a conversation between theatremakers Luke Mullins and Brian Lipson.
For the anteroom this month, longtime collaborators Luke Mullins and Brian Lipson talked between Melbourne where Brian is currently performing with the Red Stitch Actors Theatre, and Bath where Luke was performing in Deborah Warner’s production of THE TEMPEST, while wrapping up rehearsals of solo show, THE STONES written for him by Kit Brookman, which opens this month at the Assembly Roxy as a part of The Edinburgh Fringe.
Here they talk about disrupting conventional rehearsal models, solo performance and their ongoing quest to just… make something happen.
Luke Mullins (LM): We're having a heatwave, which you've probably heard about on the news. They can't stop talking about it here. The UK is completely unprepared for any temperatures over 32 degrees. The whole country grinds to a halt. What's it like in Melbourne right now?
Brian Lipson (BL): It's like it always is. Nice weather. I think there's a kind of general feeling of pleasure that the government's changed. There’s nothing ecstatic or about it or anything. But, you know, just a relief that it isn't an utterly mean-spirited bunch in there. I think everybody's just thinking: Are we still in lockdown? Or aren't we still in lockdown? And should I be ever going out ever again… or not…
It’s fantastic that you're going to Edinburgh though. I think it's really marvellous. You're in the Assembly Rooms?
LM: Yes, the Roxy Downstairs.
BL: Okay. I did [A large attendance in the] Antechamber there. Back in… gosh, I don’t know. And then it was a really buzzing venue. I think it probably still is.
LM: Yeah, the Roxy is this nice, intimate, 60-seat thing. It’s perfect for us. We wanted something where it can just be talking to people really.
BL: Yeah. Fantastic. And did you do it originally at The King’s Head in London?
LM: We did a little tryout season there, yes. It was the late show after this Tennessee Williams play I was doing. We did five performances to see how it would go. And it seemed to go well, so we've done a bit of reworking and rewriting. What I thought we could talk about a bit first though is about how we met.
…. Can’t remember.
Can you remember? Was it on the volcano play?
LM: [laughs] Yeah. Lally Katz and the Terrible Mysteries of the Volcano, at TheatreWorks. 2006.
BL: Yes! We were kind of partners in that.
LM: A double act...
BL: With Chris Kohn directing it. I knew Chris because I taught him a little bit. I did workshops with his year at the VCA*, which I really enjoyed. I remember very well, the whole bunch of them, they were so creative. We did a thing where there was a piece of music, a piece of writing, and an image. And they had three minutes to make a piece, combining those stimuli. Thoughts working very, very fast. In a session, we'd make 10 or 12 little shows which were fantastic. I remember some of them really distinctly. There's something great about working fast like that.
LM: It's surprising how much you can come up with, how far you can go with just those parameters. You can get a lot done very quickly.
BL: And stuff of great quality because you can't filter it. You can't worry about whether it's going to be any good or not because it's not going to be polished.
LM: Yeah, well, it means a lot more unexpected things happen. Which is always far more useful than expected things.
BL: Yes! And people respond so quickly to each other. So if somebody has an idea, there's just… relief. It’s like: ‘Oh, great. Somebody's thought of something!’ And so that makes somebody else think of something else, and then something else. And suddenly, it all happens! It's great! And also because you can't rehearse it, the performance is the rehearsal. And that's a great thing.
That's something that I've been thinking more and more about, actually. That old saying that “life isn't a rehearsal”? Well, I think life is a rehearsal actually. I think life is much closer to being a rehearsal than a performance. Well, with my experience of life and rehearsal. There's much more uncertainty in life and much more experimentation in life than there is in performance.
LM: I guess. Yeah. Parts of life can feel performed, but you're right. It's more like an improvisation, isn't it? With… no audience.
BL: That’s right. And I've always wanted to find a way to include an audience in that kind of rehearsal spirit or, not exactly rehearsal but the devising creating stuff, which is the best aspect of it isn't it? I remember the workshops we did for Volcano. Even more strongly than I remember the final show actually. Do you remember? We set it in a TV studio. And we were going around filming it!
LM: Yes! That’s right!
BL: It was really exciting, it was very ramshackle. I think there must have been scripted moments in it, but it didn't feel like it, it felt all improvised. I don't think anybody had had the chance to learn any of the lines.
