At just 26 years old, Simon Stone has a biography longer than most people’s eulogies. He has appeared in the Australian films Kokoda, Balibo and Jindabyne, written and directed a number of productions and now he is the resident director at Belvoir in Sydney. Theatre People spoke to Simon about his upcoming adaptation of Ibsen’s The Wild Duck playing at the Malthouse Theatre from February 17 to March 17.
Theatre People: What or who is your biggest inspiration?
Simon Stone: Wow. That is such a difficult question! I would say that my most constant source of inspiration are the actors I work with because of the experiences in the rehearsal room. They make it constantly feel new and there is always a certain level of novelty. I am constantly surprised and overwhelmed by this extraordinarily talented bunch of people and what they bring to a character. I have arrived at a style that is very focused on stripping back anything that gets in the way of the actor.
TP: What drew you to creating this new adaptation of The Wild Duck?
SS: It was timing, really. I’ve been interested in more of Ibsen’s prose plays for a long time and there are still many I would like to do at some point in my life. I think it was timing in terms of the age of the characters and the struggles they are currently experiencing. It needed to be a small cast because of the budget, because we thought the season would take a hit after Neil left. Actually, the opposite happened. Only a few of Ibsen’s plays can be reduced in size. So, really, they were all pragmatic decisions. There are plenty more classic plays I’d love to do and there is still plenty of time to do them.
TP: You are a massive film buff. Does this underscore your interpretations for the theatrical medium or do you prefer to keep them as separate art forms?
SS: Good question. It is how unique the story-telling possibilities are in theatre that makes me stay in love with it. There is less financial risk in terms of getting it off the ground and the creative possibilities and the semantics of theatre are really exciting to me. The complicit understanding of the audience in jumping through time—it feels more magical and extraordinary. In the theatre you know that the audience are completely aware of the restrictions and that they are sharing the room with the actors. It’s thrilling in the same way as watching someone like Houdini get out of a straight jacket. The audience are thinking, “I actually saw that. It happened in front of me.”
The darker parts of humanity are felt in the theatre and there is more feeling of ritual – this is what draws me to pick working in the theatre because there are just some things I will never achieve in film. That said, film has been hugely influential and has started to inspire storytelling in the theatre in terms of movement and structure.
TP: Have there been many changes made between the Belvoir production and the Malthouse production? Do you feel changes are necessary because of the differences between Melbourne and Sydney audiences?
SS: I have re-written one scene because, upon reflection, I thought it didn’t work but I do feel largely that there is a responsibility to present the production that was requested and that Melbourne gets to see the show that Sydney saw and respond to it. There will be changes made only if it doesn’t work, not just for the sake of changing it.
Sydney audiences tend to be more eclectic in their makeup. There is a wider age range, maybe a broader cross section of the city’s population. The Malthouse isn’t so different but certainly MTC has a very different vibe or demographic. Sydney audiences tend to be more frivolous and want to have a good time – they’re more avant-garde whereas there is a sense of worthiness in Melbourne audiences which can be just as helpful or not as the frivolity of the Sydney audiences. I hope that Melbourne audiences will respond similarly to Sydney audiences and there isn’t such a divergent culture that it won’t translate.
TP: What are the rules of your rehearsal room?
SS: Oh, it’s incredibly casual. I believe that if you make the actors unaware that they’re working and then seamlessly make them start performing, it doesn’t feel humiliating. It is essentially a large conversation that the work comes out of. The movement towards the higher stakes of the play come in juxtaposition to a relaxed atmosphere until that moment. That’s the main structure, to continue to try and find out more about the characters until they become three-dimensional and as playful as possible and as ridiculous as possible. There is no such thing as a bad idea in my rehearsal room but each project has different problems to solve.
TP: What has been the best thing about working on this production?
SS: Getting to work with the people I have worked with. The actors, designers and everyone at Belvoir who sold, marketed, ran the pay roll, sewed the costumes—everyone that I was exposed to—it was such an extraordinary feeling of collaboration. Everyone had faith in me and was inspiring me in what was considered a very risky venture at the beginning. The staging is also seen as quite risky. The most enjoyable part was having the faith placed in me by people I respected deeply to make my vision work. It’s given me a huge amount of confidence in my abilities to help people achieve an exciting outcome with their own work.
TP: You have assembled a very talented cast. Did their work change some of your initial thoughts about the text?
SS: Of course! Inevitably what you can imagine is very poor in comparison to the meeting of imaginations. There was only a certain amount that I could envision before I had actors to bring it to life. I was very lucky to have actors to make it better than I could possibly have imagined. John Gaden is one of the most experienced stage actors in this country and he was playing a relatively small role but he was 100% committed to putting his energy into helping to refine the rest of the characters. Everyone was able to draw upon the wealth of that experience and talent and it really helped to give me faith in particular parts of the production that I wasn’t sure about. These actors have been indispensable. They created the characters and I gave them words, they added words, and I gave them more words. It went back and forth like that, like tennis. That’s very similar to the way it works on film sets; the director works very collaboratively with the person in front of the camera. It’s not as common in theatre because the plays are usually finished before you start rehearsing them. Hopefully the audience won’t be able to tell the difference between each individual’s collaborative input and it will be seamless.
TP: You are so young and have a bio that is longer than most people’s eulogies. What advice would you give to other young people out there with similar aspirations?
SS: If you’re not passionate about it then don’t do it because the amount of energy and inspiration and relentlessness that comes from being obsessed should be enough to carry you through the ups and downs of this career. If your heart isn’t beating with it, or your veins not coursing with it then perhaps it’s not the career for you. This is the only thing I’ve ever had enough patience for. I think sometimes people have an idea of what they’d like to be good at rather than analysing that they are good at. Don’t make decisions based on what might be a worthy occupation.
It is a very confusing convergence of states, dedication and obsession (and maybe talent) which has put me in the position I am in at the moment but it is quite difficult to retrospectively define why things have turned out this way—it’s been a lot of fun getting here! I wouldn’t have kept at it if I didn’t find it fun.
TP: Three reasons why we should see your production of The Wild Duck?
SS: The acting is some of the best you’ll see on a stage for years, there’s a real duck in it and it’s about you.