Matt Lutton and Bridget Balodis are in rehearsals for our upcoming immersive production Because The Night. This is a major new adventure for us as a company on so many levels, so we grabbed them on a coffee break to hear about their approach as directors, and gain some insights into how a show like this gets made.
You're making a large scale immersive show across a maze of 32 rooms. You've two casts of six actors, with three writers wrangling multiple simultaneous narratives. How do you rehearse something like that?
B: The first two weeks felt like a pretty traditional process on the floor. Scene work is still scene work, so you’re approaching the text in the same way. Then we hit week three and four, and started to look at all the other aspects of the show we needed to plan for: how the actors travel between rooms, and how to keep the show running on time when the actors are in separate rooms. That's the process that we're in the midst of at the moment, and it’s quite different to what we'd normally do.
M: I agree. The detailing work with the actors in the scenes is pretty similar to a normal theatre making process, but the assembly of it is very unusual.
B: Having the sound designer David Franzke in rehearsal, and an amazing stage management team, has been essential. There are always three to six strands of simultaneous narrative, so it's a huge logistical challenge assembling this production. There's five in the rehearsal stage management team, handling both the scheduling and the backend plotting of how each character moves through the show.
M: Now that we're doing all the joining, the requirement on the actors is shifting. There is 'psychological mapping' work to clarify what makes the character or the actor move from room to room. In some ways that map is character-based, but it's often created and determined by the actor. What makes sense to the actor will make sense for an audience viewing it. So it needs to be choices that they have conviction to do.
You wouldn't usually be staging the in-between time.
B: Yes—normally an actor would come off stage, and get to just be themselves for 10 minutes before the next scene. But here they have to stay in character the whole time, and fill every minute with some kind of action.
M: And it's also not necessarily continuous and linear. 10 minutes in the play might be several hours passing, with scenes having occurred for them that we don't witness. So how do they maintain that continuity of action, and also do those psychological jumps? Even though you're performing in real time, your character is not existing in real time.
B: And any private moments for your character are potentially going to happen in front of people.
And you've got two sets of actors you're interpreting the same roles and trying to solve the same challenges. How are you finding that?
B: It's not as difficult as I thought it could have been. Our approach has been to keep the casts very separate. The actors are allowed to make their own decisions on the floor, and not be influenced by what the other cast is doing. That gives them a lot of ownership over their choices, and has actually meant that there are slightly different feels in some moments.
I think only a couple of times a really strong offer has come from one cast, and we've sort of put that on the table for the other cast, but it's always their choice whether they want to take it up.
M: It has reminded me how an actor's conviction in their choice can make writing sing based entirely on their conviction. There are some scenes where it's the same text, and the story's the same, but actors will approach a beat or a thought or a few lines of texts in very different ways. And it doesn't feel like either is incorrect. I wouldn't even rank one as having any greater impact than the other. They just have different impacts. So there's scope for the text to communicate X or Y, but if it's delivered with conviction then it engages. So often I feel like we're responding as directors to where that convicting choice comes from.
B: And that comes down to casting ultimately. What's the lived experience of the actor? What's actually inside them? What makes sense for them as an offer? You can't impose that—whatever comes out of them and works is what you're doing.
M: The actors often come up with very different understandings of what's not being said. And then they'll be using the design in different ways to map those subtexts—certain objects will be very important for one actor at a pivotal moment, but for the other actor it'll be something different. They'll say 'It's very important for me to see the King’s portrait in this scene', but for the other actor that's irrelevant. It is what is serving the inner psychological circuitry that has been developed.
It's such a thorough world that we're building through the design. Are you finding that's becoming a different player in how other parts of the story are told?
M: There's two things going on. One is that we use the rooms for the actors as emotional prompts. I think you can bounce a scene around by seeing someone who's deceased, or seeing your lover, visually signified in a room. Those objects can push and pull you psychologically, so I think we are often using objects to trigger the characters.
But the thing that I was actually just contemplating this weekend is how the actor is also a story-navigator for the audience. Where there's no dialogue, an actor has a responsibility to direct an audience's attention to that picture...
B: So they're activating the room as a site of narrative for the audience.
M: For the actor it might feel like the character has repeatedly grieved over that picture, but it might serve an audience's journey really well for their attention to be brought to the loss of that family member. And I think the need to share the story with the audience overrides the character psychology.
The audience is going to be such a live and unpredictable presence in the room. How are you factoring them into your process?
B: Right from the first week, Matt and I would move around the actors, so that they're never playing to the 'front' like they normally would on an end-on stage. We're constantly changing our gaze, and getting them ready to play from all angles. So we're often upon on our feet in the space with them.
Right now we’re working on a kind of vocabulary for the actors on how to work with the audience, and respond to or manage them when they need to. And then of course we've got a week of test audiences, who'll teach us a whole lot more. We'll try and predict as much as we can and then be ready to learn a lot from those first sets of audiences.
