What if? Elbow Room’s Ray Chong Nee on The Motion of Light in Water.

Ray Chong Nee

The Motion of Light in Water celebrates the complicated, exhilarating journey of the human heart, as our imaginations soar through space and time.

Inspired by the life and work of Samuel R. Delany and Marilyn Hacker, and powered by a crack ensemble of six extraordinary performers, this world premiere links three stories into a theatrical fantasia of sound, light and space, exploring what it means – and what it might yet mean – to be human, and to love.

Multi-award-winning Elbow Room have crafted a unique and touching affirmation of our power to imagine a better tomorrow.

We caught up with Ray Chong Nee ahead of the Melbourne premiere at Theatre Works as part of our Selected Works program.


Elbow Room.  Tell us about working with Elbow Room – how do you collaborate together make a new work?  What has your involvement been with discovering how to tell this story?

Part of the reason Elbow Room is a respected and acclaimed theatre company is that their process from idea to realisation is inherently collaborative.

Each creation is done so with a carefully chosen cast, and the ensuing process provides the cast and crew with a true sense of ownership in the material. This sense of ownership, developed through input and dissection, permeates the work with truth as it comes not just from the wonderful writing of Marcel and Emily, but from the real life experiences of all involved. In the case of The Motion of Light in Water, the play springboards from real people, Samuel (Chip) Delaney and Marilyn Hacker, and beautiful works of literature, the science fiction books penned by Chip, and poetry by Marilyn. The balance then is finding how we as a company relate to these people, and stories, and realise that on page and stage.

The process in short, was hugely possible thanks to HotHouse who hosted us for two weeks in January at a farm house with a studio; we literally sweat through the material, and fully immersed ourselves in the lives of these real humans, and then imagined ourselves through the science fiction stories of Babel-17 and Empire Star.

We returned back recently in June to stage the work after almost two months of rehearsing in Melbourne (some of it in residency at Theatre Works), and now we will present it as a part of the Selected Works program.

Acting Your performance is nuanced, open and delicate.  How did you approach creating Chip? 

There are a lot of source materials on the internet about and regarding Samuel R Delaney, and in watching some of those recordings and listening to Chip speak, you can start to form a representation of him. However, in finding how to inhabit Chip, not Samuel, because that is not the purpose of this show, reading was essential.

Reading his novel  Babel-17, his novella Empire Star, his memoir The Motion of Light in Water (same as the title of the show), and other academic papers allowed me to relate to the human that was Samuel, and experience the breadth and depth to the man. From there I tried to identify our differences and our similarities, and then I chose whether to accentuate any of my explorations for the purposes of the stage. My biggest exploration was finding the essence that is the man, as any actor can attest to, finding what makes someone tick is a fundamental key to unlocking doors to a character. Of course all of this is not possible without the wonderful direction from Marcel.

Science Fiction. Did you have an interest in science fiction before working on this work?  What do you think that science fiction can do that that other genres can’t.

I dabbled in science fiction, but it was mainstream exposure to the genre. Shows like Doctor Who, Star Trek, Stargate and movies like Star Wars informed my knowledge of the genre, but I was still a novice. It was not until this project that my mind was expanded regarding the question of  what science fiction is.

That question then informs this play, and is undoubtedly asked by patrons who come to see the show. And because we ask that question, we can also ask other questions simultaneously, like “What is it to love? What is a relationship? What are the differences that make us individual but bind us as a species?” If we ask these questions and try to find the answers, through our endeavours we dream a bigger future for ourselves where we exist past what we know today, technologically and physically, and science fiction is the perfect medium in which we can imagine and explore. Chip saw the potential in this. Thanks Chip.

More than science fiction.  There are parallel stories existing in this work…both the world of Chip and also the world of his imagination..his stories…how did you as an ensemble decide what parts of these worlds we needed to know?

After reading the two books, and his memoir, we spent countless hours discussing that mammoth task that was to read the three works.

In the end we left Albury unsure what would come out of our ‘playing’.

It was Marcel Dorney who fought this beast, and the result that you saw was his victory.

We all occasionally had a word in his ear about what we think worked and didn’t, but the reins are firmly in his hands, and in his hands we trust.

Samuel R Delany.  What have you learnt about this man through the process of making this work?  What more would you like to know from him if you had the chance to spend some time with him?

He has had over 50,000 sexual encounters. That’s like between 10 and 15 a day. That just blows (no puns intended) my mind. In all my imaginings, I never thought that was a number possible to achieve, but just shows how limited my vision is.

I would like to ask him about why he is fascinated with men that bite their fingernails. There is so much more, but that is a good start I think.

The audience. Of course you never know what each audience member will take from a work..but what do you hope that you have achieved with this work…what do you hope to give the audience?

I hope that in telling this story, although we have taken some artistic license in parts, we do Marilyn and Samuel justice. To quote from the play “Writing creates not a representation of the world, but a model of the writer’s intention”.

Our intention was to celebrate this beautiful man and his works, and through the same medium he used, science fiction, dream a brighter future for ourselves.
A future where our differences unite us.

If the audience leave the experience with ‘What if…?” Then we have succeeded. We have done justice to Samuel, Marilyn, HotHouse, Theatre Works, and ourselves.

The Motion of Light in Water plays from July 17 until July 27.
Book your tickets here





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