A dialogue with director Anne-Louise Sarks. By Charlotte Wood.

Belvoir St Theatre’s Anne-Louise Sarks

Two weeks before Christmas, Anne-Louise Sarks and her actors are moving house, and she’s not thrilled about it.

It’s not the house’s fault: the beautifully grubby butter-yellow weatherboard elegantly breaks in two for the cast of Belvoir St Theatre’s Jasper Jones to wheel on and off stage for different purposes. But Sarks is worried about how heavy it is, and how slowly it’s moving.

In fact, right now, three weeks before opening night, Sarks looks worried about everything. A fit-looking, friendly young woman in dark jeans, bright white sneakers and a preppy blue shirt, the director sits in a plastic chair in the light-filled rehearsal room, attention fiercely focused on stage. At first she stretches back with legs extended, arms crossed behind her head, but as the scene progresses she draws slowly forward. By its end she’s curved into an almost full-body crouch.

“A lot of people find my watching quite intense,” she tells me later. “I guess it is. I think it takes a while sometimes for people to get to know me and trust that it’s quite a generous intensity. I feel my job is to catch everything.”

As the scene finishes, the released tension seems to catapult her from her seat. Now she moves constantly, striding about to see the space from different angles. She hitches up her jeans, rubs her hands over her face, tugs a handful of curly blonde hair upward as she speaks. She scribbles on her script and sticks her pencil into her bra strap before crossing the room again, bouncing on her toes like an athlete before a race.

Between repetitions of the scene she speaks to the actors individually, squatting beside them over the script pages on the floor, brow furrowed, trying to get to the heart of a blurriness or hesitance in their performance. There is talk of searching and finding, hunting down the precise meaning in a word or a gesture. There’s a lengthy discussion with Guy Simon about his character, Jasper’s, answer – “I don’t know” – to a question on his Aboriginality. Is he dismissive, puzzled, afraid? Does he mean, “Get fucked”? “Nobody told me”? “I’m confused but interested” – or something else?

These conversations are respectful and quiet, but never private. Openness is essential, Sarks says. “There’s a tension for me between making the actors feel enormously safe and supported, while not allowing it to feel too private or personal, because this is work and it needs to be shared.”

When the scene begins again it’s as though she’s acting from the sidelines: Sarks’ expression reveals as much as the actors’. Their sentiments – guilt, fear, duplicity – cross her face like a fast-moving cloud. A former actor, she sees her director’s job at this stage of a production as “trying to think my way through it, as the characters”.

“That’s partly why it’s so draining – at the end of a day I’ve sort of internally acted a whole play, and tried to do it from every character’s perspective. And this play is emotionally very fraught. At the same time, I’m also trying to understand the rules of the world – like these pieces of the set. How should they move, how does the set carry the work? Do I treat it in a very literal way, or do we use the pieces in a more abstract way, and what could that mean?”

The design is simple and striking, the set consisting almost solely of the multifunction house and a large tree that is crucial to the plot. But Sarks still seems troubled. “I don’t like a lot of stuff on the stage; I want to work with humans, not props,” she sighs. “I want the audience to imagine that world.”

Some directors make decisions about design and use space much earlier, even before rehearsal starts. Not Sarks. “I don’t like to work that way – when I put the actors on the floor I don’t say, ‘You stand here and you stand there.’ I’m trying to respond to what they’re offering, because the actor will often have an instinct that will open something up much better than what I’ll find.”

This is not to say the actors rule. Sarks’ playful warmth, her restless, unselfconscious physicality, seem to be a way of loosening up the room’s energy, ensuring the mood is never reverential or precious. Each rehearsal day starts with a game of tip-and-run cricket on stage with the cast and crew. There’s laughter and chiacking, but Sarks never loses sight of her authority.

“It’s complicated when you genuinely believe in collaboration and you’re trying to create something as an ensemble – but at the end of the day there is a hierarchy in that room, and I get to make the final decisions.”

I ask if there’s a metaphor for how she sees her role. She looks glum. “Most of the metaphors I’ve heard for the job of director I hate. I really hate it when people call me the ‘mother’ of a production. I’m really not at all interested in that role – which doesn’t mean I reject ideas about caring for or supporting a production.”

Watching each scene replayed, I begin to understand for the first time what a live, wriggling, unpredictable creature theatre is: even once found, a perfect moment might never appear again. I find myself wanting to shout, “There!” when an actor nails it, to somehow pin down and preserve its quality. But that doesn’t work, says Sarks.

“You need to be careful, because the fact of pointing too obviously at any aspect of what an actor is doing – positively or negatively – can change it. So if they’re doing well, I’ll say something like, ‘That’s in the territory’, rather than ‘That’s it!’ ”

This mercurial quality, she says, is why theatre is so thrilling, and so hard, to make.

“There are many days when I think, why are we doing this, when we could capture it on film and lock it down and put an edit together that feels closer to perfect? Instead, what we’re doing is a constant striving for perfection, in the most imperfect art form of all. That’s theatre, though: it never ends. It’s such an ongoing process, which is why I love it. You don’t ever have to stop if you don’t want to. Until it closes.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 6, 2016 as "Fluid lines".

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