4 – 8 December @ The Blue Room Theatre ·
Presented by Hayman Theatre Company ·
How do we respond to the ‘danger’ of the emergency with our
emotions, and how do we navigate the ‘danger’ when the emergency
is our emotions?
WA Award-winning playwright, Jeffrey Jay Fowler returns to Curtin’s
Hayman Theatre Company as artist-in-residence with his new play, In
Case of Emergency. With an ensemble of Curtin University Theatre Arts’
students to present a series of “emergencies” of different scales each
asking the question, “When are our emotions useful to us and when are
they in the way of our success?”
Review: Black Swan State Theatre Company, In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play ·
Heath Ledger Theatre, State Theatre Centre of WA, October 24 ·
Review by Xan Ashbury ·
OMG …Yes! This play hits the spot. It makes me shudder at how clueless we humans were, for so long, about women, intimacy and pleasure. It makes me groan at gender, class and racial prejudice in the Victorian era. It makes me gasp at the ridiculous number of layers under those beautiful 1890s gowns. And yes, there is a happy ending.
Written by Sarah Ruhl, the play ran on Broadway in 2009/10 and was nominated for three Tony Awards. Under Jeffrey Jay Fowler’s inspired direction, it skirts effortlessly between drama and farce. Its nuanced portrayal of loneliness and longing; desire, disappointment and disconnection touches us, deeply.
Rebecca Davis is thrilling to watch as Catherine Givings, the charming and spirited but long-suffering wife of Dr Givings (Stuart Halusz). The comically clinical doctor has pioneered an extraordinary new device – the vibrator – for treating “hysteria”. While his invention relieves and invigorates his loyal patients, his patronising and insensitive nature drives his wife to despair.
Jo Morris is wonderful as the doctor’s new patient Sabrina Daldry. During their initial consultation, Mr Daldry (Kingsley Judd) speaks for her, describing how the rest cure had failed to cure all the weeping. Sabrina refers to her obsession with the green curtains and old ghosts in the dark. (The Yellow Wallpaper, anyone?)
Her first “treatment” had the audience in paroxysms of mirth. Sabrina grips the bed and arches neck back, while the good doctor checks his stop watch and chats about the weather. “Do you feel any calmer?” he inquires when it’s all over, before explaining about “pent up emotions in the womb”.
Her daily visits grow ever more interesting, especially after the electricity fails and the doctor’s assistant, Annie (Alison Van Reeken), administers “manual treatment” instead. And the plot thickens when Catherine’s curiosity is piqued by the evocative sounds coming from her husband’s operating theatre, the next room to her comfortable but lonely sitting room.
Alicia Clements’ set and costume design are key to play’s success. Through the large aperture that only the audience is privy to, we see the extraordinary and eccentric events play out above and behind the sterile sitting room.
Tom Stokes is a sparkling presence as Leo Irving, an artist crippled with grief after the end of a relationship. Dr Givings treats him for a rare case of “male hysteria”, unleashing “the most wild creative energies”.
Tariro Mavondo shines as Catherine’s wet nurse, Elizabeth, in her debut with Black Swan. Because of her race and class, Elizabeth is derided and exploited – and her grief for her deceased son callously overlooked. When she finally has opportunity to speak frankly to Catherine, I was awash with relief. It is a powerful speech, beautifully delivered.
The vibrator, used in the play as a device to explore the pain caused by repression, may be the play’s centrepiece. But for me, the fireworks came in the frisson between Annie and Sabrina sharing a piano stool, and in Leo capturing the electricity that flows between a woman and a baby at her breast. And the final, climactic scene, set in a garden as the snow falls, is nothing short of stunning.
Review: The Last Great Hunt, Improvement Club ·
State Theatre Centre of WA, 28 June ·
Review by Xan Ashbury ·
Subversive and witty, playful and provocative: Improvement Club shines a light on the human need for connection and the ravages of ego, anxiety and male privilege. Written and directed by Jeffrey Jay Fowler, it offers some sparkling dialogue and truly memorable scenes, in a rare mix of experimentation and accessibility.
Chris Isaacs is compelling as a socially awkward, corporate man-child who starts an “improvement club”, in the quest to make friends and gain power. His flawless performance had me cringing but unable to look away (sort of paralysed by the shock of recognition). He inhabits the evolving protagonist so fully that his transition to a darker, insidious character is seamless. It left me in a tug of war with sympathy and disgust. This is testament not only to Isaacs’s skill as an actor but Fowler’s writing and direction.
Arielle Gray is brilliant in the shifting roles of the protagonist’s girlfriend, therapist and mother. Mararo Wangai, Gita Bezard and Frieda Lee are wonderful as co-workers who get sucked into the cult of self-help, then morph into a hilariously woke community. Their often ridiculous exchanges – a pastiche of buzz words and aphorisms – critique the shallow and greedy ethos of contemporary culture. (My favourite line: “It’s not misappropriation if you honour where you put your car keys.”)
