Christopher Samuel Carroll is an Irish theatre-artist based in Canberra. As an actor, he has worked with companies all over Ireland, and as artistic director of Bare Witness Theatre Company, creates physical theatre in ensembles and as a solo performer.
Described as “the master of the solo performance”(Canberra Critics’ Circle), Christopher has built a reputation as a daring and skilled creator of original one-man shows. His Butoh adaptation of Paradise Lost, called “a culturally shattering event” (City News), was developed during a five-week residency at Belconnen Arts Centre, before touring to Adelaide and Perth, where it was nominated for The West Australian Arts Editor Award and shortlisted for the Best Theatre award at Fringe World 2017. His Victorian blockbuster, Early Grave, Fashionably Late, sold-out at Smith’s Alternative after a week-long run at The Butterfly Club in Melbourne as part of their curated summer program in December 2016.
Since moving to Canberra in 2016, Christopher has also appeared in Everyman Theatre Company’s The Normal Heart at The Courtyard Studio; Body Ecology’s Anthems and Angels at Ainslie and Gorman Arts Centres; and most recently in The Mermaid, a performance art piece with his partner, Hanna Cormick, at the Art, Not Apart festival in New Acton. Together, over the past year, they have been developing a large-scale work around illness and disability through The Hive script development program at The Street Theatre, with the mentorship of dramaturg Peter Matheson.
Christopher is a graduate of The Samuel Beckett Centre, Trinity College Dublin, and Ecole Internationale du Theatre Jacques Lecoq, Paris.
The Street talked to Christopher as he prepares to go into creative development for Icarus, a wordless solo piece based on the true story of a refugee’s epic journey, an excerpt of which will be first seen publically on 22 April.
YOU MAKE WORK FOR YOURSELF AND OTHERS TO PERFORM. HOW DID THIS BEGIN AND HOW DOES THIS INFORM YOUR WORK?
I’ve always had the nature of a maker, whether that was drawing, writing, or organising events. When I had come through my training as an actor and was trying to forge a career, the powerlessness of waiting for the phone to ring really didn’t suit me. So early on, I knew I wanted to be getting my hands dirty in all aspects of creation, a direction which brought me on to further training in the real craft of theatre-making at Ecole Jacques Lecoq in Paris.
With experience came confidence, and gradually, more conviction in what I wanted to say. I think that having an appreciation of everything that goes into making a piece of theatre makes me a more sensitive and, hopefully, a less egotistical performer. These days, I’m much more aware of the bigger picture than when I was a young actor, fixating on my own role.
The move to doing solo shows began with seeing some incredible solo performers and being fascinated by what this particular form of theatre can accomplish – there’s something very pure in it for me that connects to the ancient role of the storyteller. That, and it’s a lot easier to schedule rehearsals with a cast this small.
WHAT INSPIRES YOU ABOUT THEATRE AS A FORM?
I still get excited by the magic that can happen when all these strangers come together and give themselves completely to a shared experience. Nowadays, attention is a more and more precious resource, so theatre is remarkable in the way it offers you the chance to commit your attention and free yourself from distraction for an hour or two – and perhaps be a part of something extraordinary.
I believe that heightened state of attention is a great starting point for something to happen: to make an impression, to move people, to penetrate into the human condition and open up a different point of view – maybe even change someone. And its very roughness makes it a participatory event – the players only offer an invitation, and the audience has to be willing to make-believe, to be generous with their imagination. In that way, every play is a fascinating social experiment in cultivating empathy.
YOUR WORK, ICARUS, IS THE FIRST TO BE SHOWN AS PART OF THE STREET’S FIRST SEEN 2018 PROGRAM. TELL US MORE ABOUT THE GENESIS OF THE IDEA.
It came from an article I read five years ago about the remarkable story of a stowaway who had attempted to reach the U.K. concealed in the landing gear of a plane, only to lose consciousness at the high altitude and fall to his death in a London suburb as it made its descent. Researching further, I found many other similar cases of people, desperate to escape their circumstances, taking this same unimaginable risk – most of them dying in the attempt.
The story stuck with me, and somewhere along the line, came together in my mind with the myth of Icarus: the young man, trapped in the Labyrinth, who soared beyond its walls on his father’s waxen wings, and met his end by flying too close to the sun.
WHAT NARRATIVES ARE YOU EXPLORING?
There are millions of incredible stories of desperation, courage and hope in the epic journeys that people make every day for a basic standard of life that many of us take for granted; none of which is reflected in the statistics of refugee quotas, or the treatment of the human beings in detention centres. I’m interested to explore the transcendent and tragic nature of hope that springs from crisis; and its place in the wretched reality of the refugee’s experience.
The story follows the journey of trying to escape untenable conditions in the search for a better life, with all the determination and naivety that involves. However, it’s a story I’ll be telling without words – much of my work in the past has been highly physical, but for this project, I wanted to push myself to the limits of what can be expressed with only the body. It’s my hope that with this form, I can tell this challenging story with a lightness of touch, and open a door to something in this extreme situation that becomes universal.
YOU ARE DEVELOPING THE WORK WITH A SOUND DESIGNER. WHAT WILL BE THIS PROCESS?
We’re going to find out! Once I’d established that I wanted this project to be a wordless piece, the role of sound became very important as a means of contextualising and colouring the world I’ll be trying to create. My taste tends towards the liveness of theatre – the experience that’s happening then and there, in front of the audience’s eyes (and ears). So even though the eventual aim for the piece is to create a complete soundtrack involving a lot of pre-recorded material, I want the presence of sound to be very reactive to the action on-stage, like a whole other cast of characters.
