Leticia Caceres and I have something of a history.
She is currently recognised as one of Australia's most promising directors and theatre-makers. Her work as a freelancer encompasses stints with Queensland Theatre Company, La Boite Theatre Company, Sydney Opera House, Melbourne Theatre Company and Brisbane's World Theatre Festival. In 2013, she will become Melbourne Theatre Company's first female Associate Director in eight years. Her company RealTV, meanwhile, is equally accomplished.
Co-founded with playwright and serial collaborator Angela Betzien, Real TV have worked with Regional Arts Victoria, Melbourne Theatre Company and Queensland Arts Council and been commissioned by the Sydney Opera House. Their Hoods production took home a Matilda Award for Best Independent Theatre Work in 2009, 2007's Awgie Award for Theatre for Young People and a Helpmann Award nomination for Best Children's Theatre in 2008. In short; Caceres is an important name in Australian theatre.
Our idiosyncratic history predates most of those accomplishments. Age sixteen, I was invited to attend a workshop in political theatre - facilitated by Queensland Theatre Company and directed by Caceres. She introduced us to a work concerning the plight of refugees in Australia and asked our opinions. Disgusted by what I perceived to be disingenuous compassion on the part of my peers (but, in all likelihood, simply a depressed teenager acting out), I told her I didn't care about refugees.
A lengthy argument ensued; I embarrassed myself and Caceres endeavoured to engender some empathy on my part. We ended on the memorable note of 'you have a very black outlook on the world for someone so young'. She didn't say it with anger or frustration. More than anything, it seemed to come from a place of compassion. That exchange says a lot about Leticia Caceres. Unfortunately, it wasn't until years later - when asked to review Real TV's blistering production of debbie tucker green's Random - that I appreciated it.
Caceres' latest production – Angela Betzien's Helicopter – opens this week as part of Melbourne Theatre Company's Lawler Studio Season. A black comedy, it concerns an overly protective mother, her child and their refugee neighbour. Typical of Betzien and Caceres' output, it's a politically-inspired work that attempts to connect political concepts and scenarios (refugees, terrorism, bureaucracy) to human characters and realities (parents, neighbours, childhood).
Obviously, I leapt at the chance to interview Caceres about her work.
(And apologise, for that matter.)
Good morning, Leticia. How are you?
I'm good, thank you, Matt. Very good. How are you?
I'm quite well, thank you. How are you feeling about the looming season of Helicopter?
[laughs] I'm a little anxious. You know, it's the nature of new work – you haven't tested it. We're making cuts and rewrites on the go. We're trying to work out what the show is – and it's quite terrifying. But invigorating, also. You know, it's the best way to work. To be ruthless yourself and with the material. So, it's kind of thrilling and terrifying at the same time.
Given the success you and Angela have had with past productions (most recently, The Dark Room for Sydney's Belvoir Street Theatre) – do you feel any pressure or expectation?
Yes [laughs]. Yes, I'm terrified. I'm just trying not to think about it. That's not why we're in this game. You know, we're putting this show on because we believe in it and we believe in what we're trying to say through it. If we stay true to that, it should work.
And what are you trying to say through this work?
It's really a very, very complex piece about the state of contemporary living within a particular place in our history. You know, it's been twelve years of this war on terror; of this fear of the other, the refugee, the influx of new migrants that we're incredibly suspicious of – and this whole kind of aggressive, consumerist approach to parenting that also seems to be in line with that view that danger is constantly looming just outside your door.
Given all of those cuts and rewrites you made reference to – what was the initial idea behind the show? Has it changed?
Well, I think the core idea of the show has remained the same from the outset – but I don't think it really began to evolve until we started to collaborate more closely with Terry Yeboah. He's playing the African character in our play and, obviously, neither Angela nor I are African – so he really gave us an insight into the more philosophical differences between African culture and our own.
You know, a theme of forgiveness runs through the work and we would never have come to that if it hadn't been for Terry.
Is there any fear or apprehension on your part when it comes to dealing with culturally sensitive subjects? You guys have been dealing with complex issues for a long time – does it intimidate you still?
Absolutely. Very much. But, we're very mindful of that. We don't deny that we're two white women trying to save the world! [laughs]
We involve a lot of people when we're working, though – particularly when we're working with material or experiences that are foreign to us. You know, we learnt through doing productions like [RealTV's] Children of the Black Skirt about consulting carefully – particularly with traditional owners if we're dealing with (indigenous) – Indigenous content. For War Crimes [for the Sydney Opera House] we worked very closely with two middle-eastern women who really gave us a great insight into middle-eastern culture and struggles and they really helped shape the characters within the work.
And, you know, we did it again with Helicopter – not just with Terry, but with a lot of other people as well. Our dramaturg Iain Sinclair is actually Ugandan, so we worked very, very closely with Iain. You know, we consulted with Paula Arundell through Playwriting Australia and she was very, very, very tough on us. It was fantastic. She called us on everything.
So, you know, we're still very scared. It could still offend – but we gave it a shot. We've done our darnndest to be as respectful as possible and give our characters absolute integrity. Really, the comment is on how white people are stumbling blind and causing terror. That's actually what we're kind of trying to show.
I would have thought, given your topics, offense would be, at least in a small part, what you're going for with your work?
Oh, I guess so. I guess so. I mean, there's offensive – and there's offensive.
I don't think we're trying to offend. We're trying to kind of challenge the way we see ourselves and our behaviour towards one another. I don't know that I necessarily want people to be... insulted. Sometimes, it's just about the shock of recognition. I think that's what we're going for.
