INTERVIEW: Rhiannon Petersen

By Laura Money

Rhiannon Peterson is the writer/deviser of an intimate new show The Big Dark. Playing during FRINGEWORLD 2018 as part of The Blue Room Theatre’s Summer Nights program, it is a whimsical exploration of the way our perceptions change in the dark. We caught up with her ahead of the show to find out how it all came about.

You’ve been involved in so many Blue Room shows as a lighting designer, and stage manager, and back of house – is this your first time acting?

It is my first time acting in the professional industry, or independent scene. I studied a general performance degree at Curtin Uni and a big component of that was acting but I’m only kind of interested in certain kinds of performance. So, this is my first time doing that, so that’s pretty exciting!

What techniques did you study?

I did the Performance Studies degree, so that’s a general overview of all things theatre, including acting. And looking at Australian and International theatre but also looking at things like writing for theatre, or devising for performance, or technical performance. So, while there was an acting focus, it was more trying to give you an overview of lots of different parts and how they go into making theatre.

So, what made you decide to study performance?

I guess when I was younger I was more into visual art. Mostly sticking things together and seeing what happened. I only started doing any drama in year 10 or 11 in high school, and ended up liking theatre because you’re kind of getting all the different bits from all the different art and putting it together. That really appealed to me, but I didn’t really think of doing anything theatre related. I got to the end of year 12 and had to think – what should I do, now? So, I thought, I’m really enjoying this so let’s give it a go and see how it works out.

The shows I’ve seen that you’ve been involved in – Interrupting A Crisis, Arteries By Ancesrty – have a very strong aesthetic, is that something that you collaborated with the artists on?

Yeah, with Interrupting A Crisis it was a lot of collaboration with the other visual designer, Clare Testoni, she did the set and AV and costume for it. So, we were collaborating in trying to get the vision of feeling small at a party, or a popstar on a stage and like, just threading how Georgina [Cramond] feels in all the colourful chaos and sparkles that’s going on.

With Arteries By Ancestry, the director had a very strong aesthetic vision. That was really important with how the sound linked in together. It was a very detailed show in terms of like how many cues we had and um, he shifts between things. Um, hopefully it was a very visceral experience.

I’m really interested in doing shows that allow me to have that experimentation and play and seeing what you can do within your form.

How does the set and lighting design create the ‘restless’ vibe in The Big Dark?

Our visual imagery is a huge part of what we’re doing in creating this show. Our set is all contained into these like, two cupboard pieces that we kind of go around – but most of the time the main character’s stuck between it. So, some are like, small bits of the set that we want to isolate most of the time but occasionally we break away from that and open out from that little world.

Because we’re using light and darkness as a metaphor, that’s a big consideration, and also because it’s a FRINGEWORLD show, it’s based on what we actually have access to. We’re using a lot of practical lights within our set, we have a lighter that we use at one stage, we’ve got a light which is a puppet that becomes animated. We also have a mask that lights up, so we’re having fun! Just trying to be quite inventive in how we’re doing that.

It sounds quite whimsical, it sounds like the perfect link to discuss nightmares and children having trouble sleeping. Is it regressive in any way?

I don’t know if it’s quite a regression to childhood, but it is playing with ideas of dreams and nightmares and not being able to get to sleep. It’s in that weird state where you’re almost asleep but not quite asleep but not really in your everyday life. So, things like Alice In Wonderland is an influence in how we’re trying to, like construct our journey, I guess. Yeah.

You seem to have so many elements to this show – puppetry, comedy, body-horror – could you unpack that a little bit?

Yeah, the body-horror element, I guess the show isn’t constructed in the same way a horror show might be, in how it’s set up or anything. But there are lots of elements that kind of – what happens a lot in the show are ordinary things in our life are taken and distorted. Things like the main character’s body is part of that, and how we play with that – one of the things is that her hands come to life, and start to explore around the place. So, it’s kind of like we’re not treating it in the same way as a horror, but if that stuff happened to you it would be really crazy and scary, but we’re kind of not setting it up to scare the audience. Um, but at the same time, if your hands came to life and were like – we’re going to play with a blender – it’s a pretty full-on thing.

The puppetry has come about from how we’re using everything in the space. Again, that idea of taking ordinary things and distorting them, and animating them. So, through that, different parts of the set come to life, or different objects. That’s how we’re using object puppetry. And comedy? We want it to be a fun show and a show that has some spooky qualities that would be hectic for the protagonist, but it’s really about playing with the fun as well as like, it being really whacky.

You’ve trained with Spare Parts Puppet Theatre, and I’ve noticed a rise in puppetry in theatre around Perth. What is it about puppetry that can tell a story in a way that straight theatre can’t?

As an artist, I’m really interested in visual theatre and creating things that happen onstage that don’t happen in real life but are reflective of our real life experiences. And I think puppetry is a really great way to do that because you have so many opportunities with puppets and objects – and how do you use them onstage? It’s just, like a really exciting thing for me. Spare Parts runs a program called “First Hand” which trains emerging puppetry artists, which I was lucky enough to do in 2016 and that’s when I started developing this work.