LM: I think we had the scripts on the wall for a bit… they were projected.
BL: Yeah, which I always thought was ridiculous because it was so hard to read. These rehearsals with people going “I… think… I’m… feeling a bit… sad…? no… BAD!… no… sad.”
Anyway, but that's because the technology was so poor and the slides were always dirty…
LM: Yeah, or you'd written it out on something and then it was too far away when you needed it!
BL: When I look back at the really exciting things though, they’ve often been the sort of tryout type things not, not finished works.
LM: I guess there's improvised shows that do that in the performance…
BL: Yeah, but that's different again, isn't it? And usually that’s comedy. Usually, it's in order to get laughs. And actually, the structure within it is not at all experimental, it’s a very clear and rigid structure, it enables performers to think quickly, but certainly not to feel quickly. Very little actual emotion or kind of psychological tension arises, it’s all about quick rigidness, isn't it?
LM: Well yeah, the form is very set. And the form is very traditional in a way. Rather than finding out what the form or structure is, as you're doing it. Trying to solve a problem or complete a task or…
BL: Yeah, I mean, do you have that? That kind of wish?
LM: I certainly have the wish to find a way in performance, where something's actually happening. Most of the time, when I go to see things, nothing's happening.
LM: No matter how clever, rehearsed, well written, incredibly designed it is - nothing’s happening. And I sit there watching things going, ‘Nothing is happening. Nothing is happening. You're doing everything, but nothing is happening.’ And, you know, I mean, in a very basic way, the task of performance or acting is to make a rehearsed scripted thing feel like it's happening for the first time. But I feel like that's got to go beyond people trying to do good acting.
LM: It encompasses everything that's going on in the whole event of a thing. I did a Beckett play a few years ago, and wanted to stretch something about it to try and destabilise that thing of what was actually happening, but because it was being done in a theatre, there just seemed to be no way. Once people came to that building, came in and sat in that rigid setting it was impossible to disrupt the expectation of what was about to happen. And the expectation was that… nothing would happen.
BL: Yeah, that's right! And the hope was that nothing would happen.
LM: Someone said to me once that people don't want anything to happen to them.
BL: No, they don't. That's right. It's like tourism. You want to go to another country, but you don't want to be affected by it. You know? You don't want to suddenly find yourself becoming French or something. But I would love it if we could find some form where there would be a real quest, for an audience.
There was early immersive stuff that we used to go to and make in London, I’m talking about the early 70s, I was involved with happenings and things when I was at art school, nobody ever saw them, but that got, well, they were genuinely scary. And things did happen, I promise.
LM: It's very hard to create the context for that now I think. Have you ever managed in a rehearsed performance to find that feeling?
BL: Yeah. Once or twice. I mean very often, as you know, it's to do with things going wrong. And then things really are alive. You know, if somebody dries* badly, or a prop doesn't function, or they’ve forgotten a prop or something like that, then it's just great. And people do love it. Even those audiences who come along thinking, ‘I'm coming here in order to be soothed’, when they see something going wrong, they really light up. Or, things happen when it’s with actors who genuinely don’t get on.
LM: Yeah, it's interesting what it takes to create that feeling. Because often, it can be created through as you say, negative energies. That really short circuits me, that kind of friction-based generative thing though…
BL: Well it can be very seductive. It can be kind of awful, but it is all right. I don't think one should ever aim for that kind of conflict or that kind of unease. But when it happens, it's, it's all right. It's okay.
LM: It can be. At the same time though, I think a lot of the discussions that are happening at the moment around power come back to this sort of thing. That what creative processes have excused or enabled or actively created in order to create, you know, so called ‘good art’ have been abusive, through the intentional pursuit of a friction-based process.
BL: It’s true, you can often miscalculate, and whereas one moment you feel safe, the next, you, or someone else maybe, just doesn’t. It’s very hard to know until you’re quite deeply in it.
LM: Well, we’re being asked all the time to work in an altered state and a vulnerable state. And if people expect you to work in that state, then there has to be safety and management around what that can allow. You're not working from the rational when you're performing. Who that management comes from is the question, is it the director? Is it you?
