|Written by Simon Piening|
|Sunday, 23 March 2008 22:34|
Robert Chuter is an acclaimed theatre director with 30 years experience
in the Australian performing arts industry. With his groundbreaking
productions such as Le Miracle de la Rose and Lady Chatterley's Lover,
he earned himself a reputation as a formidable creative mind and
collected multiple awards along the way. His productions have been
staged internationally and he has recently returned from a 3 year stint
in the West End.
He is currently in rehearsal for a revival of the classic Australian play, Dimboola - presented as part of the 2008 Melbourne International Comedy Festival. He spoke to Australian Stage's Simon Piening
You’ve had a successful and prolific career in both theatre and film over the past 30 years, having attending VCA Drama in 1981 and graduating from Swinburne Film & Television School in 1983. When did you first become interested in theatre/film directing? When did you decide this was what you wanted to do as a career?
I didn’t have to decide this as my career, it chose me! My theatre direction was triggered primarily by two things… Firstly, I got to see, meet and work with Lindsay Kemp and his company when they visited Australia back in 1976. I didn’t know it at the time, but Lindsay’s work was a huge influence on me. Secondly, quite by accident, I was invited to a cult midnight performance at the Children’s Arena Theatre in South Yarra of a show called: “Gershwin” which was conceived by John Diedrich, Caroline Gillmer, Natalie Mosco and John O’May. This show was a brilliant and enterprising example on how to self-produce your own work. Both of these influences set me off on a theatrical roller coaster ride through life where I still upon on occasions, produce my own work (especially when others are scared to touch it!).
Film direction seemed a natural progression. An old Australian silent screen actress called Agnes Dobson encouraged me to shoot some Super 8 when I was a pimply teenager working in a bookstore during the school holidays. In ’83 I got into the prestigious Brian Robinson School of renegade filmmaking! Swinburne Film & Television School totally changed my life and view of filmmaking. I loved it more than anything, what an amazing school. I got to work with such lecturers such as: Nigel Buesst, Peter Tanner, Werner Hertzog, Paul Cox and the likes of filmmakers: Alan Woodruff, Clayton Jacobson, Alexi Vellis and mixed with alumni like Richard Lowenstein, John Hilcoat, Andrew Dominik and many more.
Directing for film and for theatre are two very different disciplines. Do you have a preference for either?
I like the immediacy of theatre and the permanency of film. So I love them both equally! When I have enough of theatre I run and hide in the dark of the cinema.
From a directors point of view what are the essential differences between the two?
Theatre has limitations that stimulates and forces me to work creatively, especially with limited budgets! When a play opens, I lose interest in it, because my objective has been achieved. I love the fact that once the season finishes, it vanishes and no longer exists. Film has no limitations really, and can set the imagination aflight, especially with small or large budgets. I also like the fact, that when the film production finishes, that it takes on its own life and goes out into the world. Then years later it comes back to haunt you.
You’ve recently returned from a three-year stint in the West End. What were you doing there?
Ah, the West End! Initially, I went to follow up work and contacts that I had established when working with Peter Holmes a Court and his Backrow Productions on a national tour of the production of “Lady Chatterley’s Lover”. One of these contacts led to us producing two plays in a London theatre back to back. These two productions featured two Australian actors, Tamblyn Lord and Christopher Pender and designed by controversial artist Anthony Breslin. It was a difficult time. The following year we produced another production called “Oblomov’s Dream”, with a great British cast and crew.
What was the experience like, producing a show in London? Do you have plans to take more shows to the London?
The first year was extremely difficult, not knowing anyone except for one or two contacts. So… we were feeling our way through the dark and learnt some very lasting lessons, such as not employing a mediocre and costly publicist even when they come highly recommended! The next production was a breeze, as we had established a great British network of contacts and friends. I am returning in ’09 to direct a tour of open air productions of “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” and “The Secret Garden” in a number of stately and historical mansions during the English summer.
In both your film and theatre work, you have a reputation for a strong, often spectacular visual style. Where did that interest come from?
The visual style is pretty instinctual. It’s just there. Sometimes it is inspired by films by Peter Greenaway, Elia Kazan, or a book by Emily Bronte, D. H. Lawrence and Jean Genet. My adaptation of his novel “La Miracle de la Rosa” caused quite a stir both at the Old Melbourne Gaol and Belvoir Street in Sydney. Some critics stated that Genet would have farted in his grave (or turn in it!) if he had of seen it! The visual style is all important. I am absolutely fanatical about costuming and my trademark is obsessive detail. Designers are terrified of me.
Much of your time seems to be divided between working with new writers/works and directing “classic” plays. Is that a deliberate choice?
Years back I was fortunate to meet the British filmmaker Ken Russell when he was directing the opera “Madame Butterfly” at the Arts Centre in Melbourne. I remember, over spaghetti and short blacks, he gave me a couple of quick “career hints”: create longevity, so you have diversity. And always think outside the square. So… when it comes to theatre - I direct family shows, like the sell-out seasons of “Anne of Green Gables” and the children’s classic: “Seven Little Australians”, to plays about gay porn icons, drug culture, the Bloomsbury group, the Brontes, IVF, flamboyant artists, feminist writers and serial killers. Diversity is the name of the game and I love work which is challenging to the imagination. Can you imagine directing an opera when you don’t speak French and can’t remember music? Yep, I’ve done it - not sure if I was successful or not…
You are currently in rehearsals for a revival of the classic Australian play - Dimboola. What makes this play a classic do you think?
“Dimboola” opened at La Mama in 1969 when something called: “the theatricalist new wave” was born. The play was the first site-specific interactive piece that now is Australia’s most performed and popular play. Written by Jack Hibberd (of course!) and directed by Graeme Blundell, it is a Rabelaisian and rumbustious celebration of the classic country wedding which Hibberd calls: "the testing of strengths of the newly conjugated tribes". It’s still relevant today as it was then, except now it’s a period piece!
You have had the advantage of having the writer (Jack Hibberd) and some of the original cast available to you for this new production. What advice/input have they offered?
Graeme assisted in an advisory capacity via email and ‘phone from Sydney. We’ve had chats and memories from Betty Burstall, founder of La Mama, Geoffrey Milne, Leonard Radic, Meg Clancy, Robin Laurie and others from the original cast. Unfortunately Hibberd wasn’t present for the premiere production, because he was living in London at the time! All these people have helped enormously with the reconstruction of the play in its original home after 39 years.
So how have you approached this production? What can we expect?
We have peeled the paint from La Mama’s walls to reveal the original white walls from the 1969 production. So…. symbolically, this is the style of the show - 1969 meets 2008 Dimboola. Expect a night of booze, burlesque, song and dance and a few punch-ups to the strains of “Danny Boy” and “Red River Valley”. Plus a cast of fifteeen on stage all the time with more than 200 items of party food. Don’t forget to RSVP if you’re invite has arrived in the mail! And bring your wedding present too.
What’s next for you?
After doing Tim Conigrave’s Thieving Boy/Like Stars In My Hands earlier this year, Krista Dalby’s Almost and now Dimboola, there will be a brief hiatus, then Clean Time, a film by playwright Alex Broun, the Melbourne season of Half A Person: My Life as Told by The Smiths, Julia Britton’s wild and wonderful adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando and then Melbourne Writers’ Theatre’s season – MelBorn 08 (where I am artistic director), followed by 2008 Melbourne Short & Sweet… and it goes on… Anyone know of a good therapist?
Dimboola opens Wednesday March 26 as part of the 2008 Melbourne International Comedy Festival. Further information»
Fly on the Wall Theatre are the first theatre company to be included in the Australian Stage Accelerator Program