Sandwiches is the first production for Melbourne’s latest independent theatre company, The Melbourne Town Players (TMTP). The company’s three artistic directors, Ming-Zhu Hii, Lauren Urquhart and Nicholas Coghlan are each intimately involved in this boutique fairytale-comi-tragedy, intimately set above a shop front in North Fitzroy.

Ahead of its opening performance on 21 January 2009, Anna Lozynski spoke to director Ming-Zhu Hii about the exciting debut of both collaborations.

Ming-Zhu Hii1. Before we delve into a discussion about Sandwiches, tell us about what fuelled your decision to become involved in jointly establishing your own theatre company. 
The decision arose from several different places. To create as well as facilitate the kind of work we wanted to see on Melbourne’s stages was at the core of the decision. Although seemingly simple, when an analysis was undertaken about the understanding of the work presently being created in Melbourne (or indeed, Australia), the proposition became complex.

Essentially, the issues that Nick, Lauren and I have really sought to tackle in our practice and shared philosophy include an effort towards a rigorous intellectual understanding of the craft with which we are working, and the constantly fluctuating nature of theatre text. We want to support an intuitive artistic radicalism, and make a real commitment to formalistic experimentation, as well as actively support the ideals of cross-racial casting and artistic and administrative racial and gender equity. Collectively, we prioritise this small handful of artistic and political ideals. Certainly, in my own practice, these ideals are of paramount importance. The desire to see such values realised, and finding a place to be able to be involved with their implementation personally, are elements of what has driven us to band together to form this company. Ultimately, if you are curious, hungry, and have a burning passion for a particular medium, true satisfaction comes with making your own work.

2. In your view, what sets TMTP apart from other players in the independent theatre market?
No two companies, collectives, or individual artists are the same, or can be simply categorised. There are definite trends and movements that ebb and flow, and it's more common for many of these to either be initiated or perpetuated by younger, newer companies, which, for want of a better expression, are at the forefront of the zeitgeist. However, based on the majority of theatre creators in the Melbourne community, more often than not, their work is borne out of a simple desire to follow a personal artistic imperative, with much of it having very little to do with what others were doing.

TMTP stands apart from other players in the independent theatre sphere as any company does. Of course we approach some things from a different angle, but essentially the aim is consistent; that is, to create exciting works of art, with an emphasis on depth of enquiry and integrity of practice.

3. How did you and the other artistic directors (Nicholas Coghlan and Lauren Urquhart) arrive at naming the company as you have done?
It was a bit of a joke really, and it stuck. It's a nice little nod to the spirit of pro-am regional rep companies, and to the funny little troupe of performers who unabashedly call Melbourne home, for better or for worse. There's certainly a smattering of irony in there, I suppose. On the flip side, the name pays tribute to the honest and community-focused ideal of municipal players. At the end of the day, we wouldn't have embraced it if we didn't feel a strong sense of affection for its true sentiment.

4. What were your initial thoughts and impressions when you first read the script for Sandwiches, written by Nicholas Coghlan and Elise Hearst?
The process of the script's creation itself was quite involved. I had seen various fragments of script from both writers over a period of several weeks. When the two writers' texts came together, they were basically two separate piles of paper, and were in no way incorporated as a ‘script’. Initially, I thought "How the hell am I going to make two such different writing styles fit together?" In time, I realised it was a dramaturgical dream. Even though Elise and Nick had both written their parts of the work independently (only occasionally meeting up to discuss and share ideas), the divergent writing styles came together beautifully. In the script’s infancy, it was apparent that Elise's writing represents a strong narrative externalisation of the relationship between the two characters; Nick provides a frightening, and often hilarious insight into the interior workings of the individual characters when they are alone. It's an exciting way of working, both dramatically and psychologically.

5. What can the audience expect to take away from the work?
I would describe Sandwiches as a gentle, quirky tragedy. However, I don't expect anyone to take one single particular thing away from the work. It is really a piece that depends on each individual audient and their mindset on the night. The thematic and aesthetic resonances shift depending on one’s experiences.

6. What resonates with you most about the characters, Billy (played by Terry Yeboah) and Paula (played by Lauren Urquhart)?
Qualities that I really appreciate in a person include an unabashed (some might say shameless) honesty, and a courage to be able to show and articulate immediate emotions and thoughts to people around them. I'm not talking about neurosis for neurosis' sake, but I suppose a sense of almost naive rawness that accompanies a curiosity into one’s own (and thus the human) spirit.

