Platform Youth Theatre’s upcoming Tenderness is an oddity on the Australian stage, perhaps almost anachronistic. For starters, it is a double bill, consisting of two short plays, Ugly and Slut, running one after the other with no interval. It is showcasing new pieces by two of the country’s most respected writers, Christos Tsiolkas and Patricia Cornelius, in a theatre environment increasingly hostile towards Australian writing. I recently had a chat to director Nadja Kostich about the project, her interest in working within the youth theatre context and her collaborative approach to directing.
Tell us a little about your background as a director.
Nadja: I’ve done a lot of plays involving professional artists and communities. My partner and I have started a company called Paradigm Productions with which, a few years ago, I directed ‘The Grand Feeling’ about the love story of three elderly people from different cultures. It used a lot of multimedia and new media; shadow puppetry, music, film. I also directed ‘Sweet Dreams’ about the guys who sell the Big Issue. The play was about the dreams and aspirations of homeless people and drew from the stories in their lives. That production involved dance and multimedia as well.
So you’ve worked extensively with experienced actors and professionals. What draws you to working with younger people, and coming back to work with Platform?
N: I absolutely love the energy. Each time, there is a combination of some core members and new people. That’s really great – that continuity. Each time a group reforms I just think that they’re spectacular human beings. I love their minds and their openness to my crazy theatrical suggestions. I still work with professional actors as well, people at the other age spectrum, and everyone has their beauties, but these guys and Platform – I love how they’re willing to go out on a limb. They’ve thrown us all together – Patricia, Christos, the actors and myself – and we’ve been very excited to work together.
It’s been a real joy working with this cast because they’re very thoughtful and full of intelligent impressions which have added to what I give back to them as a director.
Is there anything you don’t like about working within a youth context? Anything that really gets on your back?
N: I am lucky if I have everybody in the cast in the one place before the dress rehearsal. It’s like, oh my god, trying to rein in a beast with a thousand heads. It is madness. So that drives me up the wall. But – it makes me think, plan and find a way of creating a template for a particular scene which requires all of them to be there with whoever is available. So I’m confident the scene will work. We wait for no one.
You must be getting a bit nervous now.
N: The finishing line is visible and it is making us gallop. It’s exciting it’s scary, it’s everything.
The cast of both plays reflects a range of ages, socioeconomic backgrounds and ethnicities. How did you approach the challenge of casting?
N: When I work with Platform, I love in any way I can to encourage that plays be cast as far and wide to bring in as wide a range of cultures as possible. Cultures are ethnicities and cultural diversities as well as subcultures; the mini cultures in our city and in our country. When we first started callouts, we perhaps had a narrower range than I was kind of hoping for. The second callout, having more time, brought in a much wider range of people. I was really happy. From within that pool I then auditioned people for specific roles.
I’m interested, what sort of mix of people did you end up with?
N: A range from Iraqi, Filipino, Chinese, Greek, Germanic backgrounds as well as good old Anglo-Saxon backgrounds. We almost got an Indigenous girl to audition but she sort of flew away for other reasons. Italian. Samoan. A good representation. We also have a Muslim girl who is blind, and a boy with mild intellectual disability.
Both plays tackle some really heavy issues, and deal head-on with the bleakness and confusion of teenage identity. How have the cast reacted to the material? Did you do a series of table reads and discussions?
N: There were a lot of discussions. The cast are surprisingly accepting, not blasé or numb, but they are just pragmatic. They know these stories are real, even though the theatrical treatment of the stories is heightened, stylised and has some surreal aspects. It’s both a surreal and a real world we create. There are one or two who say ‘oh gosh, it’s very dark’. But they’re just into it – getting into it up to the elbows. Getting their hands dirty. They relate to it and have friends or themselves who’ve experienced different aspects of it. I think they feel that they’re not being talked down to by the writers. It’s more like adults who have read it, who have said ‘how can you do that’.
I hope that the audience can confront aspects of themselves and ask questions. I think that’s what the two plays are really good at – making us to ask questions. They are modern versions of morality plays, they ask questions about the choices we make. They don’t give you an answer. They stir the pot.
What is it like doing physical, movement based work with younger people? Do they respond and relate better to the physical type of performance, or better to script?
N: They’ve really just taken up my physical approach with open arms. They actually commented on how much they loved creating the world of the play through working with movement and physicality. Creating from knowing and reading the script. We didn’t rehearse from the beginning ‘reading the lines’ – that’s coming in now. We had seven weeks last year to create a physical language. It’s going quite fast for putting things into place script wise.
I love creating a world that hopefully pleasantly surprises the author. A world that even they haven’t imagined. I want to give a multi-layered context so then the plays can be read on both a very practical level and then a metaphorical or allegorical level.
How do you see the title Tenderness fitting in with the raw and confrontational content?
N: It’s a call for tenderness. In these plays, we’ll look for it. Is it there? Is it shown? It’s a cry for tenderness. That’s why I like the title, given that the plays are Slut and Ugly.
We don’t often see double-bills in the Australian theatre. How will the two pieces sit together? Are you treating them as separate pieces, or will there be resonances between them?
N: They are distinct. But what I’m working on is picking out the things that resonate which will be picked up with the set, the sound, the movement, and particular actions which take place in a different kind of way between the two plays. They are both discreet and related. You can see them individually. There’s no interval though so you can’t decide to go home and see the next play on another night. They are shown together in the same set.
An identical set is also a really interesting choice. What about cast – will there be multiple roles?
N: The two will share cast. It came about as a happy accident, but I now really like the kind of resonance of having an actor in one piece and then seeing them do something different in the other piece.
You mentioned that you see yourself as a collaborative director. Have you continued to use Patricia and Christos in the project?
N: They are extremely open writers – they’ve been very involved in workshopping, readings of their play, and the development period that happened last year. I think they achieved a fine balance of hands off as well as hands on. They look to me to invite them into the rehearsal room. They continue to contribute as the play and set and the floor work evolve. They are both very committed to these works and these young people who are making this play, and committed to the play working and being seen. They are very open to being involved.
I love my time to hatch and develop – love that balance. The writers are giving me space, but are available to help with anything that needs to be solved. It’s always good to have a fresh pair of eyes.
A lot has been said in the last decade about the state of playwriting in Australia. From your experiences in the industry and with Tenderness, what do you think about the future of the Australian playwright who sits in their room, writes a play, submits it to a theatre company and then the next time they are seen is opening night?
N: That process, that chain of steps, sounds very dry. There are maybe some incredibly brilliant minds that can hatch a play from simply inside their own room, or want to. But these writers, Christos and Patricia, are in the field of research for this play, very informed by real people, real events, our contemporary world. If they can hatch this and make it an amazing work, as they do, I think that’s very relevant. To me that’s not a dying art. Writers surprise me and I hope to surprise them in turn and give them back a three dimensional world.
Tenderness runs at 45downstairs from 7-15 March 2008, $25/15, for more info see http://www.pyt.org.au