Ahead of the stunning ‘Out of This World’ heading to Warwick Arts Centre next week, we caught up with acclaimed choreographer, writer and director, Mark Murphy, to ask him a few questions about the show and his amazing career.
Can you tell us about some of the ideas and influences behind Out Of This World?
“I did a show in Australia in 2006 for the Melbourne Commonwealth Games with a company called ‘Legs on The Wall’, and I particularly connected with one of their performers – Alexandra Harrison. She’s a stunning performer and artist so naturally I started to think about how we could work together on something else. It’s all a while ago so forgive my memory and we’ll come to this a bit later in more detail but in that way that nothing is ever wasted, a film I saw years ago – ‘The Big Blue’ – which around the same time bubbled up back into my mind for some reason. And so I guess the combination of a much loved film and a newly discovered collaborator joined forces to open a door to make a thing about free-diving. I felt a gift had been dropped in my lap. A really gorgeous idea – take one breath and then see how deep you can go beneath the ocean – talk about a wellspring of metaphors! It’s heaven-sent. Free-diving had physiological science behind it, but it also had this trapdoor through into another world. Just perfect. So I proposed an idea about this to Warwick Arts Centre, and we started working on a small-scale pilot project.
“I began to realise this was a story about someone journeying inside themselves. This is about someone putting themselves in the most extreme position in order to discover some real truths about who they really are. Essentially, a person intentionally places themselves at the very edge of death in order to see what it is to be fully alive. And those elements of tension, and of risk, really appealed to me as a dramatist. Another element, the fact that if my life had been different around the ages of 13 or 14 I might have gone into medicine. I’ve always had a healthy fascination in all things medical, and particularly in trauma medicine – which again is the really dramatic department. So, the twin interests of the world of trauma medicine and anaesthetics, and the story of this woman who dives down into herself, started to slowly form into a show. I was also intrigued by a show where there wasn’t just a main character, but the main character was also the location. In this instance, the location is her mind.
I have kind of suspected all along that every show I make is about a fantasy world where you can rehearse what your life could become. Every single show I have ever made has been about that. They are also about taking something that has been broken into lots of pieces, reconstructing it, and putting those pieces back together to find out why it broke in the first place. It’s about traumatic incidents, replaying them, to find out what could be a better outcome…what could heal the person…what could stop that happening in the future.
I think it was Brian Eno who said how arts and culture offers ‘a safe place for you to have quite extreme and rather dangerous feelings.’ I would say this is always the role of drama.
What do you think will be the biggest challenge in creating this new production?
That it uses words. I think the biggest reason for me moving away from dance and into theatre, many years ago, was that I knew I had reached a point where I could quite easily create movement that the audience would say was amazing, and this had become too comfortable for me. I realised I wanted to challenge myself with words. As soon as you start using words you quickly realise your limitations, very quickly! If you want to do the one thing that immediately feeds back to you how incredibly inept you are, then try writing a show where people speak. Finding ways for people to say things to an audience, and that actually works is a really scary and really difficult thing to do well. The interaction between live action and projection is something I know I have a feel for. That’s a sweet-spot for me. But also having people sing and talk to each other within that environment, and still trying to control it all, is a massive challenge. We could easily have 6 months of rehearsal for this, but we only had 6 weeks.
Is the main character inspired by anyone in particular, or has she been influenced by many different people?
“I watched ‘Alien’ at a really early age, and it’s a film I’ve continued to watch probably 4 or 5 times every year, and I think it’s a fantastic movie with a brilliant structure. I really like these action heroines, so whether it’s Sigourney Weaver, or Sandra Bullock in the film ‘Gravity’, or Juliet Binoche in ‘Three Colours
Blue’, or Emily Blunt in ‘Sicario, or Jessica Chastain in ‘Zero Dark Thirty’, or Jodie Foster in ‘Silence of the Lambs’, I really like these ballsy female roles, where actresses are really expressing an athletic energy. The main character in
Out of This World is called Ellen, which is Ripley’s Christian name in Alien, so that is a small clue to the character. There is definitely something of the Ripley about her. Really the main character is an action hero being forced to go into a kind of neurological witness protection programme
Can you tell us a little bit about the collaborators that you will be working with for Out Of This World?
“Nathaniel Reed who will be creating the soundtrack, has been part of about 95% of my professional output to date, so we are incredibly close, and have a ‘shorthand’ that is indispensable, especially when you’ve got 6 weeks to make a show. He’s a brilliant composer. Lizzie Powell has lit a lot of my indoor shows and is fantastic. EJ Boyle in my opinion is the best choreographer currently working in theatre, and will be the associate artist on it. We haven’t worked together for very long, but it feels like we have. And Becky Minto, the Co-designer (set) and costume designer, and I have done lots of shows together and she is fantastic. And I can’t imagine making a show without Alex Palmer – (Rigging Design) head rigger and rope whisperer. What’s really nice for me is to have those familiar people around, and then to add some new blood to the system. It’s invaluable to have new people who will ask questions of you, and pick up on things, that other people won’t because of the familiarity that already exists amongst us. I think the crucial ingredient to any collaborator is that they have ideas outside of their speciality.”
What is your role in Out Of This World?
“I’m everything, kind of! I’ve conceived the whole thing. I’m the writer, I’m the creative lead for it, so I’m the ball of seething energy that has kept the idea for this piece of work going for six long years, and I’m obviously the Director, so I point it in the right direction, hopefully. I’m also the creator of the projection content – I will make all of the projected film and animation content, and
I’m also half production designer working very closely with Becky Minto. I don’t touch the music, although I do touch the sound design. I guess depending which way you look at it I’m either the most incredible person to work with, or the biggest pain, because I’m quite hands on about the whole thing, and I don’t see there’s any areas I wouldn’t want to be involved in, though I wouldn’t want to take any of the credit away from any of my fantastic team. All of us working on the production can probably say ‘I did a bit of that’, or ‘I helped with that’.”
Is that particular way of working something that has grown and developed over time?
“I started as an artist, a fine artist, where if you were making a painting you would be doing it pretty much yourself, you wouldn’t particularly be bringing too many people in. So I think years ago I brought that self-contained way of working into it, and then met a whole wonderful team of collaborators but somehow I have kept that DNA going. I can be really self-sufficient. I am speculating quite a lot on things, so I’m throwing an enormous amount of stuff at the wall, where, like for all of us, only a small amount sticks, so over time I’ve learned to build stuff, I’ve learnt to film stuff, out of necessity, but also I’m just incredibly curious and voracious about making things.
If you could look back to your 19-year old self, just as you were beginning to be influenced by the things you saw and heard, what advice would you offer?
“Just keep doing. Don’t wait for inspiration. Don’t think anybody else is going to help you particularly. Just find a way to sustain the fire yourself and then hopefully that will attract other people to it. There’s no romance to it for me, there’s just work. But the fact is I absolutely love the work, but it’s hard. There’s a massive amount of sacrifice involved, but the price paid is worth it. I spend most of my time in my shed on the verge of tears banging my head against this wall, and then after a while, this wall says, ‘now go and bang your head on that wall over there’, and I have a little breakthrough, but it’s really, really tough. Especially writing scripts on your own. It can be demoralising, but then occasionally something will happen and you think ‘I just sparked electricity – I just made fire!’ And then of course that feeling goes again but that’s why it’s so addictive – it is worth it for those moments because you feel you have just created life.