a theatre for all the senses

keith gallasch talks with malthouse’s michael kantor

Michael Kantor

Michael Kantor

Michael Kantor

“When we stand at the edge of the sea, or lift a child high against the sky, or look deep into the eyes of another—with love or sadness or just pure fascination—we are giving ourselves leave to experience what is outside of time. This is precisely the gift of theatre. To give us the extended moment to know what we think and what we feel. It gives us leave to know the beautiful, the disturbing, the unspeakable strangeness of our selves.”
Michael Kantor, Introduction, Malthouse Season One ‘07

Artistic director Michael Kantor is in his third year with the company he and Stephen Armstrong transformed from Playbox into Malthouse. We met in Sydney to discuss the company’s first 2007 season and in particular how the company works, the kinds of theatre it embraces—from plays to intimate performative installations, music theatre and dance—and the aesthetic and political challenges for theatre as concepts of form, of ‘mainstream’ and aesthetics undergo significant change.

malthouse at work

While I’m technically the Artistic Director and Stephen Armstrong is technically the Executive Producer, we work alongside Catherine Jones who’s our Associate Producer and Maryanne Lynch, our Dramaturg in Residence. We’re all very involved in the programming. We can all bring things to the table to be considered. If one of us has seen a show that is interesting because of the particular artists in it or its writing, we quickly attempt to all see it to keep the discussion going. Sometimes this is hard when a lot of the stuff is interstate. But we think it’s important that there’s not a single voice or a single command system. So we work very collaboratively on each season. Of course, the lead-time means that many projects are decided a good 18 months ahead of their premieres. Then it becomes incumbent, particularly on Maryanne and myself, once something has been conceived or a project may have been commissioned, to see it through and to give as much feedback and follow through and help as possible.

Because of our limited resources we can’t really afford to commission a lot. We can’t do that kind of seeding, that ‘well-let’s-just-see’ kind of process, which I’d love to do because I think that allows for a different type of liberty for artists. But I’m finding that what we can do best is support work coming out of the Melbourne independent theatre scene, for those artists to grow into larger theatre spaces because if they don’t get the experience through Malthouse, they won’t get it at all. Then we’ll be in an awful position in 10 or 15 years where there will be no artists who have the training to conceive and understand what it means to put a large show on in a large space. So we like to give opportunities to those artists but also to expose audiences to work which I think is leading the theatre into a new and exciting territory.

whose theatre?

I had to make a choice quite early on. Was this going to be the Michael Kantor Theatre Company, which was an option. The board were quite willing for me to do that. In that guise it would have been four shows a year from Michael Kantor and collaborators, with two or three other things. But I thought, with a lot of consultation, that would be an inappropriate use of this resource—this fabulous theatre building that is really important in the ecology of Melbourne theatre [as] a crossover point for artists to be able to merge with what one may call the mainstream. But the mainstream in itself is indefinable now. It’s changed. So, it’s really about achieving a point of professionalism for artists that leads to greater visions, greater dreams being reached on stage and greater audiences for that work. While the Melbourne independent scene is booming, it’s booming to small audiences. Shows sell out to 60 people a night. And that’s great but we need those artists to be exposed and creating work that can attract 200 people and then 300 and ultimately 500, and fill the Merlyn. Now that’s a struggle for anyone, I might say, at the moment. But it has to be like that because it’s not actually sustainable on a small level—not if those artists want to work all their lives in the theatre.

There are about three or four new commissions a year. There’s no time-line for when they’ll be realised although there’s a broad belief that if it’s taking more than two years to get to the stage there might be something wrong and we’d better think about it. In some cases, a work may be quite well formed. It just needs the injection of rehearsal time, which can be short actually. Some shows have had ‘boutique’ seasons in Melbourne’s smaller spaces, so we invest to bring them to a level and scale that can work in the theatre we’re proposing for them. And hopefully this way we allow those artists to further develop the work and refine it and see it complete, or as complete as theatre can ever be. A lot of these works are small; a lot are solos. Some are four-handers. It’s been rare that we’ve been able to invest in anything larger than that. I dream of a day in which it is possible that a great Chekhov production or a new work created by a group of artists in a warehouse can be taken up, professionalised and attract 500 people a night. Be it a Chekhov or a new work, I don’t have a big hang-up about how many shows are ‘new’, how many are ‘reinventions.’

