Culture

Interview with the Creatives Behind ‘A Dog Called Monkey’

19 June 2017

CONTENT NOTE: DISCUSSION OF SEXUAL ASSAULT

When I step inside Tiamo, a popular Italian restaurant on Lygon street, I recognise Venus Notarberardino straight away, from the breathtaking promotional poster for A Dog Called Monkey floating around Facebook. Designed by Dylan Harris, the show’s publicity manager and AV designer, it accompanies a stunning trailer for the upcoming show, in which Venus plays the lead character. She’s not half submerged in water or wearing glitter on her cheekbones this time, but she has a smile from ear and to ear and waves me over enthusiastically. Sitting next to her is Laura Collins, the writer, who seems equally enthusiastic about seeing her words come to life.

The show, a story about sexual assault and its lasting effects on a group of friends, began as a short scene developed for the 2016 University of Melbourne’s ‘Tastings’. It’s been growing ever since, with Laura telling me, “The Tastings snippet has kind of been transformed into the final scene of the play, which is an exploration of how it got that point … how the subtle manipulations, and coercions, and undermining, snowballed and progressed to get to that final fifteen minutes.”

Over coffee, wine and pizza, we sit down to talk about the subsequent journey that has lead A Dog Called Monkey to this point – less than a week from opening night at the Tallulah Theatre. I ask Laura what inspired her to take her writing to the stage and she pauses a little before responding:

“I noticed that there was a difference in the way people talked about sexual assault when the perpetrator was someone they knew, compared to someone they didn’t know. It’s really easy to demonise perpetrators of assault when they’re strangers in alleyways, or American frat boys, but when its your friend or even someone you love, it starts to get a bit murkier – even though it’s not murky for the survivor. It’s very easy to say rape is bad. But it’s a lot harder to say, my best shouldn’t have done that.”

And she’s right. The majority of sexual assaults are committed by someone the survivor knows. But it’s generally not talked about, as if it exists in some kind of grey area, and that, according to Venus and Laura, is exactly what this show aims to do: make us talk about it.

However, it was important to Laura and director, Freya McGrath, that they created a safe rehearsal space when dealing with such a sensitive event. When I asked Venus and Laura about the rehearsing process, they stress that Freya was instrumental in creating a comfortable environment for everyone, keeping it lighthearted and focusing heavily on choreography, emphasising physical movement to express the meaning of the words, rather than strenuous emotional digging and method acting. Venus has apparently become very good at managing to diffuse difficult moments by pulling funny faces, which Laura very kindly demonstrates for me. “A teacher of mine once said that in life, we play against things,” says Venus, “you’ll see tears at weddings and laughter at funerals”.

“I think that’s why Freya and my partnership works so well, in that we both bring to it our strengths,” Laura tells me, “hers is working with people and creating beautiful movement with bodies on the stage, mine is words, and we focussed on our two things and brought them together”.

Such a positive attitude extends across the whole cast, with both girls stressing that it was a very female-led space, and the male actors were incredibly respectful about letting their voices be prioritised. Blocking for the more tricky scenes was directed to minute detail as well, as Laura and Freya felt it would have been too unfair to ask the actors to figure it out by themselves, considering the content.

Venus, who will make her first ever theatrical debut this Wednesday, says that it’s easy to fall into the trap of playing the victim when dealing with heavy subject matter:

“Because, actually, when you’re a person going through something like that, you’re not trying to feel all the bad stuff, you’re trying to alleviate all of that, you’re trying to not to feel.”

Laura chimes in, adding: “Venus has been so good at playing someone who is defined by her assault, but someone who wants to own it, control it, and be in charge.”

When I ask Laura if she felt like she had to compromise on her voice as writer at all, she shakes her head firmly and gushes about the production team who have been vital to translating her words onto the stage. She describes the success of the sound designers, Lewis Stevens and Anna Durham, in creating “a sexy wonderful hybrid of classical music and dance beats”, and when she mentions the genre “jazz rap”, I have to say, I’m very intrigued. Lighting designers Brendan McDougall and Ben Sheen have also managed to create the atmosphere she pictured, bright and upbeat to contrast against the darker themes. As for the rest of the actors, Venus feels like it was a group effort to achieve everything they wanted.

“It’s not like one woman verse these faceless monsters in her life – it’s about a complex relationship between seven people, and the complexities in how people were trying to help.”

Finally, I ask them if these complex relationships reach any narrative resolution by the end. Laura is reluctant to say yes or no, saying it’s a more subjective interpretation that the audience will have to come to on their own.

“I think her friends are trying to say the right thing, but it’s coming from a place of keeping everything happy, and keeping everything how it was in the past, rather than addressing this little black kernel of a memory inside of her.”