"Lurking in the text" | An interview with Helen Howard and Michael Futcher

In a few short days, Kupka’s Piano presents the Australian premiere performance of 'Words and Music', a radio play by Samuel Beckett set to music by Morton Feldman. For this special performance at the Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts, hosted by the Queensland Music Festival, we are very excited to welcome award-winning actress Helen Howard and director Michael Futcher in a rare return to the stage. KP pianist Alex Raineri sits down for a chat with Helen and Michael in between rehearsals.  

Helen Howard

AR: Firstly, welcome! Thank you so much for joining us for this rather dark and mysterious, yet extraordinarily powerful work. To recreate the context of a radio play as best as possible, we’re performing this work out of sight behind a curtain. There’s also some extended song components. I imagine this is quite a bizarre project for you both?  

HH: I do love a challenge! To be out of sight, relying on just one’s voice for a subtle intention in a piece which defies instant interpretation…? Yes, that’s unusual. I will find being out of sight rather freeing, however. If an actor ever wonders “how am I seen” or becomes self-conscious, then he or she is in trouble! At least being screened removes that danger – I’m being tongue in cheek of course!

MF: Yes, it’s quite unusual to do a radio play in front of a live audience, in the dark, but I think it will be a fascinating experience for all. It will certainly make demands on the audience’s imagination and it will be interesting to hear how people interpret the work, having nothing more than sound to convey the themes and characters (notice I didn’t mention “meaning” as this can only be suggested in a Beckett production – never made explicit!).

AR: It’s also very exciting and rare for us to be collaborating with practitioners of other artforms. In relation to working with Beckett’s narrative (one that is albeit quite abstract), it has been fascinating for us to step outside of the conceptuality inherent in purely instrumental music into a space which is driven by dialogue that alludes to a more concrete meaning. This juxtaposition of ‘words’ and/versus ‘music’ is in itself a fundamental notion of what is explored in this work. How does this manifest for you both in this iteration of Beckett’s radio play with Morton Feldman’s setting of the musical score?  

HH: This collaboration across disciplines is exciting for us too – we have begun associations with Anna Goldsworthy and Karin Schaupp too. Music and words have long been old and addicted lovers – in this piece perhaps they are more like old enemies, or competitors! But that old association we all have with both elements allows for a natural connection to the meaning, as long as we listen with open ears. Feldman has been as articulate in the music as Beckett in the words; rather than being obscure, we are beginning to hear very clear, distilled intentions in the piece. There are technical requirements from words and music, but when we get past those we enter a shared world of the relationship, the dialogue going on between them.

AR: Despite the complexity of Words and Music, there are some fairly notable narrative turning points that serve as structural pillars within the broad arc of the work. Bookending the work we have a prelude and postlude. In-between, the themes of love, age, and face (alluding to a past lover) are discussed. For me, there’s a very nice clarity within these themes. Even if the listener misses some of the detail in the text, these thematic components bear a lovely resonance and lends a sense of continuity to the work. Michael, I am particularly interested in your thoughts as a director, whether this has any immediate parallels with Beckett’s other works? 

MF: Yes, definitely. Apart from the familiar bleakness, which runs as a tone throughout Beckett’s oeuvre, perhaps one of the closest parallels that comes to mind is with my favourite play of his, Krapp’s Last Tape, in which an old man looks back on the key moments of his life by listening to tapes he had made during his late twenties and thirties. All three of the themes that Croak proposes in Words and Music get explored in this wonderful play. In Krapp’s Last Tape, the old Krapp is obsessed with the memory of a sexual encounter on a punt, experienced many years ago, which takes on an almost metaphysical significance for him – a kind of “totem” moment which puts into shadow all other experiences he has recorded. In Words and Music, written a few years after Krapp, Beckett has played with a sparser, more enigmatic variation on this theme, where another old man, Croak, aided by Words and Music, similarly seems to relive a significant moment of sexual union (“the great white rise and fall of the breasts, spreading as they mount and then subsiding to their natural…aperture”) which, one suspects, has embedded itself in Croak’s psyche in an unending “loop” of pleasure and pain! The brilliant interweaving of the themes of age, time and love makes these two works definitely feel like companion pieces.

