American writer Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ Gloria transports its audience to an office.
Think cubicles. Unwashed coffee mugs. Post-It notes. Pot plants slowly dying of neglect in the fluorescent light.
For a lot of people watching, it will be eerily similar to the place they walked out of just a couple of hours before the show.
The only difference being that the photocopier in this office actually works.
“We sourced all our office furniture from the old Fujitsu headquarters,” says Alexander Berlage, the director of Gloria’s Sydney premiere.
“It was massive, cubicle after cubicle and completely empty of people. We were allowed to take as much as we wanted, which was great. But I found the place really depressing … it felt like an empty petting zoo,” Berlage says.
Gloria is set in the offices of a prominent American magazine, explains actor Rowan Witt, who has swapped the short sleeves and skinny ties of The Book of Mormon’s Elder McKinley for the smart-casual of Dean, personal assistant to an editor, and an aspiring writer desperately trying to climb the ladder.
“It’s kind of like The New Yorker and all the characters are trying to navigate being in this weirdly ambitious environment,” Witt says. “Everyone is intent on looking successful without actually knowing what that is.”
Georgina Symes plays the title role, Gloria, a long-serving editor who has just thrown an apartment-warming party to which no one else turned up.
Symes has done time in office environments.
“I’ve worked as a casual and I was temping for years. Offices might seem everyday or mundane but there’s more going on than in a Greek tragedy. And in this play, it’s almost operatic. All those masks you wear, when are you being sincere, when are you sucking up, when are you doing some strategy … the stakes can be incredibly high.”
The Sydney premiere of Gloria is produced by Outhouse Theatre Co, which has developed a reputation for perfectly pitching the ultra-realism of observational American plays such as Annie Baker’s The Flick and Aliens.
The cast also includes Justin Amankwah, Annabel Harte, Reza Momenzada and Michelle Ny.
Berlage, who comes to the project straight from the sell-out production of American Psycho at the Hayes Theatre, says Gloria is not typical of the work he’s being doing lately.
“I was sent the script and 20 pages in, I was like, ‘why did you send this to me? Do they know, my work, what I’m interested in?’”
Berlage kept reading.
Then everything clicked.
“It starts like a really good office comedy,” Berlage explains. “It’s funny but it’s also very interrogative of human ambition. It’s a world devoid of empathy where power-hungry people are basically pushing each other down so they can scramble up the ladder of a cutthroat industry.
“The characters we see on stage have big ambitions, big dreams and they’re really hoping to get somewhere fast. And if they don’t, it’s a measure of their failure as people.”
It’s not all talk, however.
As the office day wears on, tensions among colleagues start to ramp up. An argument breaks out over who should get a plumb assignment to write a feature story about a recently deceased singer.
Gloria, meanwhile, is acting even more strangely than usual.
Then something snaps.
Office life will never be the same again.
No spoilers, says Berlage. But what happens will shock the audience. “It changes the play stylistically, it changes it thematically … and yeah, it gets quite dark. It really makes you think about just how far we will go to succeed.”
Gloria will be one of those experiences audiences will need to talk over, Symes believes. “It’s posing existential questions about what are we doing, are we really connecting? Are we all maniacs?”
Witt agrees. “It’s a very important piece for right now, especially after the recent election. It’s about good versus nice, about what is true and what is right.”
Gloria plays at the Seymour Centre, June 6-22