This week we hear more from Griffin Studio member and playwright extraordinaire, Suzie Miller as she takes us through the inside workings at Ex Machina, Canada.

Last week we all sat at this long table on one side of the studio just beside the set, and discussed the themes and the ideas behind this first work of ‘Jeux des Cartes’ – translation ‘Playing Cards’ (or a more precise translation – ‘Playing Card Games’). This is the first of a 4 part series that Robert and the company have been commissioned to write as a co-commission by some of the major theatres in the round across Europe. With an extraordinary budget, it is much anticipated by the host theatres, although they have no knowledge of its content as yet. After the initial season, it will also travel to other major centres that have a large theatre in the round to accommodate it. The premier season is in Madrid this May, followed closely by London’s Roundhouse and then to other venues in Europe and North America. Sadly, not yet to Australia.

The first in the series focuses on the House of Spades (and yes of course, the other 3 will each focus on the other suits – hearts, clubs and diamonds). We talked at length about the development conducted earlier in the year with almost the same cast, where after a trip to Los Vegas they had all brought in stories and characters and an improvisation was undertaken to develop characters and to narrow down storylines etc.. Some of this was outlined on a white board in a unique way by Felix the assistant director for Robert (Felix is an amazing dynamo known also for his wonderful calling out to the company prior to any scene being rehearsed SILENCE S’IL VOUS PLAIT – and then instantly there is complete silence!).

Once suggested scenes were on the board there was a morning’s talk about the themes. I was fascinated by the French use of Catholic mythology in all of the story lines, of course for a convent girl like myself this crossed the language divide completely, and delving into the divine and the devil, and using imagery that was grounded in this mythology was both familiar and theatrically inspiring. The Faustian story reigns large in this first Jeux des Cartes. As the House of Spades this first story revolves around War – the spade initially representing the spear/sword of war. Later the hearts – love, the diamonds – money, and clubs – the working class/or class generally.  Of course there is so much more than war in this first story, but it is politically interesting in its exploration of the motivations of the US war on Iraq.

The set is a magical world of trap doors and an ingenuous use of an enormous purpose built round structure to be placed in said theatres, this structure is in itself a most extraordinary creation, housed beneath it are the 4 techies for the entirety of this 3 hour show, 2 dressers and all the costumes for 40 characters, props and sets for each transition, a hydraulic centre piece that raises up and down, a fan system for effects, and more. The cast will also only enter and exit the stage by disappearing below this structure – it will be pretty crowded underneath during the show!

The process of watching these scenes change, sometimes completely, is transfixing, the ingenuity of using wigs and costumes to entirely transform an actor illustrates the fact that yes one can have only 6 actors for 40 characters – an investment that Robert considers a freedom in having as many characters as he needs/wants, as well as the magic nature of transformation of an actors identity.

The use of costumes, wigs, lights and music/sound throughout all rehearsals and improvisations is something I haven’t seen before, Robert wants the entire rehearsal to be as if it is real and happening right now, it seems easy for the actors to be fully in character this way – it is an interesting element of his theatre practice and parallels the film set in many ways, indeed the entire improvisation/rehearsal is filmed so that at any time an actor or creative can return to watch the version that they prefer. So perhaps with this filmic set up – in this amazing studio, upon this massive purposely-built set, it is completely appropriate for Felix to call out his French command “Silence S’il Vous Plait!!!!”.

Until next time…