BWW Previews: SAVAGE GRACE at State Theatre Centre Of WA

Steamworks Productions are set to revisit their first show 21 years later, bringing together the original cast and crew for a new run of SAVAGE GRACE

By: Aug. 04, 2021

Back in 2001, director Sally Richardson founded Steamworks Arts. Richardson had already made quite a name for herself in a distinguished career but wanted to showcase more politically charged work. The first work by Steamworks certainly fit that brief, with SAVAGE GRACE touching on many ethical and moral issues. It was a hit, enjoying two runs in Perth before being invited to Sydney to perform as part of Mardi Gras, as well as being recorded for ABC Radio Drama. To celebrate 21 years of productions, Steamworks are returning to SAVAGE GRACE, with the same cast and crew, to celebrate and reflect upon how the company, the people, and the world have changed since. DIrector and Steamworks Arts founder Sally Richardson reflected on how the play has changed, and what she and Steamworks have done in the 21 years since.

Given how significant the show was, both for the production company and the people involved, there seems to be an air of familiarity to SAVAGE GRACE.

"We all know it. It's in our muscle memory, really" Sally said. "There's a way in which the actors work, both themselves and together, and then how they and I as the director work together, and that part definitely feels familiar. In that way though, it is nice to have Tim Green [associate production/design] and Joe Lui [associate director] working on it because they're bringing fresh eyes to it." Indeed, going back to SAVAGE GRACE was much less putting on a rework and more revisiting an old friend. "I remember the play vividly. It was a play about so many important issues both for the time and now, such as HIV/AIDS and euthanasia," added Richardson. It was a very powerful thing to be able to reach out to audiences and present differing perspectives and points of view." . Actors Humphrey Bower and Gibson Nolte have also carried the original run as a part of them and are excited about revisiting it.

"It's a fascinating experience revisiting this play 20 years down the track. We know the characters and their relationship in our bones, and we've remained close friends, but we've also been on our own individual journeys since then, so the play now has a layer of 'lived-in' experience which enriches every moment of interaction onstage," said Bower, who plays bioethics professor Robert Bavaro. Starring alongside Bower as Dr Tex Cladakis, an HIV specialist, is Gibson Nolte.

"Like re-reading a favourite book, revisiting this work with Sally and Humphrey after so many years is a real joy, and also a great privilege. The strength of Alana's script has held up magnificently, and while Alana has made some minor changes for this season, I'm finding that the major change has been within Humph and I. With the benefit of 20 more years of life experience behind us, we're finding that some of the decisions we made for the original seasons are giving way to deeper discoveries, while others are still very much on point," said Nolte. Indeed, playwright Alana Valentine, who herself has gone from strength to strength since penning SAVAGE GRACE, partially rewrote it to give it a contemporary setting.

BWW Previews: SAVAGE GRACE at State Theatre Centre Of WA
Humphrey Bower and Gibson Nolte in the 2001 production of SAVAGE GRACE.

Whilst the topic of HIV/AIDS is perhaps not as prominent as it was in 2001, the world is in the midst of a new pandemic, which allowed Alana Valentine to re-write some of the play to be set in modern times. Sally Richardson was able to reflect on how the meaning has changed from its original run and what has stayed the same.

"Alana Valentine's writing in this asks the question of how do you fall in love with someone with a different point of view? At its core the play is about that sort of relationship between two professionals and the love between them, but also the conflict between them," said Richardson. "I think great writing is somewhat timeless and SAVAGE GRACE has a timeless feel to it, with or without the rewrite. There was a powerful context in 2001 for the discussion of AIDS and working within a hospital, and obviously we're all very aware currently of how tough it can be working in the health care system now. You can't but feel how current so many of the elements are. We have shifted, and our relationship with HIV/AIDS has shifted, yet these things are still worthy of reflection."

Since its inception, Steamworks has been about giving unique artists the space to tell their stories, and in doing so has pulled no punches when it comes to politically charged and even controversial works. SAVAGE GRACE deals quite directly with HIV/AIDS, but also delves into the ideas and ethics around euthanasia.

"The conversation around euthanasia is important," says Sally Richardson. "Just this year WA has legislation that makes euthanasia issue but making it legal in certain circumstances doesn't clear up any of the controversy and certainly doesn't make it any less provocative. In Australia we have an ageing population and the issue of death and the dignity of death will always prompt discussion and reaction." However, the show is not about preaching a particular point of view or positioning the audience one way or the other.

