Interview: Geordie Brookman and The City

by Jane

Already this year Adelaide theatre director Geordie Brookman has worked as assistant director on the Force Majeure / Sydney Theatre Company / Sydney Festival production Never Did Me Any Harm; directed the development and reading of Nicki Bloom’s 170 page, five hour long The Sun and the Other Stars for the National Play Festival in Melbourne; was the community coordinator at the Adelaide Festival club Barrio; and, in a “stupidly swift manner”, applied for and was announced as incumbent Artistic Director for the State Theatre Company of South Australia.

But before any of this came along, Geordie and wife Nicki Bloom had planned a year’s worth of work for their independent theatre company nowyesnow, for which they are co-artistic directors. I meet with Geordie twice in the last month to discuss directing nowyesnow’s first production for 2012, Martin Crimp’s The City.

Chatting on the second day of rehearsals in March and during bump-in to the theatre three days before the first preview in April gave me the opportunity to learn more about how a work is approached at the beginning and end of a rehearsal process, and (here’s hoping) gave me an opportunity to come to a clearer understanding of the work before seeing the piece and formulating my response to it (which you can now read here). The traditional approach is, of course, there is no connection between the artists and the critic before a work, as if conversations will some how “taint” the opinion (or, at worst, “subjectivity”) of a critic. But trying to stand completely outside of the theatrical culture in Adelaide is rather impossible, and I’m also interested in the place a critic occupies between the “audience” and the “artist” and how, by forming a clearer picture of intents and processes, the gaps on all sides (between audience and critic; between critic and artist; between audience and artist) can become smaller.

How this works in practice is something I’m still working out, but I’m glad to have artists who will help me in the process.

Geordie previously directed Crimp’s Attempts on Her Life for STCSA in 2008. “He’s always struck me,” he told me at our first meeting.

“Whenever I read something of his it always has an impact, and it doesn’t mean every word of his is perfect, but every one is so finely wrought and so deeply intelligent and so determined to simply be what it is. That beautiful thing in an artist: he doesn’t try to please anybody except himself, and he just allows the audience to come to him.”

Of The City, Geordie said the work is “a really quiet, really controlled, very very very intimate piece of chamber theatre that maintains that wonderful, dark, wicked sense of humour that he has, but makes no apologies for being deeply intelligent and highly cerebral.”

There is a balancing act to approaching Crimp’s work, he said, “but when you manage to get him right, you get this incredibly deeply intelligent theatre which also has this humour and warmth. This sense of humour to it that it means it doesn’t take itself too seriously. It realises there is only so much you can know, there is only so much you can articulate, and that any artist is only ever touching the sides of the human experience.  No one ever manages to capture the whole beast.”

When we first spoke, Geordie said he and the cast had spent the first two days just trying to wrap their heads around the work.  In April, he described the current process as trying to get back that. “You find yourself trying to get back to the magic of the first read-through,” he said. “Just about the simple and pure instinct that comes with that.”

“You would never call his dialogue naturalistic,” he told me in March, “and yet somehow when you put it in an actor’s mouth it can seem incredibly naturalistic.”

Coming back to describing it to me in April, he described the process of having to work out Crimp’s “awkward naturalism.”

“The last week we’ve just been compacting it and cutting it back to its essentials,” he said. “It’s the sort of play where you do too much to it and you snap it, but at the same time the language demands so much precision that technically you’re working very hard, and so it means all of the actors are working very hard at trying to look effortless.”

And even as Geordie prepared to open the work to audiences, he still felt like he was finding things in the work.  “It’s like you’re pursuing [Crimp] through rehearsals. He lets you get a little bit closer and then he runs a bit further away. But that’s great. I wouldn’t want to get to this stage and feel like we’ve solved it and it’s done. I’m much more interested in the idea that we’re still solving it as the season progresses.”

“He gets a reputation as being somewhat cold or clinical, and I think it’s often because when people approach his work they tend to reinforce the clinical nature of it instead of just allowing it to exist and actually playing a relatively more natural tone against it. So we’ll see. We’ll see if we’ve found the balance. I hope we have. That’s not even something we can start to know until (the preview on) Thursday night or (opening on) Friday night.”

In March, Geordie spoke of the influences that Beckett and Pinter had on Crimp’s work and how their presence (“almost just because of the confidence and the deep individuality of the voice, as much as anything”) can be felt through the rehearsal process.