Right now The Tower is the most likely venue for our support for independents, for financial reasons, although in our first season for 2007 we have The Pitch, Peter Houghton’s very funny solo in the Beckett for the Comedy Festival. It’ll do very well and it can work in that theatre. And Uncle Semolina and Friends will perform OT in the Beckett too. Nowadays there are more options for independent artists through FULL TILT at the Arts Centre, Arts House at North Melbourne Town Hall and what we’re doing at Malthouse.

the director directs

In my first year here I did three plays, the next year I did two. This year I’m only going to direct one. But I have plans for about seven in 2008! But that can’t happen. I think three would be the maximum and they can’t all be large. That’s to do with our finances but also to make sure that I’m accessible and not just in a rehearsal room all the time. Artists find conversations, even if they don’t lead to work with us, are important. We like to keep the door open. We have a process where anyone can submit anything as long as they’ve had a professional engagement of some sort and they can describe their work in two pages.

the german connection

One of our dreams for 2008 is a new work by writer Marius von Mayenburg and director Benedict Andrews [Andrews directed von Mayenburg’s Eldorado for Malthouse in 2006, RT 74, p42]. It’s dependent on a certain amount of funding which is currently beyond us, but we’re very hopeful. We’re simply calling it “The Secret Project” at the moment. Benedict and Marius spent a few weeks last year working on it with a great group of actors. We hope to extend and develop that process over this year. I’ll be able to say more in about a month. But I’m very keen to continue our collaboration with Benedict Andrews: he’s a fabulous director and it’s very important that Melbourne gets past its, “Oh, that’s just some Sydney director” parochialism—it means nothing. He’s just a fabulous director.

open to all the senses

Theatre can work so well as a simple voice under a spotlight in a darkened room, but it’s not the only form and it’s not the form that gets me closest to my subconscious, which is where I want to go. I always worry about the writer’s preoccupation with the word and its central focus in theatre. It can be. But it’s not the only way. I believe that theatre needs to be open to all the senses especially through potent visual imagery. The backhand response can be that such work is overproduced or ‘all style, no substance.’ To me that’s discounting the potency of the image in the first place. As if it had only ever meant to be there as wallpaper for the actors.

catharsis optional

There’s an assumption that every strong piece of theatre will take you on an emotional journey that will be cathartic. It’s a rear-guard action that Melbourne keeps throwing up at me: ‘Where’s the catharsis? Where’s my big, you know, my tearjerking moment?’ Theatre is about rhythms, that’s where a director’s vision or voice or collaborative process with others can be so distinctive. Benedict Andrews has a completely different sense of stage time to me. So do Barrie Kosky and Neil Armfield. I’m always beguiled by it. Mine’s very short, I should say. It’s like bang, bang, bang. Whereas I’m so impressed by the kind of control that can come from slowing time down and allowing that space of dream to open up for an audience. Robert Wilson does it—not always but sometimes fantastically.

outside ourselves

I’m not a great lover of theatre that reminds me of who I am, really. I prefer to be shocked, to imagine that I’m a little bit like something else. A lot of theatre has traditionally, particularly in Australia, attempted to show us ourselves simply, confirming our sense of ourselves. And I’m not convinced we need any more confirmation of ourselves as content and calm, fair and balanced, when clearly we’re not.

one day an ensemble

A company can have so many different ways of being. And there’s a great other model, which is the ensemble model. Ultimately, if I can’t achieve it at the Malthouse, one day that’s what I want. I want to work with an ensemble of actors and creative collaborators on a body of work. Barrie Kosky and Tom Wright’s The Lost Echo (RT 76, p36) would not have happened without the Sydney Theatre Company’s Actors Company. They needed to have worked together in the six months leading up to the work with Kosky for it to get anywhere close to where it got, which was a great distance. You would never expect a string quartet to play a concert without having rehearsed together for nine months. And like finely tuned instruments, actors need that. They feed off working together. In the meantime and for the first time at Malthouse we’ve added to the number of artists working daily with the company by having designer Anna Tregloan and lighting designer Paul Jackson as artists in residence. They’ll work on shows and get to understand the budgeting process and all of the rigour that needs to take place to make a theatre company work. They’re people who might one day want to run a company.
<img src="http://www.realtime.org.au/wp-content/uploads/art/2/280_kg_malt_black.jpg" alt="Black, Anna Tregloan, collage
with text excerpts from the Black Dahlia”>

