Earlier this year, I took a train two hours out of town to Wollongong to see Sydney-based documentary company Version 1.0 premier The Table of Knowledge. The experience of seeing this piece, based on a fiery local political scandal, proved well worth the trip. CEO David Williams was later kind enough to let me read some of the company’s other works, all of which are theatricalized from existing source material. He sat down with me at the company’s office for a conversation about Version 1.0’s niche in the theatre world, and their philosophies and processes.
“You don’t just want to preach to the converted and tell people what they already know. They might suspect that they know things, but you want to shake up those expectations.”
Will you give me an overview of what type of work Version 1.0 does?
Version 1.0 is a theatre company that makes devised works using documentary materials, usually around political scandal, although that has expanded a little bit over the years. We do make documentary theatre, but unlike some of the other big international companies like Tricycle and Tectonic Theatre Company, we use a lot of video in our works. Also, in most cases, we don’t have a single writer or director: They are devised by groups of people from documentary materials. Those materials range from Parliamentary transcripts, to Royal commissions, legal proceedings, media interviews. They most often are found materials, so rather than sending a group of actors or a writer out to conduct interviews – though, we have done that from time to time – most of it is found from news reports or research materials. The works are devised through a research process by a team of artists. Over the last ten years, we have been working more of less with the same people, so there is a shared aesthetic language.
Very rarely do we play characters, and always, at some point, play ourselves, even if it is only ourselves asking questions like “is this OK?” or “what does this mean?” That becomes explicit in a work like The Table of Knowledge where we have various introductions and use our own names. We drop in and out of the other voices. There is no desire to “become” these people. We try to be like ourselves. We have the idea that we are artists, but we are also citizens in a democracy, and we, like our audience, are trying to understand and come to grips with these ideas.
All our work is about political ideas. They are either political scandals, like The Table of Knowledge was a corruption scandal involving the local government, or CMI (A Certain Maritime Incident) involved policy around asylum seekers on a Federal level. We think of those shows as being spaces for public conversation around those issues. In order for us to be part of that conversation, we have to be ourselves – not all the time because, frankly, what I have to say as David Williams about an issue may not be as interesting or carry as much weight as what Rod Oxley, former General Manager of the Wollongong City Council has to say on the issue.
Would you say in those instances where you are playing yourselves, that you are something of a stand-in for the audience to ask the questions that they may be asking, or are these the questions that you are asking?
It’s a little bit of both. It’s interesting, in Q&As after performances, we very rarely get asked about aesthetics. We always get asked about the motivation of the people that we are playing, or the issues themselves, as if we are experts on the subject. There is a strange transparency to the performance, as if it is not a performance at all, which of course, it absolutely is.
We usually foreground the fact that we’re not really these people: In CMI, we had a section where we said, “we know that you know that we’re not these people.” It gets completely loopy – “Stephen is a lot shorter than Senator Cook, and Deborah who plays Senator Faulkner is a woman”. But, strangely, we do get asked questions about “how would you fix this broken policy?” We are a bunch of theatre makers! It is not necessarily for us to change things. Maybe the politicians in the audience would like to do something.
A curious thing about our work is that it seems to provoke a feeling of “let’s change it now!”
How do you know a Version 1.0 story when you see it?
There are a lot of political scandals, as you know. Regrettably, our Western Democratic system throws up lots of them all the time. Not all of them are a Version 1.0 show. Usually a scandal or issue that will become a Version 1.0 show has to have a level of complexity to it; by complexity I mean that it has to have multiple sides to the story, all of which are plausible.
The Wollongong Council sex for development scandal wouldn’t have been a Version 1.0 show if it had just been one planner sleeping with a bunch of developers. That’s a sex scandal, that’s great news, but that’s not a theatre show. So, whilst that’s in the theatre show, what becomes interesting is the fact that there’s not just this sex scandal, but there are a whole bunch of deeply unhealthy relationships on multiple levels of management within Council, and a sense that this was just normal practice, and there was seen to be nothing inherently wrong, apart from the fact that she was caught. And, there were also these con men turning up impersonating the Independent Commission Against Corruption agents and blackmailing people, so that was a completely loopy thing.
