This week, Jayde Kirchert of Citizen Theatre joins us for another in-depth episode of TW Talks, detailing the origins of Citizen Theatre, the company’s first production at Theatre Works, what they’ve been up to during lockdown and an insight into the world of Mara KORPER.
Hi my name is Jayde Kirchert and I am the artistic director of Citizen Theatre, I am also a director, a writer, dramaturg, producer, teacher and cat lover.
Tell us about the origins of Citizen Theatre
So my background is as a performer. I danced from a really early age and then somehow found my way into music theatre. I’d always danced so then you know kind of coming to acting and singing in high school. It just sort of happened. So I was part of the first lot of people who went through the bachelor of music theatre at VCA, I graduated in 2011. Then I was very lucky to start working straight away. I did a couple of pro jobs and then decided that actually I wanted to be on the other side so I started directing and writing. Part of that transition into becoming a theatre maker was studying anthropology. I felt really strongly that I needed to go and learn about this world and to have an opinion and to have a voice to say something meaningful I really needed to know from where I was speaking. Studying anthropology was a really formative part of my training as an artist.
So I’ve been reading a lot of Anne Bogart’s writings and she always says that was an important part of her journey and how important it is for directors to have a company. I thought OK great I’m going to start a company and thus Citizen Theatre was born. So really Citizen Theatre was me trying to find collaborators who are interested in exploring the kinds of questions that I had about the world. It is very much focused on the combination of music and theatre which sometimes means that we work on material that involves singing and sometimes means that we’re working in a rhythmic musical way even if that’s a non musical piece of theatre. There’s always a really central focus on the body and the body in storytelling.
Can you tell us a bit more about your practice?
So in my practice things that I’m looking at are obviously the combination of music and theatre. I’m working from a feminist perspective and a feminist lens which is which is aiming to be an inclusive intersectional lens. I am interested in the body I’m particularly interested in the female identifying body because that’s something that I can identify with from my lived experience. I’m really interested in pushing the boundaries of what we think music and theatre can be. That sort of practice very much has a symbiotic relationship with my teaching practice at VCA.
So trying to talk with students all the time about how we kind of push those boundaries and kind of work through some of the challenges that musicals present us. Then in my own practice taking it back into a more experimental territory sometimes and often working with people who have training in music theatre but not always. Our group is becoming increasingly filled with different backgrounds and experiences. I mean at the end of the day really looking at those questions of the female body representation and spectacle and music theatre. Those things are really part of my MFA research. As part of my work at VCA I’m undertaking research and exploring these questions further and getting hold of that language to delve into these questions and be really conscious and deliberate about how I make work and how I collaborate with others and how I talk about it.
What would you consider to be a turning point for Citizen Theatre?
A really important piece for Citizen Theatre and the identity that we have formed I think over the last few years has been the piece Ascent. So this was our first experience of working at Theatre Works, that was in 2018, and it really marked a shift for the company. The company started back in 2013 and I imagine that for a lot of people they’ve only really heard about us in the last few years. I really think that a lot of that is down to the fact that before 2018 I was really imitating as a director, really imitating what I saw around me and trying to be part of what I saw around me. I didn’t have the skills, or language or have the knowledge to be able to make the work that I really wanted to make. So the first few years were really getting that skill set and training through classics and putting on classics.
Then when 2018 came around and Theatre Works were looking for pieces for their Fringe Festival season we put this piece forward. Earlier that year we’d started training, so I recruited a bunch of like-minded, playful, amazing, inquisitive, intelligent actors and we started training each week and sort of made up her own training really. A lot of us in the group had similar training having gone through VCA together. We wanted to take things further and push things into more experimental territory, so we made it up as we went along. We started training in ways that enabled us to explore the strangeness of the body and value the knowledge that all the bodies brought to the room. That was a really important part of building Ascent.
What was Ascent about?
