INTERVIEW: Clare Watson

September 4, 2017
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By Holly Ferguson

Last Monday Black Swan State Theatre Company announced its 2018 season, the first program designed by new Artistic Director Clare Watson. The season is uniquely split over four ‘conversations’ in which two shows will play simultaneously (with the exception of one conversation), one in the Heath Ledger Theatre and the other in the Studio Underground. The shows are unlike anything BSSTC has done before. The program is full of diversity and the company has reached great milestones such as; hiring their first Transgender actor, achieving gender parity, Aboriginal employment on every show and much more. Events will also run alongside the conversations to widen the discussion and provide a festival feel all year round. I sat down with Clare Watson to have a chat about the 2018 season and find out more about it!

What came first the conversations or the shows? 

The conversations. But what came before that was the very first programming meeting. I enjoy working collaboratively I think that many minds will come up with better ideas than any single one mind can. I have a small terrific artist team here and when I began I started doing programming meetings every week, which wasn’t something people had really done here before. I wanted to make sure that in these meetings that we didn’t sit and talk about this actor or this director or “this is a play I want to do”. I didn’t want to talk about plays to begin with. I wanted to talk about the power of theatre and why we do what we do and what can happen when it’s done best. I honestly think that when theatre is done best it makes us better humans in many different ways. That’s its power and it can make us a better society, better citizens and kinder, more generous, family members and lovers. So, I began with the provocation what are the things we need to be talking about right now. We had some pretty intense conversations gender politics, the environment, extremism, imbalances of power and from those conversations we started to think about plays. It wasn’t until a little way into that where we thought about how we could program HLT and Studio Underground in conversation with each other. So, it was a slowish process getting there but once we got to the theatre upstairs and the theatre downstairs will be having a conversation with a theme, it became this incredibly satisfying and fun programming process. We were going “oh you can put that with this or these two speak on this theme.” I encourage everyone to do it at home, you can do it with movies and books, it becomes a really fun activity where you can think about how one piece of art creates frisson with another piece of art.

The audience demographic in Perth, for theatre, is mostly middle-aged women. How are you going to market to a younger audience? 

I don’t think that those things need to be mutually exclusive. I think that generation of theatre goers that you’re talking about, who do often happen to be women and often older and usually education, they’ll also really love a glitzy pop cabaret about a dead gameshow hostess. I think that we should never underestimate anybody’s sense of humour or playfulness. There’s one play in the season [Hir] that could be quite provocative for that audience and I’ve been very open about that. I said at the launch that it’s not for the faint hearted, I think that one is really progressive in its politics. It’s hilarious but I think it could be a bit shocking for some people but I think people need to know that. I think anyone who is pretty progressive in their gender politics will be like “finally!”.

I was really happy when you said Black Swan has hired their first Transgender actor because quite frankly it’s ironic that not more Transgender actors are hired to play Trans roles, let alone non-Trans roles. Was casting a Trans actor something you always planned for Hir.

It’s actually something that the writer of the play, who is non-binary and uses the pronoun Judy, specifies in the script that this role should be played by someone who is non-binary. The character is biologically female and transitions to male. So, the identity is not specified other than non-binary. I worked on a play a year ago [in Melbourne] with four teenage boys about pornography, it was called Gonzo, one of these boys was Transgender. It was interesting because I put a call out around Perth and spoke to all of the agents and we could not find an actor identified as male who was non-binary for that role. We ended up getting in touch with him [Jack Palit] and he’s going to come and join us. So hopefully this will encourage more young Trans actors to get into acting and get an agent. If there are people in Perth that I didn’t find out just come and knock on the door, I want to meet you!

Hir, You Know We Belong Together and Skylab focus on minority groups. How will you and Black Swan ensure that there’s accurate representation for these groups?

That’s a really interesting one! I feel like I should say, there are minority groups represented, but that wasn’t necessarily the point of the programming. That’s just what I find most interesting and I think audiences will find interesting. These stories and these characters have so much to provide in terms of audience entertainment and engagement. I’m kind of saying that they’re not there because they’re a minority. In the case of You Know We Belong Together that’s a co-production with PIAF, Perth International Arts Festival, and DADAA, Disability in the Arts Disadvantages in the Arts. Julia Hales is an artist, she’s 37 and she’s been working with DADAA for 20 years as an artist. Her role in YKWBT she’s on stage performing but she’s also called Lead Artist, that work is entirely her vision.  All of the artists collaborating with her are being led by her vision. So, we’ve got the support of DADAA but it’s also about making sure that Julia’s voice is completely prioritised in that process. Also, recognising that it’s a bit of a different experience for a lot of people with disability and we’ve got the ability in this process to have a best practise. For the Yirra Yaakin co-production, Skylab, that’s an entirely Aboriginal cast, writer and director. It’s not an entirely Aboriginal team but I’m absolutely confident with Yirra Yaakin collaborating on this work that it will be done in the best possible way. I think in both of these cases, I know other companies do this too, consultation from the conception of an idea and continuing that throughout the process and never assuming that you’re getting it right is the best way forward. In terms of Hir, I feel like organisationally it would be really great to get some training for things like making sure pronouns are used correctly in things like media releases. In terms of the project itself, Jack Palit, is not shy in educating people around him.

