Time Out Melbourne

By Elizabeth Russell 29 Feb 2012

The Living Room Theatre’s motto is “take time to look at things differently”. So when artistic director Michelle St Anne jokingly warns of the all­female production of A Little Room, “Don’t come expecting Chekov with pillow fighting”, we’re intrigued.

“It’s about women coping with loss at different stages,” she elaborates, fresh from a season in Sydney. “A Little Room came from my experience coping when my girlfriend died from cancer. It was really quick. Only nine months. I was traumatised. She exposed me to so many things, the finer things in life. After she died, I used to catch the train to Katoomba and sit at the Carrington Hotel. I used to watch an old lady that was there and in dealing with my trauma I ended up creating and attributing a story to her and it developed from there.

“I find it hard when people ask what it’s about, as it’s all about moments.

When I think about Jill, it’s about when I sat with her; the phone conversations; when I ate with her. That’s how I remember her – by a string of moments. But of course it’s a distorted memory. Grief distorts and we endow the memories. We do that with romantic love, too. Because really they’re always arseholes but years on, you know, it’s like Casablanca. And in grief you have that blurring of reality. In that traumatised grief, everything shuts down. Grief makes memory fuzzy. You’ve got to press yourself into reality. And that’s kind of where this work has come from.”

St Anne spent a year at the Victorian College of the Arts working through a post graduate course in Animateuring. While recalling her time there, she casually reveals that she initially found it difficult to begin the first solo assessment as she didn’t believe herself to be that interesting. In the next breath, she describes how she applies minimalist trailblazer Steve Reich’s compositional techniques when creating theatre works. St Anne isn’t interesting at all. She’s fascinating.

“’Animateur’ is such a wanky term really,” she urges. “Nobody knows what it is. But if I say I’m a theatre maker, people think I build sets. I work in contemporary image theatre and it’s not a straight narrative. There’s a bit more mayhem and I also tend to distort the narrative. Sadly, people often get frustrated with contemporary theatre because it’s usually about getting things right. People say, ‘I’ve got to understand this. I’ve got to be right.’ I’d rather audiences felt something from my performances. Because it’s presented as a theatre work, they expect a beginning, middle and end. But everything is broken down into microcosms.”

A conversation with St Anne is also broken down into microcosms and moments. She notices everything – the aural, visual and emotional. The Beatles playing over the café sound system; the beautifully arranged tea service on the table; a wry thought that briefly crosses your face. She’s clocked it. So when St Anne says she creates multi­sensory theatre. We believe her.

“Abandon the idea of having to know and just surrender yourself to trying to understand.” is the advice she gives to Melbourne audiences. This is probably good advice as her works combine text, sound and light but not as most theatregoers would know it.

Despite not being an avid reader, St Anne seems to have the knack of seeing the right images, reading the right pieces or listening to the right sounds to trigger the muse. Tim Winton’s The Riders, installation artist Janet Cardiff’s works and Don DeLillo’s The Body Artist have all played a part in developing her craft.

“At the beginning of the work, I get the audience to just sit for three minutes,” St Anne says of the presentation of A Little Room. “I want them to slow down their minds – and some people get frustrated but it opens people’s imagination. I’m asking them to come on a journey with me. Some people in the audience have argued with each other about what they’ve seen but that’s what art is supposed to do. A Little Room is more like an audio tour than a passively watched play. It’s like someone is holding your hand and walking you through the work.”

St Anne’s other works – Billie and Man 40 Seeks Woman With Good Legs – explore abandonment, grief and loneliness: “because when I’m traumatised I need to be in a small space. I need to be enclosed. A little room is very much the heart space or a soul space that these women come to.”

With A Little Room, Michelle St Anne aims “to introduce people to something new by giving them something that they know so that they can latch on and then take them into the unknown”.

We think that sounds better than a pillow fight.