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What to SEE: It’s Dark Outside

24 March 2022

In celebration of the play’s tenth anniversary, The Last Great Hunt brings its award-winning dive into death and dementia back to the stage.

Created and performed by Arielle Gray, Chris Isaacs and Tim Watts of Perth’s celebrated theatre collective The Last Great Hunt, It’s Dark Outside is a Western with a difference. Using a blend of live performance, puppetry and animation it tells the tale of an old man chasing his memories as they escape into the wild.

Having toured the world since its premiere in 2012, the show celebrates its tenth anniversary with a season at home. Nina Levy caught up with its creative team to find out more.

Nina Levy: It feels like dementia awareness has increased a lot in recent years… but I don’t think there were many works being made about it 10 years ago. What inspired you to create It’s Dark Outside back in 2012?

Chris Isaacs: The play didn’t start out as “a piece about dementia”.  It began with an interrogation of “a journey into the wild”.  There were elements of westerns, a gorilla who stole a baby, I think at one point, a tent horse – all sorts of diverse and interesting pathways to potentially go down. 

During the creative process, the three of us saw a company called “Blind Summit” working with a French bunraku puppet in Edinburgh.  We loved the form of this puppet and started to play with seeing if one could fit in the development of this show. 

One day we were mucking around with the puppet in a devising room and we had all the materials of making the puppet just hanging around.  We started to play with the fluff that was the stuffing of the puppet as though it was coming out of his body – and he was trying to push it back in. This developed to trying to make the fluff look like his brain, to it looking like thought bubbles, to it looking like clouds… and from there is the image which really acts as the central motif of the play. 

At the time both Tim and Arielle had family members going through stages of dementia and it really was one of those cases of the idea finding us – and us as creatives being open to that. So the inspiration for the piece to be about dementia came from a combination of image-based play in the devising room and an awareness of the personal world around us speaking perhaps to us (or maybe through us) as we made the show. 

NL: Why did you use the western genre?

CI: A lot of the time when we devise work we’re drawn to things that interest us. Style /form /genre /archetype are so ingrained in our generation. There wasn’t ever really a moment of “this has to be a western” coming from the story elements of the piece; it was more a fun style and genre to play within while generating images and moments.

There’s a fun theatricality and epicness to the western genre (particularly Spaghetti Westerns) – which we used to play with in content generating. And from there it stuck with the piece and never left. I know a starting point was an idea of wildness, and perhaps the soundscape and musical soundtracks to these films evokes wildness in a way that blended nicely, but the choice ultimately came down to “we think westerns are cool… let’s maybe start playing with that kind of imagery”. 

Arielle Gray: It came from our explorations of wildness: the wild west. Then the WILD WEST staked its claim on the show as Chris said.

An image from the performance of It's Dark Outside, pictured is three actors in black manipulating a puppet against a back drop filled with stars.
Funny, sad and a bit surreal – Gray, Isaacs and Watts performing ‘It’s Dark Outside’. Photo: Richard Jefferson

NL. What made you decide to remount It’s Dark Outside this year?

AG: We are remounting it as a celebration and acknowledgement of 10 years of existence – that is a long, long life in the live performing arts and it’s worth marking. We have also been asked about when we are bringing this show back increasingly over the last few years, so it felt like there was an appetite for it. 

It’s Dark Outside premiered 10 years ago in the Studio Underground at the State Theatre Centre after being commissioned by Perth Theatre Company. The show was developed in many nooks and crannies around Perth over several years. Since the premiere, it’s travelled all around Australia, to Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, the USA, the UK, South Africa and I’m so so excited that after such a long journey we get to share it with audiences in the show’s hometown again. There is something pretty special about that. A homecoming, a celebration and a heartfelt story shared in a disconcerting, anxious and chaotic time.

NL: How has It’s Dark Outside developed since you premiered the show?

CI: I always think of the Roald Dahl book The Twits – where one of them adds a little piece of wood to the walking stick of the other to make them think they’re getting shorter every day.  It doesn’t feel like the show’s developed a lot since the premiere – because it hasn’t changed drastically compared to other shows we’ve toured extensively – but we’ve done little finessing and refining over time.

So when we go back and see the video of the original season it’s a moment of “oh yeah, that scene is very different now” – without ever really changing it in one go.  It’s mostly been slight refinements and adjustments in scene, or with the tech that we’ve upgraded along the way – all of which seems very small at the time, but when looking back you realise it accumulates to quite a difference. 

Performers from The Last Great Hunt's It's Dark Outside chatting to audience members.
‘It’s Dark Outside’ has toured internationally so this season is something of a homecoming. Photo: Michael Maclean

NL: It’s such a difficult time to be presenting work – it feels like the rules are constantly changing. How have you coped with preparing to present a work under such circumstances?

AG: It is a really challenging time to put on a show at the moment, but I also think these moments of connection and togetherness are needed more than ever, so it feels worth the extra effort and stress to put something on for us. 

Our incredible production manager along with our producing staff have put together a comprehensive COVID plan. Firstly, we are fortunate that through years of touring, we have another cast who know the show, have performed the show and happen to be in Perth and available. So we have a full swing cast ready to swoop in and save the day if anything happens to the original cast. We are also doing RAT tests on the morning of a show to make sure we are good to go. 

We also filmed the show on preview and it is getting edited hastily so that from the second week of performances we have a digital offering of the show in case any audiences cannot physically come to the theatre for any reason – we will be providing a link to that with any ticket purchased.

We are very fortunate to be in a position where we can afford to put these safety nets in place, which I know a lot of independent artists are not. So I want to acknowledge the privilege of being a funded company and being able to afford these contingencies.

N:. What can audiences expect from It’s Dark Outside?

Tim Watts: I know it might sound obvious but we really try to make shows that are enjoyed by the audience; that are accessible, but still powerful and transcendent. None of our shows are really quite the same, we are always pushing ourselves to make innovative new experiences for audiences that delight and inspire.

In terms of preparation for this show? I like to think you don’t need any. All I will say is that if you are currently having a really difficult time with a loved one suffering from dementia, the show might be a LOT. Most people in this situation have found the show very cathartic, but it really depends where you are on that journey. Also we hope people come into the theatre wanting to laugh and being open to cry. 

Ultimately it’s a funny, sad, non-verbal piece of physical theatre, with puppets, animation, mask, shadows, and an amazing soundtrack about an old man that gets swept up into a western.

Oh and it’s a bit surreal. Like I think you enjoy the show more if you let go of reality a little.

Pictured top: Arielle Gray and Tim Watts. Photo: Richard Jefferson

It’s Dark Outside continues at the State Theatre Centre of WA until 2 April 2022.

Read Seesaw Mag’s review of It’s Dark Outside

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Author —
Nina Levy

Nina Levy has worked as an arts writer and critic since 2007. She co-founded Seesaw and has been co-editing the platform since it went live in August 2017. As a freelancer she has written extensively for The West Australian and Dance Australia magazine, co-editing the latter from 2016 to 2019. Nina loves the swings because they take her closer to the sky.

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