We Got A Sneak Preview Of The Sydney Fringe Festival’s ‘Silent Theatre’

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Kerri Glasscock, the Festival Director for this year’s Sydney Fringe Festival, has a bit of a mad idea. She’s installing four teams of writers and creatives in adjoining hotel rooms for a night and giving them a task: to write small, intimate scenes set in the rooms. Later, teams of actors and creatives will come together in the rooms and on their adjoining balconies to perform the scenes, while an audience catches glimpses from the street below, or listens in via headphones.

It’s a wild idea called Silent Theatre, and it’s happening at this year’s festival. It sounds a little like a live-action Rear Window, but played out on the streets of Newtown and inside the Urban Newtown on Enmore Road. Junkee caught up with Glasscock for a sneak peek into the planning behind Silent Theatre, which so far features creatives including Glasscock and Michael Pidcock, author, screenwriter and man-about-town Benjamin Law, and a “surprise musical guest”.

Glasscock is so invigorated by Silent Theatre it’s infectious, and she’s eager to sing the praises of the creatives keen to jump on board this risky, site-specific work, as well as the site itself.

We love The Urban at Newtown,” she tells Junkee. “They’re really a community-focused hotel and business, and they’re really excited about bringing the community to them even if they’re not staying there. And that fits so well with our ethos at Fringe. We’re about our community. We’re about engaging our neighbours, and getting people out of their houses and away from Netflix, and out onto the street, so to speak.”

In just a few short minutes, Glasscock has us more excited for Silent Theatre than just about anything else on offer in the Sydney arts scene this year.

Junkee: So let’s chat about Silent Theatre, which sounds pretty amazing.

Kerri Glasscock: It’s a bit fun, isn’t it?

Sounds great! Tell me how you developed the idea?

It kind of started last year: we ran a project at the same hotel called Chain Play. We put four playwrights into the hotel on four consecutive nights, and asked them to write a script set in Newtown. And they would write a quarter each and then leave the script for the next playwright to come in, and they would continue it on. And then we did a staged reading with a bunch of actors and myself for audiences at the end of the week. And it was so cool!

People loved it so much that we wanted to carry on the idea this year, but take it to a whole new level. So that’s how we came up with the idea of the Silent Theatre. The guys at the Urban Hotel were so supportive and keen, which is so great.

So what we’re doing this year is we’ve got some playwrights, some creatives, and a musician to all spend a night in adjoining rooms, and they’re each going to write a story set in that room, and then we’re going to work it up with a group of actors and creatives, and then we’re going to perform it two weeks later, over three nights.

The idea is that they’ll be intimate scenes set in hotel rooms, but audiences will be able to hang out on the street and catch glimpses of what’s happening in the rooms and on the balconies — because they’ve all got balconies — and listen in to the conversations via headphones. I love this idea of you standing on a bustling street like Enmore Road and you’re watching and hearing really tiny intimate conversations amongst all the hubbub of the city. So that’s kind of the premise behind it, really.

So what’s the appeal of site-specific theatre for you?

I guess it’s the opportunity to do things differently and to take down that safety net that audiences often feel in a very secure theatre space. I think, certainly I’ve got a history of working in very unusual spaces, I mean I work in the two 505 [theatres] and we started in a warehouse space in Surry Hills. And one of the best things about that original space was that, by the time people had taken the journey up the five flights of stairs in this crazy old warehouse, they were totally disarmed of any preconceptions of what they would experience that night. And so what it does is it leaves audiences very open to going anywhere and being up for anything.

I think when you’re able to place them out of the comfort of a raked seat or an air-conditioned space in a quiet theatre, then already they’re up for an adventure, and already you have an audience who are open and willing to go to different places. And for me, that’s what really excites me about site-specific work because you’ve got an audience who are keen to just participate and be active in their journey with you. They’re not just passively sitting in a theatre watching.

One of the things that really interested us was this idea of a public/private theatre. What’s your intention in playing with that dichotomy?

I think for me it’s because, if you live in Sydney as most of our audience and artists do, you spend your life rushing around in this very noisy community, and it’s very easy to overlook even the things that happen just next door. And I think if you go into a deeper social commentary, there’s crazy hardships and awful things maybe happening even a few doors down that no one knows about. Something that interests me is the ability to remind us that we are all people, and we’re all living next door to each other, and no matter how hectic and loud the world gets, we really are just all people getting through life.

I think the ability to highlight those very intimate and real and raw moments of humanity — and they don’t need to be serious and dark and gloomy, they can be hilarious as well. Benjamin Law is writing one of our pieces and I’m sure that’s going to be fantastically funny — but the ability just to connect with a very human moment in time is important, and I’m all for encouraging our audiences to do that while they’re standing on a busy road in the inner-west.

What’s your favourite thing about Fringe Festival, as its director?

The favourite thing I have about my role and the festival, in general, is the ability to provide a platform and to facilitate all this great work. I mean that is a tremendous privilege. And one of the best things about my job is I can do it in crazy, wacky ways because it provides Sydney artists with a way to break out of the box, and to do things that they never get the opportunity to do at any other time of the year. And that’s very exciting.

(Lead image: supplied)

Silent Theatre will premiere as part of the Sydney Fringe Festival, from 19-21 September 2017. You can find out more and book tickets here.