So, just because something is a good news story, it is not necessarily a Version 1.0 show. Whenever there is a scandal, I always get questions about if it is going to be a show. In Australia recently there was the Australian Health Services union credit card being used to pay for prostitutes, and this kind of petty or not-so petty crime takes place all the time on all sides of politics. However, if there were some sort of unfolding consequence of that, then maybe it’s a show. There’s a flavour of events that suggests that there might be more than one side to a story. It’s only when you have competing points of view, each of which might seem as if they are plausible, that’s the only way that you have some contestation, which is what makes a show worth doing. You don’t just want to preach to the converted and tell people what they already know. They might suspect that they know things, but you want to shake up those expectations.
We don’t want to just re-do news. That’s the danger of doing this kind of work. That’s not satisfying.
What are your tactics for avoiding doing that?
We have a bunch of them, and we use different ones every time. Usually, we latch onto the moments where things are so confusing that we’re asking ourselves what is going on. Increasingly, we’re putting ourselves in the frame.
We did a show called This Kind of Ruckus, which was about sexual violence. It was intended to be a show about trying to rehabilitate domestic violence offenders, and ended up becoming a show about sexual violence more generally. We were really stuck on this work; we were reading all these horrific details, but we were thinking, ‘where’s the show?” While we were making it, there was a series of scandals involving alleged sexual assaults by Rugby League players every couple of days. So, then we were thinking, maybe the show can contain some of this: What is our response? What is going on here? So, we took some small dialogue excerpts around some of the more famous things and inserted them into a show in which we were identifying as ourselves.
In The Table of Knowledge and Deeply Offensive and Utterly Untrue, it was very important to acknowledge who is saying what, when they were saying it, and what their position was, and therefore what the weight of their words should be. But, with This Kind of Ruckus, we didn’t want to say, “this is a problem that only footballers have,” but that this is a problem that all of us have, so the only people we wanted to name were ourselves – we’ll drop in this transcript material and stuff taken from the news that people might recognize a tiny bit of. It was very important that we drew on experiences that we had and asked, “was that OK?” Or, was it OK until that moment. We tried to bring our own experiences and those of our friends closer to the work and put them in relation to these public media events. So, that’s one idea.
In Deeply Offensive and Utterly Untrue, a show about the Wheat Board , there was a moment where we had to ‘stop’ the show because it all seemed too complicated. We had a moment where we made a physical diagram of the relationship between the Wheat Board and the Iraqi government and the way that they breached the U.S. sanctions through a series of front companies. It was kind of a simplification, but we said, “OK, wheat comes from here to there, money goes from here to there to there …”, so it became this illusive demonstration. The trick about playing it was that we had to play it like it wasn’t for the audience – this was for us, so that it wasn’t “dear audience, here’s what happened.” It’s not played out, it is played to each other. Then it becomes part of the audience’s experience. It’s a subtle distinction: we are not demonstrating for you, we are illustrating for us because we need to know, and maybe that infects our audience.
There’s always a process of putting things in relation to each other, which news stories rarely do. The “children overboard” story in CMI is an event which didn’t happen in which alleged bad behaviour occurs which is politically useful for the government. We put that up against something else that appears in the inquiry that they really don’t want to investigate, which is the sinking of the SIEV-X, in which 353 died. That did happen, but they don’t want to deal with that, they want to deal with the thing that didn’t happen.
What is you creation process?
The first process is usually one of discussion and collection, which usually happens around the same time. We gather our team, and we talk about what the project could be about, then we gather materials and read those materials. Usually, if we are dealing with public inquiries, we’ll start with getting the inquiry printed out. Inquiries are usually in documents by day or by session. Then we’ll divide those up amongst our team, and people will go away, read those, and report back and say, “this is what I found, these are the people who are in it, these are the narrative events, these are some of the rhetorical devices used to defend or attack, and these are the things that happened in the inquiry.” For instance, in CMI, there was a fire alarm going off. That has no investigative importance whatsoever, but it’s really funny, and we needed punctuation in the show, so you end a session with the fire alarm going off, which did happen in the inquiry. Often there are strange things that happen in the inquiry that we can draw upon.
There are lots of flags in the documents, and people identify the testimony that they quite like. They share that, and if other people like that, too, we’ll gravitate to it. If we’re doing an inquiry, we’ll get a kind of digest of the bits we like with very little concern initially with how it might fit into a whole show. In doing so, we’ll come to some sort of shared or overlapping understanding of what the event was, what the concerns were, etc.
