Talking climate change and experimental theatre with Sarah Aiken and Rebecca Jensen

The world is falling apart. Do we care?

We are currently in the midst of a huge environmental crisis. But where do we start? What are we, as individuals supposed to do? This is the question that plagued Sarah Aiken and Rebecca Jensen when creating their new experimental work, What Am I Supposed To Do?

Rebecca Jensen and Sarah Aiken

A collage of drama, movement, and symbolism, What Am I Supposed To Do? (WAISTD) closes the gap between fact and fiction, questioning the current eco-crisis that is facing our civilisation. Drawing inspiration from Australian Horror films of the 70s and 80s, the interactive piece of theatre challenges and questions its audience to make a change.

The recipients of this year’s Take Over! grant, Sarah and Rebecca of Deep Soulful Sweats are the creatives behind the project. Founded in 2013, Deep Soulful Sweats as a company focus on inclusive, participatory work that develop in response to the world around us, and bringing people together through experimental choreography and maximalist performance. Take Over! is a groundbreaking partnership between Arts Centre Melbourne and Melbourne Fringe, enabling an independent artist or company the opportunity to spend 2019 developing a new work for presentation in the Fringe Festival.

I had a chat with Sarah and Rebecca about WAISTD ahead of its opening later this month.

Could you tell me a bit about your performance experience?

We have a long history of dancing and creating experimental choreography and performance in theatres, galleries, community, film, music & site responsive contexts. It’s pretty hard to pinpoint where the love of dance came from, as long as I remember its always been a part of my life and continues to surprise and challenge me. There is so much to discover about this form and what it can do. Our work has been described as formally reckless, slipping between codified forms and unbridled invention, amassing multiple images in a torrent of references, satirical, sincere, absurd and unapologetic. Our ongoing participatory project Deep Soulful Sweats creates collective experiences for audiences to come together in ecstatic, inclusive and unrehearsed performance experiences. Since 2010 we have produced experimental choreography, presented in Canada, Italy, France, New Zealand and more locally Dance Massive, Keir Choreographic Awards, Next Wave, Brisbane Festival, Castlemaine State Festival and Dark MOFO.

Photo by Gregory Lorenzutti

How have you devised WAISTD? What was the process like?

WAISTD brings together our history of creating experimental and participatory dance and performance. It is an ambitious and very new project for us, bringing together the many modes and methods of working we have developed together across our growing body of work. When talking about process our previous work Underworld is worth mentioning. We created this work from a process of storyboarding the Australiana eco-horror Long Weekend (1978) and using this as the works structure, substituting elements from the film with recycled choreography, props and physicality’s from our previous works. In line with the films environmental warnings, everything in this work was recycled including the movement. We love setting up formal structures that create a unique logic for each work. WAISTD follows our enduring interest in collage. We have learned movement and scenes from a range of schlocky Australian apocalyptic and eco horrors, we have also developed a script from comprised of text collaged from a bunch of articles songs and movie scripts from over the last 40 or 50 years. A few of our sources: “Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change” The New York Times Magazine by Nathaniel Rich, Dead End Drive in 1986 by Brian Trenchard-Smith, and Cassandra by ABBA. Needless to say the set is sourced from op shops and bins. In the spirit of participatory projects we can’t actually rehearse until we open the show! This always feels risky and precarious. It feels good to be making work that is experimenting with form in an institution like the Arts Centre.

What has been the most exciting part about creating WAISTD?

We have been working with an amazing cast of dancers who have brilliant and varied perspectives and a wealth of experience and knowledge, including Ngioka Bunda-Heath, Alexander Powers, Claire Leske and Megan Payne as well as a super experienced creative design team Romanie Harper, Amelia Lever Davidson and Andrew Wilson with mentor Mish Grigor. We are good at having plenty of ambitious ideas but used to doing everything ourselves, so it’s been exciting to work with a larger team and get some of our bigger ideas off the ground. Speculating about the ways that the audience will meet the work is always an exciting aspect of how the work comes together, we’ve been running workshops to trial the ideas but until we’re in the space with the first audience we don’t really know what will happen, it will be exciting to see what we have been imagining and speculating about come to life. The best thing about inviting the audience into the work is that it never stops shifting, there’s a level of handing over some of the control we have as artists, to the audience. Everyone who comes will make decisions about how they interact with the work which will mean its never the same twice, and its never the same for two people

Photo by Gregory Lorenzutti

Why do you think dance is a good platform for inciting change?

Those who step into a dance show are perhaps the type of people willing to enter a mode of discomfort and sit with something that doesn’t make complete sense or have a clear take home message. When I am dancing, the transitions mean as much as the ‘moves,’ I hope this sensibility bleeds into the choreographic structure which bleeds into how the work is received, creating space for audience to deconstruct their expectations, looking and listening in a way that might be new for them, unlocking new thoughts.
We look at dance and choreography in a very expanded sense; Dance includes all pedestrian action and choreography is simply structured action. Through its participatory nature, WAISTD invites people to step inside a choreography and observe from within, shifting the perspective of the audience member. They are integral to the unfolding of the show. We imagine we aren’t going to have a bunch of climate deniers show up at this show (I guess you never know…) and so we are not trying to convince anyone of the reality of our situation, rather we hope to allow people the space to think critically about participation, contribution and complexity. We hope to provoke deep and critical thought around the complexities of our hypocrisy, and the immobility and grief we’re dealing with as the planet warms.

How do you think audience participation will affect the show?

In the spirit of Deep Soulful Sweats, WAITSD is an inclusive immersive work, bringing people together in collective action. Each individual is a vital part of the whole. Participation won’t affect the show- it is the show, we literally can’t do it without you. As set, performer and audience simultaneously, you will find yourself a part a conversation that has been earnestly rehearsed and restaged for the last 40 years. Participation is both content and form in this work, which looks at how we play our part in the eco horror that is unfolding around us in the world as we speak. We all play our part, just as we do in the climate crisis, nobody is really a spectator, although you have agency to make choices about how you play your part. How do we deal with the gridlock of fear, hope, greed and despair that holds us back from saving our species? WAISTD creates a space for us to collectively sit with our complicity, hypocrisies and cultural inertia in the face of climate crisis.


Arts Centre Melbourne in association with Melbourne Fringe present
What Am I Supposed To Do? (WAISTD)

Fairfax Studio | 18 – 22 September

Please note: this performance contains adult themes, partial nudity, low light, fluctuating light, strobe lighting and haze.Flat shoes are recommended (audience might be standing for long periods), strictly no bags/food/drink.

For tickets and more information, please visit the Arts Centre Melbourne website.

Gabi Bergman

Gabi Bergman is a Melbourne-based performer. She holds a Double Arts degree in Theatre Studies and Film/Screen Studies and a Master of Teaching (Secondary Education). Gabi has always been an avid lover of theatre, specifically musicals, and spends way too much money than she’d like to admit on tickets. Her most prized possession is her crate of theatre programs.

Gabi Bergman

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