M: I really like how you articulate it: we've been building up a vocabulary. A handbook of hypothetical situations, and what an actor's responses could be. We’re rehearsing it like a game, improvising in response to different disruptions. It's a new kind of training.
Matt, your work often involves big stage imagery and spatial transformations—very operatic. Is the craft the same on this kind of project?
M: I always daydream about being able to have this many locations onstage: to go from a library, to a forest, to a room full of blood. You can use a revolving stage, or stage mechanics course, but here the 32 stage images have then been realised as 32 complete designs. So a similar daydreaming of imagery, but then a very different way of placing and executing it.
But also here we have far less control. These rooms are sets with four walls that the audience can move around in and see the action from every angle. So instead we’re creating—to use the word—an immersive image for the audience to scan. I can't control the gaze, but I can just create the surrounding environment for you to gaze at.
And Bridget you're running a second rehearsal room at some points with a different process going on. What kind of work are you doing with the actors?
B: One of the most interesting things we've done in the secondary rehearsal room is mark up a floor plan of the entire set. 30+ rooms in miniature, so the actors can stand in the set, walk around, and work out what their paths are going to be.
And I think it's worked really well actually: I spend enough time in the room with Matt to know what his thrust is within the scenes, what his notes are. So then I'm just giving the actors more time to get that more detailed work done.
Can you talk a bit more about how the director/assistant director relationship works? It feels like your role is pretty essential.
B: Assistant directing can be a really difficult role, and you can feel a bit spare to the process. But I have felt really involved and valued. Especially with two casts, you know, they need the time.
M: I feel like the way you described the process was really accurate. When I've got the cast it's like trying to put the biggest cogs in place. All the goals and psychological markers. And then it needs a lot of time to run it in, and let it evolve, deepen, be fleshed out. I feel like I'm often putting the skeleton in, and then asking 'can you make sure it's strong and in the body of the performer?'
B: I've been also running those things that do just take repetition, like fight choreography. Because it's such a massive show, it doesn't make sense for Matt to be spending his time doing a fight call again and again and again. So it's a bit of divide and conquer.
M: We both see a moment in a scene and go: 'Everyone knows what we're aiming for, it just needs repetition.' So to be able to go to Bridget to do that work is incredibly helpful.
Trust must be so important.
B: Yes. And it felt quite natural that we both can look at something on the floor, and with a nod or a quick check in, we know what to do next.
M: I think having two casts makes that easier too. When both casts are striving towards similar emotional touchstones and story points, it clarifies what the real touchstones and story points are for each scene.
So what's the next step in the process?
B: Moving to the set!
M: Mass spatialisation. Moving from imagining the world in the rehearsal room to actually exploring them on the set. I think it might be a bit of a scary process for some of us, when it's not exactly what they've been visualising, and not letting that panic set in as we adjust the plan. And also space equals time in this show— learning the amount of time it takes to walk from place to place. We're all guessing it, but really we'll learn in the next two weeks about how that shifts our experience of time.
How are you going to keep refining a show that's in so many rooms all at the same time?
M: Lots of eyes and ears, and then regrouping. I think it's gonna be a constant process of having eyes and ears everywhere, then coming back and getting collective feedback.
B: We've got quite a lot of time with the actors on set before adding lights and sound. Getting them very comfortable navigating the set and aligning their timings, so all the mechanics are in place before we tech the show.
M: The cast need to feel confident in how the show should run, so they can tell us if it's gone off the track. We'll rely on them to self-direct and call out any issues and technical errors. That would not usually be an actor's role in the production, but I quite like it. They're members of a large ensemble, but at the same time they're all doing their own solo shows.
B: And they're immersed too. It's not just an immersive experience for the audience, it's an immersive experience for the actors. They're in the middle of it, in the rooms, managing the technical elements as well as their own performance.
M: There is no backstage.
B: There's NO backstage. There's no one you can signal. You're in it. It's on. You know?
M: I think the really interesting thing I'm curious about is how your relationship to time works in the show—for actors and for audience. Whether sitting in a room looking at a picture for three minutes feels deathly long for either actor or audience, or really charged. It's that thing of when you lose time, when you have no idea how long you've been doing it, because you've been so absorbed in it. And I just don't think we're going to know about how elastic time is until we get in there.
Bridget Balodis is a director focussed primarily on new work. She first worked with the company through the Besen Family Artist Program in 2012, and has worked extensively in Melbourne's independent sector. She is Director in Residence at Malthouse Theatre, most recently directing Hello, World! for The Suitcase Series.
Matthew Lutton is a theatre and opera director, and the Artistic Director and Co-CEO of Malthouse Theatre. He first worked with the company as an assistant director on Tartuffe in 2008 before becoming an Associate Artist in 2011. He most recently directed Solaris by David Grieg, which toured to The Lyceum (Edinburgh) and Lyric Hammersmith (London) and received two Critics' Awards for Theatre in Scotland.
Image: Phoebe Powell (Because The Night)