand why people might be angry about a whole lot of things, or despondent, or jaded. But theatrical art is thought in the form of an event. I believe we ought to be giving people an experience that might give them a perspective on things that is not the norm, not the same perspective made clearer.  

So yes, I don’t believe it’s radical. I think you’re right to say that it is much more radical to engage people with your whole heart. It is a much more dangerous proposition in the world than not doing it, put it that way.

Antoine Jelk (l) and Rebecca Mayo (r) in Melancholy Play. Photo: Yvonne McAuley

I have recently been contemplating a kind of theatrical theory that is the inverse of Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty. I’ve been calling it Theatre of Compassion, but I’m not completely sure that’s right. But in essence, it works through connecting people to the viscerally beautiful in them, rather than the viscerally ugly. It used to be that humans believed themselves to be the greatest of all creatures, untouched by animalism, that we are pure and close to God. I don’t think we believe that any longer, not now that every moment of the day you have access to the vast atrocities that humans are inflicting upon one another, other creatures, and the environment. We know that we are cruel. But do we know that we are all compassionate and loving and kind, as well? I think we need to be reminded of it.

B: How much of the way Melancholy Play was framed – the letter given to audience members, the almonds that were handed round – was in Ruhl’s play, and how much did you devise? What exactly were you trying to achieve with these elements?

S: None of that framing was in the play. I took elements from the text (almonds are obviously a very strong motif and symbol, letters are mentioned many times, the sense of smell, looking out of windows) and assigned ‘stations’ and these symbols to the actors, who then improvised their interactions with the audience. I instructed them only to always be honest, and they were very capable of doing that.

I was trying to recalibrate the contract that the audience enters a theatre with. I believe theatre-goers – even first timers – have a fairly tangible sense of what is expected of them, unless they are told otherwise. They will be disembodied, passive observers, and they will think about the play, and then come out with some kind of an opinion. I think that a lot of the time this contract works incredibly well, and it is the kind of basic contract that I sign in my own mind before I go into a theatre to see a performance.

For Melancholy, though, I wanted people to have a different kind of relationship to the work. I wanted them to feel as though it was as much about them as it was about the characters, and not in an abstract way, in a really tangible way. Sarah Ruhl does say in her notes that audiences know the difference between being talked to and talked at, and says 'talk to them, please'. I built on that idea and made it very plain for the audience that the characters knew that they were there, they could be touched, they could be spoken to, they could respond to you, and all those things in reverse.

I think especially for a comedy, there is such a great need for the audience. Often as theatre-makers we forget that they are as vital an element as performer, space and time for theatre to exist. I want to honour that in my work, and I want people to feel as though the performance is for them, because it honestly is. I believe that the art really resides in the spectator, not on the stage or in the performers. Finally, I really wanted people to know that the performance was meant to be a pleasurable thing. That they were safe, that they had been thought of, that we wanted them to be comfortable and looked after. That we practiced what we preached.

The letter given to audience members by the cast before the beginning of the play.

B: Tell me about the feedback you received, and whether this gave you the sense that this kind of theatre experience was one that audience members valued and wanted to have more often.

S: The feedback we all received was very encouraging, and many people made an effort to speak to the cast and crew after the show. Perhaps most telling of all, however, was that people were happy when they left, smiling and talking to one another, and wanted to stay afterwards for a drink. Many people returned once or even twice in a five-day season to see the show again, which was lovely. Also, people were laughing throughout the piece, but were also silent when there were moments of tenderness, and also saying ‘aww’ to characters, not in a condescending way, but in a way that said ‘I know what you’re feeling and I’m feeling it with you’. I was very proud of that.

The world that week was particularly grim. There had been two natural disasters worldwide, and the political climate wasn’t particularly encouraging either. The plays that were on in Adelaide at that time were very beautiful but also quite bleak. And, we must always remember, there are always people in an audience of any play who are having a pretty terrible week, or month, or year. I know for a fact that there were people in very raw states of grief and shock, living through tragic circumstances. They enjoyed the show, laughed and thanked us afterward. That mattered more to me than I can say. It was lovely to make a piece that could accept anyone, at any stage of their lives, into the audience and take care of them.  

Many people, speaking to me afterwards, co-opted the language of the play to describe their own emotional states. Many people told me that they were in an almond state, or were almonds. They felt more comfortable telling me as someone they had never met before – or, perhaps more interestingly, someone they did know, but had never spoken to in that way – how they had been feeling melancholy and that they felt a lot better about it having seen the play. That demonstrated to me that there was great value for them in the experience. I was also told by someone that they felt that they knew me better after seeing it. As a director, whose work is usually invisible to an audience, that was really delicious – I feel so exposed when I direct work, because it’s how I see the world, it’s my own private vantage point made public, and it was beautiful to be seen inside of it.

B: We seem to be comfortable, even complacent, about the idea that our beliefs can only be challenged/changed by art that provokes a negative emotional response – guilt, say, or disgust or outrage. Do you think that performance that doesn’t in some way make audiences feel such things can still bring about change, or at least speak to ‘important’ issues? 

S: I think it can bring about more change.  It is very rare for people to change their minds when they feel attacked. It takes a very rare kind of person to be able to change their mind when they are under duress. I don’t think that was always the case, but I believe that is the case now. We live in a society that is absolutely soaked in shame and fear. I think that these two things are the foundation of all the cruel things that are happening in Australia today. We do not talk about Indigenous rights in any measured way because we are deeply ashamed. We do not accept refugees into the country because we are afraid. We can’t speak about many things because of our fear and shame, and I think attacking people for being ashamed and fearful is not going to help them at all.

Melancholy had some very important things to say about mental illness, our mental health care systems, queerness, love and a few other things too. There was a pansexual and two lesbians in the play. One character refused to take medication that was prescribed to her. These issues are important, but they don’t have to be Made Important On The Stage. They’re just important. They matter to people. We don’t have to make them matter, they already do.

I will hasten to add that there is still a place for people to be challenged by things in the theatre, but that it just doesn’t have to provoke a negative response. And let’s face it, sometimes people will have a negative reaction even if you don’t intend it. And maybe the things that haven’t been spoken about, or perhaps don’t matter to people, do need to be revealed in a stark and perhaps uncomfortable way. The form needs to follow the function. The tone needs to be geared towards an outcome that is positive. And we need to think about what positive is very carefully before we proceed.

You can read part two of this conversation here.

Sarah Dunn is a founding member of milk theatre collective, independent theatre maker and directing student at the Flinders University Drama Centre. At the Drama Centre, she has directed several productions including a devised piece, The Girl Who Grieved Everything, The Boys by Duncan Graham, A Single Act by Jane Bodie, Dracula, Melancholy Play: A Contemporary Farce by Sarah Ruhl, and The Thugs by Adam Bock. As an actor, Sarah has worked with State Theatre Company, the ABC, ActNow Theatre, Patch Theatre Company and various other independent companies. She devised, directed, and performed in several forum theatre workshops with ActNow Theatre, the Legal Services Commission and the Marion Youth Health service developing Expect Respect and Speak Out. Sarah has directed and written for Urban Myth Theatre, the reading sessions, independent theatre company go begging, and was dramaturg and writer for milk theatre collective’s first show, Alice and Peter Grow Up. She assisted Julian Meyrick on Neighbourhood Watch in 2014 at STCSA.

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