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Interview: Ella Becroft of Dust Pilgrim

Wednesday 3 June 2015

Interview: Ella Becroft of Dust Pilgrim

Devised theatre company Red Leap Theatre are known for their "magic-realism" style and their visceral, physical performances. Their latest production Dust Pilgrim opens this Thursday at Q Theatre, starring woman-of-many-hats Ella Becroft. We caught up with Becroft to hear about Dust Pilgrim, her other projects and what Red Leap has taught her about performance. 

What can you tell us about the story of Dust Pilgrim?

Dust Pilgrim is the story of a young woman, Panuelo, who lives in a dry and barren landscape with her wild, cigar-smoking, tyrannical mother. Bones rattle in the walls and secrets are hidden in flying suitcases. In a bid for freedom Panuelo destroys her home and runs out into the desert, finding herself in a world of tricksters, angels, cages and traps.

We were initially inspired by the magic realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and his short story 'The Incredible and Sad Tale of Innocent Erendira and Her Heartless Grandmother'. As we began devising we found our own story - one that explores oppression, and especially the oppression of women, within a strange yet familiar world.

How much of an input did you have into the creation of your character?
As the show is devised the characters were entirely created by us. Red Leap work with minimal text, so we developed the characters through exercises exploring their physicality. I watched documentaries and read books about young oppressed women who had fought for their freedom against the odds. We played with strong physical gestures and bouffon to help bring the characters out of the mundane. The characters are all heightened, so they speak of bigger things then just one individual in one story.

How have rehearsals been going? Judging by photos on Facebook, it looks like there are a lot of ropes and pulleys...
We started off playing with some Red Leap staples - cloth, paper, puppets. But we also had sand in the room from day one, as we were interested in creating a palpably dusty desert environment. We were very lucky to have our design team in the room with us often during our devising process, so the collaboration process has been really strong. Poppy Serano, our set designer, was interested in the idea of weight when exploring the theme of oppression, and the transference of oppression from one person to another, or one generation to another. So she brought in this system of pulleys and hanging sandbags on counterweights. It was a really exciting moment, as we came to a collective decision around zeroing in on this image and system and the sand itself. It meant we had to put a lot of things we had been playing with aside and remake the world within this language. It feels very different visually for Red Leap, and looks pretty incredible.

Red Leap often works with puppetry. How are puppets incorporated into this production?
We started playing with puppets initially, but as the show developed and we started to narrow down how we wanted to tell the story they were mostly set aside. We only use puppetry when it is vital to the story, not puppets for puppets sake. There are only two puppets at this stage - and both of them serve really vital roles in the narrative. One of them is giant though, and pretty impressive.

What inspired you to start your production company Petit Workshop and what do you hope to achieve with it?
Petit Workshop make really crafty, nifty shows. It came from a desire to work with a particular group of people to make a particular style of theatre that we all found really fun and creative. We do a lot of puppet making and set designing and prop making - so it satisfies my need to create things with my hands. We will keep making shows together when great stories come up that we want to tell in that style.

You've worked with Red Leap on a number of productions, what are some of the lessons you have learnt from them that you put into practice with your other work?
Red Leap are an inspiring company in their dedication to creating original work that takes theatrical risks. Their commitment to the devising process, to remaining curious, to taking risks and being endlessly creative are great lessons. They also have a great company ethos, and the work that goes into building the ensemble for each show is a really amazing process to be a part of. I feel very lucky to have been so supported by Red Leap - I have learnt so much from them. They were my drama school.

You work across so many different disciplines/roles related to performing, which one are you finding most fulfilling at the moment?
I do find devising shows as a performer the hardest work I do, and the most challenging, but also where I learn the most and feel the most creatively fulfilled. You are 100% on physically and mentally all day, constantly coming up with ideas and finding exciting ways to portray them. It is terrifyingly hard creating a story and show from scratch within such a short time frame, but the amount of ownership you have over the work is huge. The potential to create something fresh and startling feels really palpable.

I also really enjoy directing film with my production company Votre Arme, and especially directing during the editing stage. It's very different, and quiet, compared to devising theatre, but I think I use all of my devising skills. It's all about putting images together to tell a great story.

Tell us about Schools' Trash to Fashion and what your involvement with it is.
Red Leap direct the final performance of Trash to Fashion, which is a school wide competition where kids and teenagers make amazing wearable art out of recycled materials. Julie Nolan and I direct the show, which comprises of the finalists walking the catwalk in choreographed sequences, and in-between each catwalk category we devise short visually exciting scenes with a group of actors. It's very fun and free, with the opportunity to make outrageous things and have a lot of fun. The young people are really inspiring - the garments they make are incredible.

What would you like to see more of in NZ theatre?
Greater support from the industry and audiences for artists to take huge risks, make huge mistakes, keep working, and develop innovative, unique and exciting voices.

Ella Becroft performs as Panuelo in Dust Pilgrim at Auckland’s Q Theatre, Thursday 4 June – Saturday 13 June.