Lisa Chat’s with Mark Westbrook director of Stitching – Pt 1 (theatre article)

Stitching-Jpeg

 Stitching 

by Anthony Neilson

Little Spoon Theatre Company

Tap gallery 26 March through to 12 April

You can buy your tickets here. 

I have neither  seen nor read Anthony Neilson’s confronting 2002 play Stitching, so I am greatly looking forward to the Little Spoon presentation running at the Tap Gallery from March 26 through to April 12.

Stitching is a complex play that deals with difficult themes of love, loss and the relationship between the other we desire and the pain we are addicted to. It has gained a bit of a reputation, to say the least, inducing walk outs and furore in its earlier incarnations and it is back now, more than ten years after it was first performed, to expose a new audience to its deeply thought-provoking ideas.

The Little Spoon production sees Neilson’s couple Abby and Stu played by real life couple Lara Lightfoot and Wade Doolan, and given the nature of Stitching, this venture can seem a little like a piece of couples anti-therapy. However, they are in the sure hands of Mark Westbrook as director, Mark having directed Stitching in Glasgow in 2013, and having worked with both the actors before in his successful actors studio workshops. It can’t be much of a surprise to readers of this blog, that all this intensity attracted me, and I met with Mark this after noon to have a chat about Stitching.

We met for lunch in a cheery Surry hills cafe. We sat on a balcony, looked down on the other patrons like Gods, witnessed an all-too frequent Sydney thunderstorm, and got lost in our deep conversation about theatre in general and Stitching specifically. We had a lovely time, finding an instant connection in our mutual love of the stage, Mark’s as maker, mine as engaged witness, as we found the minutes turning into hours with barely the blink of an eye. The following is a reproduction of our conversation, as best I can gift it, including as much of the free flow as possible, as we moved happily away from my set questions and let the enormity of the passion for theatre overwhelm us.

Part one, where Lisa asks Mark why he felt compelled to direct Stitching a second time…

Lisa: We’ll start with my first question and I guess what I’m hoping for is that you will feel comfortable to chat around the questions as framework, so that we can move onto more interesting aspects of Stitching. But my first question is one you probably expect that everyone would ask; this isn’t the first time you have directed Stitching, and Stitching is not a light easy playful experience, so I guess the big question is why do it again? What is it about Stitching that makes you want to come back to it as a play?

Mark: I suppose there’s two things.  The first is the more important aspect. I think the chemistry between the two people who play Abby and Stu make the play very different. Because of the way that I work, I am asking the actors to be very much like themselves and that means the relationship that’s created between the two actors changes the play.

Lisa: On that note, Wade and Lara are in a long-term relationship and I can understand in that context what you are talking about.

Mark: They are in the same position as Abby and Stu in that they’ve been in a relationship for a long time, and of course they are nothing like Abby and Stuart, you know, they’re not falling apart at the seams, cheating on each other and unable to communicate.

Lisa: …and hurting each other in very complicated and fascinating ways.

Mark: Yeah. I think I’m really interested in what I’ve always called personal  politics which is kind of what playwrights like Neil Le Bute, Neilson, Harold Pinter in some regard,  and a few others, kind of deal with the battles we have on a daily basis that are not political on a grand scale, these social battles we have with people we say we love, and Um… I think everyone has been in a relationship that’s gone wrong or ended badly and I think relationships are so central to who we are in the end, we come together with someone, usually for the rest of our lives, and in order to get there we often go through many painful and unsatisfying experiences  and the play is about some people clinging to each other, trying to deal with a terrible loss and not doing very well, not being very brave. My belief is that the brave thing for them to do would be to separate, and unfortunately they don’t. So I think seeing it again, doing it again, is … the other time was in Glasgow, it was very different every night, because of the way we work, and very different because of who Tom and Catriona are …

Lisa: … were they in a relationship also?

Mark: No.

Lisa: Ok, so that is extremely different in terms of the intensity.