"Alana Valentine does it very well with her writing, the play navigates it in a way that the audience will likely agree with different points of view at different times, and that's one of the things that I feel make the show great but also contribute to the broader debate."

The opportunity to revisit a show after so long has also allowed Sally Richardson to not only reflect on her own career, but also on how Steamworks has evolved in that time.

"It was good to bring to the fore work of people who have gone on to amazing things since," said Richardson, reflecting on the ethos on which Steamworks was founded as well as the work of the people who were involved in 2001. "Playwright Alana Valentine, composer Cat Hope, and the actors Humphrey Bower and Gibson Nolte have progressed in leaps and bounds since then. Any time any of them does something big I can't help but think back to working with them in 2001. It was really exciting for everyone involved that one of our early projects was successful in the way SAVAGE GRACE was. It sat very well with the hopes and aspirations of Steamworks, it's still important to have the opportunity to tell stories in an intimate style of theatre, and I'm glad to say we haven't stopped doing that." Despite the amazing things Steamworks Productions has done in two decades, Richardson is still very aware of the struggles the arts sector faces.

"I'm amazed that we're still here, really! It's felt like it's been a rollercoaster ride, there's been points where it does genuinely seem like it can be a bit too hard. Making art doesn't get easier. That's evident in the way that project companies still struggle. I would love to say that project companies have flourished and multiplied since 2001, but I actually think there may have been more companies around 20 years ago than there are now."

Of course, in amongst nurturing Steamworks to reach the heights it has, Sally Richardson has very much had her own career, too. She is well respected across many disciplines of performance, directing contemporary dance pieces and being a highly sought-after circus arts director, to name but a few of the disciplines she's worked in. Whilst moving around stemmed somewhat from following her idols, there was a practical element too.

"I love performance of all forms and I do feel incredibly honoured that I have been able to work across so many disciplines. It's a part of managing a career to move between disciplines, but it's also a good diversity of practice and interest. The fact is that in the arts, the more flexible you can be, the more likely you are to be able to find work. Of course, I bring the broad experience of things to anything I do, but one good thing about SAVAGE GRACE is we already know it works., so it hasn't needed a huge reset or change of focus." In fact, whilst dance and circus may seem well removed from traditional theatre, Richardson is able to take what she knows from the many disciplines she's worked in and transfer it to directing theatre.

"I think one brings sensibility and sensitivity from any piece they work on. I'm always very interested in the human body in the space it's in, and the relationship the performer has with the audience because of that. The audience is very close and the setting is very stripped back because I like the performers to drive the attention, not to mention keep the budget down!"

Finally, Sally reflected on what the motivation was to rerun SAVAGE GRACE rather than do a different show, or simply have a party to celebrate 21 years of Steamworks.

"I don't think Australian theatre looks back often enough. There's many great shows that come out and they get a bit of a run but then they often disappear. I think there's something really exciting about bringing back the same thing, especially with the same actors. Humphrey and Gibson have become great friends in the time since and it's special to revisit something we all know well and share it again with an audience." The time has also meant Richardson has well and truly honed her craft, having a different ethic and drive now to when she started Steamworks.

"I feel much more relaxed about what I'm doing. If I don't enjoy or get engaged by the work I'm involved in then I simply don't do it. As an artist you want things you create to matter and be meaningful, and the audience wants that too. If someone is going to make the effort to go to see theatre the piece has to excite them or entertain them or transport them or transform them, and if the people creating the piece don't have the genuine belief that it will do those things then it really stands out. I still look for those positive things, and I try to find it in what I do creating, directing, or producing live theatre."

The whole team involved with SAVAGE GRACE quite clearly hold the work itself and what they've done with it very dearly. It is rare and exciting to see performers go back to where it started, and whilst SAVAGE GRACE still lives in the minds and hearts of those who performed it in 2001, it may still live on with people who were able to see it then, too. Steamworks put on a large HIV/AIDS benefit at one of the original performances and are confident that what drew the performers back will go a way towards drawing some of the audience back, too. Anyone who didn't see the original will still gain a great deal from seeing such a talented cast and crew putting on a piece they all hold so dearly.

SAVAGE GRACE is at the Perth Theatre Centre from August 11-14. Tickets and more information from The Perth Theatre Trust.

Thanks to Sally Richardson for the time, as well as Humphrey Bower and Gibson Nolte for providing quotes. Images thanks to Steamworks Arts.

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