The Age: Culture

The Age: Culture

21/11/2017  JOHN BAILEY

Rawcus theatre group explores the question of hope in Song for a Weary Throat

In a work without plot or dialogue, deep questions are set in motion. 

For two years members of Melbourne’s Rawcus ensemble have been meeting weekly to nut out a problem that is uppermost in the minds of many artists right now: is there any hope left? In this historical moment, has hope lost all currency? And if so, what’s the point of art?

“We were all going ‘look at the world at the moment, is it even possible to be hopeful?’ ” says Rawcus director Kate Sulan. “We knew we didn’t want to make a show that was a Pollyanna version of hope, a simplistic ‘it’s going to be all right, kids!’ What does hope really look like, and when have we had to have that in our own lives and when have we felt the absence of it? What does that feel like?”

What anything might feel like is always a key question for a company whose chief trade is in emotion. In the moment of a Rawcus performance it’s not unusual to feel a powerful affective response whose origin you can’t pinpoint. The works follow a deep logic, according to Sulan, but it’s an emotional logic rather than one defined by narrative cause and effect. At any given moment the efforts of the entire ensemble are directed towards producing an atmosphere governed by a feeling, and the shift from one state to another can have a tidal urgency.

Apologies if this all sounds a little abstract, but it’s not easy to translate a Rawcus work into words. In the 1920s, French filmmakers developed the idea of a “pure cinema” that dispensed with distractions such as story and character and plot and returned to a focus on light and motion; at times it can seem as if Rawcus create something akin to “pure performance”.

One of the newest members of the ensemble recently described the company’s work to Sulan in a similar way. “There’s no showing,” she said. “There’s no acting, there’s just being.”

Rawcus is rehearsing its latest work, Song for a Weary Throat, at St Kilda’s Theatre Works, where it will premiere this month. Like all Rawcus productions it layers in dance and physical theatre, arresting visual imagery and rich soundscapes, but for the first time the company has collaborated with vocalists in the form of Gian Slater’s improvisational Invenio Singers.

Sitting in on a rehearsal, I watch the 15 ensemble members slow dance, scatter like particles, coalesce into a tsunami and in a striking instant arrest the mad dash of a sprinting man into a tableau of fragments, an Eadweard Muybridge​ motion study that disappears almost before it can be registered.

The rehearsal happens just three hours after the announcement that the Yes vote has triumphed, and it seems a brief window has opened in which it’s OK to contemplate such fantastical notions as hope. Sulan mentions writer Rebecca Solnit’s conception of hope as one that’s been particularly helpful: “It happens in the relationships between people. It feels like that’s the company as well.”

Since its inception in 2000, the Rawcus ensemble has comprised performers with and without disabilities, though that description doesn’t begin to capture the breadth of humanity each work showcases. It’s always been apparent to me that Rawcus exists in the space between its members.

The development of a Rawcus show is always years in the making. The works “grow”, they “brew”, they “reveal themselves”, in Sulan’s terms. She uses the analogy of the sculptor who finds the statue already existing within the rock.

Song for a Weary Throat began with a whole pile of text generated through improvisational exercises. The finished work is without words. That’s typical of a Rawcus piece, which kneads and folds its raw materials until it might bear no resemblance to what was first laid out on the bench.

“All our work evolves from the personal experiences and imaginations of the ensemble but by the time it gets to the performance it’s gone through so many variations that it’s not like telling our own stories.” Sulan says. “But they’re all really richly and deeply in the work.”

One of Sulan’s favourite sequences in Song for a Weary Throat “goes from loneliness to kindness to loneliness to courage to grief to joy”. Nobody is play-acting any of these, of course. “It’s not illustrating them, it’s embodying them,” Sulan says. “What we try to do is bypass the intellect … It’s about tuning in and expressing things through the body. We don’t go ‘in this moment this has happened to you and you’re showing this’.”

The company had always wanted to collaborate with a choir, and in Invenio Singers Rawcus found a match. “They’re improvising singers so they have a really similar process and the first thing we did for ages was to go ‘here’s a Rawcus movement score that we work with, how would we translate that into your voice?’ And then they’d teach us a vocal improvisation score they work with and we’d translate that into our bodies.”

In rehearsal the singers produce a mesmerising tonal landscape without words, a kind of aural framing of the movement on stage. “They’re also working with shifts in emotion in their vocal patterns as much as we’re working with them physically,” Sulan says. “In a way I feel that’s why we don’t need the words, because the voice is so strongly represented in the work by these three extraordinary singers.”

The ensemble’s role in creating a Rawcus work – and in this case, the singers’ – makes Sulan’s task as director a nuanced one. “I’m never going to go ‘stand there, do that’. In the generation of it I never go ‘I’ve got this image’. I definitely direct and structure the work but I feel like I’m an editor, in a way. Maybe there’s a better word for what I do. I set up the parameters for play, set up those tasks and then structure and put them together.”

With four new ensemble members debuting in Song for a Weary Throat, Rawcus has every reason to be hopeful. “There’s this group of very disparate people who have really different life experiences and come at the world in really different ways,” Sulan says, “but together make something quite cohesive as well. I don’t quite know how it happens but it happens.”