Documentary theatremaker Roslyn Oades has spent her life investigating the art of listening. By Anthony Nocera.

Documentary theatremaker Roslyn Oades

Roslyn Oades.
Roslyn Oades.
Credit: Thomas McCammon

Before we begin the interview proper, Roslyn Oades and I swap a little small talk. She asks me how work is going and as I answer, her posture changes. She becomes completely still, unblinking. Her breathing is barely visible.

Shit, I think, the wi-fi is out again. “Sorry, Ros,” I say, tapping my screen and smacking my keyboard. “I think you’re fro–”

Her posture relaxes. “I’m not frozen,” she says. “I can see and hear you. I was just listening. What were you saying?” As I start speaking she shifts again, focusing completely on my answer.

For Oades, one of Australia’s leading documentary theatremakers, listening isn’t just a job: it’s a finely honed craft. An obsession. Every morning – or, at least, most mornings – she listens to voicemail messages from strangers for her show The Nightline. The messages are left anonymously between midnight and 6am. One frequent caller left a message on the night her mother died.

“That caller was always funny and upbeat and she used The Nightline as a bit of a diary,” says Oades. “It’s very interesting when you have a repeat caller like that. You see people go through something really sad and then come out the other side.”

Many people would find this level of intimacy with a stranger disconcerting – sitting with that emotion, feeling the weight of it on your chest. But Oades considers building deep connections to be at the centre of her practice.

“There’s been this sort of temporary community that has sprung up around The Nightline,” she tells me. “The act of listening really builds community because we all have a desire to be heard. It’s a really big responsibility and I’m always extremely aware of what I’m holding when someone gives something to me.”

Co-created with long-time collaborator Bob Scott, The Nightline is a late-night listening club that introduces audiences to a group of people Oades calls “the guardians of the night”, a community of night owls and insomniacs who are awake or working when most of us are asleep. It’s the type of project that could only have been thought up by someone who has spent their life closely observing the people around them, picking up the intricacies of how people relate.

Anonymous voice message from The Nightline

“I changed high schools four times,” Oades says. “Moving a lot meant that I became quite attuned to reading the languages of different schools and noticing the differences in places that I lived. You can tell a lot about a community or a place by how they run their institutions and looking at, for example, different ways that students and teachers interact.

“I’m a big fan of Frederick Wiseman documentaries. He’s fascinated with the institution and the way that institutions can be a portrait of our communities. Because a lot of our values are boiled down into the way that we structure those sorts of places.”

As a young artist, Oades’ sharp observational eye led her to acting, where she fell into playing guest roles across a variety of now iconic Australian TV shows. “I did a lot of guest acting roles. My first role was giving birth on A Country Practice,” she says. “I did a lot of crying. I became so good at crying that I would walk into an audition room and I would start tearing up because I felt like all the female roles at that point involved crying. There would always be a stage direction, ‘burst into tears’.”

After a two-year stint playing the troubled Kylie Burton on Home and Away, Oades walked away to pursue a growing interest in voice acting. “I’m a really shy person and being on Home and Away was really confronting. To suddenly be on covers of TV Week and have people follow you into toilets. I even did a nightclub appearance which is so… not me.”

When the time came to renew her contract, Oades said no. “Which is kind of crazy,” she reflects. “But I found being a voice actor, I could be invisible, which really appealed to me. I think it’s what I aim for when I do interviews in group contexts: to disappear [so] people forget about me, and the most extraordinary things unfold in front of me.

“I go back to the pain of being a shy teenager and moving around a lot … I think I’ve become quite good at listening and disappearing when I want to, as well. I’m quite good at melding into the background and bringing out candid behaviour in people.”

Oades’ experiences of being a voice artist – something she still does today in between creating works of her own – proved formative, prompting her interest in the ways manipulating the voice can shape an audience’s response.

“One of my favourite jobs as a voice artist was revoicing beautiful models who were very young. To make them seem like older women with perfect skin, you just change their voice,” she says. “I mean, it’s awful. It’s a really convincing way to manipulate women to think, ‘I should buy this product’, because that person is clearly 35 but has the skin of a 16-year-old, when actually they have the skin of a 16-year-old because they’re a young model, but their voice is that of a 40-year-old. I was kind of interested in how mismatching what you hear and what you see was quite a powerful thing.”

Oades is perhaps best known for her headphone verbatim works, for which she conducts interviews with her unlikely subjects and painstakingly edits them into audio-scripts alongside found sounds. Actors wearing headphones repeat the scripts to the audience, trying to preserve every inflection, stumble and breath with absolute fidelity live on stage.

“I first encountered the form as a drama exercise, in a workshop run by director Mark Wing-Davey, while living in London in 2000,” she says. “I was instantly intrigued by what it might offer as an extended play-building form, particularly incorporating that kind of Frankenstein of putting together different voices and bodies.”

