Joey the Mechanical Boy by Margi Brown Ash and Leah Mercer: nominated Best Play, West Australian Theatre Awards 2014

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I have just returned from Perth where nest ensemble’s latest show, “Joey the Mechanical Boy”, was premiered to outstanding critical response. Leah and I began writing Joey in 2010, moving back and forth across the continent to do workshops/creative developments in both Perth and Brisbane. We did a showing of our first creative development in 2010 before we began to work on HOME (HOME has a season at Queensland Theatre Company in July 2015). It was time to launch Joey in November, 2014.

There were many reasons why we wanted to write Joey. Being a post modern therapist I have done extensive research into the damage that ‘labelling’ and categorising does and this is a story where Bruno Bettelheim, a famous psychologist, labelled mothers as ‘refrigerator mothers’ and the sole cause of autism. Leah had found an article called “Joey the Mechanical Boy”, written by Bettelheim, and we knew we had the beginning of an interesting project. We were also keen to challenge gender roles so we wrote a piece where I would have the opportunity to perform as a woman and as a man, moving from the role of Mother, into the doctor Bruno then back again. This provided challenges and complications due to the very limited rehearsal time. I was not initially playing the role. We had a very able Perth actor who was to play Mother/Bruno. However two weeks before opening things changed, and I had to bump out “He Dreamed a Train” at the Brisbane Powerhouse, fly to Perth and rehearse for two weeks for a one week season at The Blue Room. This was more than challenging but somehow we managed to offer to the Perth audiences a piece of theatre that was received well.

David Zampatti, from the West Australian, writes:

Playing the autistic is a treacherous venture… Philip Miolin – almost unrecognisable – delivers a career performance as Joey. Mercer prudently resists the temptation to bring clarity to moments where it escapes Joey. This makes his savant insights (“Growing up is how much you change on the outside”) blindingly lucid, and Miolin’s performance even more accurate and impressive.

…And, best of all, Ash’s longstanding collaboration with Mercer brings her back to Perth. She’s powerful and utterly convincing as both Joey’s mother and Bettelheim; her transitions flawless, her voices precise, her physical and emotional control exquisite. She’s quite something.

and

‘Joey: The Mechanical Boy’ is another triumph by the award-winning co-writers, Leah Mercer and Margi Brown Ash. In 2012, their play ‘Eve’ was the winner of the Blue Room Members’ Choice Award. Looking like Einstein on drugs, Margi has magnificent stage presence, filling every square inch of the stage as she brings to life the mad, obsessed scientist.

With clever direction from Leah Mercer, we found ourselves being drawn into the misguided logic of the admired quack. I have known Phil Miolin for more than a decade, but behind the special mask designed by Per Brahe, his display of nerves and quivering uncontrollably, he was unrecognisable. The unpredictability of the situations and the fast pace of the delivery – much of the hour was an impeccable monologue from Margi – kept the audience enthralled. There are plays that are simply disturbing but admirable, but this was something very special. Masterly performances, a tight script, and a wonderful production. By Gordon The Optom

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Picture by Leigh Brennan

and

Philip Miolin was brilliant as Joey…This eloquent, brilliant performance is not for those who are uncomfortable with getting emotional (I cried for almost its entirety). Joey’s sadness is heartbreaking, and the journey he and his mother go on represents what many people in similar circumstances must endure. Margi Brown Ash won my heart as the storyteller for the evening. Her ability to switch between sad and lost, and egotistical and arrogant was perfect. As Joey’s mother she was candid, almost guilty, whereas when she played the doctor she moved with an incredible gusto and sense of ownership.

‘Joey: The Mechanical Boy’ is a story of someone who got lost and found their own way to cope, and is a must see to conclude the Blue Room’s August-November season.

by Alice Newport

Joey the Mechanical Boy was nominated for multiple awards in 2014:
West Australian Theatre Awards (supported by Equity): Best Director, Best Actor, Best Designer, Best Lighting Designer, Best Production. Joey won Best Director (congratulations Leah Mercer) and Judges Special Mention.
The Blue Room Awards: nominated Best Production and Best Design.

