“Linear, logical, drawing room dramas don’t always tell the truth.” Heidi Manche, Director of “The Eisteddfod”, on the absurdity of life and theatre, and finding the strength to rebuild when things go wrong.

Emma Kate Lewis: Hey Heidi, can we start with you telling our readers a bit about what you do?

Heidi Manché: Sure! I’m the founder of Room to Play, which is an independent production company, so it works off its funding in different ways to create its own work. I’m also a director and actor. I have a team that helps to put on theatre, but we also do theatre forums and activate spaces around Brisbane in order for other performers to perform and host there as well. So yeah, we’re actively building and being a part of theatre in Brisbane.

EKL: And you’re also Founder of Brisbane Youth Theatre. Which you’re no longer the Director of though, is that correct?

HM: Yes!

EKL: Founding that alongside Room to Play is pretty impressive. What inspired you to start them both?

HM: I came up from Sydney and kind of felt there was a bit of a death of venues. After coming from living in Rome, Sydney, Melbourne… Those are really vibrant theatre scenes, and everyone just does their stuff. They’ll find any way they can. They’ll find spaces, they’ll continually hone their craft—sometimes out of passion, and sometimes they find philanthropists or sponsorships. There’s always a very active community, and I thought that there wasn’t as much of that here [in Brisbane]. I had enough experience—‘cause I’d run theatres in those places—that I felt I could bring that here and build it into what was already happening. In the eight years since I’ve arrived in Brisbane I’ve seen a massive shift in the cultural landscape in all sorts of ways. It’s exciting, and I like to be a part of it.

EKL: I’ve noticed that too, even in the four years I’ve been here.

HM: Yeah!

Heidi Manche (Image via Room to Play)

EKL: What’s The Eisteddfod all about?

HM: It’s about two orphaned siblings that find themselves in a house and become agoraphobic. They decide to stay there in a weird, absurd way, like Waiting for Godot by [Samuel] Beckett. So it’s sort of not in the world—they’re in this strange space. And because they’re pretty bored, and scared, they have these fantasies and come up with these strange role-plays about who their parents might have been, what they might’ve been like, what their erotic fantasies were… Strange and dysfunctional roleplaying, like kids might do. It’s their way to kind of understand the world. Meanwhile, the young man in the story [Abalone]—who’s been in the house for 17 years—has got this fantasy about winning the Eisteddfod and practices for it all the time. That’s his driver. [Gerture’s] driver is to think about unrequited love and possible romantic fantasies, but under that she’s really keen to get out. And so there’s this possibility of escape.

EKL: It sounds fascinating.

HM: It’s weird!

[Laughter]

HM: Not your usual drawing room drama.

EKL: As Director, what does an average workday look like for you? If there is such a thing…

HM: When you go into rehearsals, you’re pretty much four weeks on full-time rehearsing. So that’s your artistic hat on, once you’re with actors; creating, telling the story in a unique way… That’s your role there. And then you’ve also got to wear your management hat. You’ve got to know about the technical—lighting design, sound design, management production, marketing, producing… So you’ve got to have that hat on as well, and yeah that’s done outside of those hours, meeting up with all those people, so it’s done outside the rehearsal space. You’ve got to find time to meet the rest of your team. In this case the two actors on stage are a very small part of a big team that’s sitting behind them helping to make it all happen. So yeah, there’re a few things to do during rehearsal but once the actors go on stage, that’s sort of my job done. The actors come into their own, and it’s all about the audience and the actors then. Then [as Director] you sort of come off your project and think “Ahhh! Thank god I have a break!” But then you also think “Hmmm, when’s the next one?!”

[Laughter]

EKL: On that note, what’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced in your role to date?

HM: As a director?

EKL: Yeah. Though I imagine there are some very big challenges when it comes to founding your own companies as well!

HM: Mmmmm, yeah…

[Laughter]

HM: I think… Not being attached to the outcome of anything and instead getting really invested in the process. Your mind wants to go “My production looks like this and does this” or “My play should look like that”, but if you start going in that direction then you end up getting pissed off when it doesn’t go in that direction. And you start blaming it—well, I do—on this or that actor, or funding coming in…

You’ve got to go, “You know what? Leave it—the outcome will sort itself out. I’ve just got to trust that process. What’s happening in front of me right now? Who’s in front of me right now that I can really invest in?”

So yeah, it’s important to keep bringing it back from the outcome and into the present moment. That’s what I always try to do, and when I manage it always works.

EKL: That’s a fantastic answer. As a creative, I’d say I’m fully motivated by the idea of producing my desired outcome. And I’m not very content when I don’t see it all going according to plan.

[Laughter]

EKL: But I suppose in your sort of environment, flexibility in that area is key. You’ve got to take into account all the people you’re working with, too…

HM: Yeah! And so many things can happen! Life’s unpredictable. I’ve had opening nights where an actor has walked out due to personal anxieties. Weird stuff goes on that you can’t predict, so how do you deal with that?

EKL: How do you deal with that?

HM: Well, you’ve got to be present. Look at the situation and think “Where am I right now? What can I do?” That situation was really hard. I’ve also had a venue pull out on me at the last minute… Things happen. They always do. We think it works in a certain way, like “Once I’ve got the house or the children or the car, then it’ll all be ok!” but the reality is it’s not! Shit happens! It’s unpredictable, and you’ve just got to bring it all back to the present.

EKL: You’ve got to really be able to think on your feet, in those sorts of situations.

HM: Theatre’s really great preparation for that. In theatre and acting you practice thinking clearly all the time.

Image via Metro Arts

EKL: What’s given you the greatest sense of achievement throughout your career to date?

