Sam Trubridge is producer and director of Auckland Festival show Sleep/Wake (March 7-10, Auckland Town Hall). He talked to RENEE LIANG about the concepts around the show.

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RENEE: How did you get the idea for Sleep/Wake?

SAM: I met the sleep scientist Philippa Gander at a Master’s conference. And we got talking about our respective disciplines. It was the name of her lab (The Sleep/Wake Research Centre) that really interested me. Because the study of sleeping and waking is the study of coming in and out of self-awareness, a coming on and off stage so to speak.

I have compared the process of waking up to Lacan’s ‘Mirrorstage’ moment that he describes in infants. But also to that moment that theatre becomes self-aware, or when the performer/audience awakens to a certain materiality in the theatrical experience.

R: Can you explain that? Both Lacan’s theory and how that relates to theatre/making?

S: Lacan describes the psychology of the infant that precedes self-consciousness. It is (like dreaming) a world where everything is a product of one’s own psyche, where everything is an extension of your own needs. It precedes the concept of ‘otherness’.

Often in conventional theatre we sit in darkened auditoriums and experience the performance as an experience other than reality. People seated next to us are hidden in the darkness, and we assume the roles of dreamers/sleepers. There are phenomena that occur in the dreaming body which relate closely to the way we often experience theatre, cinema, and the media these days.

R: That’s a wonderful way of looking at it.

S: The body becomes essentially paralysed from the neck down, retaining the sentience of the sleeper, but removing all motor control. Also, certain parts of the brain are hyperactivated, in the way that LX, sound, and special effects emphasise points that the director is trying to put across.

R: Have they actually done studies on theatre goers – do they have the same experience physiologically as dreamers?

S: Not that I know of. Theatre goers don’t exactly have the same neurological block. Maybe it’s an interesting research sideline… but the effect (of theatre) on the audience is the same… physical inactivity, for one.

R: Can you tell me a bit about how you moved from the discussion with Philippa to the creation of a full show?

S: I visited her with a proposal for the project. It consisted of some writing and a series of images that I had drawn that demonstrated the interests I had.

This first discussion became a conversation about Philippa’s science. She then invited me to her lab when they were doing some tests, so I got to see them wiring up the subjects and setting up the time isolation unit.

R: Yeah, it’s kind of weird how all these people come in and completely cover you in wires and belts and things and then you are expected to just go to sleep. Kind of like your brain/body is on show.

S: After this we continued to meet regularly and trade ideas and information back and forth. Gradually a ‘script’ comprised of images, moments, experiences, and observations began to take shape.

R: Have you ever had your own sleep recorded?

S: Well, we had the performers get hooked up and spend a night in the lab. We woke them up at intervals to quickly perform a piece of choreography or answer our questions about their dreams or what they were thinking about before we woke them up.

R: Do you use those recordings in your piece?

S: Yes. Both the polysomnographic material as well as some video. One performer could not get to sleep with all the paraphernalia, so we sent her home at 3am. This ended up producing a beautiful ‘insomnia’ section in the choreography.

There was a lot of discussion after this experience about the conflict between mechanically induced rhythms and natural rhythms in the body. In Maria’s experience we were able to understand how the body resists technology, and how you cannot perform sleep.

That was one thing that drew me to the work as well. Sleep as the antithesis of what we do on stage – Sleep as the opposite of performance.

R: That’s interesting. Because actors often spend lifetimes learning to perform impossible things.

S: It contradicts some previous discussion a bit, but I guess I am talking now about the experience that the performer has rather than the audience.

It is a feature of the project that I want to investigate further. Maybe making a performance out of trying to go to sleep, that may or may not ever succeed.

R: So in performing sleep, the actors “wake” out of traditional theatrical experience?

S: The performance is ‘the story of an awakening’... and there are many moments in it where we try to expand horizons or collapse certain conventions of the theatrical experience. So at the beginning we deliberately set up some of the conventions that separate the worlds of audience and performer. But paradigms collapse, and at the end the performer is confronted with his ‘theatrical presence.’ It’s an awakening for both players in the theatrical contract.

R: That sounds Brechtian... but without the irony. I know that Philippa is interested in creativity and performance herself. Did she only stay on the science advisory side in this project? Or did she also contribute some ideas?

S: She was very embedded in the creative process. So she often came to our rehearsals and discussed scenes with the performers. The script was written in collaboration between her, the actor in the role of The Orator, and myself. She has also been an invaluable sounding board and collaborator on the overall form of the work so that it really is a collaboration between two artists as much as a collaboration between a scientist and an artist. There is science in the images and choreography as much as in the words and diagrams.