Black, Anna Tregloan, collage
with text excerpts from the Black Dahlia

Black, Anna Tregloan, collage
with text excerpts from the Black Dahlia

first 07 season

Like all our seasons, I hope there’s something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue. There’s a sense of bricolage about it. You’re not going to see six like-minded events.There is no unifying theme, but all these projects seem to sit perfectly together—they’re wry, they’re whimsical, all quite quirky in spirit—some of them unsettlingly so. Deep inside, all plays are united by a sense of paranoia and a fear of death. They’re also strongly fuelled by a libidinous urge, that’s theatre—the theatre that I like.

It felt like a strong, simple, bold first choice to open the season with Tom Healey directing Melissa Reeves’ The Spook, about Australia and Communism in the 50s. It cried out to be performed in Melbourne, and while ASIO is out there recruiting ‘spooks’ right now. It’s an interesting moment, a merging of our paranoia about terrorism simultaneously with paranoia about the dangerous words of the artist. Up in the Tower Anna Tregloan’s making a performative installation piece, Black, around the very gruesome Black Dahlia story told by James Elroy. She’s exploring themes around the female body in relationship to glamour and the hard boiled detective narrative but all fused in Anna’s special way with fragments of text. For me she’s designed The Odyssey and The Ham Funeral—big plays—but her mind is much more active than that and she’s simultaneously been doing durational installation works (RT 57, p40). Black runs for three hours but you can come and go, watch and read. The performers include Caroline Lee and Moira Finucane and the lighting is by Paul Jackson.

Ionesco’s Exit the King is the big show in the season. Three years ago I read it with Geoffrey Rush and we both agreed it was fantastic and he said he’d actually read it with Neil Armfield so a conversation developed and now it’s a co-production with Company B with a great cast: Bille Brown, Julie Forsyth, Gillian Jones and David Woods who’s from Ridiculusmus, the fantastic English avant-garde comedy group. We follow up with OT (as in Old Testament). Uncle Semolina (& Friends) is a wonderfully inventive and intriguing group who did a series of works initially in a shopfront and have worked a lot with puppets, dolls and toys but doing elaborate, unsettling, big, mythic stories with them. That grew into a piece called Gilgamesh, which was very successful and is going to The Barbican in London. We commissioned OT from them last year. Christian Leavesley and Phil Rolfe have devised a piece that has a little tribe of Israel, a very jealous God (performed by Peter Snow) and it’s performed on a very simple, strange set. What I love about their work is the enthralling sense of miniature. There’s also Chunky Move’s Tense Dave in a return season—it was one of the favourite shows I’ve worked on as a director.

inspirations

In the third year of the company I always think we can do better. We’ve planted a lot of seeds and they’re growing. Some need a lot of watering. Some of them will be beautiful and some will wither. That’s what keeps me going, the conversations that surround the creation of a work of theatre. But I also get a thrill like no other when a performance works. And particularly when you’ve been involved in helping collaborate with a group of artists to get it there. I’ve got three kids—six, nine and eleven. They keep you going because there are times in life when work just has to stop. There’s just no chance of that conversation continuing when really there’s something much more interesting taking place on a trampoline. That’s really good for me.

* * *

Michael Kantor’s enthusiasm for innovative Melbourne theatre and the Malthouse vision is palpable, energetic and eloquent (a trait he shares with the likewise lanky and indefatigable Stephen Armstrong). Long may Malthouse seed and grow.

Malthouse, www.malthousetheatre.com.au

RealTime issue #77 Feb-March 2007 pg. 10

1 February 2007