Article, Interview

IN CONVERSATION: Jeffrey Jay Fowler

Are you destined for greatness? Improvement Club is an exclusive association with the singular goal of improving. But as members join they begin to question him. What does improvement actually mean? Fitter bodies? Better brains? More dollars in the bank? A place for everyone at the table? Writer and director Jeffrey Jay Fowler of The Last Great Hunt explores society and what its foibles may be and questions how, if at all, we can improve.

I spoke with Fowler in the lead up to Improvement Club to see what it’s all about and to get his insight on the Perth theatre scene – a scene Fowler is excited to talk about.

It’s great! You can go out and see theatre 3 or 4 times a week. Firstly there was FRINGEWORLD and then we’ve just had the Subiaco Arts Festival and now Black Swan State Theatre Company have timed their shows so they’re in the same week and of course there’s the Blue Room season, too.

The Improvement Club crew only had a limited time for rehearsals in the space – something Fowler described as a ‘slow-moving nightmare’ but you can tell he loves every minute of it! The idea for Improvement Club started in 2011 and then in 2013, Fowler wrote three short scenes for the Edward Albee Prize (which he informs me drily, he didn’t win) and then ‘put in the drawer for a while’ – a move entirely uncharacteristic of Fowler’s usual process.

I’ve written very few plays that haven’t been [immediately] produced. I tend to not be fully inspired until I’ve got the actors, got the rehearsal room and the pressure of the deadline.

But there was just something about Improvement Club that just wasn’t ready to happen. After creating the collaborative theatre company, The Last Great Hunt, Improvement Club was finally ready to be developed. It underwent so many changes…

It doesn’t even look like it did at the end of the development because it’s also a response to a world that’s changing. If you’re writing a play about clubs, you’re writing a play about how people group together. You would write two very different plays pre-Trump and in the Trump era!

There are some large global shifts in how people are clumping together, or creating sides. I’ve written a very different play now than I would have in 2011.

It’s not only the world that has moved on in the 7 years since initial development. Fowler himself was fresh out of drama school, 25 years old and studying directing at NIDA. He admits is would probably been a much lighter work if it had been written back then.

Every show that you make you hope to make better than the last and since I have been practicing for so long now it’s a better play. The original play was about a club that got created and then divided into two halves – one which represented left wing thinking and one which represented right wing thinking. Although that still exists somewhere in the play, it’s not the core of what the play is about now.

It’s much more about personal narratives in a world where people are constantly divided into groups by who they are: skin colour, race, privilege.

Fowler admits he doesn’t really have a standard writing practice. Rather, it differs depending on what he is writing at the time. In works like FAG/STAG or BALI which were co-written with Chris Isaacs, they would talk for at least a year before really putting pen to paper. They would just hit record on their sound recorder and just improvise a chosen storyline.With Improvement Club he had those 3 scenes written in 2013 and he re-worked the scenes and characters and tone.

I took the work to the actors and we developed it together. I re-wrote the ending – it didn’t even have an ending sequence! As well as having only two weeks to rehearse, I’ve been editing it every night based on feedback from the actors and also just what I think will work. It’s pretty demanding for the actors, I mean Chris Isaacs is on the stage from the word go and until it ends – not only is that hard enough, I’m changing up the script every night!

A big part of Fowler’s writing process is flexibility. If something doesn’t sound right or is clunky in the script, he’ll change it. One of the things I love about his work is how realistic the dialogue is and how he modifies it slightly to create a sense of the hyper-real. His use of colloquial language creates believable characters and takes away that rigidity that can sometimes be found in theatre.

With something like BALI or FAG/STAG it’s not about being word perfect – the plays are largely paraphrased to give it a natural feel. But a play like Price Tag is not colloquial language at all, in fact it’s very heightened, strict, bizzarre language which is not really how people speak. It comes down to the individual project.

I’m really proud that there isn’t a throughline in all my work. I write in different styles, I create comedies/dramas/pieces that are musically driven because I’d get bored if I was just doing the same process over and over again.

Improvement Club is lucky enough to be staged at the State Theatre Centre WA in Rehearsal Room 1. Fowler admits that one of the big problems, even for funded theatre companies, is accessibility of venues. Once a venue has been found, most of the money in the budget is used up.

There’s something exciting about having a small budget, you really have to be creative. Everyone has to, not just scrimp and save but has to creatively problem solve – you know, how are we going to put this on?

The intimacy of Last Great Hunt shows work very well in a ‘black box’ theatre. Lighting director Joe Lui has had quite a challenge in lighting such a small space, combined with Sally Phipps‘ innovative set, which Fowler informs me is all made of cardboard!

She is very resourceful! The best way to create the office space we wanted was to use concertinaed cardboard walls which Sally has had to hand paint herself. It’s a lot of hard work that has made it all possible.

Fowler believes it’s all about expectations. “Audiences get your side a bit,” meaning that they know what to expect from a show by The Last Great Hunt. Production values differ for each company and venue and audiences are pretty savvy when it comes to recognising that. There are a few different tiers working in the Perth theatre scene and audiences and theatre makers alike know where they fit in.

The Perth scene is a really exciting one at the moment, with a lot of theatre makers sticking around. I asked Fowler why he returned to Perth after studying at NIDA.

In 2013 I got offered a job as Associate Director of Black Swan State Theatre Company. I wanted to work with a bigger theatre company, I had just finished studying and had done a couple of years travelling. While I was there I established the emerging writers program which saw works get to a public reading and hopefully get them to a place where they could be put onstage.

Kat Osbourne was establishing The Last Great Hunt and I was excited to be a part of that. To be able to work as an artist in the same city all year round is not something that comes up often. I mean, we tour a lot too. All six of us are touring a work or two.

There’s something incredibly unique about the Perth scene and where The Last Great Hunt fits within it.

I love that Perth’s scene is small. I look at the next generation of theatre makers in Perth and love it. The Last Great Hunt was established because we wanted to be the first generation that stayed in Perth so to see that the new graduates are also staying is really exciting for me. It’s a real community and we all help each other.

Theatre goers are really spoilt for choice at the moment, and Fowler believes that key players like FRINGEWORLD and Black Swan State Theatre Company have a responsibility to continue Perth’s success.

Someone might go to a Blue Room show during FRINGEWORLD and that has a flow on effect – they might go see another one in winter. Having a new Artistic Director at Black Swan (Clare Watson) has really established a more inclusive and innovative scene at the top tier and that is going to trickle down. I think there will be shifts in all different ways.

So, how does the Last Great Hunt fit into the Perth scene? It’s not quite a second tier company – they are a collective that work with guest artists. I think the Last Great Hunt provides a space for excellent theatre making and a collaborative conversation that is vital in the Perth scene. Improvement Club has emerged from this nurturing environment and Fowler believes that different people will get different things from the show.

The play is ultimately about someone who cannot rest with who he is. He lives with a constant sense that he should be achieving more and the play looks at what that does to people.

It’s a really fun play, we’re having a lot of fun with it, it’s threatening in points. I always like work that makes the audience culpable and to make them think. I think a good piece of art will inspire a very lively conversation. I hope to do that.

You can catch Improvement Club at State Theatre Centre WA in June/July 2018.

Interview | Laura Money

WHEN: 27 June – 7 July 2018 | 7:30pm

WHERE: Rehearsal Room 1 | State Theatre Centre WA | PERTH

INFO: Tickets $22 – $28 | Duration 70 mins | Suitable 15+ | Coarse language | Adult themes | Wheelchair accessible






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