We are only into the early hours of 2018 and Red Stitch Theatre is already bringing us its trademark plays of significance. Its latest installment, Colder, was written by playwright Lachlan Philpott after a close friend went missing and didn’t come back. The title itself sends shivers down the spine as we recognize the ambiguity both in the barren truth of the connotation when talking about the childhood game of Hide and Seek and the vividly tactile corporeal one.
The play, too, speaks of a disappearance – two, in fact. David first went missing as a child while visiting Disneyland. Past and present weave together throughout the play as the action shifts from David’s first disappearance to his second, possibly permanent one.
Director Alyson Campbell (4:48 Psychosis, The Day Room, Fewer Emergencies) speaks intimately about her relationship with Philpott, her journey through his play and the importance of the work, as well as her love of working with actors, and the newest projects on the horizon.
Read on for all things Colder and Campbell.
I first worked on Colder in 2006, when Lachlan had written the early drafts and I directed a rehearsed reading at 45 Downstairs. In the wake of this the play won the RE Ross Trust award, however I moved overseas soon after and the chance to direct the play never arose – until now. So it’s been a period of over 10 years that it has grown on me and that I have wanted to direct it!
What attracts me is what always attracts met to Lachlan’s work and has led to us working together for 18 years now: it is the musicality of his language, his capacity to give us the experience of something deep in the smallest amount of words, and his unique dramaturgy that mixes up monologue, dialogue, narration, internal thought and commentary on the external world in something I have called his ‘scene-setting narrative voice’ that behaves in a way we don’t usually encounter on stage. It belongs in the prose of novels, usually, and the great challenge – and joy – of staging Lachlan’s work is that this is very difficult to put into the live and embodied form of theatre. I like this a lot. It means performers, designers and the whole team have to work together to find scenographic solutions in the performance dramaturgy. If the spoken word can take us from one place to the next and to the next in seconds, and from internal to external worlds, how does set design allow for this? How do lights and sound support the work of the text, and how do performers shift seamlessly from one mode of performance to the next and back?
Because Lachlan’s dramaturgy uses language for its corporeal qualities as well as its signifying ones– in other words, for its poetry as well as telling us meaning – it is invested in the experience of theatre. This makes it very suited to the difficult material that Colder deals with, which is the experience of deep loss and grief.
Over the rehearsal period I have become acutely aware of how working on this material, and sitting inside this experience, raises so many challenges for each of us around our own encounters with loss. We can’t simply wipe away or disown the emotions it brings up. So what is special is having to find safe ways to navigate this as a group of people who are really only getting to know each other but are all committed to realising the work in all its pain and beauty. I am unbelievably lucky to have such a skillful, rigorous and thoughtful team, who have worked together to find a way to create this world.
The work places us inside the experience of grief and loss, specifically something that family therapist Pauline Boss calls *‘ambiguous loss’ (2009). In the case of ambiguous loss, for example when a loved one goes missing, as is the case in the play, the grieving process is frozen – it can’t proceed in the way that is possible when someone dies. Boss notes that ‘ambiguous loss is unique in that the trauma goes on and on in what families describe as a rollercoaster ride, during which they alternate between hope and hopelessness’ (2009:24). Lachlan’s title, Colder, conveys this sense of being held frozen in a state of limbo, and the work as a whole refuses to release us into resolution, as that is not the experience of ambiguous loss. He has produced a form that matches and respects the content.
I think the fact that it is personal sits with us all the time, and we have felt the need to honour the telling, but actually one of the great skills of the writing is that the honesty and visceral experience it produces leads you back to your own encounters with loss and grief. So it is personal in all sorts of ways.
I have been drawn throughout my career to plays and works we now tend to call ‘post dramatic’: I’m not much interested in realism or dramatic dialogue, and am quite bad at directing realist scenes. I sort of just trust that actors know how to do them better than I do! I like to work with actors who are theatre thinkers and makers and are happy to make a lot of suggestions about how things might work.
Thematically I have focused for most of my career on works that touch on what it is to live as a queer-identifying person. Lachlan and I created a very loose assemblage called wreckedAllproductions in 2000 to think about queer performance, what it could be and how it could work. I am also an academic and researcher and so thinking and writing about queer dramaturgies and performance is something I do a lot.
I love working with actors because they know things I don’t know and can do things I can’t! They get how writing works because they roll it around in their mouths and they can convey an emotion with a tilt of their head or the bend of their back. They make themselves vulnerable and I admire them unconditionally for it.
I’ve never really thought in terms of what I wouldn’t tolerate. But of course I would not tolerate anything that abuses the trust we place in each other.
I have two very exciting projects coming up: one is making a new work in Belfast called Cake Daddy, with Lachlan and another long-time collaborator Ross Anderson-Doherty. Ross identifies as both queer and fat, and the piece is a form of performance activism around the interrelationship between queerness and fatness. It will premiere there in November this year.
The other piece has the working title XXX-Isle, and is a commission from the National Theatre of Croatia (Rijeka) to make a new work on the experience of queerness in Croatia. Lachlan is in the early stages of writing and we will premiere this as part of the programme for Rijeka’s year as European Capital of Culture in 2020.
Colder is an extraordinary work: it is as beautiful as it is painful and the production has great respect for the capacity of audiences to go with the intense experience of it within the intimate space of Red Stitch.
* Boss, P. Ambiguous Loss: Learning to Live with Unresolved Grief, Harvard University Press, 2009
March 13 – April 8