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Chris Drummond: theatre as metaphor

Dickon Oxenburgh

Chris Drummond
Chris Drummond

Chris Drummond’s directing credits include Play with Repeats by Martin Crimp, Slum Clearance by Vaclav Havel, and Wreckage by Hilary Bell. In his successful production of Yasmina Reza’s Art for the State Theatre Company of South Australia, and the continuing adaptation with playwright Susan Rogers of Robert Dessaix’s Night Letters, South Australian theatre director Chris Drummond is developing an expansive style that celebrates performance as an individual and collective act of conscience.

What are you drawn to in theatre?

Theatre that seeks to be expansive both within itself and within its audience. As an audience member I want to laugh and cry and scream and be delighted and disturbed, whatever it takes to really feel alive. I want it acknowledged that I am present there, that I have a brain and life experience and a whole lot of other baggage as well.

In work, I am drawn to theatre artists who bring with them an understanding of their craft and an essential lack of ego, a genuine naiveté about how to move forward, unfailing rigorousness, fearlessness and above all, a sense of delight in their own and other’s playfulness.

If art is “the balance between order and chaos” where’s your personal fulcrum? How do you work at achieving that balance?

I try not to define the specific outcomes of my work. I have a sense of where we are going but try to have the courage to allow every possibility to have a genuine chance of taking seed. In any situation I try to find the most realistic boundaries within which we can encourage creative choice as a precursor to ordering the rhythms, images and tempo of a piece. I’m equating ‘order’ with the rational and ‘chaos’ with the intuitive. If we only ‘think up’ images and stories, then we will only be communicating that which we already know, which is very boring. If we leave everything open to intuition then we end up with a meaningless mess. So we need both.

How would you describe your directorial vision and style?

At the moment I’m still interested in trying to work out how best to work with actors. I am in a very particular period of development, beginning to understand how not to control everything and yet still bring focus to the work. It’s a very long, very slow learning curve. I guess my desire is to create theatre that has true vitality. I love working with all the elements of the theatre but to begin and end with me creating fantastic images doesn’t feel enough. I am definitely not interested in being an auteur. I am sure I have certain ‘fingerprints’ in terms of my aesthetic but I try to respond afresh to each project in terms of the text, the cast or the social context.

How is the adaptation of Night Letters going?

It’s going very well! Susan Rogers (playwright) and I have been working on this since early 2000 and we hope to have a full draft by mid 2002, and looking towards a production in 2003 or thereabouts. It’s a huge undertaking. Thank God for Rosalba Clemente and STCSA’s Faulding On Site Theatre Lab. Their belief in this project has given Susan and me the resources and the time which is so necessary if we are to succeed in adapting this book with all the complexity required to realise its full potential.

What are some of the challenges in adapting a work of this nature?

In the first place you have to have a very clear reason about why you’re even doing it. What is the point of transforming a work of art from one medium into another? In the case of an adaptation, the new work has to have its own purpose, both in its own right and in relation to the original entity.

Night Letters talks about a very special quality of experience in which a dying man has burrowed down into the essence of his situation and found meaning for himself in an age where meaning has lost its, well, meaning! I believe it also communicates something very profound about humanity’s relationship to nature and something new about Australia’s identity to the rest of the world.

Adapting Night Letters came about because I wanted to access the meaning in the book experimentally. I wanted to understand it at a gut level. The internal journey towards one’s death is such an individual experience and yet the experience of grief is a collective one. It appeared to me that re-creating Dessaix’s internal journey within the community of the theatre might allow insight into both spheres of experience. Night Letters is also about existing within the moment. The theatrical medium could become a transcendent metaphor for that very theme rather than it simply being realised theatrically.

Practically, there are huge challenges in adapting this work. Night Letters does not have a traditional narrative structure and many of the characters have not been fleshed out in a dramatic sense. The fact that this work is semi-autobiographical presents its own set of unique issues. Robert has utterly floored Susan and me with his fearless generosity and his commitment to allowing us our essential creative freedom. He has made himself available in a vast array of senses and has asked for no control in return. The genuineness of his personal courage and honesty represents the very essence of what makes Night Letters such a unique work.

What would you like to see in new Australian theatre in the future?

Personally I am conscious of my own political apathy. I would love to see more theatre artists working beyond their own creative concerns and finding inspiration in the fabric of our society. Within this I would love to see a fearless pursuit of excellence and a holistic approach to all that is unique about the theatrical medium.

Ultimately, I would love to see those artists who actually have ideas being realistically supported to bring their vision to the fullest fruition.

In September Chris Drummond is heading to Europe for further research on Night Letters before returning to direct graduating students from Adelaide’s Centre for Performing Arts.

RealTime issue #44 Aug-Sept 2001 pg. 30

© Dickon Oxenburgh; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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