Then the next stage of that will be to go through the digest and say, “what’s here? Who are the people we’ve got? What is their relationship to each other?” So, we have a number of white boards with a cast of characters, their relationship to each other, and their relationship to particular narrative events. So, for instance in The Table of Knowledge, there are a series of councilors, there are people who work for councilors, developers, and people who work for the inquiry. There are references to particular buildings, and each building has a history of the process that was used to approve it, whether it was a due process or a manipulative process. So, these people tell us different parts of these stories. Those tellings have different qualities, so it is a matter of what do they tell us? In the end, there was only one councilor in the show, so there is a stripping back process. We take this thing that might be 2,000 pages, and by the end of it, we get down to about 20 or 25 pages that is the show.
We also have to consider what the emergent themes are. What are the things that make this a piece of theatre? What does this material tell our audience that they may not have already known? Usually, that starts identifying what characters and what bits of the characters stay. Then, you start getting rhythm ideas around the shape of the show. These things are bubbling away all the time.
Unusually, Disappearances Project started with the form very early. But, that’s quite unusual. Yana Taylor and myself did a three week research period in Bathurst. It was a commission from Bathurst Memorial Entertainment Centre, and they were interested in us making a work. I’d pitched them a bunch of ideas, but they didn’t think they were quite right. I asked them what sorts of things they were interested in, what is a sort of public secret or open wound in the Bathurst community. They started talking about two missing persons cases from 2001 and 1997. They both appear in the show, but the show does not identify them, and is not very concerned with the circumstances of the disappearances. That is something that we worked out in the first week. We read 20 or 30 newspaper articles around both of those disappearances, and we got increasingly interested in what happened to all the people who made the public statements in between the newspaper stories. The newspaper stories tell the story of the investigation – something new has happened in the investigation, therefore there is a news story. In some ways, it is not a very satisfying narrative, but each time, they trot out another statement from family or friends. We got really interested in what happens to all those people in between those public events. What is it like? So, we gathered all these statements, cut and paste, and noticed these patterns of people saying they were stuck, not able to move on, or paralyzed and frozen. So, on day three or four, we started talking about staging. There were two actors on chairs, and contrasting that there would be a video screen behind them on which the images would constantly move. So, we had the framework before we’d even found the content that matched it.
That is unusual. Everything else has come from the content and emerged from there.
At what point does the audio/visual material usually come in?
Usually very early. More precisely, our video artist will be there from the beginning and be involved in the research process. The precise mode that the video takes changes from project to project. In The Table of Knowledge, there are lots of screens, but three different screen sets that carry all kinds of different information: the televisions in front are purely informational, the ones at the top at the back are the “dreamscapes” or the fantasy of the buildings, and the ones at the bottom sometimes show the fantasy of the building, but it also becomes a backdrop of a more inhabitable space like the car park or the beach. There has to be a specific logic to each show.
Usually it is there at the beginning, but like everything else, it goes on a journey, and arrives at something very different from what the original concept might have been. The concept in week one is very rarely what you see on stage.
How long of a process do you usually have? Does it vary?
Yes, it does vary. Ordinarily we would have a couple of periods of development of two weeks and a couple months later another two weeks, and then a couple months later we would go into rehearsal.
For The Table of Knowledge, we have five weeks last year, then another week, and then four weeks of rehearsal, which was very good.
CMI had a week of R&D and then about three months later, two weeks, and then another two weeks, and four weeks rehearsal.
For Disappearances Project, we had three weeks initial R&D with the two of us, and then we did another two weeks the following year with four of us, and four weeks of rehearsal before we performed it in Bathurst, Sydney, and later in Perth.
That is something that feels like it is shifting. While we have had video early on, we haven’t often had sound early on. So sound is usually something that gets added in rehearsal, but with Disappearances, Paul was in for some of the development. That worked very well because the sound became deeply embedded. We’re working with Paul on a couple of other projects and are trying as much as we can afford to have him in quite early, even if it is just on a part-time basis so that he can be part of the formulation of the form of the work and how sound might express itself in production.
Who are the company members? Is it a fairly consistent company?
