Interview: Zoe Barry and Howling Like A Wolf

by Jane

The abandoned warehouse space which is Queens Theatre seems to have hit a new stride and has, all of a sudden, become my favourite place to see theatre. In a city which seriously struggles in performance spaces I’m really excited to see the Queens claimed in earnest by interesting artists both during and outside of fringe time. We desperately need these flexible performance spaces, and because of the particular challenges of the Queens we are really getting an opportunity to see artists stretch their creative muscles.

Next in the venue we’ll be seeing Restless Dance Theatre with their new work Howling Like A Wolf. Director Zoe Barry and I meet one chilly Sunday morning to discuss the show she has been working on for two and a half years with performers from four disability performing arts companies in Adelaide: Restless, No Strings Attached Theatre of Disability, the Tutti Ensemble, and Company@.

The show began when Barry was invited by Kate Sulan, the artistic director of Melbourne’s Rawcus, to work with the companies on a weekend residency. The two companies worked together on The Heart of Another is a Dark Forest at the Melbourne Fringe, and this was an opportunity for members of Restless’ company to see how Rawcus develops work.

As they were trying to come up with a theme for the weekend, Barry says she had just read Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink.

The book, she says, was:

looking at how we take in information in the blink of an eye, how we read situations and all the levels of information that we read, and what goes into our reading a situation. What is assumed, what prejudices do we hold, what implicit associations do we have, and then also how does our brain compute.

He’s fascinated with psychology so he went into a lot of psychological investigation about that. And there was a lot of stuff about reading people, and he looked at lying and micro-expressions, and I thought that would be really interesting for the performers, because they’d all have really different experiences of reading others, and also being read, as well, by others.

While the purpose of the weekend wasn’t to find a show for development, Barry and Sulen were taken by the material generated and approached then artistic director Phillip Channels about developing the work.

Since then it has been two and a half years of “a very slow, gradual, brining it together” where the show has expanded in its scope. Still looking at how we read people, Barry and the performers have expanded the focus of the work.

We’ve followed along with scientific investigation into the whole history of the science into how we read other people. So we’ve gone back to the 1800s to the first doctor that classified, or categorized, all of our facial expressions. He isolated all the individual muscles, and he was the first person to say ‘this is what a smile is, this is what astonishment is.’

We’ve looked into brain processing information like theory of mind. This idea that we are naturally social beings, but you can only do that if your brain can handle the theory of mind: the skills being able to recognize another persons’ face, being able to recognize their facial expressions, and being able to follow their eye gaze as well. Which is something that a few of the performers in this show have struggled with or have had to had explicit training in and other people haven’t.

While Barry has performed with the company in the past, most often as a musician, this is her first time directing for Restless  – or anything at this scale. Of stepping into the process, she says:

I feel like I’m play-acting the other directors I’ve seen do the role. I know a lot of them very well, they’re friends as well as colleagues, and sometimes I feel like, ‘oh, I feel like I’m being Ingrid Voorendt today, or I’m being Roz [Hervey, current Artistic Manager of Restless]’ and I think I’m really taking what I’ve observed from them in how to work with a company, the particular challenges, the particular possibilities with it.

The main thing was realising that you have to instigate everything, you don’t react, because I’ve always been in a creative team where you’re responding to a director’s vision: that has to come first and then you add to it. But this I have to always remember to be ahead of everyone and to inspire them in the right way and with the performers to think about their performance experience, the whole process for them, and what their bodies are interested in doing.

We had this revelation last week that there is a lot of stuff we have to do on the floor because of sight lines. Because we have audiences on two lines facing each other so we can’t have everyone standing all the time because you just can’t see, it looks like a crowd. It looks great, but we need moments of down. So we’ve had to work with getting up and down. And a lot of the performers’ bodies getting up and down is difficult because they’re particularly flexible [in the hips] but not so strong [in their abdominal muscles], or it’s very particular issues, and so we had a whole session last Thursday, about two hours, just on sitting, getting up and getting down. Working with each person’s particular body and them dealing with their fears or their preconceptions about their issues with getting up or getting down. So little things like that I feel like you just constantly having to be aware of twenty-seven things in terms of it being a really good process for everyone, everyone being inspired and offering the best they can do, but also being a really safe environment and accessible environment. And because I’m not a trained dancer or choreographer I have to defer to the people around me.

Because Barry isn’t from a specific dance background, the creation and the rehearsal of the work is being supported by Hervey and rehearsal director Jo Stone. Barry is also deferring to some of the artists who have been with Restless for several years.

