From the streets of Western Sydney, to the stage, and now to the computer screen – Theatre Maker Roslyn Oades talks about her play ‘I’m Your Man’ and how it became an interactive online experience with SBS.
Tell us how the SBS adaptation of ‘I’m Your Man’ came to be. Did a creative team there approach you with the idea?
SBS Producer, Kylie Boltin saw the original documentary theatre work, ‘I’m Your Man’, onstage in Sydney and thought it could make an excellent concept for an online interactive experience. The phone call came quite out of the blue in June 2015 while I was sitting in my studio at the Convent actually. The finished project was launched online last month, so the adaptation process has taken quite a long time and involved animation, illustrations, film shoots, game design and a theme song by Indigenous hip-hop artist, Briggs.
Did you ever think one of your stage-plays would be adapted into such a different medium?
No, I never imagined anything like this, and the finished project is quite unlike anything I’ve experienced before. When I met with Marshall Heald, Chief Digital Officer at SBS, he told me his team were very interested in creating original online content that they didn’t know how to make yet. He was particularly interested in pioneering new approaches to online form. As an artist, that instantly had my attention and it’s been inspiring to collaborate with such an adventurous team.
How much cross over does the interactive documentary have with the narrative of your play?
The online, is quite different to the play. Most significantly it’s shorter and doesn’t feature the headphone-verbatim performance style of the original stage version. However, the immersive boxing gym setting, and the featured boxing identities draw from the original – as do the three themes of discipline, fear and success.
You spent 18 months documenting young Western Sydney boxer Billy Dib with your tape recorder to create the narrative for ‘I’m Your Man’. It’s a significant commitment to bring authenticity to the project. What was it about Billy and Australian boxing that inspired you?
I see my theatre works as sitting within the field of creative non-fiction. My creative process is not dissimilar to a documentary filmmaker or long-form journalist. I’m very interested in in-depth social portraiture and listening closely to the community around me. My signature headphone-verbatim works take a long time to make, and as any reporter will tell you, a long-term investment is essential to ensuring a documentary project possesses the right degree of integrity, care and depth, to fully flesh out your line of enquiry. ‘I’m Your Man’, is the third work in a trilogy of audio-scripts exploring notions of courage and psychology of respect.
‘I’m Your Man’ was largely inspired by a line of enquiry that arose out of ‘Stories of Love & Hate’ – a work I made in Sydney with the communities directly involved in the Cronulla Riots. While making ‘Stories of Love & Hate’, I repeatedly encountered young men from both sides of this racial war, who claimed they’d be willing to die for their sense of ‘pride’. On ‘I’m Your Man’, I was curious to explore the psychology of respect in the micro-world of boxing as a way of offering deeper insights into the ways this psychology resonates in broader social contexts. I also believe there is a lot of negative preconceived stereotyping about boxers and of people who trade their physical bodies in general.
Billy Dib was an obvious figure to follow as he’s a hero in Bankstown, the area in which I grew up – and at the time he was on the cusp of securing a World Title fight – so it was also a case of right person, right time.
Are the audio excerpts in the SBS documentary taken from your tape recordings for the play?
No, SBS created new recordings for the adaptation. I worked with them as a consultant on the adaptation, introducing the director to the boxers as well as participating in several of the new interview recordings. When I collected the original documentary materials, I was following Billy Dib on his 2011 quest for a World Title belt, in the adaptation (several years on) SBS track Billy’s comeback quest after losing his World Title belt and, very sadly, also losing his young fiancé to cancer. So, he had quite a different mountain to overcome this time around.
‘I’m Your Man’ is part of a triptych of ‘headphone-verbatim plays’, where actors listen to audio interviews you’ve recorded, and essentially mimic your subjects to bring the play to life. Where did you discover this technique?
I’ve worked as a voice-over artist on cartoons and in advertising for many years, so I’ve always had a fascination with the voice and the particular ways in which people speak. To me, every individual voice is as unique as a fingerprint and there’s almost as much information about our personalities in the way we speak as what we’re saying. I first started experimenting with the headphone-verbatim form in 2000 while living in London. I was lucky enough to encounter a director called Mark Wing-Davey who was running an acting workshop on headphone-verbatim at the London Actors’ Centre. Out of that workshop an ensemble formed called Non-Fiction Theatre, which I was a part of for about eight months before moving back to Australia and continuing my own experiments here. ‘Hello, Goodbye & Happy Birthday’ is my fifth signature headphone-verbatim production and each new work has been increasingly complicated in terms of the complex group conversations I attempt to record and reproduce on stage.
