By Laura Money
Tim Brain is the innovative co-founder of From The Hip Productions and teacher at Murdoch University. Born out of a desire to work with young theatre-makers, Brain and his students devised The Hostage – a Tarrantino-style thriller with all the twists and turns usually found in its filmic counterpart.We caught up with Tim ahead of opening night on Thursday 23rd November, 2017.
Tim, you had a pretty good success with The Mummy Rises last year, and The Hostage is another thriller – how did it all come about? What’s the journey from Mummy to The Hostage?
Well, The Mummy Rises is a thriller but it’s more of a comedy thriller – so it had horror elements but it had a comedy feel to it. We were trying to be as funny as we could and I suppose the experiment with that was, could we make people laugh and then scare them soon afterwards? Could we keep the tension but still have a few laughs? So, The Hostage is quite different. There aren’t a lot of laughs in this one!
In fact, it’s kind of born out of The Mummy Rises in that, I wanted to work with this group of actors – here at Murdoch there are some quite extraordinary actors coming through, and there’s a group of four that I really wanted to work with. So, the idea was first born out of wanting to work with them and this year, in particular at Murdoch they’ve been doing a lot of quite comedic work, so quite funny – for instance, they’ve been doing a lot of children’s theatre, a lot of pantomime work, that kind of stuff, and I kept wanting to do something with them that would allow them to stretch themselves. I wanted something that would allow them to go to areas they hadn’t been able to go this year, and from that point of view I wanted to do something fairly dramatic.
I wanted to give them more experience at pushing them in areas they hadn’t worked in before, things they hadn’t done in a while, characters they hadn’t been able to play. We started to devise the piece – I had a rough idea of the storyline that I wanted, I’ve always been intrigued by the hostage drama genre, you know the Taken franchise, the ransom thing where someone has been kidnapped and how they get away and that sort of stuff. That kind of genre has always intrigued me, so we started from there.
We had a basic idea of where we wanted to start and where we wanted to finish, and between the five of us, we basically workshopped some ideas and pooled our ideas, and thought about where we’d like to see these characters go. Then I took all of that workshop material and went away and wrote the script and came back and we workshopped it a little more, and changed this and changed that – then I’d go away and write a bit more.
So it’s my script but it’s still a devised play. They all had very much an input into the work itself, which is great because we all have ownership over it as well.
So it’s far more collaborative rather than a ‘top-down’ system?
That’s right. So, it’s great if we feel like there’s something not quite right, the actors feel very open to saying – what if we did it this way? The kind of process I wanted to get into was I wanted to work with good actors but to give them more of a creative input into what the final piece actually looked like. I didn’t want them to be treated like just staff members who showed up and do the piece.
One of the things we’ve been so successful in here at Murdoch in the last five or six years is, creating what we like to call “theatre makers.” A lot of our more successful students, and we’ve had a lot of students who have gone on to be actors, but we’ve also had people like Scott McArdle and Joe Lui and people like that who are Murdoch graduates and are all good theatre makers. They actually devise their own theatre, they write their own theatre, and create their own theatre.
I wanted to introduce this group to that – and have them become creators of their own work, and in control of their own work.
And that probably opens them up to far more different experiences as well, what else do they cover?
Yes, certainly one of the things we do here, which separates us from say WAAPA or somewhere like that is we try to give them a much rounder experience. Some of our students who come through are sure that they’re going to be actors. Once they start doing backstage work, lighting, sound, stage management, they suddenly realise – I actually prefer this, this is my calling.
Again, we have a lot of people who are working in the [Perth] community who do backstage who started out with us. We don’t lock them in to anything – like you are an actor so you can only do acting – I actually think that if you’re going to be a good actor you need to know what the technicians around you are doing and if you’re going to be a good technician, you need to be able to know how difficult it actually is to get up on the stage. Most of our technicians have acted and most of our actors have been technicians.
It just gives them that little bit of extra knowledge about what’s going on around them, and then when they do create their own work it gives them a guide as to how to do it. They ask – how am I going to do that, how am I going to light that? So, they’re not coming at it from just an actor’s point of view, they’re coming at it from a theatre maker’s point of view.
And is that the kind of program that is typical for all drama students at Murdoch?
Yes, we try to give them as much of a rounded experience as possible. So, bringing it back to The Hostage, this is a good example of how we do that, so we devise the piece, as I said – I wanted to work with these guys, I think they’re an amazing group of young actors – but they’re still only first and second year students. When you see them, you’ll be quite amazed, they do some beautiful work. I just wanted to stretch them again so that they can experience different styles of theatre. They’re already talking about their own shows that they want to do and I think that’s only good. They generate work that can influence other students and help them. It’s kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy, really.
How did you get into writing, directing and teaching? What’s your theatre story?
Many, many years ago I actually studied theatre! Back in the eighties and I got a degree in Theatre and Media, then in the early nineties I started my own company called From The Hip Productions with my wife. We do all kinds of stuff – theatre work, film work, we’ve put a feature film together which was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award, we’ve done a variety of plays, we’ve worked with companies like 20th Century Fox, Disney and those kind of guys.
Eventually, though I just wanted to come back to theatre, so when the opportunity came up I came back to teaching and I’ve never really looked back. I’ve really enjoyed working with students and helping them get better, that’s what it’s all about.
When they come to you at the beginning, is it a case of having them unlearn what they were exposed to at high school?
Not necessarily, the high school programs are now becoming good, and that’s a weird thing as well because – obviously not everyone who studies theatre gets into the arts – we actually have a large number of our graduates go on to do a Dip Ed (Diploma of Education) and become drama teachers.
