Interview with Rachel Roberts and Nathan Harrison

Young Australian theatre makers, Rachel Roberts and Nathan Harrison applied and received places in QLab 2017 at The Joan, to develop individual pieces of new theatre. These have now been produced together as a double bill, Back To Back – Q Theatre, which plays at The Joan 15 – 24 March. Our Theatre Programs Coordinator, Ian Zammit, recently sat down with the talented Rachel and Nathan, to find out more about them, the ups and downs about theatre-making, their experience on this journey so far, and everything else in between!

Image credit: Christina Mishell

IZ: To dive right in, why arts? What has arts done for you and what you think arts can do for the world?

NH:I started drama when I was 12, young, after mum said “you should try this”. She tells the story of the day I said, “What if I don’t like it?” … obviously I loved it. I can think of shows I saw when I was little: I remember a weird version of The Hobbit that had some puppets that toured (to Wollongong), and I loved that.

IZ: What was it that really got you?

NH: The dragon was really big! I guess it was good seeing a story that I’d known from books in a very different way.I did drama all through high school, then went to uni and partially out of not knowing what else to do, I decided to study performance. I think seeing Version 1.0’s show “Deeply Offensive and Utterly Untrue” at Carriageworks was a real turning point. I was like, “Oh my god… I had no idea that theatre could do that!”

Especially growing up in Wollongong, I’d seen a number of theatre performances, but until that moment I had no idea theatre could be that clever and be that aggressively political, and live in the real world. I grew up as a bit of a punk musician as a kid, so definitely seeing theatre that was such a “critical of the government” style of show drew me in. Version 1.0 were so great in the way that they build out a show from transcripts and documents, and you can see all the strings of how they made images, and it’s not like a typical character driven play. That was a big moment for me, discovering how theatre can be like that.

IZ: Growing up in Wollongong, did you get to see much in the way of performing arts?

NH: Some things came to IPAC – which is much better now – but I just didn’t get to see much. I think also because it felt like they were never getting exciting stuff so it was never really a thing to think about. Then in uni, we would drive up to Sydney once or twice a week to see shows, we saw so much theatre – particularly in second year, including some awful stuff! – which was great because we learned form the good and the bad.

Wollongong’s a lot better now, with a lot more spaces for young artists to see interesting things and to try things as well. Also while being in uni and seeing things at places like Performance Space at Carriageworks, and being in that course with people that I liked working with, brought a big moment of, “Oh! I can just make shows with my friends… we can make a show about whatever we want.” It was no longer a situation of: there are plays available to audition for, you pick a play and hope you’d get a part.

IZ: What was the first production your created?

NH: Simon – a fellow uni student and I did a show at Performance Space as part of their Night Times season. People used to confuse us all the time, so we made a thing of that (in our show). We had a “spot the difference” section of the production and we would sign each other’s photos, and that was pretty much it. It was terrible! But that felt very welcoming, and it was very cool to be in a program of other young artists. We just thew this idea together, we got to present it, and we got to meet some great, supportive people out of it. It was pretty big.

IZ: How did you get noticed by Performance Space?

RR: It was just by an application. Chris Ryan – a really influential teacher for us at UoW, he was our movement teacher and director.

Chris had performed a lot with Performance Space in its early years. Chris told us when Carriageworks was reopening with Performance Space on board and we should make sure we go and see what they are doing.  That’s where we saw Version 1.0’s work and realised we like what was happening there. We kept an eye on it online and that’s where we saw the application process for being involved with Performance Space.

NH: Teachers like Chris and Sarah Miller were very good at teaching us what had come before and encouraging us to be part of that same group.

RR: Also our dramaturgy lecturer, Margaret Hamilton, who was so well versed in Australian contemporary performance, would encourage us to have a real thorough understanding of the roots of performance culture, particularly in Sydney. As well as Version 1.0, introducing us to the Sydney front and those really far out performance collectives. We gained a critical understanding of how their work was influencing what we were doing at uni and so we were interested in keeping ourselves in that world and seeing what was happening currently.

IZ: How about you Rachel? Where did you come from?

RR: I grew up in Taree, so not a huge theatre scene. But I was a big reader and wanted to be an author when I was in primary school because I used books to connected my imagination. There were really rich worlds where I felt like I could insert myself into. Then I went to boarding school in North Parramatta which was where I started to see much more theatre, and all these things that were previously only accessible to me in books were now more accessible in a much more immediate form. I then switched from being a part of the world on the page to the world on stage. I could see how I could insert myself into this world more immediately, it was much more experiential. It’s definitely related to my ego, wanting to see myself on stage, but it was easy do so when I could see people like me in those parts in theatre. I can imagine it being much harder for someone who is not white or has a different identity than mine to make that leap so quickly and say “oh, that’s something I could do.”

IZ: Do you remember a particular performance you saw that sticks with you, where you thought “I could do that?”

RR: Probably. (laughs). I was very lucky and got subscriptions to Belvoir for Christmas present, and a beautiful friend of my mum got to take me to see shows there every month. It was incredible to see a lot of shows, and because it was a subscription I was able to see most of the shows – I didn’t even get to pick the shows, I’d just see whatever they saw, so I was seeing things I wouldn’t necessarily have chosen. That meant I was being surprised a lot, maybe being pushed out of my comfort zone sometimes, which was really good at giving me a broader understanding of theatre and the stories it could tell.

