Directors on Directing: Lee Lewis on Australian theatre (part 3 of 3)



Photo credit: Brett Boardman for Out The Front.

If you missed part two, you can find it here.

Australians distrust symmetry. They distrust beauty and the distrust wealth so any of those signifiers need to be destabilized for us to actually trust.

You also said the only thing harder than doing a new play is doing a new musical. What the fuck are you doing?

I know, right? This is a Revival… it’s almost 30 years to the day when we open since its first production and we’re in a very first age of reviving Australian works to see if they are classics or not. Everything is sitting between 30 and 40 years old, where you kind of go Oh my god, it’s been a long time! Why don’t we open it up and see again if there is something worth keeping and traveling forward with? So it’s kind of lovely. It’s discovering the classics that we’ve got. So it’s not like doing a new musical.

Actually, it’s a play and a musical that sit in and around each other – it’s really weird. It’s quite a hybrid little form which is – I would say – peculiar to Australian work because there isn’t the same depth of tradition that there is in London or New York because there isn’t that depth of tradition as to how something should be made. There are a lot of Frankenstein works which have done their own thing and to the rest of the world they look kind of ugly and misshapen, but actually they mean a lot here. They just can’t go anywhere else because of the rest of the world goes, Oh, we need to fix that up! and very rarely can withstand the fixing up, because there’s a local charm to it that doesn’t really translate.

Does that pose challenges for a non-Australian director, if they were to try to pick this up?  

The emotional pathway for the story is not something that would work in another place. It’s only just starting to be perceivable because there’s only just starting to be enough of a body of work to go, oh, this is actually an Australian thing. The way we tell a story for an audience here is now in a different tradition to how you would tell that story to a British audience or to an American audience. It’s starting to become possible to talk about the differences dramaturgically rather than just instinctively. It’s been sort of 30 years of a lot of instinct stuff with a lot of ratbags making theatre and those dramaturgical choices are informed by their making rather than by their imitation of other films.

If you’re directing a work from overseas there’s a bit of work in translating. It’s not just doing that production – you have to translate it for an Australian audience because the way we receive a story is quite different.

Could you quantify that?

The emotional paths that we respond to and trust are not the same shape as British or American emotional paths. So British paths – which is traditionally what we’ve imitated – it’s been destabilized by American storytelling in the last sort of 15 years especially, but British paths are too predictable, the emotional curve is too predictable for an Australian audience. They get ahead of it and they distrust it. That thing of the British “well-made play” that builds to that climax is just boring from an Australian point of view and also the emotional build is too serious for Australia. We don’t get to our crisis in symmetrical way.

Which is more realistic.

I don’t know that it’s realistic for British psychology. I think British tend to be a lot more predictable in their own behaviour – predictable from an Australian point of view. They like things to follow in a symmetrical way whereas Australians distrust symmetry. They distrust beauty and the distrust wealth so any of those signifiers need to be destabilized for us to actually trust.


"Australian actors have a tendency –  and Australian playwrights will write to that tendency – to sidestep the crucial moment."


Is that what attracted you about projects like A Rabbit for Kim Jong Il where [the villain isn’t forgiven at the end], where you flip the expectation?

It’s starting to be a tradition of the way Australians like their stories, the way they trust them. Actually, interestingly, going back – this is one of the very early ones – [at] the very end the beautiful young man from the country proposes to the country girl – they’re living in the city, he proposes to the country girl – and she says, actually no, I don’t want to go back, I don’t love the country and, maybe it’s me, but I like this – I like living here and it’s about this neighborhood [Darlinghurst] which is kind of a bit wild. It’s one of the works that is the beginning of Australians actually not giving in to the traditional from overseas ending.

Is that true with the larger theatres too? Because you’ve spoken about Griffin as a sort of staging ground.

I think the difficulty is that the larger theaters have a financial obligation in a funny way and an audience obligation to program successful works from around the world restaged here. But they struggle with them and they’re very rarely as successful as they were. If it works for the audience the critics get a little bit odd, or if it works with the critics the audience is a little bit odd. It doesn’t sit easily.

