Steve Rodgers on Food
Q: You are directing Food with Kate Champion, did you set out to create a work with physical/dance elements, or did that come later?
A: I spend a fair bit of time thinking about an idea before doing anything. If the story keeps nagging at me I’ll eventually have a go at writing it. With Food, while I knew the characters and the setting – based on some girls I grew up with who lived and worked a fish and chip shop near by; I also knew the nature of the story demanded more than writing a piece of naturalism.
Food is very much about memory, how we construct and frame it, how we own an experience according to whether we were a witness or participant to the event. It’s a story where the domestic interacts with the epic, and I wanted the theatrical form to be able to mirror that objective – where inner thoughts and subtexts could be explored through body and image, physically, at times sharing the space, and sometimes transcending the dialogue. So yeah, I wrote with Kate in mind. I’ve always been attracted to Force Majeure’s work because it seems to be able to pinpoint the stakes inherent in our familial relationships; it’s very much about connection; to the audience and to each other, and in a play where two sisters are fighting for connection, Kate’s a brilliant fit to direct it.
Q: Food and cooking seem especially popular at the moment, particularly with reality shows like MasterChef and My Kitchen Rules making chefs and cooks into celebrities. What is it about cooking that is so captivating? Why did you make food a central motif in this drama?
A: I watched an interview a while back between Tony Jones and Stephen Fry on Lateline. Stephen Fry was talking about his role as a narrator in a new television series, where he gets to visit exotic places, revealing rare creatures and environments we might never see. He spent sometime with Gorillas in central Africa – and noted how gob-smackingly connected we are to these mammals, how similar. He said, like us, their primary wants are food and sex – companionship – and the rest is merely detail. So Food, as the title suggests – is a play about food and cooking, but it’s also very much about sex, and how our relationship with both can define us, and occupy so much of our breathing time. I guess television executives have worked that out as well. Food and sex are beautiful things – both necessary for our survival, but potentially, dangerous to our hearts… At their best – experienced with love – they are the definition of communion. I hope in the downstairs space, that’s what the audience will experience with these characters – a kind of communion, a coming together at the table.
Q: The structure of the script is quite unusual with the characters describing what they are doing in the third person, interspersed with the dialogue. Why did you use this technique?
A lot of the plays I’ve worked on over the years as an actor have employed breaking up the authorial voice of the play with this technique – many of them adaption’s of novels. It allows different voices to be in control and change the perspective of the story at any given point – highlighting inner and outer thoughts in much the same way that Shakespeare does with direct address or private soliloquy. The blurred lines between the actor and the character always excite me – and I like how both can step outside the action and view what’s going on from a distance. I think it also reminds us we’re in a theatre all sharing the story together, liberating the actors and audience from any notion that what’s taking place is real – but rather it’s an imagining, a bit of magic – that allows us to experience something truthful about ourselves.
“Steve Rodgers’ new play kneads family drama and intercultural rom-com with traces of desire and sexual violence into intimate and involving theatre."
Jason Blake, Sydney Morning Herald – Read more
Family drama with sizzle, served with a side of sexual undercurrents
Steve Rodgers’ new play kneads family drama and intercultural rom-com with traces of desire and sexual violence into intimate and involving theatre.
We’re in the kitchen of a small town takeaway joint, the kind specialising in fry-fests and Chiko Rolls. The no-nonsense Elma (Kate Box) has presided over the place since her mum died, while her younger, flightier sister Nancy (Emma Jackson) went off and did her thing.
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Now Nancy’s back with an idea to capitalise on Elma’s home-cooking skills. Why not reinvent the shop as a comfort food haven for tourists seeking the authentic taste of country Australia? Corned beef, fish pie, lamb shanks.
In order to do that, some kind of rapprochement will have to be achieved first (no easy matter given the depth of resentment built up over the years) and the sisters will need some help with the food prep, too.
Enter the overtly charming Hakan (Fayssal Bazzi), a recent migrant from Turkey, whose happy-go-lucky presence proves therapeutic – that is, until Nancy decides Elma might benefit from some attentive male company.