That may involve sound effects, music, or more abstract responses to my movement – and hopefully many more possibilities that I can’t imagine, but which we’ll discover through the process. I like to work ‘on the floor’, trying out ideas, improvising physically, and collaborating with an attitude of “let’s see.” I’ll be working for the week with Kimmo Vennonen, a sound designer based here in Canberra who will come with a lot of his own ideas to throw into the mix. We’ll be having some conversations about the kinds of things we’d like to create. Then we’ll jam, and see what comes out.
WHAT ARE YOU LOOKING TO ACHIEVE WITH THIS CREATIVE DEVELOPMENT?
I’d like to try out this bucket of ideas I’ve been carrying around, to see what works and what doesn’t, and test the possibilities for this creative collaboration between physical theatre and sound. For a piece like this that is so highly physical, it’s important to get out of my own head and trust what my body will come up with in the space (which is usually better than anything I can think of, anyway).
First Seen will be a great launchpad for the project. I’m hoping to arrive at the end of the week with a skeleton structure for the piece, something that gives me a clearer sense of which aspects of the story to focus on, and something of a ‘rulebook’ for myself in terms of the physical language, which I’ll then follow in developing the material further.
WHAT DOES THE FIRST SEEN PROGRAM OFFER AN ARTIST LIKE YOU?
Encouragement, for one, that the idea I have is worth pursuing. At times, being an artist can feel quite isolating; it involves a lot of rejection, and you often feel you’re being kept at arm’s length by the people you’re trying to convince to give you an opportunity to make your art. Feeling valued as an artist in your community, and being supported in your work, renews your determination to keep at it.
I’ve never made anything that has come out perfectly formed, as if some bolt of inspiration was all it took to realise an indisputable work of genius. It’s always rough, messy, imperfect – never complete, only abandoned. For theatre, as a living art form, it makes such a difference to be able to wrestle with the ideas in the rehearsal room, and be working towards some form of presentation before an audience. First Seen will help me get the engine going on this project, and make informed choices about the direction it needs to go.
WHAT ARE YOUR GUIDING PRINCIPLES FOR WRITING A NEW WORK FOR THEATRE?
Firstly, that it’s a piece of theatre that I would like to see – very often, a kind of theatre that I feel is missing: a story that needs to be heard, or an idea of what theatre can be that is too rarely seen. Because I’ve often written for theatre as a performer-producer, I’m usually thinking of where the eventual piece might be performed, and for whom. I need to be able to answer the recurring question of “Why this, now?”
If it’s a piece that I’ll be performing in, it also has to fulfil a personal need, to challenge me as a performer: to not be repeating myself, and be pushing me outside my comfort zone, where I’m not quite sure I’ll be able to pull it off. There should always be that danger in performance; I don’t believe that an audience comes to see an artist be comfortable, repeating what they already know they can do. You come to see someone at the ragged edge of their capabilities, being vulnerable, risking failure, transcending their limitations. You’ve got to put those challenges in front of yourself, and take a leap of faith that you’ll grow to meet them.
WHAT KIND OF THEATRE DO YOU WANT TO MAKE?
Whatever’s next! I love that theatre can be so many different things – it can be entertainment, an emotional release, a provocation for new ideas, a dissection of the way we live… so I’m a bit of a magpie, and can’t resist being drawn to all these different forms.
At the moment, aside from Icarus, I’m plotting a one (wo)man cabaret piece based on personal experiences of a long-distance relationship; a full-scale play for six actors with my partner, Hanna, about illness and disability; and I have a script written for a two-person drama about the confused and destructive expectations of the millennial generation. So, all of that in the year ahead, hopefully.
More broadly, I want to make work that leaves people breathless, and lives on in the memory for days, months, or years to come – whether because it made them laugh, or cry, or they recognised something about themselves in that moment, and were never quite the same afterwards. I remember those shows that I’ve witnessed as an audience member, and they still live on in me.
WHAT IS INSPIRING YOU IN THE PERFORMING ARTS?
The resourcefulness and resilience of so many of the artists I know is a constant inspiration. The incredible work that people do, without recognition, without support, just to make the thing happen and share something good, is awesome.
Recently, I’ve been getting turned on to Cabaret as a form, after seeing some incredible performers like Le Gateau Chocolat and Reuben Kaye when I was touring in Perth and Adelaide last year.
WHAT ARE YOU READING AND WATCHING CURRENTLY?
I’m usually reading three or four books at once, so it’s like flicking through TV channels depending on my mood… At the moment, they are: a debut novel for young adults by a girl I grew up with back home in Dublin, Sarah Maria Griffin (we don’t all have triple-barrel names, honest) called Spare and Found Parts; the autobiography of my favourite stand-up comedian, Phil Kay, called The Wholly Viable, which is a mad ramble full of frenetic adventures and profound wisdom – I don’t think you’ll get it on amazon, I gave him ten bucks for it in Perth last year; Crime and Punishment by Dostoyevsky, which is a surprisingly easy read, but so insidiously dark it leaves you feeling stained every time you enter into it; and the audiobook of The World of Yesterday, the Austrian novelist, Stefan Zweig’s, autobiography – a fascinating picture of European life in the early 20th century.
I don’t watch much TV, but I usually have a few albums in rotation: FKA Twigs makes some satisfyingly complex electronic pop; the jazz saxophonist Donny McCaslin (whose band played on Bowie’s last album, Blackstar) played one of the best gigs of my life a few months ago; The Everly Ills, an amazing surf-rock duo out of Sydney worth checking out; and my brother’s band, Shrug Life, exponents of sublimely crafted indie-rock with lyrics so clever I wish – and very often, claim – I wrote them myself.
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