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ARTS - To Hell And Back - Dean Walsh Interview

Author: Darryn King
Monday, 28 April 2008
Sydney Theatre audiences have had no shortage of productions on the grim realities of war this year, with Black Watch confronting audiences at the Sydney Festival and the current STC double-bill The Serpent’s Teeth. Choreographer Dean Walsh has created Back From Front, a highly physical, immersive and personal new production that explores a different war story – the story of what happens afterwards. He talked to Darryn King on the way to rehearsal.

How did you put this production together-
It’s a long story, really. It’s actually about six years in the making. The whole genesis of this, and where the initial ideas came from, was a solo piece I did called Ex-Service. It just received so much fantastic feedback. A couple of Vietnam vets came along to see it with their families, and they had tears in their eyes by the end of it. And I realised just how untapped this topic was, especially at the more physiological level, that I know of from my own experience.

I decided to turn it into a more global story, and took it to a choreographic lab in 2002 called Space For Ideas, which was held at the SDC. Two members of the cast now were there back then, Elizabeth and Matt – so they’ve stuck with it, which is just awesome.

The next stage of development was a three-week development purely looking at choreography, physicality and the ideas around the cycle of violence and the hand-me-down hurt of war – how that kinda gets handed down through generations and how we then deal with it during peacetime. Supposed peacetime, because sometimes, in our families, it’s still war. We explored how people deal with that, individually and communally.

Back From Front focuses mostly on the aftermath of war rather than war itself-
Yeah. At times we show elements of the volatility of war, but we’re more interested in the way it’s manifested in domestic violence and unease of the individual. It is more about the aftermath really – it’s what we’re left with once war is over. And it’s really not just an Australian perspective – it applies to anyone who is exposed to disharmony at a social level. It’s just such a troubling thing. The children of Vietnam vets have 300 per cent higher suicide rates than the general population. It bowls me over.

Can you tell us about the multimedia element-
The multimedia element made it an extremely complex piece to put together. It’s a way of saturating this domestic space – a completely white space onto which images are projected – visuals that integrate with the characters’ psychology. It’s seriously interactive.

You must’ve heard some pretty moving stories in your research.

Oh yeah, absolutely. In 2004 I think it was, the cast went out to the Vietnam Veterans Federation of Australia and interviewed about eight vets and a couple of their wives. I was just bowled over by how ready they were to disclose this information about themselves. It ended up being a four-hour interview.
Graham Walker, who is the honorary research officer for the Vietnam Veterans Federation, has been our adviser for this piece, so he was facilitating it.
They just went off. They were just explaining their experiences, their experiences since they’ve been back, how it affected them, how some of them didn’t hit the wall till 10 years later…

Some of them became alcoholic, or violent… But their families didn’t see an evil man, they saw a man in distress. It was really interesting to hear their stories and really moving. And the wives started to talk about taking on the stress disorder, and how they felt like they were living, in some ways, the same war. They’d have to make sure the clocks were off at night, or the whirring of the fridge would sometimes upset them.

One thing they discovered was that the men seemed to be more agitated on Tuesday and Thursday nights – and what they discovered was that it was because it was garbage night. The black bags reminded them of body bags.

The play deals with the past and present horrors of war, but what does it say of the future-
It sounds like a whole heap of horror, and it is, but at the same time it’s a very poetic work, and at times a gorgeous work, which is a nice contrast with the rawness of the very technical dance happening on stage. We have an ending that is quite hopeful but it’s far from sentimental. It’s a balancing act.

It does feel like my life’s work – some of my work in the past has worked with domestic violence and homophobia and out-of-control masculinity, and how we all, men and women, deal with it. In a way this really does feel like a culmination of that.

I have a really fantastic cast, and we’re all happy that we’ve got a huge job ahead of us.

WHAT: Back From Front at Carriageworks
WHEN: Thursday 1 May – Saturday 10 May
MORE: ticketmaster.com.au

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