Interview with Gavin Robins

What got you into movement?

I started off as a representative cricketer and played high level sport. I was captain of the under 19 Queensland cricket team, following that discipline of being a sportsman. I also always had a love for drama, and so I went to university to study drama. I had a girlfriend who was a ballet dancer and I was really jealous that she could have this athletic discipline but couple it with artistry… I felt that sense of "that's what I can do as well, in theater", so I started to specialise in movement in theatre! I became avidly invested in reading and training in different movement forms, in gymnastics, acrobatics and contemporary dance and then I applied to do a movement studies course at NIDA - and that was in 1994 studying under Keith Bain who was really amazing for me in terms of his knowledge of movement and theatre. Strictly ballroom was based on him and he was the first person that really worked as a movement specialist in the Australian entertainment industry in theatre, film and television and so my eyes really opened up to what was possible as a movement artist.

While I was at NIDA in ‘94, I saw Nigel Jameison's production of All of Me and when I saw that I was totally bewitched by the heightened physicality, the storytelling and the fact that the acting and movement were non-different but they were at such brilliant skill levels. Then I saw Beth Kayes on the train, who played the mother, and I went up to her kind of gushing saying how amazing she was and she said "Legs on the Wall have got an audition for a male role coming  up at the end of the year, you should audition!"… So I found out about the audition and I worked hard, I was into DV8 physical theatre, Lloyd Newson and this kind of theatre, and I had lots of different moves that I had been practicing. I went into this audition and I threw myself at everyone and kind of improvised with more of a theatre background and I think they enjoyed that. I was successful, and within 6 or 7 months I was playing a role in All of Me at the Edinburgh Festival and at various international theatre festivals around the world.

I was lucky enough to perform with Legs in a time when we had a lot of big shows in repertoire. We did Homeland, I ran down the AMP building as the main performer, I performed Under the Influence that Kate Champion directed all throughout Europe.

When we were auditioning for Under the Influence to replace Deb (who was pregnant) we auditioned Lucia Mastrantone who is now my wife! So, it had been a really fruitful time on many levels and then I became more of a movement director and choreographer from that point on. I performed the 2000 Olympics and choreographed a section of that with Nigel and that's the history! So it's amazing to come full circle and be a director on a show here, now.

You've come full circle in a couple of ways, you're head of movement at NIDA now as well, and that happened fairly recently…

It happened in 2014 so I've been there nearly 5 years now, and it was pretty well 20 years since I was a student at NIDA. When I was a student there I felt what an amazing inspiration Keith was and that this would be an amazing position to have at some point, so it came along and because I'd been touring a lot with my work away from my family, I had always loved NIDA and loved teaching and training actors, I applied for that role. It's been amazing to be able to be there and to also be directing work. King Kong on Broadway is a big show that I had before I started at NIDA and they've been gracious to let me out to do those big shows. 

And you've been let out to do Man With the Iron Neck as well.

I have!

This show has been in development for quite a while, it's had quite a journey. I guess your involvement with Legs on the Wall made everything fit together really nicely... but everything you're working on is at different scales it seems - King Kong is HUGE - how many dancers do you have there?

King Kong on Broadway

King Kong on Broadway

There's 10 dancers controlling the puppet, 3 controlling animatronics, there's 14 people involved in that one puppet and there's a huge huge cast. I do big spectacle work in the Middle East as well and they have casts sometimes of a 1000 and then I'm working with a cast of 4 in this work. As an Australian artist the work that is the most compelling and pressing to me is work that deals with indigenous issues because it is something that we've conveniently swept under the carpet. I worked with Nigel and Josh Bond before when we did Wrong Skin (an indigenous version of Romeo and Juliet), which was my first introduction to working with indigenous themes and performers. So, I've always been driven to create work that has the strong physical and emotional content that Legs has been renowned for, but focusing it into a piece about indigenous issues and obviously the contagion of suicide, is one of the big issues. It's been a really tricky thing to navigate. 

When you say tricky to navigate… it's obviously going to be a very triggering show for a lot of audience members. Connected to this show there's a whole duty of care with the audience. Within the process of this show's development, the psychology must have been quite complex at times. 

I think what's interesting is that we'd get to a certain point in the creative development of the show and even the script and we'd realise certain things weren't right or certain things didn't have the right tone.

How do we deal with this without it being sentimental, having the duty of care that we need to, and finding a level of entertainment? What would make people want to come to see the show in a sense…

How can we couple entertainment and the sense that you're on an incredible theatrical journey whilst also embracing the truth and not shying away from the pain and hard facts that actually underpin the show?

I've been involved in developing the show for about 5 years and as we would be making the show Josh would step out of the rehearsal room and deal with someone in his community that's just committed suicide, or we’d become involved with artists in our community when artists close to us had committed suicide. We felt at certain points "Should we actually do this? Is it right for us? Is it too sensitive in fact to actually make a theatre piece about this" and we then had to reconsider and revisit the whole approach, as we should, because everyone feels so passionately about the work and we really want to get it right... Though, when you say 'get it right' you never ever get it right as it's a piece of art, it's a piece of theatre, but it wants to have all the sensitivities, intelligence and theatrical entertainment values that makes it worthwhile doing.

A big turning point was when we met with Ursula and she took the mantle as the writer. I remember I was overseas on a show… I was jet-lagged… and I got this draft that had come through, it was 2 in the morning, and I sat up and read this script feverishly from the beginning right to the very end and I just kind of lost it at the end… I was a mess but in a very cathartic way, I thought "this is her first draft?!? this is incredible!" so she channelled something in the telling that she clearly needed as an artist to express and also seemed to take on board our previous development in terms of the physical skills and physical imagery that we were playing with

It has been a long gestation period and managing that psychologically has been tricky but all it takes is a phone call or seeing Josh step out of the room and talk someone down out of a situation or talk them through a situation and then you realise we've really got got to do this,

this is our responsibility as artists - to tackle this and to encourage people to move through the pain.

I remember seeing All of Me and I remember that it was a similar feeling… that people didn't want to leave the theatre after it - they sat in the theatre and had conversations… or people would weep, or people would sit there and just stare… and I think this has the potential to be the same kind of piece. It can be the same kind of agent or provocation and hopefully encourages people to talk and articulate to themselves what it is in their lives that's worth holding on to. 

Andrew Batt-Rawden