Dark Islands of the Psyche
Quarantine ended up being a large-scale experiment with Artaud-inspired theatre, bringing out the most primal aspects of the performers in close proximity to an audience isolated from civilization on an Island. In many ways the show was a success. It certainly caught the attention of the public, and the show had an emotional, although often disconcerting, impact on people.
This production was a selfish act. It was an experiment with a process of creation, and the way an audience would deal with certain things: isolation, claustrophobia, darkness, confrontation with the pure primal aspects of disease-ridden psyches.
Most of the inspiration for working with these themes and in this way came from Antonin Artaud, and particularly his book Theatre and its Double. He said that the communication in theatre should be so immediate and desperate that it is like a man being burnt alive on a stake, signalling through the flames, to express one last thing before, to expose his own inner world one last time, before he dies.
The entire process of Quarantine, from concept to completion, was largely an emotional battle with the dark aspects of my soul. Two years prior I had been ecstatic with the critical and popular acclaim of Frogs Under the Waterfront. I imagined it as an ongoing event, taking place summer after summer. Indeed the waiting list for the show was long and could have filled up weeks without an iota of advertising.
After being refused funding from almost all my sources for this show, and missing out on funding for a number of other side projects I became increasingly disillusioned. I spent my savings on a trip to visit my family, and my good friends overseas. Three months later I returned to New Zealand and was again confronted by a swathe of rejected projects and denied funding.
At the end of that year (2009) Frogs Under the Waterfront was nominated for Best New Director and Most Original Production at the Chapman Tripp Wellington Theatre Awards. It was defeated in both categories. This did further wonders in hurting me into a self perpetuating depressing abyss.
Despite that I was determined not to give up, so 2010 was spent planning for a number of shows, looking for funding from all kinds of sources and dividing my attention among a number of potential projects with the idea that I would wait and see which one generated the most interest.
The first project was a collaboration with the local Hare Krisna Community and a local Capoeira troupe. I recruited a supernaturally talented Capoeira teacher to play Krsna and gathered musicians and back up actors from the Hare Krsna community.
The second project was an improvised adaption of Lysistrata, subtitled Sex in the City-State, with the idea of splitting the men and women into two audiences, their only connection being real-time audio-visual transmissions and the occasional sabotage mission into the other gender’s territory. I teamed up with a local improvisation group with the idea of staging this in a local bar that had three levels, and three balconies overlooking the main dance floor. These would serve as the two performance areas with demands being projected onto large screens in the main bar where all could see.
The third show I was planning, was, of course, Quarantine. As time pushed on I managed to secure funding for all three productions. I tried to delegate and delegate, but realized fairly soon that I had to focus on one, so I dropped Lysistrata and The Adventures of Krsna..
Without funding Quarantine would not have been possible. Each night would cost $1000 dollars just to hire the boat and pay the Department of Conservation fee for usage of Somes Island. The ticket recuperation would simply not have been enough to cover this and pay the cast/crew. Unfortunately, the funding I did get came in October. I was planning the show for early February, so that didn’t give us much time to prepare. I scouted around for writers to help expand the concept and finally approached Luke Hawker, the author of a Wellington-produced movie called Black Spot that had won a number of awards at various film festivals around the world. The movie is a truly gripping psychological horror, and had the right kind of surreal darkness I wanted for Quarantine.
Process of Creation
I arranged a meeting and pitched the concept of Quarantine to Luke: Five immigrants from the mass Europe-to-New-Zealand migrations of the 1800’s are still living on Somes Island, each one of them with a completely different socio-economic background, each one of them with a different disease, all living together in a cramped quarantine barracks for the past 150 years. Like in The Persecution and Assassination of Jean Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Charenton Asylum Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade, our inmates on Somes Island would put on a play for the new internees (the audience) to try and convey their hopes and dreams when they set out for New Zealand, their past, and the sad reality they were confronted with when they got to this new land, forced to live out the rest of their lives, steeped in disease, on Somes Island. Eventually, as in Marat/Sade, the facade of the play would break down. The characters would want to connect directly with the audience, not satisfied that a mere retelling would suffice, but that an endless internment for the audience themselves would be necessary for them to understand the horror they’ve undergone.
Luke was impressed by the idea and was ready to come on board. He wrote a preliminary treatment which incorporated the personage of Dr. Max Buchner, a doctor who did indeed live on the island with many quarantined patients in the late 1800’s. The doctor would be represented by a mask, worn by for our five stranded internees to instill the authority that held order in the heyday of Somes Island quarantining. In the play the doctor would speak German and suppress the characters’ free will with severe brutality if they stepped out of line, each character using his mask when they needed to intervene. The characters convinced themselves that they needed to successfully complete the play, so that they would be able to escape the bonds of their eternal entrapment in this quarantine facility. For their souls to be at peace, they would need to tell their story in its entirety.
