In Conversation With Louise Fischer
(Artistic Director of the New Theatre, & director of House of Games)
‘Appearances can be deceptive. People aren’t always who they appear to be at first. Things aren’t always what they seem.’
These lines are not from House of Games, the Richard Bean adaptation of David Mamet’s film script, but they could be. Not only do they articulate the central conceit of the play, but they seem a fitting description of the play’s director, Louise Fischer, and of the New Theatre itself.
I meet Lou in a quiet, dimly lit cocktail bar in Newtown, not far from the theatre. We sit opposite each other in a booth, drinking red wine. It seems a particularly appropriate location to discuss this play. She has not long finished a rehearsal of the play. Immediately after this interview she will have another meeting, and then see a play. It’s a long Saturday, and it will be backed up with another all day rehearsal tomorrow.
G.C: (We clink glasses) Cheers Louise. Thanks. Let’s get straight to it, shall we? What’s the play about?
L.F: Margaret Ford is a psychoanalyst and author. She’s drawn into the seedy world of Chicago poker clubs in an attempt to help one of her patients settle his gambling debt. Margaret is seduced by Mike, a very charismatic hustler, and is lured into a complex and dangerous con, where nothing is as it seems. If you want to know any more, you’ll have to come and see the show.
G.C: I know that an enormous amount of thought and discussion goes into the selection of a script at the New. What attracted you to this one?
L.F: It’s not as political as our usual offerings, but it has a really good story with a strong, mature female lead, who is psychologically complex.
G.C: This is an adaptation of a David Mamet film script. Is it very different from the film? Does it work as a play?
L.F: Richard Bean has kept the story’s structure and some of the ‘noir’ quality, but it’s not as ‘noir’ as the film. Part of the problem with the film is that it’s hard to believe that this woman, Margaret Ford, would get caught up in this world of petty crime, as it’s portrayed as quite dangerous right from the start. In Bean’s version, Margaret is a bit nerdy, a dork. Mike and the other conmen are naughty and sexy – they’re just having mischievous fun. For the first time in her life, Margaret is hanging out with the ‘cool kids’ and enjoying herself. Plus Mike is very charming and sexy. Bean doesn’t hit us between the eyes with the danger, as the film does. These conmen are having fun; they’re roguish and humorous. They sting their victims, they don’t kill them. By making the supporting characters more interesting and developed, Bean makes the situation more human and complex.
G.C: You have a track record of directing large cast productions which tackle epic subjects. It’s not uncommon for your projects to have 18 or so in the cast, e.g. The Farnsworth Invention, Enron, Vernon God Little. This play, with only ten actors, is quite small by comparison. Did that affect the way you approached the material; did it provide different challenges?
L.F: This is the fourth Richard Bean play I’ve directed, so there’s a familiarity with his work, his style. The difference between House of Games and those plays you mentioned are significant. Plays like Enron, Vernon, and Harvest, also by Bean, have big stories that need a big canvas to tell them, but House of Games has a psychological complexity and a subtlety of writing that many of those big stories lack. This is one of the more complex contemporary plays I’ve directed.
House of Games is an incredible ride, a real mindfuck. In a way, it’s a play within a play. It’s about acting, playing a part, pretending to be something you’re not, about deception. Con artists are actors. Clues and plot twists are constantly being presented, but you don’t see them until much later. This script has really challenged the actors, and me as the director. Rehearsals have been like a room full of detectives trying to solve a very tricky case. It hasn’t been uncommon for me to get a call at 1a.m. from an actor saying , “I couldn’t sleep. I think I’ve finally figured out what that line is referring to”. This is not a play where the audience is always two steps ahead of the characters on stage. That’s why it’s so engrossing.
G.C: We spoke before of the New Theatre’s tendency, it’s ability to stage plays with casts of 16-20 people. The New is one of the few venues where audiences can still see really large cast productions. Is this something you see as important and worth preserving as a point of difference?
