Words by Meri Fatin / Illustration by Giullana Alarkon / Photos by Daniel Grant
The Last Great Hunt are an ensemble of outrageously talented Western Australian theatre makers, responsible for creating some of the most thought-provoking new work in recent years. Their radical approach is visible on stage and in their company structure.
As part of Leverage, issue 03 of our journal, Meri Fatin spoke with Jeffrey Jay Fowler and Sian Roberts in a conversation that encompasses friendship, funding and the re-thinking of live theatre to find opportunity in a post-pandemic world.
Meri Fatin [00:00:33]
I want to start by talking about the formation of The Last Great Hunt, particularly because it happened at a time where there was a gap to fill in the Perth theatre landscape. Perhaps you could tell a bit of that story, Jeffrey.
Jeffrey Jay Fowler [00:00:58]
2013, I had just come back to Perth. Katt Osborne was running the Duck House Theatre Company and together we looked across the landscape at who was getting funding and what we were doing to get funding. Tim Watts was part of Weeping Spoon. I had Mythophobic. Chris Isaacs, Arielle Gray and Adriane Daff were working independently. We were all applying for grants and putting in a lot of effort trying to justify what we wanted to do artistically. Katt said if we all formed one “supergroup” (laughs) so to speak, we might get the attention of funding bodies. If we share our clout, we might make a big enough impact.
Meri Fatin [00:02:00]
What did you weigh up as being the pros and cons of doing that?
Jeffrey Jay Fowler [00:02:04]
I had nothing to lose by joining the company. There was no agreement that we couldn’t undertake work outside. I had just started at Black Swan and was exhausted from writing my own grants. I’m not particularly good at writing grants, it’s not in my skillset; I think I was frustrated with having to justify myself knowing that you write a grant and it goes to a panel of people you never find out about. You get very little feedback and you need to prove your idea before you’ve created the show.
So our idea was that if our reputations combined could get us annual funding we could reverse things. And that, I think, has been the very basis of what has made us different as a company. Also, we are six very different artists who can collaborate well with each other and with guest artists. That’s obviously part of the success of the company. I do believe it’s a model where we get an idea and work straight away while the idea is hot – rather than getting an idea, writing a grant, waiting nine months to find out if you were successful. By that time, you might not want to make that show anymore.
Meri Fatin [00:03:33]
I’m really interested in hearing how you worked out how the company would function.
Jeffrey Jay Fowler [00:04:44]
For me, the formative moment was a meeting at Katt’s house, in the shed, sitting around trying to pick a name for the company. It took a really long time and we kept having meetings – it was very hard to come to a conclusion. And then the first project we ever worked on was a nightmare. All of us at once tried to work on a project before we had really finessed how we should collaborate. It was all in with no clear leader. We tried to look at Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey and create a play. It was exhausting and we hadn’t worked ourselves out yet. But I think the great thing is we scrunched it up, threw it in the bin and said – okay, next project! It wasn’t a bad idea to create a group, we just burnt the first pancake.
Lé Nør is at its heart an ensemble romantic comedy... reminiscent of the sort of film you find late at night on SBS, a heavily subtitled cult favourite made in the Eighties with a Phil Collins heavy soundtrack.
- Pelican Magazine, 2019
Meri Fatin [00:05:56]
In the beginning The Hunters actually capitalized on your individual successes by performing some of the work that had already been developed.
Jeffrey Jay Fowler [00:06:04]
We did. So, shows like Alvin Sputnik, It’s Dark Outside, Minnie and Mona Play Dead, probably a few others.
Siân Roberts [00:06:13]
Jeffrey Jay Fowler [00:06:16]
Bruce. These were all actually created before the (formation of the) company. Alvin Sputnik and It’s Dark Outside had pretty great touring records. So at the moment that we became a company there were already a few shows to bring in and those shows toured and were a big part of the early life of the company.
Meri Fatin [00:06:41]
When did you join Siân?
Siân Roberts [00:06:43]
I joined in 2015, so it’s my five-year anniversary. It’s my longest ever job. I think it was my longest ever job at two years to be fair! I remember everyone was applying for the same big grant. It was after Deckchair Theatre had gone under, where I was the marketing manager. I remember The Last Great Hunt got that grant and that was the first time that everyone was like “oh, here we go”. I just thought they were so clever to pool resources. It was so smart to form a company. Then I went out of the arts sector into the not for profit sector and I kept seeing their shows, and watching their donor campaigns. I always thought the shows were very clever, you know, socially conscious, funny – you could (see) the intelligence behind the shows. And then I saw this job advertised as General Manager for The Last Great Hunt and I thought, ‘imagine if I got that job!’ My dream job – and I nearly didn’t apply for it. Jeffrey was on my interview panel.
