Interview | Laura Money
Phoebe Sullivan is the director of GRACE currently showing in The Blue Room Theatre‘s Summer Nights Programme for FRINGEWORLD 2019. We caught up with Sullivan ahead of the show to discuss directing and to find out what it’s all about.
What is GRACE all about and how did it develop?
GRACE is about a young girl who comes home one afternoon and there’s an octopus living in her living room. So, I guess from the start it is pretty surreal and whimsy, and a little bit off-kilter as far as what is real and what is not real. I think it’s a really great metaphor to play with in theatre when you have that suspension of disbelief and the magic of theatre, so it’s really cool.
Essentially, the crux of the story is about how we accept the inevitable of our own mortality or the mortality of those who are very close to us. Maybe healing relationships that never really had the chance to do so before that. It’s about goodbyes and new relationships and building yourself up after you feel like you’ve lost everything. And, in all that you have your general health and wellbeing as a young person who has gone through trauma.
So there’s a lot in it to be explored in 45 minutes but it just makes it this really comic, heartwarming, dry piece of theatre which I really love.
How did you come to be involved in it?
Zach Sheridan who wrote GRACE messaged me – we had studied together except he was in first year when I was in third year – so we did have a few years difference, but I watched him at uni and always thought – he’s just so talented! When he said, I want you to direct this piece, I was like – I’m not doing FRINGE! It was just after Let Me Finish and I was like, directing is tough. I had already had plans to work all my casual jobs over the Christmas period and then when January hit I was going to be like – see ya later, Perth!
And then, he said that he would like to have my eyes on it as he felt too close to the piece as a writer. He asked me to read the script so I begrudgingly said ok and then I read it and I did that thing where I read it like an actor – you know, how you would react in all of those circumstances? But the great thing about being the director, is I have no assigned character so you have the overall scope of what is everyone’s role in the piece. You know, what the story is that they are all telling together.
I got to this one moment towards the end of the play and it was very emotional, very beautiful even in its early draft stages and I was like – oh shit, now I have to do this! It was just so good I would have been an idiot if I passed it up. I’ve never regretted that decision. It’s been a different process from Let Me Finish because it’s a written play, so with a non-scripted piece you’re stumbling in the dark trying to find it – and I think you’re still doing that but the text is there, it’s now excavating what is there to still find.
Have you enjoyed working on GRACE? Does your experience of reading the script to directing the piece measure up?
I think it’s been really fun finding the non-verbal play of the script. The way Zach’s writing works is he writes quite opn-endedly – there are literally no directions, if anything there’s an asterisk at the beginning of the play that says – should you feel like doing this, maybe do that! All of the conversations I had with him, he was like – I’m keen to see what you bring to it.
So, he knew the strength was in the writing – because he said he was too close to it to direct?
I think he was close to it as a writing pursuit but also from a personal perspective. There’s a lot of heart in it that you can tell comes from a place of knowing. So, I think that was what largely motivated him to say – I will find somebody I trust and get them to do it. So, I feel a great deal of compassion and love for being endowed with that role, but it’s been a delight directing it – a delightful puzzle. This just comes from figuring out your own insecurities as an artist and a new director, I suppose.
You’re directing on your own this time, so that’s interesting.
Yeah, so you’re still figuring out your faults and how you could do things better as well and I think you’re constantly going between – I need to know what you’re doing to – I don’t know anything I’m doing! So, it’s been fun but now we’re at this really beautiful part of the process where we’re just running the show, getting notes and then maybe if we need to tweak a few things, just before it starts.
I’m going to assume with The Blue Room’s Summer Nights Programme being so big and FRINGEWORLD 2019 bumping in that you’d struggle to find much rehearsal time and space?
Well, the good thing is, I’ve always done a FRINGE show where someone involved or myself has been studying at WAAPA – so we just get free rehearsal space. But what has been tough is, we’ve all been working our respective jobs that pay rent and then doing rehearsals in the evening from 6 till 9 so it has been a bit of an upward hill battle in terms of that. I think it just reminds you that FRINGE is just about people doing it for the love of it!
You strike me as someone who isn’t happy unless they’re busy. Is that the case? Because you seem to thrive off it!
I think, um, if I am not spread too thinly then I can get really into it. I’m only doing one FRINGE show, the last show I did was Let Me Finish which ended in October.
But it’s coming back for FRINGEWORLD 2019, so are you not involved this time?
