Bare Witness by Mari Lourey draws on the real life experiences of photo journalists and foreign correspondents in the Balkans, East Timor and Iraq, roles which have become increasingly dangerous, while their moral validity is increasingly questioned.

Australian Stage's Paul Andrew speaks to Director Nadja Kostich ahead of the show's Melbourne season.

Nadja KostichWhat stories do you feel are most urgent for theatre right now?
Stories with heart.

Real stories about us.

Difficult stories.

Poetry of the people...for the people.

I’ve made a lot of work with community performers. It’s rough as guts sometimes but can absolutely wind you when the stars all line up in the heavens for a performance! I’m used to bringing out their words and shaping them in ways that I think sings out. You hope others think so too. 

There has been an element of scripting in this project from the actor’s improvisations. The script has changed and evolved because of who the performers are, who the team is, what each has contributed. Highly collaborative. Very satisfying.

You see it doesn’t take me long to take this conversation into a way of making theatre rather than the content and ultimately that is what drives, thrills and inspires me – a process of making. It could be the best script in the world but if the process doesn’t agree with me, it doesn’t matter to me much and ultimately I don’t think it matters to the audience. I think they get the vibe subliminally. I think a deep process will be reflected in the product.

Who inspired you to become involved in Theatre?
My mum was a singer in the former Yugoslavia before I was born, her aunt was a theatre and film actress in Belgrade and her aunt’s grandson who still lives there is now a famous Serbian actor! There’s a bit of something in the blood anyway! My great aunt used to take me backstage and I remember sitting at the lit up mirrors watching the actors get ready. I pretended to put mascara on with my fingers. When I was about seven I had a small non speaking part in a play at the National Theatre. I still have a body memory of waiting backstage, the smell of it all; I remember the fringe of the shawl of the actress who played my mum trembling as she guided me on. I simply had to run on, stay there for a bit next to my ‘mum’ and run back off. It was part of a dream sequence. I bought my first bike with the money from that job. 

Tell me a little more about your acting journey Nadja?
I came to Canberra from Belgrade Serbia when I was eight. It was the classic story of a family seeking a ‘better life’. I got into the VCA after studying arts law at the ANU for a couple of years. I kept looking around thinking – god, I’m in the wrong place, what am I doing here? Before that I’d got into Monash Uni to do medicine but deferred to go overseas. When I got back, Melbourne felt too far so it was law. (Back to the classic migrant story – choosing the ‘respectable’ professions to make good in the new land) But when the VCA called I jumped for joy, packed my car to the brim and arrived in Melbourne wide eyed. I’ve pretty much worked professionally in the theatre in some way, shape or form since I graduated 22 years ago. I love it even when it’s hard.

This play by Mari Laurey received the 2005 R E Ross Trust Script Development Award, and a lot has happened since then?
Well I can tell you how I first came to be involved and that was in 2006. I was invited to play a character called Violette for the first moved reading of the play. Directed by Stefo Nantsou. (Maria Theodorakis plays that role now – a gutsy actress and human being). At the time the play only had the first act written and a little bit of the third. I always have a ball working with Stefo Nantsou. He is an absolute character - a multitalented theatre maverick. The audience loved it.

It gave Mari great courage to keep writing it, which she needed because it took her another year to write act two. Then I was invited to do a second reading in 2007, again with Stefo directing. It kind of stalled for a while after that despite awards and being shortlisted for the Patrick White. It’s like people didn’t get why they should put it on, see it, and fund it. It was so frustrating for Mari. Then in early 2008, Mari saw Tenderness which I directed, by Patricia Cornelius and Christos Tsolkias. Stefo had dropped away as director, he had other projects and she saw in my quite physical and abstracted rendering of these scripts, a marriage with Bare Witness and where she wanted it to go. 

Bare Witness is set in the Balkans, East Timor and Iraq. It follows the shared passions of war photojournalists. They seem like quite amazing characters?
My falling in love with these characters has crept up on me. I don’t know when it happened. Was it after the development I did last year with pretty much this same team, when I asked Mari: ‘What’s your intention? What do you want to say?’ Something was eluding me. The core premise of the play. She was so simple: I just want people to walk away thinking, questioning wanting to know more about why these journalists do what they do. It surprised me. I started to crystallize a new thought – this is not a war play. It’s a play about people at work. 

Very extreme work.

Then started a deep dramaturgical process which was collaboration with Michael Carmody also our video designer.

As we cleaved away some unnecessary characters and simplified and honed... Something happened along the way; I am now totally immersed and in love with this project, these characters, this story. I want to know about them, to care about them. I want to know how they can do what they do, how it affects them. 

I’m not sure if I’m giving too much away, but something happens out there in the field that deeply scars our lead character, Dannie. And the play begins some time after that with her on a mission of remembering the pieces of memory that are accessible to her, which may give her some ‘relief’, some way of living with the scars (not removing them). So she takes us back to the first tangible turning points that catapulted her into taking pictures in war zones. And then we’re away. We travel with her and a group of close friends and associates – her tribe – over a span of more than a decade. It’s done jump cut style. Much like our memory works. Things don’t connect neatly, they come out of nowhere. Faces, voices, conversations and events morph, repeat and go in and out of focus. Until she returns to her ground zero.

For many of us the "experience" of war is through the lens of people just like these characters?
Sounds kind of dangerous doesn’t it?

