BWW Interview: Scott Graham and Geordie Brookman on THINGS I KNOW TO BE TRUE
Andrew Bovell's Things I Know To Be True, a Frantic Assembly and State Theatre Company of South Australia co-production, opened earlier this year in Adelaide and is now playing at London's Lyric Hammersmith, led by Imogen Stubbs. Scott Graham, co-founder of Frantic Assembly, and Geordie Brookman, artistic director of State Theatre Company, discuss collaborating on this unique project.
What was your first theatre experience?
Scott: I wasn't into theatre at all as a kid. I was more into English literature, so I went to see the occasional Shakespeare. I do remember being incredibly impressed by Mark Rylance's Hamlet at the RSC, but I really got into it by accident - a teacher put my name down for a school play. I had no idea I wanted to perform, but I didn't protest too much.
The light bulb moment came when I saw a production by Volcano Theatre Company. It felt like it was in four or five dimensions - I didn't know theatre could be that vivid and present. Not being steeped in tradition allowed me and Stephen Hoggett, my Frantic Assembly co-founder, to just be magpies: we didn't know the rules, so we weren't ashamed to be inspired by low culture, or explore dance and acrobatics alongside text.
Geordie: My formative theatre experience was performing in a show. I was six years old, and I was lucky enough to be in this youth musical called Frankie, directed by Neil Armfield - one of Australia's greatest living directors. Even then, I remember being thrilled by the way the audience responded to what was going on onstage.
Did you always have ambitions to direct?
Scott: When we started Frantic Assembly, it was all about making work, and the practicalities of doing that without any money! I never thought about separating out directing, acting or choreographing - it was all part of the same process. Early on, we did the light and sound too.
Geordie: I kept acting through high school, but I soon realised I was more interested in being at the centre of the creation of things, conceptually laying shows out. I've been headed in that direction ever since.
What are some of your core aims as the leader of a company?
Geordie: My primary focus when I became artistic director was getting the company to open up to the rest of Australia, and the rest of the world. To form the most exciting, creative collaborations we could, and to place a real emphasis on touring and nurturing new Australian writing. We've also become one of the first companies in Australia to enshrine gender parity and cultural diversity in our mission statement.
Scott: We've always done training initiatives right from the start, because of the way the company was formed: a teacher put my name down, then I was nurtured by Volcano. If it wasn't for them, I wouldn't have been involved in theatre. It's so easy for people to slip through the net - whether for socioeconomic reasons, or gender politics. We always work hard at redressing that. It's more important now than ever, with courses getting more expensive.
How did Things I Know... come to you?
Geordie: I had a conversation with Andrew Bovell soon after my appointment and asked if he'd write something for us. His one condition was that he wanted his normal process to be challenged. Scott and I had known each other for about 10 years - I assisted him and Stephen on Lovesong, and we got on really well, so I asked him if he'd be interested in a collaboration between our companies. Andrew writes beautifully detailed pieces of epic domestic naturalism, both grand scale and tiny and human, so there was a real possibility there to intersect with that physical approach.
Scott: As well as us bringing something new to Andrew's process, I thought there was loads I could learn from him and Geordie. We began in a room with a group of actors and a series of photographs - no play, just exploration. It was exciting walking in with very little. We developed thoughts and ideas based on those images, and Andrew started to develop the world. He wrote a draft and we went from there.
Geordie: It's been a long time and a short time! We had a week in 2014, another week in 2015, and then we leapt into rehearsals so it's been cooking for a while, but it really took off this year.
Has it been easy to divide responsibilities as co-directors?
Geordie: It's been weirdly stress free - really naturally complementary. The advantage is we share a lot in our approach: we both value text, we're both interested in compelling visuals and really direct, honest emotional content. I'm not a high-end physical practitioner like Scott is, but I've got a great love of physical work in theatre.
It's been like swapping the driver's seat a bit throughout the day - so he might lead a session, then I do, or we work in tandem. That hasn't come through formal negotiation, but just getting in a room and working it out. We've made each other stronger and helped each other question some of our usual choices. It's nice to have a shock to the theatre system - directors, like any artists, can easily get stuck in a pattern. There are other strong voices too, as Andrew writes with such confidence and precision, and designer Geoff Cobham is invaluable, so it's more like a 10-way collaboration.
Scott: I'm actually running a new Frantic Assembly MA based on collaborative theatre-making, and the first thing I had to say is it's not always easy. You have to enter the room with the right people, a good understanding of what you'll bring and an openness to learn - not just show what you know. I've been so fortunate to work with brilliant people throughout my career, people I could really learn from and vice versa.
The exciting bit is creating something together that would never have existed otherwise. I was talking to Andrew the other day and he said "I think I understand what collaboration means: it's never saying no." Someone could have an idea, and you have to allow them to show you what they mean, so you can explore and take it to a higher level.
