A word from Bridget:
I believe that there is a restlessness to modern life, an overloading of the senses and that this leads to an unhealthy suppression of emotions. I’m a playwright. In my work my characters find escape through violence and I often have them commit violent acts. As an artist using violence as a narrative tool do I have any responsibility towards my audience, my work or myself?
Topping my list of Best Theatre Experiences of All Time are two pretty violent shows – Thyestes by The Hayloft Project and Tragedia Endogonidia by Societas Raffaello Sanzio. Did I enjoy these shows because they allowed me to access and purge repressed emotions? Or was my enjoyment more to do with aesthetics? I think back to Roy Orbison’s vibrato, theatre babes brandishing guns, the way the stage blood took its time to pool and expand across the blinding white stage space. I also remember enjoying how sick the shows made me feel. Maybe cool aesthetics gave me access to a deeper emotion, led me into the nightmare.
For the most part, I hate screen violence. I am extremely over seeing women portrayed as victims. I get pretty bored in action movies. My brain switches off. There are some exceptions to this (for example, I just held a David Lynch themed birthday party) but mostly when I watch yet another person killed on screen I wonder what the hell it’s doing to my psyche.
Thankfully, I grew up in a violence free environment both at home and in my wider community. This is a fact I find problematic when it comes to my enjoyment of violence on stage. Does my violence free past mean that for me violence on stage is a fetish? Is it dangerous? Or is it totally valid? Maybe even a necessity?
I have interviewed three Melbourne based theatre-makers: Daniel Lammin, Chi Vu and Rachel Perks about the different approaches to violence that they take in their work. These conversations will be published over three blog posts on School for Birds. Thanks Fleur!
Part 1: Conversation with Daniel Lammin
Daniel Lammin is a playwright and director. He also works as a film reviewer. Daniel’s work for the stage often explores real-life incidents of violent crime. We meet in the Malthouse courtyard for a chat but men in sequinned G-Strings keep running into our line of vision. This provides to be too distracting for the both of us so we settle for a park bench on Sturt Street.
Bridget: At one point during our dramaturgy internship with Playwriting Australia last year you said ‘I love violence’ and I was like, ‘I love violence.’ So, I guess I just want to talk to you about why you love it.
Daniel: I think that violence is one of the most exciting, dangerous and delicate emotional tools, or narrative tools, you can use in order to tell a story. A show I did last year, The Cutting Boys, ended in an act of murder, cannibalism and sex. I had to spend the entire time asking: am I justified in making this as blunt and extreme as it is? And if I had come to a point where I couldn’t justify it, not that everyone would agree with me, then I would never have done it. I feel that a lot of the time when people use violence it’s just to shock, because it’s kind of sexy. But, if your intention is just to be edgy or disturbing, or confronting, you’re only going to make work that only serves that purpose.
I’m keen to talk to Lammin about his thoughts on the difference between violence on film and violence on the stage. I tell him that Snowtown is one of the best movies I’ve ever seen but that I regret watching it because I found the violence so distressing.
Daniel: Violence doesn’t mean anything unless you’re seeing it through the eyes of someone else, through the eyes of a character, or the eyes of a community. If you were just watching the brother being killed in the bathtub in Snowtown, you would go ‘oh that’s horrific and disgusting’ and turn off. What makes that sequence so affecting, and so horrifying, is that his younger brother is watching, and then participating, and you’re watching the act through the relationship and the history that they have. It feels very dangerous making people watch a horrible act just for the purpose of shocking them.
Bridget: You mentioned that you thought that violence on film could be more effective than stage violence?
Daniel: Yeah, I think that film can reach a level of reality a lot easier than theatre can. I don’t think you ever want a piece of violence on stage to really be completely realistic because that kind of turns people off. Maybe it’s that I’ve never found violence as much of a problem on film. Film also has the ability to play with genre. You can watch a film like Hostel even though that violence is stupidly graphic, but you can revel in that, because that’s what that genre does. Plus, with film there is a sense that it’s removed from you. If you watched Thyestes, on screen, you’d be like, oh that’s disturbing, but watching it a few feet in front of you? It’s right there, you’re watching living, breathing things sweating and reacting. It becomes something quite different.