Do you think there's something generational about that in terms of what people are used to in a rehearsal room?
BL: Yes, I do. And I think it's a good thing that people are more aware now of how important it is to behave in a civilised way. But I also think that there is an equal danger, that everything gets all so namby pamby and careful that nothing happens at all.
LM: I've been thinking about this a lot lately too. Uncomfortableness is part of what I like. I want to feel unsettled, disrupted and uncomfortable, both in things I choose to see as an audience in any art form and also as a maker, I want to make stuff that shifts the tectonic plates inside of people. I don't want to make them feel bad, but I do want to shift something. Uncomfortableness is part of that. As artists, that's our job, to wade through what is confronting, and what is uncomfortable, and what is unknown, and what’s acceptable and unacceptable. And the grey areas of life, that's our job to wade through that and somehow make sense of that stuff for people. And how to do that in a way that does feel safe without dodging the truth of what that stuff is.
BL: It’s true, we can try. We should try to do that.
LM: So, solo shows. A Large Attendance In the Antechamber, is the solo show you have toured to a lot of places, including Edinburgh, about the 19th-century eugenicist Francis Galton.
BL: Yes, I did it at the Assembly Rooms too. And as you know, I do have an elaborate set for Antechamber.
LM: Describe it.
BL: I perform it from inside a kind of box. It’s a very small room, but full of a lot of things. Of 19th century scientific props and lights that I self operate. So, in Edinburgh, I used to get there at sort of six in the morning and set it up, it takes me hours to do it. And then I’d do an 11am show or something, some really, really inappropriate time for that work.
It was great, though. I rehearsed the changeover almost as much as the show, because I had to pack everything really quickly. The set is full of glass, I made these special polystyrene things with the right shaped holes in for instance where you could pull the fragile glass chimneys and whatnot.
LM: That's an interesting topic though, isn't it… for Antechamber the set design is so intricate, so integral to the whole performance. The last solo show I did, Lake Disappointment -
BL: In Sydney?
LM: At Carriageworks, yes, was kind of busy like that. It had this amazing space and a lot of sound and video, it was strongly technically supported and therefore very specific, in terms of my staging. The Stones is the opposite. It’s just me in the space, it’s interesting that difference.
BL: Well, yes, it's kind of easier in a way when there's lots to do, I find. But I think that's because I have that compulsive need to fiddle with props. With all shows, solo ones or not. Do you have that?
LM: I do. I love it. I always say, ‘Just give me a really hard task, the harder the better.’ Often directors on a show think it'll just be too tricky to do costume change or something. And I’m like, ‘No, no - the harder the better.’
I've got the opposite with The Stones - I don't have anything to play with. I don't have any props. I have a chair. And I'm talking to people. Which is good, though.
BL: How long is it?
LM: An hour.
BL: And what’s the story?
LM: I play a character who’s been through a breakup and moves to the countryside to be a child minder for a rich family. But things start to fracture as strange forces start to intrude on his life and sense of reality, and the play sort of spirals to an end game where whatever menace is out there surrounds me and the kids, that’s the best way of describing it I think. It’s a mystery I guess about leaving things too late, missing your moment. How we do that in our personal relationships but also collectively as custodians of the world. It’s funny and charming but then evolves into something far weirder and unsettling. I only play the one character, but there’s a lot of people in the story, and a lot of gothic landscape. The images Kit writes are amazing, so bringing detail to that is a great challenge, especially when it’s just you telling it, the amount of concentration.
BL: The psychic energy.
LM: You have to hold, yes. And hold it the whole time. Yeah, it can be exhausting.
BL: But you know that it gets much less exhausting when there's an audience?
LM: It’s true, that’s right.
BL: It's awesome to rehearse, but once you're getting a bit of feedback, even if it's tiny, even if there's only three people in the audience, it really makes it easy. Because the audience, they have to concentrate too. And so your energy is being reciprocated. It's amplified by them, like a laser, going between two points, it bounces back and comes back stronger.
Of course, the great thing about doing a solo work is that nobody knows if you're doing it wrong.
LM: That's true! That's really nice!
