Interview | Laura Money
Writer Elise Wilson and Director Marshall Stay chatted with The Fourth Wall regarding their new show, Floor Thirteen – a sensory explosion playing at The Blue Room Theatre. We talked about memory and how unreliable it can really be.
LM: How did the concept for Floor Thirteen come about?
EW: I suppose it started when we just became fascinated by memories and how memory is something that many of us treat as accurate. That’s not the case at all. We change our memories all the time, I mean our brains physically can’t remember every single thing. We like to think that we store things in a way that’s logical, except we don’t.
And then I guess we started writing it after we had talks between Marshall, Courtney and I and then we talked about what the possibilities are for doing a show like this. I gave Marshall two ideas and then he chose which plot we were going to do. From there we did a little devised performance and then just started writing it.
MS: Even before the writing happened, though, the show kind of had origins – like a specific style and movements, like a specific aesthetic. We sort of already knew what we wanted, so before the script I worked with Elise and with the cast doing a lot of movement training. So, just getting the cast to explore a movement style where we are physicalising dialogue. Words rather than music. We kind of explore – how does that manifest? There have been other shows around the world who have done that before so we wanted to draw inspiration from some of their ideas and performances and then making them our own and work with our bodies.
A lot of time was spent on that and then that kind of became that question of what world and what story best suits this aesthetic. Which lent itself to telling this story the best as well, because it was never just going to be a case of us just writing a random story-line we needed to find a story-line that lent itself to this aesthetic and utilises it properly. Otherwise it would have just fallen a little flat.
LM: I always think of memory and dreams as interlinked, so are the physical movements ethereal in parts?
MS: There are kind of a few little moments but I think we didn’t want to go with the show being all ethereal. There are definitely moments when we go back further into the memory – like back to really old memories – maybe they are a bit ethereal bit for the most part it’s fairly clear.
EW: Yeah, clear, sort of stylised, heightened gestures that we would make in everyday life but they’re extended beyond what we would normally look like.
MS: It’s all pretty fast. This show happens really rapidly. So, don’t expect anything too dreamlike!
LM: How many people are onstage at any given time?
EW: There are five performers. Our protagonist, Phoebe, she’s inside an elevator which is in the centre of the space and the audience is in the round – along the outside of the space. In between the elevator and the audience the other four performers are there, they’re not always onstage but they are performing the memories on the outside.
LM: You mentioned earlier that there are these gaps in our brains, so it’s very human to want to fill in these gaps through storytelling. How important is this concept of ‘performing’ memory?
EW: A word that we came across when we were researching memory was ‘confabulation’ – which is where someone produces misinterpreted, fabricated, or distorted memories but they don’t have an intention to deceive. We were quite fascinated with how people tell stories about their lives – and they are sometimes exaggerated but we sort of take their word for it, especially because it’s people actually talking about their memories, so it’s not likely to be a lie. It’s hard not to interject now, and ask – did it really happen like that?
MS: Ever since starting research into the show, I’ve even started questioning my own memories – like I really have to check myself and be like – is that how it happened? But also with other people, especially when someone puts on a voice (I feel like everyone does it!) like they’re trying to explain when someone said something and they put on this real dummy voice, and think that’s one of the most obvious examples of conflation.
It’s obvious that’s not how it really happened, I actually am really skeptical now when people tell me stories! Like, when someone tells me about their day and they’re like – it was really busy, and all these people were really horrible – and I’m thinking – were they, though? We’re hoping that gets conveyed to the audience and that they will maybe start to call on themselves and maybe others.
LM: That’s fascinating, because we’ve got this running joke in my family that my sister always steals my memories! So, she claims to have had experiences that I actually had.
MS: And the interesting part is that she probably 100% believes that they happened to her, like it’s not a deception, she just genuinely believes that they’re her memories.
EW: We did quite a bit of research into memory error. There are these things called the Seven Sins of Memory, and one of them is ‘misattribution’ where you have the memory but you don’t necessarily attribute it to the right person.
MS: Even just talking to you now, I just this revelation that we’re really only just scratching the surface of this topic in this show. It would be really interesting to do a really big investigation into it.
LM: It’s a very strongly stylised piece, where did the aesthetic come from? The elevator, and the seating in the round?
MS: The aesthetic for the play is one I’ve been playing around with for a couple of years now, and I’ve done a couple of pieces that have a similar aesthetic, but they’ve all been short pieces. So, this is the first time I’ve been able to do this sort of performance as a full length show. I’ve just been counting the amount of cues we have for this show and I think we’re up to 1020! I mean we’re not hitting every single one of those, a lot of them are really close together, but it’s still a lot for a 55 minute show.
I’m not really sure where the aesthetic came from – I think I really enjoy shows with a kind of dark, bold, look so it could just be me trying to get all of that in and explore my own take on that. The actual idea for the elevator was quite funny, I did a short piece about being stuck in a elevator a couple of years ago – solo. When we were trying to figure out what to do for this, Elise was like – I know you’ve done this before, but how about setting it in an elevator? But I think, in the round it just felt like the right vehicle for show like this.
