Tuesday, 23 June 2015

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

This is the second part of an email conversation between myself and theatre-maker Sarah Dunn about her production of Sarah Ruhl's Melancholy Play, and the possibilities for a 'Theatre of Compassion'. You can read the first part here.

I was prompted to explore the issues raised in these pieces by two very different performance works: Sarah's Melancholy Play, and Cat Jones' Somatic Drifts, which I participated in at Vitalstatistix' artist hothouse Adhocracy in 2014. This is what I wrote about Somatic Drifts: 

Grounded in horticulture and neuroscience, Cat Jones’ full body experience for one person at a time was an undoubted highlight of this year’s program. Gesturing towards the emergent ontologies of a post-human future, Somatic Drifts sought, through sensory and aural immersion, to radically unsettle the sense of self of participants, who had both human and plant identities progressively imposed over their own through sound, aroma, touch and visual feedback. My initial trepidation was quickly forgotten, the work proving unexpectedly affecting in its therapeutic, closely guided dislocations of sense and self as well as its emotive engagement with ideas around the fostering of empathy between species. Still in its first stage of research and development, the progress of Somatic Drifts will be keenly monitored by this writer. (RealTime issue #122, AugSept 2014, pg. 44)

I invited Cat to participate in this discussion but that 'progress' I said I would monitor is keeping her extremely busy; she has just begun a new creative development of the work at the UNSW. (Happily, Cat has agreed in principle to have a chat with Mr Marginalia when time permits. Stay tuned!)

I mention all this because Sarah felt that we might be painting a pretty grim (not to mention parochial) picture of the performing arts in Australia if we didn't take into account other artists who are working in a similar vein, and I agreed. As we shall see, overseas artists are also developing practices that can be loosely, though usefully, gathered together under the umbrella of performance that brings special care and attention to the situating and role of the audience. 

In Australia, in addition to Cat and Sarah, I would add a third artist, Astrid Pill, whose 2006/7 Adelaide Fringe/Malthouse show Cake bobbed to the surface of my mind when I found myself considering possible antecedents for Sarah's (as yet embryonic) 'Theatre of Compassion'. Reading contemporaneous reviews by Jan Chandler and Alison Croggon, I was freshly struck by the similarities between Cake and Melancholy: the engaging of multiple senses (especially taste), and the close blending of music (what is it about the cello?!), text, and physical languages; Croggon's observation that Cake 'could all be too cute for words, but the show’s intelligence and wit – and its slyly obscene subversion of the apparently inhibited femininity it explores – ensures that it never is' could apply with equal incisiveness to Melancholy Play. At the risk of being accused of advocating some form of gender essentialism, I wonder too if there is anything more to be said about the fact that all these artists are women. If there is, however, that's a conversation for another day.                        

Rebecca Mayo in Melancholy Play. Photo: Yvonne McAuley

Ben: I should have said (I think I talked around it a bit) that your production of Melancholy Play and Cat's work tap into a wider resurgence that’s going on at the moment around experience-based performance. The reasons why this resurgence is happening are complex but I’d suggest it’s partly a reaction against the atomising effects of social media, and a resultant craving for deeper, face-to-face exchange. A curator recently said to me she’d heard another curator say that she can’t sell paintings anymore because people want experiences now instead.

Sarah: I think you’re right about a growing awareness of our physical isolation. I think there’s a more practical element to that too, though, for performance art, and that’s that you have to provide something that really necessitates people leaving their homes, physically travelling somewhere, and then sitting in a room full of other people. While we may crave deeper exchanges, I think we are also unwilling to go to the theatre only to be a detached observer, since we can do that more easily and comfortably in our own homes. You have to provide something that cannot be delivered to people through a computer or a television, I think.

I have also been pondering whether there might be something else going on, which is about the rise of individualist politics. This can be seen really clearly through capitalism and neoliberalism, but there are also echoes of it in feminism (the personal is political), environmental politics (everyone can contribute to recycling, for example). We are, in our current societies, the protagonists of our own world. Everyone has followers, everyone has a voice, everyone sees themselves as central to their own lives. I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing, but I think it might (possibly) be something that is taking people away from non-experiential theatre.

B: I found your comment ‘sometimes people will have a negative reaction even if you don’t intend it’ really interesting, as I know not everybody who saw Melancholy responded to it in the same way I did. So I guess something has to be said about work that sets out to ‘make people feel good’ and the usual corollaries about the subjective nature of our responses to art.

S: Yeah, for sure. I think in Adelaide especially we have a relatively small pool of theatre*, which means that anybody who follows the theatre pretty much goes to everything. I think what that means is that we expect that if something is ‘good’ (whatever that means) then we’ll like it. Obviously I’d love for every single person on earth to love the theatre I make, but I think it’s unlikely to happen. All of the theatre pieces I have loved have had other people hate them (except maybe Roman Tragedies, but that was just freakishly, impossibly brilliant). And of course, some people don’t want to feel the things I’m asking them to feel, or they don’t go to the theatre for feelings, or they don’t engage with the subject material, or any number of things. Ideally, I would love for theatre to be seen more like music, where we can allow ourselves to have preferences, be open to possibilities of liking something else. I think I’d probably be something like indie pop.  Not everyone likes indie pop, or is moved by it, or is interested in it. That’s cool with me.