It has been, to a sense. We did a project in 2000 called The Second Last Supper, which wasn’t a documentary piece. The first few years of Version 1.0 were just sort of “doing stuff,” and CMI was our first work in this vein. From there, the history is fairly straightforward where we keep doing the same thing and developing a niche for that.
In 2000, there was a residency with The Performance Space. Prior to that, the company was a group of graduates from the theatre program at University of Western Sydney Nepean. That program no longer exists. After we’d made our second show, Where the Garment Gapes, there was a sense that everyone wanted to do different things, travel and have adventures. The original team disbanded, but I decided I was interested in seeing what else was possible, so I applied for the residency at Performance Space in 2000, and invited all the college people to do this crazy idea for a project. Those people became the core of what became the company – Stephen Klinder, Chris Ryan, Yana Taylor, and myself.
From there, it has been a process of replacement. We had our first and only ever audition in late 2000. We auditioned Deborah Pollard, Danielle Antaki, and Kym Vercoe. The only person who could do that show was Danielle, and she worked with us for a few years, had a baby, and came back to do This Kind of Ruckus. Deborah made CMI and The Wages of Spin with us. Kym came on to replace Deborah. Jane Phegan came on to replace Danielle on another project. So, there was a sense that the company acquired additional artists when there was some kind of need to. The first time we worked with Irving Gregory was on The Disappearances Project. We needed a slightly older male who would be very comfortable dealing with text, but also have a very precise physical sense. For This Kind of Ruckus, Stephen had to depart from the company because of the stress of having a mortgage and two small children, so he did need to work a full time job that paid a little more than we did. So, he was replaced by Arky Michael who went on to do The Table of Knowledge with us.
So, it’s been a rolling process of replacements. We don’t seek out people or hold auditions. There is some sense that we do invest in people for long periods of time. We’re interested in relationships that are ongoing because those sorts of aesthetic partnerships are important and make us able to do the work that we do. You can’t just walk in with strangers and do what we do. It would never work.
The process must be so intensive. I presume you must have to be very comfortable with everyone.
Sure. Or, you know what their limits and boundaries are.
That said, I wouldn’t say that we’re a company of best mates. We don’t hang out and socialize. It is not some kind of collective or commune. We’re object oriented.
Have you always been interested in politics and social engagement? How did you find your way into this type of storytelling?
I don’t know that I have been. Certainly, when I started Version 1.0, I just wanted to make something. When you leave an institution, you say, “Right. The world won’t give me a job. Oh, and you have to pay for studio space.” The early works were just trying to find out what it was we could do and how the world works.
There was a little bit of political perspective in The Second Last Supper. It was this increasingly debauched dinner party that was framed as a corporate dinner party. Throughout the show, global capitalism became more and more talked about as if it was a religion. It was a very fun, ridiculous show. There was this kind of quasi-political interest embedded in it, but it doesn’t really become the focus until CMIwhen the politics is actually the subject matter. I suppose that in making that work, we were doing something important that no one else was doing in quite the same way. There was this real hunger for it. That work was very successful: The season sold out and there were queues around the block. It was amazing. There was a sense that this was an important thing to do and that we did it pretty well. So then there was a sense that this is what we should do. It needs to be done. It’s a pathological feeling that it must be done! We’re the people on the spot, so we have to do it until somebody else does it better.
Does the company have a political agenda, or are you just interested in telling a good story?
That’s a fairly complex question. I would say that different company members have different political agendas.
There is a range of political perspectives across the company from political party members to more hard core anarchists to the middle class left. I don’t know if the company has a coherent political perspective beyond a desire for democracy to be better. Personally, I don’t think that is a party political agenda. I think that conservative parties have, at times, been very good in the government and have done very good things. I think that all political representatives need to be better and that citizens need to hold them to account. Americans are very explicit about that – “by the people and for the people.” We are not so much. We just expect that it will be OK.
I’m not the kind of person, nor are most people in the company, the types of people to go out on street marches. But I do believe that citizens do have a responsibility to monitor the government and demand that it be better, that they take the job seriously, that processes be robustly maintained, and also critiqued. There is a desire to make the business of democracy more efficient, more democratic, and more practical so that it does actively better the lives of the citizens. That is the function of a democracy.