Do you think theatre can change the world?
We were talking about this with another journalist just recently. He was asking 'why young audiences?'
I just feel it's so easy for us to close ourselves off from the world and receiving information. We're so bombarded by information at the moment – from the internet, from television – and it all seems to be saying the same thing. I think theatre has a role to play in that it provides a more complex perspective on the world. And, hopefully, a more human perspective on the world.
I think, once you've experienced a night where you've lived with characters that are more rounded and you've been asked to engage with more complex issues than you've had to deal with before, then a shift in paradigm begins to happen. I believe it's in that shift of paradigm that audiences can see the world anew and, hopefully, begin to take action. And that can be through very small things – like looking at your neighbour in a completely new light.
Do you think artists have a social responsibility?
[sighs] It's such a personal thing, why we make art, isn't it?
...I do think we have a social responsibility – but how that social responsibility plays out can be very, very different. We do need entertainment. We do absolutely need entertainment – but it's how that entertainment is provided. Whether it reinforces that status quo that keeps certain people excluded and a small minority of people included or whether you're doing something that's quite thrilling and subversive and exciting.
Like pervasive gaming, for example. That can be really exciting social action art that doesn't have to reinforce the status quo – that can also be massively, immediately entertaining.
I remember reading an interview with you and Angela where you worried that The Dark Room would be perceived as too preachy by Sydney audiences. Is that an ongoing concern?
Absolutely. I think we've gotten a lot better at sniffing out things that are feeling preachy and theatre-y and naff. That's part of our process – to be really, really brutal with it. To take out anything that's trying to teach or talk or preach.
It generally falls on the actor. If an actor says 'well, I can play this, why are we saying it?' then we'll cut it. It's great. It's wonderful. It just means the work gets more and more complex. You're not being told. You're being shown. That's when it works.
You know, we try very, very hard to keep everything connected. To keep all the politics connected to the personal – but within a kind of big, broad context.
Do you feel you've gotten more conventional as your work has progressed? When I first met you, you seemed to operate more on the fringes.
I'm sorry, when you first met me?
Oh, I met you back in 2004...
Really? When? Where?
...I'm not sure if you'll remember me. As part of Queensland Theatre Company's Theatre Residency Week, you did a workshop on political theatre. I caused quite an uproar when I declared that I didn't care about refugees...
Oh my god! I do remember you! You have red hair!
Oh, are you going to slam me now?!
Well, actually, one of the reasons I requested the interview was because I wanted to apologise. I was really just a depressed kid.
[laughs] Oh, sweetheart!
Well, has my work gotten more conservative since then? No – but I think it has gotten a lot more sophisticated. You know, it's hard to get this work up so, if it doesn't contain a kind of – how shall I put it? – a heavy weight of beauty in it, it just won't work. I think that's what we're striving for – work that has beauty and grace. And if it has that beauty and grace, it's because it's complex. And, often, it's complex because it's political.
Have you always been a political artist?
I've always been interested in political work. When my drama teacher taught me Brecht and absurdist theatre – and when we did a whole unit in political theatre – I was beside myself. I'd found my soul mates.
I think it's because I come from a family of activists. My great-grandfather was an anarchist when he left Italy to go to Argentina. The priests wanted to have him killed. He used to give my mother money and say 'don't give it to the priests, because they're bastards!'
I think that all flowed through my family. My dad was a member of the communist party when he was younger. All of the unrest in Argentina had a huge impact on my family. So, I've always been interested in understanding oppression and execution and all the terrible things we do to each other and what that's all about – and I guess the theatre has been a good way to express that for me.
How do you feel about making this kind of work in a period in Australia where matters seem to sit on a knife's edge between progress and regression?
I think it's the perfect time. That's actually what happens in Helicopter. It's a metaphor of the times [laughs].
Still; your work has always been about giving voices to people who have none. How is it making work in an era where those voices – particularly in Queensland, where I know you've done a lot of work – are actively being silenced?
Oh, God. I know. I know, I know, I know...
We just did a beautiful piece in Queensland that we toured just last month. It was looking at the history of mining towns – and you just go 'oh, God. We've been through all of this before, and here we are again and no-one's listening...' It's frightening...
That's kind of why I asked you how theatre could change the world.
Well, I think you just have to give people hope. If nothing else, artists have to be the voices that go 'not everybody agrees – and it's okay to feel different, to be angry, to be sad. You are not alone. We cannot ignore the fact that people are drowning in our seas, that there's this terrible war in Uganda, that people are starving and losing their jobs in Spain. We're all involved in this mess and we all have to care for each other!'
I'm just interested in that idea of maintaining political activism over a prolonged period of time.
Me too. God, I know. I've had a baby. I know that feeling now – of wanting to shut all the doors, block out the world, protect her from everything and just go to the park – but you can't. It's not fair on her.
Do you think about your future as an artist much?
No...Not really. I'm really not very good at the five-year plan [laughs]. All I can really say is that I will be here for a while. I'm sure of that much.
Well, I think that's all we have time for – pleasure to speak to you again, Leticia Caceres.
You too, Matt. You too! Take care!
HELICOPTER by Angela Betzien, directed by Leticia Cáceres, is now playing at the Lawler Studio MTC. Further information»
Top right – Leticia Cáceres (left) and playwright Angela Betzien
Bottom right – Terry Yeboah, Daniela Farinacci and Charles Grounds in Helicopter