Even now, I get some students who are being taught by some of my students! So, it’s kind of a weird trickle-down effect, they’re coming in already knowing a lot of the things that we want them to know. Even if they’re not our students, the high school drama curriculum has gotten a lot better in the last, even ten years. It’s a much broader range of things they have to learn, so when they get here it’s really just about refining what they already know and then exposing them to new things.
Certainly on a technological level, a lot of them aren’t very aware of the technology of theatre, but they are very aware of the theories behind acting, and the history of theatre, so it’s quite a good base and we just build on that.
The Hostage is very clearly a thriller, what is it about the thriller genre that you like so much, that is so compelling to you?
There’s something visceral for an audience, I think that we see it a lot in the movies but it is a genre of theatre but it’s never really used very much. I think there’s something about being in the room, live where things that are extraordinary are happening. Is someone getting killed? Are these things happening? And they’re happening right in front of you, it increases the blood flow and gets the juices flowing, and hopefully we can get the audience really excited by what they’re seeing.
It’s a lot more difficult than a movie, because you can’t have jump cuts, and big sound tracks, and things screaming out at you, so you have to really craft it a lot better to get the audience in the right headspace to feel the thrill. Hopefully they will, this one is a kind of psychological thriller as well. There are a lot of twists and turns in this story – what happens at the beginning is not necessarily what happens at the end.
I suppose what we’re trying to do is play on assumptions that the audience makes. When I first started making The Hostage I was thinking about the movie The Sixth Sense – the Bruce Willis movie – and if you watch that movie, they never actually lie to the audience but the audience make all these assumptions about the Bruce Willis character, and then when the twist is revealed, it’s actually the audience that have fooled themselves. They’ve built up this expectation and suddenly it’s like – oh my God, I was so wrong!
So, we’re playing with things like that – we’re playing with the audience, you know giving a red herring, giving the audience an idea of what’s going on without actually saying what’s going on.
So how does it translate? You mention that it is a very filmic genre, how do you do all of those things like red herrings etc, that are subtle in film but may be missed onstage?
It is tricky, but it’s definitely about the dialogue, you’ve got to make sure that you explain what’s going on without hitting people over the head with it. So those people who pick it up the first time don’t feel like they’re being told seven times – this is what is going on. But on the other hand, if you don’t explain it well enough, the audience doesn’t get it and then you’re in trouble. So, it’s a delicate balancing act.
In a way, it’s down to the actors’ ability to get that message across and then it comes back to why we chose this genre. I suppose it’s something that really challenges them – it’s something that pushes them. It’s a genre that people don’t do a lot, that psychological drama/thriller, so it’s good to have them experiment with that, and understand what’s required in the genre.
Can you think, off the top of your head, of any thriller pieces of theatre that you’ve seen?
Well, there’s not a lot. There’s a play called Deathtrap written by Ira Levin, and I remember seeing that when I was a young kid and one of the characters – it’s near the end – and one of the characters you think is dead and he does the classic ‘jump up’ from behind and the lightning goes and the audience screams!
We don’t have any of those cheap moments, there were plenty of those in The Mummy Rises but we don’t have any of those moments in this one – but hopefully in The Hostage it’s the audience going – oh right, that’s what’s going on. Not so much somebody jumping out at them. It would have fit perfectly within the horror-comedy but not really in this one.
When it works well the audience is on the edge of their seats, but I suppose even Let The Right One In kind of seeps a little bit into that genre. It’s something that Black Swan State Theatre Company haven’t really done before, so it’s good to see them playing with that. I think there are a lot of people happy to see the direction they’re going in.
I feel like theatre in Perth is getting far more gritty again. The Blue Room had a show on earlier in the year, An Almost Perfect Thing about a young girl who was abducted in her youth and held captive, so we’re getting these kind of shows back in Perth. What are your thoughts on this trend?
Well, a lot of the theatre makers now, and Scott McArdle is a perfect example – they’ve grown up with these stories on television and movies and they want to reflect those stories in their art and their storytelling. McArdle’s first play, for example at The Blue Room was Between Solar Systems which was very science-fiction based, set on a spaceship and that kind of stuff. And then, Laika which was more of a historical drama, so choosing different genres, different elements and things that they’ve grown up with is what’s happening.
I think that the new generation of storytellers are looking to those kind of stories, I think it’s great. They’re not necessarily looking to the classics or the things of the seventies or eighties, they’re looking to tell their own stories now. And that can only be good.
I feel that this is a very local thing, do you find that your students are feeding back into the Perth scene? I’m not noticing the mass exodus over East occurring much anymore.
I think the thing about Perth which is good and bad, is that it’s a very small city, and community. The good things about that are that things can change very quickly, you don’t have to get a huge groundswell happening in terms of styles or moods, so suddenly things start to get gritty and everyone’s like – oh ok, I’ve wanted to do something gritty for a while. That can change very quickly and the entire scene can move in a direction which is very fast because we’re quite small – it doesn’t take a lot of momentum to move which is great.
The other side of it is we’re a very small city so it makes it hard to be successful and to have a career and that becomes quite problematic. A lot of my students head off to Europe, I’ve got at least three students in London at the moment. Then they come back and they figure out what they want to do. I think it’s about taking your opportunities where you can. Hopefully we can provide young theatre makers with opportunities to allow them to grow and experiment and really that’s what this piece is about – providing these students the opportunity to show everybody what they can do.