The Influence

For playwright Morgan Rose, Hofesh Shechter’s dancework Sun opens up the mess and contradictions of being human. By Kate Holden.

Morgan Rose

A performance of Hofesh Shechter’s Sun, and Morgan Rose (below).
A performance of Hofesh Shechter’s Sun, and Morgan Rose (below).
Credit: Gabriele Zucca (above), Kat Cornwell (below)

Morgan Rose is an American-born, Melbourne-based playwright, performance-maker and dramaturg, known for her works with the Melbourne Theatre Company, Red Stitch Actors’ Theatre, Theatre Works and La Mama. She studied physical theatre in the United States, Japan and Australia, and had a playwriting internship at the Malthouse. Currently she’s the resident writer with Riot Stage, a youth theatre company, and co-founder of Lonely Company, an initiative that supports playwrights. She’s also half of independent company The People. Her new play, Fast Food, is currently on at Red Stitch.

Rose wanted to talk about Sun (2013), by choreographer Hofesh Shechter.

I read an interview where you said movement works are the ones that really get you. What made you select this particular piece?

Yeah, so Sun is a dance piece by Hofesh Shechter, an Israeli choreographer who lives in Britain. The piece premiered in Melbourne in 2013. I saw it and then immediately bought another ticket. And it was a Melbourne Festival show – they weren’t cheap! When you asked about a piece for this I just knew it had to be that one. Sun just got me. But I also felt really nervous about choosing it; the feelings it created inside me were so big and complicated that it’s hard to put them into words.

If only we could do this through choreography! Just start with what was it like?

It starts with a voiceover of the choreographer, and you hear him talking close to the microphone. It’s intimate, and he’s saying, “Welcome to the performance. It hasn’t started yet, it’s about to start” – something like that – and he says, “I just want to let you know, it’s all going to be okay. To prove it to you I’m going to show you a little piece of the work that happens towards the end.” Then the lights come on and you see these dancers in the middle of a piece of movement that’s almost silly in how pretty it is. They’re being overly concise, and they’re wearing floppy white ruffly outfits, a little bit baroque clowny, a little commedia clowny. They do maybe 10 seconds of choreography and then it goes to black. He says, “So you see, it’s all going to be okay.” And then the piece begins.

The audience is like the kings and the queens and the dancers are like the clowns being paid to play to you. But there’s a secret, and the secret is that they have a darker existence than you can imagine from your privileged position. They can’t tell you that because that’s not what they’re being paid to do. They’re paid to entertain you. So it’s quite funny and silly in that bit: there’s moments when they all come out carrying little cut-out drawings of sheep, like this little sheep dance, and a drawing of a wolf is creeping up behind, like a kids’ funny story.

It’s all silly, but it feels there’s something darker underneath, and every once in a while you get a flash of something horrible. There’s a moment when they’re all dancing wildly and it’s kind of crescendoing, they’re all running around the stage, and then at the height of it a dummy drops from a noose and swings. That’s the punchline of that moment. But whenever something horrible happens they flip it and turn it as if with a wink, a joke; they’re like, “Oh no, that wasn’t horrible, you’re fine.

Then there are moments when all of that breaks away, and you see they’re not clowns anymore, they’re people, and they’re just dancing wildly and beautifully. It feels like it comes from a folk dance. It’s coming from the guts. You just see the humanity. The clown fades away, the pretence fades away. Even the violence fades away, you just see them as people, the core of them. It’s like: this is what the inside of me feels like. All of those things smashing together make you feel sad and joyful and guilty and confused. All of these feelings that don’t belong together collide.

Wow. Very intense. And confrontational, interrogative.

There’s this talkback he did in London, it’s just after the show, they’re interviewing him onstage. The interviewer is a little hostile, and he asks, “In Israel, do you have this thing we have, where we count sheep to go to sleep?” Hofesh says, “Yeah. We have that. We go one –” [cocks imaginary gun, shoots] “two –” [aims and shoots] “three –” The interviewer is like, “No! No, no, no! We don’t shoot them!” And Hofesh is like, “Oh. Well, I guess you must be just so much more evolved than where I come from. Or are you? Or are you?” Silence. The interviewer just doesn’t know what to do. He’s like, “Oh!” and just tries to move it on. It’s incredible.

Sun didn’t have rave reviews in Melbourne. People were disturbed by it. It was 2013, and there’s been a lot of reckoning since then, and I wonder if it would play differently now – if people would feel that, yes, we should feel uncomfortable. I think people felt accused and they don’t like that. Whereas I already feel accused! And am fine with it.

Are you a provocateur too?

Writing Fast Food, I started with a question: Can we escape the system? I’m grappling with the system and being stuck in the system, and how to be a good person in the system. I think I was like, I have to solve it! By the end of this I’m going to know how we get out of this. And then at some point I was flipping out about it, complaining to the rest of the team. And they were like, “Morgan. You don’t have to solve capitalism with this play.” I think what Sun is saying – and I’m always chipping away at it in my work – is that if I have all this stuff, it’s hurting someone else. And yet I’m not willing to give it up. It’s horrible. I do have power but I don’t have power to escape the system. I guess that’s what my work is about: how the fuck do you get out of it? Or do you just deal, and enjoy your airconditioning.

You’re asking the questions, at least. And it doesn’t sound like your theatre is elite and remote.

I try to balance accessibility with my desire for experimentation, some sort of storyline that may go bananas but which the audience can hold onto, like a rope across a rickety bridge. Something new, something different, something unexpected: that’s what I’d want to see.

What draws you to a work, and what distances you from it?

I like it when we’re messy and confusing. My favourite pieces of art, the things that move me the most, have left me confused. I like to leave not knowing how I think and feel about it, and have to go and sit and sort it out in myself. The things that move me are the things I don’t completely understand.

I would love to be able to make Sun. If I’d made it, I could just relax. But I can’t. I don’t have the skills, and there’s something about me knowing that – there’s no way I can make even 30 seconds of that piece – that allows me to both enjoy it as an audience member, be able to really sink into it, and to absorb everything that it is and then put it into my own practice without fear. I can’t rip it off! So I can just use whatever it brings up in me, as inspiration, quite freely.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 21, 2022 as "Morgan Rose".

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Kate Holden is the author of The Winter Road, winner of the 2021 Walkley Book Award and the 2022 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Douglas Stewart Prize for Nonfiction.

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