Playing with monsters: Benjamin Shostakowski (Interview 17)

PHOTO: Benjamin Shostakowski

Hoorah, hoorah, I’ve found a kindred spirit – someone else who loves the ‘Master of the Vaguely Ominous’ – Edward Gorey (1925-2000), American illustrator and author of some of the oddest and funniest books around. His surname, once you get to know his work, seems wonderfully apt.

My Gorey antennae twitched when I saw that a company called ‘Monsters Appear’ was producing a new play called The Glorious Nosebleed. This is the title of one of Gorey’s more famous books, and the one that brilliantly illustrates what is meant by adverbs (!) … such as, ‘He ran down the hall maniacally,‘ with the accompanying picture of an Edwardian gentleman in night attire brandishing a large axe  – or this one

‘He looked out of the room hopelessly.’

Known for his darkly comic tales and brilliant draughtsmanship Edward St John Gorey was also a true eccentric. He loved cats and wearing fur coats, which made the lanky Yankee look like a huge and rather patrician cat himself. Gorey lived in New England and was also a ballet and theatre devotee. He illustrated posters and programmes for the NY City Ballet as well as for local community theatres. He was nominated for a Tony in 1977 for his costume and set designs for Dracula, and won for Best Costume Design. By the way, you can also buy a Gorey-designed Dracula Toy Theatre on Amazon and yes, I have a small collection of Gorey-ana and anyone who likes Gorey gets my vote.

So it was that I found myself interviewing Benjamin Shostakowski (a Gorey aficionadao) and one of the team of Monsters Appear who, with a name like that, clearly also get a kick out of scary things and the finely-drawn macabre-in-the-ordinary. This is how they see themselves

Monsters Appear is an emerging Brisbane independent theatre collective comprised of Benjamin Schostakowski, Athalia Foo and Nikki Taurau. The collective present new contemporary performance works that aim to provide a unique experience for their audiences. Their work melds together traditional theatrical devices and modern technologies. Monsters Appear employ visual stage images, illusion, projected images and minimal dialogue to play with space and time. With a zealous theatrical sensibility, they aim for the unexpected. (Media Release)

The Glorious Nosebleed is part of the !Metro Arts Allies project this year, and it opened on Wednesday of this week. I have wanted for some time to talk with someone just starting out in the independent theatre world in Brisbane, so I was glad to be able to have a good long yarn with Benjamin on the afternoon of his opening night. Bless him; he forewent his nap to chat! I was also keen to know more about the Edward Gorey connection.

Benjamin first picked up one of Gorey’s books 2 years ago, and was immediately hooked. ‘I found the work dark, ironic and funny. It has a titillating Gothic sensibility which I love, and I remember being really attracted to his work.’ What Benjamin found in Gorey’s books – the humour which emerges from the nonsensical and the macabre – created a thematic impetus for what would become, in time, his own ‘glorious nosebleed.’ ‘A nosebleed in itself isn’t funny,’ he acknowledges, ‘but there’s an ironic twist when it’s called glorious.’

The play had its genesis during Benjamin’s Honours year at QUT. ‘I had already worked with Ben Knapton and got involved in as many actor-focussed practical projects as I could during my undergrad time – 2 or 3 as devisor and performer,’ he says. ‘They were interesting little dirty rehearsal-room projects.  I had worked with Margi Brown-Ash in first year, and was really attracted to contemporary theatre forms as well as new technologies available to the theatre.’ Benjamin went on to work with Vena Cava at QUT, on the Brisbane Festival in 2009, and with David Morton and Dead Puppet Society in the first iteration of The Timely Death of Victor Blott. He remarks, ‘I loved the fun that came from experimentation by yourself – outside class work – without being told what to do. It was nice to be able to concentrate on practice in a course that was really theoretical.’