It is coming back for FRINGE, however we’re just re-mounting it, so there’s not a lot to do. It will be just adjusted to the new performance space, so we’re very lucky in that respect.
The only thing that is different now – being so busy – is I must be invested in the projects I take on. I do thrive off being busy but then I resent it at the same time, so who knows?
I find that I’m the same, always doing something and resenting the time I’m not doing something I have a passion for.
Yeah, however, I do like the small break in totally being immersed in ‘everything’s creative and there’s so much meaning in life and everything’s theatre!’ You just think – I’m just going to get on the bus now at 7:30 in the morning and then walk in the CBD where everyone is in their business suits walking around like angry ants.
I once described you as ‘the darling of physical theatre in Perth’ because you have this real affinity and natural instinct when it comes to physicality and using your body – so how much of that goes into GRACE?
I think – look, I’d love for every show I do to have physicality and abstracted movement but it’s such an ego artist thing. Even when I go to make a show, I have to ask – does it really need physical movement. You should let the core themes dictate how it’s going to be told. And there was this moment in rehearsals where I was like – Elise, could you do this movement? And we did it as a run with people in the room and it didn’t work – so I was like, writing this down – does not work.
I think for GRACE there’s so much text in it and it switches between time and place and memory and present tense in such a rapid-fire way that I think movement wouldn’t work. I always want to see performers in their bodies, that’s the thing. But choreographed movement, I feel, kind of bogs down the world.
And they’d be thinking about it too much, surely?
Sometimes it depends on the actors’ capabilities and I’m sure if we worked it to the enth degree and we did workshops and I said these are all the physical exercises we’re going to do to get this it would work but we just don’t have the time. You can see it in some performers where you think – oh, they’re not committing, and it’s not going to work if they don’t commit but if they’re not feeling something, then I need to change it.
I love physicality. There is one tiny moment which we did kind of work and I think it’s going to stick and I think people will like it – it’s very vague and subtle!
As the director, do you take on the responsibility of something not working every time?
I think, it’s tricky! There are some things that can fall on the writing but that’s more figuring out what character intentions are; why and when they do things at certain moments of the play. Zach has also worked the script to the enth degree – it’s a really great product so now everything must fall to me – which is fine, you bear that burden and also the joys that come with having and mounting a successful show.
So what do you exactly do as the director? How many decisions do you make versus your design team or the actors? How much control do you have?
I think that’s a really good question and it’s still something that I’m figuring out. I wrote in another interview, I found directing is like you have this idea, and I guess most people would colloquially describe it as a ‘vision’ and you read the script and think – ok, these are the moments that we need to capitalise on or this is the crux, the heart of the play so let’s try and shape it around these themes. It might be the relationship between a mother and a daughter, or it might be a place not on stage where all the characters are headed to and that’s the goal – so you just shape it towards that.
Then, when you’ve got actors in the room they will just get up with their first interpretations and instincts will give you something and then you’ve got to be really adaptive in balancing how much is feasibly possible that you want and what can you actually get from them. And then they make offers and you go – that’s genius, I would never have thought of that, let’s keep that in!
Do you have to put your foot down sometimes? Like – no a lisp for this character is just not going to happen!
Well, sometimes it’s as simple as – you need to walk over there and stand over there! Because then all the energy is going to this focal point and I want to change that. It’s negotiating but then you have the conversation and it’s like – ok, we’ve done this a couple of times now, what is it about this note that is not working for you? And if they say, oh I just keep forgetting it’s like – remember!
You know if they come to me and say I just ran out of space to say this part, I think it’s best just to keep doing it and then figure out what it is that isn’t working.
Is there much resistance?
If there is it only ever comes from if something doesn’t serve the work. Sometimes in this room, actors have said – it doesn’t feel right – and I’ve had to go – ooh, maybe it doesn’t feel right? I’m like, super hokey – I love really obvious music choices, I love demonstrating lots of really cliche things and leaning really hard into it. Sometimes it works and sometimes it’s overkill.
It looks like GRACE has enough whimsy and nods to the genre to pull off some of those choices.
I think there is a fine balance, especially in the staging of it it’s kind of a wink and a nudge to the audience. They’ll be like – ha ha, I know what they’re doing and it’s funny!
So when actors can call out something that’s not working, we can all go with it. We’re all peers – I worked with Simone Detourbet on Let Me Finish and we were very much equals in the role and the same with Ana [Ika] – we’re all the same age, we’re all striving for the same thing so they’re not afraid to say their piece knowing that I’m secure enough to be able to take feedback in the moment and then re-work it.
