A group of men stand in a line, staring into the black of blindfolds. Their ankles wobble in stilettos, an unfamiliar experience for them and a strangely incongruous sight for those looking on. A row of women train machine guns on their backs.
Suddenly, the captives are mowed down, their bodies flailing and collapsing in a burst of gunfire.
Momentarily, it is still.
But soon the quiet is broken as a blonde young man laughs and stands up. Other actors follow, taking a well-earned break.
“Right, that was good,” says director Tom Gutteridge in a tone that suggests there is still plenty of work ahead for his disparate young cast.
“So, then, Rachael comes forward and says, ‘I love you’.”
This is no theatre of war, coloured with revolution, but a weekend in the dimly-lit surrounds of Union House Theatre on Melbourne University’s Parkville campus where rehearsals are in full swing for an original play — ‘Don’t Bring Lulu’, which opens on Thursday.
The players are students whose love of theatre transcends their study disciplines: these are budding artists and writers, but also wannabe lawyers and business leaders.
‘Interestingly, in this environment, it’s great to have that kind of focus on ideas rather than being a performer and wanting to be a star.’ — Tom Gutteridge, director
Their passion for theatre and performance has brought them together during the Easter Break for a week of intensive rehearsal. They have just completed their first stumble through the entire show. Now, they sit on the stage, part-exhausted, part-exhilarated, awaiting instruction from Gutteridge, a former Victoria College of the Arts graduate who has been involved in student theatre around the country for more than a decade.
Union House Theatre is a centre-point for student-led performances of music and drama. A couple of times a year, the Student Union, which represents the university’s 38,000-strong student body, funds a production that allows an experienced in-house team to work with particularly talented arts students, so that they may gain an understanding of how a professional show might run.
Melbourne University is unique in this regard. Most other university arts programs around Australia are either completely student-run, or do not leave as much room for creative involvement from students. But these in-house collaborations allow aspiring musicians, inexperienced writers and performers, as well as young VCA designers, to take control of their roles while still receiving support and guidance from established directors and stage managers.
Gutteridge talks up the idea of student collaboration, while acknowledging downsides.
“The things that are great about it are the energy and ideas,” he says. “Interestingly, in this environment, it’s great to have that kind of focus on ideas rather than being a performer and wanting to be a star.
“There are also frustrations with working in this environment because everyone who is involved is doing 94 other things. They’re studying, they’ve got casual jobs, they’ve got their social lives and they’re usually doing other student theatre as well. It’s often very frustrating trying to pin people down and organising rehearsals. But overall, it has been fantastic.”
Gutteridge first noticed the writing of arts student Kerith Manderson-Galvin’s in a small production she had put together at the university. She was then asked to write an original piece for the Union House Theatre, which resulted in ‘Lulu’, an absurdist play covering the expansive topic of love, now being molded through these intensive rehearsals.
While student-commissioned work is rare in other university theatre programs, Gutteridge says that it is something that he wants to do regularly. He says that in the five years he has been working with the Union House Theatre, three out of the 10 plays he has worked on have been the original works of students.
Manderson-Galvin, 27, says that she loves the idea of getting a budget to write something experimental without being subject to the commercial parameters faced by professional theatre. She says that while there can be value in reproducing an established play, it is not something she is interested in while in a student environment.
The venture still carries high-risk: the box office is often less kind to original works than it is tried and true established plays.
But such in-house productions are more about giving burgeoning talent a chance to cut its teeth than playing safe at the box office. “Of course, everything in this environment is massively subsidised by voluntary labour … so the budgets are kind of reasonably easy to predict,” says Gutteridge.
This allows students the opportunity to put on a show that they have created themselves without the external pressures of popularity and sales.
Manderson-Galvin’s quirky sense of humour and experiences in her romantic life are the foundation of her play ‘Don’t Bring Lulu’, while a major cultural influence is the 19th Century German playwright, Frank Wedekind. Wedekind wrote two erotic plays in which the protagonist’s name was ‘Lulu’.
Wedekind’s Lulu was constantly floating from one relationship to the next. Manderson-Galvin represents this by having several potential lovers for each of her Lulus, who are given the name of ‘The Suitor’. The final character is ‘Jack’, who represents ‘Jack The Ripper’, as Wedekind was fascinated by the murders committed by the infamous serial killer.
Manderson-Galvin does not give her play a continuous narrative, but instead portrays a selection of possible scenarios within a variety of human relationships. Each scene is self-contained and does not necessarily lead on to the next.
Gutteridge says that the purpose of the random scenes is to explore different relationships and gender issues – also, Manderson-Galvin’s particular political take – within pop culture. “It’s a great play on that level to be working on something that’s quite current, quite controversial, quite funny and scurrilous – but also very well crafted,” he adds.
In fact, the work is quite autobiographical, confesses the writer, whose lips have been painted a remarkable shade of pink. “I don’t know anything else, so I think everything that I’m looking at is really just a self-indulgent diary entry. I really only use myself and sometimes I replace me with something from a movie, but it’s still just me.”
