An interview with Silo Theatre’s artistic director Sophie Roberts.
The process of curating shows for a year-long season of theatre is never an easy task for any company. While the larger theatre companies in New Zealand have literary departments to assist in this process, Auckland-based Silo Theatre makes the decision solely through the lens of its artistic director Sophie Roberts.
While 2016 is only the second year for the recently appointed Roberts, her choices in programming display a keen eye for what makes compelling contemporary theatre, the very basis of Silo’s brand and label. Last year’s programme was all about theatre that “demands engagement and requires audiences and communities to be involved in various ways.” This year is more focused on a celebration of “the anarchic, the wild and the beautiful fight in us all to survive in a troubling world.”
The main bill includes a return of last year’s The Book of Everything that will tour the north island; a modern take on Euripides’s Medea, tackling the myth from the perspective of children; Boys Will Be Boys, a scathing satire of the corporate world led by an all female-cast; and Perplex, a fourth-wall breaking piece of German absurdism.
Homegrown theatre includes a co-presentation of No More Dancing in the Good Room, Chris Parker’s solo show returning from last year’s success. It’s both a stamp of approval for the show and a way for Silo to support developing artists transition to bigger venues and wider audiences. And, as part of their current works-in-development, local playwright Chye-Ling Huang’s Black Tree Bridge (originally titled Call of the Sparrows) will receive a RAW reading during the Auckland Arts Festival.
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NATHAN JOE: What is it that you look for in a play to put on at Silo?
SOPHIE ROBERTS: Programming for a company like Silo is not a paint-by-numbers process. So there isn’t a criteria that I’m looking for. If you’re programming for a contemporary theatre company, the job is to be responsive to the world you live in and the time you live in. So I’m looking for things that I feel are responsive to things that are happening in the world, that are going to provide artists with really great opportunities to stretch. To be challenged, to work to their feeling of capacity as artists. Something that is going to excite an audience or challenge an audience. And I’m always looking for something that can only happen in a theatre. If I read something and I think, “Well that would be great movie or TV show,” then it’s less exciting to me. But it’s pretty instinctive a lot of the time, as well.
NJ: And this is only your second year.
SR: Yeah, I haven’t been doing it very long.
NJ: Last year’s loose theme was community and this year’s is anarchy. Are those stitched together after the works have been chosen or is it something you feel you’re looking for in the works on some instinctive level?
SR: It’s sort of a little bit of both. I don’t set out to programme around a theme at all. But then as you’re in that process of programming you start to see common threads running throughout the year. So it’s something that tends to emerge once I’m looking at everything. But you’re also looking for variety as well.
NJ: In terms of actually reading all the scripts, at Silo you don’t have a literary department. So what does that actually mean for you as artistic director?
SR: It means I do a lot of work [laughs]. Silo’s actually quite a small company. There’s only four of us that work full-time. So it means that everyone works really hard. It means, as well, what I love about it, that the other three people I work with I really trust and respect their opinions about work. I use them a lot when I’m programming. We have a lot of discussions about work. So it’s not something I’m doing in isolation.
NJ: So a makeshift literary department.
SR: Yeah, sort of. I can’t even imagine what that’d be like, having someone read a whole lot of plays for you.
NJ: How many would you say you read on average in a week?
SR: I try to read about four a week. Sometimes I’ll read something and hate it and find that I’m still thinking about it three months later. And then I’ll go back and read it again, because you’re mood is so… you have to be careful about what’s informing your reading. What kind of day you’ve had or what you’re directing at the time. So I’ll often go back and reread stuff.
NJ: Do you find you actively seek out existing scripts or do you read the ones that are planted on your desk?
SR: Both. There’s certain things I’ll be hunting for and I get sent a lot of stuff as well.
NJ: I know there are people who talk about how Silo should programme more New Zealand works or why aren’t they pushing more New Zealand premieres, etc. For you, is that relevant in terms of your programming?
SR: Absolutely. I’m interested in what people’s ideas about what Silo should be doing, as a company that is artistically-lead. Where it’s formed around the identity of the artistic director. And it has done a lot of New Zealand work in the past. There’s were a lot of things that nearly happened due to external circumstances. There’s a lot of complexities around that that people don’t know about. But it’s definitely something I’m passionate about, creating more work in-house. That’s what Hudson and Halls was, created collaboratively by a team of people. And we have projects in the pipeline that are going to be created in a similar way.