Mark: Yes. Ironically, they had been in a relationship.

Lisa: Oh! Well, that’s really different again! How interesting.

Mark: Um… yeah, they’d briefly been in a relationship, and they were close friends, and yeah, it made it challenging, and still makes it challenging. Just because you’ve been in a relationship with somebody doesn’t mean you want to show sixty strangers what that looks like every night.

Lisa: (Laughs) Absolutely. We struggle to show one stranger, who is supposed to be your intimate, what that looks like. As I said, I haven’t read the play, so I am going to it very fresh, but I am also really looking forward to it, because I’ve read a bit, and I am now very keen to see it. It’s almost like an exploratory … um… it seems at some level to not be about the characters themselves, that it’s about all couples in some ways and that the play is a sort of … a kind of movable feast of a conversation around relationships – heterosexual relationships specifically do you think? Or not?

Mark: No… no I don’t think so. I think it’s just that we’ve had the longest history of getting together and staying in relationships, so the relationships that I’ve had have always been very traditional I think. I guess in 2014, people are having very different kinds of relationships as well, polyamorous relationships, people who are married and live apart who are very happy, two different houses and so on. I think the nature of relationships is starting to change. one thing that is changing very much is marriage is smashing to pieces all the time. Maybe I’m a bit cynical about that.

Lisa: No… I don’t think that cynicism. No, I think that’s accuracy. But, we’ve sort of been culturally saying that marriage, or rather relationships are really changing their nature, particularly citing the examples that you cited since the early seventies, and I wonder, I mean I’ve had these conversations myself since the eighties and I’m thinking perhaps things aren’t changing that much, maybe we talk about it now, or something, I don’t know, but I wonder, I guess Queer marriage would be a change, and a political change…

(We then delved into a little lamentation about our desperately sad federal political situation in Australia that I won’t burden you with here)

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Part two, when Mark tells Lisa He doesn’t really believe in directing and Lisa tries to blame the French…

Lisa: Ok – another very practical question, what is the difference between directing actors and coaching actors?

Mark: There is a very simple difference and I think it’s where many people are teaching acting wrong actually. Directing is probably suggesting the solutions and coaching is helping the actors to find the solutions for themselves. I think probably good directors would do a bit of coaching as well. When I see people take acting, I see them … when I see someone acting a scene and the teacher is telling them how they would solve it, directing them, telling them this is how you should do it, that doesn’t help the actor as far as I’m concerned, because that doesn’t mean they can use it tomorrow, so coaching is about giving them skills to do it for themselves. So that doesn’t apply to this scene, it applies to every scene, we’re obviously directing, we’re solving problems and issues round this all the time.

I hope a good director has a bit of coaching in them … when I teach acting, we don’t resolve any problems… sorry we don’t solve the problems for the students, we help them learn how to overcome those kinds of problems for themselves, so when the problem turns up in a different form they can recognise it.

Lisa: Do you feel that … um… do you like directing? Do you enjoy the process of it?

Mark: Um… I’m a director who doesn’t really believe in directors …

Lisa: Really? That’s shocking…

Mark: I think something happened in the 60’s, when the director became the auteur…

Lisa:… it’s part of the film problem… the French’s fault…

Mark:.. It can’t all be their fault…

Lisa: … Cahiers du Cinéma .. (laughs)

Mark: I think the film director does need to be an auteur, because the film director controls everything the eye sees. I think theatre is about the relationship, a simple kind of triad of actor, audience and text, and what we’ve done, we directors have nudged our way into the scene and said (with a mock voice) this is my interpretation , and this is my take… you know people always say “What’s your take on this play?”… and I say the take on the play is what Neilson’s written.

You know, we’re all going to interpret it entirely differently. My job is to bring that page to the stage, without me getting in the way too much, actually, and I think that is the opposite of what people claim they do. And directors who take courses and who have… you know… directing scholarships, are encouraged to have grand concepts, which often have nothing to do with the play … um … I remember reading a book by a guy called Terry McCabe who is much loathed in American theatre because he’s taken a stand against the director has Auteur and he has been much maligned for ….