Luke also wanted to tie in the ideas of our modern-day first-world obsession with consumption to the desire of the people of the old-world to leave behind their already over-consumed lands in search for new resources to consume, and to the spreading of disease. This desire to consume is what our five inmates all wanted, and what they never got a chance to do. And they are fuming inside, as they watch Wellington grow and prosper, watching the mass consumption over 150 years through the cracked windows of their quarantine station. They were the ones that risked everything, they were the ones who made the 3-month journey to a new and unknown land, and were rewarded with nothing. While the audience, who have risked nothing, who have done nothing, are the ones to benefit. This, understandably, fills our characters with considerable rage.
These initial ideas struck me considerably. I knew from the start it would be on the verge of being too preachy on the over-consumption bent, but I was willing to roll with Luke’s concepts. If nothing else, he was passionate.
A month later I had a script to work from. It wasn’t flawless, and the ideas were somewhat muddled, but I saw potential. However, I wanted to workshop it a bit before I went back to him with any suggestions for changes. And that’s when I hit my first big challenge.
Both the female actors I had lined up suddenly pulled out. That left me with a week to find two new actresses before I wanted to start rehearsals in early December. As it turned out rehearsals didn’t get going until December 10th with a less-than-ready script. And there would be a huge two week period over Christmas where rehearsals would be postponed. That gave us a total of five weeks to workshop a play and rehearse a script. Not enough time. At that point I had the choice to pull the plug on the projector continue as was. But i had an opportunity at that moment that may have never come again, so I had to keep moving. The cast was dedicated, the designers were brilliant, the public was interested, and we had supporters like Weta Workshop behind us, so I had to push on.
Right from the start the two actresses I got clashed instantly with the three actors (who I had worked with many times before). The dynamic was off right from the start. It was a really soul-wrenching experience.
But, by the end of December, before the break for Christmas holidays we had discovered the major problems with the script as it was and called Luke back in. His job would be to alter the entire first half for when we re-convened on January 6th, using the suggestions we came up with in rehearsals.
Animosity grew between some of the more strong-willed actors in the group throughout January, and it was compounded by the severely dark material in the play. But when we all got into the swing of it, and there were times when we really did, there was dark magic in the air.
Each of the characters had an unfulfilled desire, a reason why their souls were still stuck out on this island. Doctor Max Buchner’s role was to suppress these desires so the play could complete itself and they could be free, but as the play within a play progressed the characters realized that they wanted to live and fulfill their desires, not just disappear into the ether. The play consisted of their most potent memories, and the reliving of those memories rekindled their desire to consume anew. This translated into a savage and irrational turn on the audience, the ultimate destruction of the illusion of Dr. Max Buchner, and eventually a desire to keep the audience forever there with them, to acknowledge their existence, and thus live forever and perhaps one day fulfill their desires.
One of the greatest challenges for me was to find a balance between the characters’ suffering from their illnesses (small pox, scarlet fever, measles, delirium tremens, typhoid fever) and them being able to coherently put on a play for the audience and, eventually, commune with the audience directly. I conducted an exercise in which the actors committed the details of their illnesses to memory and then I led them through an incremental intensification of their symptoms, from one to ten. I’d yell the number out and they’d suffer the symptoms accordingly, 1 being a slight shimmer of a symptom, and 10 being a debilitating suffering of all symptoms at once. They committed the numbers to physical memory and I called out the numbers as we ran through scenes. This was my most useful tool during the process.
However, when the desires of the characters surfaced the illness would disappear in the blinding light of the madness that consumed them.
As the boat bounded across the choppy waves of the harbor towards the orange sun setting behind Somes Island, recordings of a faux radio station with a vibrant radio host playing innocuous music sounded on the ferry’s loudspeakers. As the boat moved further and further away from the city the radio station began to jolt and skip with static and eventually died all together. It was soon replaced by a low sustained note on the cello at the same pitch as the ferry’s motor. Soon other string instruments join in a dark and unsettling string quartet. Then the lights in the ferry die and the vast looming silhouette of Somes Island is seen out the ferry windows.
The audience disembarks from the wave rattled boat onto the wooden dock of the Island and are taken up a forested walkway to the old human quarantine barracks where our play takes place.
All in all the actual play had a number of flaws. Firstly, the whole thing was so unceasingly grim, without even the slightest hint of hope, love, or salvation, that by the end of the play the audience began to become detached from the action. People need hope to cling to. They need brief moments laughter here and there, scattered, however sparingly, throughout the infinite sorrow.
However, there were some nights where the elements all co-mingled perfectly and the plot drove itself with such subtle perfection towards an immaculate ending, that I was overwhelmed with pride at my creation.
I wanted the audience to experience an existence of disease, horror, and unremitting oppression, without a glimmer of hope; without a glimmer of escape. Luring them with the promise of an ‘historical horror’, I would present them instead with a delirious nightmare. I never expected the play to be loved.
This production was a selfish act. It was an experiment with the process of creation, and the way an audience would deal with certain things: isolation, claustrophobia, darkness, confrontation with the pure primal aspects of disease-ridden psyches.
I hope I am able to do it again. To take more time, to find the right people, to take what I’ve learnt and craft a show that will give something more back to the audience. There is still unmet demand for this show, because we weren’t able to extend the season long enough. So there is chance for it to be re-staged, in Wellington, or any city in the world with a quarantine island.