HM: Probably being acknowledged by Queensland Theatre. They currently look after independent theatre are really part of the ecosystem of theatre. Being asked to come and help them, or use the Bille Brown stage… I guess just being acknowledged outside of my own work, like when other people would like to work with us. That means we can start building together and crossover into more varied states. So yes, probably that. But, more specifically, when my actor left… Everything unravelled, and it was shit. We had a big team, and we all just thought it was terrible. We’d invested all of our passion and joy over three months, I lost all my money, and it was a complete disaster. But everyone in the team said “I want to keep going.” So I stepped in for the actor and took up that role, and in order to do that I got a new director.

Two things happened there that were awesome: the team stayed together, and we built a better play.

Oh, and it knocked me back into acting. At the time I’ve moved out of acting and into directing more, but it’s still really good for a director to be very in touch with acting. So yeah, it threw me back into the acting world and so now I do more acting alongside directing. Which is a really healthy state to be in.

But yeah, we fell so hard and made it back up again, and I think that really showed our grit and passion.

EKL: How long did you have to get that all together?

HM: We shut down and then built it all again within three months. We had to [take that time]—not all of the team, but certainly me!

[Laughter]

HM: And we changed venues and all that too. We built it again, and it was a better version as a result. But we didn’t know that at the time. We just had to move forward. I thought, “I don’t want this to defeat us.”

EKL: I want to ask a little more about The Eisteddfod. What can audiences expect from the performance, and what do you hope they take away from it?

HM: It’s a bit of a wild ride, so they’ll be very engaged. It’s funny, in an absurd way—weird things happen and when you identify them you think, “Yeah, that’s possible! I know that. I feel that.” You know how comedy does that—you empathise, and it’s as though [the audience] is being told a big secret and [the actors] are putting them out there. The audience thinks “I get this!” and it’s funny because of that. “It’s insane, but I could do that. I think that, I could be that, I am that.”

Certainly it’s pacy and punchy, and it’s meant to throw you out of complacency—that’s what absurd theatre does, it’s meant to drag you in.

I guess what we’re saying is, “Look: linear, logical, drawing room dramas don’t always tell the truth.” For me, I think absurdist is more truthful in some ways. Because we all live with these lovely facades—the sort we project on social media—and it’s not really who we are. If we were to rip that off and reveal things… like how I felt this morning when things unravelled! If I were to take a photo of that, what I was doing and what I was eating—

[Laughter]

HM: —at that point, that’s who I am in the moment. That’s who I really am. And that’s what we’re trying to do with this play. To just take off a few of the societal [expectations] and show it how it is: our eroticism, our brutality… We all have it, but we’re very careful not to show it. But we know that horrors and joys and sexual fantasies happen in all areas of suburban Brisbane and elsewhere. We’re going to say, “Hey, these exist.” and give them permission to exist. Acknowledge that we all have them in us and that it’s ok, in a safe place, to throw them out there! So I guess it gives permission to the audience to enjoy the play and the complexity of human experience.

EKL: It sounds cathartic.

HM: I think it is, yeah! Coming away from it and being able to say, “Wow, I have this in me and it’s ok!” rather than being afraid.

Image from The Eisteddfod via Room to Play

EKL: Who are some of the women who inspire you most and why?

HM: Margi Brown Ash. She’s a mentor for a lot of us in the theatre industry. She’s so robust and vibrant, and she’s in her 60s. In the theatre, when you have children or whatever, you can easily drop out at that point.

The nature of the industry is that it’s hard for women with children, and when you’re aging you don’t look the same—you’re not going to get the same roles, there are less roles.

So there are a whole lot of obstacles that come about around the midlife point where you often have to take a break. But there’s this richness of being an older woman in theatre when you come back—the lack of ego is very freeing, the fact that you’ve had children, seen love and life and loss… You can bring that to the stage and the arts. It’s really rich. So I think that stage of womanhood is an amazing powerhouse for the arts, and I think that Margi represent that.

She’s someone you can look at and think, “I want to be able to head there.”

And also women in leadership positions more generally. How they make things work so vibrantly, like Gail Kelly or Quentin Bryce. They’re rally fantastic women and role models. So I’m looking at these older women—well, older than me—seeing that they’re such important leaders in their community, and that’s exciting for me because it [tackles the idea that] you become redundant once you get older and have a baby in the Arts. It’s us going, “Actually no, we aren’t, getting older is something much more powerful and it’s something to look forward to” rather than just, y’know, disappearing. So that’s why it’s so exciting to see people like Quentin and Margi who are so visible, and leaders in a new way that’s uniquely female.

EKL: Absolutely, they’re really challenging that idea of there being an age limit.

HM: Yeah, it’s changing, and as women we all need to ensure it keeps changing.

EKL: What’s next for you?

HM: I’m going to be directing another beautiful piece, this time about a mother. It’s part of the Anywhere Theatre festival, and it’s going to be set in a Laundromat. It’s a woman reflecting really profoundly on being a mother to a nineteen-year-old girl while carrying out a banal task—the regrets, the challenges, the embarrassments, the joys. It really puts it all out there, which we don’t often do in our mothers’ groups! It tends to be a bit like “Oh, it’s ok, I’m coping” when sometimes we’re not! So this piece is great at starting that conversation and allowing women to come together and see the monologue. There’ll be beautiful cello, this beautiful piece, and facilitated conversation around motherhood. So that’ll be an interesting piece, and it’s coming up not long after this one.

Purchase your tickets to The Eisteddfod at Metro Arts on Friday 23rd and Saturday 24th March here!


Transcribed, edited, and compiled by Emma Kate Lewis

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