We caught up with Michael Beh, heartBeast’s AD and Director of a new production of Michael Gow’s AWAY
AWAY opens next Friday February 13th.
heartBeast’s goal is “to explore and manifest theatricality to make a difference.” What’s the difference you want to make and why is it important that you do so?
When I began studying theatre I was inspired by my drama teachers at university, and the work of great directors such as the Arianne Mnouchkine, Evgheny Vahtangov, Georgio Strehler and Joan Littlewood. They all used theatrical storytelling to communicate message to the audience – to create a heightened theatrical experience that is both entertaining and educative, that transports and is magical – and in so doing communicates to its audience about the human condition and how we can all be better people. I have always believed that that is the goal of good theatre. That is my dream for heartBeast and the work we do. It is all about growing as a person to make a better world. If heartBeast can inspire our audiences to take just a step in that direction, than I will be happy.
How did you come to set up heartBeast?
I had done some work as part of Metro Arts Free Range Festival with a group of local emerging artists. Some of them were ex-students of mine. Others were professional actors with various levels of experience who were interested in creating an ensemble of independent theatre makers. They were also interested in mentoring younger actors. Everyone wanted to keep working together and so we did. That was in early 2010 and we then created Beautiful Frankenstein as our first project.
What have you enjoyed most about previous work with heartBeast?
At heartBeast, we have the freedom to take risks. Because we work in a theatrically heightened way, heartBeast productions can be uber theatrical in their use of physicality, voice, costume, and makeup. I love the use of lavish and vintage costuming. I have become intrigued by how costume tells story and helps the actor in their characterisation. I also enjoy how we can equally revert to a deep intense realism with a simple scenography.
At the core of this stylistic choice are all the creatives and the people who support us. heartBeast has become like a family. We always have someone new joining us, sharing their experience and knowledge and in this way we make discoveries about others and ourselves as artists. This keeps us moving in the creation of the heartBeast aesthetic and the style of work that we do.
You’ve produced and/or directed more than 50 productions. What led you to the theatre and what keeps you in it?
I have worked at professional, independent, university and secondary school levels in making theatre. I was inspired to make theatre that makes a difference by my own teachers. As a director, my favourite place is in the rehearsal room, working with artists to make discoveries. I especially love the capacity for possibility that courageous actors have.
I am also entranced by the liminal space that is the wings – that transition place from real world to theatrical world – our truth place. This sounds like a paradox but it isn’t. I have learned so much about what it means to be a good person through the exploration of story, philosophy and relationship in the theatre. It is the place where I feel most alive.
Your upcoming production is the Michael Gow play, Away. What made you choose to stage this work? How will another production of Away make a difference?
It has been a number of years since Away was staged in Brisbane. It is a classic Australian work that pulsates with a heightened reality infused with mythic poeticism. I love good story telling. I love Shakespeare. I love exploring the essence of being Australian, of place, identity and meaning. Away is a journey play about redemption, about dealing with tragedy, about loss and love and living. Away has all of that in it.
When I reread it I was overwhelmed by all of this and by how relevant Away is to today’s audiences. Instead of Vietnam we have Afghanistan and Iraq, with parents grieving for sons lost in battle. Instead of equal rights for women, we have the issue of equal rights for gay people, refugees and other disenfranchised groups. We still have husband’s and wives struggling with how to communicate, listen and understand each other. And sadly, we still have parents losing their children to the ravages of cancer.
Through all of this, Away engages contemporary audiences in our humanity. Perhaps it will encourage people to be a little bit kinder, a little bit more understanding, a little bit more reflective about who they love, why the love and how they love.
What do you think is the difference in young people’s lives once they bring Drama into it? When new artists come to heartBeast, what is their approach and what are their skills? Is there anything you would like to see more of?
I believe that young people who seriously engage in Drama are opting for a journey of self-discovery. It is not easy work. You have to want it badly. It is not a place for ego and the trappings of celebrity. I think if that is why you want to explore drama, then you are wanting it for the wrong reasons. This is the expectation that I have of any new artist who comes to heartBeast. I expect them to stay the distance, to be reliable, and honest and contribute to the ensemble – they are immediately a part of the heartBeast family. They are encouraged to dive in deep straight away. As we work together we discover more and more of their skills. In the past we have asked different members of the company to do skills sharing workshops with each other. Thereby we keep developing our own theatrical language and way of being, doing and making.
Talk us through your audition process.
Our audition process is very simple: two contrasting monologues that we will explore through redirection and improvisation. We have done group workshops when casting a number of people. We always talk a lot, chat about the company, what the artist is looking for, to see if we are a good match.
What form does your creative process take? Can you talk us through that? (Can you talk about what the differing roles entail, as you take on production or direction or design? Which is your greatest passion?)
This is a huge question. Focusing on directing – I am inspired by the fusion of heightened realism and theatricality, especially as created by the Russian Theatre Director, Evgheny Vakhtangov and his style of Fantastic Realism. I am very interested in actor’s manifesting plakative, physical work that is driven by a strong interior life. By fusing the link between the two, we strive to create an organic, heightened performance.
In order to do this as an ensemble we engage in a number of rehearsal tactics – from book work and table reading, to games, exercises, workshops, the detailed exploration of voicing and physical action choices. Different productions require different methodologies. I encourage the actors to play. We do not set anything until we are very close to performance. I do ban the use of the word ‘blocking’ but we engage in ‘sculpting’ moments, transitions, actions and reactions.
This exploration of a fantastic style bleeds into the design of the show. I am particularly interested in costuming that is aesthetically wonderful, supporting the manifestation of character, enabling the actor and working with a simple scenographic set design. I like to create a space that allows the actor to make strong physical choices and is not cluttered by a filmic realism that demands furniture and all the physical manifestations of reality.
What will we take away from any heartBeast production?
Joy. Creativity. Story. A great night of theatre. A shared experience, generously given by a wonderful ensemble of local artists.
What would you like to see more of, in the Australian theatrical landscape?
I would like to see more of our own stories being told. There are so many stories of our parents, grandparents, great grandparents that are not being told – about who they were, there struggles, their triumphs, how they engaged with the land and with each other that we need to remember and manifest. In this vein, heartBeast is currently researching the stories of the history of Fortitude Valley in preparation for a dynamic new work for 2016.
Theatre making also needs to be made more affordable for small to independent companies. In this way, the savings can be passed on to audiences. heartBeast always tries to maintain low ticket prices. This is one of the reasons that we do not work in expensive theatres. Our home is Trinity Hall, a beautiful heritage venue in the heart of Brisbane. It is close to public transport and enables a wide variety of audiences to attend. It used to be a rehearsal space for QTC and TN Theatre, so it resounds with theatrical ghosts. It is a wonderful place that transports us and our audiences into a total world of drama.