Manderson-Galvin says the way that she devised the play was by experimenting, as she wasn’t quite sure what her message was to begin with.
“Initially, I thought I wanted to look at femininity and violence, and if that’s ever something that can exist within femininity. But now I see it is just that I believe that relationships are bullshit and the way we look at relationships is bullshit and wrong. There is a kind of violence in that and in the words that we say when we’re in a relationship.”
The bizarre structure of the play made casting a challenge because there were so many elements to consider. It was also going to be difficult due to the number of people auditioning who had little-to-no acting experience.
‘We auditioned people in groups, because one of the key things about this project is the fact that it is an ensemble and there are no star roles. It was going to be crucial to know that people could work together and weren’t totally driven by ego.’ — Tom Gutteridge
Gutteridge says that coming up with a new way of auditioning for the roles was actually quite fun. “It was partly about a kind of matchmaking process. Kerith (Manderson-Galvin) was there in the auditions and we talked about the political nature of the piece.
“We auditioned people in groups, because one of the key things about this project is the fact that it is an ensemble and there are no star roles. It was going to be crucial to know that people could work together and weren’t totally driven by ego.”
For the playwright, the deciding factor was personality and not ability. “I wanted people that were just kind of interesting and weird and complicated,” says Manderson-Galvin. “So, I didn’t really even care so much if they were amazing at acting or had any acting experience. I just wanted to know that I could trust them.”
As for the actors themselves, this was going to be a new experience. In fact, many of them had never performed before, with the final crew composed of arts, commerce, PhD and masters students.
Hadyus Santoso, 18, an international student from Indonesia who plays one of the suitors of the many Lulus, says the script is difficult but he enjoys the creative challenge. “It is something new that I’ve never tried before because the scenes are kind of absurd, really non-naturalistic. You talk about love life and about personality and then, suddenly, you talk about Francis Bean and Twilight.”
One ‘Lulu’, 19-year-old Dana Berber, who is majoring in environmental studies and film, agrees. “I have been mostly in school productions and things that we had organised ourselves as a student body, so it was all ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ and things like that. I thought it would be interesting to do a play that wasn’t confined by the boundaries of a school consensus.”
The more free-flowing and collaborative approach to rehearsal, the actors say, has been a new experience, from which they have learnt a lot.
The director’s take
Berber adds: “Because of the nature of the play we do a lot of work-shopping. We try things out and we see how it goes. ‘That doesn’t feel right. Then try something else.’ With a straight play its like ‘Okay, now you pick up the cup, and then go stand over there’.”
The varied and many characters played by each actor also present challenges: their roles can change from scene-to-scene.
“There’s no sort of through-line other than my own mind,” says Berber. “In the beginning, it felt like all the characters were seeping into one another.”
Twenty-year-old Rachael Besselink, another ‘Lulu’, adds: “I think the idea, because the characters are so different, is for the audience to make their own through-line.”
‘A huge amount of it is drawn from her own life and every character is Kerith, so it’s really brave of her to come along and see us mangling her life, not just her art.’ — Cara Greenham Hancock, actor
Sarah Fitzgerald, 19, yet another of Manderson-Galvin’s protagonists, says that the premise of the play and her role within it has become clearer through rehearsals. Although the director has advised the troupe not to invest too heavily in the psychology of the characters – due to the inconsistency of their roles – Fitzgerald admits: “You still do kind of invest your own emotional memory into it.”
Literature major Anthony Kuiper, 20, a ‘suitor’, says: “I always thought a play was ‘X’ but instead I am seeing that a play can be ‘Y’ and it’s not only refreshing but it also makes you question what your role as an actor is.”
While the actors go through the grueling process of trying to grasp each character, there is the added pressure of the writer’s presence during rehearsal. While ordinarily this might be expected to inhibit the creative process, the cast are full of praise for Manderson-Galvin who, they say, has given them creative licence.
The writer’s tale
Cara Greenham Hancock, 19, who studies English, French and gender, and also plays the part of one of the Lulus, suggests that the process might be more daunting for Manderson-Galvin than the performers.
“Every now and then she’ll just be like, ‘No, this is important, this is what I meant’. But it’s helpful, because it is such a personal play. A huge amount of it is drawn from her own life and every character is Kerith, so it’s really brave of her to come along and see us mangling her life, not just her art.”
Manderson-Galvin says that she didn’t want to just hand over her script and be done. Being involved in the production has given her confidence to think she could one day direct as well as write.
It is difficult, however, to imagine her not being present in these final days leading to opening night, such is her involvement. Three weeks out from the show, Manderson-Galvin has cut a scene and more is up for discussion.
“If I’m there, then I can know that it’s not going to work,” she reflects after reahearsal. “And I also think that things should change. Maybe that scene was completely right three months ago and was perfect, but for where my brain is sitting right now, it’s not anymore. But that is how shows work anyway, so it’s good practice for the actors to get into it.”
* ‘Don’t Bring Lulu’ opens on Thursday (May 22) at Union House Theatre.