An Interview With Tim Watts

By Samuel J. Cox

A performer, deviser, director, producer, puppeteer and animator, Tim Watts has co-created the likes of ‘The Adventures of Alvin Sputnik: Deep Sea Explorer’, ‘Bruce’ and ‘It’s Dark Outside’, a work he was co-commissioned to create in 2012 for the Perth Theatre Company.

Since graduating from Fremantle’s Notre Dame University with a Bachelor of Performing Arts in 2005, his shows have toured to South Korea, Norway, and Costa Rica (among others), and after premiering at the Blue Room Theatre in 2009 ‘Alvin’ went on to achieve massive acclaim in the meccas of independent theatre, Edinburgh and New York.

Now, Watts is the initiating creative of ‘Falling Through Clouds’, a spectacular piece that recently concluded a successful season at PICA’s Performance Space (see our review here).

Photo by Jarrad Seng

After spending five months on the road together this year touring ‘It’s Dark Outside’, Watts worked on this project with long time collaborative partners and roommates Chris Isaacs and Arielle Gray, as well as Adriane Daff, a fellow member of the theatre collective The Last Great Hunt.

Each new piece from this creative A-team is a bold statement of their artistic genius, and ‘Falling’ is no different. Following the story of Mary Miller, a scientist struggling to bring birds backs from extinction in a dystopian future, the performance examines the how pressures of her corporate sponsors interfere with the organic creative process. It features the innovative incorporation of other elements, such as animation and puppetry, into the live performance, as has become a trademark of their productions.

Photo by Jarrad Seng

‘I tend to like art that requires maximum imaginative engagement from the audience; it’s when you have to use your imagination that everything feels more magical. I like to use various tools because their form is inherently fun and interesting to watch. You get away with a lot more simple action when using a puppet, because the mere fact it is coming to life on stage is often quite engaging.’

‘Additionally, it becomes easier to create a show if you have toys to play with as a starting point, rather than beginning with nothing. For example, you might begin by exploring how a puppet you want to use will walk and move, and that can inspire scenes or moments that the story evolves from.’

‘When there are only live performers on the stage, you can be (though you don’t have to be) limited in terms of what stories you can tell. Combining puppets and animation allows me to play around with scale and space, and tell any story that I want.’

‘Every show I do, I get to enjoy learning a little bit about a different art form, which I find fascinating. For ‘It’s Dark Outside’ I had to learn how to make a mask, but I wasn’t able to adapt those skills for the mask we used in ‘Falling’, where I had to learn a whole new process involving live casting [lead actress] Adriane’s face and constructing the mask out of silicon. The project also required me to learn how to use a 3D modelling software called Blender so we could do 3D printing, and learn how to 3D animate. I’d never animated before ‘Alvin’, but I thought we needed some for the show so I decided to have a go.’

As we speak, Watts is in the backyard of his sharehouse building a child’s head out of clay for a puppet to be used in the re-development of ‘Falling’. ‘We were really happy with the season at PICA, and with the show, but it’s always been the plan to gather feedback and change the play’s direction. Adriane, Arielle, Chris and I had the idea to include more of Mary’s backstory, using a child puppet. I’m making that now so we can muck around with it to see if there is any substance to the idea. It may not ever end up in the show, but it also might.’

‘I didn’t know how to make this head, but I just watched online tutorials in order to understand how the proportions of a child’s face differ to an adult’s, and began. I really enjoy doing this, as any kind of visual art or music reminds me that there are things we just take for granted about the world, like the construction of a human face, or how light bounces off leaves.’

‘At the end of this development we’ll be performing a one-off show at Hale School [a private boy’s school in Wembley Downs] to pay for the re-development, and to form a relationship with them. I make all my shows with the hope to tour, and we’re all really enjoying performing it so hopefully we can get that opportunity. We’ve had a bunch of interest, but currently we’re only confirmed for Sydney Festival in January 2015.’

Photo by Jarrad Seng

As with ‘Alvin’ and ‘It’s Dark Outside’, ‘Falling’ had its starting point in one theme or seed image that Watts was passionate about; in this instance the notion of ‘impossible dreams and flying. It’s about someone who has an overactive imagination that becomes corrupted while they yearn to do something that they simply cannot. There was a moment when I was, much like I am now, out the back of my house working on my computer, and a flock of birds landed in a tree just next to me. They lingered for a minute and then flew into a tree across the road. I remember realising how differently they must see the world. They live in a true 3D space, while we operate on a grid constructed from walls and roads. Birds can truly go absolutely anywhere, and viewing the world top down would be a great thing. Their flight ended up representing escape and freedom, and while I initially had an entirely different story in mind (which I was open to changing and it clearly did once I brought it to Arielle, Chris and Adriane) this remained the essence of the project.’

Photo by Jarrad Seng

‘With ‘Alvin’ it was this image of swimming through the deep, dark blue nothingness, which I found particularly scary, and ‘It’s Dark Outside’ began as a piece about the “call of the wild”, but then evolved into a show about Alzheimer’s.’

‘As I’ve progressed, I have come to have more trust that a devising process will result in something. I now know that I don’t have to start with anything at all, if I don’t want to, because experimenting will draw ideas out. In fact, it’s often better if I do start with nothing. Not knowing how to begin is a big problem for a lot of artists when starting out, because they’re worried it won’t be any good. I guess I’ve learnt how to start, by trusting that it will get better.’

‘Over the years Arielle, Chris and I have developed a creative process that involves a lot of showings. This gives us structure, as we know at the end of every week we’ll be showing something, which forces us to produce content. What is really important for the type of stuff that we do is that we share the sentiment that we should not spend too much time talking about an idea, preferring to just get up and start improvising. All the interesting stuff that we do comes from mucking around with lights and puppets, and figuring out what it means later. Often we just start with a vision and discover what the show is actually about as it develops. It is a very easy creative relationship, as we know what each other like, and we respect and appreciate each other’s ideas. I try to always involve them in whatever I’m doing because it’ll help the project.’

‘I will probably be working on a show with Arielle next year called ‘New Owner’. It’s a really simple show about the relationship between a dog and it’s new owner. I have loads and loads of ideas percolating in my head that I’d like to work on eventually. I want make an action-based play, because it is so difficult to do movie-style action on stage it’s usually avoided. We tried a few of the techniques we were looking to use for that project in ‘Falling’, in terms of having live cameras and a chase scene. Its working title is ‘Cratic’, which could end up being the name of the cop who’d be the main character. I really want to make a large scale show about sleepwalking, because I sleepwalk, and it’s something that fascinates and terrifies me. There’s also a large-scale interactive show I’ve started work on, but is so hard to get funding for, called ‘Pollyanna’. Hopefully one-day these will all exist, but until then my ideas keep building!’

‘Falling Through Clouds’ will show at the Sydney Festival January 16-18.

Images by Jarrad Seng.


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