By Samuel J. Cox
For those of you struggling to fill your leisure time now you too are operating under a life ban from Perth Zoo, the theatre is where it’s at! In its 6th year as the State Theatre Company, Black Swan is making it rain with a selection of seriously promising plays. With a program tailored to the everyman as much as to the theatre buff, the temptation to immerse oneself in this inner city imaginarium has never been more pressing. Admittedly, my divinations that this season will be a resounding success are coming early, but I’ve always been partial to premature exhilaration.
We had a chat with their well-spoken Associate Director Stuart Halusz about what 2014 has in store.
1. How is the program selected?
The Artistic Director [Kate Cherry] will select the season of plays in consultation with the Board. Ultimately the decision rests with her, but it needs to be sanctioned.
Kate takes a lot of things into consideration. Theatre is a very alive art form, and it needs to respond to what is going on in our society in an immediate way. This can be difficult if you are programming the season a year, or a year and a half, out of its timeline. She tries to get a mix of classics and modern classics, as well as the Rio Tinto Black Swan Commission, which is a very healthy and fundamental part of the company’s programming. This involves commissioning new works, and funding new and existing Australian playwrights to produce fresh plays specifically for the company. Chris Isaacs’ ‘Flood’ (which has already played to great success), Suzie Miller’s ‘Dust’, and ‘The House on the Lake’, which I will be directing, are this season’s commissioned works
In terms of the Main Stage season, we are presenting two new plays, and a mix of existing plays. ‘The Seagull’ by Anton Chekhov is a new adaptation by Hilary Bell and the production of ‘Gasp!’ by Ben Elton is really a new play because it is an updated and modernised re-imagining of the play that he wrote some years ago called ‘Gasping’.
2. How far in advance was the program determined?
Decisions were made around mid-2013, probably August-October. There are a number of reasons for that. The company needs to secure the rights to the play so that we are in a position to legally produce it, and that varies according to playwright. If you’re doing something like Shakespeare you can just go ahead without the author’s consent given he died some years ago. However, contracts need to be negotiated with living playwrights. One also needs to take into account when was the most recent production of that play, and if any other State theatre company’s are doing it.
This year we’ve performed ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’, an absolute classic play by Tennessee Williams, one of the most amazing play’s every written. That starred Australian actress Sigrid Thornton, which is another thing that the company needs to keep in mind when programming. To secure an actor of her calibre requires months of negotiation because she has so many things she’s juggling on her schedule.
For a commissioned play, that would be determined two or even three years in advance. A play would be commissioned, it would go through a workshop and development process, and then the playwright would go away and work on it again. It’s a creative process.
3. What steps, if any, has Black Swan taken to make the program appeal to as many people as possible?
That is something that is always in the forefront of the Company’s mind. Black Swan has grown considerably in recent years in terms of Box Office take and the number of subscriptions. I think both have trebled or even quadrupled since Kate Cherry came on board as Artistic Director in 2008. The company is going from strength to strength, and part of that is increasing the audience across a range of socio-economic backgrounds and ages, and obviously appealing to both genders as well. It’s a very considered approach.
As a State theatre company we’re aware that we need to be for all people. You don’t want to get into a situation where you’re just producing classical works, or just producing Australian plays. You also want to produce the sort of things that are going on in the West End in London, or on Broadway, thus maintaining our status as a company in the international market, not just the Australian market. In that respect, the company tries to program shows that we think will appeal to a lot of people.
A play like Neil Simon’s ‘Laughter on the 23rd Floor’ will have broad appeal as a comedy. I think it is the funniest play I’ve ever read (it had me in stitches!), and I’m really looking forward to working on it as an actor. That contrasts with something like ‘The Seagull’, which has elements of comedy and tragedy. You can’t really categorise Chekhov’s plays!
‘The House on the Lake’ does deal with fairly dark issues. It’s a psychological thriller, a ‘whodunit’. There are only two actors and it’s basically a series of conversations between those two people. The audience is drip-fed the story as they go. They have to put aside all the ‘red herrings’ and ultimately discover the truth behind what happened.
‘As You Like It’ is one of Shakespeare’s best-loved and popular comedies and ‘Dust’ deals with themes that are of a more dramatic nature. So as you can see, there is a very broad range of shows in the program to appeal to a wide audience.
4. If you feel that the Company has successfully done its job, what would you want to hear people saying about the season?
