By Rosie Niven
Death is a funny thing. It’s inevitable that we will experience it one day, and yet so many of us in Western culture refuse to talk about it. Death has become so taboo that we no longer have open and honest discussions about everything surrounding the inevitable, from what happens to our bodies when we die to the ins and outs of the multi-million dollar funeral industry. Doesn’t it seem weird that there’s a multi-million dollar industry out there that we’re just not talking about?
Lara Thom’s The Director aims to change this. As part of Festival UnWrapped, a program that celebrates the original and extraordinary in Australian performance, The Director talks openly and honestly about death, putting a spotlight on the topics we so often shy away from.
What’s unique about Thoms’ work is not only the unabashed examination of an un-discussed industry, but her flair for working with performers who aren’t artists themselves, meaning the people we see on stage are everyday Australians with incredible stories, and the performance we get is stripped of any polish or accessory. What we get is unfiltered conversation and a refreshing form of storytelling. The collaborator for this devised work is ex-funeral director Scott Turnbull, a charismatic man who worked in the death industry for 21 years. Together with Thoms, Turnbull clearly and methodically takes us through every step of a funeral director’s job without shying away from questions or difficult content. He explains the process of cremating a body, and how certain bones won’t crumble under that heat, meaning they have to be further crushed to achieve the fine ash that people receive of their loved ones. It doesn’t feel insensitive or uncomfortable to talk about death in this way in this space - it is simply a fact of life.
The content discussed in The Director feels incredibly accessible. So much so that when audience members started to respond with questions and comments the show was halted to allow either Thoms or Turnbull to explain, so that every audience member was on the same page. A question and answer session was even placed in the middle of the piece to welcome further engagement from all present at the show. This educational experience was heightened by all design elements working harmoniously together - particularly memorable moments were Thoms burning weetbix in a microwave to simulate a cremation which caused smoke to billow throughout the audience and the smell of burning matter to permeate our senses, and the catalogue of funeral songs chosen by people paired with Turnbull and Thoms’ dissection of what this says about that person.
I didn’t know what to expect when walking into the Sydney Opera House to watch The Director, and while much of the show didn’t have the same shock factor for me it seemed to have for a number of audience members, I left feeling fulfilled by theatre that not only entertained but also educated. At an artist talk after the show, Thoms mentioned that many moments within the show are improvised, meaning that every performance of this show is a new experience (Turnbull even mentioned that he often had no idea what Thoms was going to ask him on stage, a terrifying concept for a non-actor). I look forward to seeing where these improvisations take them, and how audiences continue to learn from and interact with this work. I don’t plan on dying anytime soon, but after watching The Director, I’m ready to think and talk about something that happens to every single one of us (Turnbull wants his ashes scattered on top of a mountain in Tasmania, so I feel like I have to up my game) and take away the fear and discomfort that comes with the topic of death and everything surrounding it. More than anything, I’ve now found out that funerals cost upwards of $6000, so I better start saving.
Photo Credit: Daniel Boud
All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.