We are a little fascinated by the story of Dust, the Black Swan Theatre Company’s upcoming play that explores what happens when a cloud of red dust shrouds Perth and changes everything, from the landscape to relationships, for a day. Director Emily McLean piqued our interest further when we sat down with her to talk about Dust and more.
Official job title: Theatre Director.
Tell us about your career background and how you’ve come to where you are now:
I got into the WAAPA directing course and graduated with a great bunch of actors, sound, set, and lighting designers, and moved to Sydney. I finally had a bunch of talented people that I could try to persuade to do a show with me. And slowly but surely over the last 17 years since I graduated, that’s what I have done. I’ve done everything from a new script with no budget at Sydney Fringe with a set made out of found objects (ie, rubbish) to shows fully funded by DCA and this year’s main stage production at Black Swan.
I have always leaned towards new Australian scripts because it is exciting to be a part of creating our culture and because I believe our own stories in our own voices must be fought for. I moved back to Perth at the same time as two great actors, Alison van Reeken and Benj D’Addario, who I knew vaguely at WAAPA, and we realised we wanted to do the same kind of work – quality, professional, independent theatre. We did the only logical thing and formed a theatre company – Red Ryder. So far, we have produced seven plays.
Dealer’s Choice at PICA, 2006, for Red Ryder.
When directing, do you discuss much with the playwright and if so, what impact does it have?
It completely depends on the play. Generally, if it is the first production of a play, you have some sort of relationship with the writer. And that relationship depends on the writer and the state of the script. Sometimes it’s been workshopped like crazy and only needs small tweaks. Sometimes it has never been read aloud before and then it needs bigger changes. You always hope you can strike up a way of working together where you can be honest about the problems in the script and for that not to be too brutal for the writer to hear.
I have always loved having the writer in the room. Sometimes it’s great to be able to ask, ‘So why does she say that?’ rather than having to nut it out yourself. But I think if you can show the writer that you love their script and understand the layers and ideas in it, they are happy to hear you. Then the conversation is heading toward making the play the best it can be.
I’ve just been working with Suzie Miller on Dust. She was amazing – completely open to hearing our ideas and with such a strong understanding of every line in her script that she knew exactly when a change was needed or when to fight for what was on the page.
Charlotte Devenport in Dust – photo by Robert Firth, Acorn Photography.
What attracted you to Dust?
Firstly, a cloud of red dust completely envelops Perth; it changes the world for a day and places everyone in an alien landscape. It’s a beautiful idea for a play and it won me over straight away with the red dirt. This dust cloud forces people to stay put in situations they would normally run away from. We follow six stories as the day goes from sunrise to sunset. These people’s stories took me with them on their journey – I cared for them and recognised all of them. It made me remember the joy of falling in love. It’s intelligent and it made me laugh and cry. I could go on, but come and see the show.
Which actors would you love to direct one day?
Hmm. That’s hard. Any great theatrical actor, really. Pamela Rabe blew me away so let’s say her. Locally, Julia Moody is amazing. And then any actor I already have a great working language with.
What is the best thing about your job?
I get to go into a room with wonderful creative people and go, ‘What if we do this?!’, and they say (usually), ‘Yes. And also, what if we do this?!’ And on we go. I also get to sit by myself with a script and all its ideas and try to imagine it all into 3D.
You also own a couple of bookstores. Wowee! Do you feel like having diverse interests and responsibilities is a positive thing in life?
Yes, definitely. We, my husband Al and I, have Crow Books in East Vic Park and have just taken on New Edition in Freo (which we are currently relocating and will open again in early July). Bookshops function as places to sell books but they are so much more. hey are a space where conversations happen about ideas, beauty, issues, stories, writing, and cute animals. Spaces that communities need, that people need. They’re kind of like theatres. The bookshops are mainly Al’s babies but I take care of the stationery. And read, read, read. This feeds into everything I do: the readers, we will rule the world one day.
What has been your proudest achievement?
Professionally, any play that makes people come into the foyer debating ideas or issues fiercely. This most recently happened with Fat Pig. Or when people have been moved emotionally – that’s hard to beat. This most recently happened with Slut.
Slut by Patricia Cornelius. Presented by Little y Theatre Company.
Which local artists/musicians/creatives do you admire?
So many. I’m an old rock chick so any of our local musos from The Stems and The Triffids through to Eskimo Joe and Tame Impala. I’ve been reading Tracy Ryan’s poetry lately: amazing. Read and loved Perth by David Whish-Wilson – great for heading into working on a play set in Perth. Tim Winton, Craig Silvey, Elizabeth Jolley. Playwrights – Reg Cribb, Hellie Turner, Ingle Knight, Bill McCluskey.
The amazing young theatre makers in our town. Joe Lui is always original and thought provoking. Mark Storen does his own incredible Australian/deep south original shows. Renee Newman-Storen from Moxie Collective and Georgia King from Little y add so much to our theatre culture with their fantastic shows and all their work nurturing theatre talent. We surely must have one of the strongest scenes in Australia. Fiona Bruce and Trent Suidgeest who are set and lighting designers respectively – their ability to capture the soul and the central ideas of a piece visually can take my breath away. And I haven’t even started on actors, sound designers…
Any advice for those trying to enter into the creative community in Perth?
If it’s theatre, The Blue Room is the best place ever. It’s filled with people making theatre and it’s a great place to start. Go in and ask. And when you get your chance, work hard. Be rigorous. Play.
Loveplay at PICA, 2007.
What do you love about Perth?
The isolation. The sky. The space. The red dirt north of us. The Karri forests to the south of us. And the ocean.
What does Perth need?
A theatre venue that fits between The Blue Room and The State Theatre Centre (not physically).
Most frequented coffee spot?
I don’t like coffee but for tea – Chapels in Maylands. Finally, a place that takes tea seriously.
Best live music venue?
Scabs (without kids). Cott (with kids).
Rottnest or Margaret River?
Dust is on at the Heath Ledger Theatre from 28 June-13 July. Tickets are available through Ticketek.