Few things escape a gentle mocking – from our enthusiasm for smashed avocado, Pilates and veganism to body building and sustainable houses. It is the protagonist’s echoing of “men’s rights” rhetoric that really bites, though. There’s no pressure on women, he rants. They just have to look pretty, give birth then put their feet up and swirl glasses of chardonnay. No one wants a white male.
The surreal scene involving a lion and a bottle of tomato sauce is delicious. And though the post-apocalyptic, matriarchal utopia scene at the end felt slightly tacked on, I appreciated its subversive intent.
Improvement Club exposes some disturbing narratives about gender and privilege, executed in a fresh, stylish manner that Perth audiences have come to know and love from The Last Great Hunt.
Writer, director and actor Jeffrey Jay Fowler is one of six artists who make up The Last Great Hunt, a small but acclaimed Perth-based theatre collective that has developed a reputation for making innovative and engaging theatre since its inception in 2013. Nina Levy had a chat with Fowler ahead of the premiere of his latest work for The Last Great Hunt, Improvement Club.
It feels like there’s a small but vital revolution happening in the Perth theatre scene. When once the only direction for WAAPA’s many talented acting and musical theatre graduates was East, in recent years we’ve seen the rise of a new generation of small theatre companies and collectives, created by young practitioners who want to see opportunities developed at home.
One of the key players in this revolution is Jeffrey Jay Fowler, associate director at Black Swan State Theatre Company and a lead artist with Perth theatre collective The Last Great Hunt. A playwright, dramaturg, director and actor, Fowler makes work that is smart and funny, relatable and provocative; work that feels relevant. The plays he has written have won a bevvy of awards, including the the 2016 Adelaide Fringe Best Theatre Award, the 2015 Fringe World Tour Ready Award and Best Performance at Melbourne Fringe 2015 for FAG/STAG (co-written and performed with Chris Isaacs), the 2014 PAWA Award for Best New Play for Elephents (in which he also performed), the 2013 Fringe World Martin Sims Award for Best New WA Work for Minnie and Mona Play Dead and the 2012 Fringe World Best Theatre Award for Hope is the Saddest (which he also directed). As director of Black Swan State Theatre Company’s The Eisteddfod, he scooped the 2017 Award for Best Director at the recent PAWA Awards, with the show taking out Best Mainstage Production.
When Perth born and bred Fowler graduated from the National Institute of Dramatic Arts’s Graduate Diploma in Directing in 2010, however, he had no intention of coming home. “When we (the founders of The Last Great Hunt) were graduating there we really no opportunities for mid-career artists,” he recalls. “You could emerge in Perth, but then once you’d emerged, you couldn’t make a living for yourself. We were all pretty frustrated.”
But then Katt Osborne had the idea of gathering together a group of her fellow theatre-makers – Fowler, Gita Bezard, Adriane Daff, Chris Isaacs, Tim Watts and Arielle Gray – into a collective, says Fowler. “It was pretty hard to get funding but we felt like if we banded together we could pool our reputations and get the attention of the funding bodies and the community in Perth to be able to create something that stood apart. We decided that we would be able to create something here and, potentially, not just create careers for ourselves, but also opportunities for the people coming up after us.” And thus The Last Great Hunt was born.
Dedicated to making work in Perth, The Last Great Hunt currently includes six artists: Daff, Gray, Isaacs, Bezard, Fowler and Watts. “We all make very different works and we work together in different constellations,” says Fowler. “There are writer and directors and puppeteers and visual artists.” And, like Fowler, the collective has made its mark on Perth, gaining not just the attention of critics but of the likes of Perth Festival artistic director, Wendy Martin, who named The Last Great Hunt’s New Owner as a favourite work from 2016 and the company as one to watch in an interview with Seesaw last year. Most recently, the collective’s collaboration with Side Pony Productions, The Irresistible, has been shortlisted for the 2018 Helpmann Award for Best Play, alongside the likes of Sydney Theatre Company and Malthouse Theatre.
Although Fowler has multiple strings to his bow, it is writing that was and remains his first love. “I think that the first things we want to do in life are often the first things we’re praised for and I have very vivid memories of my grade 6 teacher Marilyn Benthein being very proud of my poems that I wrote,” he says with a laugh. “From a young age I identified that this was something I might be capable of doing. And my drama teacher in high school, Frank Murphy, was inspirational. When you’re a young person and someone says, ‘hey you’re good at this,’ you follow at that. And so in my head, my writing ability became potential playwrighting ability.”
Although Fowler does perform, writing and directing come first. “I sometimes act in shows but I don’t think of myself as an actor. I love creating roles and The Last Great Hunt is a vessel to create roles for me and the other members to perform. At the end of the day, I’m an artist because I have something to express or something to say, and so writing always sits centrally, and directing and acting sit as complements to being a playwright.”