Ascent was about a woman who improves herself to death. So it was performed by 5 actors, the music is composed by Imogen Cygler who is a regular collaborator and dear friend and the Citizen Theatre music director. So we had five amazing actors, a diverse array of bodies and backgrounds and ways of moving. I was really inspired by Dimitris Papaioannou and his work with isolating body parts and creating kind of like composite bodies. So he will in some of his works (you can see them on Vimeo, they’re amazing) often create one whole body by using three different dancers. So one dancer might be the legs, or the lower half of the legs, and then another dancer might be the upper half of the legs, and then another dancer is the torso and the upper body. These kinds of fragmented bodies, just something about that really inspired me and really spoke to the experiences that lead me to writing Ascent. Which is really about critiquing standardised social ideals around female body image and female ideas of beauty and the ways in which many women, myself included, live in this social conditioning and inculturation. Something about this dismantled, fractured body creation in his work spoke to me and the experience that I was trying to unpack. So we did a lot of experiments in how to push how we perceive the female form particularly in a music theatre context, it’s still a really problematic area. I think musicals in particular have a very kind of fixed notion of femaleness and gender in general. So there are songs in this piece and there was music throughout but you know there was really abstracted movement and really movement that was trying to push the boundaries and push expectations. Creating types of spectacle in ways that were a bit subversive, I say a bit we tried to be very subversive, but in a way that was empowering for the actor. It’s really important to me that we weren’t we weren’t interested in presenting the same old tropes without critique.
What has been a highlight of Citizen Theatres journey so far?
Pretty much since 2018 and Ascent that kind of set us on a new trajectory. We did some really playful, fun, immersive experience shows last year which were fully devised and inspired by local areas. That was amazing. We had a beautiful show last year called When The Light Leaves written by Rory Godbold who is a dear friend of mine. That’s had a really lovely life and hopefully will keep going on to have remounts. It just had a remount at Gasworks this year, just before all this lockdown stuff happened and had its premiere at La MaMa last year. That was a really powerful piece that was about voluntary assisted dying. It came at a really important time where our first season coincided with the introduction of the Victorian legislation that enabled people to access voluntary assisted dying services so that was a really special special piece.
I guess you know the big one for me personally is coming up which is Mara KORPER. Actually a really big highlight for us as well was looking back. So this whole lockdown period has been obviously pretty devastating for our industry and and for the group. We’d just started rehearsals and were about a few weeks in and then obviously we had to put that on hold but the work that we started already has just made me so excited for what lies in store.
So during lockdown we decided to create a podcast. So if you’d like to hear more about highlights and the work we’ve been doing – Thomas Parish one of our lovely members has worked so hard with Imogen Cygler and they’ve put together this gorgeous set of conversations from some of the people who have been working on Citizen Theatre projects and training for a while now so do check that out.
What inspired Mara KORPER?
Mara KORPER has been in creation for about 10 years now and part of the reason for that is because when I first started writing it I didn’t really know how to write at all. It’s partly been learning to write and it’s partly been just digging for a story that’s been within me for a long time. It has really come out of this kind of interest in power and interest in the body again. It very much critiques extremist thinking and extreme reactions to things.
I’m a big believer that extremes just don’t work and we need to be responsive as people rather than reactive. I think just given the state of politics and what social media can do it’s an important message now more than ever, to be thinking about how we respond.
I guess I just spent a lot of time in Germany when I first started writing this show. I was really struck by the ways in which that country has healed and has moved through some pretty horrific parts of its history. I think there’s a lot that we can learn from that here. It was really about understanding how things happened and looking at moments where extremist political regimes have been in power. It has often come out of these moments where people are desperate and people feel that they don’t have options or feel that they’re not heard, or they’re feeling really disempowered. So I can see a lot of resonances with those sorts of moments in history right now and this piece is very much a question to everybody to ask what kind of world do you want to live in. Here’s a really extreme world and pretty much everything in the show is extreme – it’s an extreme rendering of the end of everything.
