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February 27, 2006 | by  | in Features |
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The Reason for the Season

For all the culture vultures out there the Arts Festival is a pretty magnificent time. We think it’s pretty neat up here at Salient too, so we sent resident theatre buff Jules Van Cruysen to get deep with local boy Duncan Sarkies and catch up with British theatre director Emma Rice ahead of their highly anticipated festival shows.

Duncan Sarkies is alarmingly unassuming and understated. I arrive a little early to our interview and he is obviously in the middle of something. He sits me down, makes me a cup of tea and plays me extracts from his new show Instructions for Modern Living before getting back to whatever he was doing.

The first thing that is striking about the track is the accompanying music: it is soft, fluid, elegant and haunting, not to mention extremely dark. This is the work of Nic McGowan, Sarkies’s co-collaborator, whose most recent work has been the (infamous) Synth Birds of Dawn project in Island Bay. Among other things, McGowan is using a Moog “the Rolls Royce” Theremin, a bazaar musical instrument, one of the first electronic instruments to have been invented. The Theremin was made most famous by The Beach Boys in “Good Vibrations” but has since been used by Led Zeppelin and The Nine Inch Nails. “The Theremin is an electrical device,” Sarkies begins, “that when you take your hand away it uses radio waves to create sound, so you play it by shifting your hand away from it, so the further you hand is away from the instrument the higher the note gets. It’s a crazy piece of electronic machinery, it’s truly a magical instrument… The way he plays sounds very late night to me… It’s a late night navel gaze.”

Before long, a group of characters start talking about their supposedly mundane lives and the problems they are having with a certain co-worker and only gradually do you begin to click that the characters inhabit the weird world of Sarkies’s mind and are really astronauts on board a space station, bitching about an inconsiderate team mate, their frustrations magnified by the cramped (yet ironically vast) space which they inhabit. Then you realize that all of the characters are being voiced by Sarkies simultaneously using both old fashioned voice modulation and a more high-tech approach. Sarkies is humorously unspecific about the gadgetry he uses, “we have a voice changer, operator, system device which I don’t know the name of that changes my voice to get various pitches… There are standard stock characters that fill out the show and most of the pieces are character based… [The characters] are a little bit archetypal to be honest in that they start from an archetypal place. But then if you listen to talkback radio you will hear archetypal characters calling in. I guess I’m just going into their land and giving them their soapbox.” So, Sarkies’s characters are part archetype, part invention, and completely synthesized by the machinery he uses to create them. “I access a lot of characters through that,” he muses.

Where did you get the inspiration for Instructions for Modern Living?
“I bet my mother is one inspiration because she really does live at home alone, and I guess my insomnia is another, in that when I can’t get to sleep at night those are the times where we are all at our loneliest and by ourselves. I really, I mean, everyone gets very reflective or a lot of people get very reflective and people face their fears in the middle of the night. And I guess have been interested for a while in how people can get isolated and how that aspect of life can be scary with that feeling of being very alone at a given moment. And I have made a show with Nic that are set in those hours, Nic as a bright musician seems to play in that style as well and the two of us seem to take each other to places that surprise ourselves, that are quite thematically linked.”

How did Instructions for Modern Living come about?
The duo got together while they were working with dance company Soapbox Productions, whose Artistic Director Raewyn Hill was a mutual friend. “We met each other and clicked,” states Sarkies. “And so it was as simple as ‘hey, let’s have a jam together!’ And from that it just sort mushroomed. Pretty quickly we knew we had something cool, because a lot of people we played stuff to, you know, ratified that. And we knew we were well on the right track. It has grown and grown and grown like a plant that we are constantly watering and now it is becoming a mammoth bloody vine that is strangling the tree… It’s a bit like being in a band actually, we really have a sort of commitment to each other that will go for the next four or five years I’d say. I mean, as a minimum anyway. And sort of evolve as it is going to evolve… Effectively, what you are going to see is two years of material boiled down to a ‘best of’ hour and twenty minutes of what we can put together that is thematically linked.”

Sarkies and McGowan use an extremely collaborative creative process to create their work: rather than working on their respective disciplines alone and coming together they synchronize their works. They create both the music and the texts together at the same time and for this reason Sarkies believes that they have created a much more fluid and interconnected work.