That sounds fairly cerebral, but I think that’s a thread that does run through our work –processes that fail around all sorts of institutions. We can make citizens reflect on how they can make their government and the systems and institutions around them better.
One of the things I was most struck by when I saw The Table of Knowledge was being in the room with members of the Wollongong community. They were so engaged, to the point of vocal outburst at the mention of certain names. What was it like performing for people who are so close to that story?
That was a pretty unique experience. It is interesting because we had long arguments about including someone like Joe Scimone in the show. There is a lot of stuff not from the inquiry that we toyed with using, specifically related to the sexual harassment stuff. Joe Scimone was the big surprise in terms of audience reaction. When his name flashes up, the whole audience goes, “oh!”. It is like, oh my god, what is the place of this man in the community? He seems totally sleazy –exactly the sort of person you recognise because you know people like him, but there’s no juicy scandal stuff there in the inquiry. There’s a range of allegations of sexual harassment and even some talk about Scimone being involved in a series of date rape charges, but it’s difficult to sort through. But the reaction of the people in Wollongong was quite extraordinary.
We struggled with this for a long time. Who are we as a bunch of outsiders to tell the story? Would it be better for local people to tell it? But, it’s a story that needs to be told and told in a way that is effective. Not that local people could not do that, but there was no one on the ground that was doing that, so it falls to us. The responsibility is a bit terrifying, particularly so because the show was going up around an election. We opened on a Wednesday and the election was on Saturday. That was the first election they’d had since the council had been sacked. The former General Manager of council, who was in the show, was standing for the Lord Mayor. Unusually for Australia, the Lord Mayor in Wollongong is popularly elected. In most other local governments, you elect the council and they elect the mayor, but not in Wollongong. So there was a high stakes sense around it.
We did question an answer sessions after every performance. The level of engagement with the subject was extraordinary. There was this very rich conversation around the work, but also around the things that aren’t in the work. We had a lot of people saying, “why weren’t these people in the show?,” which is fascinating. You wouldn’t get that anywhere else. “Well, they were just a bit boring.” The only person who has gone to jail isn’t in the show because he didn’t take us anywhere. He was a councilor. He was found guilty on two counts of lying to ICAC and jailed. There was a theory that the only reason he went to jail was that he couldn’t afford a fancy lawyer like the others because his wife had been sick, so he had no money. All the others could hire a fancy lawyer to make sure there is enough doubt. He becomes a sad figure, and frankly his testimony wasn’t very interesting. We are not conducting an investigation that has to have some criminal proceedings at the end of it. We’re making a show.
So, that was amazing.
Doing The Disappearances Project in Bathurst was also amazing. While they are not identified in the show, there are two cases in Bathurst, and most of the long interviews in the show are with community members in Bathurst, who are also unidentified. The primary disappearance that triggered Bathurst being interested in a show about missing persons was the disappearance in 2001 of a woman named Janine Vaughan. She and her friends had been drinking. Her friends and a security camera that was on the outside of another pub show she stepped into a car without any hesitation. Because she did that, everyone thinks she knew the person. That’s why it’s scandalous because everyone thinks she knew that person, so they live here. That has been hugely contentious in the local community. Who was that person? Various people have been blamed, various people’s backyards have been dug up. And, also the police investigation was handled spectacularly badly. The police detective who was running it at the time was actually suspended for indecent assault on a waitress and there was some suggestion that prior to the investigation that the missing woman had complained to friends that she was being stalked by a police officer whose description could only fit this man’s. All of this was omitted from official police documents. That came out some years later. There was a corruption inquiry and a range of charges recommended. It was an open wound in the community. We decided not to make a show about that because I really thought that was something that local artists needed to do. But, there is one description in there, which is a story that Irving has, where he talks about the barman who was there the night she disappeared. He said something about the car, and as soon as you said that word “car,” the people in Bathurst would start whispering. Everyone would turn and whisper to the people next to them. This was a really charged moment where people said, “oh, this is what they’re talking about.” At the end of the performance, it happened a few times that the audience was still. After the first performance, no one moved. There was a sense that there was a weight on the people present.
That must be gratifying as an artist to be having such a direct impact on the audience.