BL: Especially if you've written it yourself. You can leave great chunks out if you want. I mean, I don't usually do it on purpose. But, you know, it really doesn't matter if you transpose one word to another word or something like that, or do things in a different order. I do get a secret sort of thrill when that happens. Sometimes I swap words around and I think, ‘They have no idea what I just did.’ I just did this thing, which is an amazing bit of mental gymnastics, and they have no idea.
BRIAN LIPSON studied Theatre Design under Ralph Koltai at Central School of Art and Design in London. He designed for Lindsey Kemp, Ballet Rambert and others. In the 1970s and 80s he was a key member of 3 of the most important English experimental companies of that time: Lumiere and Son, Rational Theatre and Hidden Grin - working as Designer, Devisor, Director, Writer and Performer. He later acted regularly at The National Theatre, Old Vic and The Royal Court.
In Australia (where he lives) he has worked with The Melbourne Theatre Company, Malthouse, SydneyTheatre Company, Belvoir, La Boite, Bell Shakespeare, and with independent companies including The Family, Eleventh Hour, Hayloft, Stuck Pigs Squealing, Chunky Move and Back to Back. His solo show "A Large Attendance in the Antechamber" - which he wrote, designed and performed – toured for seven years and was acclaimed in Edinburgh, Sydney, Adelaide, South Carolina, New Haven, country Victoria and The Sydney Opera House.
An opera which he co-wrote and directed with Matthew Hindson for Melbourne Botanic Gardens - "Love, Death, Music and Plants" was later broadcast by ABC Classic FM. Brian wrote, designed and performed "Berggasse 19 - The Apartments of Sigmund Freud" which premiered at MIFA 2005; directed and designed: "The Harry Harlow Project" (Victorian Arts Centre & national tour), "Song of the Bleeding Throat" (Eleventh Hour), "Photographs of A" (MTC Neon); co-directed "Apocalypse Bear Trilogy" with Luke Mullins (MTC, MIFA, Stuck Pigs Squealing); co-devised, designed and performed in all four Inotrope/Theatreworks/St Kilda Drop-In Centre productions (a documentary of one of these productions called "Tempest at the Drop-in" was shown on the ABC as part of National Mental Health Week).
Brian taught regularly at the VCA (He was full time Lecturer in Acting there in 2001). He has been nominated for 8 Green Room Awards and won 4. He was awarded an Australia Council Fellowship in 2011.
More recent projects are his solo show "EDMUND. THE BEGINNING" and a collaboration with Gideon Obarzanek and Lucy Geurin called "Two Jews walk into a theatre…”.
LUKE MULLINS has worked for theatre companies throughout Australia and the UK including Belvoir, Sydney Theatre Company, The Old Vic, Barbican, Theatre Royal Bath, HOME Manchester, Melbourne Theatre Company and Malthouse Theatre. He has also created work with independent and ensemble companies including Stuck Pigs Squealing, Sisters Grimm, Uncle Semolina and Friends, and Liminal Theatre and Performance. His previous acclaimed solo works include Lake Disappointment (which he co-wrote) and Autobiography of Red, based on Anne Carson’s verse novel. With Fragment 31, he co-created and performed Irony Is Not Enough: Essay on My Life As Catherine Deneuve. As a core member of Stuck Pigs Squealing he has been a creator and performer on Back at the Dojo, The Eisteddfod, Lally Katz and the Terrible Mysteries of the Volcano, 4xBeckett and Agorophobe, and he directed Night Maybe by Kit Brookman and co-directed and performed in The Apocalypse Bear Trilogy. Luke was a member of Sydney Theatre Company’s Actor’s company 07-09. Awards include a Sydney Theatre Award and Helpmann Award for his performance as Lucky in Waiting for Godot. Film and TV includes Joe vs. Carole (NBC), Darby and Joan (Acorn TV), The Spanish Princess (Starz), Riot (ABC TV), Life, New Blood (BBC), and Holding the Man.
Photographs: (1) Luke Mullins and Brian Lipson at work in an unnamed project, (2) Luke and Brian in "Lally Katz and the Terrible Mysteries of the Volcano" (2006), (3) Luke Mullins in "Lake Disappointment" (2016) by Luke Mullins and Lachlan Philpott, (4) Brian Lipson in "A Large Attendance In the Antechamber" (1996) by Brian Lipson, (5) Luke Mullins in "Lake Disappointment".