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Features/Film/Theatre

‘Stage Changers’ doco reveals pioneering theatre company

9 February 2022

Victoria Laurie says a remarkable new documentary by local director Ella Wright tracing the emergence of WA theatre company The Last Great Hunt is a timely testament to artistic resilience.

From Ella Wright’s documentary Stage Changers Tim Watts is drifting upward from the chair, desk and lamp that seem to float away from him. His dangling feet defy gravity, as does co-performer Arielle Gray drifting at right angles to him, shining a torchlight.  

The image simultaneously intrigues and tickles the curiosity – it’s typical of The Last Great Hunt, the can-do company that plays around until imagination and theatrical effect collide.      

For a dozen years, The Last Great Hunt has been one of the most interesting artistic gigs in town. Watts, his partner Gray and half a dozen Hunter collaborators write, perform and produce their own compact, travel-ready shows. They have won critical praise around the world – from the Edinburgh Festival to youth theatre conventions on several continents.

A promotional image from Stage Changers. Pictured a man is drifting upward from the chair, desk and lamp that seem to float away from him. His dangling feet defy gravity, as does a woman who is drifting at right angles to him, shining a torchlight.  
Tim Watts floats away from his desk as imagination and theatrical effect collide in the work of The Last Great Hunt. Photo: Daniel James Grant

I have marvelled at the beauty of their small-scale productions like The Adventures of Alvin Sputnik: Deep Sea Explorer, It’s Dark Outside and New Owner. I noticed that patrons young and old would hang back after the show to find out how stories of friendship, climate change and an old man’s forgetting were conjured up.

In her remarkable documentary Stage Changers, Perth filmmaker Ella Wright unleashes her camera like a truffle dog to track down The Last Great Hunt’s magic. The film opens with a flurry of hands manoeuvring tiny puppets and mini-cameras, a bunch of headlamps, movable screens and paper ‘clouds’ propelled by fan-forced air.  

Wright and her crew shot Stage Changers over an eight-year period, catching up with Watts and Gray and their performer-collaborator friends Adriane Daff, Gita Bezard, Chris Isaacs and Jeffrey Jay Fowler. The group are seen mucking about in their Maylands Hall HQ in Perth, as Watts’ dad Anthony hovers in the background as a problem-solving gadgeteer.

Each actor gives their take on the creative process – Adriane Daff values the collaborative approach, while Chris Isaacs credits Watts with a rare imaginative gift and perfectionist zeal.  

Watts – who is the main narrator in the film – admits to an obsessive pursuit of “this elusive creature… a show with a lot of heart.” But he knows the company must grow beyond making small shows for 100 people; as general manager Sian Roberts drily observes, “he could do with a push.”

Stage Changers soon turns into a thrilling account of the company’s pursuit of bigger game, which proves to have perilous twists and turns.      

The film follows their bigger ambitions all the way to opening night of Le Nor [the rain], Last Great Hunt’s first full-length adult show that premiered in the 2019 Perth Festival.

Le Nor was one of the best things I’d seen on stage in Perth, a hilarious Scandi-noir film sendup in which actors spoke a made-up Nordic language (it was subtitled) wearing glamorous Eighties costumes and wigs. The setting was a fictious island metropolis afflicted by drought and rescued by rain, with three lovestruck couples in the middle.

Wright’s film captured its crazy ambition, as performers used handheld cameras to create saucy scenes in a steamy sauna, or constantly upended a cardboard payphone so its occupant seemed to crawl up and around all four walls.

A helicopter (a toy projected on screen) loomed large as the lovers climbed to safety out of the deluge. Audience members, including me, were alternately doubled up with laughter or poised on the edge of their seats.

None of us could have known how tough the creative road had been for Watts, Gray and their band of collaborators. And this is where Wright’s documentary illuminates as a painfully accurate but fascinating insight into what happened behind the scenes.

A promotional image from Stage Changers. Pictured a man and woman in a dark room are illuminated by hands reaching toward them with torches
Stage Changers shines the light on Tim Watts, Arielle Gray and the pioneering team behind The Last Great Hunt. Photo: Daniel James Grant

Her camera is the room in Edinburgh when the nervous Hunters – who have flown there in a bid to change the company’s fortunes – meet influential UK theatre promoter Ed Bartlam.

An admirer of their Edinburgh gigs, Bartlam has invited them to pitch a large-scale work. But as Watts tries to explain the concept for Le Nor, the camera closes in on Bartlam’s insouciant expression.   

A nerve-wracking search for funding ensues after Bartlam fails to deliver. Roberts as general manager becomes an unwitting heroine in the narrative, chasing down money and relieving stress by pressing a “joy” button on her desk to deliver a calming message.   

And then comes the real body blow. Watts comes off a motorbike and ends up with an agonising back injury. He directs rehearsals from a prone position on a bean bag, and his pain persists almost to the hour of his first performance.

Wright captures Le Nor’s progress from idea to imagery, actors playing around in a fight scene with water bottles until each squirt simulates sweat flying off every comic punch. Tired cast members are seen wrestling with gibberish lines in a mix of Swedish, Danish and other languages. “It sounds really dumb,” explains Gray, “but everything sounds really glamorous in another language.”

Eventually, there’s a scramble, with thirty scenes of technical complexity to rehearse, a creative director in visible agony and time running out. Associate director Matt Edgerton steps in when, six hours before curtain up on their Perth Festival debut, they’re still reblocking scenes.

The show goes on, the applause is deafening. Exhaustion etched on her face, Gray sums up her relief. “At the end of the day we have created a unique beast of a show that is in some way a little bit of all of us,” she says. “Mixed together, shaken up and thrown out into the world.”

Le Nor was indeed the artistic “push” the company needed. Two years later, they staged another smash hit at the 2021 Perth Festival, called Whistleblower.  And then COVID-19 – and Premier Mark McGowan’s strict border bans – tore the wings off any dreams to tour their shows, big or small.  

The image of Watts and Gray floating untethered has become emblematic of performers waiting out the pandemic nightmare. Which is why Wright’s documentary feels so powerful, a timely testament to artistic resilience.

Stage Changers is empathetic and masterfully revealing of the artistry and effort behind this gem of a company. The Last Great Hunt can, and will, rise to new challenges.

Pictured top: On set of the theatre show ‘Lé Nør [the rain]’ Photo: Daniel James Grant

Stage Changers will have its world premiere on iwonder.com on 10 February 2022.

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Author —
Victoria Laurie

Victoria Laurie is an award-winning Perth-based journalist and feature writer who has written extensively for national publications, including The Australian. Covering cultural matters and interviewing artists of all kinds has been one of her greatest privileges, and their contribution to Australian cultural life deserves far more prominence in the media. As a fan of Seesaw in responding to this challenge, she nominates her playground favourite as... the seesaw.

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