Independent theatre company, 15 Minutes from Anywhere, presents the Australian premiere of Cuckoo at fortyfivedownstairs in Flinders Lane for a three-week season from 9 July with a preview Wednesday 8 July.
Catherine Della Bosca met with playwright, Jane Miller, director Alice Bishop and actor, Samuel Russo to discuss the play, the allure of the suburban veneer and the collaborative process during rehearsals.
Cuckoo has been described as a comedy. And a mystery. And a tragedy. It explores the potential for intense loss to blind our logic and allow us to believe in anything to fill the void. The couple at its centre, Mel & Leo, have existed in a state of emotional paralysis for the past 13 years and one night a young man, Jono, appears on their doorstep asking for a band-aid … they desperately want to believe it’s their missing son.
Ideas for Jane’s storylines will always start with either a conversation or an image that she’s had. The catalyst in this instance was “a mental image of a woman at a BBQ with a child and something she says to that child – it finds completely devastating. I just kept thinking about it and I knew that eventually I’d do something with it.”
That opportunity presented itself last year when Jane was completing a Master of Writing for Performance at the Victorian College of the Arts and was developing another idea. She soon realised that these two ideas were actually morphing into the same idea and from there on, she says, it seemed to materialise relatively quickly.
Exploring the themes of loss and guilt, Cuckoo, depicts “how people paper over the cracks in things.” As a dramatist, “I’m really interested in that underbelly of relationships and people.” Jane cites the work of American photographer, Gregory Crewdson (renowned for chronicling moments of detachment, in settings that are ordinary and everyday) together with fellow American cult film director and auteur, David Lynch, (whose work is often described as haunting, beautiful and confusing) as creative influences.
When it comes to an audience’s reaction, Jane’s philosophy is that there is no prescriptive, “every play is a conversation with an audience and that you aim for them to come away with as many questions as answers.” She wants (or rather hopes) the piece will resonate emotionally and instinctively and that every person relates and finds their own meaning.
As a director, Alice, wholeheartedly agrees, “I think that’s a very acute observation. The process of discovery, that begins in rehearsal, doesn’t stop on opening night and that a cast will often find more things in it when they get to play it in front of an audience. The audience is really the final ingredient – so yes, it’s an ongoing conversation. Every single time on stage is a different experience.”
Samuel adds that he finds ‘this conversation’ so fascinating; that an audience is able to be transported and yet still reflect on who they are and what their life is. “I think that’s a really interesting alchemy.”
So what attracted Alice, in fact convinced her, to direct the readings site unseen? Quite simply, it was the prospect of working with Jane, “I often say yes to things on instinct. I trust it. I’ve always been a fan of Jane’s comedy…there’s very few writers who write comedy well and I’ve watched Jane’s career blossom and her writing’s just gotten slicker and slicker. And I went to myself (momentarily adopting a Calamity Jane style voice & persona) I want me some of that!”
She trusted her instinct again when casting Samuel, “I was just so certain when I saw him. What he brings to a rehearsal room is glue – he has a great sense of humour, he’s charming, witty and a very accomplished actor.”
Alice is adamant; that this brutally honest work, examining how we psychologically survive each day (and what exists behind everybody’s front fences) is big hearted. It’s writ large.
All three believe the collaborative process of rehearsals is crucial. From the playwright’s POV it’s the beautiful thing about writing for performance and why she loves it. “The actors and the design team all come in and do something to it, a different thing… and it just keeps growing. I find that’s the exciting part” this organic evolution.
For the director and actor, having the playwright in the room is not only an extraordinary privilege but also an instrumental part of the process in finding their way through.
When I ask Samuel if he could see the audience being empathetic with the characters, he replies, “the way the show is constructed, is that you don’t have to work for that to happen. All I have to do is be there in the scene, speak the words and the empathy is there. It’s not an effort … even though Jono has a really warped compass and a short attention span.”
Alice declares, “We love each other. Perhaps too much. What’s it going to be like when we have to break up?” She mocks but it’s blatantly obvious there’s a professional respect and mutual affection for each other.
From what I’ve learnt of Cuckoo, it’s definitely piqued my curiosity. Will I be entertained, surprised, delighted or even mortified? I’ll soon find out and
I wish the company a critical and (dare I say) commercial success.
P.S.: A word of warning for the uninitiated: Alice has been known to loiter in the foyer post show and ask theatregoers their first impressions. Don’t be alarmed, she’s just continuing the ‘conversation’.
15 Minutes from Anywhere opens July 8 at fortyfivedownstairs. Further details – www.fortyfivedownstairs.com
Top right – Samuel Russo. Photo – Alice Bishop