“In The City there is always that sense of underlying threat and tension that exists in so much of Pinter and you spend half your time going ‘why does this situation feel so threatening, and so on the verge of erupting into something else.’ And it never quite erupts. And that’s what Pinter does as well.”

So when we meet again in April, I asked: did he continue to feel the influence of these playwrights in the room? “Very much,” he said.

From Beckett, Geordie described the “the degree to which he’s interested in storytelling, why we tell stories and how we tell stories.”

“The logic behind what Pinter was doing with pauses and silences, I think, stays true for someone like Crimp.  And then the way that he tumbles the characters lines over each other is a direct thing from Churchill, so these influences live within his writing as they do with any writing. But he requires his own approach ultimately.”

The City first premiered at the Royal Court in 2008, and like much interesting art, the piece becomes particularly pertinent in retrospect: in the first scene we are introduced to Christopher, a business man who is scared he will loose his job in the light of the North American office restructuring.  Written before the Global Financial Crisis, the impact of that global event on the work will surely cast a shadow, and in March I asked Geordie if there was a responsibility as a director to embrace or reject these parallels the 2012 audience will draw.

“I think it’s something we’ll leave the audience the space to make up their own minds.  It’s not so much us having to actively be finding something, as it is that the world has changed, and that means that the play will be viewed through a different prism,” he said.

“It’s like any piece of writing, it gets viewed through a different prism according to where the world is at the time when it’s performed, and I think that’s why museum theatre is such a mistake: because you’re trying to recapture something that no longer exists. I think that the world that you live in always has to inform the work that you do; otherwise you’re resisting something that is in fact irresistible.”

In April, we revisited the question.  “I think the helpful thing has been it has provided a sort of touchstone for us, in terms of this idea that Crimp investigates ‘are we defined by what we do? Are our professions extensions of us?’” he said.

“And it’s that funny thing that, in the arts, a lot of us would argue that’s very true: the art we make and what we do is an extension of our personal selves, but I think the interesting thing is him expanding this idea to any profession and going ‘what is the loss of meaning that occurs when someone looses their job?’ And I think the GFC provides the most powerful recent touchstone for that.”

“I also think there is something in Christopher’s trajectory in the play, the reinvention – and it’s not necessarily healthy reinvention – but the reinvention that he discovers over the course of the play is a type of reinvention that I think a lot of people went for after that crisis. A lot of people went okay, this is my chance to live a simpler life, and maybe life is easier if I don’t have to engage in big business. And the certainly the direction he goes in.  And I think ultimately for him it’s a bit of a blind ally. But it’s been something we’ve discussed in terms of Chris’s character arch but not in terms of something we wanted to place as a heavy frame on the play.”

Both meetings we also discussed the deep intellectualism of The City, and how as a director, Geordie finds the right balance between honouring this in the script, but making the piece still relevant and accessible to his audience.

“If you create the right space, the audience will always invest and engage,” he told me in March.  “I think the problem is when you keep them at arms length and say ‘this is our piece of theatre, and this is what we should present to you, and it is sacred and complete, and this is what it means and this is what you should take away from it.’  I think you always have to provide the audience intellectual and emotional space.”

“There are these great empathetic human discussions that go on in his plays, and I think what you have be very on top of as a creative approaching his work is that you dig hardest for those layers, and that you let the cerebral and intellectual side of his plays almost do the work by itself, because his writing is so strong that it will.  It’s our job to bring out the human layer of it. That said, there is no question: it is ambiguous, it is spooky, and it doesn’t tie you up with an easy answer. It leaves you with about fifty possibilities as to what has happened, what it might mean. But I’d much prefer to come out of a piece theatre still debating the question rather than feeling like I’ve been told what the answer to a question is.  I hope that audiences are predominantly the same; it doesn’t mean they always are, but I hope that in people’s heart of hearts that they want to think, they want a debate, they want to explore.”

In April, Geordie was happy with where they were in finding these different spaces. “You sink so far inside a project,” he said, “you’re going ‘okay it’s working, it’s certainly working on me,’ but then it’s a strange piece. It’s quiet and it’s contained and it travels at its own pace. It’s not geared, it doesn’t pull too many big emotional levers, and even when it does the surface of it tends to knit back together quite quickly.”

Not only was Geordie still interested in creating a space where the audience would walk away thinking about the work, it was clear he was still very deeply discovering things within Crimp’s text himself, and would be discovering things for a long time to come.