For Stories of Love & Hate (2008) – part of a trilogy of headphone verbatim works called Acts of Courage – she interviewed 65 people affected by the Cronulla race riots over a two-year period to create a complex portrait of Australian belonging.

“I grew up in Bankstown and the Sutherland Shire was kind of at the heart of that race riot in 2006,” says Oades. “I interviewed people on both sides and then onstage I worked with a cast that was half Anglo Australian and half Arab Australian, and mismatched the voices and the bodies onstage to examine that question, ‘How do we listen to who?’ … I found it to be a powerful way to question who gets to say what in Australia.”

Her 2014 work Hello, Goodbye and Happy Birthday looked at ageism in Australian culture. She interviewed people at the bookends of adulthood: some were just finishing high school and others were about to enter aged care. The younger actors performed as the older characters and the older actors often performed as teens. It was a charming, funny and deeply moving portrait of beginnings and endings.

“I like to invite the audience to witness things, as opposed to telling the audience why they should be thinking about those things,” she says. “[It’s about] witnessing the complexity of the people in front of them.”

Oades has recently departed from the headphone verbatim form that she pioneered, moving towards more complex soundscapes not dissimilar to the work of Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, whose work The Murder of Crows she cites as a formative influence. Like Cardiff and Miller, who use sound as a sculptural form to envelop the listener, she is embracing a broader sonic palette to explore the potential of audio.

“Wherever I go I’m really listening to a much broader symphony than just the voices that are the centrepieces of an audioscape,” says Oades. “And more and more, I’m trying to find ways to bring the voice of nature into the work that I’m making.”

Her most recent works, The Nightline and Windmill Theatre Company’s Creation Creation – co-created with Rosemary Myers, Jonathon Oxlade and Fleur Elise Noble – place the voices of her community directly into the work, as opposed to having them filtered through actors. It feels as if Oades is inviting her audience to listen as closely as she does.

For Creation Creation, which will be touring nationally throughout the year, Oades interviewed people between the ages of eight and 102, asking them questions such as “Are aliens real?” and “What is the meaning of life?” She edited 35 hours of audio into a 50-minute audio script that two silent performers respond to in real time, using sculpture, mime, illustration and any other means at their disposal. The work takes the voices of people of all ages to create a playful collage of human creativity and ingenuity.

The Nightline – originally commissioned by RISING festival and heading to Adelaide Festival in March after a run at the National Art School as part of Sydney Festival – is a more intimate affair that places audience members one on one with callers as they grapple with the anxieties and desires that creep into the mind late at night. “As an experience, The Nightline is like visiting an unusual underground club. And inside the club there’s a room full of beautiful little tables for one, and on each table there’s a little lamp and an old rotary dial telephone and a switchboard,” she explains. “When you first walk in, all the phones are whispering, you hear all these voices. And you sit down, pick up the phone and you can almost choose your own adventure, ride the phone lines and listen in to all these voices of the night.”

Oades has received more than 1000 messages for The Nightline. They run the gamut from unsettling to hopeful to incredibly funny. One man contemplates whether he was too rough and angry during an outburst earlier in the day. A woman confesses to stealing a lacy black top when she was 17. “I still have the top,” says the caller, “and I’ve carried it with me my whole adult life. It still fits me, surprisingly … and it kind of lets me inhabit that girl in the change room that was busting out of the rules.”

A tinge of regret links both callers. Are these people wishing they were someone else? Someone calmer, less impulsive? It’s a feeling that will be familiar to anyone who has tossed and turned under the weight of a troubled conscience.

Anonymous voice message from The Nightline

“I do feel like we are a restless culture in Australia,” says Oades. “There are a lot of unresolved things in our culture. It’s a wounded culture. There’s a lot of healing that has to happen, you know, with our colonial past. We have to find places for restlessness, and we have to learn how to sit with restlessness. As an artist, I’m interested in ‘How do you keep going, how do you learn to live with uncertainty and restlessness and keep moving forward and keep moving through the dark night with the hope of getting out the other side?’ ”

Oades says that the hours between midnight and 6am have a special quality. “People who are awake at that time of night often have the sense that they’re the only person in the world at that point because they’re on some lonely worksite or they’re a nurse and everyone is asleep on their floor, or at home by themselves and they can’t sleep,” she says. “I think the work tries to offer companionship for the sleepless and offer a bit of rest for the restless. I think there is a kindness in the work.”

When asked if she would leave her own message for The Nightline, she laughs. “No, it’s anonymous. That doesn’t feel like it’s in the spirit of the project. But we’re still open for calls.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 22, 2022 as "Whispers in the dark".

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