“I don’t write the words before we get together. In fact, I haven’t seen, if I am to be brutally honest, I haven’t seen many things where a combination of words and music have worked. In fact I think it is very rare, I mean sometimes its fun but it’s usually not something larger than that, which is what it could be. And what Nic and I do is we get together. And as a writer, to be honest a lot of writing is just jamming on paper, that’s effectively what you are doing. And you are taking advantage of the fact there is no audience to listen [to your mistakes]. Effectively, Nic and I jam onto his stereo and we come up with, we birth, pieces at the same time so the music and the words for every single piece we have ever created. Almost every one, ok, for just about all of the pieces we have created are born at the same time so they’re very interlinked, very sensitive to each other so they shift subtly together and go on little journeys together. We take each other on little journeys.”

So why Instructions for Modern Living?
Sarkies, in his own particularly bleak, half comic, half serious tone promises that his show, as “an instructional guide… offers guaranteed instant happiness!” He bursts out laughing before continuing, attempting to justify his characteristic black humour. “I guess I enjoy the absurdity of even pretending that we could receive an instruction manual. Its funny, I give a lot of advice in the show almost in a Jerry Springer style, you know how Jerry Springer has these ridiculous shows where people are at each others necks and he briefly comes on all moralistic at the end of the show. And I always find Jerry Springer being moralistic quite amusing because he couldn’t be any further from morals in terms of what he does. I quite like that evangelical nature of what can be done, as long as I am delivering quite absurd advice or quite unusual advice. It’s just like a challenge. We live in such a spiritual and new age-y age, a people-searching-instant-solutions age, that I quite like tapping into that and exploring that and pretending to be a part of it. And in some ways I do therefore become part of the landscape. I mean, I wouldn’t follow my advice, I wouldn’t really recommend it to anyone. My Mum follows my advice and says she really likes some of the things I say. It’s not that I’m giving out bad advice, it’s more that I’m giving out absurd advice.”

I hear his advice echoing in my head. Duncan Sarkies, in that same bleak comic seriousness, entreating me to turn my life into a game, to force myself to relish in all my most stressful, awkward and frustrating moments of my life, “to learn to enjoy the unenjoyable.” Sarkies uses the example of “being in the same room with someone you have slept with and you wish they would sleep with you again, and they won’t”.

Something, I fear, that is extremely relevant during ‘O’ Week.

He wants us to “take all those things and turn them into a fun little game… and if you can make it a game, you can try to turn those terrible every day disasters into parts of the day that you look forward to. The idea [is] that if you can do that than the rest of life will look after itself. You are twisting something round that has gone badly for yourself and saying: ‘wow, what is this, this is strange’.”

Sarkies gives the ingenious example of a baby and a lemon in a very matter of fact and almost mock-philosophy-lecturer tone, “if you have ever seen a baby with a lemon, the baby will bite into the lemon, and you know the face the baby does when it bites into a lemon, well the baby does that face and then the baby has another bite. What do we learn from this? A baby loves an intense experience. Whether it is intensely good or intensely bad, if we can just learn to enjoy the intensely bad… I consider that a little bit of absurd advice, but, there is an element of truth as well: treating life as a game. It’s strange… Life is so ungraspable… Life is something that I just can’t fathom the reasons in how it happened, it’s just too strange to be true. And I guess everyone must look at their lives and say that.”

I mean, if we need Instructions, we must be going wrong somewhere…
“I think that one of the great changes in the last fifty years has been the advent of the full extension of marketing, so it surrounds us in our lives. We are constantly being shown beautiful people, we are constantly being shown smiling faces, we are constantly being shown successful people and people who are effectively the embodiment of the American dream, even if it’s just the New Zealand Dream. You know, it’s the classic 1950s American dream. And it’s such an extreme that people compare their lives to these images, and I think now people think something is wrong with them if they are not hitting those extremes, those extremes of happiness, those extremes of living life to the full. And we are being sort of programmed to need, I just think there is something flawed in our programming at the moment. And as a society it’s very hard to find your soul in a world like that, it’s almost like people are being turned off navel gazing and just watch the television so they don’t have to think. And there is a lot of that that permeates life. People aren’t being encouraged to think for themselves, they are just being encouraged to vegetate as a means of switching off the fact that they don’t like their job, they are in a 9 to 5 situation that they are not enjoying but they are having to use that to pay the bills, to survive. And then they just have to switch off with how depressing that can be. And quite often people end up with partners, of course not always, but quite often people end up with partners and they are just not equipped to communicate with each other. They lose over time their ability to communicate and that’s yet another way to channel it somewhere else. A lot of people have lost the ability to talk to each other. I guess I find it all interesting, I think that in the age we live in the differences of how we are told to live and how we live have just grown. And it creates an aspiration path which is perhaps a bit unhealthy, but it deserves questioning anyway.”

