Markwell Presents

Brad Jennings and Steven Maxwell: Markwell Presents (Interview 37)

Image: Brad Jennings & Steven Maxwell – (c) Greenroom

One December day, about 5 years ago I interviewed Brad Jennings and Steven Maxwell as part of Apple’s Create World Conference. That year I was part of the Create World team using podcasts and blog posts to capture the points of view from creative people working in (mostly) higher education. I remember at the time thinking how interesting was the aesthetic concept of what they were calling ‘cinematic theatre.’ I managed to see a snippet of the way Brad and Steven integrated it into performance via a short performance they presented at that conference.

In the past 5 years I’ve seen their work in production (The White Earth for La Boite Theatre and August Moon for QTC among others). Markwell Presents is a name that’s been appearing more and more, and especially in education circles. It turns out that, among other things, they do about 12 artistic residencies in schools each year, an amazing number, I think. You can check the scope of their work on their website, but I wanted to talk again with Brad and Steven and find out how cinematic theatre and their work has progressed in that time and what lies ahead for them.

I met them in their tiny office in East Brisbane, part of a light industrial estate that seems to be getting a bit of a refurb. Their street includes other media studios and several coffee spots. We retire to one to catch up and dig a little deeper.

It turns out Brad and Steven have known each other and been working together for about 10 years now. “When we first got to Brisbane from Townsville, we went to Sean Mee – then the Artistic Director of La Boite Theatre – and introduced ourselves.” Sean was interested in their pitch to produce a more technical kind of production, one that integrated film and media in a different way. They got the opportunity with various productions that followed at La Boite. As well as The White Earth, Steven names Strings Under My Fingers.

“A little later we got the opportunity to work with QTC on August Moon and with Zen Zen Zo on Subcon Warrior Z at JWCoCA. That was a terrific production that took up the whole centre and used promenade theatre to take you up through gantry and into the theatre rehearsal room and back dock. It was a fascinating, great piece to work on.”

The work they’re particularly known for now – with young people – developed naturally it seems from their education background. Brad’s a former English teacher and Steven taught Drama. As colleagues they had  been writing and producing shows for their students in Townsville. After they moved to Brisbane, a chance meeting with a teacher at Villanova College (then in a creative partnership with Somerville House) saw them engaged as artists in residence on a Grade 12 production. “Although it’s not all that we do, the business workload sort of built from there,” Steven notes, “and then others came on board and that’s how we’ve managed to build a client base in schools.”

So what does it mean to be an artist in residence at a school? Steven explains that schools see their value in providing on-site professional development for teachers whilst, during production time, the team can take away some of the strain from the teachers.  “Kids get experience with an artist who can come in and work with them over a typical period of 6-10 weeks. And, of course, teachers always love it when someone else comes in and says exactly what they’ve been saying all along to the kids but, somehow, the kids ‘get it’! All projects are different, have different needs, different sizes and budgets to accommodate.”

We wanted to use a cinematic process to create a non-stop live narrative and to have our audience totally immersed – to never stop thinking and being part of the story.

Whilst the work varies, it all emerges from the mighty syllabus. Steven goes on, “If it’s a playbuilding process we provide the stimulus; help them with scripts and then work through some rehearsals, help design the content, and work with technical crew to improve the production.We’re also there to help the production values of the show. School departments like to showcase their work because, unfortunately, drama is not necessarily one of the most valued activities in some schools. We’ve heard of kids being told to drop Drama in Year 12 because it ‘gets in the way of the OP.'” Steven mentions that the new Senior Syllabus includes Cinematic Theatre as a style. I can tell he’s cheered by that.

And what play appears most in school productions? I’m old enough to remember the endless stream of Gilbert and Sullivan and other musicals that seemed to be the sum total of a school’s production output. Nowadays, Toxic by Maryanne Lynch, is the top show.  “This one comes up all the time; it’s a great ensemble piece. We’ve introduced it several times,” Brad says. “But we devise, write and create as much as we work on published plays.” They’ve written 16 during the past 10 years – quite an output. “Some commissions can be lucrative. After we write a show, we can then take it and produce it with other schools.” They chat for a little about a recent, really successful residency  – a play called Headspace devised at Clayfield College. “It was highly physical, absurd, and comical,” and it has an after-life for Markwell, Brad goes on. “It’s being done next week at a school in South Australia.”

As to how they collaborate on an original work – “We talk about the issue, the characters, and map it out scene by scene, and consider the design elements. From that point we split the scenes, allocate them, and write the text. We do lots of reading, chip away, redraft and that’s the way it works.”  Steven adds, “The first ones we wrote happened when I was here doing Creative Writing at QUT, and Brad was still in Townsville. We’d meet in the holidays, write more, then produce it.”

So, what’s cinematic theatre, again?

“A fusion of live performance and the magic of the big screen,” Steven comes back quickly. He goes on, “We’re very protective of our approach and have trade-marked the term.  I suppose the main thing that distinguishes the way we use cinema is that, for us,  it is constantly in the background or interacting with live performers who are being manipulated by it. We use cinematic transitions to tell other parts of the story or to see the ‘other side’ of performance, for example, a monologue supported by imagery.

We’re the first in the world to teach others the process and elements to produce this kind of theatre. That’s what we fiercely protect.

