Interview | Laura Money
Kangaroo Stew is a family drama that centres around Native Title, loss and grief, and the ways in which we all come together as one. It premieres at The Blue Room Theatre on 27th April 2021. We caught up with Director Bruce Denny to find out what it’s all about.
Denny has directed plays previous to this but Kangaroo Stew marks his Blue Room debut, he was assistant director on FIFO (Yirra Yaakin), independent co-op type theatre and will be directing for Yirra Yaakin’s Dating Black. He was just recently in The Sum of Us – so does being an actor give him any more insight into directing?
‘Well as a director you know what the actors are going through. You know all the nerves and the worries and the doubts and all that. And as an actor you think, ok it’s not just about me and my character, the director has to put the show together so it all balances out. As an actor you’re very quick to think ‘my character wouldn’t do that’ but as a director you think ‘oh actually, that relates to that because that’s what so and so said in page 2. I think it’s a good thing to cross over. I love being on stage.’
Interestingly, Denny’s journey to the stage is not your classic story. ‘When I went to school I wasn’t allowed to do drama … I auditioned in grade four for Oliver, the musical and the next week Dad took me out and enrolled me in football!’
It wasn’t until a well meaning neighbour connected to community theatre encouraged him to tread the boards: ‘I was fortunate enough I had a neighbour once who was involved in community theatre and they were looking for a sleazy Mexican card player for A Streetcar Named Desire and she said ‘yeah, you’d do it, Bruce.’ And yeah, I loved it and kept up with it after that.’
Of course there are many ways to get to where Denny is today ‘Yep, did community theatre for a while then an agent came and saw one of the shows and at that time I was a male model and got myself an agent and just went from job to job. I never went to WAAPA as such but I have done courses like stage combat and character and development’
‘I had a lot of good directors when I first started, one of them she taught me about owning the space and others teach you stagecraft and things as you go along.’
So what was his first Blue Room show?
‘A few years ago in the 600 seconds I did a monologue, about three or four years ago. I’ve always gone to the Blue Room to see shows, I have a place in the country I live in unless I’m at work – if I haven’t got work I go bush but I really love contemporary Australian theatre so I’ve always been a fan of the Blue Room. It’s the first time directing there but I have been in shows.’
What’s it like being at the Blue Room?
‘What I like about it is it’s a small space – it’s got a good feel about it. Because you’ve got usually an educated audience in the theatre, so they’re prepared to allow for experimental theatre, they’re a good bunch of people and the confined space suits a smaller play.’
Kangaroo Stew started out as a much larger production ‘Zac and I sat down and had to bring it back to what we could actually perform in the space that we had with the budget that we had as well. What’s the basic story line of what we want to tell.’
It’s ultimately a story about family so how does it feel directing a bunch of people who have to love each other every night?
‘[There are] five people on stage – the father John played by Maitland Schnaars – now he’s actually already dead, so you see him throughout the play, then his wife, his widow Lilly who is played by Aunty Raima, then his son Jack who stayed home who is played by Micah and then there’s David the son who left and has now returned, he’s played by Zac James the writer, and then we have his fiancé/love interest in CJ Hanson.’
‘There’s a lot of respect, well Maitland has a lot of respect for people because of his experience and his body of work, the new person is Micah, he’s done stand up comedy and this is his first time on stage and it’s a very supportive experience – myself and Maitland we sat down and had a yarn with him – he’s coming leaps and bounds and I’m sure this is not the last time you’ll se him in a show. There’s a real bond, they all look out for each other when you’re on the stage you are dependent on other people so you do need to be supportive of each other.’
It’s a family story – how important is aboriginality to the story?
‘Well Zac is Wangai, it’s a family story similar to a lot of people out there – they’re doing it tough and then they get the offer of royalties from a mine compared to the importance of culture. We covered this in FIFO as well, it’s an issue that’s affecting lot’s of communities – do we stay here living in poverty without proper chances for education or can we retain the culture and still get ahead. So it’s a modern story linking to the ancient past of beliefs – where do you compromise? It’s a subject that’s affecting many places now.’
