Artistic Director of Melbourne's Artisan Collective, Ben Pfeiffer, speaks to Australian Stage's Paul Andrew, about his latest production – an adaptation of the John Fowles classic novel – The Collector.
Ben tell me about an early memory, a time when the stage absolutely enchanted you?
I was enchanted by all things magical as a child. I essentially lived in a fantasy world and continue to do so today. Apparently I informed Mum at age three that I was going to be a performer.
Let me take you back to the 1985 Keiraville Primary School production of The Wizard of Oz. I was 4 years old and knew the film script word for word. Needless to say I’d done my research and felt confident in fully engaging with the work. Really though, I distinctly remember feeling that same sense of magic as I did with the film, but this time within a theatrical forum – and it was unravelling live before me. I was mesmerised. Actually, for show and tell in kindergarten I organised for my classmates to perform The Wizard of Oz.
I went through several yellow crayons colouring in one packet of computer paper for the yellow brick road. I had made all the props and costumes and arrived with several garbage bags ready to “bump‐in”... I guess we could call that my directorial debut.
Your theatre training Ben?
I grew up in the coastal town of Wollongong and studied at The Drama Studio there for 14 years. I remember at age 6 I was cast as Charlie in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – from memory I approached the director before casting was announced and listed the reasons why I needed this role and what I could contribute to the world of the play.
I distinctly recall diarising the event in my grade 1 journal. As a child, theatre was about being transported by the magic, surrendering to the vast realm of possibility and immersing myself in imagination. All things Lewis Carroll, Charles Dickens and L.Frank Baum made up my imaginative world. It was there that I could disappear. Being a "different" kind of kid growing up in a Steel City, theatre enabled me to transcend, be transported and ultimately – transform. I knew from a young age that there was no other career option for me. This was IT.
Tell me how, when and where The Artisan Collective came about?
When I was graduating from VCA I bumped into a previous grad who said to me that the greatest work you'll ever do is that which was produced at drama school. This idea made me a little sad. I wanted to create a forum where the idea of perpetual learning, exploring and testing of boundaries was kept alive so we surfaced in 2009 at the Brunswick Mechanics Institute.
I was aware of the reality of the industry so I launched The Artisan Collective to operate as a platform for myself and my peers to immerse ourselves in quality work, rather than constantly being at the mercy of an audition panel.
We have managed to work professionally for 6 months of each year and then produce our own work during the other half. With each of our projects we are interrogating theatrical form, the possibilities of language and stylistic pitch. We have no specific branding with our work so each piece is created with individual personality. We always strive to be on the pulse in terms of our work reflecting the world and its social/political climate. Something we hold in high regard is depicting the truth of human spirit.
I think Melbourne is producing world class work and I love that we as a collective are contributing to the fabric of Australian theatre. Exciting times.
And the ethos of the company?
Support new and exciting work that has a unique heartbeat and thematically explores subjects of pertinence. Keep creating. Keep interrogating. Stay true.
Is there a particular theatre company which inspired your company?
I can't say any one company inspired us – it's more to do with the fact that Melbourne has a thriving independent theatre scene. After testing the waters we thought to ourselves – we can do this. And so we did.
How did you discover John Fowles and his novel The Collector?
Kristina Brew had approached me with The Collector and she had begun drafting a script. The novel is both extraordinary and disturbing. The gamut of theatrical potential almost jumps off the page, but choosing how to depict your telling of this particular story has been no simple task. Translating the genre of psychological thriller to the medium of theatre has been a fascinating adventure.
This piece is a detailed study of a complex relationship. There is a lot of 'game-play' involved and watching as each characters' move is made makes for pretty engrossing theatre. I'm truly humbled by this story. It means a great deal to me.
Describe The Collector?
Striking. Terrifying. Unsettling. Stunning. Awe-inspiring. Human. Unforgivable.
A little back story about the character Miranda?
Miranda Grey is the protagonist in our story. She is a young, beautiful and ambitious art student. She has a clear sense of the world that surrounds her and possesses an air that makes you think she's the kind of girl who'd be actively engaged in human rights issues and politics. She is a steadfast symbol of the perseverance of the human spirit.
Miranda endures so much through the action of Fowles' plot, and yet stands firm in what she believes. She is an admirable person, firmly rooted to the ground and I think she shows incredible strength and courage. I've really fallen for her through the creation of this work. I'm waiting with bated breath to see how this piece is received.
What has been the most challenging aspects to adapting/directing this work for the stage?
Previous adaptations for the stage have utilised the diary structure that the novel adheres to. Our version exists in the immediacy of interaction. This makes the piece all the more confronting and really brings the psychological thriller genre to the fore. My main focus has been to create a simple, striking framework for the world to exist within. It's been a delicate process of exercising restraint and also considering the piece as high art.
A comic moment during rehearsals?
There has been constant laughter throughout the process – which has been a necessity and blessing. The responsibility that is assumed in taking on a project with content such as this is rather huge. We would all be tortured, sleepless and psychologically messed up if we didn't allow ourselves to have a laugh and release. We have taken this piece on with the best intentions and with a vow to serve and honour all that it is and how it resonates with a contemporary audience.
Tell me about the theatre venue in Collingwood, the way it lends a certain mood to this production?
You walk down a ramped driveway on Harmsworth Street in Collingwood. The roller door is up and as you enter you realise that you are essentially disappearing underground – away from the real world. The space is hauntingly beautiful. It possesses a certain sadness and bleakness – but there is also a vastness and expansion that allows you to frame work so beautifully. I think this space will serve the piece incredibly well, enabling a fully realised experience for all who bear witness. We are so excited to bring this piece to Melbourne audiences.
Do you have a favourite quote posted on your study wall?
When I was performing Helene Cixous incredible play: The Perjured City in my final year at VCA, the playwright herself sent a little note backstage simply saying: "Don't act it. Live it." That has always stayed with me.
Another quote I always come back to is the self-assurance that: "You are enough" – this is a tough industry and there are so many highs and lows that it's easy to revert to self criticism. Feeling that you are enough is key.
My third favourite quote – I love quotes – would be "Hold on tightly. Let go lightly". When something means a great deal to you, as a performer or a director, there is a tendency to want to strangle the piece with love. Letting it go lightly, so that it's an open ended offering for the audience is such a beautiful gift. I feel so honoured and blessed to have taken on this piece. I really love what I do.
The Artisan Collective presents
based on the novel by John Fowles | adapted by Kristina Brew
Directed by Ben Pfeiffer
Performed by Kristina Brew and Tristan Meecham
Venue: Collingwood Underground Arts Park - 44 Harmsworth Street, Collingwood
Dates: 24 July – 3 August, 7:30pm
Bookings: www.trybooking.com.au and at the door (subject to availability)