When people see the show rather than me kind of forcing my ideas on it upon the audience, I really hope that people come away with questions. Lots of questions to go wow is that the kind of world I want to live in, what kind of world do I want to live in?
When we’re in this moment and returning back to a physical kind of social existence with each other post-covid, what kind of world do I want to live in? I think that those questions are really live for us right now and really important and that’s kind of really the centre of Mara KORPER.
What can you tell us about the world of Mara KORPER?
It would be great for you to listen to our podcast where I really go into depth with Thomas on this one. To give you a bit of background – it’s a world where the flesh cannot be sliced. It was sort of inspired by my love of medical history. I’m reading a book at the moment about medieval bodies and it’s always interested me how European societies made that leap into dissection and started to learn about anatomy and talk about anatomy. For such a long time it was such a taboo to slice the flesh, so that’s kind of the starting point for me in the world.
There are really strict rules about preservation and the thing about the world is that on the surface it probably looks pretty good. You know they have a really big sustainability program where all of your body parts are recycled when you die. They all go into creating all of the things like the bookcase behind me and the couch I’m on would all be made out of body parts in this world. Everything is round and soft and it’s a place where if you have a discrepancy with someone you can go and file that and there’s a bureaucratic process so that everyone’s voice feels heard. Everybody has a really strong role within the community, everyone has their role and everyone knows what it is.
Their gender is obsolete in this world, so we use a non gender pronoun in this world Zie/Zer. So Zie for he and she and Zer for his and her. On the surface that sounds amazing, but of course as I said earlier this world is one where everything is pushed to the extreme. So all of those things that I’ve mentioned get pushed in this way where there’s very strict control over bodies. In fact you don’t even own your body, your body is on a loan from the government. There’s a real kind of anxiety in the community of the world, about doing the right and wrong thing and getting caught, and what happens if you get caught doing the wrong thing. They have very strict rules, very strict policy, very strict procedures and very strict worship as well of the mother. So the mother is basically God but Zie is not actually present in the world, but always ever present. There are all these kind of backstories as well about – so weird these bits I wrote before the bushfires and the Corona virus – so the backstory originally was in the year 2033 a bunch of people get wiped out by a virus. I know! There were fires and social upheaval and economic ruin and I’m looking at 2020 going oh whoa this is the story but it’s just like 13 years too early!
The world of the play is set 1000 years in the future near 3033 and so they’re all these austerity measures that the sacred texts say that the mother initiated and instigated. They were austerity measures to begin with and then over 1000 years they’ve become tradition and then they’ve just got a bit pushed into these extremist places. So that’s a bit of a background! We have got a website as well if you wanna learn more about the Mother Administration. It’s a really fun interactive way to learn a bit about the characters – you can talk to The Mother through a chatbot. It’s super cool.
What has Citizen Theatre been up to during COVID?
During lockdown we have been staying connected as a group. We’ve been trying some training on Zoom which has been bizarre. We’ve found some really cool interesting lessons about composition and about making that we’re gonna take into our live performance making practise. We’ve been reading plays as well and you know just keeping connected and it’s such a beautiful group and community. Obviously it’s not ideal and it’s not the same as being in person but certainly I think I’ve personally gained a lot. I think as a group from our discussions people have really valued the time we’ve had together virtually even in the zoomiverse there’s something to discover.
What’s next for Citizen Theatre?
Oh not sure I can reveal those secrets just yet. But, definitely while you’re in lockdown or coming out of lockdown check out our podcast you can find on Spotify or Anchor! If you have trouble just jump onto our website citizen theatre.com.au and there are some links up there and yeah I’m afraid I can’t reveal anything more.
Any final messages?
If you’re not following us on socials please do. Steph does a beautiful job of curating and posting awesome things on our Facebook and our Instagram so get involved. We are @citizen theatreau and you can also sign up to our mailing list which is done through our website and we are so looking forward to bringing Mara KORPER and the world of The Mother to you in 2021 !
Enjoy the video of our interview with Jayde here