‘We’ve got to tell our own stories. They’re the same stories as everyone else’s. I was involved in a play called Cracked a couple of years ago and that covered drug addiction and that can be a story about white fella, black fella – it’s a story that’s still affecting families now and that could be in any suburb. These stories, they’re our stories – I’m not trying to tell somebody else’s story. The movement now is really, ok our stories are as relevant as anybody else’s stories and we don’t have to just do this old stuff. Yeah, stories about poverty and doing it tough is not confined to one race, colour or creed. They’re modern stories – anyone can watch the importance of coming together as a family to make decisions … so it’s a story that anyone can take something from.’
‘We have included bits of culture in this one – spirits, language, a bit of dance, just bits of it to tell the story, to keep it grounded.’
What do you think the audience is going to get out of Kangaroo Stew?
‘I’d like to think they’ll get a better understanding of what’s out there. Mining and the remote areas, these things can have a big impact. So it’s an understanding of what people can go through in these areas – I know from living and working in the city it’s like ‘oh just leave it all in the ground, you know what I mean?’ And there’s something there that says we need work, we need jobs for our kids and other people say no dig it all up! And of course you can’t dig it all up because it’s important to our culture. So, it’s not as simple as people think. I think Zac has done a great job in saying hey, if we do this we could have this, we could have that, we can get proper health services and all that. I think Zac as a writer has done a great job because he’s not just one sided.’
‘In theatre I don’t always say I want the message to take this message away. I want to give them a show that they enjoy being in that room and that they want to be in that room again. When I normally get the actors together for rehearsing a show my general spiel is always to remember that you’re doing this for an audience. If we have an empty theatre, what’s the point of putting it on? So I usually try to direct so that either the audience are going to get something out of it or at least enjoy their night at the theatre.
It could be a comedy or it could be a drama. After The Sum of Us for instance I had a lot of people coming up to me after and telling me their stories. And I felt very honoured by that… what they did is want to hang around afterwards and share their stories and open up a bit and that to me is good live theatre. When you get that audience engagement and they’re prepared to have a yarn about it after. I’m one of those people, I go out after the show and I’m quite happy to talk to anybody who wants to talk to me about the show. I’m quite happy to talk about it because for the audience that’s part of their evening out as well. Especially somewhere like the Blue Room which has a nice little bar and an area you can talk, they’ve paid their money to see 60 minutes of theatre, but if you can extend that out by another half an hour feeling safe and comfortable to come up and say, oh we liked that or it wasn’t my cup of tea – that’s fine too. For me theatre is everything. I can remember when every play was three hours long and you just want to go home and go to bed after. These days it’s shorter – curtains up at 7pm, we finish at 8 and then another half an hour of talking – I mean they don’t have to hang around, they can go home to bed or they can have a yarn. I like an audience that feels comfortable enough to hang around.’
So, how does the dynamic change as the show develops?
‘You find you have the reading and everyone’s all fired up, then you go through the blocking process and the energy starts to drop, then you go into rehearsals and it becomes routine, then the first time they start playing with props things change a bit. Then costumes and all of a sudden things lift a peg. And then the lights and sound come in and you think, alright. Then you get a few people in the room and they react, they start laughing or something and all of a sudden the dynamic changes. Then you get to the opening night where some people get nervous and then you have the run of the show, so it does change dynamics but in a good way.’
Of course, for Denny directing is all about connection – to each other, to the words, to the space.
‘Last night I did an exercise where I put all of the actors in different parts of the room, so they weren’t near each other and turned off every single light in the room so it was total black. And I got them just to do a lines run. And two of the actors actually felt really emotional in a part they hadn’t really before. It was just them in the dark without visual props or movement even taken out of it, they couldn’t move they just had to do it in the dark and sit still. And that took it to a different dynamic when they did that.’
Kangaroo Stew is on at The Blue Room Theatre. This interview was conducted pre lockdown and restrictions. Please keep up to date on their website: blueroom.org.au