“He Dreamed A Train”, a play about belonging: nominated Best Technical Design, Matilda Awards 2014

HE DREAMED A TRAIN, a boutique show happening in the Visy Theatre at Brisbane Powerhouse, Lamington Street New Farm, right on the water, is open and moving quickly…

We are finishing off our first week (two more shows this week, tonight at 7 and Sunday night at 7, then one more week (Tuesday through Sunday at 7pm)).

I thought you may enjoy some of the responses that people have sent me: here are just three lines from different audience members:

“So beautiful, and hearty”

“I laughed, had tears prick my eyes and enjoyed the magic of presence on stage”

“The mood you both created was very powerful and something that people will remember for a long time”

And here is a line or two from our first review:

“It pushes the boundaries, creates a new kind of experience, a multi-media performance in which actors and technicians play with and off each other in a mind-blowing interdependency. Designer/director Benjamin Knapton juggles this kaleidoscope of form and function with firm control, never allowing the possibility of chaos, which is lurking in the background, to take over. For all its intricacy it’s a tightly disciplined production, with neither actors nor stage effects dominating the other”.

“Margi Brown Ash and Travis Ash, mother and son in real life, work as a perfect team, their off-stage relationship bringing an extra dimension to the idea of this close but non-communicative interaction of sister and brother, while allowing the sound and A/V effects to play their own role. But as Travis Ash finally steps outside and gradually thins away into nothing, we understand that this is a poetic lament for the loss of a talented young man, a threnody of the finest kind.”

and

“…another step in the new direction that live theatre is taking, will be richly rewarded. It is a triumph of its kind”.

CRIKEY’s Daily Review, Friday 17th October, 2014

Would love to see you there for an intimate night at the theatre.
You can book tickets on:

http://brisbanepowerhouse.org/events/2014/10/15/he-dreamed-a-train/

What is happening at FORCE OF CIRCUMSTANCE?

FORCE OF CIRCUMSTANCE (FOC) is a new Theatre Company: Australia’s first professional, intentional, intergenerational theatre company.
It has been created to ensure that the wisdom of our theatrical tribe,
from all the generations, is nourished and transformed.
Each production embraces multiple generations of actors, creatives and
crew. As a senior artist, my greatest teachers are the younger creatives and actors with whom I work: we teach each other what it is to be fully alive with every cell firing. The younger artists keep the senior artists up to speed with popular culture and contemporary performance making and we like to share the traditions of theatre making and performance training to ensure that the rituals and processes that have been around for generations continue, updated and relevant.

“He Dreamed a Train” is the first production that FORCE OF CIRCUMSTANCE (FOC) has co-produced. In July 2015 we will be co-producing HOME, as part of the DIVA series at Queensland Theatre Company. We have a couple of creative developments in the mix for 2015-2016.

HOW DID “HE DREAMED A TRAIN” COME ABOUT?

This play, He Dreamed a Train (HDAT), began in 2012 as a LabRat. Ian
Lawson, Executive Director of PlayLab read a proposal and decided to
support it. We worked together for a few months and it was his
belief and encouragement that prompted an application for Work in
Residence at Metro Arts in 2013. HDAT, then called “Man in Quotation
Marks” had a wonderful year of incubation. Kieran Swann (Programming
Manager Metro Arts) and Liz Burcham (then CEO of Metro Arts) created
multiple opportunities for us to work with leading Australian theatre
makers/producers including Leisa Shelton, Carol Burns,
Ian Lawson, Andrea Moor, Steven Mitchell Wright, Dave Sleswick, David
Morton, Sandro Collarelli, Chris Beckey, Lucy-Anne Langlilde, Deborah
Leiser–Moore, Michael Coughlan and Leticia Caceres.
This was followed by a trip to Omaha Nebraska to present a reading of the
play at the Pedagogy and Theatre of the Oppressed Conference. On return,
Kris Stewart and Brisbane Powerhouse offered us a place in the inaugural
SWEET program. Thank you BPH, and thank you Metro Arts for you continued
support. Both BPH and Metro Arts have funded this production of HDAT.

