Black Swan State Theatre Company‘s artistic director Clare Watson has a diverse background including working as an actor in Melbourne’s independent theatre scene, playing saxophone and teaching at high school. She draws on all these roles and more in the latest BSSTC season which opens next week. Clare shares why the experience of a community coming together in the theatre is becoming increasingly precious and potent .
What music gets your heart racing?
The first album that I ever bought was Paul Simon’s Graceland, over 30 years later and it still brings so much joy.
What calms you down?
Bach’s Cello suites – the Pablo Casals recording is my favourite.
What do you sing along to?
I’m an Eighties pop tragic – Blondie, Benatar, Bush.
When was the penny drop moment when you realized you wanted to pursue a career in directing theatre?
I was at University and doing a show called Princess Ida Parlour, it was a musical about the first women who attended Melbourne University. It was directed by Rosemary Myers who was the Artistic Director of the Student Union theatre at the time – she’s now the Artistic Director at Windmill. She had her very young baby with her in rehearsals and I remember watching her directing us and feeding her baby at the same time. And that was the penny drop, or lightning flash, moment for me. I thought, I want to do that, all of that.
Black Swan State Theatre’s next ‘conversation’ features two shows The Assassins (16 June – 1 July) and The Events (21 June – 8 July). How are you preparing for these productions?
Assassins opens first – it’s directed by Roger Hodgman and he’s working with a fabulously talented bunch of actors – I had the pleasure of watching their first full run of the show in the rehearsal room last weekend and it was electrifying. I’m so excited about this show – it’s funny, it’s pertinent and I haven’t stopped singing the songs. The Events is a show that I’m directing – we’ve actually done this show before for Adelaide and Sydney festivals and at Belvoir and Malthouse – I’m really looking forward to sharing it with Perth. So Catherine McClements, Johnny Carr and I are in rehearsals from later this week. The Events is joined by a community choir every performance. This Saturday we have our full choir rehearsal for the show – which is when all of the choirs that are singing with us come together and we have hundreds of voices singing the songs from the show. It’s pretty wild.
What do you hope the audience will experience at these shows?
Entertainment is of the utmost importance, of course, I also think that both of these shows ask us to think about the world that we live in. In each case the shows consider the plight of people who feel marginalised by the society that they live in, both shows might get us thinking and talking about gun violence and both have music at their core. I hope that if people are seeing both shows they might also join in with some of our other events to deepen the conversation – we’ve got Dr Anne Aly MP in conversation and a panel discussion about the healing power of music.
You have a background as a high school teacher, independent theatre performer, manager of a youth theatre company and parent of a teenager. How does this richly diverse skill base influence your directing?
Teaching, in particular, has enormously influenced my style of directing. As a teacher, I found that the less didactic I could be, the more I could entice students to find fun and playfulness in learning, then the learning went deeper and was more driven by the learners themselves. I tend to keep rehearsals actor driven and full of fun. It’s a bit of a stealth method. I think that list of roles that I’ve enjoyed also suggests that I’m a person that enjoys being with people – a curiosity and tenderness for your fellow humans tends to characterise those of us who’ve chosen the theatre.
You have a soft spot for diversity. Your first season at BSSTC achieves gender parity with its directors, writers, designers and actors. It also includes a transgender actor for the first time, a commission for Julia Hales (an actor with Down syndrome) and the Skylab project which is written, directed and performed by Aboriginal artists. Why is nudging against the prevailing hierarchy so important to you?
I feel lucky to working at a time when inclusive practice is being prioritised. I’m most interested in stories that give us a fresh perspective and that evoke empathy in surprising and delightful ways. We’ve been fed a diet of Shakespeare, Chekhov, Ibsen – true greats of the theatre whose work I adore – but the voices we’ve heard from have been largely limited to white men. To turn our attention and listen to some alternative voices and in particular to listen closely to the quietest and marginalised voices, we get to enjoy the thrill of fresh perspectives. Nudging the hierarchy is a way of creating a new normal – for our audience, our artists and we’re part of a shift that is global. It’s an exciting time to be making theatre.
What is your most electric moment in the theatre?
Back to Back Theatre, well over a decade ago, created a show called Soft. It was set inside a large pink inflatable structure and towards the end of the show as a baby was born in the story, the inflatable set was removed from the audience – it was suddenly pulled and rushed away from our seating bank leaving us sitting in a cold, cavernous space. This moment evoked being born, it was incredibly visceral and powerful.
What do you think is the most important role of theatre in our lives?
It’s hard to pick one – storytelling, learning more about who we are and the world in which we live, divergent thinking, empathy building – but probably the most important is the community that come together. The communal experience of theatre was how it began – a collective experience of learning, worship, catharsis was how Western theatre developed in Ancient Greece. As we have entered an age of Netflix and iPhones the community experience of sitting together in real time and listening feels increasingly precious and essential.
You have a background in music – does being a saxophone player influence the way you use music in a theatre production?
Music is often how I start cracking into a creative idea and yes, music is always an essential part of my work and my practice as a theatre maker.
What’s the thing you love most about your work?
The people. I love working with creative minds – working with marvellous imaginations makes every day a thrilling adventure.
What is your favourite place in Perth?
I live close to Hyde Park – it’s gorgeous, full of picnic-ers, waterbirds, majestic Moreton Bay fig trees and dogs of all shapes and sizes.
Do you have a soft spot for anything else in life or is it all about the music?
I love reading, walking and cheese. I really love cheese. A soft spot for soft cheese!
Thanks Clare Watson for being part of the Celebrity Soft Spot series. The Assassins opens June 16th and The Events (directed by Clare) on June 21st. For tickets go here.