But yeah, I think that program is something that really gets different people in the industry interested in puppetry and what they can do with it. Um, because lots of Perth artists that work with puppetry have done that program, or collaborated with Spare Parts.

Do you think that it is becoming more prevalent? I’ve certainly noticed a rise in puppetry in Perth but is it a wider global movement?

Well, I’m not really sure. I mean, I guess I’ve only really been um, kind of aware of what’s happening in Perth in the last four years or something. But I do notice this like, attraction to using puppetry within Perth. Yeah, and I think it’s different from how different people in different parts of the world using it.

How did you come to develop The Big Dark? What was the process? What sparked that off?

Yeah, so I wrote a story for some creative writing unit in university, which was about a light globe being blown and in the dark and the unknown this human’s like, hands and eyes going on an adventure together! Trying to find a light bulb and replace the globe and bringing the world kind of back to normality.

So yeah, when I um, applied for Firsthand, we had to pitch an idea, so that’s kinda, that’s what I did. And then later in that you got to do a development with Spare Parts. Um, yeah, and then I did a showing in 2016 as part of a Spare Parts program and then kind of sat on it for awhile. I was like, yeah, I think I still want to do this and that people responded well and got to take feedback.

So then yeah, when it kind of come around to applying for fringe stuff, I was like, yeah, let’s do it. Let’s make it happen. Yeah. And then kind of did a bit more development at the end of the 2017 and now into rehearsing and getting everything happening beyond. Yeah. Um, so yeah, that was like a lot of play, a lot of devising, um, a lot of exploring what we can do with different objects and the ideas we’re working with.

What is it about that darkness that just makes people’s imaginations run wild, do you think?

Well, I think it’s that we are such visual centric people, as a species. Um, so, when that’s kind of taken away from us – our imagination tends to play up and fill in the gaps and um, yeah, the concept is that idea of being alone in your bed as a kid or like even now to be honest! Just imagining the monster under the bed, or that there’s someone else – that the creaking in your – the rustle of your window is like, someone else there.

I guess it’s also that asleep time and you’re not doing anything else except trying to get to sleep. So your mind wanders a bit more. Yeah. And I think it’s also about like night time and the kind of odd hours that normally you would be asleep, but if you’re not asleep, how it’s like a different territory than you usually experience.


It’s amazing what we can convince ourselves of, isn’t it?

Yeah! And then you just have to try and ‘unconvince’ yourself!

Obviously you’ve worked a lot with the Blue Room and the independent theatre scene, but what’s it like working with the Blue Room on Summer Nights?

The Summer Nights program is, I think, the way to do FRINGEWORLD. For independent theatre artists you just get a better deal and better support than anywhere else. Obviously, it’s different because everything’s a lot more rushed and cause there’s so many other shows at the same time, you’re kind of like, yeah, everyone’s a bit more hectic and crazy. Everyone’s working on everything. They’re so supportive and so happy to like try and help you realise your vision even if it’s at FRINGEWORLD that you’re trying to fit it into. So it’s really nice to be able to put the piece on with them.

 Would you put this piece on anywhere else, maybe take it to Adelaide Fringe or other places?

Yeah, that’s definitely a possibility but at the moment I kind of just want to see how it goes. Then I can be like – hey, what should I do next?

 What do you think audiences will get out of this show?

I hope they have fun. I hope they kind of, find the fun in it, like what everyday things can do. I think they’ll reflect on it in terms of their own lives –  because a lot of what the main character is trying to deal with, is kind of like wanting to escape her everyday existence, but feeling trapped in it and ultimately not being able to escape herself.

So, yeah I hope they get all that, which is probably a bit of a leap because it’s quite abstract but I’m just gonna do the best I can with what I have and I’m going to try to love myself. Yeah, I’m just going to live my life the best that I can which – saying that thinking about my show, is a bit of a leap. I hope they feel things for the characters, laugh and be like – don’t do that!

 So what are you looking forward to the most about FRINGEWORLD 2018?

There are lots of things, I really want to see 19 Weeks which is the one that’s at the pool.  I mean it sounds like it’s about pretty heavy subject matter, but just that site specific, um, nature and I think how it combines with what it’s talking about as well makes it really interesting. Really looking forward to that. One of my friends is doing a piece called Future’s Eve looking at robots and how they combined with ideas of gender, um, post humanism, transhumanism stuff, in a performance art piece which I’m pretty excited for. Yeah, there’s lots of cool stuff on.

 You can catch Rhiannon in her show, THE BIG DARK during FRINGEWORLD 2018:

 WHEN: 27 January – 1 February 2018 | 5pm & 6:30pm

 WHERE: The Blue Room Theatre | Fringe Central | Northbridge

 INFO: Tickets $19 – $21 | Duration 50 mins | Suitable all ages | WA artist


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