Art & Design


Chants Des Catacombs

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Chants Des Catacombs is a cabaret cum indie pop tale of the macabre set in the labyrinthine corridors under Donkey Wheel House. Premiering this week, the work is directed by Bryce Ives, who in a former life was General Manager of SYN FM and executive producer at ABC before resigning to pursue the life of a freelance theatre director and consultant on community projects.

In between a busy schedule of rehearsals and consulting, we caught up with Bryce to talk about his new direction and production.

Milk Bar: Tell us about Chants Des Catacombs.
BI: It revolves around a murdered Showgirl, a Courtesan and a Surgeon, but it’s more than just cabaret. It’s funny, it’s got moments of drama, bad 90s hip hop on a harp, Ben Folds on a violin and three amazing gorgeous girls who sing and dance.
I’d collaborated with (NIDA voice coach) Anna Broulic on the project as a ten minute piece for 2010 Short and Sweet Cabaret, where it won. We were looking at ways to make it a full production, but every model we looked at was so reliant on investors and producers we thought, why don’t we just do it ourselves?

What was your process in putting it all together?
I’m not interested in the hierarchical system of theatre, where directors and producers sit at the top and the designers and actors are below them. This is art and we’re asking questions, and everyone should have an equal stake. So I hand-picked eight collaborators: a lighting designer, art designer, three actors, an opera director, choreographer and a perfumer.
We all trained and worked and learned from one another, coming up with things we couldn’t have achieved using the traditional method. I know it sounds quite high-brow or conceptual, but the work itself is really exciting and invigorating. When I look at Chants Des Catacombs now I see all eight artists in the work, and that is extremely rewarding.

What made you choose Donkey Wheel House as a venue?
As much as possible, I want to get out of theatres. In a theatre you’ve got a lot of conventions you’re either working for or against, and it’s hard work. I want the audience to be receptive, and if they were sitting in a dark room looking at a stage that’d be hard. The Donkey Wheel House was built in 1890, it used to be a Nunnery and has been so many things since then, the building just oozes this information. So we’re in a basement, and we move from room to room, about seven all up, and four mind bogglingly brilliant and bizarre corridors. It’s like a labyrinth, and even after rehearsing there so many times, we still get lost.

How have you used the space to fit the performance?
We’re trying to create a piece that is as much a sensory experience as a theatre experience. We take great care with the aural elements, using two pianos, a harp, violin, tuba and three voices. The sounds that can be created in this basement, acoustically, are so moving, and every room has a different sound. Our perfumer has developed different scents for each room, while our lighting designer has lit each space as subtly as possible, so the audience doesn’t realise it’s been lit. There are no big, obvious theatre lights, yet it’s still an experience.

Fringe Festival and Underground Cinema are two Melbourne projects that put an emphasis on space being just as important as the work. Do you see this as an emerging trend in Melbourne?
They’ll always be space for conventional theatre and opera, but in Melbourne we’ve got an audience who is willing to see new works and see them in new spaces. There are so many possibilities: whether it’s an underground carpark, laneways or the tops of buildings. Space is so important, in some strange way that is the beginning of the story. In most theatres you have to build a fake space, and in some ways the work is already fake. Whereas in the basement, anything is possible.

Chant Des Catacombs
The Basement of Donkey Wheel House, 673 Bourke Street Melbourne
Thursday, June 16 at 8.30pm
Friday and Saturday 8.30pm and 10.30pm
Sunday at 6pm


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