Lisa: … he said that about film as well didn’t he? I think I’ve read something about that…

Mark: Misdirecting. Its called Mis-directing The Play. But at least film is about controlling the eye. In theatre … he makes a really simple point that I’ll say here, he says if you have a grand concept what you end up saying is “I’m using this play to explore… lets say…. I’m  using Julius Caesar to explore Tony Abbots government, right?”

Well, it’s a nice idea, but actually, the better way to do it, is, if you like, to use the concept to explore the play, not the play to explore the concept.

Lisa: Yes right.

Mark: So if you find out more about Julius Caesar by setting it in 2014 in Tony Abbots government, suddenly we all see that it doesn’t suit that at all, because there’s not much wealth there… so it’s a much more interesting journey if you make your ideas explore the play and not make the play explore the ideas, because first of all who am I as the director to use someone else’s writing as … what… stimulus for my artistic outpourings? I appreciate it’s what some directors have been saying for the last fifty years, but I’m kind of sick of it. I’m sick of seeing shows where it’s all about the concept, and it’s totally empty, and I have to say one of the things I like about Bell’s Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale was that the concept was actually very simple , looking at Winter’s Tale through the eyes of the child, and they did use it to explore the play. And I think it worked.

Lisa: Actually, to support what you’re saying, we had a really nice idea, of doing a contemporary Romeo and Juliet last year, set in Cronulla, around the Cronulla riots under the John Howard era when the war on terror was happening, we had our first race riot in this country ever and it was between Muslims and …um… the very white, appropriate Aussie … ocker… David Williamson style hero … on Cronulla beach … very emblematic, its ripe for plays… and it kind of made sense for Romeo and Juliet.

But the problem was exactly what you’re describing, it ended up being strangely soulless and not working at all, almost as if the idea got plastered over the top …

Mark: … that’s it.. yes…

Lisa: …it was stuck on it… and um… something that seemed so naturally connected.. that would work so well… actually became a little odd in the end and quite inconsistent.

Mark: I had a job where I had to count pieces of plastic into a bag. It was very glamorous it was for 2 pounds 60 an hour, it was way below minimum wage, it got very hot doing it because there were a couple of hot machines, and I used to spend the time thinking about how I would stage various Shakespeare plays. I was clearly quite pretentious in my early twenties, but I was imagining how you would … and I sat thinking … imagining. How could I get the English and the French in football shirts and the English were the … and the French … and I was like … this doesn’t work at all … right, lets set it in the first world war … right … hang on … no no… because the English and French are on the same side ….

Lisa: (laughter)

Mark: … right .. lets set it at the battle of Azincourt … oh! How unique! (Lisa is laughing a lot here) What if it was set, where it was set? And we might look at war through the play instead. But that … you know…

Lisa: It’s a subtle difference but you’re right… it makes… all the difference in the world in the end.

Mark: I think, my hero David Mamet has said that the problem is that we’ve kind of taken our skills away, and I’m going to blame higher education for that, and it’s not higher education itself, it’s the factory system, and a film is hard to teach, video, you know old-fashioned film making is actually quite difficult, digital film making on the other hand, can be taught to large classes … music requires highly skilled technicians… sound technology can be taught to a classroom full of people. It doesn’t mean the people learning aren’t skilled, but that is the nature of how we learn the arts. Um … so … how do you teach directing? Well you can’t in a university class, teach directing, there’s no time.