What excites me about Billy and Paula, and about the performers’ work with the two characters, is that they really do wear their hearts on their sleeves, but in differing ways by reason of their grief. The text does not provide for a relentless deluge of emotional outpouring. It's actually more of a delicate and child-like investigation into the nature and influences of the characters’ feelings, individually and on each other. It's often quite abstract, oblique, and strange, which is part of what makes this kind of emotional investigation so precious and beautiful.

7. Having previously worked with these two performers, what have you learned about each actor during the rehearsal process for this production?
This is the first time that any of us (Terry, Lauren, and me) have truly collaborated with each other. Both actors have distinct and wonderful qualities too numerous to catalogue.

Terry has an extremely infectious enthusiasm and excitement for the work, the likes of which I have rarely seen in another actor. It's impossible to not be spurred along by his love of rehearsal and his willingness to investigate and work incredibly hard.

Lauren's ability to take a text and find the hilarious, quirky underbelly in a split second is unrivaled, in my experience. It is truly delightful, and I am always surprised by her insightfully abstract interpretation of language and her strong intuitive base.

8. Given your background and diverse skill set as both an actor and director, among other endeavors, what challenges did you face in directing this piece?
Practically, I have grappled with scheduling sufficient rehearsal time, and creating a solid show on an incredibly small budget. Artistically, it has been challenging to reconcile the two divergent styles of writing into one cohesive piece and discovering, on a daily basis, the true nature of the work. Unlike work that is easily formalistically recognisable, the writing (and performance) style shifts from moment to moment. The challenge has been finding not necessarily a consistency, but an authentic way of allowing each moment to fold into the next, and allowing the shift in style to make as much subconscious sense as possible.

9. What attracts you to the role of director versus the role of an actor?
I think I have always been on the journey to directing, and often did not know it. This has had more to do with wanting to be a strong force in the creative process of theatre, rather than a choice that is in any way opposed to working as an actor. 

In my view, acting and directing (and writing) should be part and parcel of the same process, but more often than not (particularly in this country), this is not the case. The perspective that each artist takes from their respective roles is markedly different depending on their physical proximity to the moment of creation.

Someone said to me a few weeks ago that they feel acting is a far more visceral and immediate experience than directing. I disagree entirely. I think that that is an incredibly literal reading that relates to the 'sensation' of performance. I have experienced some of the most visceral and immediate moments as a director! For the most part, it depends on one's personality, and approach to a role. That's a nice way of saying I'm a control freak, and I love having to take responsibility for many things at once.

10. Are you more emotionally attached to this production than others with which you have been involved given your relationship with TMTP?
Of course I want Sandwiches to be extraordinary, and my fingers are firmly crossed that we make the grade. I have an emotional attachment to everything I do, no matter what it is. (However, it's not always the same emotion). I am in love with this show, but in order to believe in something you're creating from scratch with a bunch of incredibly people, I think you have to be.

Terry Yeboah as Billy11. What are you going to do after opening night?
Sleep. Get a job. Write a grant application. Read Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince.

12. How do you react to media reviews of a work with which you are involved? Does your reaction change depending on whether you wear the hat of the director or the actor?
I have a love/hate relationship with reviews. As an actor, reading reviews is pointless, as even positive reviews can destroy one’s work. Acting is such a delicate and subjective art, which relies heavily on a healthy sense of self-esteem.

As a director/creator, sometimes reviews by intelligent and theatre-literate reviewers can be invaluable in terms of learning about your own work. But they can be just as emotionally destructive if you are not in the right frame of mind, and have the ability to be kind to yourself in the process. It is difficult to separate oneself from one’s art, and be objective about feedback.

13. Finally, tell us about one strange memory from your childhood. 
I once believed that I was really a cat, and that the septuagenarian neighbors next to my father's shop were involved in an elaborate heroin smuggling cartel. It was my responsibility to use my secret feline detective skills to sniff them out, and bring them down.

Sandwiches opens Wed 21 Jan. Further information»

Top Right - Ming-Zhu Hii
Bottom Right - Terry Yeboah as Billy

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