Image: Morgan Roberts
I met with Chris Beckey in July for coffee and a chat at The Three Monkeys in West End. Chris was then appearing in CALIGULA for The Danger Ensemble. As I edit this long-overdue post, he is preparing for the Brisbane Festival’s production of Ibsen’s A DOLL’S HOUSE in an adaptation by Lally Katz. Once again, he is working under the direction of long-time creative collaborator Steven Mitchell Wright.
That afternoon I asked Chris, as I do all artists I interview, what had brought them to where they are now. We end up talking about process as the afternoon ticked away.
“One of the most formative things for me was doing a BA (Drama and Literature) degree at UQ. One of the teachers was Adiran Kiernander. I’ll never forget the first day where they sat us down – I came from a regional theatre background in Bundaberg where I was used to the amateur scene – and I heard the most terrifying but exciting thing from Adrian: ‘We are going to take everything you know about theatre and tear it apart.’ He was just back from studying with Mnouchkine and feeding in ideas from Suzuki. It was such a rich environment that he created for learning. Adrian’s question was always, ‘Why not?’
The most terrifying but exciting thing to hear from Adrian Kiernander at UQ was that ‘we are going to take everything you know about theatre and tear it apart.’
“We did a production of THE BACCHAE where we met Lyn Bradley and she asked me to take part in some workshops she was running. This turned into my introduction to Butoh . There were three female actors playing Agave in that production. ‘Why?’ – well, ‘why not?’ I’ve carried with me these two questions about theatre and making art from those days.
“As part of my degree, Lyn was investigating whether a movement style that was so rooted in a particular culture could transfer to another and to other cultures. That was the starting point of ZZZ (Zen Zen Zo) with whom I was deeply engaged for a long time.
“I almost quit studying drama at this period – but I came out at the time and began to read queer theory. During this period of disillusionment I was discovering the films of Peter Greenaway and Derek Jarman and I thought, ‘That’s what I want to do.’ I think it was PROSPERO’S BOOKS that did it for me, and I went on to write an honours thesis on Genet’s plays.
“Through my connection with ZZZ I connected with Fractal and Eugene (Gilfedder) and Brenna (Lee Cooney) both incredible theatrical practitioners and intellects. I learned so much from them in those early years of my career. ZZZ was very popular but sat outside the mainstream of theatre practice in the city; we’re talking the mid-1990s. We knew we had an audience for work – people were still buying tickets. I’ve been incredibly fortunate in being able to cross over from alternative to mainstream.
“The next formative thing for me was working with Steven (Mitchell Wright). We first met in the late 90s. Our first pro job together was in 2003. ZZZ was creating a schools’ touring version of ROMEO AND JULIET and I was brought in to adapt the text. We worked together for five days to produce an edit that would fit within the hour-long context.
Later in 2003 I worked with Steven again on a project called XLD EXPRESS – the source text was The Mayne Inheritance by Rosamund Siemon, a disturbing piece of Brisbane history! In that project I got to work with him as an actor. I remember being very impressed with Steven; he was young but could deal with actors in a way that brought them into his vision. Steven’s alwas been visually-oriented and complex as a director. We’ve kept in touch and have always had a very rich and rewarding artistic relationship.
“I teach as an artist when not performing. I have a background in this from my time with ZZZ who put a lot of effort into developing their artists as teachers. Then, in 2002, I became part of the Emerging Artists program at QTC along with Jason Klarwein, Mel Butel and Sarah Kennedy.
“I returned to Brisbane in 2012 after a year in Wollongong and Sydney. As it turned out Simon Hinton whom I had met at QTC, had become Artistic Director/CEO at Merrigong. I auditioned and began working there. The local pro company had closed in the early 2000s so Merrigong (a producing venue) in Wollongong started making their own local work. Merrigong supports local artists and gives them space to work. While I was there, I sat on a committee to assist in artistic development. When I got back to Brisbane, I returned to ZZZ as a teacher.”
And The Danger Ensemble? What attracts you to their work?
There is never a single idea we are pursuing. The net is cast wide and pulled in and distilled down. We are allowed the space to pursue tangents.
