The ever-fabulous mezzo gives us a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at Black Rider for Victorian Opera and Malthouse.

“Come on in … take off your skin, and dance around in your bones.” An utterly appropriate line from a show in which skin-shedding, shape-shifting and bone-rattling choreography reign supreme.

This rehearsal period for Malthouse Theatre and Victorian Opera’s production of Black Rider has been one of the wildest rides of my life, and having just hit previews, this is the first time I’ve had a smidgeon of available brain space to draw breath and scribble down this rehearsal diary. With music by Tom Waits and words by beat poet William S. Burroughs, the show was always going to be something special, but when you hurl talent of this magnitude at it from every side, it becomes … well, I’m not even sure, but both cast and audience emerge dazed, exhausted, possibly slightly baffled and entirely transported at the other end.

The Black Rider ensemble. Photograph © Pia Johnson

Now, back to the first weeks of rehearsals …

Production Rehearsals

We started our rehearsal process in the upstairs ‘Bagging Room’ at The Malthouse Theatre. This cast is a collision of extreme talents, and every instant is like a wonderland of delight in discovering just how inventive these insanely creative minds can be! Rabbits are pulled out of hats, boundaries are pushed, conventions are exploded, nothing is sacred and everything is up for grabs. The piece is as bizarre and unconventional as the players, and sparks of genius shoot and fizz around the room as it takes shape.

Matthew Lutton, our director as well as Artistic Director of Malthouse Theatre, has the enviable-but-how-the-hell-is-he-going-to-manage-it task of reigning in his prodigious cast, collecting the myriad flashes of genius being tossed at him and moulding them, like magic bullets, into a cohesive whole. His genius lies in refining these brilliant, bold offerings and honing them into a series of stunning vignettes. The story is in essence a love story with a twist. Boy (Kanen Breen) loves girl (Dimity Shepherd). Girl must marry a hunter. Boy ‘can’t shoot for shit’ so makes a pact with the Devil (‘Pegleg’ played by Meow Meow) for magic bullets that never fail to hit their target. Boy is warned that one bullet is Pegleg’s. Boy ignores warning. Boy wins girl. Boy succumbs to Magic Bullet Addiction. It ends badly.

It’s based on the same German fable as Weber’s Der Freischütz, but is markedly darker and more frenzied, as the characters lurch towards the unavoidable denouement, where every debt must be paid and nothing comes for free.

The Black Rider cast. Photograph courtesy of Jacqui Dark

Matthew has set the story in the world of ‘Pegleg’s Machine’ – a stroke of genius. Pegleg is puppet master and the rest of the cast are his unwilling, manic marionettes. The set is a horror show of cut and plastered cardboard, with secret doors and traps hidden everywhere like Beelzebub’s Advent Calendar. Blood and oily black ooze are dragged and slapped about the stage throughout the show, which is repainted after every performance, ready for the next assault. It is bizarre, gory, visceral and deliciously dark. We play the show as if Pegleg drags us out every night, against our wills, to enact the cruel inevitability of the tragic story – our hell of repetition and inescapable horror.

The music fluctuates between vaudeville and German kabarett, and the action veers from stylised posing through hyper-reality to Three Stooges-esque physical comedy. There is nowhere to hang your hat and no safe place. The cast are utterly committed (and have often felt that we SHOULD be committed for some of our more extreme choices!) and slide readily between genres, both vocally and physically. One of the most difficult challenges for me is an acting style where your body remains in a single pose and only your face moves. It makes me realize how much I use my body when I’m acting and it takes a huge amount of discipline to trust the stillness. I also have to decide where to use ‘opera voice’ and where to let rip with raw and raunchy – a moveable feast! Burroughs was famous for his readily admitted heroin habit, and Wilhelm’s descent into the torment of addiction to the ‘Devil’s magic bullets’ serves as a devastating analogy, even more poignant as it emerges from the brilliant dramatic mind of Kanen, who manages to careen from vulnerable and innocent to frenzied and terrifying in the space of a heartbeat, with astonishing physicality. Speaking of the physical, we are fortunate to have the glorious Stephanie Lake on board, who has guided our old bones through some fabulous ‘puppet’ choreography.

Kanen Breen in Black Rider. Photograph © Pia Johnson

For me, chorey went kinda like this:

Day one. Thinks to self: ‘Pffft. I’ve done my years of ballet training, plus dribs of jazz and drabs of tap. I’ve got this.’

Day Two. Thinks to self: ‘Sweet Jesus! Can I actually haul my carcass out of bed today? What the HELL happened to my shoulder? Do I even HAVE muscles there in my bum???’

Note to self: Get thee to a yoga class, you old derelict.

There’s also a lot of crawling, falling and squeezing through tiny trapdoors, a feat made all the more difficult due to the huge padded hips and bustle I wear throughout the show. We all feel sore but satisfied!

On the musical side, we are wallowing in luxury with the surely-soon-to-be-sainted Phoebe Briggs as our eternally patient pianist, glass harmonica player and MD, and the mad genius of Iain ‘Iggy’ Grandage (or ‘Iggy Piggy Grunt Grunt’, as my little boy likes to call him) as Music Supervisor whirling through our midst like the infamous Tasmanian Devil of cartoon fame, leaving in his wake a series of outlandish instruments none of us have ever heard of (Melbourne Bitter beer bottle to blow over, anyone?) and bizarre, intricate weavings of harmonies that instantly transport us to a world beyond our ken, beyond this mortal coil. It is a perfect fit, a perfect team. Add to this the transcendent soundscape of Jethro Woodward, and the recipe for something other-worldly is complete. We were lucky enough to have the skeleton of this musical world in the rehearsal room with us, which informed many of our dramatic decisions, as did Zoe Atkinson’s extraordinary costume and set designs!

