The power of listening

Caroline Wake: Roslyn Oades

Billy McPherson, Roslyn Oades, John Shrimpton, I’m Your Man rehearsals

Billy McPherson, Roslyn Oades, John Shrimpton, I’m Your Man rehearsals

Billy McPherson, Roslyn Oades, John Shrimpton, I’m Your Man rehearsals

There is a certain self-consciousness that comes over a writer when faced with interviewing an artist who conducts, edits and restages interviews for a living. I speak, of course, of Roslyn Oades, a Sydney-born, Melbourne-based artist who has spent more than a decade pioneering the form she calls “headphone verbatim.” [Actors are fed edited audio via headphones which they reproduce with precision. Eds.]

Though we have talked previously, about everything from the merits of supra- versus circum-aural headphones to the ethics of sharing other people’s stories in performance, when I get the brief for this article it occurs to me that we have never really discussed gender. What follows derives from a telephone conversation we had on the evening of September 4, four days before Oades went into rehearsal for her latest project, Hello, Goodbye & Happy Birthday, which will premiere at the Melbourne Festival on October 9.

Art, theatre, voice, installation

Oades identifies four paths or practices that have led her to this moment, starting with her formal training at the College of Fine Arts at the University of New South Wales in the early 1990s. COFA had only recently merged with UNSW and Oades was among the first students who could take art classes at Paddington as well as humanities subjects at the main campus in Kensington. She speaks fondly and proudly of training in photomedia with Anne Zahalka and in theatre with John McCallum, among others. This would be more than enough for most students, but Oades also wanted to explore acting, leading to the second strand of her practice. While still at university, Oades won a guest role on A Country Practice, where she huffed and puffed her way through a teen pregnancy and labour.

Once she had graduated, Oades continued to work in television, doing small guest roles on shows such as Police Rescue (“Leah Purcell and I were rookie cops together”) before landing a larger role on Home and Away. From 1996 to 1998, she appeared in 25 episodes as Kylie Burton before being arrested at the altar and then dying of a drug overdose in prison. Such plotlines did not so much plant the seeds of doubt, as water them; Oades was still living in Bankstown, trying to reconcile its diversity with the very white world of Summer Bay, and wondering how she might go about making her own work. So she called the Bankstown Community Arts Officer, Tim Carroll, and asked him about what he did and how he got his job. Working with Carroll at the Bankstown Youth Development Service allowed Oades to start Westside (a publication for emerging writers from the western suburbs), investigate installation art (“we filled an empty bank with gravel”) and also introduced her to Alicia Talbot and Urban Theatre Projects, which would in turn lead to her first full-length theatrical production.

In the meantime, she had also started cultivating the fourth strand of her artistic practice—voice work. In 2000, her interest in voice took her to the United Kingdom, where she recorded every accent she could while also training and working with Mark Wing-Davey and his Non-Fiction Theatre company. She came home the following year to voice the character of Tracey McBean in the children’s program of the same name. More acting work followed, but when she appeared on All Saints for a second time, eight years after the first and playing yet another infanticidal mother (“I think I’ve killed six babies and a mother during my career”), she decided she’d had enough.

Headphone verbatim theatre

Oades’ first work, Fast Cars & Tractor Engines (2005), started life as the Bankstown Oral History Project. In 2000, she helped three young artists from the area perform some excerpts for the project’s launch. Two years later, she directed a 15-minute version for Urban Theatre Projects’ Short and Sharp season; three years after that, a full-length production premiered at the Bankstown RSL, to immediate and effusive praise (see David Williams in RT70). Since then Oades has made four more headphone verbatim works, including Stories of Love & Hate (2008; RT89) and I’m Your Man (2013; RealTime 117, Darwin Festival Feature).

While Oades calls these three plays her Acts of Courage trilogy, and Currency Press is about to publish them in a volume with that very title, I sometimes think they could just as easily be called the Australian Masculinities trilogy. It is fascinating to hear men from Bankstown, Cronulla and beyond trying to impress each other as well as their female interviewer while talking about love, violence and sacrifice. In I’m Your Man in particular one is often struck by the fact that Oades must have been the only woman in the room, moments before the big fight, trying to capture what she calls “adrenaline on tape.” Of course masculinity becomes all the more intriguing in performance when an actor like Katia Molino conjures it with a mere shift of the leg and tilt of the head. This “gap,” as Oades often calls it, between an actor and their character’s gender, race, ethnicity and age, is absolutely key to headphone verbatim if it is to be anything more than a “style.” For Oades, headphone verbatim is more than a theatrical “texture or technique;” it is a “dramatic device that enables us to think about who’s allowed to say what in Australia.”

The mention of masculinity brings us to gender more broadly and how it has shaped her career. Oades tells me how “at the start of every show, I have to be talked into making it; I feel as if I have an idea but I’m not sure if it’s any good.” Happily she has always been persuaded, but having sat in on artist pitching sessions since, she thinks that this is not a personal but rather a structural issue: male artists seem “better at stepping forward” whereas women often present themselves as “team players” and thus come across as less confident. On the contrary, when a woman is confident, and does pursue her artistic vision with the same focus as one of the many feted young men, she can be perceived as “difficult” or “demanding.” These insights have arrived in part thanks to Oades’ time as Malthouse Theatre’s Female Director in Residence in 2013. Like Anne-Louise Sarks (RT116), who was in residence at Malthouse in 2011, Oades is acutely aware of being in the “right place at the right time:” next door to Urban Theatre Projects when it moved to Bankstown; ready to take a production from the margins to the mainstream when Belvoir came knocking; and in Melbourne when Malthouse initiated its scheme. Indeed, it was there that she started work on her current project.

Hello, Goodbye & Happy Birthday, a Melbourne Festival Malthouse premiere headphone verbatim work drawing on responses from 18- and 80-year-olds, is not the first piece she has done outside the Acts of Courage trilogy—that was a Vitalstatistix commission, Cutaway: A Portrait (2012). It is, however, her first project without Katia Molino and Oades admits to feeling slightly lost without her. Perhaps this is why she thinks that this might also be her last headphone verbatim piece, at least for a while. She says she is interested in continuing audio work but without actors. One possibility involves the audience listening to recordings or re-enactments of conversations say, between a father in prison and the son who is allowed to speak with him for 12 minutes each week.

She’s also interested in creating an immersive piece, bringing her full circle back to those Bankstown installations all those years ago. When I ask Oades about what binds the many aspects of her practice, she says simply “storytelling,” to which I would add “listening”—a vital skill for every woman in a world of “mansplaining” (see Rebecca Solnit’s essay “Men Explain Things to Me” if you haven’t already (www.tomdispatch.com).

But do not confuse listening with passivity. Roslyn Oades says she loves nothing more than “disappearing in a room, when everyone else is speaking and I’m listening. I can look quite mousey and inconsequential, but really I have a microphone. I’m recording and that’s a very powerful thing.”

Melbourne Festival & Malthouse, Roslyn Oades, Hello, Goodbye & Happy Birthday, Malthouse, Melbourne, 9-26 Oct

RealTime issue #123 Oct-Nov 2014 pg. 33

© Caroline Wake; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

13 October 2014