NJ: You’ve got the reading for Chye-Ling Huang’s play [Black Tree Bridge].
SR: Yeah. Chye-Ling’s someone we’re working with at the moment to develop her script. That’s really exciting.
NJ: It’s part of what Silo developed last year as part of a programme for three female playwrights, right?
SR: “Working Titles” was something that Shane [Bosher] started. It’s been part of the company as a development arm for a while. And we did a refocus on it to be just for female playwrights last year. Something we’re looking to run bi-annually.
NJ: In terms of the other two playwrights who were a part of that, are they still being developed? Or has it been focused on one particular playwright for now?
SR: Things happen at different rates and in different ways. And, you know, a lot of that’s confidential. But it’s certainly, the whole idea of “Working Titles”—it’s a development opportunity, not a programming opportunity. The female focus was born out of a real imbalance in what I was seeing come across my desk. That’s both New Zealand and internationally. And that’s definitely not for a lack of talent. There’s a lot of great female theatremakers and writers. So, we were sort of wondering, “Why aren’t we getting those scripts?” If it’s not about lack of talent, maybe it’s about a lack of opportunity, you know? Theatre has, historically, been the domain of the old white man, in terms of playwriting and directing, in particular. So the idea was to create a space for development and challenge that was providing an opportunity to address that balance a little bit.
NJ: And then there’s also the director’s internship. When did that start?
SR: We trialed it last year, to see if it works, and it’s definitely something we want to keep doing. It came out of, again, the real lack of opportunities for directors to develop in New Zealand. It’s kind of an invisible process. To have access to learning about it, you really only get that learning by being in the room with a director. So that internship is about providing an opportunity to attach someone to a series of productions to observe process.
When I started directing, I was just learning, basically, by making a whole lot of mistakes. I didn’t know what I was doing, particularly around how to lead a team or technical knowledge. Going from making work at BATS and Basement to mainstage work when I was 25, and leading a team of people that were twice my age and experience, I didn’t have any technical knowledge on how to do that or how a production week actually runs. I would have loved to have more access to seeing how all that works. It’s about providing—we’re not training directors—an opportunity to have an insight into this process that they can get some learning from.
NJ: Tell me about the shows for this year. At the moment you’ve got No More Dancing in the Good Room. It’s not exactly a Silo-produced show, but it’s a show you’ve brought on to basically help bring an audience to it.
SR: Yeah, it’s a show that we loved last year, from a team of people that we believe are great artists. Graduating from the studio at the Basement to a bigger space, to a bigger venue that has a different audience, can be really challenging in terms of being able to find an audience. It was about us saying, “We think our audience will really love this work.” If we can help them find it then why wouldn’t we do that?
NJ: Is this something you think Silo will continue to do in the future?
SR: Absolutely. It’s a tough market. And if we can help great artists in any way that’s what we want to be doing.
NJ: Then there’s the restaging of The Book of Everything [adapted by Richard Tulloch].
SR: Which is a lovely show to be doing again, first back at Q Theatre, and then on tour. It’s going to be really exciting, quite new for us, and something we want to be doing more in the future.
NJ: When you first programmed it last year was it always the intention to bring it back for a second season?
SR: No it wasn’t, but we had such a great response and the cast enjoyed doing it. And it’s the perfect show to take around the country. But it wasn’t something we decided ahead of time, because you never know how something’s going to go until it meets an audience.
NJ: Can you tell me a bit about how it has changed since its first iteration?
SR: We have four new cast members: Amanda Billing, Stephen Lovatt, Amanda Tito, and Dan Musgrove. Other than that it’s the same show, it’s just got four new actors who are bringing tons of wonderful new things to the show. But it’s very much the original production.
NJ: Tell me about the modern production of Medea [by Kate Mulvany and Anne-Louise Sarks].
