Raimondo Cortese is a playwright and founding member of Ranters Theatre, which he formed in 1994 with his brother Adriano. The company has achieved worldwide success with their stripped back style, regularly appearing in international festivals and touring Europe since 1999.

On the eve of their latest production, The Dream Life of Butterflies, Raimondo speaks with Australian Stage's Paul Andrew.

Raimondo CorteseRaimondo – for the benefit of newcomers to your work, tell me about Ranters Theatre, why you and your brother started Ranters
Ranters formed in 1994 after we disbanded our previous company Potlatch, which we’d formed in '92. We were at the VCA drama school at the time and wanted to form a company that was about responding to the immediacy of making theatre – making it ‘live’ and improv based – we also wanted to remove what we considered to be the theatrical conventions from our work – and this meant really starting from scratch – building up from nothing – the prime focus has always been – what people do each other when they’re being watched.

Back in the early nineties the environment was very different – the mainstage companies were conservative – there was no Malthouse, or Arts House, or MTC Lawler program etc, so the only way you could really go out on a limb was to work independently; the environment now has changed radically, in part because of the work of the independent companies growing a vibrant culture around mainstage work that has now flowed over. We also collaborated a lot with the festivals, such as Clifford Hocking’s in ’97 with Features of Blown Youth, Roulette with the 2000 Adelaide Festival and St Kilda Tales in the 2001 Federation Festival and other since – the festivals back then picked up a lot of the slack. But things have changed now – the culture is much more sophisticated and vibrant across the spectrum.

Our Show Holiday is an example of later Ranters work, where I feel we’ve refined some of the objectives of our earlier work – it is really about time – and the way the audience projects it own narrative on to what it sees.

Tell me briefly about the two characters in The Dream Life of Butterflies – back story perhaps?
The back-story is not good to give away – as it spoils the show!

But it’s about a sibling relationship with a big problem at its core. But I think it’s better to watch it knowing nothing, which is how I wrote it. 

‘Illusion’ was it TS Eliot who said: Human beings do not tolerate too much reality?

I think you always have to separate the making of theatre from witnessing it as an audience – TS Eliot for one thing was more poet than dramatist. When making theatre you’re working with real people who behave as real people do – so whatever process you work with, the fact is you need to engage with the complexities of human behaviour; something vital and dynamic occurs when actors engage each other and that is the most fundamental element within all theatre – the core material – it also happens to be what a lot of people shy away from in theatre – dressing it up to disguise the fact there’s a hole in the centre. However people receive the work, as an audience, is entirely up to them. Sure, we can say the stage arena is an illusion, but no more so than anywhere else in life.

The Dream Life of Butterflies – for this writer the title immediately evoked images of Nabakov, his idyllic childhood?
I’ve written a lot of plays so I don’t really think about other people’s work at all – I just write what matters to me at any one particular time. As I write, all kinds of images, memories, dreams etc creep in and I just go with the flow – if it’s interesting dramatically I keep it, if not I discard it – it’s all about building an interesting dynamic between the actors/characters – and the story emerges from what happens between them – but I’m a great believer in working unconsciously – not thinking too much about it; trusting more on instinct cultivated over years of practise.

Do you have a favourite line from this play?
I don’t really have a favourite line – but I like the general nuttiness of the way the characters interact.

Tell me about the butterfly metaphor?
The butterfly thing comes from a story one of the characters talks about – how she goes to a bar with butterflies all over the walls and imagines them dreaming everyone else into existence – but I’m also struck by how short the lives of most butterflies are, compared to how long they live as caterpillars and inside the cocoon – though there are exceptions, like the Monarch butterfly, which can live for months – also, there was a café that used to stay open all night down Brunswick Street Fitzroy in the late eighties, which had butterflies all over the back wall – that’s what I based the image on. It also didn’t sell alcohol unless you knew the owner as it was unlicensed. Mainly it just sold biscotti and coffee.

Tell me about the ‘dream life’?
It’s not really represented – actually the staging is non-representational and the actors have full awareness of audience – I can’t think of any of my nearly 30 works for the stage that have a fourth wall – though of course they can be presented with one – nor do I really separate dreams/reality/memory etc – I just use whatever stimulus in order to arise at something I think is dramatically interesting.

What do you feel is the role of memory in theatre, in life?
That’s a big question – and I’m not in a position to give a very good answer – but I don’t really make the distinctions in terms of where material comes from – the important thing is that the material feels dynamic – and feels like it is being engaged with in the present – to me drama is not about narration – it’s about people doing things right now in front of you – action/dialogue entwined.

In terms of the two middle aged women characters in the play, why do these images from memory – from the recent and not so recent past – recur with such abandon ?
I guess I like to write about characters who throw caution to the wind – probably because I don’t do so enough in my own life – the element of time – past, present and future are often fused in my work, which creates a slightly surreal, distorting effect on what happens in front of you – this corresponds more closely to how I receive things around me – as a father of three I’m incredibly sleep deprived so am half asleep most of the time – but this kind of dramatic structure also allows the audience to infuse their own experiences with the story.

Do you have a favourite quote or phrase about memory?
I know a Borges one; each person’s memory makes an Eden within… or something like that.

The Dream Life of Butterflies by Raimondo Cortese opens Friday 4 March, 2011 at The MTC Theatre, Lawler Studio. Further information»

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