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ENABLING ART


Onstage: liberated into other worlds

Keith Gallasch: Merrigong Theatre Co, The Man Who Dreamt the Stars 


The Man Who Dreamt the Stars (development), Merrigong Theatre Company with The Disability Trust The Man Who Dreamt the Stars (development), Merrigong Theatre Company with The Disability Trust
photo Toby Knyvett
Companies like Back to Back, Restless Dance Theatre and Rawcus have shown that mixed ability collaborations can be profoundly productive, democratising the relationship between the able and the disabled—who of course, have great abilities that transcend their disadvantages—to create powerful, professional performances.

Anne-Louise Rentell is the director of The Man Who Dreamt the Stars, a group-devised performance about the power of the imagination, produced by Wollongong’s Merrigong Theatre Company in association with The Disability Trust. She’s working with two actors with disabilities and a small team of able-bodied collaborators. I spoke with Rentell shortly before the work was going into rehearsal for production early in 2014.

Rentell filled me in on the work’s long evolution: “Back in 2006, as part of our development program, we were supporting what Disability Trust were doing, showing annual presentations from their Altogether Drama Group. Their actors have had a lot of exposure to processes and various artists, so the majority of them are quite accomplished theatrically. We planned a weekend intensive workshop for them and other local artists as a mixed ability process based around how to tell and theatricalise stories. I could see that a couple of the local artists adapted really well to working with the drama group and something great was happening. We ran more sessions where we could, without funding, and then the project started to evolve with the support of Arts NSW. This is a first for Merrigong Theatre Company after producing one scripted show a year, inhouse. Now we have a show with the Trust as partner. We’ve also formed a partnership with the Trust to coordinate their drama classes in collaboration with them, onsite at IPAC (Illawarra Performing Arts Centre) on Saturday mornings.” It is also the company’s first production of a devised work.

I asked Rentell why she had chosen only two actors from the workshop. “Because working in this area was new to me I reduced the number of people I was working with to two professional actors and two actors from the Altogether Drama Group. I had to really make the case for choosing two people in what was a community project; but here we were looking at a professional theatre outcome and which actors would best address the project’s progress.”

Drayton Morley, Rachel Murphy & Alicia Battestini, The Man Who Dreamt the Stars (development) Drayton Morley, Rachel Murphy & Alicia Battestini, The Man Who Dreamt the Stars (development)
photo Nina Kourea
Rentell describes Phillip Prentice from the drama group “as a joy to work with and so amenable. In discussions he tended to always agree, but then he would come up with something surprising, revealing he’d been taking everything in. His ideas were forming slowly. He has a learning disability, but is high functioning, works and is quite independent.” Onstage, she says, he is less an emotional actor than fellow drama group member Rachel Murphy, “but he’s very task oriented and has a wonderful focus. They’re very different types of performers.” Rachel, who was born with Down’s Syndrome, “has a high level of emotional intelligence—she’s passionate and intense. She plays a Miss Havisham-type character,” partly based on her own life after losing a boyfriend.” A video of Murphy performing in costume reveals her relish in inhabiting her role. Likewise Prentice has no difficulty in immersing himself in his character: “Phillip loves Dr Who and TV programs about outer-space. When he’s onstage, pretending to be on the moon and dressed as an astronaut, he loves it.”

Rentell has been greatly inspired by these performers: “Both also have an acute awareness of what they can’t do and what is not open to them. They might not be able to articulate it, yet have the passion to perform, the courage to face life when it hasn’t been kind to them.”

At one point in the work’s development, Merrigong Theatre Company artistic director Simon Hinton asked, “Why are we making this show? Does the content talk to why we are making it?” Rentell believes that it’s about “’talking’ to the disability without the show becoming about being disabled.” In other words, acknowledging the disability but, with creativity and imagination, transcending it.

“On the night of a solar storm,” reads the press release for The Man Who Dreamt the Stars, “a quiet man’s peaceful seclusion is disrupted by a crack in the space-time continuum, and into his world come three lonely figures.” This fantastical, fractured reality will be realised by the interactive video and lighting by Tony Knyvett, sound and music by Daryl Wallis, costumes by Imogen Ross and movement by Lee Pemberton, all of whom have collaborated on the development of the work with Anne-Louise Rentell, Phillip Prentice and Rachel Murphy working alongside strongly committed, Wollongong-based professional actors Alicia Battestini and Drayton Morley.


Merrigong Theatre Company with The Disability Trust, The Man Who Dreamt the Stars, Illawarra Performing Arts Centre, Wollongong, 12-22 Feb, 2014

RealTime issue #118 Dec-Jan 2013 pg. 12

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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