[We’ve] pinpointed a couple of performers within the company who are taking lead roles as well, either as rehearsal directors or just overseeing things. And a lot of them are trained dancers, and one’s just finished his teaching diploma, so we’re sort of doing a mixture of mentoring for them and trying to make sure we’re keeping on top of it.  Because it’s such a large cast, there is eighteen performers – it’s a challenge to stay on top of everyone’s physical journey as well as the emotional and creative journey. But it feels good to do that, and a big part of Restless is the advocacy and the career pathways, so we’re trying to have that, even in this short process, have a sense of people getting the experience of running warm-up or running a workshop or detailing a section. Play to people’s strengths.

On working with disability arts companies, Barry says “we always get a bit of feedback where people are trying to figure out who’s the disabled performer and who isn’t.” For Howling Like A Wolf, she says, “really hope in this show that we’ve just left that behind, that it’s just about this individual experience.”

I’m hoping it will just be seen as we’re all on a spectrum and we all cope with this stuff in our own individual way, we’re all of our brains process things differently. Everyone’s had different experiences of what you’ve picked up instinctively, what you’ve had taught to you, what you’ve learnt from your family.

It’s this variety of experiences which Barry, the cast, and the creative team have built the work from. In addition to dance and movement, Howling Like A Wolf  incorporates text written by the performers in responding to tasks or questions, or even podcasts from Radio National about the brain.

So we’ve got these fantastic personal stories about everything from how do they prepare for interactions with people; what do you do in the morning to prepare yourself; how many people to do you interact with in a day?

So many of the performers life experience are so different to yours or mine, and they’re also a youth company, so a lot of them are on that cusp of leaving school, moving out of home, having their first intimate relationships, making new friends, starting in new work places, so it’s a really big time for them about learning to deal with people and strangers becoming friends, so it’s fascinating to see that. And also a lot of them have had very sheltered lives, they don’t have that much control over it or that much choice, so they might only see a few people in a day or it might always be the same people. Or they come from a really supportive home and work environment, and then they come to Restless and they’re treated really well, and people understand them, and then at lunch time we just go over to the deli and you just see how they can be treated by a stranger, what perceptions … so they’re always having to be sort of vigilant and wary, a lot of the performers, not all of them, about how they’re treated, or how they’re reading situations, or are they reading it correctly. Especially the people with autism who, in this show, are very articulate about knowing what they’re good at and what they need help with. Like, “I know that I crowd people; I know that I get obsessed about things and I need to give people more space so let me know if I am crowding you,” that sort of thing.

So that’s been an interesting thing, because I’d kind of forgotten it was a youth ensemble in a way, and then when I started working with them I thought they’re such a particular exciting part of their life, and a lot of them are 15 years, so they’re almost a generation younger than me, and it’s been excellent going back to that time where it’s so exciting and it’s so terrifying.

So much of that is coming out in the show. That sense of anxiety and isolation that can occur when you are trying to cope with other people, and it would be much easier to kind of switch off and dissociate. That’s one of the big transformations we have in the show, of someone just leaving their body and going into another world because it’s too difficult. They just want to go back to a world of instinct and cut the cerebral analysis out.

As we finished our conversation and our coffees, Barry was off for rehearsal in the Queens Theatre.

We’re having a whole day rehearsal and we’re going to talk about what the space will bring to the performance. Because they’ve created this very clear world with it’s own logic and it’s own rules and very particular quality so I’m really interested to see how they’ll now respond to the space. Because it does have that sense of slightly disused abandoned space it will work well, because we have set up this kind of laboratory feel where people are being observed but you don’t know who is observing them. It could be going on forever: there is a sense of eternity there, maybe this stuff is in its own world going on and on and on and on, there is no sort of finite length to it. So the space is great for that.

And the possibilities for lighting and sound and staging are endless. […] There are quite a few moments of transformation throughout the show, and this space is perfect for that because you can make spaces disappear or appear or play the with height or play with the lights, so it’s great. All of the creative team are always so excited to work in that space, and they all know it well. Geoff Cobham who is lighting and designing it, he knows that space intimately, and he’s seen it as a lovely challenge to find ways to use that he hasn’t before, to use it in ways that are really quite different, so he suggested the way we set it up, even where the audience is sitting because he’s never seen a show set that way, so I went with him on that and thought yeah, that would be interesting to try that.

And the same with sound, we’re placing speakers throughout the space so we can pull the audiences’ gaze, or ear-gaze, that way or this way. You can really tell a story just through the placement, because there is such depth. And in terms of costumes as well, you can play with really clean sharp lines to contrast the messiness of the space so everyone’s loved being there.

We’re scared today because we’re going to get the reality of it being cold and dark, and it is a difficult space to work in in that sense. But that’s going to add to the performance, because we want the performance to have an edge of discomfort – but not for the audience! For the performers. But we’re very aware of the audience, and they will be very comfortable. We’ve got heating and we’ve got very comfortable seats. We’re very aware of the access issues there.

Howling Like a Wolf plays at the Queens Theatre from the August 17 – 25. More information on Restless’ website.

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