January 01, 1996

Figuring the Landscape

Figuring the Landscape

Murray Bramwell talks with Philippe Genty and Mary Underwood about their new Australian-based production, Stowaways.

For nearly twenty years Philippe Genty has been an Australian stowaway. Ever since his first visit to the Adelaide and Perth Festivals in1978 he has lodged in the minds of a diverse Australian audience which has been both entranced and intrigued by the imaginative world of his theatre. His wacky dancing ostriches and weird little floating homunculi, his erotic puppets festooned in cellophane, his figures in trenchcoats held by hooks from attaining objects of desire, his deckchair fantasias- all have been conjured before our eyes. And with this bewildering variety of inaminate objects, inflatables, dirigibles and unbelievables, Genty and his creative partner Mary Underwood have produced matinee surrealism.

Working out of Paris, Genty and Underwood have fashioned what you might call a string of successes -Round as a Cube, Sigmund Follies, Desirs Parade, Drifting, Forget Me Not and their current inernational touring work, Voyageur Immobile. But Stowaways, which opens in Adelaide on February 2, is a unique venture. Devised and and developed in partnership with the Adelaide Festival Centre Trust, State Theatre, the Festival of Perth, the Victorian Arts Centre and the Queensland Performing Arts Trust, this is Genty’s first project out of France and it celebrates his long association with Australia.

It also stems from the particular friendship which developed with The AFCT’s Executive Producer Rob Brookman whom Genty met on the company’s first tour and as their association continued to prosper the two discussed the possibility of an Adelaide based venture .

“We talked about this for ten years, ” Genty notes with amusement, “it was becoming a joke.” Finally, the project was set up in April last year with Genty and Mary Underwood in October taking up residence in a cottage in Adelaide’s inner city. The usual development time for a Genty production is twelve months so Stowaways, with a four month preparation, is something of a quickie.

With a production budget of $750,000 it represents a considerable commitment on the part of the producers who were faced with the possibility of disruptions, or even cancellation, when President Girac’s nuclear testing program began causing one le boycott after another. Genty, politically active since the days of the Paris strikes of 1968, was himself sympathetic to the protests.

“I wonder whether Australians know that more than sixty percent of French people are against the tests,” he observes, “I think the fight is important and we should continue this battle.”

Fortunately, the joint venture between Genty and a group of Australian artists – performers Meredith Kitchen, Jennifer Newman-Preston, Brian Parker, Simon Rann and Russell Garbutt, fabricators Martin Rezard and Gilli Hope, composer Ian McDonald and lighting designer Phil Lethlean- has not been sabotaged by circumstance. In fact, it is a measure of the familiarity and regard for the company in Australia that they are seen as quite remote from any current Gallic haughtiness.

With Stowaways, Philippe Genty is taking the opportunity of his Australian sojourn to delve directly personal experiences for his themes. This is not the first time either. Familiar with the processes of psychoanalysis he began a process of self-analysis, or as he describes it, auto-analysis.

“When we toured in 1979 we were here for nine months. It seemed like neutral ground so I decided to do an auto-analysis. I had none of the stress of being in France. I had been nourished by many works – that of Freud, Bettelheim, Jung, Melanie Klein, all this literature. I knew it would hard to do but as I was accustomed to images and was starting to collect my dreams and write them down as precisely as I could, I thought I would try. ”

Genty describes having fears and anxieties, in particular a belief that he would die when his son turned seven years old. “I knew there was something to unknot, ” he recalls, ” but I didn’t know what . It went on for nearly nine months, like a birth. I would write down a dream, it would become very clear and then I would interpret it. For the first time in my life I began to get rashes all over my body but when I wrote something, put my finger on something, the rashes would go. It was quite exemplary, I’ve never experienced anything like it.”

Genty describes unravelling a trauma which occurred when he was seven. Two policemen came to his house to tell his mother that his father had been killed in a skiing accident. He had overheard the conversation but repressed it and his mother then had not told him until more than year later what had happened.

“My mother hid this from me which was the worst thing to do because I had this feeling of guilt that I’d done something wrong. I believed she had concealed me from the police. I was in the Oedipal period and so I was in love with my mother and wishing my father wasn’t there. The whole thing built up. My mother put me in boarding school and that was the end. I escaped from sixteen schools in ten years. It was one continuous flight,an escape. And this whole thing is Stowaways.

“The structure is based around a character who has a childhood trauma which leads to a split into various personalities which take him in various directions before he achieves a re-integration. It is a way of saying… especially in our society where there is so much stress and schism, it is a way of testifying that there is still hope.”

It is from such private imagery that Genty and Mary Underwood develop their public work. From dreams and improvisations they evolve correlatives to dream.

“I am always fascinated to explore the conflict that goes on in human beings. It is not usually a social conflict but rather the human being facing his or her own conflict. From here we go into an inner landcape, into a dream. Not in the usual narrative way of teling a story. It evolves around association, like in a dream.”

Genty and Underwood build their work from these impressions and intuitions. Then they look for the materials – which may include anything from brown paper to industrial strength plastic.

“You start to work with fabric and you say the fabric should do that,” Genty explains,” Then you realise there is a resistance and the fabric does not want to say that. You either say ‘I’ll force it’ and will be dry and uninteresting’ or ‘I’ll try to go its way’ -which can be frustrating until suddenly it is revealing things which are deep within you, that you didn’t want to touch on or disclose. That is the fascinating moment. It is when the creation starts. It is the same with the performers. You bring them close to the void when they want to reveal things about themselves, then the sparks come out.”

It is by such a process that composer Ian McDonald has built up his music for the production, using a synthesiser while the performers rehearse.

“I work on headphones and watch,” McDonald explains,” And when I feel brave enough I might play a bit to what they are doing and see what Philippe’s response will be. He is very interested in depth of texture, and so am I. You have to work hard with synths to get that. In the early stages it was very much a discussion about emotions.

“For instance Philippe would say this is a dance piece that will last maybe eight, ten minutes. It’s to do with memories of childhood. With sadness, a sense of loss, a kind of funereal procession- so there’s a melancholy. But it’s springtime. So he is pushing the contradictions of the child’s playfulness, of the funereal feeling, spring and melancholy.

“I’ve come to recognise it is part of his language that he puts up contradictions like that all the time. He loves to see how what he calls a void will appear in between them. When elements don’t meet you are left with a void. And that’s the space into which the audience can go. They either fall into it willingly or they stand looking at it hesitatingly like an abyss.”

McDonald emphasises Genty’s precision and his patience in looking for just the right effect or meaning. “He’s alway questioning, he has lots of doubts. he’s prepared to go a out on a limb and go out a long way. Sometimes he’ll suggest something rather minimal and we’ll go with it for a few days and he’ll say-‘I think it’s my fault’ We will have pushed so far and then he’ll admit it’s not right.

“There is a lot of honesty in his work. So then you trust him and think-‘I’ll go anywhere you want to go.’ In that way we’ve discovered some terrific things that neither of us expected.”
The Australian, January 24, 1996.

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