Bridget: I loved Thyestes.
Daniel: It was one of the best things ever.
Our conversation moves to Ugly Mugs a show that was part of the 2014 Malthouse season.
Daniel: Making a piece of theatre that shows just the idea of violence towards a person, or a community, or a minority is kind of blunt if it’s not shown through the eyes of an actual person. Ugly Mugs was on at the same time as my show The Cutting Boys, and was about very similar ideas. I felt Ugly Mugs would have been a far more effective show if I had actually been made to confront the act. You’ve got a show about violence against sex workers. I want to see a show that makes me feel sick to my stomach about violence in the community against a sex worker and how horrific that is as opposed to –
Bridget: What about the argument though. Say, if you’re making an anti-war film, you run the risk of sensationalising war to make that anti-war film. Do you think maybe in Ugly Mugs, to have the depiction of violence could be seen as –
Bridget: Exploitative in a way.
Daniel: Yeah, I mean definitely, I guess it just comes down to how it’s handled. I think that it’s the job of the creator to sit back and ask if they are being exploitative. I did a short play years ago about the murder of James Bulger, the two year old who was killed by two ten year old boys in the early nineties. It was something I had always wanted to do because I found the whole thing so disturbing. But I skipped that step of actually questioning: is what I want this to do working? Is it effective in the manner by which I’m doing it? By accident it kind of was, but I learnt a big lesson. If you want to show that an act of violence is something that’s wrong, you need to make sure that you’re doing it in a way that it doesn’t exploit, and that your intentions are clear.
Bridget: When did you have the realisation that maybe it was exploitative?
Daniel: When it was in front of people, basically. When I was watching it with an audience, and seeing an audience react. I mean, there was no violence in it. It was the manner that the content was given to the audience that was uncomfortable. Enough people enjoyed and responded to the piece to suggest to me that I hadn’t made a massive mistake, but it scared me enough to go, there is a level of interrogation that I need to make sure I have if I keep wanting to do this.
Bridget: What’s the best use of violence that you’ve seen on stage?
Daniel: Barrie Kosky’s Women of Troy. It’s funny, because it was the first thing of his that I’ve ever seen and I’ve learnt that his shows are usually a lot more flamboyant and colourful and this was under fluro lights, stark, cold, blunt. There was a sequence in it where a woman was dragged into a locker, while the rest of the women were singing a Mozart Aria, she was trapped in there and raped by one of the guards. The woman comes out, she stands on a box with her underwear down around her knees, covered in blood, stands there and vomits –
Daniel: – and by itself, well, that’s the point where you see most of the audience just get up and walk out. But he’d invested us in the plight of the characters, and in the plight of the narrative to the point where that happened and my brain just broke, because it was like seeing a succession of images that all amounted to something far more powerful.
Bridget: Were you in our dramaturgy class when Patricia Cornelius talked about needing to ‘earn moments’ from the audience?
Daniel: I think so.
Bridget: She said, you can’t give an audience a thing and say ‘deal with it.’ You have to lead them to it.
Daniel: I have this rule, with any of the disturbing things that I keep going back and making, that you have to make the audience laugh in the first five minutes. Because you’ve got to relax them to the point where they actually can ease themselves into what it is you have to tell them. And then they’re more susceptible. They’re more prone to listening to you. And they’re weakened so the punch in the face is going to hurt more. That’s what Stephen Spielberg does in Schindler’s List. He eases you in, makes you feel comfortable, and then assaults you with the most horrific images in humanity that you can imagine. And it is that thing, of earning the right to be able to do it. And I think generally in theatre that you have to earn big moments. You’ve got to earn a pause, you’ve got to earn a climax, and you’ve got to earn a twist. Patricia is completely right.