Narratively speaking, Food isn’t breaking a lot of new ground but this production, co-directed by Rodgers and choreographer Kate Champion, serves up a gently innovative, multi-disciplinary work that feels fresh despite the familiarity of some of its elements.
Champion’s input creates a parallel language for the play’s darker sexual undercurrents, which thickens the emotional subtext of a sparely written, laconically voiced script. The performers slide from dramatic realism to sensual movement and back in such a way that you don’t question it. Acting, dancing, cooking and cleaning on a set made of pots and pans (Anna Tregloan), the performances are warm, detailed and open. Box, in particular, is a delight to observe.
Martin Langthorne’s lighting and Ekrem Mulayim’s score conspire to lend the piece the integrated feel of a film – which you can very easily imagine this story becoming.
Jason Blake, Sydney Morning Herald
“Everything is so simple yet so evocative."
John Mccallum, The Australian – Read more
Kitchen a stage for trauma taming in Food
In a country town, two sisters running a fast-food joint set up a new restaurant specialising in old-fashioned comfort food, “the sort grandma used to make”. Nancy has been the flighty one and Elma the capable one, but as they bicker and nag at each other it becomes clear they are deeply co-dependent.
As Steve Rodgers’s fine new play develops we see that they both need a lot of comfort.
The deceptively simple situation between them is played out in realistic dialogue interspersed with narrative scenes in which their traumatic past is gradually revealed. In these scenes particularly, Rodgers’s vivid writing evokes the darkness that lies beneath the everyday surface of a world of small-town streets, buildings and open spaces — places to live, to party, to eat and to be hurt.
There is much trouble in their past: a traumatic family background with a wild mother and her string of lovers, the casual brutality of teenage boys, the longing for acceptance that leads to submission, the longing for control that leads to bulimia. Sex and food can be comforting in complex and damaging ways.
The style of Kate Champion and Rodgers’s production moves between the ordinary and the heightened. As well as the narrative flashbacks, there are movement sequences in which the conflicts and the moments of tenderness are finely distilled: the chopping of potatoes, the slicing of beans, the crushing of garlic, the falling of tap water, the pouring of wine — everything is so simple yet so evocative.
The success of the restaurant is celebrated by serving food and drink to the audience. The drunken aftermath is celebrated in dance. Anna Tregloan’s set, constructed mainly from stainless steel industrial kitchen equipment, is brilliantly used, especially when the pots and pans on the back wall are suddenly illuminated with projected images by Martin Langthorne.
Fayssal Bazzi, as the arrogantly sexy blow-in to town who works as a kitchen hand in the women’s restaurant, plays a big role in the women’s sad crisis.
There is a lot in this play that is familiar but it works because of this stylistic mix and also because of superb performances by Emma Jackson and Kate Box as Nancy and Elma. They play the everyday scenes with a lot of nuance and sensitivity and when the final moment comes the prickly tenderness between them is very moving.
John McCallum, The Australian
“If you’re hungry for a often startling and ultimately scrumptious night in the theatre – this is the dish for you.”
Diana Simmonds, Stage Noise – Read more
Totally delicious, and other silly food references
At first thought, the combination of Kate Champion and Steve Rodgers is an odd one. Champion is the rigorous creative mind at the heart of the highly successful theatre-dance company Force Majeure; while Rodgers is a popular larrikin actor and a playwright whose third work of substance this is. But as any good cook knows, sweet and sour, hot and salty, smooth and crunchy are actually the combinations that fulfil the hopes and dreams of most hungry people. And if you’re hungry for an often startling and ultimately scrumptious night in the theatre – this is the dish for you.
Enough with the cooking references. Food is a remarkable new work. At 90 minutes non-stop, it swings along playfully, initially disguising its darker purpose until the unsuspecting viewer is sucked in by the jokey facade. The premise is simple: Elma (Kate Box) toils away in the kitchen of the family roadside takeaway cafe, churning out Chiko Rolls, chips and more chips for an indifferent yet hungry clientele. She’s done it dutifully since her mother’s death, while her younger sister Nancy (Emma Jackson) flitted off to better things. Now Nancy’s returned, reluctantly, to work as the waitress but she has ideas.