It is. But, it is also one of the two questions that we get from presenters when we try to take shows other places. First, is it still going to be relevant? But more recently around this pair of works is, “isn’t this a show just about Wollongong or Bathurst?” No. It’s a scandal that happened in Wollongong, but every local government has something like this. Yes, it is very much a show about Wollongong, and it was important to do in Wollongong, but it is not only a show about Wollongong. It is a show that has great resonance much further.
Convincing people of that can be more of a struggle. It’s a balancing act.
Who are your personal artistic inspirations?
Personally, I’ve been very influenced by Forced Entertainment. They’re an English company. They don’t do this kind of work; their work is usually about theatre – the process of making it and the process of doing it. I like the way that Tim Etchells writes about their work. I found that very inspiring.
In terms of longevity, and aesthetics, and cutting edge, The Wooster Group is very inspiring. I’ve only seen two of their shows in person, one of which was the remount of North Atlantic, which was interesting because Willem Dafoe was playing Ron Vawter’s role and someone else was playing Willem Dafoe’s role. It’s interesting the idea that you could remount something ten years later, and that’s OK. It still has relevancy and resonance.
Needcompany is a Belgian company. I saw a new show of theirs in 2009 called Morning Song. They would go from talking directly to an audience to telling a story, which would suddenly be interrupted by a physical movement. I really liked their aesthetic sense.
I like the way that Dumb Type, the Japanese company, uses bodies and video. They’re very interesting.
I have described our work to internationals as “the bastard child of Dumb Type and Forced Entertainment, but we do documentaries.”
I see Tectonic and Tricycle as the leading proponents of verbatim theatre. I am very interested in the future of verbatim or documentary theatre.
I prefer the term “documentary” to “verbatim,” and there is a whole debate around that. “Verbatim” implies an unmediated truth, which is absolutely not the case. Our work is absolutely manipulated. Forget the fact that we foreground the pretending-ness of this – even if we didn’t do that, I’d still be very hesitant to call it “verbatim theatre.” Yes, it’s the words of real people, but it’s the selected and carefully placed in relation to each other words of real people. It has some truth value, but that truth value is not unmediated. Documentary, by contrast, comes from the idea that these things come from documents. Documentaries can be polemic. Documentaries can carry a level of bias. That’s why I prefer that term.
What is coming up for Version 1.0 in the next year?
The company has changed over time, and one of the ways that is has changed is that in 2009, our reputation and practice had built up to a large enough degree that we got our first multi-year funding grant, which changed Version 1.0 from being a project-based company doing one project per year to running a program. In 2009, we did three works. In 2010 we did six. In 2011, we did eight. The volume of work that we do has radically increased. So, in answer to your question – a whole bunch of things.
We’re taking tours to Adelaide for the Fringe Festival: The Disappearances Project and another show called Seven Kilometres North-east. They’ll be playing in repertory.
Immediately on the back of that, we’ll do The Table of Knowledge in Sydney at Carriageworks.
From there, it gets to be a bit more of a movable feast.
Hopefully, we’ll be doing a collaboration with Australian Theatre for Young People, which is a show called The Tender Age about young people, relationships, and technology. We’ll have our first iteration of that in June at the Sydney Opera House, and the expanded version of that will premier in August.
We did a development of a new piece at Sydney Theatre Company for their Next Stage program last June called The Vehicle Failed to Stop about private security in Iraq. Hopefully we can return to that.
I’ve got a bunch of works in development for 2013 and 2014. And we have a big new project called Beautiful One Day, which is a collaboration between Version 1.0, Ilbijerri, which is an Indigenous company in Melbourne, and Belvoir. It’s the last show in Belvoir’s subscription season. That will open in the end of November.
And, we’ll have a few additional tours. Disappearances will go to Brisbane and do a Queensland Tour. Seven Kilometres North-east will hopefully go back to Europe. Earlier this year, it did a very short season in Sarajevo, Bosnia, so I hope we’ll get back to Bosnia, and also Croatia, Slovenia, and hopefully Serbia.
It sounds like life is a bit crazy right now.
It is. That’s been a big change. It used to be that we were just focused on one thing, do that thing, finish, and then do the next thing. Now whenever we make a work, there is some expectation that that work will have a future life. It will either be a one-off somewhere else or a tour. There are also always other things going. It does become a juggling act.
A good problem to have.
Yes. It’s the old idea of be careful what you wish for. You might get it!