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Arielle Gray, Chris Isaacs and Tim Watts: From Alvin Sputnik to ‘It’s Dark Outside’

By | Published on Tuesday 6 August 2013


From the team that brought you the highly acclaimed 2011 Fringe venture that was ‘The Adventures Of Alvin Sputnik: Deep Sea Explorer’ comes new show ‘It’s Dark Outside’. With the new production already receiving yards of acclaim and an award nomination, we spoke to the brains behing it: Arielle Gray, Chris Isaacs and Tim Watts.

CC: So, we’re hearing good things about the new show ‘It’s Dark Outside’. What’s it about?
Chris: It’s the story of an elderly man’s adventure into the wild. Running from a dark figure which pursues him, he attempts to hold onto the things he treasures most. It’s a story of loss and gain, a modern western adventure, and one man’s struggle to keep his world and his mind together.

CC: The show tackles ageing and dementia. Is it hard to deal with such sensitive themes? What do you think you can achieve by broaching them in this way?
Arielle: My grandma had dementia, and Tim’s grandparents as well. We have observed the way it affects people and their families. Performing the show has made us realise just how many people have had a family member or friend with dementia in some form or another. Though I wouldn’t say that we ‘tackle’ the themes as much as we visually explore the idea of an old man losing parts of himself.

Tim’s mum once made a comment about her father – who didn’t have dementia but was completely physically incapacitated – that because he was bedridden, he had absolutely nothing to do but retreat into his imagination and memories, and that was far more of an exciting and stimulating life than reality.

I would say that is how we are tackling the themes of dementia and ageing, we are treating it as a grand visual adventure into an old man’s mind, memories and experiences. I think – and hope – that being able to go on that journey with the old man is a cathartic experience for the audience.

Chris: With ‘It’s Dark Outside’ we didn’t try to share insight into the mind of a dementia patient, and we can’t pretend to understand the complexities of a disease which affects so many. And it’s a topic that obviously deserves respect, though, while it lends itself to ultimately sensitive conclusions, with this piece we have perhaps found something beautiful, hopeful and comforting in the telling of this old man’s tale. Or at least I hope we have.

Tim: A phenomenon of Alzheimer’s is that at sunset patients go wandering. We found the image of an old man wandering out into the wild at sunset to be a very poetic and stirring one. This idea of something primal kicking in and propelling someone so frail and vulnerable out into a dangerous situation was a great image to build a show around, it was an image we could be playful with. Like with ‘Alvin’, we like to think it’s a fun show about sad topics.

CC: How do you create your shows? Do you go through a devising process, or do you sit down and write?
Arielle: Our show is 100% devised, we work completely collaboratively. To be honest we don’t have a written record of the show – we have it on film and in our minds though. It’s a completely non-verbal show and is quite visual so there isn’t really a need to sit down and write.

When we devise we start with a central image – for ‘It’s Dark Outside’ it was an old man walking into the wild at sunset – then we put together a bunch of toys and costumes and materials, and then we play. We create images, scenes, moments that we like and then we string them together into a narrative; which usually involves hours of tearing our hair out!

CC: You use puppetry, masks, animation and live performance. How easy is it to meld all that together into a successful whole?
Chris: That’s a tough one. Sometimes it’s quite easy and other times it’s really very hard. A great linking tool has been the original score by Rachael Dease. It helped heaps in piecing together the many random scenes we had come up with initially.

When we’re devising a piece we try to be strict on ourselves in making images and visual motifs which carry through the show, and in a way these motifs help link those elements together. Other times we really like something standalone and want it to go in, so we find a way to connect it to the other stuff we’ve devised.

Because we devised this show in a few stages, there was a lot of time in between to let ideas and images settle, to lose great scenes, to lose entire storylines and gain others. It’s all a part of the trial and error process we have. So sometimes great ideas get left behind because they physically or visually just don’t fit the palette of the show, and other times they’re so good, or we are so inspired by them, they manipulate or expand the palette and force their way in.

It’s important to us that things in the show exist in the same world and link together thematically and visually, so we’re always asking ourselves – even during each season – how we can change or add or subtract parts of the show to make all of the elements fit better together.

CC: Your company first came to our attention at the 2011 Fringe with your award winning production ‘The Adventures Of Alvin Sputnik: Deep Sea Explorer’, which gained a 5/5 score from our reviewer. What happened to that show after Edinburgh?
Tim: We continued to tour extensively around the UK and the world. So now we’ve done the show over 350 times, including shows in Edinburgh, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea, Denmark, Ireland, across the USA and Australia. We’re continually surprised by the amount of success the show seems to keep generating. I’m constantly pinching myself when we’re walking around the streets of Ecuador or seeing the posters down the Royal Mile.

It’s become so popular we’ve trained up new performers so we can tour ‘Alvin’ while we work on new shows, and funnily enough this month will be the first time ‘Alvin’ is on in two places at once. I will be performing a number of dates here in Edinburgh, but it also will be performed in Japan and Melbourne during the month. We can’t wait to do it again in Edinburgh, it was still one of my favourite seasons when we were here in 2011.

CC: ‘It’s Dark Outside’ has been nominated for a Helpmann Award in Australia – which is similar to the Olivier Awards over here. What effect does that have on the show, and you as a group?
Arielle: It was such a great honour to be nominated for a Helpmann Award! It is always nice to have it affirmed that you are on the right track with the work that you are making. The nomination helps us be noticed on a national level within our industry in Australia, which is lovely. I’m going to be cheesy though, and say that awards are nice for our egos but at the end of the day it’s the audience that come and see the work and support it who reward us.

CC: What made you decide to bring the new show to Edinburgh?
Arielle: We love Edinburgh, especially at Fringe time. There is a great atmosphere, and it’s so inspiring being able to see so many shows. It’s also great to be able to present our show in front of a UK audience in such a wonderful environment. We are very grateful to Underbelly for bringing us over again!

CC: Other than performing, what else will you do whilst you are in the Scottish capital?
Arielle: I am also performing in another show (which I helped to create) called ‘Minnie & Mona Play Dead’ which is on at Underbelly Bristo Square at 2pm every day, so I will be pretty busy. I am hoping to get up to Arthur’s Seat at some point though, and of course to see as many shows as possible!

Tim: Yes, try and see lots and lots of shows. Same as Arielle, walk up Arthur’s Seat again if we have the chance, and I’m hoping to scout some venues for our future shows; we have a very large scale interactive and ambitious show we’d love to bring here, but that will take lots of logistical organising and a really perfect venue.

‘It’s Dark Outside’ was performed at Underbelly Bristo Square at Edinburgh Festival 2013.

LINKS: www.perththeatre.com.au | twitter.com/perththeatreco

Photo: Kat Gollock