I was really affirmed on Monday night, Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, the ‘classic’, could have got the biggest round of applause but it was things like talking about Transgender actor, Aboriginal employment, the more socially progressive actions that the company was taking were the things that got the most applause. I was like, Go Perth! It wasn’t necessarily what I expected, people had spoken about the conservatism, so in some ways I felt like I was doing some major culture change under the radar but that actually wasn’t the experience on Monday. I thought people where whole heartedly accepting a cultural change. I’m hoping that something like this can create a new normal, shifting that sense of what we expect to see and who we are. The image that we’ve chosen [for the 2018 brochure] is the idea of theatre being a mirror, whatever we see up on that stage reflects what we see in society. I want to see a much more inclusive stage because I want to be in a much more inclusive society.

Let’s talk about The Events. You’ve previously done that show, why did you want to bring it to Perth?

Two reasons:

One I’m really proud of it because it’s a really great show! It’s a work with David Greig who is probably the most important writer in Scotland at the moment. He was asked to write to a piece in response to the 2011 Norwegian shootings that happened on the island of Utøya. He met with a society in grief and responding to these violent and horrible attacks. But what he created out of it was something about community, healing and hope. I think it’s the best example of what I’ve seen or read about how to fight terrorism. It’s about doing it psychologically and emotionally. It’s about not letting us be changed and become fearful. It’s about fighting fear through building community more than anything. It’s a beautiful and moving work. Catherine McClements is amazing in it and she was so exciting to work with. The other reason was that every night a community choir joins the performance. So, it’s a great way to meet 400 people, getting them on stage and collaborating with them.

How does the choir become part of the show?

They’re actually on stage the entire time. They open the show. It’s actually A Play with Songs, they sing some songs throughout the play. They’re never characters in it but they act kind of like a Greek chorus.

Summer of the Seventeenth Doll is probably the show that everyone knows in the program. How will you revamp it and make it relevant to today’s audience?

As a play, in some ways, you could modernise it. It’s one those classics like Street Car Named Desire, is best left in its time because it’s about its time. Having said that it’s being designed by Bruce McKinven and directed by Adam Mitchell so I can’t make any sweeping statements about it because it’s going to be their work. I can’t imagine it will be shifted out of its visual frame of 1950s Australia, which is just so lovely. I think it’s a really relevant work for Western Australia because of FI-FO culture. It’s a play about people leaving and returning, time passing and these men whose masculine identities, as the environment that they return to changes (not dissimilar to what’s happened in Perth) and their identities can’t shift as quick as their environment is changing. I feel like it’s going to have really strong contemporary resonances without having to be pulled out of its time. I think Kelton Pell is going to be an amazing Roo, I think it’s going to be an absolute knock out!

Can you tell me about the accompanying events with the conversations?

They’re not all set in stone yet there will probably be some other bits and pieces that pop up during the year and we’ll let people know about that. The events we have got, there’s at least a couple of events tied to every conversation for a few reasons. Perth does festivals so well, Fringe and PIAF. When Perth is pumping it is pumping. I thought this is an energy people enjoy and engage in so much. So, wouldn’t it be great to have that festival feel happen throughout the year. It’s partly to get that vibe established and get that activation of spaces around here. Also, when you put two plays together and it’s kind of a frisson, an instant conversation, you instantly start to see similarities and differences and I think if you start to add film screenings and panel discussions or a lecture or a pop up museum, there are more things pinging off each other. There’s some really pertinent and serious messages in here but I also think having fun and being entertained is at the heart of it.

What are you most excited for with the season?

There’s one thing I haven’t spoken about with the Xenides project is, I don’t know if it’s true, but I think no state theatre company has done a devised piece before. I’m working with 5 different women to write that work and it’s a really interesting model of creating and I’m really, really looking forward to that. I think it’s going to be fun, funny and tragic and full of song. The other thing I’m really excited about and I hadn’t realised until we locked off the season that all of the writers are still living.

Was that a co-incidence?

It totally was. Jeffrey Jay Fowler said imagine putting together a season where there’s no dead writers. But we didn’t actively peruse it. But then we got the program and we realised that we did it! I think it speaks to the fact that I’m more interested in contemporary work. We definitely wanted to have gender parity in terms of writers and there’s not so many older classics written by women so it means there are more contemporary works.

To find out more about the 2018 seasons click here 

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