Someone in the UK was once fired for overteaching … you know … not that they were getting paid more or anything … they’re giving up their own time … overteaching. Teaching the arts requires one on one, it requires probably a personal relationship with the person you’re teaching and … you know … that contact is how you grow the skills. And I think it creates … you know … all very interesting … I remember reading this book on semiotics, and thinking, this feels like a very academic way of thinking … of course if you put something red up there, it will be signifying … things will be signified … but … it’s almost abstracting it from the craft of these arts in order to make it teachable or simple and so we have literally thousand and thousands of people who are partially educated in these things trying to make a career of it, and I can’t blame them for it, but they don’t have the craft training. Its hard enough getting into a … you know … good say acting class … or good directing class for three years … it’s very very difficult … we have drama schools and universities and while the universities are trying to be drama schools, they can’t be. So, yeah, I slightly blame higher education, just the system rather than teaching itself. If you’ve got to get fifty kids through this program, you can’t teach it in any depth, but we can lecture you for two hours on ideas about it which is not the same.

Part three where a love of theatre naturally collapses with a love of other literature and Mark and Lisa go wildly off track…

Lisa: Exactly the same thing is happening with writing as well. Um.. the winner of the Booker Prize last year, ‘The Luminaries’, was a book I loved very much .. I really enjoyed it, but it was extremely accurate by the numbers … um… that sounds like a bit of a funny thing to say because it’s also really uses numbers, and I don’t mean that in terms of its narrative arc, it just really looked like … is there enough suspense? Yes (tick) .. how is the characterisation going, well let’s go through them all and check. Yes. That’s done… blah blah blah … in the same way that … um… I read a book called ‘The Slap‘ by Christos Tsiolkas that to me, I could see the editor more than I could see the writer by the end. It seemed so heavily edited, that it was almost flat, it was weird. The same thing with ‘The Luminaries’ – both books I enjoyed , definitely, but the education, or the process was a little too obvious, I think, in the final product. There was an article (in the Guardian)  recently by Hanif Kureishi  who said this very same thing, and he teaches writing, and he says the classes are terrible …

Mark: …Yes yes…

Lisa: (laughs)

Mark: Hanif was actually given his first shot by a friend of mine, David. He was David’s PA at the riverside theatre…

Lisa: Oh yes?

Mark: And he was constantly … read my screenplay … read my screenplay … Fuck off … read my screenplay …  and finally David says “yes” and its ‘My beautiful Laundrette’.

Lisa: Oh my goodness…

Mark: And that was it, and David kind of helped put the wheels in motion.

Lisa: I really liked ‘Le Weekend’, I just saw it … it only opened here a few weeks back, so I got to see it a month or so ago … um … its hit and miss … his films, but that particular one I thought was really quite spectacular, because again, it was sublimely performed and he really needs good actors … but it was really interesting …

Mark: You know Hanif Kureishi really reminds me of … I get obsessed with Kureishi actually … when I was … I was engaged to a girl, and then we broke up and we became friends … and I found a Hanif Kureishi novel and it seemed to speak about the relationship … he was someone I could share my pain with …

Lisa: Yes.. he’s good on it too, I think, he’s controversial because he is so obviously writes from his own perspective and then claims he doesn’t (laughs) but who cares? I still … I agree … I like him very much …

Mark: There is something about ‘Intimacy’

Lisa: Yeah I know … ‘Intimacy’ was what I was going to mention …

Mark: … That’s so…

Lisa: … Yeah … yeah … I think it’s beautiful too … that’s interesting … I was given ‘Intimacy’ by an ex when we were in the relationship, so your experience obviously translates very well and that’s obviously part of what makes him so wonderful.

Mark: … It’s really strange … but um… I had ‘Intimacy’ in one hand and ‘My Life In Art’ in the other .. and I opened the Kureishi book… and within a line, he was talking about sitting in a bed with a copy of ‘My Life In Art’ in his hand …

Lisa: … Oh my goodness!

Mark: Yep. …that’s like… is he writing about me?

Lisa: Oh!