Jacqui Dark and Richard Piper. Photograph © Pia Johnson

My highlights from the rehearsal process:

Every word Richard Piper utters. He is a consummate actor and one of the most generous, humble performers I’ve ever worked with. He makes everything sound natural and easy because he works so damn hard at it, and watching him is a lesson in timing, rhythm and stagecraft. Interestingly, he feels that Burroughs is significantly harder than Shakespeare to master, as you have to wriggle your way into the rhythm and rhyme.

Everything Paul Capsis does, but particularly his ‘Georg Schmid’ scene. This man must have sold something to the devil himself, as no human can possibly own this amount of insane creative genius without supernatural help. One of the greatest challenges of this show is to watch his scene (which is different every single time!) without cracking up – something none of us has managed thus far.

Gateau’s glorious, booming, British bass announcing very early on: “Everyone in this room is utterly mad. I love it!”

Every single time we ran Gospel Train, it rained, and we feared that the wrath of some real Pegleg was upon us.

Meow joining us after finishing shows in Edinburgh – our cast is complete, and we have extraordinary unity and mutual adoration in the room.

Our spectacular stage managers Lisa, Luke and Jess. Three more exceptional, calm and magnificent humans I have never encountered.

By the end of studio rehearsals, we were all completely exhausted but elated and champing at the bit to move on to the theatre and add the excitement of the full band. We were ready!

Dimity Shepherd, Jacqui Dark and Paul Capsis. Photograph courtesy of Jacqui Dark

Stage rehearsals

… or thought we were!

Hitting the theatre running, we suddenly had the added complications of full costume, set, orchestrations from our extraordinary band … and a stage full of slimy, slippery blood and oil. Suddenly we found that the trapdoors were a lot smaller than they had seemed when we were pretending they were there in the rehearsal room. Especially with the massive added padding of my costume. Cues that were obvious with piano were suddenly a lot murkier when played on toy trombone. Every step suddenly became a slip hazard on a floor covered in blood made from detergent.

It quickly became obvious that, on top of the obvious balance challenge of slipping in the slime, the show was as technically demanding as it was physical and emotional. Unbeknownst to the audience, our cast of eight plus three stage managers and one mechanist run the whole shebang backstage: operating the animal boxes, manoeuvring animal heads onstage, setting up props in the special ‘show box’ set, pulling stage cloths on and off, acting as Meow’s body double (and THAT, my friends, is going straight to my CV!), pulling bodies offstage after they have served their purpose in the story, helping each other to change costume, scooting upstairs to provide an eerie chorus for ‘Oily Night’, scooting straight back down for a quick change … all whilst trying to avoid the trails/gobs/buckets of blood splattered backstage. It is relentless, exhausting and utterly FABULOUS – we all feel such an ownership over this show!

It’s lucky we adore each other, as we share a communal dressing room. What could have been a disaster had there been any heart less than golden in the cast is a glorious, wicked, hilarious, bonding JOY. We laugh, we cry, we share. We realize just how lucky we all are to be a part of this magic.

The toll on our bodies is high, especially for Kanen, who has to wallow in blood in his undies. It quickly becomes apparent that the human body is not designed to be immersed in detergent for hours on end, as his skin turns scaly and starts to burn. As he says when he sees the production shots: “This is why I can’t walk and my skin is peeling off.” The detergent base is replaced with a food-based fake blood. It stains more but does not maim. Kane also has to stand naked in a bucket backstage and scrub gore off his body between scenes – hi ho, the glamorous life! We are going through significant quantities of Sorbolene and Coconut Oil. Wardrobe very reasonably threaten us with death if we get blood all over our white wedding costumes (by the time we reach this scene, the stage resembles a veritable slaughterhouse). It is madness and heaven.

Kanen Breen’s feet. Photograph courtesy of Jacqui Dark

A tiny fragment of a highlights list

Quotes like: “Is Jac’s bum going to fit through that hole???” “Did the closing of his face hole work?” “Pardon my penis.”

The night Kane flung his gun at the wall and it smashed straight through. Paul’s reaction: “The wall made an offer, and Kanen couldn’t refuse!”

Richard’s opening monologue becoming a tad more Burroughs as a slip of the tongue turned the word ‘grunt’ into something rather more gritty. The audience batted no eyelid.

The day Phoebe wondered why there was suddenly no music playing in the orchestra and realized she’d forgotten to foot-pedal the harmonica.

Winston’s sound check every night – vocal virtuosity straight from the Motown Songbook.

Dimity’s scat improvisation at the end of her solo – hilarious and exquisite.

The night Gateau, who starts the chilling ‘A oily night’ chant, for some reason uttered ‘A LOVELY night’ by mistake. He has never lived it down.

Meow’s superlative offering of I Don’t Know How To Love Him in the dressing room, closely followed by Gateau’s version of My Way.

The endless supply of Savoury Shapes and lolly snakes in the dressing room. We are all completely addicted and cannot perform a show without them!

Matthew overhearing two opinions on opening night: “It’s the absolute best thing I’ve ever seen!” and “I couldn’t stand a single moment of it.” Our work here is done.

With only a week to go and the end in sight, we all still love the show. Every night is different. We adore our show family and never tire of watching from backstage when we get those small windows of opportunity. The show is hilarious, heartbreaking, dark and devastating, and the audience members who abandon themselves to it are richly rewarded. We all live in hope that it may ride again soon!


Black Rider plays at The Coopers Malthouse, Merlyn Theatre until October 8.

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