Jeffrey Jay Fowler [00:09:09]
I was! I remember exactly where we were sitting and the sun on your face (both laugh) that fateful day.
Meri Fatin [00:09:20]
Since you were on that interview panel, what were you looking for when one of your original members who was really the linchpin needed to be replaced. What was important to you at the time?
Jeffrey Jay Fowler [00:09:34]
Katt is an artist as well as a fantastic manager but the plan had always been that once we could afford it, we would hire a General Manager and let Katt be an artist like the rest of us. We wanted someone that would go on this crazy adventure with us because the company felt clear to us but was very hard to explain to outsiders. How we worked was kind of unusual. We had a lot of people saying that the model wouldn’t work. We had a lot of people saying it’s a bad idea to have no artistic director, that there would be interpersonal conflict. We wanted someone that could come and accept the deal. I think it was quite hard for Siân at the beginning. It’s like dealing with a company where your artistic director is a Hydra. We wanted someone that would go on that journey with us but would also help build the company and have a vision for it. And you know Siân, and a lot of other wonderful people that have worked for us, have endured an incredibly difficult job. There’s a huge amount of work to manage and produce the amount of shows that we create, debut and tour. I mean some years have just been mental, all around the world, and so we wanted someone that we felt we could grow with and negotiate with and be inspired by. We were looking for a lot. We actually ask a huge amount of Siân.
Finding the words to describeLé Nøris a very difficult task, it just needs to be seen to comprehend. I was left in awe, and I keep finding things to dwell on the more I think about it.
This cannot be missed to all lovers of film and theatre, or just anyone looking to have their mind blown.
Meri Fatin [00:11:27]
And Siân, when you got a sense of what the job would actually entail, how did you feel about it?
Siân Roberts [00:11:39]
I remember looking at the specs and it was, you know, basically you have to do everything, you have to have your own phone, your own computer, and we’ll pay you almost nothing. Kind of crazy, but I remember saying to you Jeffrey, it’s going to be a steep learning curve, but I reckon I can do it. It’s been the biggest challenge of my career and it’s still challenging every day. But I think that’s what keeps me interested and it’s why I’m still doing it. Those seven artists. Yeah. At first, they didn’t trust me, and I had to spend a lot of time… I knew it was a long game to show that I had the right intentions, that I could see the art, that I wasn’t trying to take control, that I didn’t want the limelight for myself. I understood the creative process and I understood the business side. And then I spent a lot of time helping the board understand the creative side and helping the creatives understand the governance side. We did a lot of strategic planning work at the beginning and we lost a few board members along the way.
Jeffrey Jay Fowler [00:13:41]
It was becoming a much bigger commitment for them and a different company. We wanted a more active board that would really help us. We have plans to become a much bigger company than we are now.
Siân Roberts [00:13:57]
Jeffrey’s right, a lot of people told us that it wouldn’t work. A lot.
Meri Fatin [00:14:03]
People whose opinion you respected?
Jeffrey Jay Fowler [00:14:08]
Yeah, I’d say so…
Siân Roberts [00:14:10]
Yeah, I think so.
Jeffrey Jay Fowler [00:14:13]
You know that tone of voice and that lean forward… “Are there rifts? How’s it going? It must be tricky.” They really wanted to see the cracks in the walls. People were sceptical because they’d had bad experiences of “rule by committee” and didn’t believe it could work.
Siân Roberts [00:14:45]
I was on board from the beginning. I was already kind of a fangirl and so I believed in it. I really did. I believed in the work and I believed in the artists… so why can’t we do it our way? There’s a lot of companies that went under and there were all these other companies that weren’t working the old way. We had nothing to lose by trying a different way.
I came on board in October 2015 and Katt had put in all the work to get that three-year funding. I think she was still doing my handover when we found out that we had that funding and it was a huge celebration. A lot of people did tell us that it wouldn’t work, but it has. It takes longer to make decisions but there’s trust and I think the thing about The Hunters is that they’re all friends. They’re close friends, and have been for years. Some of them are going out with each other. Some of them have lived together as flatmates, some of them were students together. So, there’s a long history that we want to continue. And really the art is what it’s about. And I think that’s why we make it work.