The pathway from that initial idea to script is different every time, reflects Fowler. “It’s the same with directing. I don’t have one methodology. There are a few similarities… probably deep frustration, late nights, long periods of procrastination and then, at the end, deep satisfaction that it’s actually happened.
“Sometimes I just suddenly feel like there’s an idea there. I might write down a title or a few words or a sentence and leave it there in a notepad. Once there are enough ideas together I might talk about it with someone else. Collaboration is really important to me. There haven’t been many plays that I’ve sat down and written by myself. But ideas, they come in little bits and pieces, and if you start collecting them and putting them together, eventually you have enough for the seed of a play and you plant that and keep working on it.
“You have to go, what is the idea, and how does this idea want to be written? Thinking about Improvement Club, because that’s what I’m putting on stage next, that was the longest gestation period from idea to script. The idea first came to me in 2011, when I was joking around with a group of friends and I said that I wanted to start a club where every day we have to improve. At the end of the conversation, I thought, that’s actually a kind of funny idea. I wrote a couple of scenes in 2011 and I got shortlisted for the Edward Albee Scholarship but didn’t get it and I thought, ‘I’m just not ready to write this one.’ So I did plenty of other projects, and worked for Black Swan and I was busy enough.”
Then two years ago, Fowler pitched the idea to The Last Great Hunt. “We did a two week workshop on the idea of what would happen if someone started a club with the singular goal of improving,” he says. “It would be an allegory for the society we’re currently living in where self-improvement is pushed upon us constantly, by a system that’s trying to sell you the idea of a better you; how we sometimes end up frustrated; and how improvement works both on an individual level and also a social level… and these ideas do battle. In that workshop we really focused on where that storyline would go… but after that I still thought, ‘I’m not really ready to write this.’ That’s never really happened to me before. Usually if an idea turns up it wants to be written. I am known for not finishing plays until we’ve started rehearsing – pressure really fuels my process – but I’m usually pretty self-motivated and something about this idea wasn’t clicking.
So what changed?
“I think I have shifted a bit as a person – improved, if you will,” says Fowler with a grin. “What the play wanted to be about – and I really do believe that ideas, when they come into the universe, pick who they want to be written by – what the play wanted to be about is what it means for different people to improve and, without killing the play for anyone who comes to see it, why anyone would want to improve themselves in a world where some people are living below the poverty line, not having access to education, being treated unequally because of some bracket they fall into, be it a gender bracket, a race bracket, any categorisation that might disadvantage you.
“I think that in 2011 I couldn’t have written this play because the conversation, socially, wasn’t where it is now or as accessible as it is now, but also because in 2011, when I was one year out of NIDA, I wasn’t really thinking about other people in that way. I probably would have written a play much more focused on self-improvement, personal optimisation; a pretty selfish outlook on what excellence means. Instead, I think what this play wanted to be the whole time – and I discovered while writing it and workshopping it with the cast – is that idea that the ultimate improvement is not about pushing some people above others, but actually bringing everyone in line.”
20 October 20 – 4 November @ State Theatre Centre of Western Australia ·
Presented by Black Swan State Theatre Company ·
IN THE NEXT ROOM, OR
THE VIBRATOR PLAY
by Sarah Ruhl
20 OCT to 04 NOV
HEATH LEDGER THEATRE
In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play is a sassy play about power and passion. Sarah Ruhl re-imagines the curious chapter in the early history of psychotherapy, when women were treated with a certain mechanical device. And thus began the peculiar history of the vibrator…
Set in the 1880s, just after the advent of electricity, In the Next Room takes place in the adjoining parlour and consulting room of Dr Givings, who specialises in treating “hysteria” in women. Brisk, clinical and efficient in manner, he obsesses on the marvels of technology and what it can do for his patients. Although highly observant, he fails to notice that his wife, Catherine, is feeling neglected. Seeking the companionship of her husband’s patients, she soon begins to discover the truth about what goes on ‘in the next room’.
A fantastically funny and marvellously entertaining bodice ripper about true love and orgasms. Nominated for three Tony Awards and a Pulitzer Prize, this is a play guaranteed to hit the spot!
“Insightful, fresh and funny, the play is as rich in thought as it is in feeling.” New York Times
DIRECTOR Jeffrey Jay Fowler
SET & COSTUME DESIGNER Alicia Clements
LIGHTING DESIGNER Lucy Birkinshaw
COMPOSER/SOUND DESIGNER Ash Gibson Greig
CAST INCLUDES Rebecca Davis, Jo Morris, Tariro Mavondo
WARNING Adult themes
Black Swan State Theatre Company presents
IN THE NEXT ROOM, OR THE VIBRATOR PLAY by Sarah Ruhl
DATES: 20 OCT – 04 NOV 2018
VENUE: Heath Ledger Theatre, State Theatre Centre of WA
WARNING: Adult themes