What's Happening

Director Interviews: Rob Conkie

By Cymbeline Anthropocene on Jul 31, 2020 at 04:06 PM in Project News

In the coming months, Cymbeline in the Anthropocene will be interviewing our collaborating directors to check on how their companies are adapting through the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. Here is our first interview in the series, with Rob Conkie, who is based at La Trobe University in Melbourne Australia. Keep an eye on the blog for more interviews soon!

Director Interviews: Rob Conkie

Cymbeline in the Anthropocene: What is unique about your theatre company and its approach to Shakespeare in performance?

Rob Conkie: Well, it’s not really a theatre company, as such. My production of Cymbeline will be performed by students from La Trobe University, where I teach. Many of them will hopefully be drawn from those who have undertaken my second year class, Shakespeare in Performance, either last year or this year. I’ll be teaching that class starting next week [20 July 2020] and, as it stands, the entire class will be online. There are, this morning, 23 students enrolled.

CA: Where will your performance take place? Will it be indoors or outside?

RC: The space/s in which the production will take place are not fully decided. My way of working tends to be to leave key decisions until as late as possible. With my outdoor King Lear of 2017 it took a long time walking and playing and experimenting with the various locations to decide what was going to go where and when. And I’m writing, right now, about an outdoor (2014) production of Bartholomew Fair, for which I re-blocked and re-sited the first act and last scene with about an hour to go before the first preview!

Two outdoor sites are in pole position for this production, both of which are home to kangaroos (an obvious decision for a play so dramaturgically random). The first is the Wildlife Sanctuary at La Trobe University in Bundoora, Melbourne. There is a lovely thrust stage at the entrance to sanctuary, predominantly used for secondary education presentations. I imagine that we will start there, perhaps use other locations, and then venture into the paths, trees, rocks, meeting areas, ponds, sculptures, and so forth that the grounds afford.

Such resonant words, of course: “Wildlife” and “Sanctuary.” What is it to be wild? Where, and in whom, is wildness in the play? And where is sanctuary? Wildlife Sanctuary might be thought of as a typical Shakespearean oxymoron, but the two words might also, as the Green World plays [A Midsummer Night’s Dream, As You Like It] seem to suggest, represent synthesis rather than antithesis. The other space… maybe I’ll return to that another time.

CA: How has the Covid-19 pandemic affected your theatre practice and/or rehearsal process?

RC: Covid-19… We thought we might be through the worst of it, and our worst has been minimal compared to other places, but Melbourne is currently in lockdown and with our highest rates of daily infection (200-300) since the beginning of the virus. Unlike the northern hemisphere universities, whose overseas students, as far as I can tell, had already journeyed for study when the virus hit, ours could not get here. So our current context is of massive funding shortfalls, zero government intervention, salary reductions, and thousands of redundancies.

We were hoping, at least, that face-to-face teaching might resume in late September, perhaps October; this would mean that the last part of my Shakespeare class could be in the room, not zoom. That now appears unlikely. I intend to begin preparatory rehearsals in late November, early December, and then more intensively from next January. The preparatory work perhaps might not be too adversely affected by remote participation, but I’ve not thought of a Plan B (or C, etc) should restrictions continue into 2021. I have decided, and it has been something of comfort, that I won’t be travelling internationally for the foreseeable future. [The Shakespeare Association of America annual meeting] (March/April) is definitely out for me, and even Santa Barbara in November 2021 feels tenuous.

CA: The performance festival and research symposium originally scheduled for November 2021 is now certain to be delayed into 2022 because of the pandemic.

What are public attitudes towards climate change and environmentalism in your country and/or community? How will these affect your theatrical presentation?

RC: The polls suggest that environmental crisis is a very significant issue for Australians, but this has not, in recent times, translated into much traction for the Green(s) vote. The current leader of the Australian Greens, Adam Bandt, is an extremely impressive individual. Our other federal leaders appear wedded to fossil fuels, to the dismantling of non-Murdoch media, and to hostility to humanities scholarship. Thinking in terms of Lesley Head’s Hope and Grief in the Anthropocene [Routledge, 2016], I am far more inclined to the latter, that is, alas, grief. My production will, I think, explore the affective dimensions of climate crisis.

CA: How do you see Cymbeline doing that? Are there any particular characters or scenes in Cymbeline that you have in mind at the moment?

RC: I’m not thinking very literally at the moment. Early on, and responding to “Fear no more the heat o’ the sun,” I had crazy notions about outposts, and one of them being the Antarctic (for which there is, or has been, available funds for related arts projects). I’m thinking more at the moment about the emotional extremes Imogen/Innogen is subject to, all of them imposed upon her, I think: betrothed banished; parental betrayal; unwittingly objectified as wager (the betting agency slogans down under is ‘gamble responsibly’); oh, and waking up next to the headless corpse of your supposed beloved (who’s a murderous bastard, anyway)… now, there’s a metaphor for climate crisis…