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Playwave Responds: Arturo Ui

"this night was different"

The Playwave initiative opens up the complexities of a Brecht masterpiece to an audience of 15 to 19-year-olds.

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“Everyone had so much to say, and tonight we were heard”

Date: 23 Apr 2018

Playwave’s Zack Lewin and Nicole Pingon were among a 100-strong contingent of 15-19-year-olds afforded the opportunity to see the Sydney Theatre Company’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, the glowingly reviewed Kip Williams-directed production starring Hugo Weaving.

Having seen the play the previous night, Zack and Nicole were keen to talk to Williams about what they saw. They had a chance to interview him for Audrey Journal, as well as participate in the wider Q&A at the Playwave pre-show event.

Here are their thoughts:

“We’ve been to the Roslyn Packer Theatre a few times, and we’re usually overwhelmed by the wine, pearls and suits of a crowd decades older than us.

It’s fun, exciting and makes us feel mature, but also leaves us feeling very out of place.

But this night was different. The foyer was filled with people our age, wearing our clothes, drinking orange juice, feeling excited just to be there for the epic The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui

This Playwave experience allowed 100 young people to reassemble an intimidating theatre space into an environment we could engage with and understand.

We gathered in the Richard Wherrett room for an exclusive pre-show talk, and listened to Kip Williams and Jess Arthur, STC’s Directing Associate, in a laid-back question-and-answer format that allowed us to gain immense insight into the process of creating the show, and some insider scoops of things to look out for.

The most exciting part was when Jess opened up the floor to us, and we got to ask questions: tough and political ones about accessibility and skill-oriented ones about rehearsal processes and adapting Brecht in 2018.

It was incredible being in a room among so many young and emerging artists, all with a very similar outlooks on the world to us. Everyone had so much to say, and tonight we were heard.

Yes, this production is exciting. There’s live-feed, gunshots, fighting, you name it. The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui has it all.

But sometimes we found ourselves simply asking why.

We felt no empathy with the characters and found ourselves constantly asking, ‘but why should I care?’. I didn’t know who it was happening to, or where it was happening. It had Australian iconography but wasn’t localised comfortably.

Perhaps we needed references to tangible companies, landmarks, slang or characters? The show kept spending on gimmicks, and displays of grandeur that didn’t enhance the show, and left us confused.

We kept thinking, why should we care where Arturo Ui is going, if we don’t properly know where he came from?

The Q&A session allowed us to change our perspectives dramatically. We found new insight through the questions posed by Playwavers and Kip’s answers. 

We still have our reservations about the show, but the insight we gained taught us a lot more about theatre than either of us had expected.”

Kip Williams on Arturo Ui:

What challenges are there in adapting the script?

The first major challenge is to try and find a way to make it speak to a contemporary audience, especially given that the play was written so specifically about a moment in history.

Brecht writes the play as an allegory for the rise of fascism in Germany, and he writes it in 1941 at a time where he didn’t even know whether or not Hitler would be overcome.

So to find a way in which that very specific political context can have a contemporary context is one of the major challenges.

And Brecht writes in a way which is quite idiosyncratic and specific to a particular way of making theatre. You want to understand that tradition, honour that tradition, but find a new way of realising it  for a contemporary audience. Those are the two major challenges that come up, and they aren’t small.

In directing the show, what did you emphasise to reflect today’s political climate?

We were very mindful about making a version of Arturo Ui that wasn’t just about Donald Trump. There’s a number of productions around the world that have done that, and that’s perfectly valid, but it felt like a limiting reading on the play.

We wanted to create a piece that would have resonances and connections to current political climates around the world, including the American political climate, and not make it specifically about one thing.

I think that we have realised Brecht’s play, and allowed it to speak in a way where the audiences can find their own connections. We’ve certainly found contemporary contexts in which to stage the scenes.

The opening scene for example, is set in the back room of a restaurant in Chinatown, where you might imagine that high-flying business leaders and state politicians would be doing backroom deals.

We’ve created a context where the audience can see themselves on stage, and see their own world on stage, and in doing so, hopefully they will find links to their own political climates, but also those beyond.

The language Tom Wright has used in his translation is specifically referencing rhetoric, and moments of recent political history in a way that activates the play within a contemporary context.

How do you feel that this show will resonate with younger audience members tonight?

I think young audiences are very political, and it’s a very political piece. It’s a piece where the audience is asked to participate in some ways, and the audience is kind of a character in this production … it asks the audience to have a political opinion on the work.

So I think young audiences, given how political they are, will be activated into a political discourse around it.

I also think the form of the work, which incorporates a lot of live video, asks an audience to absorb more than one thing at one time, and I think younger audience members are more adept at reading media and works of art that are multi-focussed.

I think they’ll feel like it’s a form that is of their time, and I think they will be excited by that.

What other opportunities are there for young people to be involved with Sydney Theatre Company?

We have our Young Wharfies Program, which is aimed at high school students who have a particular passion for theatre, and they come and see all our shows, meet various members of the company, and have masterclasses with them. They engage in conversation with each other about the work they are making, and the work they are seeing, and they are advocates for that work in whatever way they choose.

And we have an amazing work experience program, which is an intensive one week workshop, which again involves masterclasses, learning about all the different facets of the Company.

In terms of broader access, we have under 30s tickets, schools days, extensive education for teachers in terms of resources and working with their students. We also try to program work that will engage with younger audiences.

I have now been working with the Company for about seven or eight years, so we generally try to employ younger directors, who make work that speaks to people in their teens and twenties. We also program work that has a focus on either work that people are studying in their high school syllabus, or people who are young adults would be interested in.

The interesting thing I’ve found about a work like Arturo Ui is that it’s a piece that has really broad appeal. You can be 19 and get something from it. You could be 14 and get something from it.

Particularly, because it’s a work of theatre, it’s provoking its audience to renegotiate their relationship to their society, and ask questions about how society comes together and operates. So it has a place and a space for people of all ages and experiences to come and engage with it. It’s been a real joy of the work for me, as a director to witness people from different generations take different things from it.

We have targeted things within the STC in terms of developing people and creating access to work for younger people, but also I think it’s a really important thing for young people to come and see work that people in their forties are seeing, people in their fifties sixties are seeing – really getting that cross-section of society.

For anyone interested in pursuing theatre or the arts in general, what tips and tricks do you have for them?

Go and see it, as much as you can. Read as many plays as you can. Find other young people who are interested in making theatre, and start a theatre company with them and put on a play in a garage, and join your university or high school drama club, act in as many plays as you can. Rig the lights and be a stage manager and operate the box office, and learn about all the different facets of putting on theatre.

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