GETTING TO KNOW: DYLAN VAN DEN BERG

Dylan Van Den Berg is a Palawa writer/actor living on Ngunnawal land. His writing for performance includes Milk (First Seen, 2019), The Camel (Blacklist Theatre Co., 2019), why am i a fish? (UNE, 2018), and Blue: a misery play (First Seen, 2017). This year, he was selected to participate in Playwriting Australia’s masterclass with Patricia Cornelius. As an actor, Dylan has worked with Pocket Theatre (NYC), Jigsaw Theatre Company, Gearstick Theatre, and has appeared at The Street in several new works: In Loco Parentis by Helen Machalias (2013), Where I End and You Begin by Cathy Petocz (2014), and a number of rehearsed readings. Dylan graduated from the ANU with a Bachelor of Arts (Drama) and trained in improvisation at the State University of New York and Upright Citizens Brigade. He is currently completing an MA (UNE) with a focus on Indigenous dramaturgies. 

The Street talked to Dylan as he is about to play the role of Gregor in Steven Berkoff’s adaptation of Metamorphosis.

YOU ARE PLAYING A MAN WHO WAKES UP TO FIND HIMSELF IN THE BODY OF AN INSECT IN METAMORPHOSIS. WHAT ATTRACTED YOU TO THE ROLE OF GREGOR?

Surely every actor dreams of playing a bug? Even just a little bit? For the method actors among us, a preparatory period living in the garden, scoffing aphids and carting around hundreds of offspring is perhaps a stretch too far. However, for the more conventional thespian, there’s still delight to be found in messing around with such a curious brief. What are the physical and vocal possibilities? And, more importantly still, how do you find truth for a non-human character? Although drawn to the challenges of the role, I’m still conscious of portraying such a famous insect: Gregor comes with a century of literary (and thanks to Berkoff, a good fifty years of theatrical) baggage and that weighs a little heavily on me. However, working on this production, with Adam’s consultative approach, has been particularly freeing: we’re not restricted to Kafka’s life or Berkoff’s time, so I’ve had the chance to create my own version of Gregor.

WHY DO YOU THINK METAMORPHOSIS IS A WORK FOR OUR TIMES?

As a writer, I often consider the elements that make a piece of theatre ‘great’ -lasting and potent- in the hope I can accidently write something like that one day and support my ideal retirement in Switzerland. It’s easy to talk about ‘themes’ as the power behind longevity but I think that alone doesn’t quite cut it. The form of a play or piece of theatre, I think, is what sustains it. Consider Arthur Miller’s All My Sons or Marsha Norman’s ‘night Mother – arguably, the stories no longer carry the devastating force they once did, but the masterful structures and inspired language keep us returning to mine their depths and fill the gaps forged by time. Metamorphosis employs an insect to restore vibrancy to our self-examination, opening up a wellspring of allegorical possibilities for contemporary theatre-makers. Drawing from the western theatrical tradition, Berkoff’s adaptation is a melting pot of form and genre – a diverse framework from which to explore contemporary concerns. Its themes and form encourage reinvention, and I think this is to what it owes its continued relevance.

TALK US THROUGH THE PROCESS OF BRINGING THE BUG IN YOU TO LIFE. WHAT IS YOUR CREATIVE PROCESS IN A WORK LIKE THIS?

Because we’re exploring the possibility that Gregor’s transformation is one towards a greater humanity rather than away from it, my approach has been primarily to focus on telling the story of a young man who accepts suffering as a matter of course, and the implications of his passivity. There are of course physical elements to turn my mind to – capturing his ‘insectness’ and communicating the horror of his transformation – which has been a process of discovery during rehearsals. Indeed, as an ensemble, we’re all responsible for creating both the ‘insect’ and the grimy world from which it emerges – and so it’s been exciting to work with (see: exploit the talents of) Ruth, Chris and Stefanie over the last few weeks. 

WHERE DOES DYLAN MEET GREGOR?

There aren’t a huge number of intersections between Gregor and I (getting me on a train in the early hours of the morning would be an incredible feat) but we do share a desire for order and a sense of obligation to our family/community. Gregor, like me, is also rather fond of milk – perhaps you’ll catch us sipping on a glass of full-cream after the show.

THERE ARE FOUR ACTORS IN THE WORK. WHAT HAVE YOU DISCOVERED TOGETHER SO FAR?

As I mentioned, the atmosphere conducive for believing what it is that’s taking place – an atmosphere that supports the audience in their willing suspension of disbelief – has been a collaborative effort. Tight physical directions, offered by Adam, in combination with an organically emerging sense of physical language within our ensemble are key elements of this. There are physical and verbal echoes throughout the script, and we’ve tried to make space for them to ring out across scenes.

WHAT IS IMPORTANT FOR YOU TO A SUCCESSFUL AND FRUITFUL RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN AN ACTOR AND DIRECTOR? AND WITH AN ENSEMBLE OF ACTORS?

I work with directors in both acting and writing capacities, and what I’m after is fairly consistent regardless of the hat I’m wearing: shared excitement about the work and its relevance, a clear communication of vision, balanced negotiation of differences and a mutual respect for the roles we’re playing and the skill-sets involved (allowing space for people to work to their strengths is key).

TELL US ABOUT YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH THE STREET.

My relationship with The Street spans quite a few years now. I’ve watched, I’ve acted, I’ve written and feel very privileged to have been offered the opportunity to develop my strengths as an artist right here on Childers St— the support and encouragement they offer local and emerging artists is something quite special. Investing in local talent leads to a more vibrant arts community and The Street plays such a strong role in achieving this in Canberra.

WHAT’S INSPIRING YOU CREATIVELY AT THE MOMENT?

My MA is focused on Indigenous dramaturgies and so questions relating to what that means and might look like are pretty central to my practice as a writer. I’m interested in stories that explore the challenges and nuances of peoples’ lived experience of the reconciliation process. I’m inspired by the goal of making minority experience understood more fully and therefore contributing positively to this ongoing exchange. I think it’s a very exciting time to be an Aboriginal artist and hope to do my bit to make strengthen Indigenous Arts practice in our nation’s capital.

WHAT ARE YOU READING AND WATCHING CURRENTLY?

I’m on the verge of finishing up Sarah Maddison’s incredible (and vital) evisceration of settlers’ attempts to ‘complete the colonial project’, The Colonial Fantasy (2019). Her writing is making me feel bolder about messages I infuse my work with and it’s certainly been urging me to sit down and write more frequently.

On a less serious note, I’ve been really enjoying Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s spin-off series Fleabag. I find her hysterical and love the way in which she’s taken more typically theatrical conventions into the modern realm of television. It’s fun and adventurous. Would watch anything she’s involved in.

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