They should capitalise on the public fancy for “home cooking” and Elma’s skill with such hearty delights as fish pie, lamb shanks and corned beef and go after the tourist market – giving them a taste of old fashioned Tassie. Elma and Nancy have a lifelong history of teasing and antagonism. Nancy’s flighty take on the serious side of life (getting up in the morning, for instance) has irked her lonely and rapidly souring elder sister since they were small. She is hard to convince and the rancour between them is a palpable presence.
Enter the catalyst for change: they need a kitchen hand to help with the extra work and Hakan (Fayssal Bazzi) is the only applicant. He’s a recent migrant from Turkey and not what either is expecting or can cope with. His English is as flowery as rose water and his outlook on life as delicious as Turkish Delight; they have no choice but to take him on and soon they are dishing up more old fashioned country style dinners than they know how to count.
That’s where the simple and possibly predictable stops. What happens next is not the obvious, however, and how the story plays out is as unanticipated as the dreamlike segues to stylised dance movement that punctuate the work. A drunk scene (hilarious), a battle between the sisters (powerful) and a love scene (beautiful) are interwoven with a script and characters that are at once straightforward and poetic. A sequence where the merry restaurateurs hand out samplers to the audience is a joyous coup de theatre – especially if you’re lucky enough to score a chunk of Bourke St Bakery sourdough, minestrone from Love Supreme or red wine from Cellarmasters.
The undercurrents elevates the play above merely rollicking, however, and Elma’s habitual reliance on lists of favourite foods to ward off her fears is only funny until her fears become apparent; and Nancy’s apparent carefree attitude to casual sex plays a similar and disturbing role in her life. Sex and food are not always what they’re cracked up to be.
The wild stylistic mix shouldn’t work but, in these excessively talented hands, it does. The gentle boldness of its execution is compelling and logical. The set (Anna Tregloan) is an inspired evocation of an industrial kitchen – all huge stainless steel pots and and chopping surface. The back wall is festooned with pots and pans and the effect is magical when they reflect projected images (Martin Langthorne).
Food is a show about the extraordinariness of everyday lives and the everydayness of the extraordinary. Rodgers and Champion have devised and pulled off a remarkable success, while Jackson and Box, in particular, have never been better and Bazzi reveals himself as a fine comic. It’s a delightful hour and a half – already extended – beg, borrow or nick a ticket.
“This just may be the hit of Belvoir’s 2012 season. If you can get a ticket, do.”
Augusta Supple – Read more
In the glimmering first moments, when the light grows up and around the actors, a feeling is established. It feels like something secret, or hidden. An animal patiently waiting to pounce. The feeling of the sky just before the first clap of thunder breaks silence. Is a quiet hum that nags and repeats. It’s the feel of the past – a bruise you just can’t shake.
At the base of Maslow’s hierarchy is a list of basic things to survive, and food is listed as one. And although one of many, this need is one which has the most variation – time, frequency, quantity, quality, social setting. Food is found in rituals, but is also one of the most frequent rituals in itself. It can be used as a symbol of homecoming, of wealth or sacrifice, marks celebration or mourning. In my life, I have witnessed food used as an emotional barometer, and a psychological one – indicating control/loss of control, a means by which to soothe or comfort, a means of displaying affection, or a means of courtship, of asserting status, of political leanings and social awareness. For me personally, I understand food as a social act, and for me, in my moments of extreme stress or self-doubt, there is nothing as satisfying as baking my own bread. Apply all you know and feel about food – making it, eating it, using it, buying it…
She dances as all those girls do – twisting easilly, loose shoulders and slinking arms, lost in the music or the moment or the sensation of it all. The dance becomes something else and our eyes flick and scan, seeing a dance and then, seeing something more, something sinister.
The other, in the kitchen, thumps life into a dumb chunk of dough. She sprinkles flour like confetti – soft like heavy snow, then thuds. And Whacks. And pushes. She’s hard at it.
Nancy (Emma Jackson) sings. Elma (Kate Box) barks.