I think people will be a bit shocked – I mean it’s definitely not a show you can just sit back and relax in, your eyes will have to look hard to see through the elevator, and there’s a distortion but I think for us, it’s all part of it. We don’t want the show to necessarily be easy watching.
EW: Yeah, because it means just like power, memory is subjective and as much as people watch one event and get totally different memories of it, we’ve sort of done a similar thing in the show where you will get a different experience depending on where you sit. Some people might get a moment in the show which happens quite close to where they’re sitting, so they can see every detail but then that element in the next memory where they remember the same thing but it changes that time – it might go somewhere else – and it is slightly different to how it was before. It’s a unique experience!
LM: Would you recommend people going more than once?
EW: I think that I would be interested – if I was an audience member, I think if I was curious enough I would go a second time.
MS: I think it would be better. The show is almost like a Christopher Nolan piece. He does a great job of making films where he draws on abstract concepts but adds in a few rules. He does that with Momento – like exploring memories, Inception explores dreams, so you get a different experience when you watch it again, now knowing what I know. All of his movies unravel and more and more is explained.
I’m interested to see whether the audience get to the end of the show and are like – oh yeah, I totally understand all that – or if they’ll get to the end and be like – oh so that meant that this happened, ok, maybe I want to see it again to put it all together.
LM: So, what are your earliest memories?
MS: Oh, I have one! I don’t know if it’s my earliest memory but I think that a lot of the time memories can become abstracted – like they manifest in a smell or a feeling. Like, every time I smell microwaved, tinned spaghetti it just makes me feel like preschool.
But, when I was four years old, I grew up in Brisbane and we went and stayed at a place on holiday and my Mum and Dad’s bed was upstairs on a mezzanine level. Anyway, for some reason, my sister and I were jumping on the bed and then I remember jumping back and forth between the balustrade and the bed. And then, I don’t know if we really did that but in my head I’m thinking – why would I do that, it’s ridiculous! Yeah, and then I fell of – I flipped over the balustrade and I landed head-first onto the glass coffee table on the floor below. And I’m just freaking out and crying and we called an ambulance.
Now I can remember two things distinctly about this – first of all I remember when I was falling. Being four years old, I didn’t realise the gravity of the situation and remember thinking – cool I’m flying. Secondly, I remember I broke my arm, because that exact memory is burned into my brain. And I swear I cracked my head open, I remember Mum making a fuss and going to Emergency and for years I was telling people that whenever the story came up. Anyway, I spoke to my Mum about it recently and she was like – oh no, you were surprisingly fine. There was no real damage to your body – you just kind of bounced back. I was like, what? I swear I cracked my head open!
EW: Well it’s probably your brain logically filling in the gaps. Like if someone falls over a balustrade headfirst, their first thought is that their head would be cracked open.
MS: It’s just such a distinct image because I really actually thought that’s what happened.
EW: My first memory is around a similar age, like four. I just remember being in my front garden and I had Polly Pockets and I lost one. So, my first memory is me scouring the grass out the front of my house trying to find my Polly Pocket! And I never found it. I think we were moving house as well, so it was like – if I don’t find it now, it’s gone forever!
LM: It’s so interesting how our brains take the necessary information and prune away the rest. That must be how you learn lines!
MS: Just, on lines, shout out to Kylie (Bywaters) – this show is essentially a monologue from Kylie – she has a tremendous amount of lines to learn and they’re really specific lines. The cast is learning the choreography specifically off of those lines so if she screws up a line it screws up the choreography.
EW: And it’s not even to do with lines, it’s all to do with phrasing – like we’ll swap the phrasing of one scene on her. It can really stuff up the choreography if it’s wrong!
LM: Ok, apart from confusion, what do you think people are going to get out of the show?
EW: It’s loud, it’s fast – there are so many flashing lights, I think in terms of an experience it’s going to be like a thrill ride.
MS: Just for me, personally, I’m coming from the perspective that I’m totally ready to do a show that is not this loud! Like I think I’ve scratched the itch now, I’m happy to have done it but now I’ll try something else. But I don’t see a lot of theatre that is loud and bold and knocks you around a little bit. It’s going to be interesting to see how people respond to it. In Perth, especially most things are pretty pedestrian.
EW: This is the opposite!
MS: I also hope the show can really bring awareness to the audience, in terms of memory and they can go on their own little journey just like we have. They’ll actually start thinking about memory, thinking about lies, and questioning other people’s memories a bit. I’d like them to leave a little skeptical.
WHEN: 25 June – 13 July 2019 | 7:00pm & 8:30pm
WHERE: The Blue Room Theatre | Perth Cultural Centre | Northbridge | PERTH
INFO: Tickets $20 – $30 | Duration 60m | Suitable 15+ | Warnings: Coarse Language, Smoke Machine/Hazer, Strobe Lighting