Written for What’s On Stage
Sebastian Rex is a writer, director and choreographer. He founded London-based theatre company Acting Like Mad in 2008. Past productions are $ellebrity and A Sebastian Rex Double Bill at the Blue Elephant Theatre, Toy Boy at the New End Theatre and Living With… at the Tabard Theatre.
The company is dedicated to democratic theatre in which every actor and every character is as important as the rest and in which gender equality can be taken to further levels such as gender-blind casting.
Spare deals with extremes of human behaviour, is this extremity something that interests you artistically?
Absolutely. Again, I think theatre should present weird and wonderful worlds that are ‘larger than life’. I always take inspiration from the world, but exaggerate it in order to encourage thought in people. I don’t wish to engender sympathy for my characters, but instead try to put them in unrealistic, extreme situations to distance the audience members from the action rather than to draw them in; this helps them to remain objective and not get too attached.
Kurt Vonnegut said that when writing you should be a sadist. No matter how sweet or innocent your characters are, make awful things happen to them. I completely agree with that. I think abuse on stage is a great tool for presenting ideas.
With 40,320 different possible casting combinations each night, this must pose a real challenge for the performers – how have you prepared for this?
The only way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time. Buckling under the pressure of having to learn so much text, or so many blocking permutations is counterproductive. I gave the actors very clear goals from the start and told them how much they needed to learn and by when. I won’t say it was easy, because it wasn’t.The actors worked extremely hard to achieve their current level of confidence.
It did mean curtailing the actors’ freedom much more than usual. It is essentially unfeasible to rehearse different blocking for different actors, particularly given the time constraints, so we devised one set of blocking for everyone.
The freedom the actors did have was in their individuality as performers. When a tall, dark-haired actor with a deep voice delivers a line, it will look and sound inherently different from when a smaller, blond with a high voice mutters it.
A further challenge comes in the form of your gender-neutral writing and gender-neutral casting. For any play this is an interesting form of experiment but especially with a play about sexual abuse. Can you talk about the impetus behind that?
When I started writing the play, I didn’t really know what was going on with these characters. They had strange names (Voorty, Pranty and Qwerty) and I didn’t really know who they were and why they existed. The other characters didn’t have names, but rather titles (Doctor, Police, Parent and Friend), and were always referred to in the third person (even by themselves, largely). So very early on in the writing process, I realised the genders weren’t specific. As the play progressed, they started to crystallise in my head, and developed genitalia as well, so they did become gendered in my mind, but not so much in the style of the writing. I believe in gender-neutrality, which is one of the reasons why I hope to turn Acting Like Mad completely gender neutral, eventually.
Furthermore, I strongly believe that abuse is gender neutral. Abuse happens in all walks of life and in all echelons of society and has nothing to do with a person’s gender.
When I decided to direct the play, I really wanted to sustain both these beliefs. I didn’t want people to come out of the theatre thinking “Yes. Men are abusive and women are victims” or vice versa, so finding the right way to cast the play without making a strong statement was almost impossible. Implementing a form of ‘character lottery’ was the only way I could see to ensure gender-blindness. We have different abusive relationships every night, and if an audience member comes to watch the show more than once, they will see how that impacts the play.
What do you want people to come away from Spare having experienced?
First and foremost, I want people to think. I want people to talk. I want them to compare and contrast all the levels and manifestations of abuse that are presented in the play and hopefully (perhaps too ambitiously) see that there is no difference between genders. At the very least, I want to demonstrate to audience members that abuse doesn’t belong to a specific gender-power dynamic.
I also hope they laugh. It’s a comedy, so I hope they find the humour in it. I think that presenting difficult topics with no sense of humour is too overwhelming for the senses.
Apart from that, I just hope they enjoy it and go away with some of the images in their mind. I think every writer and every director ultimately wants their work to stay with people.
Spare runs at the New Diorama until 25th September 2010.