Over the years, The Hayloft Project have earned a formidable reputation for their unique take on classic texts, especially the Ancient Greeks. Now led by Anne-Louise Sarks and Benedict Hardie, the company are at it again, taking on the myth of Oedipus in By Their Own Hands.
Once darlings of the Melbourne independent scene, both Sarks and Hardie have relocated to Sydney – Sarks to join Belvoir as one of two directors in residence. When Time Out caught up with them, the prodigal pair were still in the early stages of planning for their fêted return to the southern capital, where they they will join the cream of Melbourne's independent theatre makers as part of the MTC's Neon Festival.
What can you tell us about the Ancient Greek sources you're working with?
BH: There are a bunch of Sophoclean dramas underneath it all, but we're hoping that the subject matter will have a more contemporary feel.
ALS: It's the Oedipus Trilogy, but it's very much a show about story-telling.
BH: And about how we engage with tragedy today, how we understand tragic events as a community.
ALS: And then the importance of theatre in that as a communal event.
And so it'll just be the two of you on stage, is that right?
ALS: Yes, we really want to test how much of a world the two of us can create, how we far we can draw the audience in when it's just the two of us telling this epic story. It's an exploration of the theatrical form, or a test, because of the limitations that we've set ourselves.
So these stories started as mythical materials, were shaped into structured, dramatic documents by Sophocles, and now you're taking them back into the more primitive world of bards?
ALS: Absolutely, because I think storytelling is actually at the core of what it is to be a human being, that's how we define ourselves everyday with one another. We're kind of stripping it right back to that. But a strange thing happens when you do that with only two actors, because it becomes far more theatrical. You're so conscious of the theatrical artifice, of these two people trying to do all of that for you that's where it gets really exciting for us.
This is something you've both been working on for a while, isn't it? Discarding the masks and reaching out to the audience?
ALS: I just think, well, you're in a theatre, and you know that we're not Jocasta or Creon or Antigone, and yet maybe you completely empathise, maybe you go with us on that journey, in an empty room, and that's kind of crazy, but that's actually what we do all the time.
Tell us a little about the process, about the way you re-shape these classic texts.
BH: Well, there's a white board! But, yes, it's very, very fluid. There are moments where it gets quite academic and you study the texts in great depth and find the subtle cues that are hidden in there, then you might leap from that into a flight of fancy, or we might write a scene, and then we might read that scene, and then we might throw it out. It's very fluid.
ALS: We have a lot of what-is-the-point-of-this conversations. We've had few of those recently, over and over. When you hit a wall like that then you go back to the text. We get invigorated by the story. We have some clear ideas about what is important to us and what we want to say, and how things connect, and spend a lot of time imagining what the audience might be going through.
Does it feel like a big risk to have both of you starring, writing and directing, all at once?
ALS: Sometimes, I don't know about you Bennie, but sometimes I think, What the hell are we doing? Why? Why have I been foolish enough to put myself in this show?
BH: I think we've been guided by the principle that scary is good. When you get to an idea that feels coherent or feels good, it's never as satisfying as the idea that feels terrifying.
ALS: Which we may pay heavily for!
Ha! But what's the answer? Why did you decide to put yourselves in the play? Apart from the fact that you're both very fine actors...
ALS: I think because Bennie and I have worked together for so long, and we have a shared language and I guess that's part of what we wanted to explore. But I agree that scary is good. We asked ourselves what would be the next biggest challenge for ourselves as theatre makers and it was this. It's the thing that everybody says you shouldn't do: put yourself in a show and make it without a director.
BH: One of the beautiful things about theatre is collaborating with new people and finding new relationships. But in established relationships where you have that understanding and you have that rapport you challenge each other more every time to go further.
ALS: Everyone talks about collaboration. People drop that word in theatre a lot. And this is a genuine experiment in that. And we wanted Hayloft to be that, but it's hard for it to be that when the projects are initiated by a director, and often that director will be funding the project, so it's pretty clear who's leading it. Here, with Neon, we have a genuine possibility to get in a room with a bunch of creative people who we're really excited by and test the boundaries. I feel that there's something about putting yourself in that position, and that's really important, too.
Those creative people include designers Kelly Ryall, Marg Horwell and Matt Scott, all wonderful artists in their own right, but is there extra pressure on them with the two of you working as this sort of double-headed writing, directing, performing beast?
ALS: I should say that Tom Healy is coming on board to be another set of outside eyes for us. But I think they're all really excited to feel like they have some sort of responsibility for making this thing with us, rather than just scoring a moment. Rex Cramphorn has this beautiful quote about the collaborative process where he says that the role of a good director is to be flexible enough in your process that the inspiration to run the room could be taken by any artist at any moment. I think that's pretty exciting, and very dangerous. I think to actually see if you can say, "I'm not sure where to go next, but you seem to have an idea and we're going to follow that idea with you for a while" I think it has to make something new in the very least.