Leong's role play: tackling Australia's theatrical canon with fresh eyes

Theatre + Dance

As a female director, Tessa Leong is very conscious of the opportunities she is now in a position to offer others.

The set is almost ready for the dress rehearsal to begin; props and dressings are swathed in 1950s-esque pastels. The director allows photographs to be taken. It is not the kind of show where a photo will spoil the plot.

In the Io Myers theatre space, Tessa Leong, director and cofounder of the Adelaide-based isthisyours?theatre group, is working with UNSW students on a production of Hello There, We've Been Waiting For You. In this performance, all students enrolled in the Performance Production course will both act and have additional responsibilities behind the scenes. It is not the first time for Leong, who has also mentored at Flinders University of South Australia, which she herself attended, and at the University of Wollongong.

The play, by Melbourne playwright Louris Van De Geer, is set during the eruption of popularity of household television in 1950s' America (in the New Mexico town of Truth or Consequences). It is a darkly comedic examination of the all-consuming desire for fame, and the tragic realities that can underlie a community.

'Depending on who you are and how it plays on the night, [it] may be deeply disturbing or very hilarious.'

Leong speaks to the difference between directing at student and professional levels. "I've worked at all different tiers of the theatre industry," she says. "In a mainstage context, working with bigger companies and major performing arts organisations, things tend to be much more siloed. You wouldn't see an actor in the workshop gluing a curtain together…but for [isthisyours?] that is not as crazy…because we're makers; sometimes we work with designers and sometimes we don't."

She and four friends founded the collaborative theatre groupisthisyours? in 2006 when they were Flinders University students. The decision to continue creating works together after university was a natural one. "It felt sort of crazy for us as artists to have spent four years developing a language and a vocabulary together as makers. We had three shows a year for four years, so we made lots of work and honed our skills, and from that we had a hunger to start making our own things."

She is conscious, as a female director in a largely male-dominated field, of the role she can play. Leong strongly believes in the importance of selecting the best person for each position, and encourages reflection as to why a particular person might come to mind as the first choice. Because of this, she is also very conscious of the opportunities she is now in a position to offer to others, and her important role in actively engaging emerging artists.

Leong has worked largely through "play" with the students in rehearsals.Credit: UNSW CPL

"Within isthisyours? it's very easy for us, in some ways – being a company made up of all females – to be super aware of that," she says. "Hopefully the work that we make and the actions that we have in the world around theatre speak louder than having to make comment on [these issues]."

One such work was an all-female, three-actor adaptation of The Club by David Williamson, directed by Leong, at Belvoir Theatre last year. "[The Club] was a completely new undertaking; an exciting battle of ideas and ideologies for us, as a company who really like making new work – to tackle an existing work that felt very much like a part of an Australian canon."

One wellspring of intense inspiration for Leong came in 2014 when she was sponsored by the Australian Council of the Arts to attend the "eye-opening" annual Festival D'Avignon in France, one of the world's biggest international live performance events for actors and creators.

"We had about a week in which I think I saw more hours of performance than I slept," the fluent French speaker recalls. "We would see two or three shows a night and the next day…we would be in conversation about the works we'd seen the night before. It was completely eye-opening; exploring the ways in which we read performance and therefore make our own work."

In 12 years, isthisyours? has produced a significant body of work, with performances including Nathalie Ribout, Make Me Honest, Make Me Wedding Cake (winner of the inSPACE Development Award), Best We Forget (Number six in dB Magazine's Top Ten Shows of 2010), You Wanna Talk About It? (winner of the Melbourne Fringe Tour Ready Award), Angelique and The Club.

Within that list, Leong cites Angelique, the 2017 site-specific installation piece created for Her Majesty's Theatre in Adelaide, as "the work we're the most proud of".

"We spent years and years making that work, and working with playwright Duncan Graham to craft a piece that was not only a really strong coming-of-age narrative, but also one in which the audience travelled around the whole theatre and encountered the characters and work in different ways."

This week, Leong is firmly focussed on the realisation of Hello There. She describes Van De Geer as "a really wonderful writer for capturing snippets of conversations and small moments that in some ways feel quite every day, [but] speak to something darkly absurd in the world ... Things that, depending on who you are and how it plays on the night, may be deeply disturbing or very hilarious".

As the dress rehearsal plays out, Leong's gaze follows her student cast and crew. "As we grow the world of the production, we also expect and engage the students to work in a range of different departments," she says. "It really is quite a holistic approach; [the students] all have roles in the show, but they're also part of the team that realises the whole production."

In the production's development, Leong has worked largely with play, through the performers responding to tasks and improvisation. That play has been essential in the deep exploration of the text, and on different occasions, Leong and the cast have found both the tragedy and comedy within this piece. It's a play heavily drenched with aspiration and nostalgia, something Leong believes retains its relevance in a modern world, as these are themes that can reveal the darker undercurrents of society.

UNSW Creative Practice Lab designer Paul Matthews, who has worked with Leong on the Hello There production, says she "approaches the creative process with a quietly confident openness that shows trust in her collaborators, and allows us to trust her process. Her approach is rigorously thoughtful and playful, yielding works that stretch the brain in all the good ways."

Given that trust in her collaborators, Leong says: "Even though I might have really strong ideas as to what's possible with a text and what I might want to create, that's going to be dependent on the temperament of the actors and the way in which they build and form a relationship together in front of me and I'm never going to know what that's going to be until I see it."

Hello There We've Been Waiting For Youplays at Io Myers Studio, UNSW Kensington, until March 2, 2019.


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