As writer, I depend a lot on the wisdom of the tribe: The idea for the play was directly inspired by my brother, David Brown, who wrote a novel by the same name. Writers such as Herman Hesse have been used as stimuli and some of his ideas have been collaged into the piece. I have also borrowed from my two previous works EVE: Part 1 (inspired by Eve Langley) and HOME Part 2 (inspired by Brisbane!) as well as Peter Turchi and his ideas on mental mapping.

Most of all, I have been inspired by my family: my brother David Brown and my second son Travis Ash who rewrote “The Myth of Er” and composed the soundscape. Thank you to my long time husband Bill Ash, for without you none of this could even happen: thank you for your executive producing skills and ongoing personal support.

I have also been truly inspired by Ben Knapton, who has worked tirelessly for the last 20 months in so many capacities (director/producer/dramaturg/designer) as we created a show that combines traditional storytelling with contemporary performance making.

THANK YOU SO MUCH…

Rosemary Walker, our FOC publicist, for creating wonderful opportunities to ‘get the word out'; Rose knows everyone in Brisbane! Gabrielle Castle, Rebecca (Bec) Ward and Aimee Dittmer for their continuous support: Bec for her beautiful photos (seen on BPH Website)and Gabby for her Assistant Stage Management; Leah Mercer (director of the first two award winning shows of the trilogy, Eve and HOME and long distance dramaturg on HDAT) for her constant belief in our work; Freddy Komp for his expertise as Extraordinary Production Manager and Stage Manager; Nathan Sibthorpe as delicious Image Whisperer; Jess Ross who executed Ben Knapton’s beautifully simple design; Aaron Barton who built the set (Aaron also built EVE’s set); and Linda Yamada for being there in Pullenvale. I also want to give a big thank you to all the partners of the FOC creatives: your generosity and understanding is duly noted! Finally all the generous artists who worked with us over the last 20 months: Leisa Shelton, Carol Burns, Andrea Moor, Steven Mitchell Wright, Dave Sleswick, David Morton, Sandro Collarelli, Chris Beckey, Lucy-Anne Langlilde, Leah Mercer, Ian Lawson, Kieran Swann, Deborah Leiser–Moore, Bev Jensen, Michael Coughlan and Leticia Caceres.

HOME, a play about Belonging, is part of the Queensland Theatre Company’s Diva Series

I’m driving home after the Queensland Theatre Company’s launch at Queensland Performing Arts Centre downtown Brisbane last night and thinking of how many people contributed to my show HOME…it began as a response to my second daughter’s SMS when she was living in Palestine. Homes were being bulldozed down and I began to think about what is home? I was reading her text as I sat on the back verandah (as so many of us do here in Brisbane) overlooking trees, hearing birds, no danger in sight. So I approached theatre director Leah Mercer, a colleague and dear friend (we had just created the award winning “Knowing of Mary Poppins” a couple of years before), and our process began. Leah is based in Perth so there were a lot of red eyed flights across the land. We tested our product as we went, we both took it to Mexico (a collaborative conference and HOME is based on collaborative practices) and then later Chicago (Theatre of the Oppressed Conference and HOME has been grown to be a community event to help re-author stories that may no longer serve us). Leah, Bev Jensen (another dear friend and fabulous visual artist who has journeyed with us for the last four years) and I began with a creative development at Metro Arts (2011) where we moved the seats in the Sue Benner and performed as theatre in the round complete with trapdoor. We were ably helped by a team of dedicated theatre lovers (Kate Caley, James Newton, Shilpi Rahman). We thought we would fit 30 punters, but we performed to 50+, people sitting on the stage with me. It was a glorious two days. Then David Berthold’s La Boite Indie decided to take HOME on board in 2012 and we had champions like Nicholas Paine and Adam Brunes. Warm up consisted of gypsy sticks, and Myffy who had just started her delicious stint as La Boite’s front of house manager, along with Nick, would come into the theatre and dance with gypsy sticks…we all warmed up together. Arlene Castle, our production manager/stage manager Gabby Castle’s mum was in charge of the devonshire teas that we served after the show and she collected a beautiful assortment of old teacups, tea pots and when there were scones left over she would wrap them with red ribbon and give them to our audience to take home and share. We did a community workshop with forty plus people. We created a Frame-It Project, where Gabby Castle, Aimee Dittmer and Rebecca Ward wandered the parks and markets taking pictures of what people saw as home.

