Photo credit: Brett Boardman for Out The Front.
Lee Lewis originally trained as an actor at Columbia University in New York before returning to her native Australia, where she earned a Masters of Directing at NIDA. She currently serves as the Artistic Director of Griffin Theatre Company in Sydney.
I sat down with her for lunch between tech rehearsals for her new show.
Always go to the source. If something interests you, follow it to its source.
In the classes that I teach I use Suzuki and Viewpoints. You’ve worked with Anne Bogart [Artistic Director of SITI Company, which popularized Suzuki and Viewpoints in the United States]. Do you use the techniques that you’ve learned as an actor in the rehearsal room as a director?
It just depends on the show, as to how visible I let it be. Sometimes I use it very visibly as a starting place. I worked with Anne a long time ago and she was working it out for herself, so she used us- in a good way- as guinea pigs, for the evolution of her ideas. So what I’ve used and attributed to her I would call working Viewpoints, which has meant a lot of the younger actors that I’ve worked with have then gone over to America. Always go to the source. If something interests you, follow it to its source.
One actor came back [from SITI] and said, They only went for 20 minutes! We used to do [Viewpoints sessions] between two to five hours, just using it as a tool for them to start navigating the ideas of boredom and play. So she’s waiting for the two to three hour sessions to start and [Bogart]’s like No, it’s 20 minutes and it’s about reflection on your own process. That’s how Anne uses it. You do it and then you look at it, and it’s actually about building a capacity to see yourself and building your own capacity, whereas I was working with younger actors. I don’t want or need them to be looking at their own capacity at that point. I wanted it to be a developmental and constructive tool. It’s become a very different thing for me.
It freaks older actors out a little bit. And younger actors have got a really wonky version in their head of what they think it is. Again, that filter down thing. It’s filtered down to some very odd ideas- which is fine. So I don’t talk about it as [Viewpoints], so that they don’t go, Oh yeah, I know what you’re doing. But I do use it all the time.
I try to make it look like I’m not looking doing anything very much at all, and then they accidentally happen to have made a play.
Are there techniques or certain vocabulary that you would recommend to [beginners] so that they could communicate with directors?
It’s interesting to know where your directors come from – what the background of that director is. I think everyone builds up a way of working. I don’t work the same way on any play. I try to go to the play rather than bringing the play to me, which does mean that some of the designers that I work with – they’re like, What are we doing this time? And the way the room works is really built on the people that I’ve got. So again, it can be disconcerting for people because, honestly, I try to make it look like I’m not looking doing anything very much at all, and then they accidentally happen to have made a play as opposed to I have a vision and everybody follow me. I can do that, I just don’t love it. I can do it if I have to move very quickly through a big play and get everybody there on a short schedule. I just don’t really like that.
Everybody wants to be in that instinct place where I act instinctively, I make a choice, and then that choice works. All of the training’s just there for when your instinct fails.
You’ve mentioned this sort of shape that you build and you allow the play to exist within it. I wonder, if you need to communicate something to an actor on their terms-
I try to find out what their training has been and try to actually talk to them in their language rather than expecting them to come to me. I’ll fish around in their language to find what they do, because often actors are built of five or six different sources of ideas. You go and you find the bit that works for you in a particular role. That’s all training does. It give you some options so that, if you’re in a role that you don’t know how to make, you’ve got some starting points so that when you freeze up you kinda go, Maybe I’ll start with this! Maybe I’ll do some actions. And that just gets you going so that you can get back to your instinct place. Because everybody wants to be in that instinct place where I act instinctively, I make a choice, and then that choice works. All of the training’s just there for when your instinct fails.
The training language is really interesting – it’s hard though, because sometimes people have the language but they hated that methodology. It actually didn’t work for them in their training so they “failed” in it, if you like. That’s what aggravates me about schools that just teach one methodology. Because it works for a percentage of your class. For a percentage it works really well and the people go, Oh my god, I found the thing! And I watched that happen in Viewpoints, way back, and actually I was one of the people it really didn’t work for. It works for me as a director, but just as an actor I was very bad at it. And it was useful, it was very good for me… but I was very bad at it.
I had to build the physical intelligence. I had a good emotional and intellectual intelligence but building from the body choice was harder for me. So it didn’t make you necessarily great in a scene because you still gotta take all this stuff and build. It’s just tools. There were two people it worked amazingly for, and then there were a cluster who were kind of, Eh… and then a couple people where it was just hitting your head against the wall.
I watch people that direct in a particular method with such certainty and I kind of… just don’t get it. And I don’t have to. It’s not my truck.
What’s in your toolbox?
A bit of everything, really. A little bit of Gaullier, a lot of Andre Serban, who was teaching at the same time as Anne. You had sort of two teachers: Andre Serban and Anne Bogart – two completely opposed directors. No way their work was in any way similar, but those were our two primary teachers for three years. And that was nuts, but kind of great because it just showed us practically that there is no one way to work. So there’s that.
A lot of Andre Gregory, actually. I got to work with him, which was amazing, and he was mystical, but was just so… His ability to accept whatever people gave him and build from that was… It was beautiful. So a lot of him. A little bit of Robert Wilson, a little bit of Robert Woodruff, a lot of Tina Landau. The people that you work with, I suppose you pick up bits and pieces. I mean Andre was like a less freeform Peter Brook, I suppose. Watching Peter Brook’s work over a long time and just kinda seeing where that is and how that sits so much in opposition to so much work. The clarity and the simplicity and the lack of Tada!-ness about it. Often, for a lot of audience, that doesn’t work, and his acceptance of that too. Fascinating to watch Peter Brook’s work come here, fails. I love it, [but] it doesn’t work for a lot of people here.
I’m a mutt. I’m a total mutt. I watch people that direct in a particular method with such certainty and I kind of… just don’t get it. And I don’t have to. It’s not my truck.
Do you have a book or a resource that you’d recommend for someone new to all of this?
Look, I’m a big old dag. I always go back to The Empty Space. Big ol’ theatre dag.
What is a dag?
A dag is… an Australian word like- it’s kinda like nerd but in a farming kind of way. It’s really quite disgusting but the dags are the little bits of shit that hang off the bum of the sheep that get caught in the wool. And so if someone in Australia calls you a dag, it just means you’re kind of like- it’s an affectionate nerd type without technology involved.
I’m not fashionable. I’m not up on new things. I read plays and I read a lot of new stuff but the touchstone ones are pretty simple. Just a lot of autobiography and biography. People, actual people. And then that funny thing of finding how people exist in real rhythms is so hard. Often I think the theatre is too rhythmically simple- straight theatre. Barry Kosky is really interesting for me, he’s such a music person. Something will change in a scene and you won’t know why he’s changed it, but he just knows that it’s right because he just knows when rhythm needs to shift. We recognise real rhythm. Audience recognises it, they know the deep, real rhythm and if you’re imitating it badly, they know.
The next section of the interview will focus on Lee Lewis herself, her personal experience, and her many brushes with death.