I started out doing musicals in high school, but I’m not a great singer, so that quickly stopped happening. I remember seeing a lot of Shakespeare, and whenever there was a complex female lead, I was thinking, “that one!” It didn’t really matter what the play was, I wanted to do that. Looking back, I realise that maybe a lot of the female characters I was seeing weren’t that very complex, and were few and far between, but that’s probably why they stood out.

I remember seeing some Chekov and thinking that I liked it a lot more than Shakespeare, it was speaking to me a bit more. I still really love Chekov and Ibsen. I remember studying “A Doll’s House” in year 11 or 12, about a woman feeling very claustrophobic in her place in the world, and thinking that really speaks to me and that I didn’t realise you could explore something so dark but the story can still be so entertaining. Also, that what are so-called ‘women’s issues’ could be the foundation of such a seminal piece of theatre work, it wasn’t simply a women’s play but a foundation of naturalism.

IZ: Why today? What is it today that is really exciting you about these two shows?

RR: I think for both of us, the shows are about our own personal connection to something larger than us, with Nathan looking at the world of conservation and extinction, and me looking at the medical and social world of bodies and diet culture. These two worlds mean a lot to us personally and so we’re exploring them using ourselves as a device, to get the audience involved and see a new perspective on it.

NH: Yeah, I think today we find ourselves up against really big and complex problems that on an individual level feel really hard to engage with in a meaningful way. Looking at things like climate change is of a scale and complexity that is very daunting.

The making phase is a way to personally engage with that and try and figure some of that out. To figure out how personally I fit in this thing, and ideally it’s a chance to communicate and discuss with an audience to come to a better understanding of the issues and make sense of it.

IZ: Why this subject? Why do you want to talk about these issues?

NH: I’ve always liked animals, and I remember about three years ago listening to a podcast of people who went to extreme lengths to save animals and found it really compelling. I started reading more and more about extinction, and became very interested in an idea that’s so overwhelming, the existential dread of the finality, that once something’s gone, it’s gone forever, and that obviously applies to us as well. The more I read about it, the more I wanted to try and figure this out for myself.

RR: It was really really early on. About 2 years ago, I was applying for the ATYP Rose Byrne and Rebel Wilson scholarships and for that proposal process, and I thought, what’s really on my mind right now? What do I want to make a show about? That’s when I sat back and realised I really want to explore why some people have such a complex relationship with food, and what that then does to a relationship with their body. The reason that was on my mind so much was that I personally had been really struggling with my own relationship with food for years at that point, and I had only just started to search for answers as to why my own relationship with food was the way it was. I thought I’d make a show to ask these questions because I thought that I can’t be alone in these questions and that many other people would have them as well. Also, maybe during the process of making this show, I’d get some answers, and find out ’what’s wrong with me.’

I’d also just gone back to university to study nutrition, which was another attempt to answer this question. I thought that I’d become a nutritionist and while studying I’ll figure out what’s wrong with me, and then I’ll be able to help other people figure out what’s wrong with them.

I was shortlisted for both of those scholarships, which was amazing! I didn’t end up receiving them, but because of that application process, ATYP then said, how about you start this project anyway? They gave me some rehearsal space and I also very luckily got some funding from ArtsNSW, so I used this to start asking a lot of people, what was their relationship with food? If it’s complex or a struggle, and why do they think that is?

The answers led me down a lot of different paths. I found a lot of dieticians to speak to and psychologists who work particularly with food. Through that learning process, I found it really changed my perspective about a lot of things and uncovered a lot of anger as I learned about the systems I was living within. That’s what led me to this show: I want to help show some other people what those systems are, share my anger with them because I think a lot of them will be angry as well, and then think, together, what can we do about it?

IZ: To wrap, what was the biggest disaster in your theatre making that you learned from?

RR: We went to the Edinburgh Festival a few years ago with (theatre company) Applespiel, who we’d been working with since 2009. Applespiel has been a really incredible process, as a collective we’ve been working together since university. We’ve learned so much, we share our skills with each other and we’ve done works in a lot of different settings . Any disaster that’s happened through Applespiel we learned from and grew stronger.

Edinburgh was a really steep learning curve! (laughing) It helped us learn how we behave under pressure, and working under the worst possible performance conditions, like having two minutes to bump in a show! Also, we were presenting an interactive show requiring 10 audience members, which we discovered was not the best choice for a festival where there’s thousands of show competing with each other for an audience, every day. It was not the right choice of show to take. We had several shows where we would have maybe two people in the audience.

NH: The best was a show where we had two people in the audience, and one was a reviewer, and the other person left half way through the show.

RR: And as they left, they looked at us and were like, “I’m so sorry guys, but I’ve got another show to get to.” And we just had to say, “That’s ok.”

NH: That was so abysmal, but such a good learning experience. We had 26 shows in 27 days, and every afternoon we flyered to get audiences, and kept thinking, “tomorrow will be better!”, and it wasn’t. It got better towards the end, but what was really good about it was you learned how to say to yourself, I just have to do it, I’ve got to find whatever I can to make the show work for the next hour, and then go back to feeling awful! (laughing).

RR: I learned that I’m terrible at handing out flyers, I will make any excuse possible to get out of handing them out. So thank you to Applespiel for not killing me everyday when I’d say “ I just don’t think I can do this today!”

Back To Back – Q Theatre plays at The Joan 15 – 24 March, BOOK YOUR TICKETS NOW!