GETTING TO KNOW: ZSUZSI SOBOSLAY

Zsuzsi has engaged in performance, education, community development and intercultural work for over 25 years. She has worked in London and across 4 Australian states, with artists, youth, very young children, and adults of all abilities. Special projects include work with members of the Forgotten and Stolen Generations, isolated elders, refugees, and people of profound and complex disabilities. Major performances include: actor in The Chain Bridge [Street Theatre, Canberra, 2015] and performer/deviser on two key projects dealing with contemporary themes of exile [Anthems and Angels (Street Theatre) and The Compassion Plays (Ainslie and Gorman Arts Centres), 2014-16). Performance collaborations with musicians visual artists, include for Tom Bass Sculpture Prize (2018); NPG Spring Festival (2018); East Space Gallery (2018);ANCA studios (2018) and Craft ACT (2015-17), and L’Optimisme, based on the life of dancer Jane Avril, for Enlighten 2013 at the NGA.

Winner of a National Trust ACT Heritage Award (2019) for a project on the anniversary of the first Moon Landing, she also received the Outstanding Excellence Award from the ACT Office of Multicultural Affairs (2018) for her extensive cultural development work with the Canberra South Sudanese Community.  Currently a Learning Facilitator at the National Portrait Gallery, she is completing a PhD on Care Ethics in participatory arts practices. For full CV, please go to   http://bodyecology.com.au/contact/cv/

THE STREET TALKED WITH ZSUZSI ABOUT HER WORK AS DIRECTOR ON THE DEVELOPMENT AND FIRST SHOWING OF NIGEL FEATHERSTONE’S THE STORY OF THE OARS.

THE STORY OF THE OARS IS A NEW AUSTRALIAN WORK BY WRITER NIGEL FEATHERSTONE. WHY IS IT IMPORTANT TO YOU TO BE WORKING ON BRINGING NEW STORIES TO THE STAGE?

The Story of the Oars is, in part, a work in progress about what happens when a received or accepted story comes under pressure and cracks. There is a mystery to this play: what really happened during an incident out on a mysterious lake, 30 years ago? There are many reasons why this incident happened; however, the reasons for the cover-up, for how it was explained away are as just as critical.

I have always been interested in hidden narratives. I have, consciously or unconsciously, sought to uncover such narratives in my work as a theatre-maker.  What I am suggesting is that many stories are not necessarily ‘new’ so much as ‘coexistent’ but invisible.  In Nigel’s play, the hidden manifests as a mystery. The dry earth of the lake cracks opens under the pressure of an anniversary. The play is a sophisticated kind of detective story.

My own recent work in playwrighting and performance has delved into the hidden stories of refugees. Some of my works [Anthems and Angels; and The Compassion Plays]uncover the buried narratives of my parents’ refugee histories.   In other projects, I have worked with people of the Forgotten and Stolen Generations.

My concern is especially that silenced histories are validated. I consider it important that they are validated in the voices that are true to participants. Truths [especially emotional truths] might need to be expressed in several ways. Song, dance, lines drawn in the sand might be equally important to ‘text’. Nigel’s ‘play with songs’ points to an awareness that received forms [of theatre, opera or music theatre] might elide significant narratives.

WHAT INTERESTED YOU ABOUT THE STORY OF THE OARS AS A WORK-IN-PROGRESS?

Caroline and Shelly realised I had the skills to tease out the subtexts and hidden impulses in Nigel’s work via embodied practices.  I have been a bodywork therapist for nearly thirty years. There is a difference to therapy and art, but both forms of engagement are about understanding how bodies reveal and conceal their own truths. Nigel is a novelist; he has a novelist’s attention to detail, metaphor and the interior worlds of characters. We needed to tease out the specific strengths that theatre, and the embodiment of the actors, can bring to process.   For example, what do we not need to say, but that actors can do to represent the subtext of a scene? Nigel’s writing is highly poetic, and of course poetry itself can bring ideas together with a chiselled brevity. Stage language can also be poetic, quickly demonstrating relationship(s) between cause and effect, secrets and spillage, people and things–often in spite of words.

Nigel of course has produced an earlier music theatre work, The Weight of Light. The current project demands a different relationship between text, bodies and music to that earlier work. Nigel brings an extraordinary openness to process, to what we can discover together. I relish working like this: I relished working with him and the team.

THIS YEAR’S FIRST SEEN SEASON IS BEING DEVELOPED AND SHOWN VIA ZOOM. WHAT ARE THE CHALLENGES IN DIRECTING A PLAY IN THIS WAY?