Mark: You know, I was quite freaked out …

Lisa: Oh wow … that is …. wow … very special … you’ll have to get a tattoo of it or something … (laughs) … that becomes part of your soul that kind of experience I think … wow…

Mark: Maybe I blame Hanif Kureishi for making me a little bit cynical about relationships … (laughs)

Lisa: I don’t know … I don’t think … its um… you don’t sound cynical… let me put it that way…

Mark: I’m rediscovering I think…

Lisa: Yes! you’re at the very beginning of something and that’s always a … an odd time …

Mark: Yeah … ok…

Part Four where Lisa and Mark find their way back to Stitching and discuss subversive cultural references…

Lisa: Right so … my next questions … I am loving this conversations, its great Mark. Every time I return to my questions they seem so cold and structured, compared with your free speaking – its great.

Um… so… this one.

It was interesting when I was looking up Stitching … there are a number of cultural references, particularly, the very controversial reference to the West Murders, which I can … is actually … after reading about Stitching and then reading about the West murders it seemed like a very natural connection, it made a lot of sense, particularly seeing as this extremely destructive couple are talking about having a child … um … and I found that very exciting as an idea. Its one of the things that really drew me to it originally, but my question is, that was in the 70’s, that true life crime, and I am wondering … because obviously that and the Auschwitz reference are two of the primary causes of contention and controversy in the play and I was wondering, how do you think a Sydney audience will respond, because I don’t know if it’s as immediate for a Sydney audience, I’m not sure that they will …

Mark: I’m not sure if its immediate for a 2014 audience in Glasgow to be honest …

Lisa: … Really? really…

Mark: Um … but I think … there are two things about the controversy. First thing the West’s, it blew up in the 90’s because the murders had been committed over a number of years … and the house was excavated … Cromwell Street is still in our minds … a friend of mine knew one of the victims and wrote a play about it ‘By Many Wounds which was a sort of way of exploring it…

Lisa: How does she feel about this play? What are her thoughts on it?

Mark: I don’t think I’ve spoken to her about it … um … I was concerned what my Jewish friends would think about the Auschwitz reference, and I invited my friend Laura, who is a lawyer … I felt quite conservative. I imagined I was directing that part of the play for Laura, and I think we’ve managed this, in a slightly different way, but still … both things in the play … neither of them are used to shock …

Lisa: Mmm… I think that’s part of what helps …

Mark: In both cases, in one case Abby is unravelling talking about the murders, and you can see that, and in no way is Stu supporting that, so to me that’s less controversial because you can see it in context. In the Auschwitz reference, I won’t go into because I don’t want to spoil it for anybody, but again, its Stu speaking in a  way that doesn’t glorify it, doesn’t trivialise it, it actually … you actually feel kind of sorry for him… when he says it. I mean I think it’s impossible to get away from that… you know… the Auschwitz reference was something I was incredibly… always feel pretty sensitive about … I don’t want to trivialise it in any way, and I don’t think we do, I think the way we handle it is to show … yeah … its hard to talk about it without giving it away. I think the difference with Sydney is you don’t have very many multiple child murders here so we couldn’t ask Neilson … sorry … I mean you haven’t caught many…

Lisa: … Ugh… that’s true… UGH .. hideous…

Mark: A massive country with a wide-spread population …

Lisa: Yeah yeah … no you’re absolutely right … you’ve hit the nail on the head there …

Mark: There’s nothing to compare it to. We asked Neilson for some changes … just small things…. TAB … dollar instead of pound …

Lisa: Right … of course … um … but still the West murders are particularly useful think because … I mean it’s not just the children and the incest and sex and those sorts of things, it’s also the couple which makes it so … they way they’re so … in some ways … seems to be expressed in the play, was kind of done there but externalised in a very common fashion … you can see … you can see a connection is what I am struggling to say …

Mark: Yeah… but I think … I think again … I think in the opening of the show one of the parents of the West … or The Moors murders ... that was the 70’s one …

Lisa: Yes! that’s right. That was the one that was really … so was it changed to the West’s was it later on?

