David Pledger: the danger zone

Richard Murphet

David Pledger, Paul Bongiovanni

David Pledger, Paul Bongiovanni

David Pledger, Paul Bongiovanni

Initial research concentrated on examining the physical sensibility of the performers, the primary aim being to develop a training process which, generally, assists in the articulation of the performer’s physical sensibility and, specifically, explores a perceived Australian spatial reality in performance…The company has drawn from a diverse set of forms and disciplines such as dance-theatre, bio-mechanics, martial arts, new media practice, Suzuki acting method and sport.
NYID publicity material

David Pledger is the Artistic Director of the Melbourne performance ensemble, not yet it’s difficult (nyid). Since 1995 the ensemble has presented 8 productions: Taking Tiger Mountain By Strategy (1995), Nil, Cat and Buried (1995), William Shakespeare: hung, drawn and quartered (1996), Training Squad (1996), The Austral/asian Post-cartoon: Sports Edition (1997), Chicago Chicago System 98 (1998), Journey Into Confusion (2000) and Scenes of the Beginning from the End (2001)—merciless exposés of certain tendencies in contemporary civilisation. Each show is dynamically crafted physically, vocally, rhythmically. Each show has pushed to the edge the performers’ endurance and daring and challenged the audience to deal with the social implications of the issues raised. The works have been acclaimed critically, receiving 4 Green Room awards, mainly for innovative performance.

What are the lineaments of a culture? The company has asked this again and again. Where does its power lie? Where is its energy contained? What are its landscapes—natural and urban? How does it control its aberrant forces? With what forms of violence is that control applied? How is a culture—its content and its discontents—mediated and in what ways do the forms of that mediation shape the very culture it is relaying? The focus is on image, ensemble, performer presence and technology. The basic artistic team consists of Pledger, dramaturg Peter Eckersall, production manager Paul Jackson and the performers (including, consistently, Greg Ulfan, Paul Bongiovanni, Danielle Long and Kha Tran Viet).

In addition to the striking success of its live and technological communication, nyid produces and markets itself with flash and edge. It has a 21st century profile and its aspirations like its critique are global rather than purely local. It has instituted both a series of Independent Theatre Forums (the papers were reproduced in RealTime) and R & D Cubed, a program devoted to research into practice, which has given birth to 2 research projects, nyid tv and The Desert Project. It has also produced one film, The Unmaking of, and Pledger has recently finished a documentary for SBS based on his grandfather’s background in Italy (Cosenza Vecchia, broadcast July 20).

I first got to know David Pledger when he was a member of the 80s group, The Globos, with their slick, kitsch, satirical, witty, live ‘clips’ of pop songs. This interview took place almost 20 years later in his home in Elwood in July 2001.

Technology & perception

I was born in the 60s and I grew up with TV. I’ve never really known a life without TV. Technology is fundamental in the way that I see the world. I think that mediation through technology has absolutely created a shift in our perception of theatre. I never knew anything else.

Scenes of the Beginning from the End seemed to be playing with various degrees of audience involvement, shifting how we were to perceive the action in front of us. The first presentational movement piece shifted to a series of realistic vignettes voyeuristically witnessed by the audience through the windows of cars. This in turn shifted to a suburban family scenario played soap opera style in an open frame house. Finally we were in the theatre watching ourselves being watched.

When there’s a multiplicity of states of reception available for an audience, spectatorship becomes braindancing. The audience as a receiver of the performance is put in a situation where they are really watching how it’s communicated to them and then finally, and most importantly, working out what the meaning of that relationship is, as well as the content and the context. That variety of positions creates a dynamic relationship between spectator and action. The very last scene of Scenes, the surveillance section, gives you another point of view because it places the audience as the central agent.

Spectatorship & surveillance

In the final section of Scenes…, the audience is divided. One half watches, via hidden security cameras, the other half is seduced, engaged with, cajoled and browbeaten by the cast in the roles of members of the bureaucracy. The section culminates with certain members of that audience selected and taken off to be ‘beaten up’ in another sealed off space. The fascination of surveillance becomes a violent act in its own right.

The interplay between spectatorship and surveillance has been a major theme in my work since I started working on the media back in 97 (in Sports Edition). I’ve always been fascinated with movies like Rear Window: the phenomenon of watching someone who’s not aware of being watched, while being watched yourself.

As a mechanism for first world societies this phenomenon is poignant, sad and also titillating. The idea that this kind of social activity is commodified and sold and corporatised—literally institutionalised—has always intrigued me. Watching shows like Big Brother, for example, is sad because you think ‘god, don’t they have anything better to do?’ And yet there’s a kind of titillation about the fact that you’re watching someone doing something ‘real’ as opposed to doing something ‘not real.’

