Winterfall Theatre's production of Tennessee Williams' The Two-Character Play opens at Theatre Husk in Northcote on 15 August, with previews on 13 and 14 August. Jan Chandler had the opportunity of speaking with award winning director, Catherine Hill, about the importance of Independent Theatre, the challenges of this particular play, and what it's like to be a woman director in today's theatre world.
Catherine Hill is nothing if not passionate and enthusiastic. I arrived early and was privileged to be able to watch and listen as she and the two actors, Dennis Coard and Michele Williams, finished working through a scene. My first question as to whether theatre was her first love was answered with a resounding “yes!” and then it was into a discussion of The Two-Character Play, its challenges for director, actors and audience, along with the intricacies of Williams writing and its relevance to contemporary audiences.
When faced with a challenge Hill's internal thoughts are, “It's a bit scary! I think I should do this; I think I should push myself into this”. Trent Baker, who with Michele Williams founded Winterfall Theatre at the start of 2010, certainly presented her with a challenge when he asked her to direct Michele in The Two-Character Play. The play was not well received in its day (it premiered at the Quaigh Theatre in New York in August 1975) and even recent productions have tended to polarise audiences. Hill read the script, liked the story, and immediately thought, “wow, it's such a challenge for actors and directors to get it right.” She describes the writing as “genius”, with beautiful language and many, many layers.
The two characters, a brother and sister, find themselves abandoned by their theatre company who haven't been paid and are convinced that the two are completely insane. However they do have an audience so, without a full set and without technical support, they proceed to present a play about their lives, a play within the play. However their lives have been so traumatic that they sometimes move from being in the play into the reality of their history, and sometimes that reality is so overwhelming that they completely lose sight of the script. As Hill explains, the challenge for the director is to interweave the action in such a way that the audience will know when the characters are 'not acting', when they are in the play, and when they enter their deeper reality.
As Hill describes the story to me I find myself horrified at the plight of the characters who are living in fear of being confined and yet are afraid to venture outside. At the same time I am tempted to laugh at the ridiculousness of their situation. How do you effectively convey all the shifting layers to an audience? Hill assures me that the play is funny, “absolutely funny at times”, and explains that to ensure that the audience is carried along with the performance, it is crucial for the actors and the director to share the same understanding of the story; “if we are playing the actions strongly enough and we know what we are doing, the audience will get a surety about it.” There are clues within the text and others that Hill as director introduces. When the characters get really emotionally involved, the action is blocked in such a way that it is clear that they have forgotten they are performing on stage and become lost in their personal exchange. At such moments they are likely to turn their backs to the audience and shout at each other.
Written twenty-five years after A Streetcar Named Desire and first produced in 1975, with earlier versions from as early as 1967, I wonder how relevant the play is to today's world. “Enormously” is Hill's response. The play presents us with two people whose lives are unravelling before us, and the stakes are so high, your sanity and your life. It's about the human condition, how we muddle along, despite what's happened in our past and how we manage it when that past intrudes on the present.The action of the play taps into the desperation that we all experience, trying to hold on, to get out the door, to face life.
Hill is clearly passionately immersed in this, her current project, but I want to hear her thoughts on Independent Theatre. An award winning director and graduate of the University of New South Wales and the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts, she has been working in theatre for some thirty years. During this time she has directed for such high profile companies as the Sydney Opera House and the Malthouse Theatre, but also for independent theatres such as La Mama. For six years was the artistic director of Soup Kitchen Theatre.
Asked about the importance of Independent Theatre her immediate response is that it is “astonishingly important” in terms of autonomy and freedom of choice, and extemely important as a platform for new voices. Whilst she loves traditional works, in 2011 she directed Caryl Churchill's A Number for Winterfall Theatre, she is equally passionate about the encouragement of new works and admits to being a major fan of La Mama for the opportunities they offer both artists and audiences. “If we don't have the arts, theatre, we don't see ourselves reflected, therefore we can't examine our own values.” Hill laments the fact that the funding pool is shrinking and with it the opportunity for artists. “Artists need to be doing things in order to be artists, that's how you define yourselves. I work part time; I do everything else in order to do this.”
Clearly it's her passion and enthusiams that sustain her, despite the fact that there still seem to be too few opportunities for women directors. She continues to “knock on doors”; she tells me it would be great to be paid and that she has several ideas she would like to pitch and see realised on a main stage.
Given that she is still fighting, what advice, I ask, does she have for women who aspire to work in the arts. Simple, “you've got to do it! … do plays you love, work with generosity and enthusiasm … honour your choice … it's got to be that strong. … Regardless I'm happiest in a rehearsal room, when you see things coming together, or make a discovery”, suddenly gaining a new insight into the meaning of the play.
I don't know about others but I am totally won over to the belief that this is a must see production.
Winterfall Theatre presents
The Two-Character Play
by Tennessee Williams
Directed by Catherine Hill
Venue: Theatre Husk | 161a Heidelberg Rd, Northcote
Dates: Tue 12 August– Sun 7 September (Opening Night Fri 15 August; Previews 13 & 14 August)
Tickets: $30.00 Full, $26.00 Concession, $22.00 Groups 4+, $16.00 Previews
Times: 7:30pm Thu-Sat, 4.00pm Sun