I would want them to walk away and be talking about it! Telling their friends and family that ‘you have to see this play! It was fantastic! It was the funniest thing’, ‘or ‘My God, it was so sad, but so brilliantly done!’
The company continues to maintain very high production values and I’d like for that to be acknowledged. The set Christina Smith created for ‘Streetcar’ really was an incredible piece of design and engineering. It was a two-story house in rundown New Orleans in the 1950s. The details were immaculate. You can tell just by looking at it that the production value is so high, and that extends right across the season to all plays, whether they’re in the Studio Underground as part of the Black Swan Lab, or part of the Main Stage up in the Heath Ledger Theatre, where I suppose the audience has certain expectations regarding things like set design.
I think as a theatre practitioner you want people to be talking! Your main aim is for people to enjoy or appreciate what you’ve done. To be perfectly honest with you, I’m just as happy if someone walks out of a production and is moved in a negative way. As long as they are talking about it! The worst thing is when theatregoers walk away and all they say is ‘where are my car keys?’ or ‘have you got the parking ticket darling?’ You want to stir people and engage them and prompt conversation. That is not to say that you are out to intentionally upset a person, that’s easy to do. You want to engage them on a level that makes them think about who we are, why we behave the way we do and how we relate to other people on the planet. That’s ultimately why we tell stories I think.
5. The actors, writers, and directors often receive a lot of praise after a successful production. Who do you think is the unsung hero of a production?
That’s a really curly question Samuel (laughs)! Sure the actors stand on stage at the end of a show and receive the applause, and directors and writers will receive accolades, but there is a whole team of people making costumes on the cutting room floor. The ASM’s [Assistant Stage Manager] are out everyday going to op-shops trying to source props. There is a tremendous amount of people and work involved behind the scenes.
Personally, I’m lucky that my background as an actor and director has been in youth theatre, where I’ve had experience working in all levels of production. I’ve designed, rigged and operated lights and sound, I’ve swept the floor and washed the clothes! I think it gives you a great appreciation of what goes into a production, so that you say more than just ‘what great acting!’ These people create the image that the audience sees.
On the other side of things, you’ve got all the hardworking people in Front Office who are out there selling it, marketing it and trying to package it in a way that will garner the interest of the general public.
6. What is your role as an Associate Director?
There a two Associate Directors at Black Swan: myself and Jeffrey Jay Fowler. JJ’s main role is to work with the Emerging Writer’s Group. Each playwright brings an idea to the project and he’ll be working with them on said plays over the year. He’ll be mentoring them and helping to dramaturge their play with a view to getting funding and turning them into productions. He’s a writer, director and all-round theatre maker. He’s got fingers in a lot of pies, and is a very interesting and very dynamic young man.
My own role is more aligned with supporting Kate Cherry. I am in places where she can’t be, whether she’s busy directing a show or out there talking to sponsors or the Government. I take an active role in representing the Company publicly, meeting with our sponsors and subscribers, giving presentations, school’s talks and offering post-show Q&A’s. I will also be looking after the Resident Artists Program, where artists who work a lot with the Company come on board to help mentor some of the younger, more inexperienced members through workshops and feedback on their performances. My role covers a lot of areas! It is full on! It’s also a Part-Time position that I’m juggling with all sorts of things. For example, I’ll be directing Aidan Fennessy’s play ‘The House on The Lake’ as part of the Black Swan Lab, and I’ll be performing this year in ‘Laughter on the 23rd Floor’.
7. What do you think you bring to the table as a director?
I like to work with empathy, which sounds very facile! My driving force as an artist is to always remind myself that every person’s story is valid, and everyone has a story. There could be billions of plays written about every single person on the planet because we all have a role and a place in society. Whether we behave well or badly as a person, there is a story there.
As an actor, the worst thing you can do is comment on the character you are portraying. If I was doing an interview and I was playing Macbeth, I wouldn’t want to say something like ‘He’s a really bad guy, he’s a villain.’ To do so would be to impose an impression on someone, when what you really want to explore is what makes that person behave the way they do and make the choices they do. Whether it’s villainous or not, there’s something behind them that is driving them. So I like to work with my actors to find this.
I encourage the actors to work with empathy and to question rather than judge their characters. Most actors do that, it’s how we work, but it’s good to always remind yourself of that, and keep questioning ‘why?’
Follow this link to familiarise yourself with the Black Swan Theatre Company’s 2014 program: http://www.bsstc.com.au/whats-on/
This interview is an extended edit of that published in Colosoul’s 11th print edition.