L.F: Like every other theatre company, we have to balance the commercial imperative with the inherent quality of the work and its social relevance, plus some elements of the traditional canon. A lot is made of the fact, by certain people in the industry, that our casts and crew are unpaid, but balance that with the fact that the New doesn’t receive, and has never received any government funding. We survive on ticket sales, and the occasional donation. If we had to pay actors we would not be able to do the big cast shows like Harvest, Into The Woods, or Enron. Large cast shows tend to generate a big response, and bigger audiences. We have a seating capacity of 150, so houses of 90 are very decent when you consider that some theatres, that receive government funding, have seating capacities of 60 or 80.
G.C: Apart from cast size, what do you think differentiates the New from other well-known Sydney companies?
L.F: We have a history, a tradition, going back to 1932. It was founded during the Depression. We were taking theatre into the factories, bringing theatre to people who normally didn’t go to it, who didn’t think it was for them. We were presenting plays that had a political and social edge. The New today doesn’t have the socialist brief it did, say, 30 years ago, but it informs what we do, and how we do it. If we believe in a play script, we generally have to try much harder than the funded, fully professional companies, to get it. It took me five years of negotiating to get Vernon God Little, but it was worth it. We had people coming to see it numerous times. One audience member came three times, including the last night, and then stayed back to help us dismantle the set. I suspect he didn’t want the magic to end. We – cast, crew and audience member, were here till 5a.m. We invited him to the cast party later that day – it was the least we could do – and he came! So, as you can see, there isn’t that ‘us and them’ distinction at the New.
These days, virtually every major company stages a gay themed play during Mardi Gras, but we were the first to make it an integral part of our annual program. Even here, now, there is more competition for good scripts, but we are prepared to take more risks. Mark Ravenhill’s Mother Clap’s Molly House was one. It was considered too ‘out there’ by other companies, but it worked and was enormously popular. Supporting new works and new writers is very much a key part of how we see ourselves.
G.C: But you’re not averse to staging a classic, something from the canon – like Marat/Sade, To Kill A Mockingbird or Equus?
L.F: Yes, we do classics, and plays for schools, but with an edge. There are school texts, like Mockingbird, or Anne Frank that are so familiar to people that they almost groan at the mention of them, but we had 15 & 16 year old teenagers leaving the theatre in tears – they were so affected by the injustice depicted on stage in Mockingbird. Suddenly, it wasn’t just boring words on a page, it was real, it was about real people that they could relate to. They watched Lord of the Flies and they could see how it related to their experience in the school yard. Staging these plays is about much more than the commercial imperative, it’s about creating brain fodder for the young.
In terms of staging classics, wait till you see what we’re doing with Marat/Sade. It’s likely to ruffle some feathers.
G.C: Timothy Daly has famously said, “Theatre in Australia is for middle-aged, middle-class white people with disposable income”, or words to that effect. Would you agree?
L.F: I don’t think that’s the case at the New. Our ticket prices are very reasonable, so they’re not out of the range of most people, even the young. If you look at the make-up of the people in the audience at the New there’s a great diversity of ages, ethnic and social backgrounds. And we’re very committed to continuing that diversity through the plays we stage, and the opportunities we give through casting in non-conventional ways, allowing audiences to see faces on stage that they normally wouldn’t see.
G.C: Now for one of those “What if…” questions, Lou. What would you do differently at the New if money was not an issue – if you had plenty of it?
L.F: What we do now, but bigger, bolder, Bolshier. I want to make theatre that is wonderful and bold and sometimes dangerous. I want things staged that are relevant, and that give young people a chance.
As I sat opposite this down to earth, no-nonsense, generous, big-hearted, intelligent force of nature, who loves to laugh, and a glass of shiraz, I recalled an interview she did a few years ago. Lou was asked, “Who inspires you and why?” She replied, “People who are braver than me. People that put their lives on the line in refugee camps in Syria and Guinea, people who don’t just write about what is wrong in the world, because they are too busy trying to make things better; people who survive in conditions that are so dire and yet still maintain their dignity and humanity”. Her answer surprised me, but it shouldn’t have. Appearances can be deceptive, and people aren’t always who they appear to be at first.
HOUSE OF GAMES by Richard Bean, (based on the David Mamet screenplay) is at the New Theatre from August 9th – September 10th.
Garrett Cruikshank – Talking Arts