Actors Sebastian Bertoli and Jeni Bezuidenhout are excited to be launching the inaugural play of their newly founded theatre company, Panopticon Collective, this month. Their passion is palpable and their commitment unswerving as they enter the exciting land of self managed (and funded!) independent theatre.

Their first offering is the world premiere of new Australian work Love, Sarah by Kathryn Goldie. Bertoli directs and Bezuidenhout stars alongside Penelope Langmead to tell the heart warming tale of connection, family and memories.

Read on as partners Sebastian Bertoli and Jeni Bezuidenhout talk new play; new theatre company; joys, pitfalls; challenges; and a leap of faith.

Jeni Bezuidenhout on Love,Sarah:
From the start I think we were fascinated by the relationship dynamic of two people. We were inspired by a Greek short film called “What is that?”. The story follows a son and his father at a retirement home and the simple repetition of the father asking over and over again ‘What is that?’. I won’t give too much away, but the beautiful authenticity in the writing made us think of Kathryn Goldie straight away. I think it is important to tell stories that drive you, that make you itch. We have been lucky to have found a piece we all spark with, all believe in and explore the humanity in our survival. There are so many uncertain things in this life but also the most certain ‘end’ we all have to deal with- especially when we start losing those around us.

I have the opportunity to travel around the world in this piece, to connect with places and share these unique experiences of Sarah with the audience. Penelope Langmead, the actor playing my Nan, is such a generous actor, it makes it so easy to connect with her and work off of her energy. It brings me such joy to be able to share this story and embrace the importance of time and memories. It is allowing me to take more time and work on those important relationships that time sometimes chips away at.

This piece explores the importance of people in your life. The memories and moments you share with others that help form you. There are people that come into your life and they leave irremovable fingerprints on you. Which is why we as a company are so excited to explore national identity and to do so through new original work, we as a country are still finding our stories and fingerprints. The underlying themes of mortality haunts Nan and impacts Sarah and the choices she makes. The freedom of choice and travel, discovery and mistakes explore the humanity in Sarah.

If it is not the warm, spicy mulled wine then perhaps Cameron Silman. He is bringing his unique flavour into our piece by creating artwork that becomes and forms the world of “Love, Sarah”. Vocals, music and lights being intertwined with stories being told from Sarah’s journey around the world. For me it is the heart of the piece that I hope will entice people, Sarah’s journey with her Nan is truly beautiful, complicated and a series of growing pains as you see the vulnerability and cracks of the characters. I think it will make people long for and appreciate those special people that have formed us as human beings.

Sebastian Bertoli on Panopticon Collective:
Jeni and I both started our creative journeys as actors, and while we are both still very much in love with acting, we realised that there were plenty of stories that we had to tell that we weren’t getting a chance to. As an actor you are at the whim of other people bringing you on board their projects, there are often few opportunities and a great deal of competition and it can leave you feeling very disempowered as an actor. One of the first things that we were both taught at Arts Academy (Fed Uni, Ballarat) was to make our own things.

So we’re doing just that by starting Panopticon Collective as a way to the make the theatre and films that we want to. It’s about us developing our voices as artists and the contributing to the culture of this wonderful but flawed little country that we live in at the bottom of the globe.

I was introduced to the term “Panopticon”, as it is the name of a beautiful album by American metal band Isis. A “panopticon” is a type of institutional building designed by English philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham in the late 18th century. The design is a large circular building with a single watchtower in the centre, the honeycombed circumference divided into cells that have windows facing the inside and the outside of the building. As a result the occupants of the cells are backlit, and insulated from one another by walls. The 360° facing central watchtower has blinds or some sort of glazed windows so that the inmates never know when they are being watched or not being watched. This means that they must behave as though they are being watched at all times.
Jeni and I felt that this was a pretty ideal metaphor for telling stories, in both the theatre and on screen. The idea of observing what’s surrounding us and in turn, being observed, it’s something that really resonated with us.

The future aims of Panopticon Collective are to keep creating high-quality content, for both theatre and film, to create more opportunities for creatives in these fields and, our long-term goal, is to that we are committed to working toward paying artists. We’ve both worked for no pay in the past, and in the future will work for no pay on selected projects, but our objective is to pay artists what they’re worth. Making art can be very challenging and a lot of the time we will work for free because we love what we do. But it doesn’t have to be and shouldn’t be like that all the time. Panopticon Collective wants to do what we can to try and create opportunities where we can change that.

We’re also really excited about collaborating with some of the amazing artists in Melbourne, and not just in our immediate industry. We’re collaborating with Cameron Silman, a super talented painter, on “Love, Sarah” and I can’t wait to see who we get on board for our future projects.

We have a number of original projects in the pipeline – creating, fostering and commissioning new work will be something that’s always a huge priority for us. In the future, I do see us mounting existing texts (every director has a list of plays that they just want to give a bash at some point in their careers) but we will keep going back to exploring our central themes of identity and social responsibility.

I love living in Australia, it’s an amazing country, I’m very lucky to have been born here with the quality of life that I have. However, we’re a still young country and as a socially progressive nation we struggle to keep up with the rest of the world. As hard as it is to stomach this country’s often stuck in a bubble. A lot of the time this makes us angry but we want to use that passion in a positive way to tell stories that question a lot of the things we take for granted. We are also want to focus on collaborating with individuals who have stories to tell that otherwise wouldn’t get a chance to and to point a mirror back at the society that we live in.

I would love to see Panopticon Collective still going strong a decade from now, with a body of work behind us. I’m mainly directing our projects for this year but I can’t wait to sink my teeth into acting in projects that Jeni takes up the directing helm for, or as we get more people involved with the company. We want to keep creating excellent work with awesome people. That’s the dream.

Oh the main challenge is not enough time! Or sleep! To anyone who wants to start a theatre and film production company – wow, you will need patience and you will need to ask other people for help. No man is an island and all that. It is a tremendous amount of work, and keeping my head above the monsoonal tides of stress and anxiety of setting up a company from square one and simultaneously mounting our first production is an everyday battle! Haha.

But there’s a lot of joy in it as well. As I mentioned before, asking for help is almost essential and we’re starting to surround ourselves with extraordinary people. Tim, Amelia, Tash and Xanthia – the incredible team at our venue and current base, Scratch Warehouse in North Melbourne, have been so supportive and such a positive force to be around. And with bringing Georgia Whyte on board “Love, Sarah” as Assistant Director and our communications/social media guru we feel like we’ve hit the jackpot!
It’s a long road ahead, but a wonderful one I hope.

Please head to panopticoncollective.com, like us on Facebook, follow us on Instagram etc to keep in the loop about what we’re up to. There’s going to be lots of exciting projects in the future. And if anyone wants to bring projects to us and collaborate we’d love to chat with you!

Love, Sarah
July 1 – 5
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