*This obviously doesn’t go for festivals, where I think these thoughts don’t apply, perhaps because we’re not expecting to like everything.

B: This is slightly tangential, but your comment about the sexuality of some characters in Melancholy resonated with me because I remember saying to Caryn [my partner] after the show that it’s strange that, though so much progress has been made in the developed world as regards the rights and representation of homosexuals, it’s still unusual to see something in which gay characters simply are – i.e. in which their sexuality is not foregrounded or framed as an issue. In other words, I think we’re still somewhat conditioned to think about ‘why’ characters are gay in a way that doesn't really reflect how much community attitudes have shifted in this area. I found it very refreshing to see Melancholy challenge this.

S: It is exceptionally unusual to see queer people onstage who could be easily replaced by straight people, and even more unusual to see butch women on stage. This was one of the things I loved about the play when I first read it, that it locates queerness to be just as valid as heterosexuality as a choice for the author to make. You’re right to say that we normally only see queer people (or people of colour, or people with a disability, or even still, in some cases, women) when it’s an Artistic Choice that we somehow need to decode. I hope that we can start to dismantle that coding because it’s getting in our way, I think.

L-R, Rebecca Mayo, Lochlin Mayberry, Holly Langridge, Ashton Malcolm, Antoine Jelk and Rachel Bruerville in Melancholy Play. Photo: Yvonne McAuley

B: Predictably, I Googled ‘Theatre of Compassion’ after the earlier part of our discussion. As we suspected, there’s not much scholarship or anything else around this idea, but I did find an interesting interview with the American playwright Catherine Filloux. I don’t know Filloux’s plays but shes written about some pretty heavy stuff – genocide, honour killings and so on. She talks about her work in quite a surprising way. She says in the interview: ‘it is not the “big issues” which guide me, but my own personal connection to love which urges me to build plays, as what can be called pieces of art, like castles of hope. I use the word castle not for its grandiosity, but for its qualities of dream and magic. And theater can be like a haven with a moat around it, somewhere sacred where you get to come in, no matter who you are. You are protected, in the sense that a play is a different gift for each person that sees it.’ (I should add that Filloux points out that tickets to her play LUZ were relatively affordable at $18.)

S: I love the thought of theatre as a haven with a moat around it. It conjures such a beautiful sense of safety, but also of potential attack from the outside world, which I think speaks volumes about what we’re talking about.

I always think of it in a little more rudimentary way, which is that theatre is the seeing place (the root meaning of the word), and that I ought to make it easy for people to see that which is difficult to see otherwise. And I completely agree with the notion that it is a sacred place, and a sacred place for everybody. That’s a task all on its own, to create that sense, and I think that might get to the root of the thing – what does it mean if everyone is equally welcome? Equally valued?

B: Do you already have other plays in mind that you would like to produce using the same techniques you applied to Melancholy? I know that you have also written for the stage. Do you have any ambitions to build your own ‘castles of hope’?

S: Indeed, I hope to approach all of my work, without exception, with three key things in mind: thought, tone, and heart. I think those basic building blocks create the effect were talking about. Thought relates to an ‘issue’, I suppose, or, more accurately, some connection for the audience to draw to their social/personal/political/combination of all three lives. This also relates to my queer and feminist discourse, which is throughout all my work. Tone refers I suppose to the feeling in the room. I dont mind what the feeling is, as long as it is palpable, and all-encompassing, and irresistible. Heart refers to caring about the audience’s experience, and I think this is perhaps what might sometimes create that uplifting feeling. It’s also that vulnerability I mentioned before, and the commitment to being compassionate to the audience as well as to the characters. 

I think you could do these three things with anything that had something strong to hold onto (strong character, strong narrative – anything fundamental to storytelling). I am particularly interested in early naturalism for their feminist discourse, Shakespeare (natch), Lally Katz’s work, the list goes on.

In terms of writing – well, it’s been a little while since I wrote anything, but the last time I did it certainly had a similar composition. It was an exploration of grief, using comedy and music and had all sorts of similarities [to Melancholy]. I was working with six actors though, and they were as much the creators of that project as me. I certainly would be interested in playing around with those ideas further in playscript form, but for now my focus is on finding these qualities in existing works and bringing them out, rather than making new ones. I’m a bit of a collaborative beast, and working alone makes me feel isolated and not creative at all. Maybe I’ll learn to work alone and become better suited to writing – fingers crossed!

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 EverythingThe Boys by Duncan Graham, A Single Act by Jane Bodie, DraculaMelancholy 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 five.point.one 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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