Suburban dream machines

RT talks with Joey Ruigrok van der Werven

Dogtroep, Camel Gossip 2, 1993 Amsterdam

Dogtroep, Camel Gossip 2, 1993 Amsterdam

Joey Ruigrok van der Werven is one of the unsung heroes of Australian contemporary performance. He has brought to his work with the internationally well-travelled Stalker and Marrugeku companies his own box of tools, considerable technical expertise in construction, rigging, contraption-making, pyrotechnics management and strong design sensibility along with a collaborative spirit nurtured in the Netherlands. He was first a props maker in repertory theatre and then, more significantly, head technician and team member with Dogtroep, the renowned Netherlands’ performance company. RT spoke with Joey during the preparatory stages for Mechanix, “a mechanical ecosystem of contraptions”, a spectacular new work in collaboration with the local community for the Bankstown-based Urban Theatre Projects.

How has your background shaped your work in Australia?

I’ve been living in Australia for 5 and half years. There was a lot of creativity in making the props for repertory theatre but not in the shows and what people did with the props. I was always disappointed. But in Doegtrop everyone contributed. I was part of the team, one of the creators of images, apparatuses and effects. I was also the main technician. Every member in Dogtroep has to come up with scenes. You become a creator—it’s not like someone saying can I have this or do that. Musicians, sculptors, welders, performers, inventors, dramaturgs, all have to come up with their own scenes and they can be very hi-tech—motors, pistons, sprockets, fireworks, lots of lights—but also very very lo-tech, like props made out of bamboo and paper.

Just before beginning work on Mechanix, you were in Newcastle staging the first run of Stalker’s Incognita. How has that developed?

In the creative development stage we developed some of the rigging and some of the flying and some of the work on poles. We took these to the designer Andrew Carter. I’m the builder of Andrew’s designs, but the collaboration with him is like I’m part of the design team, which is fantastic. Incognita is inspired by the outback of Australia. We told him about the structure of the show, that it possibly had a house, possibly had a rig and that we were inspired by Arthur Boyd paintings and Drysdales—maybe Boyd more for the content and Drysdale for the images. Also very inspiring were Drysdale’s photographs…beautiful.

Andrew made the design, I built it. There’s a house and we have to rig off it. So a lot of the work was developed by setting up and rehearsing the show. For example, there’s some things that have to be destroyed—corrugated iron which breaks off, the performers have to rip it off. It’s not like something you can just draw and design, you really have to do it, to see if it works. There’s a lot of that in rehearsal, trying it out, me building it. The house is the rigging. There’s a tree clump and a house and between there’s a tightrope wire, and from the house there’s 2 guy ropes which makes the whole thing rigid but it looks very flimsy. When I went to the engineer—I have to calculate everything of course because people swing off it—he said, “Ooh, it’s more difficult than the Olympic stadium, construction wise”, and he meant it. Sometimes when you look at a structure you can see the internal strength, and in this one you don’t—it really is in the rigging and the guy wires. This set has to be able to travel by plane, so we’re restricted by weight because of too short a time between festivals to ship it. It worked okay.

Incognita is set in the desert, and Geoff Cobham, the lighting designer wanted the really sharp shadows you get from the movement of the sun. So he wanted a light that would move in that way, 5 metres high, coming up behind and over the audience and then sinking. Everybody always told him, No you can’t do this, and I was the first one who said, “Yes, let’s do it!” Even though I thought we’ve got too much to do. But if you’ve got a lighting designer you have to give him the opportunity to be creative. I think it works—it’s on a trolley with a 4 metre arm with a big counterweight.

On paper Mechanix looks exciting and ambitious. We don’t see this kind of work in Australia.

It’s very ambitious. At a forum, Alicia Talbot, the Artistic Director of Urban Theatre Projects, heard me speak about my work with Dogtroep in Amsterdam. That triggered the possibility for a fantasy she’d had for a while to make a performance with local community members using contraptions and machines as the main players. This is what we’d been doing in Dogtroep and it is one of my specialities. So she invited me to talk about a show in which community members would come up with the ideas, the basic design for the contraptions and I would work closely with them. Also I would become part of the direction, as a co-director with Alicia. That’s a new thing for me. It’s also daunting because we rely on the community members to contribute with their ideas and also their time to build things. So it’s up to us to create the environment for them to feel free to imagine.

We’re up to our third meeting with them and they really inspire me a lot. We have to guide them, see which ideas can work, put some people together. We also have a number of core artists. Reza Achman, the musical director, is a percussionist from Indonesia with a World Music background, working with community members to make sounds, drumming and atmosphere. The composer Liberty Kerr is the sound director and is going to make a soundscape with gadgets and horns and secondhand stuff we found. I hope she’ll use her cello—in the end the show is about the emotions, a visual spectacle is never enough—and the cello is the opposite of hard metal. Simon Wise is doing the lighting: he also likes making things. Lee Wilson will be movement director creating a movement vocabulary to go throughout the show and built on reactions to the contraptions, some of which will be static, some mobile.

What kind of venue is ideal for this type of work?

First we looked at old railway sheds and found an amazing place, barren, there was just soil and a roof, but you would have had to bring in all the infrastructure. Then we thought, let’s do it smack bang in the middle of Bankstown in the plaza, occupying the whole area. Bump in for 2 weeks, have lots of people seeing us preparing. But then we found another space, a State Rail freight depot where we could build the contraptions. The building itself is small but there’s a lot of open land around it so now we’re thinking we’ll do it there because we can build the work and perform it in the same place and it’s close to the railway station. We might start with a parade from the plaza to the depot, it’s only a short walk.

Is the show about contraptions and their inventors?

The theme is about how living in Bankstown, in a suburban area, is not easy. On average, people have a bit less income and less opportunities. We thought if you live there and you run up against society what kind of machine would you build to make life better. Instead of a narrative about telling and explaining what your problems are and what your solutions are, now the machines have to speak for you, explain the fantasy. I hope we can do it without the inventors having to use words, a number of them have already expressed that desire.

To get the whole process going rather than starting blank, I’ve created a central structure, a theme around which the people making the contraptions can hook on or jump off from and get inspired. The buildings in Bankstown are very low so I thought of building a tower—a house with 3 levels in which stuff happens—and a crane that can move easily in the space, but that’s all I’m going to tell you now. I’ll make the crane—all the cranes you hire are too heavy and too strong. Tonight I’ll make a drawing and then go to the engineer again. We’ve got a full 9 weeks to create a world and a performance.

Urban Theatre Projects, Mechanix, venue TBC, Bankstown, Sydney, Nov 27-Dec 8, Tel 02 9707 2111 www.urbantheatre.com.au

RealTime issue #51 Oct-Nov 2002 pg. 42

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1 October 2002