GETTING TO KNOW: KARLA CONWAY

Karla Conway is a Director, Dramaturg and Theatre-maker. She studied Theatre at the University of Missouri-Columbia, USA and completed her postgrad in Directing at NIDA – the National Institute of Dramatic Art. Karla has also worked professionally in numerous leadership roles, as Artistic Director/CEO of Canberra Youth Theatre, Creative Producer at Warehouse Circus, and now in programming for Discovery & Learning at Canberra Theatre Centre. Alongside this, Karla continues to freelance as a director/dramaturg of theatre, contemporary dance and circus for professional artists and companies including The Street, Australian Dance Party and Warehouse Circus

Karla has directed/created over 30 contemporary productions across Australia. Among her many works include two international collaborations (UK & NZ), interstate and international tours and a body of work amassing over 40 award nominations and wins, including 3 Canberra Critics Circle Awards. Her emerging artists have successfully transitioned into internationally reputable training institutions including NIDA, WAAPA, VCA, ACA, Toi Whakaari (NZ) and direct into the professional film and theatre industries in Australia and abroad.

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THE STREET TALKS TO KARLA CONWAY ABOUT A NEW WORK BY AWARD-WINNING PLAYWRIGHT, ALICE BIRCH AND THE NEW GENERATION OF CANBERRA ACTORS BRINGING THE PLAY OF OUR TIMES TO THE STAGE.

WHY REVOLT. SHE SAID. REVOLT AGAIN?

From my first reading of the opening scene of the play, I knew I had to direct this play. There was no warming up into this work – from page one, it just shot out of the starting gate and didn’t stop. The language cut straight through to my core – power oozed from every word and captured the anger, the frustration and the mental exhaustion that I had been experiencing over the past few years – most potently since the election of Trump. Alice Birch’s form-bending, 3-day masterpiece had me hooked. Her provocation at the top of the play – Most importantly this play should not be well behaved – sounded like a call to arms and given the current climate and political landscape, it felt like it was a play that had to be staged now. It slices through tension with humour; it explodes language, reframes the narrative and calls all of us to listen, to take responsibility and to take action. It is urgent theatre – the best kind!

HOW DOES THE PRE-PROFESSIONAL PROGRAM-STREET COMPANY WORK?

Early this year we held auditions to identify a tight group of highly skilled actors who showed professional potential. These actors ranged from 18 – 27years, each having significant training or experience and who showed readiness to transition into the professional industry. The first half of the year was spent developing a strong rehearsal room methodology. We worked our way through a scripted piece, mirroring professional rehearsal room conditions and tackling the work each session from a different directorial approach. This was designed to strengthen the actors’ agility and confidence to walk into any rehearsal room, be able to adapt to any technique, be open, responsive and valuable contributors to the rehearsal process. The second half of this year has been spent in rehearsal on REVOLT – applying those techniques to a work which will become their professional debut.

TELL US MORE ABOUT YOUR YEAR WITH THESE YOUNG ACTORS?

I have been extremely fortunate with this group of actors – they have been challenged at every step of the way this year and they have come through with resilience, determination and great humour. We had a lot of fun in the early part of the year getting to know each other and exploring the techniques they were familiar with from their training. As we moved into new territory, each actor faced their own hurdles in coming to understand who they are as artists, how they best like to make work and what kind of work they want to make. Undertaking this journey is a little like spending a year in a washing machine or being dumped in a year-long wave – often confronting, inspiring, exhausting and uplifting in equal measure. For every member of the company, myself included, REVOLT has demanded everything we have in our arsenal – their hard work through the year has prepared them for it and they’re ready.

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

From the outset, we wanted to clarify the idea of feminism being about raising women to equal status with men, not about man hating or gender superiority. We looked at the work strategically to understand Birch’s desire for action over thought and identified the key arc to be from not listening to truly hearing, for the first time. Our goal was to activate the scenes in a physical way – to explore the grey area between literality and the abstract. In each scene we were highly conscious about our responsibility to the audience, finding ways to tackle the most challenging scenes with a theatricality and sensitivity that implied brutality and that felt the weight of that brutality without descending to the literal – it is a hard balance to strike.

WHAT ARE THE CHALLENGES FOR THE COMPANY IN CREATING THIS WORK FOR THE STAGE?

This is not a linear narrative – for three out of four acts there are no listed characters at all. The company have had to systematically work through the text line by line to identify every thread of character or threads of thought that exist across the work, establish a set of given circumstances, negotiate who might play what role and then determine who will say what line, in order to construct meaning in each scene. As we have worked collaboratively on the floor, we have made new discoveries, changed lines around on the fly and constructed new meanings, depending on whose voice the line comes from. The actors have taken on an immense responsibility in the collaborative process – it can be frustrating at times, but it’s always intensely rewarding, when you finally hear the scene soar!

