There's a ship on an endless ocean, drifting. In its guts lie four men, passing time before they pass away, reminiscing about better days. Mutation Theatre set sail as part of the Next Wave Festival in this latest addition to an impressive and swiftly evolving body of work from one of Melbournes most feisty and fecund young indie theatre collectives. Time Out quizzed artistic director Patrick McCarthy ahead of the maiden voyage for LIBERATE YOURSELF FROM MY VICE-LIKE GRIP!!!.
Mutation Theatre – what's the company story in one exciting sentence?
We've been making new and experimental theatre since 2008, and currently have a development and performance space in Collingwood.
Above the travel books bookshop, right? We like the symbolism in that. How do you guys decide which projects to work on?
Yes we're above the Traveller's Bookstore on Smith St. It's good to have a home, and it means that we can create and perform works in-situ, which has become a very important part of our process. It also means when we invite people to collaborate with us, that we're inviting them into an actual physical space, which I think creates more of a family feel to the rehearsal room.
In terms of how we decide which projects to do, there are a few things that can influence which project comes next. We've always got a few ideas on the table (and forming in the mind), and they all take their own time to build up momentum and gain a sense of urgency, which is ultimately what makes us go with a project- "we have to do this...now". I also take into account what projects we've done recently and how the next work follows on from that. We want to create a sense of continuation, but we're also not interested in being a company that does the same thing all the time – I think there's a pretty limited shelf life in that, and companies that follow that path tend to only be around for a few years before running out of steam and falling away; unless they reinvent themselves somehow, or only make one new show every year or two, which I'm not interested in either. We're more interested in a diversity of theatrical possibilities (thus the name), and serving each idea or project on it's own terms. Whilst it might be harder to build up a "cult following" or sense of hype this way, we think there is more longevity in it.
Perhaps you can elaborate a bit on what this new show, LIBERATE YOURSELF FROM MY VICE-LIKE GRIP!!!, for the Next Wave festival is about?
It's about four men stuck on a cruise-ship at the end of our planet's life. We've been exploring the notion of the "1%", and what allows that massive inequality in our society to exist. We've been trying to explore these ideas without being judgemental or didactic (which political theatre often can be), exploring the issue from the perspective of the perpetrators rather than the victims. The play observes these four men existing in a room on the ship, and we witness their interactions, their paranoia, and their fantasies.
As the piece unfolds the audience gains a greater understanding of what happened to the planet, and how these four men got here. We've been trying to access some kind of truth about our own apathy and carelessness towards the rest of the world, and the logic and rationale we create for ourselves to go on existing in the first world, thinking that we're still good people whilst everything else burns.
Sort of reminds us of the David Foster Wallace cruise-ship adventure and the "greedy placidity" of the cruise-ship tourist. Would it be true to say you're focusing as much on "perpetuators" as "perpetrators"?
Yeah I think so, that's a good point. It's a tricky thing to talk about without sounding judgemental or elitist. But we're trying to take ownership over it through the work, make it our own fault/problem. You want to highlight the issues you're talking about and exploring, but the kind of people we're talking about aren't actually that far removed from ourselves. I'm a white, straight, middle-class, Australian male from a vaguely Christian upbringing – I'm not discriminated against in any way, and though I'm poor from being an artist, if I wanted to I could probably go be a lawyer or stockbroker and be wealthy as well.
The cast are all in the same boat (no pun intended). So it creates an interesting friction in the work because really we're playing with the idea that people like us are the problem, so how do you go about changing things? Every day we live our first-world existence is killing people and destroying the planet, so how do we reconcile that in our own minds, and how will we look at ourselves in the end?
Also, three exclamation points? Would JD Salinger approve?
Probably not. He'd probably say I'm a phoney. But it's such a wonderful line, and such a great fit for our subject matter. It's all in capitals as well – like a fusion of a Salinger line and the cover of Nick Cave's DIG LAZARUS DIG!!! album. I don't hide my influences very well. But then I don't see why I should...
Holden might say you were a phoney. Salinger would probably just grunt and then maybe later you'd get a call from his lawyers. Do you feel like your influences have shifted significantly since when you began Mutation Theatre, in the Howard Arkley years?
I think they're broader, which comes naturally from seeing more work and experiencing more things. I've seen hundreds of shows of all different styles since I started the company, so that has a direct impact. The early work was quite quite innocent in that sense, things are much more considered and informed now. Having said that, around the time I did that first show I saw a series of works that were quite formative- Kosky's Women of Troy, Schlusser's Life is a Dream, Ranter's Holiday, Black Lung's Avast, John Bolton's Mask of the Red Death, MTC's Blackbird etc. They sparked interests which are now forming into our own way of working as a company.
What brings you to the Next Wave?
We were a part of the Kickstart program there last year, so we had the time and support to develop the project over an extended period, which has been really valuable. This is the first project we've done without a script (except for The Arrival, but we had a graphic novel there), and we felt we needed the time to develop the ensemble language and dramaturgical shape of the piece. It's also allowed us to attract some really great people to the project, that we may not otherwise have had the opportunity to work with. I've also been mentored by Daniel Schlusser for the last 18 months, which has changed everything.
Emily Sexton becoming the AD of Next Wave was probably the main reason though. She's shown incredible faith in us and our work, and that's been really important in our development as a company.
Tell us a bit more about how Schlusser has changed everything -- apart, obviously, from validating your predilection for Nick Cave interludes (oh, yes, I heard those few bars of Grinderman in the Pozible vid!). Do you mean in the process of workshopping?
We used Grinderman in the development, but it's not in the show. Though it's informed the work in a number of ways. Tommy Spender has composed an amazing original score for the work, so there's no pop music in this show.
Daniel's been hugely influential both in terms of the work that he makes, and directly through his mentoring. I've seen all his work for a number of years now, and each show has challenged the way I view theatre in different ways. He has an incredibly insightful theatrical mind, and an ability to narrow in on problems and possibilities that I'm yet to see in another director. His mentoring hasn't really been about passing on his process or way of working, but rather helping me find my own way. But yes the common interests of ensemble based work, generating material from long-form improvisation, and alternative dramaturgy has obviously meant that those elements of our work have deepened through his involvement.