Q&A | Jim Hughes Director of I Know You’re There

Posted by Thom Smyth, February 15th, 2016

Rachel Audino our Marketing Assistant met with Director of I Know You’re There Jim Hughes last week. Have a read about this very interesting man with a long career in the performing arts. There is also some insight into his free Masterclass as part of PIAF Connect.

RA | I met with Jim Hughes in-between the busy rehearsal period of James Berlyns’ latest show  I Know You’re There for PIAF at the State Theatre. I was so excited to chat with him and find out more about his career and his involvement with the show. Jim founded the Fieldworks Performance Group in 1988, creating numerous productions including Scenes in a Prison, Crossings, Why Can`t Emus fly? and Brecht’s Women. In 1998 Jim returned to Europe and set up an artist residency studio in Basel, Switzerland, where he continues to develop his diverse artistic practice. He is such a lovely man and so humble. With his Irish accent and eloquence I could have listened to him all day.

RA |Maybe we start by chatting about the history between you and James? When did you meet and how did you start working together?

JH| It’s a very long history but the first meeting was really quite interesting. James came to one of my performances and I saw this very tall guy. As you can see  I’m quite short; I usually work with people my size, haha. He said to me “I want to work with you” and I said “Great, that’s really interesting.” In my head I was thinking…I wonder how we will end up working together.

What came about was I saw James in a work called Beautiful Mutants, I saw that he was a magnificent performer and then I couldn’t wait to work with him. That’s the way I would choose my people. I never auditioned people, I really didn’t like putting them through that process. Then a big piece came up called Scenes In a Prison and James was perfect for that.

James had a different way of working to everyone else. He would go away and write stuff and bring it to me. I’d look at it and think ‘gee that’s a great piece of writing’ and we would add it in – I never really worked with text.

Another thing that happened at that time was he had created a piece with a young artist. She got afraid of it towards the end and pulled out just before the performances, so James approached me and asked if I could direct. The gay theatre was something I knew nothing about. I had taken to James as a person and the universal way that he talks about everything. It was great and it was an absolute ball to work with.

I found out then that James was a terrific performer and he knows exactly what he needs. It’s not the sort of directorial role where you say do this and do that, he has very good ideas himself and as you realise is a very professional and experienced performer. It’s a joy to come and work with him again.

RA | So tell us about I Know You’re There, what do you think the audience can expect form it?

JH | I think what we’re looking at is a very humane universal story, where James talks about his own journey through life. It is actually very interesting as he has been through some very difficult situations you could say. I think the idea is, instead of feeling sorry for him, the idea is to prompt people into those almost hidden agendas which everyone has in their lives. I think reverting mostly around ones relationship with their father, ones relationship with their mother and how they cope with that. I actually think these are very big questions for everybody, and I think that through the script he manages to indicate in a way, or touch upon us these areas of  very deep psychological, you could call it parts of us and awaken these areas. It is in a way a very sensitive and very human performance.

RA | What made you want to work with James on this particular show? I know that you both developed it in Basel. What was the process of that?

JH | Again another one of those very interesting stories. I’d been out of the business for about ten years, when I say out of the business I mean out of theatre and dance because I couldn’t find people of the quality in Switzerland like I could in Australia; Australian performers are so well-trained and I didn’t want to work with people that I had to train again, so I went into my own shell you could call it and I made visual art in my own little studio.

I always came to see James in whatever he was doing here as I was always interested in what he was developing. I saw the Proximity Festival at the Blue Room Theatre; I thought this was fantastic step forward in performance. I was completely knocked out, I said here’s James now as a mature performer, he’s managing his ideas, he’s great with people. I thought this is a great idea, this is a great concept, I do performance myself but not like Proximity. I could almost see the whole history of the performance development here in front of me since I started doing performance 35 years ago. I was so happy for James and we had a good chat about that. Next time I was here he asked if I would like to work with him again, I said “of course” but I never thought it would be anything like this.

