“I like theatre in which impossible but necessary things happen. The true meaning of cathartic.” Director and TW associate artist alumna Cathy Hunt takes time out from rehearsals to share her insights about the upcoming season of Phantasmagoria by Bernadette Trench-Thiedeman; a multi-disciplinary sensorial feast flavoured with grief, love, loss, absurdity, surprise and a generous dose of magic.
Q: Can you recall your initial response after reading Phantasmagoria?
A: Yes very much so! I was extremely intrigued by how ambitious a work it is – how effortlessly the writing jumps in and out of different times and even (maybe) dimensions. The scenes in which the daughter gets to confront her father as a returned and disorientated ghost and even as a haunted pot-plant – compelled me. The playwright Sarah Ruhl talks about Noh theatre as having three characters, a protagonist, a traveller and a ghost – the protagonist meets a ghost on their travels, they recognise the ghost and then dance with or embrace the ghost. It’s a more circular structure and that image is extremely relevant to this play.
I like theatre in which impossible but necessary things happen. The true meaning of cathartic. It’s also pretty wonderful that there are characters called Old and New Grief and that someone gets to embody a ‘malevolent presence’. I was excited by how much ingenuity it would take to make this complex a play live and breathe and also how much it made me imagine but how much there was left to bring together. Plus this play is funny, it does not take itself too seriously, and that’s part of why we are willing to go on the journey with our protagonist and meet her family ghosts.
Q: What role does puppetry play in this multi-sensory work?
A: This work incorporates two kinds of puppetry – costume puppetry and shadow puppetry. So in costume puppetry the actors are inside the costume, they become the puppet. And in shadow puppetry we can work a lot with scale – we can shrink and enlarge – the images that we see evoke and echo and become a crucial part of the images layered on the audience’s understanding of the story. So we might hear a story and we might see one part of that story as a shadow puppetry montage and those layers feed into each other and the way the scene grows in the imagination. I think puppetry helps us access wonder, it helps us feel before we think, it reignites that childlike part of you that simply responds to a work of theatre and is able to let the images affect you before you can mentally pin down what everything means. It’s engaging and it tells the story in a different way that allows the nightmare or dream aspects to flourish.
Q: Can you tell us a bit about the ensemble cast you have assembled?
A: I’m very excited about the wonderful ensemble cast we are bringing together for PHANTASMAGORIA. Apart from Bernadette Trench-Thiedeman herself we have Elnaz Sheshgelani – a gorgeous performer and puppeteer whose expertise in her own cultural tradition of Naghali (an ancient form of Persian dramatic storytelling) culminated in a solo show at La Mama Iranian Bauhaus, late last year. We have the vibrant Meg Dunn who is a fairly recent graduate from VCA, who spent the first half of 2020 touring in a verbatim theatre show Grace Under Pressure and we have Yuchen Wang who manages to combine gravitas and a truly unexpected capacity for clowning. He will be familiar to MTC audiences as the narrator from Golden Shield but to Theatre Works audiences was memorable as the elegantly detached Rose in The Nightingale and the Rose, by Little Ones. We have had some wonderful rehearsals so far, where the cast all bounce off each other brilliantly. I turn my head for a moment and then turn back and astonishing things are happening.
Q: What are your top tips for navigating through rehearsals with the uncertainty of lockdowns and restrictions?
A: Every rehearsal is even more valuable in strange juddery times like these and opportunities need to be seized on. It’s a big relief to actually be able to rehearse in person. To actually just do it and make something live in this moment takes the pressure off having to think about the restrictions. One has to let go of a desire for perfection and actually strive to make a work breathe. I find focusing on smaller sections in rehearsal helps avert worrying.
It’s exhausting to keep planning and re-planning but plunging in and working on something gives me energy. And as there’s nothing we can do personally to avert a lockdown, one has to just put it to one side. The good thing is there’s no guilt involved, no one to blame. If a Deus ex Machina sweeps in, we will just have to adjust to that as it comes.
Fortunately, responding to change is what we do all the time in art. We just have to find a way to transmute that into life
At uncertain times like these it’s also crucial to remember those classic words of the Muppets – ‘Keep believing, keep pretending, We’ve done just what we set out to do!’ we harness that showbiz spirit and block out fear and angst as much as humanly possible. I don’t want filmed theatre or theatre on zoom, so if that’s the solve, I’d rather just put our show in the hands of the fates.
Q: When you think about Phantasmagoria, what do you imagine?
A: At the moment I’m imagining PHANTASMAGORIA as a layered and powerful experience, a bit like going to visit an old aunty who is also the family psychic. She has a house full of strange objects and each one has a story attached and each story also has its associated photos and powerful remembrances and it’s a bit spooky and a bit melancholy but mostly just very rich and like a space away from the ordinary world where anything can happen. Then you leave the aunt’s house and the world she stands for starts popping up in the ordinary world and the thing you wished for most when you were there, starts coming to pass. And it’s a bit eerie but it’s so much better that things that have been happening, conversations about buried secrets can start to be held. That’s what I currently imagine. With sound, puppetry, lights and extraordinary actors to breathe life into the world too.
By Bernadette Trench-Thiedeman