Meri Fatin [00:17:01]
Do you think the audiences have come to sense and be attracted to the cohesion between the artists as well? Have you ever thought about that?
Jeffrey Jay Fowler [00:17:32]
I’ve thought about it. I don’t know. I think that our audiences come from all different places and angles and all different levels of knowledge about art. We certainly do have fans. That’s a thing. And then we have people that might see a few shows and not really have the full context. I’m sure some people enjoy it. I think on those big collaborative shows like Le Nör, part of the meta narrative and the enjoyment of it is knowing that that’s everyone in the company working altogether. I think that is thrilling for people. Sometimes you talk to people about the company and they’ll have seen a few of the shows and it’s a real light bulb moment for them in conversation when I’ll explain there’s six of us and we work in all different configurations. They’re like “Oh that’s why I saw New Owner and Fag/Stag and was like whoa! This is a kid’s company who do puppetry. No wait. This is a very adult company.” They understand it when you explain the company a bit more. Our art doesn’t have one genre, doesn’t have one brand. We don’t have any rules about the aesthetic of the company, and I think that can disarm people until they “get” the ensemble.
Meri Fatin [00:19:14]
Can we reminisce about Le Nör for a little while?
Jeffrey Jay Fowler [00:19:22]
Meri Fatin [00:19:23]
Was it meant to have another season this year?
Siân Roberts [00:19:26]
Not this year. No. It’s been a different show to sell because (while) we do have quite a big touring history, that history is with less expensive shows. It’s a one hander. Le Nör is ten people and a big set. It’s a different market — it’s a festival show. It had two Helpmann nominations including Best New Australian Work, which is amazing. Who knows what would have happened but we’re looking to do some redevelopment of it next year if some funding comes through. It lends itself to live streaming because of the video elements so we want to do some work on it to see how we can do that. Tour it without physically touring.
Meri Fatin [00:20:45]
My recollection of it was the edge of your seat excitement through the whole thing. It was one of the most fantastic things I’ve ever seen and part of it was just noting the extreme “hecticness”” of what was going on for every single person on stage!
Jeffrey Jay Fowler [00:21:05]
Speaking a make-believe language and lighting the show, then acting in it, swapping costumes, moving set pieces, operating the camera… it went very fast as a performer. It was 90 minutes long and it would begin and then you’d blink twice, and you’d be doing the final scene in a helicopter covered in water with your wig off, with some strange metallic fabric wrapped around you. There was not a moment that any single person was not busy
Meri Fatin [00:21:41]
What’s the feeling when Le Nör is finished and you know you’ve delivered a really spectacular performance? What was the energy like?
Jeffrey Jay Fowler [00:21:52]
It was incredibly satisfying. Incredibly fun just to be on stage doing silly things with people that you really like. The process was (laughs) nightmarish and full of thinking “this can’t work” and feeling like the roof was caving in, which can happen in any company, in any production. The nervousness of putting a show up is intense, but after that first show we realised oh we can run this… audiences get it, they’re like, ‘it was the freshest breeze I’ve ever felt.’ And then the season just went so quickly. You’ve worked on something so hard — it was years of work culminating in a two-week season.
Siân Roberts [00:22:48]
And years of fundraising.
Jeffrey Jay Fowler [00:22:50]
Yeah of course!
Siân Roberts [00:22:52]
I remember when we were in Edinburgh in 2017, we were having meetings with people over there to fund it and to commission it.
Jeffrey Jay Fowler [00:23:04]
People keep dangling carrots and then taking them away.
Siân Roberts [00:23:07]
It was probably the most stressful project that I’ve worked on up until the one that I’m working on now.
Set on the fictional island nation of Solset where water is rationed and rain seldom falls - the story tells a compelling tale of a group of misfits who share an apartment complex, and their lives become entwined in numerous ways. The looming threats of climate change brings an urgent tension to the tale...
As a seamless piece of cinema plays out on the screen, actors and technicians are scurrying around the stage to make sure everyone is hitting their mark at dangerously precise intervals.
- Perth Now, 2019
It's a real light bulb moment for them in conversation when I'll explain there's six of us and we work in all different configurations.
Meri Fatin [00:23:19]
In the context of everything that The Last Great Hunt has ever produced, how would you describe Le Nör? You said it was the most stressful thing you’ve ever worked on….