The responses to our sell out season of HOME at La Boite were overwhelming, people responding to their own ideas and memories of their home and what it meant to them. We created a community event that had no beginning or end. Bev Jensen created an installation that people could walk through and touch. Her daughter visual artist Brenna Jensen helped create a video of HOME (Creative Development of HOME, Metro Arts, 2011). Markwell Productions created another video with highlights from La Boite season (Highlights of HOME: A STORY OF BELONGING La Boite season

But many of you don’t know this part of the story: in 2011 as we grew HOME, a small group of us used to meet weekly at Pullenvale where I live. We would bring food to share, we would sit in the garden and we would plan. We began to create garden rooms here at Pullenvale where performances could be held. We created a kitchen garden, a bedroom garden, a library garden and an Alice in Wonderland knock. We cooked almond biscuits, made aprons, made books, banners, tablecloths, wove paper,drank gallons of tea and learned what it meant to nourish each other at the same time as growing a show about nurturing. This process lasted a year, and it was one of the most nourishing years of my creative life. I looked forward to those Tuesday mornings. All five of the participants were collaborative therapists or student therapists and that was deliberate: we used the gatherings to thicken our understanding of what it is to be collaborative, how to help each other (and our audience) grow stories that transformed, empowered and generated new ways forward. The group consisted of Bev Jensen (visual artist), Kat Caley-White (collaborative therapist, visual artist, singer and teacher), James Newton (collaborative therapist) and Shilpi Rahman (collaborative therapist).
Now we are moving to Queensland Theatre Company in 2015. We will offer creative community workshops and we are hoping to incorporate some of the writings from those workshops into the performances. The season will be followed by a Queensland Tour (Artour).

I am excited about performing once again with Travis Ash, my youngest son. He has composed the music, he plays live and he performs about 6 monologues throughout the piece that shine a light on the world view, so that when I am at home, complaining about being a taxi driver for my four children, he then talks about the woman who nearly lost her son in the Children Overboard scandal. It was my second daughter Micaela who helped choose and write these monologues: I approached her with the thought of weaving international stories throughout HOME as a way of connecting this tiny piece of Brisbane with the entire world. Micaela is a creative writer as well as a trained lawyer and her eye is sharp. She came up with some wonderful stories. We chose many international as well as national stories, one of them a poignant story about a Vietnam vet, shared by Richard Jensen, Bev Jensen’s husband.

Thank you is never enough but it is all I can do right now: thank you to all the wonderful people who contributed to getting this show up…it takes a village to grow a show, and I love my village.
Behind any achievement there is always someone who is holding the reigns. I have a husband who always supports. Despite his own challenging work, he is always there to hear lines, make coffee and hold hands. Without my Bill, HOME would not be opening on 14th July, 2015 at Queensland Theatre Company.

Thank you Leah Mercer, my long time collaborator, who is opening our next show “Joey the Mechanical Boy” at Blue Room Perth, just after we finish “He Dreamed a Train”, the third show of the Belonging Trilogy.

He Dreamed a Train (a title I borrowed from my brother) opens at Brisbane Powerhouse on 15 October 2014. Directed by Circa’s Ben Knapton, and performed by Travis Ash and me, Train focuses on what happens when ruptures enter a family. We would love to have you come and experience a new way of storytelling: where the traditional meets the postmodern. Ben Knapton has specialised in audio visual performances and we are presently working magic in the rehearsal rooms at Brisbane Powerhouse (http://brisbanepowerhouse.org/events/2014/10/15/he-dreamed-a-train/).

Reflection, something we are not so good at, and when we do….

