Senser, the new Australian work by much-lauded Gumbaynggirr and Turkish playwright Brittanie Shipway, poses the intriguing hypothetical: “Would you risk everything to hear a song one last time?” Set in a futuristic world where music is outlawed, the piece is heavily influenced by dystopian social science fiction works including, George Orwell’s 1984, Margaret Atwood’s Handmaids Tale and A Brand New World by Aldous Huxley. Its style is also reminiscent of Bertolt Brecht’s Epic theatre in which the audience is constantly reminded that they are watching a representation of reality and not reality itself – a philosophy paramount to Stanislavski’s system.
Director Miranda Middleton acknowledges that Senser draws quite a lot of inspiration from Brechtian theatre, making use of devices such as direct address, song, character doubling, and historification. “For that reason, our design team (Grace Deacon for set and costume, Aron Murray for lighting) is leaning into a ‘poor man’s theatre’ approach to staging the work, whereby the artifice of the theatre-making is visible to the audience rather than hidden,” she says. “Think props appearing out of curtains, actors dancing at cabaret tables, and plenty of smoke and mirrors.’
Middleton believes Shipway has achieved a beautiful balance between darkness and whimsy in her writing and it’s Middleton’s hope that she can honour that through her direction.
Middleton was Shipway’s dramaturg for her first play A Letter for Molly, so when Shipway approached her about Senser, she was naturally very interested in continuing to develop their creative relationship.
“Brittanie and I share a love of theatre that is unapologetically “theatrical”, and Senser is absolutely that,” says Middleton. “Cabaret Queens, Drag Kings, a dance break involving the audience… I mean how could I say no?!”
Soon to open for its premiere season, the play introduces Ava who lives in a neoliberal world where everyone is watched by Guardians and music has been censored out of existence. Three generations into this new age, the people around her are content with the silence, but Ava hears music everywhere she goes. Determined to share the soundtrack of the past she opens an illicit underground cabaret bar, much to the chagrin of her ever-present Guardian. In her world, you wouldn’t dream of ever getting caught singing.
At its core, Senser celebrates the vitality of music, art, and freedom of expression for human beings. “Particularly in this age of cancel culture and working in our chronically underfunded arts industry which is still suffering the effects of Covid-19, it feels important and timely to be saying to our audiences: don’t be afraid to speak up, to sing loud, and to dance to the beat of your own drum,” says Middleton. “It’s far more dangerous to not feel than to feel. Apathy is public enemy number one!”
Middleton acknowledges that bringing a new work to the stage demands a lot of actors. They need to have the agility to deal with constant script changes (sometimes up until opening night), the empathy to breathe life into these characters for the first time, and the courage to trust in a never-seen-before work.
“We’re incredibly fortunate to be working with musical theatre stars Luisa Scrofani (In the Heights, Violet) and Adam Noviello (Chess, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) as our originating cast for Senser,” says Middleton of her intimate cast.” Both actors bring a great sense of play into the rehearsal room, as well as a great depth to their characterisation and of course their SENSATIONAL voices.”
Another key component of the storytelling is, of course, music featuring three original songs (two by Jess Newman, one by Brittanie Shipway) and musical direction/sound design by David Youings.
Middleton is a NIDA graduate and is particularly interested in the intersection of text, music, and movement on stage, and aims to create theatrical events which spark joy and connection. She loves to tell stories that make audiences’ hearts beat a little stronger inside of them. Her most memorable experiences in a theatre have been watching shows that have made her laugh, cry, and everything in between – Once at Darlinghurst Theatre Company and Michelle Brasier’s Average Bear are recent examples. “I think that we go to the theatre to not feel so alone in the world… to embark on a collective journey with a room full of strangers,” she says. “But I’m also very drawn to stories that spark joy; stories that create a little beacon of hope and light in a dark space, even if it’s fleeting.”
Middleton’s next job will be assistant directing Shaun Rennie on The Lovers, a pop musical adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream with Bell Shakespeare. This show, written by Laura Murphy, is ‘magic on steroids.’
As her inspirations, Middleton lists ‘a couple of kick-ass female directors’ that she really looks up to: Julie Taymor, who’s best known for her work on The Lion King, and Emma Rice who has done a lot of dark and magical adaptations of classic tales in the UK.
As a dancer, Middleton is also incredibly inspired by choreographers such as Amy Campbell and Kelly Abbey, who can so deftly tell story through movement. “Champions of our artform and industry like Virginia Gay are also incredibly cool. But really, the greatest influences in my creative life are the many, MANY amazing, talented people (such as Brittanie and the whole Senser team) that I’ve had the privilege of collaborating with to bring something into the world that wouldn’t have existed otherwise.”
Senser is a defiant and devilish celebration of music, freedom, and the things that keep us human, Says Middleton, “Cross-dressing. Glitter curtains. Shit hot music. Senser is going to be a bloody riot, and we can’t wait to share it with you!”
Senser is a Theatre Works produced season and an exciting addition to the 2022 in-house season of shows.
September 7 – 17