Siân Roberts [00:23:29]
Stressful but also gratifying because the thing about this company is that the way that we’re set up to fund creative development, you’re setting these creative minds free to do whatever they feel, whatever they want. And I don’t like to say no. People can do their stuff and if we see it could be something then we start bringing people in to have a look and that’s what happened with Le Nör.
Meri Fatin [00:24:09]
Did it feel risky in the early process where you started to understand what it was going to be?
Siân Roberts [00:24:16]
It always feels risky. We find it hard even bringing people on board to some of the projects because they say they can’t do that job because they’ve never done it before. And we say we’ve never done it before either. So, it’s more often about the attitude of the people that are coming on board saying I don’t know how to do it but let’s find out!
Meri Fatin [00:24:43]
You’ve got to be mentally free enough to join in with something like that.
Siân Roberts [00:24:47]
Yes, and have an open mind and be excited by things. When the going gets tough you’ve got to have some passion to fall back on. There was a point in Le Nör where we had unconfirmed funding and I had to make the call to go ahead with a development period that was going to be very expensive – basically using company reserves – just hoping that the other money would come through. And luckily it did. But what Jeffrey’s referring to is that the process was under funded and didn’t have enough time. Premiering at Perth Festival with no previews (to Jeffrey) do you remember the first night was the opening night with the press there as well? I remember sitting there… my heart… as the producer you can’t do anything but keep your fingers crossed and hope that all goes fine. Two days before I’d seen a dress run and all the tech had failed, and it all needed to be rewired! Oh my God.
Meri Fatin [00:26:18]
That’s an expressive sigh Jeffrey….
Jeffrey Jay Fowler [00:26:21]
You have a nightmare as an actor that one day you’ll forget a line, or the show will fall apart and then it happens. And the show is Le Nör, and the show just stops for 20 minutes and the tech is broken, and no one knows what’s gone wrong and people are on ladders and house lights are on and you stand there and go, “this is it. This is the actor’s nightmare.” The whole show, which is put together with sticky tape sometimes literally has broken. What happens now? Do we just send this audience home? I think it happened on the second night and you just sit in it for 20 minutes and then the show goes on again and the lights go down and you’re back into performing and you think OK what? Where were we up to? What am I doing? What costume am I wearing? OK here we go. And then it got to the end and the audience just gave the biggest round of applause ever. Le Nör was like facing your nightmare of being unprepared as an actor and realizing everything’s okay at the end and actually people kind of love it even more. They were so on our side.
It's okay for theatre to not be perfect. And I think when you're doing something so ambitious people embrace the faults in the work.
Filmmaking is at the forefront as you watch a faux foreign movie filmed live on stage, complete with behind the scenes cinematic techniques and surtitles for the invented hybrid language, with ancient Germanic origins spoken by all actors.
The Last Great Hunt already has a reputation for engaging and innovative works and Lé Nør only confirms the team is a theatrical force to be reckoned with.
- Artshub.com.au, 2019
Siân Roberts [00:28:16]
When I first joined, we were doing Blue Room shows where you make it up to the last minute and you test it. Now we’re doing Perth Festival shows. We’ve got a new commission for this coming Perth Festival. They saw what we could achieve with Le Nör and now they’ve given us more space and more time and more resources because they understand that that process needs time. And we’ve developed our artistic process over the last five years. I think we’ve improved it a lot. You don’t want to be too formulaic about things but trying, before we premiere work or before we program it, to have an open showing where we bring in outside eyes and get some feedback and then leave ourselves enough time to make changes. Then have a break and then do another development period rather than making it right up to the last minute.
Jeffrey Jay Fowler [00:29:24]
Showings aren’t just for us and for the work, they’re also for our followers who’ve become really involved in the works and want to see them at all different stages of development. By the time our audiences are seeing our work, the people close to us are really championing it and they know the journey we’ve been on to create it. I think that’s a really important part of our brand and our company and the experience we have as artists and the experience we offer to audience members who get close enough.
Meri Fatin [00:30:24]
What does The Last Great Hunt’s strategy involve in terms of your focus on community and inclusion and creating a space for West Australian artists to remain and work in Western Australia?