Those of us who create know what happens when a show comes to an end…there is a sense of “What will I do now?” So many many hours focused on one play, a group of actors, writers and producers, stage managers, designers, assistants. When it is a new group of artists together for the first time we have to negotiate ways of working. How do we create an environment that nurtures the artists, satisfies the producers, appeals to there writers and fit in with the designers? Yet somehow,despite so many relationships, we do it. That is what we do.

And each time we do it, we learn new ways of becoming. New ways of operating within the rehearsal room. The rehearsal room is like a microcosm of the real world: intense relationships, deep connection, glorious ideas, mini explosions, all going around and around. I always walk away from a show so much richer, having learned more about myself in 8 weeks than the whole year. What triggers me, what amuses me, what breaks my heart, what makes my heart sing.

I am in love with actors. I know that. Their willingness to go where others will not. They open their hearts, they surrender to their role and they give as much of themselves as is humanly possible. My question is always “How can we keep actors safe?” “How can we ask so much of them and make sure they are stronger and more nurtured on the last day of performance?”

We tried, through the weeks together, to create rituals that would hold the actors in good stead, tapping, checking in, checking out, warming up together, “balls”, looking after one another. Once the show is up, a director has little control of what happens ritual wise, and I hope that this team of wonderful artists looked after themselves, and each other. Every night they entered the emotional landscape that “Hedonism’s Second Album” demanded, complex, intense, electric.

Claire Christian and David Burton gifted us with a beautiful new script after working with Dramaturg Michael Gurr, one of my favourite Australian playwrights. The script explored the landscape of young manhood and friendship in comic and tragic ways. The pressures, pleasures and seductions of fame. The politics and behaviour around acceptance of difference, in this case the character Michael’s homosexuality; preconceived ideas of motherhood and fatherhood (the character Chimney is having a baby and the perceived effects this will have on the band); betrayal within friendships and the working environment and how subtle and not so subtle it is; what women have to do to make it in a man’s world (the character Phil’s approach to leadership is shaped by the world she finds herself in…she has to give what she got). The character Gareth is committed to fame and success and growing it in whatever way he can. And finally Sumo, the naughtiest of them all, who says things without thinking of the consequences and yet at the same time whose heart is so big, so loving and so generous.

These are the characters who danced with us in all the rehearsal rooms we worked in. I watched them grow and thicken. I nurtured and shaped in the way that directors do. I think I lost it once, when I thought the cast ‘phoned’ their performances in, a fabulous expression I’ve always thought, though in reflection it could have been more about my unrealistic expectations than their individual performances. Once, when I was performing in a show a couple of years ago, my partner Bill said to me afterwards “There is no electricity in you anymore” and in a split second I understood what was missing. I was not giving my all. I was saving some for I don’t know what. Did i feel unsafe? I am not sure. But it only took seven words to turn me around. So was that what i witnessed one early evening with this ensemble? Perhaps, and perhaps not. That is what i love about reflection. It causes one to pause. To reflect on what went before in order to grow what is to become. Perhaps the lesson for me here is to see clearly what is before me, rather than wanting to see something that I imagine is the ideal…

As a director I know I have little control once the show is up whereas as a performer I continue to shape the piece a little bit at a time. The actor is “inside”, whereas the director can only ever be on the “outside”. I think that is one of the biggest adjustments I have had to make. Stepping away from the performer’s shoes and realising that the director can only do so much.

And then the actors take over: and take over they did. Their audience loved them, adored them, despite their naughtiness, their inappropriateness, their political incorrectness. Because, when things descended into dark chaos, they were there for each other. Perhaps not forever, is there ever a forever, but at least for now. And really, that is all we have.

So we move on to the next play, but always bring with us our learnings from the one before. “Hedonism” taught me many things. I can’t put all of them into words yet, but i am satisfied that the many weeks spent thinking only of this play made me a richer artist. And a grateful one.

I now move on to He Dreamed a Train, at Brisbane Powerhouse in October. A big challenge. One where I shall stand in the shoes of a co-director (with Ben Knapton, someone I have been wanting to work with for many years…his ability to create metaphor through image and space is a worthy thing) as well as a performer (with Travis Ash). I am nervous, anxious and strangely excited about this next move.