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.