Critically acclaimed sound designer, actor, writer and theatremaker Ben Grant is just about to launch his new electropera (that’s a portmanteau of electronic opera) at La Mama.Titled the Rug, it’s a one-man operatic look into the psyche of a pale male who feels hard-done by in the current political climate. Ben spoke with Til Knowles about the theme of toxic masculinity, writing an opera (kind of) and devising the Rug.
Why is this show called The Rug?
The Rug’s main character, my pale male, is a wig wearer, and you probably know ‘rug’ is slang for a wig. But there’s something dark and shiny oozing out from the rug line. What’s under the rug that he’s covering up?
The rug also reflects my pale male’s privilege. He barely knows he’s walking on it, but it cushions the blow every step he takes.
One of the show’s themes is toxic masculinity. What drew you to this topic? Have your own experiences influenced the show at all?
Definitely. My work always seems to emerge from lived experience.
In the case of The Rug, it started more than 3 years ago when a young relative of mine flirted with far right politics. They told me they weren’t allowed to express their culture and that migration was changing the Australia of their childhood.
I felt driven to make a work seriously addressing the issues they were grappling with in an entertaining way.
Once I started researching the hurt, fear, confusion and anger felt by some anglo cis-gendered Australian men who can cause such damage to our community, I was drawn to the relationship between those feelings and the privilege that such men implicitly inhabit.
I realised that, as anglo cis-gendered Australian man myself, I had to interrogate my own privilege to write a script that rang true.
What’s something audiences can do to tackle toxic masculinity?
Make an effort to listen, practice empathy and be kind.
What led to the combination of horror, contemporary issues of masculinity, and opera?
Opera revealed itself as a perfect lens to view Australian white male privilege through.
My pale male is proud and loud and just loves being listened to on an operatic scale. It makes his positions seem more important.
Unfortunately although my pale male likes to think he’s got an amazing voice, he sounds more like that uncle who always gets pissed on Christmas arvo and starts having a go at singing.
But The Rug twisted easily into horror once my pale male started feeling threatened and the dank interior of his mind turned to thoughts of bloody vengeance.
What, to you, is the appeal of opera?
As a lover of music of many genres, from A.B. Original to Thelonius Monk to Nirvana, I can honestly say that the operas by Thomas Adès I’ve experienced are some of the wildest, most beautiful sonic rides I’ve ever been on.
For The Rug, the emotional scale of operatic narratives seems to match the mansplaining gravitas of my pale male’s beliefs.
45 minutes is very short for an opera! What led to the short run time?
You’re right but The Rug isn’t an opera. It’s an electropera! It’s electronic, bite size and data dense.
As a sound designer, audio is clearly important to you and your work. How do you develop visuals for an opera? What’s the most striking visual in the show?
I’ve been lucky enough to have an ongoing conversation with Ballet Lab’s Phillip Adams about a choreographic language for The Rug. When combined with the pale male aesthetic and projections I’ve developed, Rah Creations’ props, classic opera surtitles and Paul Lim’s lighting, The Rug has a visual aesthetic you won’t forget.
But I’m not going to reveal the most striking visuals because I hate spoilers!
What’s it like performing at La Mama?
I love performing at La Mama. It is the beating heart of independent theatre in Melbourne and will rise again from the ashes of the devastating fire earlier this year.
The La Mama team create an inviting supportive risky space which is a real dream to work in. So often the work I’ve seen at La Mama is inquisitive and heartfelt and I hope The Rug fits this bill.
Also I’m really excited that The Rug is playing at La Mama Courthouse. I can’t think of a better space in Melbourne for this show.
I can fill the space with my (non-operatically trained) voice which was something that for hundreds of years was one of opera’s key criteria and something I always wanted for the emotional scale of The Rug.
Also its original use as a courthouse brings architectural establishment support to the privileged pale male perspective.
And who knows what grisly horrors were revealed within those four walls…
The Rug is on at La Mama from 31 October – 11 November 2018. Tickets, show times and accessibility information are available from La Mama’s website or from the box office.