A system made for actors: Nigel Poulton (Interview 14)

1 March, 2011 by No Comments

Alexander Y. Golovin: Portrait of theatre dire...

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As we chat last week about his latest project, I begin to wonder whether Nigel Poulton’s been working too long with ballet companies; he’s got his current company – the Dead Cargo cast – training at 5.30am during the rehearsal week. Now, that’s intriguing in itself. How has this come about, I wonder.

Nigel is one of Australia’s – and possibly one of the world’s – busiest fight directors for the stage. Recent gigs abroad have taken him to the NYC Ballet, the Metropolitan Opera, the Washington Opera as well as to assignments closer to home like Opera Australia, Circus Oz, MTC, STC, QTC, Belvoir, Kooemba Jdarra and Playbox. For Bell Shakespeare he has been the Company Fight Director since 2003. He’s the past President of the Society of Australian Fight Directors Inc., and a respected, meticulous, and very patient teacher who demands the best of his students. I can attest to this having studied under his direction some years ago.

Recently, Nigel has been home in Brisbane for some time, much to the delight (I’m sure) of his family, students and friends. His most recent work as fight director can be seen in La Boite Theatre‘s current production of Julius Caesar playing at Brisbane’s Roundhouse. Greenroom remarked elsewhere on his ‘wickedly fine bladework’ and their apparently effortless wielding by the actors in some of the nastiest and most realistic blood-letting seen on stage in a long time.

I got the opportunity last week to talk with Nigel about what he is calling ‘a new direction’ in his work. He’s directing and performing in the premiere production of Dead Cargo – co-written with collaborator Tim Dashwood – for !Metro Arts. The play, which opens the 2011 independents, goes up on March 9th. I ask him what the ‘cargo’ is and what’s ‘dead’ about it. I’ve always found titles of works intriguing – they tend to open up all sorts of things you wouldn’t think to discuss, plus it’s as good a place as any to start probing a director-writer-performer. Nigel laughs, tells me it’s a very good question, and we then go on to talk about lots of other stuff: pedagogy, process and Meyerhold – lots about Meyerhold, a hero for both of us. We get back to the title of the play at the end of our chat.

I’ve know about Nigel’s interest in Meyerhold for some time, and especially his interest in Theatrical Bio Mechanics, the training system developed by one of the more extraordinary theatre figures of the 20th or of any other century. The development of Theatrical Bio-Mechanics was just one of Meyerhold’s many remarkable achievements. Any attempt to do a thumbnail sketch of this Russian collossus is doomed to failure – or a journey down a rathole with no end. If you’re keen, do a quick Google search and go from there. You won’t be disappointed at what you find about this radical actor-director genius who metamorphosed from the Head of the Russian Imperial Theatres into a hero-artist of the revolution. This is a link to a comprehensive article about Meyerhold and Biomechanics on London Theatre Blog to get you started.

But to get back to Nigel’s interest in Bio Mechanics, a totally relevant system he describes as ‘made for actors.’ He’s one of very, very few Australian theatre practitioners who have studied and are experienced in Meyerhold’s system. He mentions Melbourne-based director Michael Kantor and the January 2009 production of Paul Galloway‘s Realism. He describes the play’s second act as something of an hommage to Meyerhold. ‘It’s true,’ he says, ‘many theatre people have heard of Meyerhold, but they don’t know much about him.’ This is hardly surprising, of course. After his execution by Stalin in the late 1930s, Meyerhold’s work was officially ‘disappeared’ for decades. His image was even expunged from the official cast photo of the first production of The Seagull … but I digress …

It doesn’t particularly surprise me that Meyerhold’s work is experiencing a resurgence of interest, especially given the development of physical theatre performance of all kinds during the past 20 or so years. Nigel expands: ‘Meyerhold’s system has a strong philosophical background, one encapsulated by universal principles. It uses an evocative vocabulary, and seeks to connect mind and body to the work by engaging the entire psycho-physical apparatus of the actor.’ He goes on, ‘Its relevance lies in the way it helps to develop actors’ physicality and their discipline. Story and its relation to the text and all of the emotions involved in the telling are amplified by the body. It’s a wholistic approach.’ He adds, ‘Engaging the entire psycho-physical apparatus of the actor is something either not taught or taught well in acting institutions.’

He and collaborator Tim Dashwood have been working together for several years now, exploring Meyerhold’s Bio Mechanics in the context of their own work. They got together a couple of years back for an entry in the Brisbane season of the Short and Sweet Festival – ‘Tim acted, I directed.’ Dead Cargo marks a return to their collaboration in tandem with actors Belinda Raisin and Debra Sampson. ‘I’m performing as well, but Dead Cargo is my first major directing gig,’ he goes on. ‘I’m excited to be working at something I want to pursue – seeing work evolving as actors make discoveries. One thing I knew I didn’t want to do was another fight show.’

I want to know how Dead Cargo has been created. With all this talk of evolution and so on, is it a devised work? Is there a text, or is it created as the cast works together? ‘Absolutely there is a text,’ he responds. ‘Tim and I wrote it over the course of a year. I wanted to make sure we had a strong script before we hit the floor. That’s important to me. I want to be involved in creating theatre that uses strong physical commitment as well as text. I wanted both so neither would be lacking.’

And what’s the cargo and what’s dead, I ask again. ‘It’s about displacement and alienation,’ he responds, ‘about loss of identity. It’s about what happens to people and whether or not they realise what’s going on. It’s also absurd,’ he adds, ‘in that it looks at the things we attach ourselves to, ‘stuff’ completely irrelevant to others. It explores the absurd nature of desire and our craving for things.’ He laughs, ‘people are either going to love it or go, “What the … “.’ Good, chewy theatre, I think to myself.

And what about the 5.30am calls for the company? What’s that about? Has he really been influenced by the discipline and daily routine of the ballet companies he’s worked with in the past couple of years? It turns out it’s a good time, especially in summer in Brisbane and before the working day begins, to get in what is essentially an actors’ gym session – work-out for acrobats of the heart. ‘Bio-mechanics demands physical development – strength and conditioning training and a familiarity with specific exercises related to the system’s principles.’ I wonder if there is a physical vocabulary at work – something based around Meyerhold’s famous études? ‘Not specifically,’ he responds, so I ask him about the way the work is developing on the rehearsal room floor – especially given a pre-existing text. ‘It’s an iterative process; the work evolves as the work evolves.’ He pauses for a bit, ‘It’s stylistically driven, but the style comes out of the rehearsal process.’ If you begin to think about the process as akin to dance rather than to acting it starts to make sense – at least to me.

And how has he found working with !Metro Arts? ‘Great support – in-kind and intellectual support, a fantastic place work,’ he shoots back. ‘We’ve had funding support and are paying the actors during rehearsals.’ Once the show opens it’s into co-operative sharing arrangements.

Get along – and buy a ticket or two!

Dead Cargo plays at !Metro Arts Sue Benner Theatre from March 9 -26. Check details on the website.