Two women, unwittingly joined by a childhood, a deceased mother and a take away store.
The story is simple – bound together by their past, they are now in control of their future as the Take Away store of their chiko roll childhood is transformed into a slower food restaurant. And the decision demands a kitchen hand, enter charming nomadic Hakan (Fayssal Bazzi) who sings and chops and awkwardly finds his way into a job.
Steve Rodger’s script deserves more than a few wry puns, riffing on it’s title. The language is simple, the observations keen and surprising. There is a poetic which is located in familiar vernacular, and Rodgers has mastered this fine balance between functional speech and evocative imagery. He has expanded naturalism into an unnaturalism, wherein the performers are sometimes speaking their actions, as though they are having an out of body experience. Ted Hughes once said of Plaths poetry, “Her attitude to her verse was artisan like: if she couldn’t get a table out of the material, she was quite happy to get a chair, or even a toy.” And I’ve thought of this as I left the theatre, as I believe that Rodger has not only made a table, but it is beautifully crafted, like that of furniture made out of found wood, and beautiful hewn and polished and fitted. Food is a beautiful piece of writing. And at times it feels as though we could be watching a piece of short fiction being read to us – and perhaps sometimes we are, but the magic of this production comes in the synergy of the writing intersecting with movement.
Kate Champion has found balance to Rodger’s script – she shows us the private lives of the characters beyond their verbal declarations, confessions or demands, and shows us the human within the words. Within a moment, an act of delight/freedom/wonder becomes an actor of violence/yearning/fear/anger. In three moves (and fully clothed) she has orchestrated one of the most romantic sex scenes I have ever witnessed. This balance between Rodger’s keen ear for the music of his script and Champion’s elegant and forceful and genuinely fascinating movement: make this production visually and aurally sing.
There are some productions which just work – when all comes into perfect singing synergy. And this just may be the hit of Belvoir’s 2012 season. If you can get a ticket, do.
“This is soul food, with all the right ingredients.”
Lloyd Bradford Syke, crikey.com.au – Read more
This piece goes further in the direction of the dramatic, as against the choreographic, than anything else I can recall having seem from Force Majeure. Orchestrated movement is, typically, incidental and slo-mo: imagined vignettes; thoughts expressed, physically, aloud; gestures of tender, gentle touch the characters wish they could lavish on each other, if only it felt safe, permissible and possible to do so. These are actors, not dancers, so limitations exist. Champion has been realistic about this and interpolated nuance rather than going for a theatrical-choreographic hybrid, notwithstanding the odd solo or interactive sequence in which the characters surrender themselves to their innermost authentic feelings, as they transcend the roles they’ve been cast in, by themselves, or others.
One senses the utmost commitment and belief from the performers: an ensemble camaraderie that emanates from backstage and which has enveloped, captivated and consumed them. Fayssal Bazzi is funny, charming and charismatic as Hakan, a well-meaning, young Turkish man who confounds these women with the incongruity of his worldliness and childlike innocence. The latter might be cultivated, but they can’t help but want to believe it’s real. There are observations, through his character, too, as to the openness of cultures other than our own, which becomes glaringly, worryingly obvious only when the cynicism and coldness of ours rubs up against theirs.
Kate Box is nostalgically recognisable as stoic, lonely woman, working hard to sublimate the grief she feels for the lack of softness in her life: all she knows is to keep going.Hers is an admirable kind of strength of a sort, perhaps, that’s no longer fashionable or valued. You’re likely to identify, by dint of, say, a grandparent, or great-grandparent, who surmounted obstacles like world war and the great depression, not least through frugality, humility, sacrifice and self-denial.
Emma Jackson’s Nancy is the younger ‘wild child’; the only role left to her in the family, as ‘the responsible one’ had already been assumed by, or endowed to, her sister. We’ve met or know her too. While some sit by the side of the road, broken and emotionally destitute after early trauma, others gather their bones, throw back the sticks and stones, and take another step; then another; and so on.
Suffice to say all the actors epitomise their characters almost sublimely.
This is soul food, with all the right ingredients.
Lloyd Bradford Syke
Photos: Heidrun Lohr