Mark: No it’s both.

Lisa: Oh, that was what I couldn’t find in the research.

Mark: In the play, in a moment of unraveling, she asks him if they could be like that, but he doesn’t want anything to do with that, so its doesn’t glorify it in any way.

Lisa: Right, so they’re afraid of that possibility …

Mark: He is, he is very afraid of what …  but they’ve undergone a terrible tragedy of their own  at this point, and he has dealt with it one way and she hasn’t really dealt with it, so …

Lisa: Ok, so well basically to round out the answer to the question, is there enough there that Australian audiences are going top connect to, and you say yes. Has it been performed in Australia before?

Mark: Yes, yes it has.

Lisa: Do you have … I mean have there been, any sorts of preemptive concerns about the play, I mean its got its controversies, you haven’t had anybody say that they are worried, nervous …. it will be interesting to see how the audience respond.

Mark: Yes, I think it provokes the audience to think, I always believe its offensive if you’re offended by it, and its very difficult to control that, I mean there is swearing in it which might offends somebody.. it makes use of the “C” word which is very popular in Scotland.

End of Part One

Please go to part two here…

From Mark Westbrook’s Blog

Mark Westbrook is a professional acting coach, with clients ranging from beginners to Oscar, BAFTA and Emmy winners.

He was educated at the universities of Kent, Utrecht and Nottingham before his postgraduate director training at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama (now the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland) and actor training at the Atlantic Theater Company’s Acting School in New York City. He worked as a professional director in Britain, Ireland and The Netherlands. He is currently the Studio Director and Senior Acting Coach at Acting Coach Scotland, Scotland’s only full-time private acting studio.

He has been teaching private acting classes in Scotland since 2001. Before this Mark worked as the Head of Acting at a Scottish conservatory and was a University Lecturer in Drama (Acting and Playwrighting) for four years. In 2008, he founded Acting Coach Scotland, Scotland’s only private professional acting studio in the heart of Glasgow.

He has regularly offered advice in the Short List magazine, The Guardian, and in the Dear John column ofThe Stage Newspaper.

Mark is also writing a practical e-book on acting entitled ‘Truth in Action’ based on his popular blog, a daily acting resource for actors called The Acting Blog, which is a range of acting advice and tips for actors and other individuals in the creative industries. He has also recently finished the first draft of another eBook on acting Shakespeare Monologues for Auditions called Approaching Shakespeare.

Mark regularly delivers 5-day acting masterclasses to actors in Sydney, Australia for Acting Coach Australia.

Mark Westbrook has many professional directing credits, these include the Scottish professional premiere of Lee Hall’s Spoonface Steinberg  at the Tron Theatre and Scottish Tour  (see 4* Review) , The Dawn (The Arches), Misterman (The Arches), Matryoshka (The Arches), and The Emotional Life of Furniture (Tron Theatre). Recently he directed a production of Patrick Marber’s Closer at the Old Hairdressers from Broken Bird Theatre, and The Dumb Waiter at the ACS Studio for the Spartan Ensemble. In 2013, he will direct Oran Mor in 2013, Stitching at the Tron Theatre (see 4* Review), Glasgow in April 2013, in summer 2013, his production of The Dumb Waiter will play twice per day at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe (see 4* & 5*reviews).

In Autumn 2013, he directed Belongings by Morgan Lloyd Malcolm for Delirium Productions  at the Brian Cox Studio in Glasgow, and in October, he directed Blackbird by David Harrower at the Galway Theatre Festival for Mephisto Theatre based in Galway. This production went on to win the GTF touring award and will tour Ireland in Summer 2014. He will also gave an acting workshop entitled Rehearsal is the Death of Live Performance at the GTF in October. In March/April 2014, Mark’s Australian production of Stitching will be produced by Little Spoon Theatre company in Sydney, starring two of Mark’s former students, Lara Lightfoot and Wade Doolan.

 

 

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