Theatre maker Luke Mullins has done it all. And he’s done it with the big guns. So why does he keep coming back to independent theatre? Bethany Simons found out more about Night Maybe, his latest indie project with acclaimed ensemble, Stuck Pigs Squealing.
From a very early age, Luke Mullins has had a strong reaction to theatre. In grade three, as an excited schoolboy, he threw up all over his teacher’s white slacks at the mere thought of seeing a production of Peter and the Wolf. Years later, after seeing his sister perform in a high school musical, Mullins says he remembers thinking, “This is fantastic, I’ll go to high school and I’ll get to do things like this … But the high school I went to had no arts program whatsoever!” Mullins eventually convinced his parents to allow him to attend a youth theatre in Brisbane. “I turned up and they shoved a Shakespeare text into my hand and said, ‘Read this’. I had no idea what it was but it kind of blew my mind. It wasn’t until I finished school that I realised you could do this as a real thing.”
And so he has. Following years of success as an actor, theatre maker, and dramaturge, Mullins is currently directing Night Maybe, the latest offering from Melbourne-based theatre company Stuck Pigs Squealing, in the 2013 Selected Works program at Theatre Works.
Made up of a core group of artists including Lally Katz, Chris Kohn, Brian Lipson and Mel Page – to name a few – Stuck Pigs Squealing have been making noise on the independent theatre scene since 2001. Mullins says that the work they are attracted to as a company is non-linear and tends to operate in an immersive way. “If someone finds something they would like to do and we have enough of a core group, then we find a way to do the project.”
Independent theatre relies heavily on fostering great partnerships and pulling in resources from wherever possible. Stuck Pigs are thankful to have often received funding that allows them to pay their cast and crew but, as is necessary for many independents, they recently decided to run an online crowdfunding campaign via Pozible in order to raise the funds required to realise their ambitious design for Night Maybe. Mullins says, “The world of the play is the subconscious, so instead of putting something abstract on stage, we have gone for a park at night. We have real grass, real trees. It’s inside and outside at the same time, the internal and external world existing simultaneously. We then create atmosphere through lighting so it doesn’t get too dream-like. For the characters the experience is very real.”
Stuck Pigs are known for creating cutting edge work that challenges form and Night Maybe is no exception. “We use all elements available to us to generate experiences for the audience; we like to lead them to an unexpected place.” Mullins says, “The show itself is about a brother and sister; we discover them on a road at night-time. Big brother abandons sister and she searches. It’s a metaphor, a journey through the subconscious, trying to find the part of her identity that this brother represents.”
Though he has worked a lot as an actor, Night Maybe is one of the first things that Mullins has done just as a director. He explained his process saying “I usually start with a very visual approach; I find the look of the ‘world’ then use the images as a away to explore who the characters are and where they’re coming from.” For Night Maybe he was heavily influenced by the work of Melbourne painter Charles Blackman, in particular his series of girls in dark alleyways. In the rehearsal room the team generated physical sequences and gestural work inspired by the images, and would then begin staging possibilities based on those source images. Music was used in the same way.
Why does someone like Mullins, with a successful and varied theatre-making career, keep coming back to the independent scene? “It provides a context where you can work in a way that you can’t in other companies. There are certain projects for which you want to have a different level of control. The independent context is where you can do that best.”
Though smaller venues are often seen as places for emerging artists to play with very little resources and work their way up, Mullins believes it is equally important that venues provide a context for established artists to try something else. As Mullins says, “I might want to do something smaller, take a risk, try something out. This particular context allows us to work in the way we want and to come together in the way we want.” Mullins is certain that his colleagues’ creative practice continues to grow as they take what they learn from these experimentations back to their large-scale work which is, by necessity, a more risk averse context. “We really value that we can come together and push ourselves; challenge each other and reinvigorate our freelance work in other contexts.”
The company are committed to what Mullins calls the ‘real theatre making process’, meaning development periods are very important, as is taking time between periods. When they do work, it is often very closely with a writer, who will continue to write as the process unfolds. For Night Maybe the Stuck Pigs team worked alongside Kit Brookman, an exciting young playwright currently under commission from Sydney’s Belvoir Street and Griffin Theatre Company.
Having moved from Brisbane to Melbourne to study at the Victorian College of the Arts over a decade ago, Mullins now splits his time between Sydney and Melbourne. Does he think the indie sector has changed much? “It has and it hasn’t. [Melbourne] has lost the Store Room Theatre, but Theatre Works has taken over a new lease of life. Two major differences are Helium and NEON (Malthouse and MTC) – two very different programs working with really fantastic indie companies.”
Mullins is keen to see a progression towards a reinvestment in independent exploration. “Sydney initiatives are now attracting such an audience that they can afford to invest more heavily. I would love to think that programs like Helium and Neon will grow to a point where Malthouse and MTC can pay for that work.”
Listening to the softly spoken Mullins, it is fun to picture that little kid from Brisbane who knew deep down that he had a connection with the arts. It is clear that he now lives his life immersed in that world. If ever he feels overloaded by theatre, Mullins wanders through art galleries.
“It’s a fantastic way of clearing your mind, but then inserting a whole lot of other creative information into it…literature as well, and music of course. I would love to encourage more actors to be thinking artists. So much of your time and energy is spent worrying about getting the next job. Take time to think, ‘What do I want to say through what I make?’ One of the most important things as an artist is thinking about why you are putting this into the world and why you want people to look at this thing that you have made.” Luke Mullins
Night Maybe runs until Sunday 1 September
Theatre Works, 14 Acland Street St Kilda
More info and bookings: http://nightmaybe.com/