REVIEW / INTERVIEW FEATURE: Slaughterhouse
Review and Interview by Lara Franzi
Carving up the stage is Slaughterhouse, a juicy play of betrayal, bullying, ambitions and tolerance from playwright Anchuli Felicia King. Starring five characters, with five very different personalities, each telling their own perspective of a workplace disaster.
This quirky piece embodies the use of live camera feeds and video to enhance the story world, inviting a more in-depth understanding to the mystery we are trying to discover. Director Benita de Wit merges these elements together seamlessly, invading the characters space and putting them under the spotlight.
Slaughterhouse stabs into uncomfortable topics, like cannibalism and mass consumerism. It pries apart what makes us human, whether it’s our brain, heart or our conscious thought. Venturing into what we are clenching our teeth into, picking out the differences between humans, and meat. Presenting how we treat human life, by building systems to fire employees, and to slaughter cattle. Both used to cut off the fat.
This relevant piece relates directly to our humanity, as we justify our actions and reasons for killing animals. The white clinical set (by Brendan de la Hay) carries this idea, as the characters sit waiting for slaughter, as the audience decides their fate; whether they are delusional, or closer to the truth than we thought.
Leading up to the premiere of Slaughterhouse, I was invited to have a discussion with director Benita De Wit about her thoughts on the new experimental work.
Lara: When did you first hear about Anchuli Felicia King's Slaughterhouse?
Benita: Felicia and I went to grad school together at Columbia University, I was in the directing program and she was in the dramaturgy program. Someone introduced us, because we were the only two Australians in the course. I then ended up working with her as a video projector designer on a couple of new music projects. I was looking for a play to pitch to a company for a work-in-progress showing. Then she brought up that she writes plays. I didn't know at the time, and I think that Slaughterhouse was only the second play that she had written. She said she could send me something, so she emailed me Slaughterhouse and I thought it was amazing. We ended up doing a couple different developments in New York on Slaughterhouse and then we saw Belvoir's 25A program, and I thought this is the perfect place for it and pitched the show.
How long did it take to get the show together, from when you first read the script?
I first read it about two years ago, and at that time, we first did a very casual reading at Columbia with a few actors from the program. The first time we read it, it was about three hours long, which was crazy! It was just so much text. Felicia did some cuts and edits, and then we did another reading for an audience at the Ensemble Studio Theatre in New York. That was really helpful to get a sense of how the play came across, what was clear and what wasn't, what people found funny and the moments that they laughed at. After we did that reading, I then pitched it for Belvoir 25A.
Since its first three-hour rendition, what type of changes have been made?
It's changed a lot, one of the big things that has changed was the overall framework of who these characters are talking to and why it's a series of interviews. I feel that the core of who each of these characters are, hasn't changed. The other major change for this production is that we were really interested in using live video, because it's a show about a tech company, and these different people's versions of events. We thought it would be an interesting thing to introduce video into how we tell this story. It’s been a really big part of how this show has evolved. For each character, the way we're filming it changes quite significantly. All five of them are really wonderful and interesting characters. Yet in their own different ways kind of awful and deeply flawed people, which is what makes them so interesting to watch. For some characters it seems more like a surveillance camera, and for other moments it feels more like a talk show. We're just sort of evolving through that, depending on what is happening within the scene, and in the moment.
Director Benita de Wit and Playwright Anchuli Felicia King.
How do you bring the digital element onto stage within a theatre environment?
We’ve got three different live video feed cameras, which are being projected onto the back wall. There's also pre-created video sequences as well transition moments. It's a lot of experimentation. We're in the theatre right now for tech, and it's really great to see all these ideas that we've had in our head actually in the space, and figure out what works. It's pretty high tech, and there’s a lot of new elements to play with.
How do you feel about this more experimental approach? Are you familiar with it, or is this new to you?
I have worked recently as the associate director on Bat Out of Hell, directed by Jay Scheib, and he uses a lot of live videography in his work. There are lots of theatre performances now that are starting to use video more and more. This is the first time that as a director, I've personally used live camera. There's a lot to learn, it's a whole other framework, like how you stage something for camera, rather than how you stage it for theatre. It's a whole extra layer of how you're creating meaning and telling the story. It’s really helpful having a camera, as we can use it to really explore how the character is feeling. We can use these videos to extrapolate on what each person is experiencing. That kind of thing evolves over a process. Also figuring out what someone is going through, and unpacking the text to understand why they're saying something, and what they're feeling.
With your experience working in New York, London and Edinburgh, I was curious to whether internationally you've learnt a new approach to theatre that is different to the way we embrace it in Australia?
There are a few differences, particularly between the US and Australia. America is very focused on the playwright as the core creative, and there’s a lot of development and support for playwrights and new writing. In Australia we do have some new writing, but it's not the main focus of a lot of companies. A lot of work that we see produced in Australia is American shows, or British shows, or revivals of old shows. There's much more of a focus on new work overseas, but I do think that Australia is very good at taking older things and tearing them apart and doing crazy new interesting things with them. We do these amazing adaptations of Chekhov and Shakespeare, and you can really see interesting reimagined work.
In terms of Australian theatre, do you feel that we have a place overseas to share our new works, or is it more the other way around?
I like to think that we will continue to see more Australian work overseas. I've started seeing Australian writing in New York, and I know that there is a theatre company in LA that's an Australian theatre company. I would like to see it go both ways more, I think it requires investing more in Australian writers and new Australian work, which some companies do, but it's always hard to get the funding and support for. It's really great to have programs like 25A at Belvoir that encourage all this new work, by young and emerging artists. It's really great to get that whole season of fresh and exciting new things.
Photography: Clare Hawley