First published on 23 May 2013. Updated on 7 Jul 2013.
The Malthouse Theatre continues in its quest for off-the-map theatrical adventures with The Dragon, a comic fantasy-parable by Soviet satirist Evgeny Shwarz, with Melbourne comedians Tripod debuting for the company as the three-headed dragon.
Time Out spoke with Tripod's Simon Hall about storytelling, the art of comedy and the time Gatesy wept at Man of La Mancha.
How did Tripod come to be involved with the high-brow theatre types at the Malthouse?
Well, it happened because there're three of us. In the script the dragon is a three-headed dragon played by three actors. And they wanted the show to have a comic element to it, even though it's quite dark, it's set in a fairy-tale world. As evidenced by the fact that we've already made a show with a dragon in it, we're pretty au fait with that kind of thing.
How does working on this show compare to the longer musicals you've written with Tripod?
Doing stuff at the Malthouse gives you a licence to be experimental. I think people come to shows to see something different and challenging, and maybe not offering a narrative in the classic sense. Which I often find hard. Like I tend to gravitate more towards a Hollywood structure, the hero's journey, whereas I think at the Malthouse the audience is after something different.
Certainly what Toby [Schmitz] has done with the adaptation is really different. It's really fun language to say. It's just kind of weird. Really visceral. When we write our own dialogue, performing things that we've written, it's easier to act. You know, it's much easier to perform something if you've written it. So it's going to be really interesting trying to pull off someone else's lines. It's not written in our normal voice, if you know what I mean.
Is the rehearsal process at the Malthouse very different to way you develop your comedy shows?
What is really interesting – and I have no idea how it's going to work – is that when we make our musicals, or even with the looser gigs we do as a band, the first performance is only ever a rough draft. We're constantly working on things, because you learn so much once you get it in front of an audience. But the general theatre thing is you write the show, rehearse the show for a really intense and long period, then once you've done opening night the show is set. There might be a small tweak, but not major changes.
But we are unusually collaborative, as a group. I'm not saying we're awesome at it, but that is how we generate our material. Also, We actually come from a theatre background, that's kind of how we started. We met doing musicals in suburban Melbourne, so we are used to having a stage manager, learning lines, rehearsing up a show to opening night.
Take us back to those suburban theatre days – was it that long ago?
I would say it is a very long time. We're talking early 90s.
Definitely. I think the highlight for me was the show I met Scotty on, actually. It was Man of La Mancha, at Monash University. A good friend of ours was directing it. It was good. People were coming out crying. In fact, I distinctly remember Gatesy coming out with tears coming down his face. And, you know, that's kind of weird for an amateur production of a hokey musical.
So you're already theatre people?
Scotty and I have trained as theatre techs. We did a Victorian College of the Arts course in theatre production. He went and worked at St Martins for a bit. I haven't worked as much in production. I did help a friend put on his shopping-centre pantos for a while, during the course of which I crashed one of those rented trucks. Smashed it into a bridge.
Do you feel like Tripod walks that fine line between comedy and art? And does it feel like you're delving further into new territory with a project like this?
With Tripod, sometimes you just put in a cheap laugh, that's definitely true, and in those circumstances I can definitely understand someone saying, 'You know what, that's definitely not art.' But generally, and particularly with the Tripod Versus the Dragon show, we approach our work really seriously, as a piece of art.
In 2010, we did a development as artists in residence at a museum of contemporary art in Massachusetts. That was important, I think, having that opportunity, you know, to take ourselves seriously as artists. But it's an interesting question, because I could cite several comedians who I thought were artists before everything else. Daniel Kitson. Sam Simmons. They all do something that is really hard to pin down.
We have an extra level, though, because we started as musicians. We didn't start as comedians. We only slowly came into that. Now, though, we would definitely count ourselves as a part of the comedy world. We do think like comedians in a lot of ways.
You're performing as the Dragon, but you've also written the music for the show. How does that work?
We each play two characters. We're each one part of the dragon, but we're also these animals who sing the songs that we've written and who sit outside the story in a sort of a chorusy way, presenting little thematic ideas. The way we've been writing for the animals, because we've been doing a little bit of dialogue for them, is very much Tripod, the three-hander, and the guy that always gets called a monkey.
Tell me about your take on the play?
It's a parable really. And it's quite a negative take on humanity and how we're all just stuck in a loop of living in fear and being controlled. I was kind of hoping there would be more redemption in it.
You're missing the Hollywood ending?
There are movies that I like which don't have a happy ending, but, I don't know, it's about a feeling of completeness, I suppose. We've be conditioned, I think. So it will be interesting to see how a Malthouse audience deals with that.
The Dragon, The Malthouse, Jun 26-Jul 27.
Sign up to our monthly arts newsletter