James got a DCA Fellowship which meant he could come to Basel and be with me for a month, he came to me and stayed in my studio. Space is at a premium in Switzerland, people don’t have big spaces. My studio is 40 square metres, probably double the size of this dressing room. It’s full of paper; I work a lot with paper, collage and building installations that sort of thing.  James walked in and we wanted to start working on a piece, we didn’t discuss what piece we just started working from zero. And then I said to him perhaps we should hire another space not a small studio, he said no no no I love this space this is absolutely great, and a it just happened, I had a round table, a found table from the street (this becomes a main feature in James’ show) he said I like this round table, I said just clear it and you can start to work. So James sat there at the round table and he went to the local supermarket and bought brown paper and started to make things. I could do my own work at the same time, I know James so well I just let him get on with it. Not a lot of discussion happened; he would just come in and start working every day. It was lovely, the symbiosis of the development. Eventually he brought in a script and at the end of the month we thought we’ll do a showing.

So we asked eight people in, it was a tiny table about two meters across. So we did it, and we thought there’s a piece in that alright. There’s something really interesting going on here. The amazing thing is James walked away from that and thought yeah yeah there is an interesting piece but it needs a lot of development. Now what I admire about James is that there’s about 40 versions of that script, he kept developing it and honing it down.

One of the best things about James is his ability to choose the right people around him. Now I feel I’m one of the lucky ones. There’s people like Malcolm Hughes, who had been deeply involved in theatre in Sydney and knows so much. James would ask him to look at the script and he would look into the finer details of the script. Allison Croggan who is a writer and theatre person, she looked at the script and gave feedback. In relation to the set we had Zoe Atkinson advising, she’s the most lovely person. They are all beautiful people. The best of the lot, and I always say this is the producers, Fiona and your company they have been so supportive.

I was saying to James the other day when rehearsals were tough I felt that this project was guided from above, this is going to work. I had a revelation the other night, I hope I don’t sound too spiritual, but I said ‘This is a goer. You might be down but we’ll lift you up’.

I know how to work with James, a very sensitive man and a beautiful performer.  He needs a lot of support; I’m more like a friend, more a mentor and less of a “director”. It was nice to see my role change including my own ego pull out of it. This is James’ show he did everything, all he needs is a little eye from the outside and that’s been my role and I’m very happy with it.

 RA | How did Fieldworks Performance Group impact on Australia at the time? Was there anything like it?

JH | There was nothing like it, but it’s hard for me to say, it would be very egotistical. I was thinking about this, I mean we only have 16 people for James’ performance but I never had more than 30 people. You know it was a bit esoteric, it was a bit investigative, it was new theatre. I loved it because I could experiment like an artist, like James has continued to do. I don’t know what the impact was, in the end proliferation of really good performance that I see around the place. Performance art has exploded. Whether my work had anything to do with that I cannot say.

RA | You are running a free Masterclass with PIAF, what do you cover in the workshop?

JH | I’m looking at honesty, I’m calling it the essence of performance. The essence in way is that all performance really comes from you. Even if you’re working with a text you’re a messenger for that ext but you need to be there 100%, it’s your voice and your heart speaking.

You must embody the words, if it’s text; if it’s dance, you must embody the movement. In a way it’s simple, take the road back and centre the body. I work with the Feldenkrais technique, bringing the body back to its origin, centre and truth. It’s a stripping back to who really you are, like James is doing in his performance. It’s physical, thoughtful, deep and meditative.

I want people to leave being able to go back into that area of themselves, their real self. The performance life can be difficult, I will talk about health and caring for yourself as a performer and respecting yourself. My opinion is you will have a better chance of getting a job if a director can see that you know yourself and there is truth to you, that’s my advice. This workshop will go back to the basics, it’s simple and will teach useful techniques.

Join Jim in a FREE masterclass for PIAF Connect

To register for the Masterclass – email connect@perthfestival.com.au with a short bio and a paragraph explaining how the opportunity will inform your artistic practice

Filed under Artists, James Berlyn