Each actor had to find their way to being comfortable with this technology. Part of my task was to help them with this.  During rehearsals, I started to understand what the medium was capable of.  Once I understood that it’s a kind ‘radio play’ with visuals–that stillness was an important factor–helped us sculpt the process and the performance rhythms.  

What Zoom does is, ironically, highlight how much we want to be in touch with each other; the stakes then becomes what intimacy is this format capable of? and how do we achieve this? What is our new tool-kit?

We are still in discussion around how to unpack these experiences, learnings and ideas, but the medium is, surprisingly, more fluid and flexible than we all thought.

For one, I felt it allowed me an extraordinarily clear perception of what the actors were doing within their individual ‘frames’.  Secondly, the ‘chat’ tool allowed me to communicate with immediacy and brevity with writer and dramaturg during the running of a scene: ‘this is fabulous: this is unclear’.  The chat function was a ‘stage whisper’ between us, whilst I kept working with the actors on the ground.  For the presentation on Friday, the task was to ensure that we communicated via but also transcended the medium.  That became a process of identifying what clutters communication. The exploration was exciting and provocative; one spectator wrote in the chat that the reading was ‘surprisingly intimate’. Essentially, Zoom is not live theatre, not film nor video, but something of its own, an in-between…

In some ways, finding the miracle of what is possible via technology is magnificent, in other ways, it reminds me that, in our day to day interactions, we have so many opportunities, as well as miss opportunities, to be true and honest in relation to each other.

TALK US THROUGH THE IDEAS YOU HAVE BEEN WORKING WITH IN BRINGING NIGEL FEATHERSTONE’S SCRIPT TO LIFE?

In Canberra, we live near this extraordinary, ancient place [Lake George: the place Nigel refers to but does not name] that does what it does. It floods, it dries, and challenges us.  The Lake both supports and confounds ‘industry’. I have had a good friend—a farmer– live, thrive, almost collapse, recover and then die on this ‘long dry plain’.

Nature does not always reveal what serves our needs. To my mind, Nigel’s work sharpens its teeth against all of this: our needs and presumptions; but he also displays an extraordinary compassion to sufferings of human experience, as if they are worthy of our attention.

The qualifier here is the ‘as if’; Nigel is acutely aware that, against the depth of knowledge and suffering in Indigenous knowledge, there is much we don’t know and can’t say.

The play asks us to journey into the mysteries of our existence. Do our human actions matter? Does ‘honesty’ count? We humans like to think we are important. Are we?

WHAT ARE YOUR GUIDING PRINCIPLES FOR DIRECTION OF A THEATRE WORK?

I delved into impulses and subtext and sought to help demonstrate the strengths of theatre practice: what is can SHOW, rather than be forced to ‘tell’. I devised many processes with individual actors, and in pairs and quadrants, to help demonstrate this. For example, with the character of Piera–born to the Lake, one of those suffering the trauma, but one who has survived and thrived beyond it—I asked her to pour glasses of wine for all the newcomers to the story, but also to her family, both present and deceased. Seeing the wine fill each glass; her reverence for her mother, her caution with the newcomer; and her equal distribution of harvest ‘shares’ with her daughters—was a revelation to us all.  Her actions demonstrated the exact nature of her relationships with each and all. I relish the way theatre processes [often about how actions can reveal subconscious beliefs and truths] can help uncover key drivers to both action and character and reveal the subtleties as well.

TELL US ABOUT YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH THE STREET.

Moving to Canberra in 2001, I was in a bit of gaga land by dint of injury, child-bearing and child-rearing and other family matters until about 2009 when I was invited in as librettist to the Street’s production of Capital by composer Fiona Fraser.

From there, I began to re-engage –independently and through the Street–in several projects, including my interactive work with musicians, and homed in on the experiences of immigrants and exiles.

I mentored several young artists and was involved in a few First Seens.  A highlight was performing in Tom Davis’ The Chain Bridge [directed by Caroline Stacey for the Street in 2015] and was engaged as movement director onAlana Valentine’s In Cold Light in 2017 [also directed by Caroline]. It is a rare treat, (unfortunately), to work through to final production, and have all that meticulous work pay off. I wish our funders understood more clearly the depth of process involved in bringing great productions to light.  With reference to what I have stated above, ‘greatness’ is not about ‘fitting in’, so much as how deeply it shakes us to realise where the truth lies.

WHAT KIND OF THEATRE DO YOU WANT TO MAKE?

I love working with musicians; I also love language–although at times I have an ambivalent relationship to it as well. I want to make a theatre where all the senses work together and shake us to our foundations. Life is insane, and beautiful; intense, distanced, and dissonant. And challenging. What we need is what touches us. In the Story of the Oars process I have been surprised and relieved to understand that we can still be touched, even through these current, vast restrictions on our lives.