Under a Willow - a long way from China, 2017 image Julie Milowick
Image Neil Newitt
Ken Evans, designer and Rebecca Russell, director are a dynamic collaborative partnership creating new works grounded in visual theatre. They are based in Clunes, central Victoria. Working with non-linear story and imagery is the cornerstone of the RUSSELL:EVANS output. It is the combination of their skill sets and the blurred lines between them that is their combined voice.
Their most recent works have been large scale, outdoor and site specific with the people and landscape of Regional Victoria, in all its beauty and complexity as their Muse. Since relocating to central Victoria from central Melbourne in 2009 Evans and Russell have been developing methodologies and processes involving collaborations with artists and community to create unique, fleeting performances that connect with both a diverse regional audience and a regular arts audience from Melbourne.
Rebecca works with a form of verbatim theatre, recording interviews that delve into people’s passion, knowledge base or everyday life experiences. Editing raw material, Rebecca probes the voice for recurring themes, enlightening moments and universal truths that become the impetus for the image and movement of the work.
Ken’s design and staging create evocative settings within the chosen site and surrounds. Responding to the particular, inspiring setting of the piece, Ken’s imagery enhances the storyline and transports the audience through powerful visual imagery.
RUSSELL:EVANS most recent work includes: DEMOLISH 2018, Bendigo, Regional Centre for Culture major commission In the Deep End 2017, Clunes, Trentham and Newstead swimming pools Under A Willow - a long way from China 2017, Castlemaine State Festival 600 degrees : 100 years of shade 2016, Scoribreac property Clunes GRASSLANDS 2014, Clunes STEAM! 2012, Lake Goldsmith Steam Rally TRIGGERED, currently in development 2017.
Interview by Andrew Masterson
RUSSELL:EVANS is a collaboration in life and love and the results are, quite literally, elemental.
Since 2007, director Rebecca Russell and designer Ken Evans have produced theatre events that are often vast in scope and organically tied to the landscape in which they unfold.
Previous RUSSELL:EVANS productions have involved building a hill (Grasslands, 2014), setting alight sculptures in a paddock and filling the night sky with a constellation of embers (600 Degrees: 100 years of shade, 2016), amassing rumbling, clanking nineteenth century machines (Steam, 2012), and sometimes, in more lyrical circumstances, turning a three-storey-high tree into a spectacular, multi-lit backdrop (Under a Willow : a long way from China, 2017).
The next show, DEMOLISH, coming up in October 2018, will continue and expand the couple’s exploration of the poetry and drama inherent in the environment. The visually and emotionally stunning production will take place over three nights during which the set – a real house – will be progressively torn down.
But a falling house or a burning field without human context risks being mere spectacle, and RUSSELL:EVANS productions are much more than that.
For Rebecca Russell, a former performing arts teacher and member of critically acclaimed theatre company Spin Sisters, environment is shaped irrevocably by human actions. People and place are indivisible. As the process of shaping a show proceeds, Russell seeks out the people who have lived and worked in the space – participants in and witnesses to change – records their memories and sculpts them into a vocal soundtrack: part testimony, part stream-of-consciousness.
These voices, combined with the raw space – large, often, and unconstrained in its natural state – form the impetus for Ken Evans’ design. Transferring a lifetime of work in formal rooms – significantly, as designer for the much-loved Melbourne visual theatre group, Handspan Theatre, which he co-founded in 1977 – to stages defined by geography and the sheer force of two people’s will, Evans moves his performers and (sometimes very large) props with a firm eye to composition and fluidity.
There are echoes in RUSSELL:EVANS productions of Bauhaus dances, of Fluxus, and the Happenings movement – but always the tempting visual and sonic abstractions of performance art are funnelled into a narrative context arising from the memories collected by Rebecca.
In an important sense, then, the men and women who volunteer their stories for these shows become collaborators in its creation. And this illustrates another important strand of the RUSSELL:EVANS approach: working with others – actors, musicians, members of the public – is critical.
RUSSELL:EVANS vocal soundtracks are augmented by musicians performing live, often improvising and adjusting as each show unfolds. On their stages – although perhaps “performance grounds” is a better term – actors are joined by children, by tractor drivers, by volunteer firefighters.
And sometimes, collaboration goes even further, entwining other companies, and even whole villages. In their 2018 summer show, In The Deep End, Ken and Rebecca teamed up with two-person circus troupe Asking For Trouble and two dozen kids from the Victorian village of Clunes to produce a hugely acrobatic show that took place in and around a public swimming pool. (Several, actually: the show was invited to tour to nearby towns.)
So, RUSSELL:EVANS probably won’t be coming soon to a theatre near you. But they may well be coming to a nearby field, or a park, or derelict building, or pool …
“It’s all about working with the environment, whatever environment we’ve gone into,” says Ken. “It’s about exulting. As soon as you give the environment a life and a presence, whatever you’re doing within it can resonate really strongly.”
Rebecca adds: “We try to create an environment, an experience, that when people come into it will create a sense of expectation – the whole space has to be considered, not just the performance area.”