WHAT HAS BEEN THE CREATIVE PROCESS IN BRINGING THIS PLAY TO THE STREET STAGE?

Before tackling rehearsal we undertook the process above – there was a lot of exploration on the floor to aid us in this work – exploring each scene physically to find the undercurrent at play against the text. Once we had assigned all the text to the actors, we entered a new phase of exploration using a combination of processes – grid work, physical sequencing and etudes all explored in silence, to wring every action and tactic from the work until the actors had nothing left to use but their words. With a ton of material we then set to work crafting the show – the approaches by the company are as eclectic as the forms employed in the play – with just on a week to go we’re still refining, still making changes, still searching for the elusive moment that tells us each scene is done.

WHAT HAS BEEN DISCOVERED IN WORKING ON REVOLT?

One of the strongest discoveries has been about notions of consent. Birch systematically tackles women’s relationship to sexuality, marriage, work, violence and intergenerational damage within a dominant patriarchal frame. We entered each scene talking about the surface context of each scene, but left it reflecting on who gets to speak, to make decisions, to choose what and how things happen with (or without consent). For me, the play is not just about expressing outrage around the treatment of women in all these contexts, but it is about the long game – what is the strategy to secure change beyond the protest and beyond the outrage? We have been driven to move past the tropes and seek to find active tactics that can elicit change.

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

  • As humans, we never know what we might be capable of under a particular set of high stakes circumstances, so as theatre-makers, we should never ever assume we know what a character would or wouldn’t do in a scene. Everything is on the table – characters have a way of surprising the actors, so I’m looking for those moments all the time.
  • I work a lot in silence. Starving actors of their words in a scene is at the heart of my exploratory process. In the silence, I am finding the physical language of the work, the world of the play, the rules and the current that runs beneath the text. When the words finally do come, I find they always have more potency and power than if we start with the text.
  • No scripts in hands, ever.
  • Don’t learn your lines before we have finished exploring the scene.
  • There is no right or wrong. Just choices and stronger choices.
  • Tactics. Eye contact. Repeat. J

WHO AND WHAT DOES REVOLT SPEAK TO?

REVOLT speaks to all of us. It speaks to the deep entrenchment of patriarchal power structures that inhibit society’s movement toward true equality. It gives voice to the silenced, it illuminates the long term, intergenerational damage that is sustained as a result of one violent act. It challenges us to consider fully, the role we play in perpetuating these entrenched values through our privilege; our complicity when we don’t call out unacceptable practices and behaviours and our laziness when we share a social media post but don’t affect any meaningful change in our actions.

It is vitally important that this work be seen by men and women as it is our collective responsibility to raise the consciousness, take responsibility for our thoughts, language and action and move toward change together.

TELL US ABOUT YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH THE STREET.

I have worked with The Street in many different facets since I moved to Canberra in 2010. When I was Artistic Director of Canberra Youth Theatre, we collaborated to co-produce the world premiere of Emma Gibson’s Johnny Castellano is Mine, which won a Canberra Critics Circle award, and then developed the co-presenting partnership for Dead Men’s Wars – a co-production between CYT and Long Cloud in Wellington for the Centenary of WWI. In 2016 I was invited to present the Masterclass series in a director-led ensemble over the year; and I have worked as a dramaturg, initially in the Hive Program and then subsequently with Peter Matheson in First Seen developments on Tom Davis’ Faithful Servant and Michele Lee’s Rice. I was Co-Chair of the ACT Theatre Network with Caroline Stacey for a number of years here and was thrilled when I was asked to take on this new role as Program Director of The Street Company after a brief hiatus having my children.

WHAT KIND OF THEATRE DO YOU WANT TO MAKE?

Urgent Theatre. Theatre that moves – that speaks to our time, that deals with big ideas, the big challenges we face, as humanity moves deeper into the 21st century. I love bold images, powerful words, high stakes, and physically demanding work that makes audiences have to lean forward in their seat, that keeps them running to keep up, that is local and global.

WHAT IS INSPIRING YOU CREATIVELY AT THE MOMENT?

I love the work of Dimitris Papaioannou – an incredible theatre and visual artist who makes mind blowing images on stage. I’m listening to the philosophies of Alan Watt – whose intricate assertions challenge my thinking on a daily basis; I’ve just finished working on a site-specific contemporary dance work and am about to delve into work on a new musical with a collaborator in the US – so I’m taking inspiration from the swirling thoughts and processes from each of these disciplines as we enter final production week for REVOLT.

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