There was this funny moment where August Osage County had a local production in Melbourne. And it didn’t do that well in Melbourne. They didn’t actually think it was a good play. When it played  [in Sydney] with the original cast it went off because it was played in the American style, whereas when the Australians tried to play it, it was kind of wonky. They didn’t play into the American emotional lines. Australian actors have a tendency –  and Australian playwrights will write to that tendency – to sidestep the crucial moment. Pull the rug out from under it, make it comic, undermine it, laugh at it. Australians will read that as melodramatic if [the crucial moment] happens fully.

When you try the larger theatre companies, I think the audience has problems with the international works because they want them to do other things and that’s their problem to deal with. I don’t have to run that. I just keep plugging away at the Australian works knowing that the more that we do, the more that we see it, the more that the next generation of writers is coming up having grown up hearing those, seeing those forms… They’re writing within that tradition now, as opposed to trying to create that tradition or differentiate themselves internationally. They just grow up hearing it so they take it for granted.

There is this fictional place which allows people who have lived [traumatic events] to look at it. When it’s too realistically represented, it’s too hard to look straight at.

On the subject of the Helpmann awards. Right back to 2001, Bleeding Treewas the only production not affiliated with Melbourne Theatre Company, with Sydney Theatre Company, or either Belvoir space to win Best Play. A lot of what you talk about is what needs to change in the main theatres, and trying to set the stage so they can have an appetite for work without risk. What was it about Bleeding Tree that cut through all of that?

That was the culmination of 20 years of writing. It was [the playwright’s] first main stage play, his first professional production, but you’re taking 20 years getting there. And the originality of the voice which is both old and new Australian – it speaks back to an older time of language, but he’s doing it with a very new writing voice. It struck a chord the way Eugene O’Neill strikes a chord in America. I don’t think Angus will go on and be Eugene O’Neill, but there was something in Eugene O’Neill‘s work that was old and new at the same time and I think that’s what it was doing – that’s why it cut through so well.

I think it’s also interestingly the time that it landed in. A question about women and domestic violence and the readiness of the country to look at that in the face. It did that thing that great theatre can do: it can talk about it in a non-journalistic way. When you have television news or you have stories with a ripped-from-the-headlines kind of thing it’s too painful. There’s something else that can happen when there is this fictional place which allows people who have lived it to look at it. When it’s too realistically represented, it’s too hard to look straight at. Whereas something [The Bleeding Tree] did allowed a lot of people who had survived domestic violence to look right at it and to not be traumatized by it.

The first preview, there was a group of survivors who were there. And they came because we had invited them, and because I just needed to know what would happen. And we got to the end and I said, Is it okay? Should I be putting warnings up? And they were just like, Hell no, he’s dead! It’s fine! The biggest problem has been taken care of right at the beginning so you know it’s all okay right from the beginning. And I didn’t know what to do with that. So I think it was a combination of a lot of things that made it land but I do think the writing snuck past a lot of journalistic or real-life experience defenses that people had.

It’s a lot of street cred at the moment – working at Griffin – for more established actors, but what it does, it gives them the chance to take on roles that they wouldn’t be offered other places. So I get a lot of very good actors who have never had a lead but have been second and third characters in bigger companies and it’s a petrifying thing, actually. They think they want it until they have to do it and then they realise what they haven’t had to do. And I learned this from Stevie Rodgers in a play called 8 Gigabytes of Hardcore Pornography. It was a modern portrait of loneliness – a beautiful work. But Stevie is, I think, one of this country’s great evolving leading men but he’s a big dude and kind of charming in a blonde, Australian, attractive way. He did this because it was a lead, and he said to me after three weeks, Fuck this lead role stuff is bullshit! I’ve had a very good career of playing the second or third funny friend. I’ve got to do a couple of days rehearsal a week, I’ve got to learn maybe between 10 and 40 lines in a show depending on how big the role is, I have to speak every couple of pages, drop something in, land a comic line. I don’t have to work very much. I do this, I’m on the floor all day. I go home exhausted, I eat – I can’t drink because I’ve gotta do another three hours that night to get ahead of the script so the next day I’m coming in with the thoughts developed. This is killing me. This sucks. Of course, he was joking and he did a beautiful job.