“My first engagement was the HAMLET APOCALYPSE – as dramaturg to adapt the Shakespearean text – and as an experience in watching it and letting it affect me. What draws me to the work of the company as a performer is the sense of the visual – the design and the grand-ness of it; it’s where I feel most alive as a performer. There’s a world I can step into, and play with and push against and help to create. Steven quite often will walk into the room and say, ‘I don’t know,’ about the work for the day, and our job in the company is to find that out and build upon it. There’s never a sense to settle into something – there is always a sense of a game – something Steven will often talk about in a piece. There’s always a sense of that amongst the performers and we ask, ‘What is the game we are playing with one another, the audience?
There’s never a sense to settle into something – there is always a sense of a game.
“There is never a single idea we are pursuing. The net is cast wide and pulled in and distilled down. We are allowed the space to pursue tangents. It is there as part of the process even if it doesn’t make it to the stage. Every process has been completely different. I adore the process work because we try and work out what the material is and what it needs from us so every time as an actor and a creator you cannot walk in and just do what you always do. You are kept on your toes. It’s invigorating and exciting and fun.
“It feels like home and the right place to be. Steven doesn’t run a production as a dictator; it’s always a conversation between those making the work and the work itself. It’s at once uncomfortable but extremely comfortable. It’s a challenge you’re more that willing to engage with and being in that environment has been great for me.”
He goes on, “our intention is never to shock. We do try in pre-show publicity to give our potential audiences a ‘lens’ to view the work. Steven likes to let the work stand on its own – he hates writing director’s notes.”
I ask about CALIGULA on which Chris is billed as associate director and the creative process
“It started with a couple of things. Steven pitched some ideas to Lewis Jones at JWCoCA – to work on either CALIGULA or THE BACCHAE and at that stage he felt they were ‘sort of the same, so either way, I win.’ There was a stage where we wondered whether we tell Caligula as the Bacchae? We auditioned people and put that away for awhile. Steven started doing his research for it through Rimbaud’s poetry, texts on orgy, the ethics of group sex – it was always going to be a project that would be dealing with the idea of ‘excess.’
“There were just a few of us brainstorming at the time. We read through Camus’ script and there was a bit of two-ing and fro-ing; do we use it, get rid of it and so on. It is a very philosophical script, unsurprisingly, and in that sense very wordy. Then the next stage was taking it into creative development with the cast in the room playing around with texts, and with physical improv. We then went into a further development rehearsal period and we would be set tasks in the room or for homework to continue exploring texts – Camus, Rimbaud, the poetry of Sylvia Plath as well as other texts – orgies, sexual practices, skinning animals.”
I mention the streak of cruelty that I find running through DE’s work.
Some people may think we fetishise the darker side of human nature but it is something we need to explore, to drive through, to find the lighter side but it is something we refuse to ignore.
“There is a section within CALIGULA that is loosely improvised each night between Nerida Matthaei and me. The task asked of each person in the room was to write a list of things you wouldn’t want to be asked to do. Nerida puts them to me – some are vile and disturbing. I look at them in a civilised uncivilised way and also as the character. How would Caligula respond.” Chris adds, “It is the section of the show that the audience responds to most enthusiastically. They appreciate the fact that it is happening before them – the immediacy of it. It hasn’t been blocked or choreographed. I haven’t looked at the questions since I wrote them so I’m not sure what’s going to happen. Steven has said this is the ‘heart of the show.’ I have no idea what Nerida is going to ask and I have no idea how I am going to respond; the response is verbal. Nerida can be incredibly funny but she also brings gravitas to the stage. She has been known to crack me up – the play between us is relaxed, but the staging is formalised because of the piece of design I’m in and the place on stage. But the personal play is quite free.
“This kind of work belongs in experimental theatre and it’s the kind of work that excites us. We will continue to dig into this territory. It began with SONS OF SIN and will continue into the future with our work.
FEEDING THE INNER ARTIST
What are you reading right now? Alain Badiou BEING AND EVENT. I have a bit of a thing for European philosophy – he’s apparently the hot thing in French right now. I balance that between reading various scripts.
What are you listening to right now? I listen to a lot of pop music – a new album by an American, Sharon Van Etten – ARE WE THERE? My taste in pop music is fairly melancholic but I enjoy the way she throws herself at the vocal work – not always technically perfect – but she favours feeling over technical precision.
What or who has been the most influential experience in your life? The event that has been the biggest rock in my pond was the death of my mother. I’m still feeling the ripples.
What art form apart from theatre excites you? I guess it could be confined as high fashion spreads – low art but high fashion. They are always highly evocative, highly physical. Steven draws a lot of his visual imagery from high fashion. In fact, the first photo shoot for the show is the first development.