It’s a big responsibility to connect the disconnected. Sometimes the messenger gets shot, literally. It’s also alarming the way people who are removed from a situation jump on a band wagon and try to ‘fix’ the issues they see as wrong. Some of these dilemmas are grappled with in the play. 

I remember doing a work called Home of a Stranger directed by Renato Cuocolo for the Melbourne Workers Theatre. Coincidentally it is where I first met and worked with Daniela Farinacci – a very fine, very deep actress. It was simply about migrants learning English as a Second language. But beautifully rendered by Renato with simple evocative movements. I remember I got up on a desk as the Serbian character called Mira and sang this bawdy song about how I loved war and killing.  Of course it was ironic. And there was also the cheeky thing of subverting that with the fact that I am Serbian. Well, a particular Anglo Saxon woman in the audience wrote a 10 page fax of complaint about the scene and its racial slurring and continued to harass the MWT staff for approximately 2 months. No one could talk her off her moral high ground. She had lost the capacity to listen. Is that what people do when they feel so powerless? 

There is a scene in Bare Witness, not unlike this, where the journalists are in East Timor and back in their hotel room drinking after a hard day, all discussing the politics of the region and slagging each other off and getting on their high horses... I love this scene. And throughout it the Timorese character, played by Isaac Drandic (of Indigenous/Croatian descent) pretty much stays in the background not saying anything while these outsiders pontificate about his country... I don’t know... we are removed from the pain of others, we are helpless, we are selfish, we are overwhelmed – we try to block it out, we ignore it, we are cold to it, then we cry about it and do nothing, or we become knights in shining armour and go try and save them...all of it.

But the play asks the question, or a character in it does, well would you have me leave them (whatever the atrocity is) in the dark so no one will see it? See it!

You have mentioned a fascination with this sphere of journalism, that photojournalists work with images, as metaphors, as information, as testimony?
Firstly, gosh, I don’t know that I carry philosophies about it as such. Each moment especially working on this project brings up a thousand questions. Just when I think it’s this way it gets undercut and it turns that way... The thing about photographs, these moments in time that have a frame around them, is that they have a chance of bypassing the analytical mind and grabbing you, leaving some kind of deeper impression on you... But just a chance. More than an article in the paper I think or even a stream of video imagery. These frozen moments are framed in such a way, the good ones, the lasting ones, that put the viewer in the picture somehow... Something has to bypass the thing in us that keeps ‘the other’ the other, if you know what I mean? It’s everything I would wish in making a theatre work, but my god that’s hard. It’s hard to pierce through that veil of indifference.

Your work often employs multi-media to enhance the narrative, tell me about this?
It takes me a long time to enter a work. I feel really slow. I’m best at dramaturgy a play on the floor not just on paper – I feel how it should go in my body, so I need the time with the work so it all seeps in through me. Obviously, by my language, I’m visceral.  I hope though never to be called anti intellectual. It is for me a relay between articulating the findings on the floor and then going back into it. Following the gut. The way I work is I have to absorb it all and then the piece yields its secrets to me. It’s too slow for some. Perhaps the danger is that by the time the work has to be up I haven’t distilled it to the degree that I could, I still have juice left in the tank so to speak. That is frightening for an artist but I really have no choice but to push the team on. It takes courage (I should be making work somewhere in Europe with 6 months up my sleeve – I coulda been a contender!). I love the actors – they take heart stopping risks. I give them my unwavering support – I would hope they would feel that. 

The design teams are just like the actors to me, and we have the great fortune to be working in an organic way as a team throughout the rehearsal period. What that means is that video, lights, music and sound, set and costume are all players in the space very early in the rehearsal process. They also are ‘characters’, energies to be responded to. 

Dialogues evolve between all the players so with 5 actors and 4 designers, I’m weaving together 9 strands to tell the one story. And what I think this method does when it is successful is that it reveals the layers of the one story, the subtexts, and the poetic. Multiple realms and dimensions. It’s not for everyone. It can get busy, and it takes years to learn how to craft the moments so that each moment is focused as you’d want it. I am still an apprentice but cracking open the unsaid and unnamed in this way calls me. 

Do you feel that a multi media or technological theatre design approach like this lends itself well to enhance the storytelling in contemporary theatre?
Again, philosophy aside, the act of each day in the rehearsal room can feel like going into battle and you have to have your wits about you and turn and swerve and stay still and listen and throw and challenge and deflect and round up in every moment as best you can. And then there are the brief seconds in the loo where you close your eyes and breathe out and look in the mirror – hey you bloody dickhead, let’s get in there again... You know... So yes to the above but in the end it’s got to speak to the people and it’s got to engage the artists. You ask yourself each day can I do that, am I doing that?

Multimedia has the reputation of being cold. My time making raw community theatre shaped a raw approach to multimedia, something low tech, grungy, a bit dirty. I’ve used it in ways that have moved me and I think, hope others. It can have heart in unexpected ways. It can’t be about cleverness or showing off. I don’t work with a team that has any of those tendencies. I like to use this multiplicity to attempt to make a crack in the armour of the audience and speak about unnamable things. If a work makes my soul cry or soar that is what I love to see. I’m not saying I can do this with my theatre. But I am saying that is what I would love to do. Ultimately it is for others to judge.

Bare Witness opens September 10, 2010 at fortyfivedownstairs. Further details»