Occupying positive space

Julia Postle

RealTime Issue 11, February – March 1996

Jacqui Carroll and John Nobbs of Brisbane’s Frank Productions talk with Julia Postle about performance and the classic text.


The reputation of Brisbane-based Frank Productions is slowly but surely spreading as they develop a body of work that includes The Tragedy of Oedipus, The Tale of Macbeth and Orpheus. The company is committed to careful development rooted in rigorous training and in sustaining an on-going ensemble, so it might be a while before an extended season of their work will be seen outside of Brisbane.


Why do you choose to combine the training method of Suzuki Tadashi with classical drama. Is it a logical relationship for you, or is it something more exploratory?

JC  It’s pretty logical. To present the classics, the performers have to be, in a sense, as large as the material they’re presenting. But up there on stage you’re as tall as you are. To reach the audience, Oedipus has to be larger than life, the actor has to be totally convincing. Mr Suzuki was the first person who came into our lives who had investigated this and developed a series of exercises which made the actor physically more palpable for the audience. Instead of a person standing there, the actor was actually driving energy into the audience, occupying positive space, not negative space. And to do this you have to be amazingly energised, amazingly driven. You’ve got to wake the body up; you’ve really got to be there in the moment. At the end of the day, if you’ve got these actors who look like eagles, you can’t present works that belong to sparrows.


In your production of The Tragedy of Oedipus it’s that strength of the performers which is so powerful. It seems that the training is a really pervasive force then.

JC  It’s not as easy as it would seem. Once you get it, you’ve got to keep working at it. If the body is not primed for action, then the voice isn’t. And the more we explore the text, we find it’s extraordinary how much more energised the actor has to be. You’ve got to do the training to get to that point, because you don’t even know you’ve got a body until someone forces you to do the training and makes you come up with answers to various problems. I wanted to develop the actor who could do it, and then I wanted to develop the works that would expose and reveal the actor who could do it. I was very much on a journey of not only getting into the body of the actor, but also making theatre works that would actually reveal what we have created.

The other thing we are very aware of is the audience. The only reason you stand on stage is for the audience. That sounds pretty obvious. But there’s often a feeling of people acting amongst themselves, to each other; as if somehow their personal exchange on stage will transfer across the footlights. But I’ve got to engage you. Mr Suzuki went back to the Greek ideal; that the actors were there to tell a good story, and to tell it to the audience. They were the ciphers through which the material of the story passed. That’s why they’ve got to be energised, because they’re carrying the weight of the text with them. You can’t just be casual about that; it’s got to be driven through the body to work. And nobody can just wander in and take a position with Frank Productions. They’ve got to go through the training, because they don’t even know what we’re talking about until they spend a year thumping the floor and standing on one leg, looking at you and engaging you. It’s extraordinary.


So how extensive is the research before the rehearsal process? You must really play with the texts?

JN You use many sources to gain different views of the work; rather than sticking to one thing we’re looking at all aspects of the myth. And Jacqui basically accumulates the text over many months and we then rehearse over a long period. It’s very important that it does take a long time so that we don’t have this last-minute rush business.

And we’ve come to believe in the power of repetition, because the more you repeat something, the more the false ornamentation falls away. So it’s very important to us that we do come back and do works like Orpheus —this will be our third performance over three years. We’re doing the same things we did before, but we’re making it interesting again. And most theatre groups eschew that, because they think it destroys the creativity. But if you look at something like the Dying Swan solo from Swan Lake, you’ve got to do the same thing that everyone else has done, but you’ve got to make it different.

JC You may say that you do a small work just to explore something because you’re on your way to something greater, but once you create the big work then you’ve got to hang onto that and keep exploring it.

JN Once you get used to the idea of watching the same thing, you can actually see something new each time. They might be very subtle differences, but they’re also strong at the same time. And then the audience gets a chance to see the same work again, with the same performers or new performers, and to watch people go through different journeys. So it’s about performing, it’s not about technology. And the text is the starting point for something. The text is the intellectual information, but the emotional and spiritual information comes from the actor.


And there’s also that idea of everything connected to the physical, which is probably related to your dance backgrounds.

JC  We have a deep belief in that.

JN When I stopped dancing professionally, Jacqui said to me, “You should get back to the stage, it’s where you belong”. I couldn’t recapture my dance career because I was that much older. But I was looking for a way to amalgamate acting with dance. Suddenly we found a way to do that; to amalgamate the specificity of the text with movement.

1 February 1996