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Q&A/What to SEE/Theatre

What to SEE: The Tempest

3 November 2021

Black Swan State Theatre Company is inviting audience members into the dream-like world of Shakespeare’s Tempest, promising an experience from which you won’t want to wake. Nina Levy spoke to director Matt Edgerton to find out more.

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In 2020 Black Swan State Theatre Company asked its followers to vote on which of Shakespeare’s 37 plays would be presented by the company at the conclusion of its 30th birthday year. The Tempest was the winner, and it’s directed by Matt Edgerton, whose extensive back catalogue includes a three year stint as resident artist at Bell Shakespeare.

Nina Levy: Matt, your theatre career began here in Perth, at WAAPA – what drew you to the profession?

A headshot of Matt Edgerton. He is smiling at the camera and wears a zippered black bomber jacket in canvas.
Matt Edgerton

Matt Edgerton: I grew up in Sydney. Both my parents had moved to the city from their small family farms to go to university (thanks Gough Whitlam), but theatre was not something anyone in the family knew anything about. So, it still seems strange to me that I took to it so strongly in high school. I was a super-shy kid and I think the main appeal was pretending to be people who were much more confident than I was in real life!

Moving to Perth to study at WAAPA at the age of 19, was my first move out of home. It was a big adventure, so many corners of Perth still have a kind of romantic feel for me, because my first experience of it was at a time of freedom, growth and discovery.

NL: You’ve worked extensively in WA, as artistic director of Barking Gecko Theatre Company, plus you’ve directed shows for WA companies The Last Great Hunt and Black Swan, as well WAAPA. But you’ve also worked with companies based in the Eastern States.

What is it about the WA arts sector that keeps you here (aside from our closed borders)?

ME: I came back to Perth in 2015 to be the artistic director of Barking Gecko Theatre Company, and had assumed that work would take me away afterwards.

But instead I took a look around the country and decided I’ve put down roots here. The theatre culture in Perth is unique in Australia. It is a community that says “why don’t you try it?” I have found incredible opportunities for genuine experimentation, long development times on shows, and such wonderful collaborators in this city. It is a privilege to be working here in the Perth arts community.

Two actors rehearsing a scene. A woman holds a wine bottle and wears sunglasses and a fascinator. She is learning on a man whose head is draped in what looks like a large tea towel. He is leaning away from her and his eyes are closed. In the background is a mirror which shows we're in a rehearsal studio.
Will O’Mahony and Charlotte Otton rehearsing ‘The Tempest’. Photo: Daniel J. Grant

NL: Amongst your non-WA engagements, you were resident artist at Bell Shakespeare for three years. What did that involve? What did you learn about presenting Shakespearian works from your time there?

ME: When I took up the full-time position at Bell Shakespeare I’d already been working for the company for eight years as an actor and teaching artist. My role as a resident artist involved creating Shakespeare performances and programs for every state and territory in Australia, from the Sydney Opera House to remote communities and everything in between.

The theatre culture in Perth is unique in Australia. It is a community that says “why don’t you try it?”

So those three years were a daily deep-dive into classical text, a directing boot camp and an opportunity to learn about the people in every corner of Australia by making art together.

We had some hairy situations over those years in remote corners of this continent – from rough schools in Sydney’s South West, juvenile justice centres, lots of adventures in Australia’s remote deserts and islands.

The biggest things I learned were: stay calm, be yourself, take people as they are and let go of what you can’t control. People all over the country love playing inside these stories and characters because they are great stories and characters. For some reason, these 400 year old plays still sing to us.

NL: The Tempest cast of 11 is a stellar line-up, and I’m particularly looking forward to seeing younger performers such as Charlotte Otton and Phoebe Sullivan alongside the likes of veterans Humphrey Bower and Caroline McKenzie. What informed your casting decisions?

ME: Yes the cast are all exceptional artists, some with many years of experience and some much newer to these plays. Associate Director Libby Klysz and I considered over a hundred people for the show. We found a real depth in the acting community here and there were many wonderful actors we couldn’t cast.

The first thing we did in each audition was to lay out how we were going to work. We were very specific about the kind of demanding, intensely physical room we would run and the philosophy of the approach. And people really self-selected at that moment. We were only interested in those with an intrinsic passion for this way of working.

And then from this group we chose artists who had a unique edge and who we thought would unlock something special in each character. There isn’t a weak link in the group. From the first day they have felt like an ensemble.

Libby Klysz and Matt Edgerton stand side by side in the rehearsal studio. They both look like they've been amused by something out of the frame - they are looking to something  or someone out of the frame.
Associate Director Libby Klysz and Director Matt Edgerton in rehearsal. Photo: Daniel J. Grant

NL: There are a few gender changes in this production – a nod to Shakespeare’s own predilection for gender swapping perhaps? What made you decide to do some gender swapping of your own?

ME: I think a more inclusive casting approach usually makes these plays significantly better, but it does need careful thought in how these changes reshape the play. Shakespeare was writing in a context where he was not allowed to put female actors onto the public stages, so his women were played by boys. I can’t help but think this restriction and layer of artifice is a significant factor in why his characters-lists skew significantly to male. In a play like The Tempest that means there is one written female role – Miranda. If he was writing The Tempest today I think Shakespeare would have written far more women into this epic myth of change, renewal and letting go.

So, in this production we’ve cast half the roles as women and are making adjustments to costume, character, pronouns, and so on, so the actors will be playing fully dimensional female versions of these roles, not “pretending to be men”. A mythic play like The Tempest can take this kind of pivot with ease – to have a female version of drunken idiocy, a female sociopath etcetera, is something that helps to wake up the play in interesting ways.

NL: What do you hope audiences will take away from this production of The Tempest?

ME: One of the beautiful things about this play is the unusual number of characters who speak directly to the audience. We are taking our cue from the text to embrace the play as a conversation between the stage and the audience, a kind of “shared ritual” of letting go.

Also, the audience actively chose this play! So we wanted to continue as we have begun and find ways to include them in the work. We have already filmed some beautiful “wisdom on love” from a number of long-time Black Swan audience members, which will feature in the show, and will film more audience members in the foyer each night. So there will be a real sense of telling this story with the audience that is there.

The Tempest opens 20 November and runs until 11 December 2021.

Pictured top: The cast of ‘The Tempest’ in rehearsal (Mararo Wangai is centre). Photo: Daniel J. Grant

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Author —
Nina Levy

Nina Levy has worked for over a decade as an arts writer and critic. She co-founded Seesaw and has been co-editing the platform since it went live in August 2017. Nina was co-editor of Dance Australia magazine from 2016 to 2019. Nina loves the swings because they take her closer to the sky.

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