“We developed our artistic rationale in 2005 – we’re the first in the world to teach others the process and elements to produce this kind of theatre. That’s what we fiercely protect.

“When we very first started we knew we would be writing for young people. When they see something in a darkened room it’s usually a movie and a movie doesn’t stop. There’s no intermission and you are fully immersed. In live theatre you can break away from total concentration. We wanted to use a cinematic process to create non-stop narrative and to have our audience never stop thinking and being part of the story. We used a medium that kids are familiar with.

“When we started this in Brisbane, we were one of the first companies to be using cinematic techniques actively in theatre and to define how we do it. Now just about every show you see has projection in it. However, we have created a rationale and published The Cinematic Theatre Handbook to tell people about the primary and visual conventions we use – this is how we use it and why. It’s what’s typified in cinematic theatre.

Markwell Presents is now a successful business; Brad and Steven are making a living from their work but acknowledge having had to be strategic and very clear about the focus of their business during the past few years. They’ve developed a strong presence in the drama community by giving workshops and offering professional development with Drama Queensland for years. Recently they have begun working in a niche area assisting with shooting promotional and archival materials for theatre companies around the city. “Videoing and editing not our passion,” adds Steven wryly.

Whilst Brad and Steven have continued writing shows for their clients and to a brief,  last year Arts Link Queensland approached Markwell and commissioned a couple of shows for their schools’ touring programs. They developed two: Social Me that delves into some of the issues revolving around young people engaged in social media communication and how it can go wrong, as well as a Primary school maths and finance (!) show called Cents and Centsibility. “We hated the name,” says Brad, “but we are pretty happy with the production itself.” In Social Me, the two actors on stage – backed by a screen – do all their interaction through their iPhones. “We created an interface so the audience sees what they are doing. The audience have to read along, and the actors don’t necessarily read what’s on screen as they tap their phones.” They’ve found that the kids are glued to the show because it is their reality. “It’s great hearing the live reaction from the audience, the ‘oohs and ahs’.” Meanwhile the primary school show is all about budgeting to buy Christmas presents for the family and the kids have to do the maths as the play’s action unrolls.

As far as running the business is concerned, there is very little downtime for Markwell; currently also serving as Chair of the Managing Committee at Youth Arts Queensland, Steven does the books for Markwell, and Brad does the editing. “We’re either in a school or editing.” I ask whether they’ve considered expanding their base of operations.

Apart from producing a show, the best thing is seeing the thrill the kids and parents get and giving them the experience and the catalyst for them saying ‘this is what I want to do with my life.’

“We’ve expanded and contracted over the years as the projects emerge.” They’ve taken on interns, worked at various ABC contracts to produce footage of live performance, but found the GFC fallout affected budgets of many government departments. “We’re not able to complete with bigger companies whose focus is on video production and, in any case, our strength in cinematic theatre and work with educators and young people means we’ve got an audience.” Steven adds, ” However, this has been the first year we’ve been getting jobs from smaller, very young theatre companies who can take risks with very little expectation of income. We used to take risks but we’re certainly not in a position to do work for nothing.”

“We’re about to start doing afternoon drama classes. It’s been something we’ve wanted to do for ages, something we should do. We keep touch via social media with young kids who’ve been involved in our YAIR project where such strong bonds are formed. It’s a special vibe when you come together. Apart from producing a show, the best thing is seeing the thrill the kids and parents get and giving them the experience and the catalyst for them saying ‘this is what I want to do with my life.’

FEEDING THE INNER ARTIST

What are you reading right now?

(Steven) I’m one of those people who has 3 or 4 books on the go. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Woa by Junot Díaz and On The Road by Jack Kerouac, and Farenheit 451 (again). I’m thinking about adapting this. What he wrote then is happening now. I also love Sci-Fi and fantasy but not crime. Brad likes crime novels.

(Brad) Charles Bukowski’s Tales of a Dirty Old Man and Farenheit 451 Ray Bradbury

What are you listening to:

(Steven)  Indie rock music – Jeff Buckley, Radio Head, Gomez (British Band), Nirvana. I’ve always listened to TripleJ but with so much hip hop and rap now, I’m switching off.  We got to work with the ABC and stand on the stage when all that wonderful orchestral music is happening around you. When I’m writing I listen to orchestral music, and when reading I also listen to music. I hear a song and I think of a book I was reading or the other way round. Orchestral music helps me think.

My first love was writing poetry as a teenager. I grew up in Penrith  and used to go to everything at Q Theatre. I remember a production of Hamlet which changed my life (1987). Shakespeare turned me on to story. (ED. The web is a marvellous thing and the world a small place – at least the theatre world; I searched for this production. It was directed by Kevin Jackson and featured three former students of mine.) 

What’s been the most inspirational person or event in your life?

(Steven) U2 – ZooTV tour  really inspired me. It combined music with a video experience in the huge surrounds of the QE2 stadium. It was the first time I’d seen the story of the song enhanced by video. I think that spoke to me in terms of putting the video behind the performance. It wasn’t to make the performer look bigger but all about telling the story of the song.

(Brad) I continue to be inspired by the observations and conversations of the young people I engage with in the rehearsal room. It’s where my ideas come from.

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