R: Well, science is also an art, as much as art is a science. You’re making a good point that there doesn’t need to be a line drawn.

S: And there is poetry in the science that we present.

R: Indeed.

S: That’s something that we discovered as we worked on it, and why the collaboration still has much further to go.

R: Can you tell me about the performers? (Spoiler Alert)

S: The show starts with a body asleep on stage. Elise Chan, a Unitec dance student.

The Orator forms the ‘spine’ of the work, providing a figure that we can follow through the action and imagery. This role is being played by the brilliant Jamie Burgess. It is a very challenging role, and he has managed to really sculpt it into something special.

Later on we encounter other performers: Maria Dabrowska, Elizabeth Barker, Joshua Rutter, and Kristian Larsen. All amazing dancers and choreographers.

There are a couple of other roles. There is a big bear, a performer (Ella Robson-Guillfoyle) connecting with the show live through Skype from London, and video footage of my brother William Trubridge – who holds two world records in freediving.

It is a demanding show for the performers because they have to synchronise and meld their performances with so many technical elements, which has the potential to distract them from the dramatic/choreographic threads in the work... but they do amazingly well and keeping it very human and moving.

The music, lighting, and AV are also very significant and powerful performances in the show. For this I am really lucky to work with lighting designer Marcus McShane, composer Bevan Smith, and AV operator Rowan Pierce.

R: How does your use of the internet relate to the ideas in your piece?

S: Skype collapses the familiar concepts of the here and now. It compresses time and space allowing Auckland and London to perform simultaneously. This provokes a revision of the theatrical experience (as a metaphor for the way we live our lives/see the world)...

Wherein we become aware of ‘the other’ and ‘other’ spaces in that collapse of the familiar horizons of the performance space.

London is HERE.

R: You’ve talked about choreography, lighting and technical elements, but still call this “theatre” – can you explain a bit more about performance design?

S: For me theatre/theatricality are sometimes problematic, but certainly necessary aspects of what I do. I use the term ‘performance design’ to express what it is that I do because not only does it combine the processes of directing and designing, but focuses the work on the concept of performance rather than a specific discipline or perspective of what happens on stage.

Performance design is the designing OF PERFORMANCE as much as it is the designing of the architecture, costume, moving elements, AV etc. It is the synthesis of all these elements.

Designing is also the process of understanding a ‘user’ (public, audience, customer) and how certain experiences, ideas, and tasks can be facilitated by the work. So as a performance designer I am always aware of the experience that the audience have of the performance.

Sometimes I call it ‘theatre’ by mistake... because that is my/our programming. At other times the term ‘theatre’ is relevant because it signifies the rituals and conventions that I am investigating in the work.

R: I think the idea of challenging rituals and conventions in the theatre is an interesting one. It’s what the audience come to see... but at the same time they also expect/feel comfortable with conventions. How comfortable/uncomfortable would you like your work to be?

S: I like playing with conventions and comfort... and that is certainly what occurs in Sleep/Wake. We set up a few conventions and allow the audience to fall into the pattern of watching performance in a familiar way. Audiences need to know what to do, need to know what is expected of them. Confusion kills, unless it is amazingly crafted.

So, I am aware of the familiar rituals and patterns that I use in my performances that allow the audience to become complicit in the work, in its poetic inferences, and in its relationship that it has with them... so that a journey can occur.

Our last show used the familiar patterns and rituals of restaurant dining to do the same thing. People know what is expected of them and what their role is when they see an entire theatre laid out with dining tables. A relationship is immediately constructed. In Sleep/Wake use the ‘theatre ritual’ in a similar way: we watch in the darkness, and the Orator talks and repeats memorizes info.

R: It sounds like an amazing show. What next for you?

S: Next I want to explore some features of this experience further... around the issue of Ecology.

Ecology is as much about the relationship between the performance and the audience, as between the dancers in a corps de ballet, or between the musicians in an ensemble. It is an interdependent network/system. I’m collaborating with an NZSM composer Dugal McKinnon and five great dancers.

R: Any last words?

S: We are doing the show in the Auckland Town Hall, a very site specific adaptation of the space – no one will have seen it like this before. LePage said “theatre is a room that changes”. It’s a beautiful statement that I think is a great provocation for any budding audience member coming to see Sleep/Wake.