Siân Roberts [00:30:56]
This year when all of our work stopped, we realized that while we weren’t employing seventy people anymore, we could employ ten. We saw our friends lose all of their work; we saw Black Lives Matter stuff and we were able to have a hard look at ourselves and what we’re doing. I think everyone had an existential crisis in the arts. What are we doing? Are we actually making a difference? Why ARE we doing this? And so, we’ve taken our strategic plan and we’ve turned it into a whole bunch of plans and strategies for employing independent artists, providing emerging artists a pathway to paid work, including more people in our development periods. Up until recently, we could only really pay for those six artists to develop work, so if anyone wanted to work with an external person, we maybe had one or two weeks-worth of funding. So, we’re working now to increase that funding and reach new audiences. We’re waiting on a bunch of grants to hopefully come in and if they do Jeffrey will be leading an emerging artist program where we will be deliberately finding people who are coming into the arts through different ways like WAAPA, but (also) other community areas….
Jeffrey Jay Fowler [00:32:51]
Even making space for people that have really missed out on WAAPA or not realized they wanted to be in the arts till they were thirty or a bit lost. It’s a weekly meet up to help people develop their skills and build pathways to try and increase diversity in the industry and also to enrich our company by changing what we do and seeing what we can learn from other people. The next chapter has to be about us sharing. I’m thirty-four and we rode the last wave of really healthy funding. The year that I turned twenty-six was the year that the twenty-five and under category disappeared from the Department of Culture and the Arts. Then the year I turned thirty was the year that the Australia Council got rid of their thirty and under category. So, it was like we are riding a wave with the world collapsing behind us. The funding opportunities that were available to us before the Last Great Hunt have evaporated and now I see fantastically talented young people coming out of the Bachelor of Performing Arts having nowhere near the amount of grants or money available to them that we did at that time. And also, you look at someone who might stand on the outside of the industry and watch some Last Great Hunt shows and think, “wow I wish I could do that! Oh, it’s impossible” and walk away because we’re in a world that tells you that you have to do everything in your 20s or you can’t do it at all. Bizarrely. We want to provide an opportunity and a place for those people. We were so lucky. We were so lucky to be in Perth, it was smart to stay in Perth. We’re so lucky to get the grants we’ve got – the first time and then the second time. You know I often look at my life and just think this is just bizarre. Bizarre and so good.
Think early Eighties film clip, overlapping images, multiple perspectives viewed simultaneously - as if you were watching a film and watching its cast and crew creating the film at the same time.
Throughout the production, director Tim Watts intrudes and comments on proceedings, sometimes seen by the characters, sometimes unobserved - part narrator, part psychopomp. If he ever turn up at one of your parties, run for the hills. The highest local hill you can find.
- Artshub.com.au, 2019
Meri Fatin [00:34:54]
You talked about how the touring program had been really hectic but is the strategy to take The Last Great Hunt out of Perth even more?
Siân Roberts [00:35:18]
International touring has been what we’ve done from the beginning and arguably the touring work has funded a lot of other stuff. About forty per cent of our income is from touring. Touring and also having commissions for work. It’s really hard to say. I’ve heard some advice the other day that said we shouldn’t be touring internationally till after 2021.
Jeffrey Jay Fowler [00:35:54]
That’s even a conversation among the artists. Should we still be touring? Is it environmentally friendly to be flying our shows around the world? One of the ideas for the next development of Bad Baby Jean is a show that can be made live but digitally and served fresh to the Internet. Is this a format that we want to pursue more? Because actually there is something environmentally wrong about flying all around the world to perform shows live in a world that is so digitised.
So how can we find that sense of creativity and connection and audience and togetherness maybe without getting on a plane?
Siân Roberts [00:36:32]
Saying that, touring employs a lot of artists. B and C casts go on tour for us with our work. We’ve got multiple casts for multiple shows and then they’ll tour while the creators stay back in Perth and make something else. So, it does employ a lot of people, tech people, tour managers. I don’t know. I think we probably will be getting back to the US when we can. I think that will continue to happen, but I think we will have other offerings as well. The changes that we’re starting to make are not just about air travel but also accessibility. There’re so many good things that have come out of the digital work. It’s a lot of stuff we were thinking about already, but the pandemic has given us the time to really delve into it a bit more deeply. And, that’s one of the reasons we’re re-strategizing. We were looking at our vision and mission the other day and it says something like “make work and take it around the world” and we thought is that it? Or is it just about connecting with audiences wherever they are? What IS live theater?
Meri Fatin [00:40:37]
You talked about people in the arts having a kind of existential crisis over what COVID 19 has represented for all of us but if any group of creative people are going to come up with some kind of yet unimagined future it’s probably The Last Great Hunt. Thank you both so much.
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