“The play is a beautiful lesson in the knock on effects of small-scale emotional damage. It’s like no crime goes unpunished in the play. It’s tiny little emotional games or attacks that people make in the play, that you think okay, that’s part of the regular way of being for people, but it always comes back. And so it’s that strange thing, you have that first scene of the play which is deeply interesting and a wonderful piece of set up, and geared beautifully and a bunch of wonderful stories, but it’s not meatly dramatic, and you don’t walk into it going ‘oh shit this play is spooky’ but then as you progress through the course of the play, you realise that no piece of information is accidental. Nothing is superfluous.  And everything is a very tightly woven lattice which, you know, I think it is certainly something that can be digested and responded to immediately, but I also think it’s one of those ones where elements of it will continue to knit together in people’s minds for hours and days and weeks afterwards.  It’s subtle like that.”

I was also interested in Geordie returning to independent theatre in between stints at STCSA. In Adelaide, we’ve most recently seen his work in the Dunstan Playhouse, and as of next year we’ll be seeing his work again with our largest theatre company. What did it mean for Geordie to be working in a smaller space, and also creating the work independently?

“Thursday afternoon last week,” he told me at our second meeting, “it was literally me plus the crew plus all the cast driving around in a truck going ‘well, we really should be doing a run or something, but here we are, unloading a truck.’”  Despite these hiccups which come with working in independent theatre, Geordie was incredibly enthusiastic about putting work on in the 80-odd seats Bakehouse Theatre.

“I think as you work on a bigger and bigger and bigger scale,” he said in March, “sadly you have to delegate more and more, and you have to let go of more and more elements of the piece. I guess that’s why it’s a piece we want to do through our company, so that we can have that complete creative control.”

In Match, Geordie also spoke about how he hoped audiences that have mainly seen work with STCSA will come over to see something smaller.  Chamber theatre, he said, “is an experience that is very very hard to replicate. Occasionally you can create intimacy on a large scale, but it’s hard. And it’s also working with actors that certainly here have predominantly been seen on big stages, and that’s partly because it’s the dominant space State Theatre uses, but a chance to watch those actors work on a smaller scale, and the flexibility that that actually gives them as performers is really pleasurable.”

Being in a smaller space, he said, “the understanding is much greater between stage and audience: that that understanding of the rough magic of theatre. When we’re in a massive theatre there is a sort of formalness to it, where it is very hard to generate that sense that ‘we all know this is make believe and we’re all going to share in that moment of knowing that it’s make believe.’  Whereas having that connection in a small space provides you with a sort of freedom that you don’t get.”

In April, he told me preparing his actors for the smaller space has “been really great. It’s pretty lovely to be able to sit and say ‘Okay, that’s great, now let’s reduce it.’ And to be able to say to somebody ‘you can do less with that. You can pull back that.’”

Obviously excited about the opportunity to work on both a smaller scale and in a smaller space, it was nice to hear in both March and April, Geordie still said the processes in the technical and creative aspects felt the same. Of the work of set designer Victoria Lamb and lighting designer Ben Flett, Geordie told me it had remained the same approach, but “boiled down to this tiny little scale.”

“The best part about it is how you can create these tiny little areas of focus so the image construction doesn’t have to be as broad, it can be quite tiny and specific. And that’s quite lovely.”

Perhaps being a bit of a smart aleck, I’d been curious at our first meeting how they had planned to get the grand piano Crimp refers to in his script into the Bakehouse.

Being cryptic, he said “I’ll just say we’ve solved it, that’s all I’ll say at this point.”  Laughing, but only partially joking, he continued “And when you talk to me in week four I might say ‘Jane, we really haven’t solved it, it’s terrible, I’ve had to buy a child’s piano, it’s going to look shocking, maybe people are going to think it’s avant-garde and wonderful but I just think it’s terrible.’”

April, however, he was happy to tell me they had worked it out. “It may not be a concert grand piano like Mr Crimp specifies, but I imagine that’s a stage direction that’s sitting in there from the original production and it’s more reflecting the choices they made.”

“But no, we’ve solved the reveal and all of that. It’s all very simple. You know, there are simple ways of doing that and they’re usually the best.”

But on returning to independent theatre, and the budgets that go along with that, he said, “It’s scary, but not terrifying.  I’ve kind of set it at a level where I’ve gone, ‘Okay Adelaide. Come on. Prove to me that you want some classy, independent theatre.’”

As we spoke, he paused and then said “The problem is if it doesn’t prove that to me.” Another pause, then a shake of his head and a smile, “No, I’m sure it will.”

The City opens at the Bakehouse Theatre tonight, and runs to April 28.