Sunday 16 July 2023

Love and loneliness with kerosene and SIRENS

After critically acclaimed seasons of kerosene and SIRENS, independent theatre company The Voice In My Hands is giving Melbourne a second chance of seeing these powerful works with a new double-bill season at fortyfivedownstairs. These one-person shows present rich character and environmental exploration with strong performances by its two actors, Izabella Yenna and Benjamin Nichol.

Both shows are also written by Nichol, who displays an incredible skill in bringing characters so vividly, passionately and frighteningly to life. Both shows have been nominated for a number of Green Room Awards, including a Best Production win for kerosene. We spoke to Yena about returning to the role of Millie for kerosene after two years and how she's changed since the first performance and to Nichol about his creative process in creating a narrative for two similar but very different people and circumstances.

"It’s so strange to think it’s been two years since I played Millie! In many ways it feels as if I never really left her as she’s always there in the background for me," Yena says. "I just love her brashness and deep rooted sense of belief and hope. Even though from the outside we may perceive these things as negatives or aspects that disrupt her life, for Millie this is the only way of being. There’s something liberating about playing a character so pure in their beliefs, so there’s that aspect that keeps pulling me back to the role, and also the fact that I think a story like Millie’s, who’s navigating loneliness and also confronting domestic and gendered violence, sadly always seems relevant and pervades our social climate. There’s a need for these types of stories to be told and recognised. Millie’s version is not representative of the whole, but I think contributes to a wider conversation about being isolated and coercive control."

In preparing for this season, Yena has reflected on how women have been portrayed in the media and pop culture and how this could change the way Millie is presented. "Possibly because of this play, possibly because I’m more aware of my surroundings and the world, possibly because I’m a young woman in society, but I think I’ve really absorbed more female driven and led content, from news stories to Netflix shows to podcasts," she explains. "I don’t think that’s been a deliberate choice per se but what it has done is deepen my understanding and awareness of what it means to be a woman in 2023. Inevitably I think that will inform my interpretation of Millie but it’s not something I’m imposing on her, it’s more a personal understanding."


With no set design, no props and no one else to share the stage with, Yena feels the pressure before each show, but once she gets into Millie's state of mind, there's no turning back. "kerosene is unique in the sense of how short and concise it is as a play. Once you’re on the ride, there’s no coming off. We often refer to it as a freeway with no exits. For that reason I spend a lot of time before the show mentally tracking through the major moments of the play, making sure to remember to drive towards them," Yena tells me. "Sometimes I’ll gently walk through the space to trace my movements in each scene, sometimes I do this with my eyes closed and just imagine myself performing. Because there are no sets or props and the storytelling all comes from the performer, I do an extensive physical and vocal warm up each night. The first time we did kerosene I remember feeling so scared and filled to the brim with adrenaline and genuine fear but weirdly I think that helped me tap into Millie and the enthusiasm and joy she starts the show with."


In SIRENS, Nichol takes to the stage as Eden, a twenty year old gay man looking for something more than what he can find in his hometown. The lessons Nichol learnt from writing his first play, kerosene, have guided his practice for SIRENS. "Every play I write has a relatively similar process to some extent. I nearly always write in intensive 24-48 hour periods - often this window of sleepless hell is how I generate an entire draft - but this is then followed by weeks of no writing at all. I use this time to either stew on the themes of the play, or as is more often the case these days, do everything I can to procrastinate and avoid having to think about it at all. I am a keen swimmer and runner too. Writing kerosene, I ran, and writing SIRENS, I swam. I find that getting out of my head and into my body is the best trick for overcoming inferiority complexes and/or writer's block," he says.


"I learnt an extraordinary amount about my practice as an artist while writing kerosene. When I began work on it, I was really muddling through and throwing paint against the wall to see what stuck. I used a lot of the knowledge I accrued throughout this process to inform SIRENS, which is a work that ultimately feels like the accumulation of quite a few other plays I tried and failed to write during the lockdown years. SIRENS started out as a remarkably different play and was originally developed for two performers. This was before I'd decided I wanted to write an entire anthology series of solo works that belonged within the same theatrical landscape. This iteration as a duologue was short lived however, and once this vision didn't come to fruition, I quickly adopted the previous techniques that I had found particularly useful while writing kerosene.


Asked if he prefers acting or writing, well, it's a no-brainer for Nichol. "Easy. Writing. I find it tougher and more demanding. I complain about it a lot more than acting because I'm not an introvert and I hate sitting at a desk, but I'm constantly surprised and excited by what it teaches me about myself. With every story I write, I fall in love with my characters, which in turn seems to encourage my empathy and curiosity to grow," he tells me. "Writing allows me limitless freedom and agency within my artistic practice. I love how it pushes my imagination. As an actor you get to visit some pretty extraordinary places, but as a writer you get to create those places. There's something almost transcendent about birthing something into existence."


Despite kerosene and SIRENS being so closely linked, neither Nichol or Yena see any chance of friendship between their respective characters. "I''m curious to hear Izabella's thoughts, but I don't think there's even a slim chance of a friendship between Millie and Eden. With the exception of her best friend Annie, Millie is supremely antisocial. Even though she would never admit to this, despite being lonely and deeply craving physical intimacy, she doesn't particularly enjoy the company of people," Nichol states. "Eden has the capacity for some pretty severe foot in mouth moments and I have no doubt that he would say something unintentionally, and maybe even intentionally, to enrage Millie, whose tolerance for irritation is already pretty low. If Eden could come out of this interaction in one piece, I'd say he'd done pretty well for himself."


"Agree. Absolutely not. Well, actually, perhaps, but they wouldn’t be friends for long," Yena adds. "It would be an intense brief friendship. I think mainly because Millie is frightened of change whereas for Eden, change and the possibility of change is what drives him. They’d confront their greatest fears and insecurities in each other, which I don't think Millie could live with for long. Plus, they’d never see eye to eye on the bigger things in life. Maybe they would share a pint or two."


Read our review of SIRENS' 2022 Melbourne Fringe Festival season

Read our interview with Benjamin Nichol on SIRENS' 2022 Melbourne Fringe Festival season


Show Details

Venue: fortyfivedownstairs, 45 Flinders Lane, Melbourne
Season: 2 - 12 August | Tues - Sat, 7:00pm and Sun 4pm (kerosene), Tues - Sat 8:15pm and Sun 5:15pm (SIRENS)
Duration: kerosene 50 mins | SIRENS 65 minutes
$65 Full (both shows) | $60 Conc (both shows) | $45 Full (single show) | $35 Conc
(single show)
Bookings: fortyfivedownstairs

Image credits: Jack Dixon-Gunn

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