Michael Futcher

AR: Beckett was famously hesitant about what kind of music was set to accompany his works. Despite having collaborated with Morton Feldman on the opera Neither (1977), it’s nevertheless quite strange that that ten years later, Beckett consented to Feldman writing a score for Words and Music (1987) without any involvement whatsoever. Another oddity is the level of interpretative decision making left open to the performers, particularly in the interaction between the ensembles commenting and quasi-directing the stilted ‘aria’ which emerges within the age and face sections. Helen, I’m interested in your thoughts. How do you define the performers responsibility in making these kinds of interpretative decisions within the framework of a writer, and composer, who are usually extremely clear in their intentions? 

HH: If we take the work on face value, there are some instructions as to tone for the word actors playing Joe and Croak. For instance, one tone is “orotund”, another “cold”, and many within sentences “How much longer cooped up here, in the dark? (With loathing) With you!” – where is here? Why dark? Why confined? Why loathing? Why no sense of an ending to it? All those questions get the mind moving. What is interesting is the exploration amongst the clues we are given as to what inspired them, what lies beneath them, unsaid. As a young actor I’d have lost confidence in the search for meaning, to which I was so wedded then! But as a mature actor, I trust my instincts more, and no longer fight for an impossible “perfection” or certainty as to the writer’s intentions. As soon as you stop being concerned with the lack of clear instructions, you find them lurking in the text. The more familiar you become with the whole, the more the words seem to be connected to a story of sorts, or an experience. When I read Beckett I always get flashes of connection - he evokes sensations, or dream-like knowledge that you suspect we all feel intuitively, and which connect us in this human experience, reduced to an essence. It can be bleak, living. I think even the most optimistic, cheerful people recognise that. Beckett articulates it idiosyncratically, and I’m grateful for his assumption that artists will embrace what he gives them. As for the music – well, it seems Beckett trusted the composer to speak for “Music”, and leave Words and Music to slug it out. Oddly, Beckett’s “composing” in words is more like music to me – suggestive, rhythmic, sometimes exultant, sometimes a flatline – than most other writers. I love the growing partnership with the ensemble in finding out who’s leading whom and when, and why! Who’s winning, who’s losing – who’s above all that?!

AR: Ending on a different note, I’m sure readers would love to know what other projects you both have cooking at the moment?! 

HH: I’m looking forward to playing Mrs Sivan in Anna Goldsworthy’s dramatized memoir Piano Lessons – that’s in September and October down in Sydney, Newcastle and Port Fairy. I love that character – she’s a Russian, she’s an inspiring teacher, and she’s a vivid character to portray. My own teaching has been enriched by her influence since first I directed the piece, with our dear, much-missed Carol Burns in 2014. I was honoured to play the role next time the piece was revived in 2015, and to revisit it this year is wonderful. Carol and I agreed with Anna’s frequent exclamations of delight at the commonality in our art forms. I’m also deeply involved in a second draft, for Sam Strong at Queensland Theatre, of my own play – a dramatization of the last months of Jane Austen’s life, which encompasses an adaptation of her last, almost finished, novel, Persuasion. A quarter of the piece is my own original writing, and I’ll admit that setting it alongside Austen’s awe-inspiring prose is daunting. I hope audiences will see the play produced at QT before too long.

MF: I’m directing Helen in Piano Lessons, as well as being her dramaturg on Persuasion so we’re fortunate to be working alongside each other a lot at the moment, which we both enjoy very much. For our theatre company, Matrix Theatre, we’re also working as artists in residence for Clayfield College and producing a play called Over the Moon and Far Away, which goes on at the Roundhouse Theatre in August. Following that we both work with the 2nd Year Bachelor of Fine Arts Acting students at QUT, on Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, which is a wonderfully challenging piece. I also have a couple of projects in development.

Tickets are available here for concert 2 of the "Words Fail" series: the Australian premiere performance of Words and Music.

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