An Interview With

James Berlyn

Creator and Director of the 2019 Martin Sims Award Winning Show: REST



How long have you been an artist?

How long have I been an artist? Depends what you mean by “have been”. One answer is, always. I have always been the same kind of person as I am now, interested in making stuff and finding creative solutions to problems which I encounter during the making of said stuff. I have always loved that and can’t imagine that that is going to change nor, can I imagine a life worth living without that.  Of course, another answer is that I was first paid as an artist in 1985 to dance in a dodgy film clip of an 80s New Romantic Band filmed for Countdown. It’s on YouTube somewhere but you’d need to know the name of the band and the song and that’s not going to happen. So, 1985 to 2019, if my maths serves me and it usually doesn’t, that means I’ve been doing this ‘making art’ thing, on more than off for the best part of 34 years.

Can you tell us a bit about your practice?

About my practice? I started in dance and making dance and then my body got very quickly over the idea, and multiple surgeries later I decided to stay focused on making stuff with less dance and more words. Actually, I never really thought about making work in movement terms or at least wasn’t in love with thinking about making art as pure a movement form. Love is of course the clichéd key to it. Making bad art is easy, making good art is so so much f**king harder so you’d better love it just as hard. And I do.

Clichés aside, I love to make performances where the performers get to do more than perform and the audience is offered and invited (but not forced) to do more than be an audience. Performer/audience relationships fascinate me. It is the way these particular human relationships (performer/audience) are so fleeting and fragile and unique, that it feels to me like some kind of unintended barometer of the health of the community in which these performances are taking place.

Can you tell us a bit about your Award-winning show?

REST began at a meeting with the National Trust of WA who had heard about a site-specific work I had been commissioned to make with the 2nd Year Bachelor of Performing Arts WAAPA students in 2016. They pitched me an idea of making a show at the East Perth Cemeteries site that was more than just a night time walking tour.  At the time, I was an independent artist, I wasn’t yet working for WA Youth Theatre so the show I came up with was essentially a small-scale two-hander. Then I got the EP job at WAYTCo and I realized how many young members could potentially be involved in the project.

REST was about making a show that attempted to strike a balance between the history of the site and powerful performance.  If the show was all history it wouldn’t have worked, conversely if it was all performance it wouldn’t have worked either.

For me it was essential to refer honestly to the full history of the site from its earliest Indigenous usage through colonization and up to the present day. I knew I needed Noongar performers to speak to the Noongar heritage of the site and I knew I wanted the show to be made with a diverse group of performers who could both speak to and challenge the diversity of most of the people buried there.  

REST had such a huge cast, what are your tips for bringing together so many people?

Working with large casts is not easy. Have clear chains of command and make sure everybody is on the same page. Spend the time to get them there and keep them there (on the same page). I wanted to offer an opportunity for the many WAYTCo members who worked on it to have what I call creative collateral in the project. That is to say each performer chose the grave history they wanted to refer to in their one-on-one section of the work. Furthermore, they established professional performers in the show added performance mentoring both during rehearsals and performance for our young members.

Has there been a particular show that has moved or inspired you?

There have been so many shows that have moved or inspired me… I love going to both good and bad performances, there is always something valuable to learn! More recently, The Second Woman at PIAF 2018 was mind blowing. Bryony Kimmings’ two shows at FRINGE WORLD a few years back were incredible. Bat Sheva’s Sadeh21 also at PIAF was the first show I’d seen in decades where afterwards I had to find a quiet corner by myself outside the theatre and weep uncontrollably for a while. I love work and I try to make work that leaves the audience with an emotional show bag that you can pour through later.  

Can you tell us about a time where you have had an amazing show / encounter with an audience member?

I’ve had more than a few amazing encounters with audiences over my time. Most notably there have been loads with my one-man secrets show Tawdry Heartburns Manic Cures which I have performed more than 1200 times around the country. I started it by letting strangers whisper their secrets into my ears. BAD MOVE! True or not, I am not a clinician and I got some deeply spooky shit loaded into my brain until I stopped that version of the show. On the flip side helping someone to anonymously get something off their chest (via a typewriter and a secret ballot box) and have them weeping for joy/relief is incredibly humbling. I realized too late that a young surfer dude at WOMAD Festival had been typing his secret into one of my typewriters for about ten minutes while I was performing with/for another audience member. After all that typing, he looked over at me and said, ‘hey mate, where’s print?’ He hadn’t read the instructions on the table and didn’t know you put paper into a typewriter before you start typing. Didn’t I feel old!

what are your tips for young and emerging artists?

It’s simple really, if you absolutely need/want to do this art thing, you will. It won’t be anything like you expect and it will cost you more than you ever thought, but it is possible. I usually also offer this to emerging artists. I make art because it’s often the clearest way I can speak and the best way I can be understood. If somebody gets what I’m doing then for a very brief moment I feel like we really are sharing this existence together, and I feel that I’m not alone and that this place is ‘real’. It’s proof of life stuff for me and that’s why I need to do it.

Do you have a favourite part of the show you can share with us?

My favourite part of the show was standing every performance under the night sky with a group of 25 or so performers encircling the 20 audience members who were under their blankets, resting on their stretchers in the middle of an empty looking cemetery in the heart of the city listening to a Noongar Elder talking about the site set to music by Rachel Dease. Very very special, even if I do say so myself.

How LONG Were you developing rest?

From first meeting to opening night was about 23 months.

what’s next for rest?

A cut down two-three-person version of the show that hopefully can play for years at East Perth Cemeteries and if we get it right can actually pay our young WA Youth Theatre Company performers.

What are you working on now?

The cut down version of REST which we hope will play for years and pay our members who perform it, and a triple bill for FRINGE WORLD 2020!

what’s your favourite thing about fringe world?

I have many, many favourite things about FRINGE WORLD. The hijacking of the city for mass art craziness – there should be more of it all year round! The art that comes here for it. The people who come here for it. The people here who flog themselves half to death for it, makers, marketers, moochers and more! The way FRINGE WORLD changes the cultural and emotional temperature of the city for those few wonderful weeks.

how important is diversity in your work?

Diversity is critically important. I’m 6’5” and I’m here to tell you that, “One size fits all!”, is utter bullshit. I wouldn’t have a career except for exploring life outside of the norm… Room was made for me back in the day and there are still so many trained performers and young performers in training who don’t yet have enough ‘room’ to move as it were. We have an obligation to provide opportunities and celebrate all the fabulously different and un-‘normal’ voices and perspectives that abound here in WA. We will be richer and more fulfilled for it.

What does it mean for you to be making work in WA?

I’m not from here. I choose to be here in WA. It’s a supportive and generous place. Of course, the isolation works as an advantage or a disadvantage depending on how you play it. I love that in this place you can knock on any door and usually begin a conversation that may or may not lead to something, but you nine times out of ten can have a conversation. I’m from Sydney and I trained in Melbourne I know in those places sometimes you don’t even get the chance to knock on the door. Also, if you make high quality work in WA that is flexible tour-able and portable, you will be able to take it out of the State. You will!

If you were an animal, what animal would you be?

Fantastic, I love this question! It’s always been the same for me. I have always felt my spirit animal or the animal I would most want to be is the Wandering Albatross. Not now of course because commercial long-lone fishing is wreaking havoc on their numbers but back in the old days… How a living animal can stay airborne for up to a year at a time is utterly spellbinding to me. I mean WTF. How amazing, how beautiful, how stoic and serene.