And this titillation, in turn, is connected to your own unexpressed desire to be watched. That is the emotional landscape of my interest in surveillance. Socially and politically there is something seriously dysfunctional in the whole surveillance relationship and its potential—the first world, which is America, is going to look at the farmers in the third world, just to make sure that they’re going about their business.

All of this technology is completely and utterly possible and in between that spectrum of looking at someone when they’re not watching you, and that kind of organisation of power and capital, are these multiplicities of mediation which determine the way that we organise ourselves in space, our emotional lives, our thinking.

We’re going to show the surveillance section of Scenes at the International Media Art Award, ZKM (Karlsruhe, Germany), in October. It’s very exciting because the whole theme of the award is surveillance.

Technology: real & unreal

I’ve made 2 films now and both are documentary dramas. In a lot of my theatre shows I’m really interested in looking at the documentation of the real. But a documentary is an utter construction. Drama, on the other hand, is a form which says ‘No, we are representing life for you on the stage’ and yet sometimes drama attempts to be reality. And on one level that is simply what drama is and its pretence to be about something else is a lie.

Technology is just another medium for exploring the relationship between the real and the unreal. The gestural choreography in our work is another kind of technology, one in which the abstraction of real action is put together as a way of developing another form of language as text, and also a substitute for text. So if you look at verbal language as ‘the real thing’, and the movement that arises out of it and is abstracted from it as ‘the unreal thing’, then the distance that’s created between text and movement in my work is really looking at issues of reality and unreality.

Placing the audience

I’m so not interested in the actor’s transformation. Transformation is a very old fashioned way of thinking about acting. I think it’s not performative. When you look at performers and actors transformed on stage, the agency of fear is with them and not with the audience and that is counterproductive and unpolitical. The audience may at best be active empathetically and kinaesthetically but they’re not active socially. At all times the audience should be conscious they are in a theatre. You can be engaged and you can be taken away and your imaginative landscapes can be scoured by the presentation of the ideas of the theatrical piece but it is essentially a piece of theatre. The deceptions of illusionist theatre are no longer appropriate and younger audiences just don’t buy them.

The ensemble needs to have an understanding of what the performance means for us. Then what we try to do is give the audience, through the style of presentation, the problem of the thing that they are watching. The audience is not observing our journey as characters through the narrative. We are instead presenting a set of ideas and concepts and ways of thinking which the audience are being asked to piece together every single night, with us and for us.

Going too far

Humour is the point at which the audience’s possibilities are opened up. Octavio Paz once said that humour renders everything it touches ambiguous. This is a very politically active space to be in. Humour is vital in all our theatre.

At the opposite extreme is violence. It closes off options and causes decisions. In The Sports Edition there is a section when we act violence on Kha. This was made in response to One Nation and their targeting of Asians and Indigenous Australians. And the audience is identifying with the fact that here is a guy who’s feeling that every single value in his world is diminishing as a result of the political agendas that are being acted out on the street and that diminishment becomes a problem for us as citizens of Australia. It also becomes a problem for us as members of the company because the working through of that whole process of beating him up and constructing a choreography and language for it can be quite traumatic. You make a decision whether you go on, and obviously the decision has to rest with the person who is at the centre of the violence. We all have to ask ourselves, ‘Are we going too far?’

The paralysis one feels at the moment of witnessing violence is a really dynamic situation in which we find ourselves more and more as the world becomes more overtly violent. But this moment at which the audience decides whether or not to engage or step in to halt the violence is the point at which action, social action, is made decisive.

Whose vision?

Where are you placed within the work you make?

When I hear questions like that I feel like the work is diminished because the work is not essentially mine. It is the audience’s. Also, the representation of my work is not just about me in my space because I work collaboratively with other people. And because I work as an artist, I work from the danger zone of the unknown where too much analysis from a personal point of view can close up so many possibilities.

The moment at which you remain within your work is the moment at which you continually leave it. There is no sense in identifying what any single piece means in my personal life, because it is part of a continuum of a series of landscapes in which I live and work simultaneously.

The story within a performance is not about me, but essentially it has parts of me in it. I take the prime authorial role, but the pleasure of collaboration allows my 2-dimensional vision to be expanded into the 3-dimensional world of working with a group of people whose intelligences and imaginations constantly contribute to every facet of every show.

nyid’s annual workshop & research program in August will initiate the company’s social capital fund, which will contribute part-proceeds to an independent social welfare agency. Next year nyid will use the fund as a challenge program to lever an equal donation from targeted private sector and philanthropic organisations. David Pledger has been awarded a Churchill fellowship to travel to Germany, Senegal, New York and Denmark.

RealTime issue #44 Aug-Sept 2001 pg. 28

© Richard Murphet; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 August 2001