On this project, we've got come with our skillsets - I've got a history of work with movement, Geordie has a gorgeous understanding of text and relationship with actors. But we really directed together, by leaving space for each other - dividing things up rigidly limits us. My impulse comes from text too, because I studied English literature, and I love Geordie's eye on the physicality, so I would never lock him out. That's how you surprise yourself.
Have you seen an increased acceptance of physical work?
Scott: I love working with actors, getting them to move. Even if they're unsure at first, they wind up finding it so liberating. It gives them an understanding of the story through their bodies - not just dancing, but thinking about how they hold themselves, physical awareness, another way to relate to the other actors. It's lovely to see.
I tend to use 80% actors at least, and a range of ages, which does mean a more limited physical palette. One of my biggest fears is people looking at a production and saying "Yes, that's the Frantic house style." A friend told me a story about a comedian who saw another comedian at his gig scribbling away. He asked "Are you taking notes?" The comedian in the audience said, "No, I'm ticking them off." That's a warning to any artist: you want to keep surprising people.
We've always been lucky in having a choice of projects, and I like fluctuating: if I make a big, boisterous show, chances are the next one will be delicate, light and touching; or going from the National for Curious Incident to smaller touring venues. Someone once asked me for my hit list - the top 10 plays I want to do - and I've never thought of that. The choice is personal and instinctive.
Do you go into a project knowing what you'd like to do in physical terms?
Scott: I don't make work that's instantly apparent as physical. If actors move on stage, it has to be because that's the right thing to do - sometimes, you create tension with stillness first. So it's not about dancing all over the text, but seeing where one can help the other.
There's no point doing what the text has already done, and when you're working with a writer, you might come to an understanding that there's a scene that doesn't need to be written, because you can say it with silence and movement. Early on, Andrew was keen to write for the physicality, and I said you don't try to write movement. If the words demand it, fantastic, but it has to emerge organically.
What was it like coming back to Things I Know... with a new cast?
Scott: Every performer brings something different, so it's great to discover new things. The actors we worked with in Australia had very little experience of physical work, but we built up that trust and understanding - they were just as passionate and excited as the actors over here, who've really embraced it.
Geordie: It's been a really wonderful experience. We had the advantage with the new cast of walking into the rehearsal room feeling confident in the architecture of the play, but also getting to start again. We made the choice not to cast like for like, rather who we found interesting for each role.
It's also been a huge pleasure listening to Andrew's words lit by a different set of voices and attitudes, and bringing a contemporary piece of Australian writing here with no sense of cultural cringe or tokenism - it's being treated the same way as British writing coming the other direction. That marks a new wave of maturity and confidence in Australian writing, and shows the power of the global village. There's lots we share, some we don't, and it's great to have that cultural conversation.
Andrew's piece is very perceptive about generational tension. Did anything in particular resonate for you?
Scott: Not so much the story details, but the parents and the grown-up offspring negotiating relationships definitely did. The parents in the play are blue-collar workers who've toiled away to give their children an experience they never had, but that takes the children into a different world, rejecting the ethos their parents lived by.
I recognise that in my own family - my dad's a mechanic, my mum works in a factory office, I'm the first to go to university. There is a tension to that, and Andrew's text explores it beautifully. But whatever rage exists, it's a shade of love. You can have arguments and massively different opinions, but then you have those big moments that put things into perspective and brings it back to family: birth, life, death.
Geordie: Andrew's really nailed something about the slightly different dreams that two generations have been sold. The baby boomers were taught to defer living - sacrifice now and it'll pay off in the supposed golden years - whereas Gen Y or millennials have been told they can do whatever they want and be whatever they want - everyone is an extraordinary individual.
They're both beautiful dreams but largely untrue, so when you see those disappointments it connects powerfully with your own life. Working out who you are, wrestling with mortality and loss, that's part of what brings you into adulthood. It has a very powerful resonance.
What would you like the audience to take from the show?
Scott: If someone comes out and says "I liked the movement" or "I liked the story, but not the movement", there's something wrong. I don't want them to think about it in components, but movement because it's the right thing to do, and something that contributes to you enjoying it or being touched by it.
It's a beautiful text, and we're working with some extraordinary actors, so we would love it to reach the hearts of the audience. Some people have come out saying they want to phone their mum or dad. But I'm not cynical or wet enough to suggest that's the only response we're after.
Geordie: I want them to take whatever they want to take. I hope they get their hearts and heads opened a bit. In the preview on Saturday, the theatre emptied out except for a mother and her adult daughters, crying and holding each other. They said on their way out that it was such a valuable night. I hope for most people, it can be that communal experience. It's a small-scale play in that it's just about one family, but the emotional landscape is epic, and there's a fabulous moment of catharsis. We've aimed to make a great, provocative night in the theatre.
Photo credit: Helen Maybanks