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July 28, 2008 | by  | in Theatre |
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489 Projects

A whole theatre degree later and still they keep coming back for more… There’s just no stopping some!

Earlier this semester, Ralph Upton and Eleanor Bishop presented some of their THEA 489 research findings to packed houses. At 40 minutes each, these shows were no casual afternoon at the theatre. One commentator aptly described them as ‘totally sadistic’, and this writer is inclined to agree. The two shows sure did pack a hell of a punch! Ralph and Eleanor were kind enough to share a few words with me about their work, shedding some interesting light on the minds of these two fascinating young artists.

Ralph’s show, 1001 Things You Must Do Before You Die, was a devised piece which had been worked on for several months. I’m curious as to what it is about devised theatre which appeals to Ralph. “The attraction for me was being able to avoid everything in theatre which I find phony or clichéd or fake and just focus on stuff that I wish I could see when I go to the theatre,” says Ralph. “Like a panda bear with a sign around its neck which says “fucked,” staggering drunk onto stage and throwing popcorn at the audience. Who cares what it means, it’s just cool to see it happen. And then you can flip to something really personal or scary, and keep the audience on their toes. It’s the most exhilarating thing in the world to perform, because its yours, and it’s now.”

As a spectator, the show was a roller-coaster to say the least. Drunk pandas, cassette tapes and more condoms than you could waggle a stick at, Ralph has certainly demonstrated a flair for the eccentric.

“Ralph, are you sure the panda wanking to the ‘Working out Barbie’ tape should be at the very start? For that long? With the concentration camp footage and whipped cheese?”

“What!!! What are you talking about! It’s integral!”

Ralph assures me that there are plenty of challenges to devising your own work. “There’s a thin line between a theatre that’s personal to the actors and theatre which is therapy. You can be indulgent, you can wallow. You can be too preachy, or you can be too vague. You can think too much about themes, or not enough. You don’t have much of a compass.”

As for condoms? “Ummmm… Yes, there were a lot of condoms in the show. It was kind of because we liked the idea that at the end of the world party where the play was set people would be using contraceptives in weird ways (what else would they be good for) and partly because they are fun to blow up, and partly because we are immature. And partly for simple hygiene reasons: if you’re going to have an actor fellate a microphone for five long minutes, you need to give him something impermeable to suck on, or he might ruin the mike and it would be generally icky for the next show.”

Meanwhile, Eleanor Bishop has been researching British playwright Sarah Kane. Sorry, who?

Eleanor describes Kane as “the best new writer of the late 20th century. What most people know her for is her first play Blasted (1995) which caused a tabloid sensation as journo hacks catalogued the atrocities present in the play, labeling it ‘a disgusting feast of filth’. She’s associated with other ‘shocking’ writers, which various critics have termed the ‘in-yer-face theatre’ movement or ‘the new brutalists’.”

Brutal is certainly a fair way to describe Eleanor’s 40-minute selection of scenes from Kane’s play Cleansed. Incest and masturbation, suicide and urine, this show had pretty much everything. “The biggest decision was how to stage the magnificent stage directions Kane writes – some of which many would argue are impossible to do,” Eleanor tells me. “Not true. They’re near impossible to do in a realistic fashion – ‘the rat begins to eat Carl’s hand’. Once you realise ‘we don’t have to do this realistically, we have our theatrical imaginations’, it begins to open up some very exciting possibilities. Thus we chose to interpret the graphic sex scenes and the stripper’s dancing in an abstracted, representational way akin to contemporary dance. And I think we were justified in those decisions.”

Given the sexual politics which permeated her selection of scenes, I ask Eleanor if she considers herself a feminist. “Yes. Definitely.” she says. “I’m of the belief that instead of dissing the incredible women who strived for equality over the last few hundred years, we should claim the word back. Why am I feminist? Because women are continually victims of sexual violence, women are paid less than men, and we are still not free to construct our own identity. Although neither are men, and I’m absolutely interested in the construction of masculinity too – they’re dual oppressions.”

If art imitates life, Eleanor and Ralph sure must live a strange existence – but one which I know that l certainly look forward to seeing more of in the future.

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