SR: It’s an incredible script. I read it about two years ago. It’s quite rare to read something and feel as if you’ve been punched in the stomach when you get to the last page. It’s an extraordinary piece of writing and theatre-making, partly because it’s a complete flip of the original story. In the Euripides, the story is very much between Medea and Jason, and the children are something you hear about, unseen and unheard. This version flips that action, so we spend the last hour of these boys’ lives basically with them in their bedroom while Medea is offstage battling with Jason. And it’s set now. It’s special [in that] you’re just watching these two boys just behave. The way they created it was with the cast, with the kids. So on the page it really feels like children’s voices and the way that children understand things like conflict and relationships, through the games they play and the way they talk about what’s happening with their mum and dad.
NJ: Because it’s so connected to its source material, I feel like it—I wouldn’t say needs, but—benefits from knowing how it ends. It has that dramatic irony, doesn’t it? That we know the kids’ fate before they get to it.
SR: Yeah, I don’t think you need to know anything about the original. It completely stands alone as a piece of drama. And the great thing about this particular piece is that you sort of forget about what you’re watching right up until the end. So the experience of the work is quite joyful and playful right up until the end where it punches you in the stomach. So it completely stands alone.
NJ: Is the cast solely two boys, or is the mother in it too?
SR: Medea’s in it. She pops in and out. But the whole script is driven by two children.
NJ: It’s an exciting challenge for a director, casting two young actors who, I’m assuming, are on stage the whole time.
SR: They are. I think Rachel [House] is going to do a great job with it. Her sensibility is just so right for that work. I’m excited to see what she’ll do with it.
NJ: And then after that is…
SR: Boys Will Be Boys [by Melissa Bubnic], which is pretty ferocious. It’s an all-female ensemble who play women and men, set in the world of financial trading. It’s the story of Astrid, who is at the top of hrt game as a trader, and the woman she takes under her wing.
When I read it I had quite an extreme reaction. It’s challenging in a lot of ways… but then, the more I thought about it the more I had to challenge myself to think about what if Astrid was a man? Would I respond differently to the work? I have this issue with this notion that female characters have to be likable and male characters don’t. So I reread it thought, “No, I think this is adding something interesting to that conversation and I do want to be able to provide opportunities for women to be seen in a variety of ways.” Often in storytelling, women don’t get to exist in the same complex spectrum of humanity that men do, particularly protagonists.
NJ: You don’t see many female anti-heroes.
SR: No you don’t. And that’s what excites me. It’s really funny, she’s a great writer, and it will be a furiously entertaining and challenging night at the theatre.
NJ: Then there’s the last show of the season, Perplex [by Maja Zade].
SR: It’s crazy [and] great. It’s a hard show to talk about… without ruining it for the audience. It’s contemporary absurdism and it begins like a typical, domestic comedy with two couples in a room, and completely rips apart the conventions around that style of playwriting. It’s total carnage.
It’s quite rare as well to laugh out loud when I read something. And I could hear—because I gave it to everyone in the office—everyone in the corner of the office giggling away, reading this play. It’s absolutely insane, really fun, and he’s also such a smart playwright. It manages to somehow be intellectual and stupid, which is a combination that is totally joyful.
NJ: How did you stumble across the play?
SR: Maja Zade’s quite well known. He’s one of the big writers in Germany. I’ve read a lot of his work. He’s interesting in terms of the deconstruction of the well-made play.
NJ: In terms of the programming at Silo, because you’re a contemporary theatre, do you avoid any classics? Is there a cut-off date, then? I’m just curious.
SR: There’s no cut-off date. It’s a contemporary theatre company, but the company is artistically led. So that means someone, whoever takes over when I leave, might be really interested in classic work and how to reinvent it. They might do that with the company. I mean, Medea is a classic, but it’s a contemporary overhaul of a classic.
NJ: Is there ever a burning desire to programme your favourite plays?
SR: Sort of… Not really. With a lot of my favourite plays, I’d apply the same thinking if I was working independently. I still have to ask myself, “Why?” and “Why do this now?” I love Tennessee Williams, but I have to know why I’m doing it. It has to make sense. It has to be adding something to the conversation, for me as a director. And that would apply if I was independent or if I was at Silo. I wouldn’t do a play just because I think it’s a good play. That’s not enough for me.
NJ: Is there anything else you want to add about this year’s programme?
SR: Just to come and see everything [laughs].
‘The Book of Everything’ runs from February 12-25 at Q Theatre, Auckland.