Bridget: Um, I’m really sorry to bring out a review of your work. The Rebecca Harkins-Cross review of The Cutting Boys?
Daniel: Yes! … Oh?
Bridget: At the end of the review she asks: What drives a theatre maker to lower us into the abyss? And I was wondering, from the way that you are talking, it doesn’t sound like an intention you have with the theatre you make, or is it your intention?
Daniel: With that particular show, it was a case of wanting to pull the audience right to the depths… because an act of two twenty-year old boys killing and cannibalising a sixteen-year-old girl is an act of complete inhumanity. I felt the only way to convey that inhumanity effectively was to take the audience to the darkest place I possibly could. I wanted it to be an unforgiving show. I had no illusions that people were going to enjoy the show. I couldn’t even watch sections of the thing because I found it so confronting. And it came out of my fucking head. When that review came out I thought, that is the question that needs to be asked of the theatre maker, certainly of me. In that particular instance, I felt like I had a justifiable reason. I loved that review. It was initially terrifying, but then it’s like, good, it’s an engagement with the work.
Bridget: I’ve been wondering about Aristotle’s writing about catharsis in the Poetics, in relation to violence on stage. I’m a bit suspicious about whether or not catharsis can actually be a thing that has a social function. Do you think that violence in art creates a space for people to purge emotion?
Daniel: I think it definitely does have the capacity to do that, for people who want that. I don’t think everyone wants that. I do. But in terms of violence, it’s not just physical acts of violence, it’s emotional levels of violence. To choose the lamest thing off the top of my head. Something like, The Perks of Being a Wallflower. It’s preposterously emotionally violent, but I want to sit through that, because I want to have that catharsis. Some people don’t want that, and they are completely in their rights not to want that. And I would never want to force a violent show on someone. With anything I’ve done, I always make a point of making it very clear to people that this is not going to be fun. So you’re prepared enough before hand to know whether or not the show is right for you.
Bridget: It’s funny, my Grandma saw my play Hose and I was worried about how she’d feel that I’d written something so violent, and afterwards I asked her what she thought and she said ‘I saw things in nursing that you couldn’t even imagine.’ And I was like, ‘thanks Grandma’. But you know, humanity does have this darkness.
Daniel: Yeah, and that is the big reason why I love working with it, because it’s there. I actually want to be able to talk about the fact that yes, the world is a wonderful place, there are beautiful people in it, there are wonderful experiences, not everything is depressing, but you know what? Some people do really fucking horrible things to each other, and sometimes the way to learn how to deal with that is to actually just show it.
Just as I’m about to thank Lammin and let him return to rehearsals he throws a question back that shouldn’t catch me by surprise, but it does:
Daniel: Why do you love violence?
Bridget: Oh…!? … I think that’s what I’m trying to work out… Sometimes I get really angry and I throw shit and sometimes I have urges to physically hurt other people. Like, I have that, and I’m really ashamed of that, and I wonder if when I see violence on stage it allows me to express that.
Daniel: Stephen King wrote this book about horror, and his thesis is that good horror allows us to experience something that in a normal, moral society, we would not be able to. It allows us to actually be an enactor of violence, and to be a victim of violence and through doing these things, purge ourselves of the desire to do them. I’ve come up with the concept that as a theatre maker I want to hear what the universe sounds like. Everything I do is just built to answer that question. I’m writing a show about Ed Gein, he’s the guy that Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Silence of the Lambs and Psycho are based on. He was suspected of having murdered these women, and when the police confronted him about it they found his house was full of artifacts that he had made of women’s skin and body parts, but they were ones he dug up. I’m fascinated by how lonely someone must be that this is how they choose to fill their world. It’s inhuman, it’s impossible to comprehend, it’s like listening to the destruction of a star, or listening to the darkness that exists in the heart, because if I listen to this, if I can touch it for a fleeting second, I might understand the potential for violence between me, and potential in my friends, or my family or within anybody… … That’s a very big wanky concept.
Bridget: No, it’s great, it’s great.