Apart from being one of the Monsters Appear collective, a producer, devisor and performer, Ipswich born and schooled Benjamin is, at 22, also a PhD candidate at QUT. He’s in transition – emerging from the strongly-supported cocoon of an undergraduate theatre program where creativity is encouraged and mentored every step of the way, and stepping into the breezeway of independent theatre-making where the key word is ‘independent.’ He acknowledges it as both liberating and frightening. ‘I wonder sometimes what I’m doing and whether people will come. We weren’t sure whether we’d get half a dozen to the preview of the show. It was a thrill when 40 turned up.’

Now that he’s working in the indie scene, and even though there are still some university resources assisting him during this particular project, Benjamin is feeling the pressure. ‘You have to expend 10 times the amount of energy and thought on gathering the resources you need.’ Not that he’s complaining; he’s emphatic about the support that is coming from others in the independent theatre sector in town. ‘Apart from !Metro Arts which is a comfortable and encouraging place to work, all it took to get assistance was an email to friends.’ He tells me established and busy actors like Lucas Stibbard and Neridah Waters were generous with advice, and that many of the young actors around the city have been ‘really interested in our work, asking what it’s like to produce new theatre and how can they help?’ This encouragement and support from peers is why he’s unwilling at this stage to propose an indie theatre wish list or to be seen to be whingeing. He acknowledges that space continues to be an issue, although it’s not been a problem for him as yet. ‘… and I build my sets out of old, crappy, found materials, so I don’t need much in that regard.’ He sums it up, ‘Indie theatre is getting a good rap in Brisbane right now. The professional companies, the street and online press are all so positive. It’s an exciting time for arts makers with potentially more avenues – more “bleed” between companies. Wesley Enoch‘s arrival back in Brisbane and his interest in what’s happening has also been very encouraging.’

I’m curious about the name of the collective and the show itself. ‘The term “Monsters Appear” appealed to us when we heard it used in an interview done by Lally Katz – I love her plays,’ he adds. ‘The juxtaposition of the two words seemed to sum up the kind of macabre, fantastical tone of the work we’re doing.’ Whilst it’s not intended for children or young people, I wonder whether the work is meant to appeal to the child in the adult – drawing on the barely-suppressed scream, the never-forgotten fear of things in the shadows or the menace under the bed? ‘Definitely,’ he responds. As to their current play, ‘The Glorious Nosebleed is also kind of Pinteresque with a couple of people – two children – trapped in a room, and there are allusions to things which may or may not happen.’ He refers back to Gorey, ‘In his work images can be disconnected but there are always little things that link it all together.’ The Glorious Nosebleed is a ‘… rearranged story,’ Benjamin says, ‘it’s told with snippets of scenes, and the audiences will pull it all together for themselves and figure out what’s going to happen.’

Benjamin and Athalia Foo are playing the children – always a problem for adult actors. Benjamin acknowledges this. ‘Yes, we got feedback some time ago that we were either too childlike or too adult – too mature or immature by turn. It’s tricky.’ We segue a little about the children in Gorey’s books – more like tiny, prissy adults than what we would recognise as children today. ‘We played around with where the characters were placed and it didn’t seem right to have them as young, modern children.’

And, about that ‘zealous theatrical sensibility’ that Monsters Appear are seeking? ‘We’re not discarding a lot of the tangible materials found in the theatre.’ Not for them the minimalist stripping back of an empty set and near-naked bodies, but ‘a playing with light, the set, sound and all the ways and means and artifice of production – the theatricality of performance.’ The Glorious Nosebleed also uses AV very sparingly and, despite the indication in their media release that Monsters Appear want to ‘meld traditional theatrical devices with modern technology’ I get the impression Benjamin is not all that convinced that modern technology is so necessary, at least to the kind of theatrical story-telling he’s interested in: ‘I think there is a way to work within a production if used minimally.’  He tells me that his field of study revolves around scenography and design and its role in making theatre, and I think immediately of other designer-auteurs at work around the world.

It will be interesting indeed to watch the progress of one of the newest players in the independent theatre world in Brisbane. Break a leg Benjamin!

The Glorious Nosebleed plays as part of the !Metro Arts Allies program in the Sue Benner Theatre from Tuesdays to Saturdays until April 9th.

BOOKINGS: (07) 3002 7100 or http://www.metroarts.com.au

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