Interview: Festival View: Scott Graham

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Renee Liang - thebigidea

Renee Liang talks to Scott Graham, co-director of UK-based theatre collective Frantic Assembly, about the new work they are bringing to the NZ International Arts Festival, Beautiful Burnout.

Boxing. Blood, sweat, physical and emotional hurts. It all sounds terribly like the world of theatre – and not just on a bad day. Sometimes, being a performance artist is a bit like being a gladiator – the audience pays to see the guts hanging out (if you’ll forgive the gory image), and they’re not satisfied unless they get it.

So the premise of turning a theatre into a boxing ring is one that rings true. In Beautiful Burnout, the stage is literally a boxing ring, and actors trained in boxing explore the underworld of the sport in writer Bryony Lavery’s script. The play is a collaboration between the National Theatre of Scotland and physical theatre ensemble Frantic Assembly. I spoke to Scott Graham, co-director of UK-based theatre collective Frantic Assembly.

How did you get involved in Beautiful Burnout?

I am co-director of Frantic Assembly. The idea for Beautiful Burnout came from discussions between myself and Steven Hoggett. We then took the desire to make a show about boxing to writer Bryony Lavery and with the support of the National Theatre Scotland, developed the project with her.

What do you find fascinating about the world of boxing?

I have always been a boxing fan. The balance, stamina, speed, it is an extraordinary physical skill. As a child I remember the incredible battles between people who just seemed superhuman. My more cynical side is fascinated by the mechanics of the professional game, how it trades on the noble aspirations of the amateur game yet cannot help throwing up some incredibly dark stories.

Why do you think theatre is a good medium for exploring this world?

Because it is a live event, just like boxing. You are close to the action. You can feel the extraordinary commitment and the energy of the performers/boxers. There is the same feeling of risk and danger.

How do boxing professionals respond to the play?

When we were making the show and interviewing people from the boxing world they were adamant we did not misrepresent their world. It is a world of incredible support mechanisms, of focus and application and they had felt let down by how their world was often represented. We wanted to capture the world as we saw it and present the physicality of boxing in all its dynamic beauty and brutality. Many boxing professionals have appreciated this aspect of the show and recognised the commitment needed to pull this off. The show does deal with the notion of damage within boxing and this is a very contentious issue for boxing people. They all believe their sport to be safe and statistically that is true, but the potential damage is massive. Talking about this has been controversial within the boxing community.

How much training did the actors have to do - and aside from the physical, did they also 'study' professional boxers in other ways?

The actors trained in boxing before rehearsals and then everyday in rehearsals we trained for at least 90 minutes of fitness and technique work. For how their characters might move, hold themselves, throw and duck punches we looked at real boxers. For one character we looked at Barry McGuigan, a boxer from Northern Ireland. For another we looked at Prince Nazeem Hamed. We drew a lot of the fight choreography from the golden years of the Middleweight division and boxers like Thomas Hearns, Marvin Hagler, Roberto Duran and Sugar Ray Leonard.

Beautiful Burnout is the result of years of painstaking collaboration with many artists. How do you choose the plays that you want to do?

They always come from conversations between the artistic directors (myself and Steven Hoggett). If one of us has an idea we will bounce it off the other. Sometimes it is something that pops up and the idea for a new show can be formed in seconds. It will still take a couple of years to come to fruition though. Often the shows are very different from the preceding show. For example, Beautiful Burnout was followed by a show about love and people in their 70's.

Has there been much difference in the way audiences around the world have responded to Beautiful Burnout?

Not really. I think all audiences respond differently but wherever we have performed this show people have looked at boxing and thought about it a little differently, whether they were fans or anti boxing, and that is what we wanted.

    * Beautiful Burnout is at TSB Bank Arena from 3 to 18 March for the 2012 New Zealand International Arts Festival, Wellington, 24 February – 18 March.

    * Art Talk: Thursday March 8th, 1pm – Beautiful Burnout - Chaired by Michael Hurst - Wellington Waterfront or watch a live stream on The Big Idea's facebook.

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