It's the day after opening night when director Simon Stone invites Time Out inside the fish-tank set of his production, The Wild Duck, at Belvoir Theatre. The reviews aren't in and Stone has been feeling fairly nauseated with anticipation. "I woke up this morning with a horrible, sick feeling," says Stone, sitting on the carpeted floor, propped up against the perspex, "and it had nothing to do with the after-party."
Both here and in Melbourne, where his renegade performance collective the Hayloft Project is based, Stone has earned a reputation as one of the boldest, brightest young theatre makers in the country. At 26, he's part of a wide movement of youngish theatre practitioners taking over and invigorating the main stage - bursting with fresh ideas and restless energy.
A muscular work ethic helps. This year, as well as his rigorous refashioning of Henrik Ibsen's The Wild Duck for Belvoir, Stone directed the bleak, rain-drenched Baal for Sydney Theatre Company. This month he's back at Belvoir with Neighbourhood Watch, written by Lally Katz and starring Robyn Nevin.
In conversation with Stone, you quickly get a sense of his incisive intellect: every subject is tackled thoroughly, thoughtfully and articulately. Scientific terms abound - partly because his parents were scientists; partly because the ideology of Stone's practice is theatre as an ongoing experiment: continual testing of hypotheses about content, form, audience and theatre itself.
It makes perfect sense, then, when Stone describes his arrangement as Belvoir's resident director as "like having a laboratory". "It gives me a base," Stone says, "a place to grow and learn as a director, to get closer to the core of what kind of theatre I would like to make.
"As an artist, I need to be continuing to explore various boundaries. This ensures that the audience continues to see refreshing and challenging things, so they don't feel like they're stuck in some kind of horrible purgatory of the same piece of theatre occurring again and again except with slightly different faces and different words."
As Stone hastens to emphasise, though, he's not some sort of lone mad scientist in the laboratory. "What you saw here last night was a product of a series of very talented individuals working together to achieve a piece of work - that initially came from a single person working on an idea and then rapidly expanded to a whole lot of people becoming guardians for this particular version. It's about working as part of a collective."
The residency gives Stone access to Belvoir's resources to conduct his experiments, but also allows him to keep up a dialogue with Sydney's theatregoing public. It's a public that is increasingly interested in tracking the growth of specific theatre artists - whether they enjoy all the work or not. "We're dealing with an audience base and a culture that's aware of the throughline of how one work speaks to another work speaks to another work. That's a really healthy, exciting place to be. Inevitably there will be things that, because of the level of expectation, people find irritating. That's just the way art works."
Stone's contribution to the company extends beyond his own productions. Since Ralph Myers assumed his post as artistic director for the 2011 season, Stone has also been closely involved in Belvoir's artistic and programming decisions. "All that kind of stuff makes me feel incredibly connected," says Stone. "I feel part of a larger thing that's going on. We're all practically the same age, we're all very young and full of so much energy - and we're relentlessly driving towards the ideas that we've been developing for years. To be in that environment every day of the year will make the work I do here very different from the work I do elsewhere.
"Having said that, I also have the opportunity to make work in different spaces that inherently dictate different ideas. From those experiences I'll be able to come back to the company refreshed and wanting to try new things. So I think it's a wonderful balance. I'm the luckiest man in Australian theatre. I've been given the opportunity to fully explore my work in multiple contexts and that's an extraordinary possibility."
Read our reviews of past Simon Stone productions (views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of current Time Out critics):
"If the director and cast had let themselves go a bit more, this play could really have delivered on its promise."
The Only Child
"In this bathroom the characters are progressively stripped naked and redressed, psychologically and physically."
"Melodrama and farce are high on the menu, and a protracted volley of double-entendres teeters on the edge of over-the-top..."
The Wild Duck
"Stone doesn't muck about – he's gone straight for the jugular in his surgery of Ibsen's text and given it a newfound fierceness and muscularity."
"... ultimately, pushing through the torrent of hype and hogwash, you may come to the disappointing conclusion that Baal says much less than what has been said about it."
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