You all know each other and it seems like one project you’re directing and then you’re acting alongside the same people. Is it like a collective?
I don’t know that it’s a collective for GRACE – is certainly is for Let Me Finish but because the scene is so small, you’re kind of just filling in the niche that people need. I mean, I do really like directing – it is really hard though. I also love performing. I feel like people are like – oh, she’s a female director, we need more of those so let’s keep getting Phoebe to direct. But this is me, literally being like – oh it’s because I’m not a good performer – like all these insecurities come out!
I had this conversation with Zach where I was like – I love this show, I just wish I was acting in it! He said – I didn’t ask you to direct because I don’t think you’re a good actor, I really align myself with the way that you like to present things onstage – so it’s like a double compliment but I just never head the first one! It was probably the only moment of ‘ego’ that I had to go through with GRACE and doing another directing role after not acting since Cloud Nine.
It can be taxing, but what you said earlier about conferring with the design team and everyone – I love that stuff! I love it so much – it’s literally like you’re a project manager and you’re like – let’s build this world. So, it’s really awesome!
It’s like you get to be in control of that vision but you’re not being a megalomaniac about it!
Yeah, and I haven’t studied design or sound design, so for me I just automatically know I’m not the best person to audio-visually tell that story. So when we have discussions about how the text is going and we want to really mark those changes and tension and mood quite audibly and then they go and grab that sound. I always think – I could have never thought of that, so thank you so much, you’re a genius!
I’m going to talk about the ‘octopus’ in the room here – literal octopus costume? Puppet? Human in lycra hinting at being an octopus? How are you achieving this?
The costuming is like a nod to something kind of aquatic, however, there are no puppets of octopusses and no – against my wishes! – hokey, kind of nativity play style costumes. I met with resistance! No paper mache in this room!
I think we found a magical blend of – if you say it is what it is, then it is!
Well, that’s something that theatre can do over any other genre isn’t it? So, how does GRACE fit the theatre rather than being a film or short story?
It’s interesting because I think you always have to justify why the product you’re making needs to be the form that it is. Beyond just – I studied it so I have to make theatre now. I think there’s something about live performance and watching actors have a presence onstage that can really give weight to emotional experiences that you might not have experienced and maybe won’t experience reading it – but seeing it and really being in the world between Grace and her mother and these octopusses and the kids she goes to school with portrays more of a feeling you would get as opposed to watching a film or reading it in a book. Not that those forms can’t offer that but I think the way this story is told through relationships we need to see it and be part of that invisible space.
You mention it being quite whimsical, is GRACE uplifting? Whimsy doesn’t always equate to happiness.
Look, I think the more we do it, I see it as a little bit dry and sarcastic, and a little bit cheeky. I think in the way that your world can be falling apart but you look outside and people are still going to work and there’s traffic jams and you have to buy apples from the grocery store. Like the very contrasting and almost disappointing sense that the world is still going.
I think it’s about – what’s so beautiful about life is that you have those moments where you almost reach perfection and then it breaks – like something just shatters – and there’s never too much sentiment because it will be like – oh, well, that’s that. So I feel like that’s the whimsy story-telling general vibe of the play.
So how does it fit into FRINGEWORLD 2019?
Visually it takes risks. Within a very traditional form, it does bust out in what it does. And then, I think it’s just a bit of fun – there are some not so delightful topics but that’s just the way it is. There’s a bit of sadness, bit of tears, bit of laughter – everything! Very messy.
Is that what the audience is going to get out of it? Every emotion?
Yeah, they’ll just leave with an overall sense that nothing makes sense! Oh well, it never did. And any notion that I was in control and that I had that sense of feeling is just an illusion.
Who would you recommend GRACE to?
It would be interesting to have parents and young people from about 7 up. I think that’s a good demograhic and an interesting conversation to have – I always want young people to see theatre, and this is suitable. But then also I think teenagers to people in their 40s and 50s who might reflect that there were probably a few things they could have handled better between their personal relationships. And anyone who struggles with mental illness and just general illness and how we talk about that.
Where does GRACE fit into a Fringe Binge evening?
I think you watch GRACE with a good friend you haven’t seen in a really long time, you go have like a burger and a beer and some chips and chat about it and then you go and watch some cabaret and have drinks for the rest of the night.
Start with the sentiment and then ease off into drunken catastrophe!
Do not miss out on seeing this wonderful show – get your tickets to GRACE here.