Ingredients: White wine, a sunny courtyard, theatre/opera director and chair of Theatre Works, Suzanne Chaundy and School for Birds.
Suzanne: I’ve never done anything except direct theatre. That’s been my entire life. I know! I know! I got quite a lot of work straight out of NIDA which was lucky for me. I was the Student Theatre co-ordinator out at La Trobe. I got to meet a lot of people and work out how I needed to budget and managed to direct some things and work with young directors there. I got an Australia Council director’s development grant out of that and that’s where I fairly cannily went to myself ‘well, if I’m going to be a director I need to be able to do more than just direct theatre because there’s not going to be enough work for me.’ That’s when I went off and did a traineeship in opera. That set me up to be able to step from theatre to opera and back again.
It all blew apart in the mid-90s. I was feeling really majorly burnt out. I was doing this large-scale, commercial theatre and not getting to do the shows that I wanted to do. When I was doing the shows I wanted to do I was looking around the audience and going ‘I’m doing this for my peer group! I’m not actually doing this for anybody else.’ I had a big crisis about that. At the same time Rod (Roderick Poole), my partner had been working in street theatre with Primary Source. He developed the group Strange Fruit with the performers up the poles. They had a European tour coming up. It had been fairly improvised up until then but I said to him that they needed something a lot more solid to take. I directed that and then ended up working with Strange Fruit for ten years. It was the complete opposite because we played totally in public arenas to people that we didn’t know at all. People who had no investment in being there! Either they stayed or they walked away. It put you right on your metal. It was a fantastic experience.
There was a chance that I could have taken over as artistic director, and I did do an interim period of it, but I did have to search in my heart and say ‘do I want to spend the rest of my life directing people up poles?’ I was developing a permanent neck injury! It was becoming artistically difficult because the poles had had a few commissions. There had been The Field, The Spheres and you found that in the market place, people didn’t want anything new. The Australian festival scene felt like they had done Strange Fruit. It was starting to feel like we were running a production house rather than a living, breathing, creative organisation. So I walked away.
SFB: How do you think your work with Anthill Theatre has informed your re-interpreting classics?
Suzanne: It has influenced the interpretation of the classics and my work with text and translation and working with actors from multifarious cultural and linguistic backgrounds. Anthill was a melting pot and quite revolutionary in its day. When it went, we all thought that it had made such an impact on the scene and that actors like Jacek Koman and Alex Menglet who were regulars had broken down those barriers but I felt that they went up again for a while. It became very white bread and very conservative.
It was a disaster that Anthill died. It was a shining light in the Australian theatre scene. It was ten years ahead of its time and nobody understood it until it was gone.
SFB: Is there something you think that Australia could do to counter our racial conservatism? Is there a fix? A hypothetical button you could press?
Suzanne: It just takes people making bold decisions, right down to who comes through the drama schools. I think there needs to be a bit of positive discrimination at times. Sometimes you need to push it through and make it really noticeable. It just has to be seen so that it can work.
SFB: There is such a fear of talking about it. There was the case of Julian Meyrick’s production of Pinter’s The Birthday Party where none of the reviews even mentioned that it was an indigenous cast. They all tore him apart but nobody could say it. When you have a culture that can’t even use words that designate race it makes it hard to have a dialogue.
You work so much with opera and older texts, adaptations of older texts. Could you talk about how that feels to work with a living playwright in the room verses a… decidedly unliving one?
Suzanne: It depends. When I talked to Lucinda (Coxon) about Herding Cats this year, in some ways I almost wished I hadn’t. She didn’t mind what I did but it kind of over-clarified things for me and answered questions in a way that I didn’t really need to have them answered.
This year I’ve just done this quite interesting project adapting an American playwright’s work on domestic violence to Australian vernacular. We had a lot – a lot, a lot – of dialogue about that via Skype and talking to the Australian writing team.
I don’t think it is safer (working with a living playwright). It is just a different dynamic. I think I get drawn to the older texts because of that interest in the universal themes. Delving back in that history is amazing. Asking ‘this play or this opera was written thirty, forty, sixty, hundreds of years ago and what has actually changed?’
SFB: It is an amazing feeling when you find something so entirely recognisable, when you yell ‘that’s me! That’s me!’ at a four-hundred-year-old text.
Suzanne: Yes, to find the life in it. In opera you are so often called upon to do repertoire – it is your bread and butter – so you are constantly re-interpreting in terms of current practice and current events. I like to look at new translations, new ways of expressing old thoughts.
SFB: How do you reconcile making opera relevant to today’s world with the very conservative audience that often goes to see it?
Suzanne: Yeah it’s great. You really irritate them. Then every now and again you make them really happy when they have that beautiful moment when they go ‘ahhh! I thought I wasn’t going to like this but I really enjoyed it!’
You can’t be scared. You have to do your work really well. There’s been a lot operas that have been squeezed into production concepts for the sake of having a concept. I would much rather do a traditional production than do something that I can’t conceptually realise. If you can with, pin-point accuracy, find justification for everything that happens, that shows the true beauty of the art-form because it can transcend time and space.
It reminds me of Anthill’s radical reinterpretations of the classics – well I don’t know how radical they were but they were very true and very simple and very steeped in Poor Theatre because that’s what we were. We couldn’t afford any of that stuff.
There was a production of Summer of the Seventeenth Doll that Jean-Pierre (Mignon) did. It was terribly audacious that this Frenchman would do a production of The Great Australian Play. He filled it with Mahler’s Eighth, using the tableaus of Paul Delvaux and the men were in Edwardian dress and the girls were like Grecian goddesses with fallen columns and everything like in Delvaux’s paintings and it was absolutely f-ing brilliant. Ray Lawler himself came to see it. There was great fear in the audience about what Ray would say. Ray said it was like being in a house that he knew really well and opening a door and finding a room that he never knew existed there. That’s had a lot of an effect on what I do. I want to find that magic door.
SFB: I think the phrase ‘so-and-so would turn in his grave’ is so damaging. Brecht wouldn’t want people to be stuck fifty, sixty years ago. He wanted his work to feel radical, in whatever epoch they were being staged. Likewise Shakespeare. They weren’t writing to be a museum piece. They were writing to be cutting edge.
Suzanne: I’ve just coming from working on La Traviata. When it was first staged it got booed off the stage. People loathed it. People now think of it as terribly traditional but it was so radical. Same with Wagner. He had to build his own theatre to put his stuff on!
SFB: Yes. In the space of thirty years, The Rite of Spring went from causing riots to being used in Disney’s Fantasia. It became children’s music in the space of thirty years!
Suzanne: Which goes to show that you just have to have faith in what you are making. Making compromises and catering too much to what will be satisfactory to the public is never going to advance the art-form or you as an artist.