Kevin Lapin and his collaborators are now presenting what promises to be a stunning piece of a physical theatre over at the Tank. In this interview, Kevin talks all about The Floating Brothel and how his company developed the piece.
1) So...tell us about the piece.
Adapted from historical accounts, Floating Brothel follows three women—a down-on-her luck country girl, a thirteen-year old prostitute and a high-class con artist—on their harrowing year-long voyage from the underbelly of London to the underside of the world.
It starts in London, 1789. A whirlpool of filth, thievery and political unrest. Jails overflow with petty criminals, many of them women forced out of work and onto the streets as jobs are reclaimed by soldiers returning from the American war. The penal code hasn't been updated in more than a century, and crimes as trivial as pickpocketing are hanging offenses. Faced with a legal system in crisis, and a growing humanist movement opposed to executions, the courts hit upon an innovative solution: ship the woman convicts to Australia to revive the failing all-male penal colony in New South Wales.
2) Can you give a brief description of your source material for The Floating Brothel? What drew you to the story and what sort of research did you do before the development process began?
Our source material was a number of historical accounts of exile to Australia like "The Fatal Shore", "Mary Bryant" and the journal of one of the characters, John Nicol. There's also a book that's actually called "Floating Brothel" that we drew from as well. We came across the material while working on another project. We loved it but couldn't use it on that project, so decided to save it for later.
We describe the play as historical fiction. This time period is extremely rich in its details, stories and even the types of jobs people did to survive. For example, in the play one of the secondary convict women says that she used to be a "pure-finder" which was a real job that involved going around and collecting dog turds to sell to the tannery at 3 pence a bucket. Even the love story between Sarah and John Nicols is based on his memoirs. With details as rich and colorful as this, why make stuff up?
We link to several of the most important references on our website in the "About" section, for those who want to read more.
3) I believe many in your troupe are graduates of Ecole Jacques Lecoq. Can you tell me how that training informed the process you used to create this piece?
The Lecoq school influenced not only the process for creating this play, but it's central stylistic conceit. The small stage that we use is called a "tréteau" at the Lecoq school and is linked historically to the small stages of traveling Commedia troupes.
I think one of the most important thing that you learn at Lecoq is creating new work as an ensemble. Every week, you work in small groups to create a short scene or piece which you present to the group on Friday. Both Megan and I very much enjoyed working with the tréteau at Lecoq and were curious to see if it would be possible to perform a whole show on one.
The way we worked to create "Floating Brothel" was very much in the style of ensemble creation that we practiced at Lecoq, that is to say, we started with nothing but an idea and then worked collaboratively to develop the final work of theater. I think it is true with any ensemble or collaborative creation that at some point in the process people step forward and take on certain responsibilities, so not every word or decision is made as a group or by vote, nevertheless almost every aspect of this play from the text, to the staging, to the costumes, to the marketing materials exist as a result of our group's collaboration and I don't think any of it would be the same if they had been the purely the product of individual creation. From my experience at Lecoq and working on other ensemble projects since, the group is better than the sum of its parts. I should add that in this case, we were extremely lucky that Megan started off the process by bringing us a fairly full outline or rough draft of the script. Although it has changed quite a bit in terms of structure and actual dialogue, it is a real gift to have a strong starting proposition like that to use as a spring board. It's the same thing in improvisation, which is another key element of the Lecoq method, that is getting on your feet and improvising to create and try things out, good improvs start with a concrete proposition and proceed by all the actors adding to it, "Yes, and..."
4) You face the extraordinary challenge of creating a ship on stage, and on a 3'x 6' platform, no less. How did you approach the staging of these nautical scenes?
One of the reasons that we chose this story was precisely because we wanted to stage it on the small "tréteau" platform. From our work with the tréteau at the Lecoq school, we felt that part of the magic of the style comes from trying to tell as big and as epic a story as possible from the confines of the reduced space. It wouldn't be particularly interesting or challenging, in terms of the staging at least, had we chose to tell a story that took place in an elevator, for example, because then the platform would remain exactly what it is, a small space. The goal, and challenge, is to transport the audience to many different places, the high seas, bustling London, a dirty bilge, all from the confines of a small 3' x 6' space.
5) Your press release mentions your use of cinematically-inspired staging. How did that vocabulary evolve? Were you looking to any specific films or directors in your approach?
The challenge of the "tréteau" which I just described in response to the previous question, that is of telling an epic story from a 3' x 6' platform (with just a few simple props), in many ways is the magic of cinema. Images flash and cross on a small screen and transport us to other worlds, big and small. The "tréteau" is like a TV or movie screen without the special effects. You have to consider establishing shots and close-ups in order to provide the audience with perspective and create the story line. On the small stage, we don't have the luxury of changing sets, or crossing to a new space to tell the audience that the next scene is taking place somewhere else. Similar to film, one scene often cuts directly to the next and the audience or viewer fills in the blanks of what happened in between. If we hear a knock, and then see a character closing a door and speaking to someone else, we understand that the person must have just arrived at this new room. Similarly, in Floating Brothel we often cut from one scene to the next or use small scale images (the boat on the high seas) and allow the audience to fill in the blanks with their imaginations.
6) How can people find out more information about your show?