Instructions for Modern Living is playing at the Soundings Theatre from the 10th to the 15th of March as part of New Zealand International Arts Festival.

EMMA RICE… (director of Tristan and Yseult)
Tell us the story of Tristan and Yseult…
“It’s set in a time of war between Cornwall and Ireland and the Cornish King claims the Irish King’s sister as his prize in war. And he sends the young champion, I suppose you would call in medieval terms, off to find this woman, Yseult. He finds her and they fall in love, the young couple fall in love. He brings her back, she marries the King and they fall in love. And then basically it’s how these three manage this classic love triangle.”

So, how and when does it take place?
“We’ve got a large raised stage with a big mast up the centre of it and there are ropes hanging down and there are lots of stairs coming down, I mean we were inspired really by a ship obviously. When Tristan and Yseult first fall in love they are actually on a boat together sailing from Ireland to Cornwall. I really wanted to get the sense of a boat without being too literal, so there is a big mast and there’re ropes hanging down. We also wanted to have a theme of a nightclub as well, ‘cause the whole evening is like that. We call it the ‘Club of the Unloved’. The whole night is a cross between being in a slightly seedy nightclub and on a boat – two great places to be.”

“There’s no definite time but it certainly isn’t medieval, there’s no chain mail, no knights in shining amour… Think more Reservoir Dogs, think Jackie Onassis in Get Carter… Much more funky really”

Why the ‘Club of the Unloved’?
“Well, I mean it’s such a fantastic story and it really does touch on so many elements of love, whether it’s loyal love of a servant to a mistress, or whether it’s brotherly and sisterly love, whether it’s illicit love or married love. It really does chart so many areas of this single word which we have in our language. And I just really felt that you can’t really examine love in all its facets without looking it at from the other angle, which is what most of us have felt at some point in our lives which is not to be loved. And I felt really strongly that I didn’t want to make a stage version of a Hollywood movie, you know, I don’t want to portray just the beautiful chosen people. Kneehigh (the small, grassroots, Cornwall based theatre company for which Rice is Artistic Director) is a very human group, we are all outsiders in our own way. I really wanted to tell this story from the point of view of a group of people who weren’t so lucky.”

So how would you describe Tristan & Yseult?
“It’s unique actually, it’s quite hard to say what it’s like. It’s a story telling form that we use, with sort of modern costumes that aren’t quite definable, the style is quite unique, it’s quite hard to compare it to anything really. It’s very funny, it’s a very intoxicating show which is what I wanted. I want the audience to be seduced in the way one is seduced by love itself. But it’s also very touching and very truthful, I wanted it to represent certainly how I feel about love in my life. It’s a terrible thing as well as a wonderful thing and it can hurt may people as well as create pleasure.”

Tristan & Yseult (pronounced IS-SULT) is playing at the Opera House from the 3rd to the 7th of March as part of the New Zealand International Arts Festival

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About the Author ()

HAILING FROM the upper-middle- class hell of Havelock North, Jules is in the final semester of a bachelor’s degree in Trenchermanship (majoring in Gourmandry), is a self-professed Anarcho-Dandy and resides in the Aro Valley. He likes to spend his days pursuing whimsical follies of every sort and his evenings gallivanting through the bars and restaurants of Wellington in search of the perfect wine list. He has unfailingly dedicated his life to the excessive consumption of food and drink (despite having no discernable way of paying for it), and expects to die of simultaneous heart and kidney failure at thirty-nine. His only hope is that very soon people will start to pay him for his opinions (of which he is endowed with aplenty). Jules has a penchant for vintage Oloroso.

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