In the lead-up to UHT’s Echo, Jeanette Tong sat down with cast member Sara Bolch to discuss her involvement in the production and gain some insight into the show.
What is Echo about, and why is it relevant?
The first 10 minutes is based on Ted Hughes’ adaptation of ‘Echo and Narcissus’ – the poetry is beautiful – and a dramatised version, which had some bizarre lines like “hands off, no hugs!” The poetry would’ve been quite distancing to perform, but we’ve blended it with the text that works dramatically and do it as a chorus to make it theatrical and fresh.
We’ve related the myth to a contemporary through a series of scenes. Some are improvised, some of it’s concerned with technology and also explores more in depth cases of narcissism like Anders Breivik, mixing it with lighter things like Narcissus’ self-obsession and how we can get lost in that.
Echo is actually far more interesting than Narcissus, because you understand the other one straightaway. She has no agency; she’s stuck in the reflection of another. But it’s a really interesting concept to explore and bring that into the next part of the show. Echo’s story is the overriding one we’re exploring, even if it seems like Narcissus is the one we’re exploring.
The audition callout asked for a variety of auditionees, including non-actors. Does this relate to the content of the show?
I would say that everyone is more of a performer than an actor – it’s a really diverse mix of voices, which is really intriguing to work with. The gender balance is quite good, and we have people from really different socioeconomic, religious, ethnic backgrounds, and some people have barely been involved with theatre before.
I think that in relation to what we’re exploring in Echo about not being able to have a voice in today’s society, it would be so contrived [to only have one kind of voice]. Unless you have a variety of voices, you’re not saying anything at all, so I think even in casting that was a clear decision.
With such a variety of voices, what’s the rehearsal process like?
Petra has really focussed on developing the cast as a collective chorus of voices instead of just assuming that will come, because it’s such an integral part of the show to intuitively understand each other and function on stage as a collective voice before breaking off into individual voices.
Rehearsals usually start with a school of fish kind of thing, and then we use a variety of stimulus material, divide into groups and work out a scene. It could be a monologue, it could be a physical theatre piece, improvisation – any theatrical form, just getting on the floor and getting time to make it up. Then we’ll present it to each other. Initially we had like an hour to come up with something but we’re used to working with each other now so we’ll take like 10 minutes.
And then Petra uses that to inform the shape of the show – what will or won’t work – the structure and other elements. It’s a really good back and forth kind of relationship, not just ‘this is what you’re doing’. There’s quite a lot of improv, which is terrifying, and your voice really matters.
It differs a lot from working off a more traditional script; I would say it’s more performance than acting, and you start to feel that there’s a real validity in what you have to say. You have to constantly be in the moment and you’re playing all of the time. We’ve come up with things that are really intriguing, and everyone’s voice comes through in different ways. That’s been good.
Have you learned anything new about narcissism while working on Echo?
We’ve had a lot of group conversations and you think ‘oh my god, I’m a narcissist’ but then you realise everyone’s thinking that and you sort of go ‘oh.’ But it does really force me to interrogate those assumptions about narcissism, along with things like entitlement. We also look at the opposite of narcissism – caritas – like when people give everything to other people and how it really ends up being their demise as well.
What’s also been intriguing is how varied pathological narcissism can be, and how it’s really subtle. We often ignore it and branch it off into a nothing kind of thing, like with Andres Breivik – they tried to diagnose him with everything else except this, and that’s obviously a very extreme case but it’s legitimate. And it’s important to bring it into conversation because it helps diminish [the stigma] while acknowledging it as a real thing.
That sounds like what the entire production is about, bringing things into conversation.
And there’s a lot of validity in doing this through the variety of voices we have, so it’s been really intriguing and funny and poetic.
UHT’s Echo opens Friday 22nd May in the Union Theatre. You can book tickets here or at the Information Centre Box Office, ground floor, Union House.
Image: Sarah Walker