What’s the advantage of a headphone-verbatim play over a traditional scripted performance? Does it create more immediacy and urgency?
It’s certainly seems to be more immediate than scripted speech, in that the vocal mannerisms are so natural and familiar to local audiences. We don’t try to hide the headphone technology, so audiences are aware the actors are being fed the voices of real interview subjects and repeating these voices directly to them. It’s a bit like watching a troupe of spirit mediums and audiences tend to find that quite fascinating. It’s like the real people are present in the room talking to you and not at the same time.
You’re currently on the road doing a national tour of ‘Hello, Goodbye & Happy Birthday’, which debuted at the Melbourne Festival in 2014. This play uses the headphone verbatim technique to tell a very different story, one of ageism. You obviously find this technique extremely versatile, but what are some of its limitations?
Like with all non-fiction writing the biggest challenges of this style of work is the editing process and creating a dynamic, engaging journey out of an immense collection of research audio. These projects also represent a huge investment of time, labour and care when dealing with real people’s stories – this is a responsibility I take very seriously and it’s not a process you can shortcut.
What’s your favourite part of your writing process, researching, interviewing and being inspired by your subjects, or seeing that research manifest on stage?
Hmm… that’s a hard question to answer. I’m very curious as a person and a good listener, so I really enjoy meeting interesting people. It is an immense honour to have people trust me with their words. It’s also immensely satisfying when the interviewees feel I’ve done a good job. I like to arrange special previews for all the interviewees and research consultants on a project and these showings are much more nerve-racking then opening nights. As an artist I also love seeing a work come and knowing I’ve cracked the structural shape that best serves my idea.
You’re directing ‘Hello, Goodbye & Happy Birthday’ too. Do you find this to be a necessity when using audio-scripts?
It has just always worked out that way. I’ve not really questioned it. I often refer to myself as a theatre maker, which encompasses the dual roles of creator and director. I tend to structure our script materials on the floor with actors – it’s seems like the logical way to trial ideas for live performance, so it makes sense to direct as well. The danger of this process is I lose my objectivity. To combat this I work closely with several very talented collaborators – in this case audio artist Bob Scott, movement director Nat Cursio & lighting designer Paul Jackson – and the credit for ‘Hello, Goodbye & Happy Birthday’ reads as ‘by Roslyn Oades & Collaborators’ in acknowledgement of their profound involvement in the creative process.
It’s been a busy few months for you. Do you still get to spend much time in your studio at the Convent?
I’m on the road a lot over the next two months with our national tour but am REALLY looking forward to being back in my peaceful convent studio after that. While I’m away my husband, writer Chris Womersley, whom I share the studio with, will be busy keeping the seat warm.
Lots of creative practitioners find the Convent to be the ideal place for collaboration. What about the ideal place for solitude-seeking writers?
I’m a bit of an introvert so the Convent is great for hiding out with my head down in a peaceful environment and churning out a solid days work without distraction. Having said that, my studio’s in the writer’s wing and I also love being surrounded by fellow writers with similar personalities. We often tap gently on each other’s doors and arrange coffee dates. We’re all very respectful of each other space but the sense of comradeship is certainly strong. It’s a special community to be a part of.
Do you have any more works planned for 2017?
Next on the slate is a couple of audio installations, so I have a backlog of editing waiting for me. I’m currently collecting audio interviews for a project based on the site of the new Ulumbarra Theatre in Bendigo, which was formerly the site of the old Sandhurst Gaol (1860-2004) and before that a significant Indigenous meeting spot for the Dja Dja Wurrung people. If anyone reading this has a personal connection to this site or the former gaol I’d love to hear from you. Please track me down via my website: www.roslynoades.com
To enter the ring and go toe-to-toe with some of Australia’s boxing legends in the SBS adaptation of ‘I’m Your Man’, click here. And if you want to catch Roslyn’s work in the real world, check-out her schedule of upcoming national performances of ‘Hello, Goodbye & Happy Birthday’ here.