The weight of that lead role – the impact on your life and what it costs… no one tells you about, and you’re not necessarily ready for that impact. So I learned how much you’ve got to take care of people when they’re stepping from the smaller roles to the bigger roles. When you give them that thing that they’ve always wanted to do they run up against all these walls of fear of maybe I’m not actually good enough, maybe I haven’t been asked to do it because I don’t have enough in me. When a role requires all all your range, how do you build that role?

That’s not ready for any sort of public form. I’ll make it sound better at some point.

My professor used to split learning into four stages, which were unconscious incompetence where you don’t know that you suck, conscious incompetence where you know you suck, conscious competence where you don’t suck but you have to try not to suck, and then unconscious competence where everything is instinctual.

There’s a layer of Australian theatre-making which I think is Theatre of the Incompetent, like Theatre of the Absurd, [or] Theatre of Cruelty. There is a very refined layer of storytelling in Australia that’s about incompetence managing to pull off the impossible. It’s one of the big myths that’s starting to emerge, and it’s come from lack of money in the theatre to actually pull off big spectacle. So again, that thing of cleverness, the way around, the loophole, all the actors have to move everything… I call it Theatre of the Incompetent because there’s a charm about it. It’s an actual whole way of telling a story with an audience that involves give and take about understanding of lack, and that allows you to do other stuff. And then there’s the surprise that comes out of it when the incompetent – like, the magic will happen. You’re so not looking for it, so the possibility that you’re surprised will be there. It’s early days in my ability to articulate it but it’s a big thing in Australia that is deeply, deeply uncharming to the rest of the world but makes a lot of sense here.

I took a production of a David Williamson play called Rupert to the Kennedy Centre. And it was for a festival, so festival conditions for an non-festival show – festival conditions being you get four hours tech and then you kind of open and that first show is your opening. There’s no dress run. And this is built for European shows that have been touring for years. They don’t need to have a full tech session, they’ve done the show thousands of times, they can do it wherever, whenever. But we had not long done the show and it was built in a very state theatre company way and then it was all packed up in boxes and sent over to Washington. And we had four hours tech with a completely different theatre-making tradition. The director’s not allowed on the stage! [I said,] Yeah, that’s not going to happen. You will endanger the cast if someone other than them does it. But there was no time to negotiate in the middle of that because it was opening that night. So in the end my instruction to the actors was, Just push the stagehands out of the way and get the show done, we’ll deal with the fallout later. Fortunately, we only had to do four shows and we just ran out after that. The companies dealt with it, with union reps talking about Lack of respect! and This cannot happen! and we’re like It’s done! We’re done! Bye! It was just this thing of [the Americans saying,] That just doesn’t make sense!,  I’m like, It does in Australia. A lot of it just looked a bit shit, but when you add it all up together by the end it’s not shit. It sounds really ridiculous it when I say it out loud. [Laughs] That’s not ready for any sort of public form. I’ll make it sound better at some point.

The first person that did it consistently, and I don’t know if this is true because I didn’t ever see Rex Cramphorn’s work very much, and I missed a lot of Nick Enright’s work, but Neil Armfield is a director who did a lot of thatjust a little bit shit until it’s sort of magical. And I was very formed by his theatre-making and when I moved back to the States I really missed that – the humanity of it, and the poverty of it. Spectacle is amazing, our job as the audience is to sit there and wonder, but there’s something lovely in that moment where people go, I could get up and do that! Of course you can’t, but the illusion of that, do you know what I mean? You never think you can get up on stage and be in Lion King. You never for an instant think that, and you’re not supposed to think that. You’re supposed to just wonder at the spectacle. We just don’t have the money to do that very much here, so we make another thing where everyone goes, Well, I could have a crack at that! Complete denial of elite talent, it’s a big lie, pretend that it doesn’t exist. Deep suspicion of elitism. So how do you get around that? It’s fascinating, and I love the problem-solve of it.


That's it for Lee Lewis! If you missed the earlier interviews, you can find them here.