With an artistic skillset that runs the whole gamut of theatre-making, Chris Isaacs is a writer, performer, stage manager, lighting designer, puppeteer and composer. The twenty-nine-year-old local is a plot-driven storyteller exploring what it means to be human. A member of the innovative, Perth-based theatre company The Last Great Hunt, his collaboration with fellow ‘Hunters’ Tim Watts and Arielle Gray resulted in the much lauded production ‘It’s Dark Outside’, and he has co-created and performed ‘All That Glitters’, ‘Falling Through Clouds’ and ‘Old Love’ with various others of the seven member ensemble.
We caught up with Isaacs while he was touring ‘FAG/STAG’ at Adelaide Fringe Festival with his co-writer/co-star Jeffrey Jay Fowler (another Hunter and one of the two Associate Directors currently at the Black Swan State Theatre Company). Exploring the dynamic of their straight-gay friendship, they first performed the show at the 2015 FRINGE WORLD Festival where it won the Melbourne Fringe Tour Ready Award.
Isaacs’ latest piece of excellence, ‘The Great Ridolphi,’ won the the prestigious $10,000 Martin Sims Award for the best new Western Australian production at FRINGE WORLD this year. It was also the WA Winner of The West Australian Arts Editor Award, and Isaacs took home the inaugural Blaz Award for new writing (named in honour of WA playwright George Blazevic who died in February). An adventure story laced with mysticism, the one-man show told the story of Victor O’Meara, whose long-deceased father- once a world-renowned magician- is linked to a missing Francesco Goya masterpiece.
Isaacs considers the maturity of ‘Ridolphi’ and ‘FAG/STAG’ as a sign of his evolution as a performer and storyteller. “Earlier in my career I think I was very didactic. I was always trying to make what I was saying really clear to my audience. The work was also quite derivative, as it is for most artists at that stage in their career. The subject and form was influenced by what inspired me and what I was reading.”
His earlier dramas were philosophically Absurdist and Existentialist, “as impressionable eighteen and nineteen-year-old boys are want to do!” Isaacs laughs. “Now, I think I’m figuring out what my voice is, and how it can be manipulated and worked into plays. At the same time, I really resist the idea that as a writer your work is very recognisable. I like to think that a good writer can be a chameleon, crafting different voices through their work. I don’t want to be the sort of writer whose text can be consistently recognised because of the rhythm or style. However, I feel like I’m getting that way more and more! I have to keep branching out; trying different forms and telling different stories.”
“At the risk of sounding like Hemmingway, I think a story is good if it is true. I’m most proud of some of the short stories I’ve written because of their simplicity and truth. I haven’t had any published, beyond university magazines back in the day, because they’re private, personal creations with a lot of heart.” Isaacs writes these micro works (some are only one paragraph long) for his friends. “It’s also a way to get ideas and words out that work better in different contexts and mediums.”
Once a student of English and Writing at Edith Cowan University, Isaacs got his start when his ‘Writing for Performance’ lecturer saw merit in a play he’d written. He put him in touch with different organisations and theatre companies in Perth. One of those was Weeping Spoon Productions, of which a couple of members of The Last Great Hunt were then a part. The ensemble performed the play Isaacs had written, called ‘The Forlorn’, at the Blue Room in 2005. “I started hanging out with them and helped them make shows, mostly as a stage manger, learning from the best directors Perth has/had, including Adam Mitchell, John Sheedy (artistic director of Barking Gecko Theatre Company from 2010-2015), Melissa Cantwell (artistic director of the Perth Theatre Company) and Tom Gutteridge. My education as a writer was my foundation, but it was 4 or 5 years between writing ‘The Forlorn’ and writing my second play. In that time, I absorbed everything that was going on around me and tried to understand the different cogs in the wheel,” says Isaacs.
His second play, and first major production, ‘Flood’ was written when he was part of Black Swan’s Emerging Writers Group, and the company performed it in 2014. “Recently, I’ve been thinking about writing a companion piece to it. ‘Flood’ was about how 6 white, Australian millenials dealt with an incident involving race. I’d like to write the alternative side, where 6 Indigenous Australians deal with the same incident from their community’s perspective. It would counter the voices that we heard in ‘Flood’, and bring to the stage voices addressing modern Aboriginality. It’s a very politically charged idea but I think it would enhance the experience of ‘Flood’ and would work well in a double bill experiment. However, there’s a lot of discussion to be had before I get into the work of the show.”
Currently, he’s working on a play commissioned by Black Swan. “It’s a ‘big ideas,’ monster of a play about Alan Turing and the story of the universe. The nature of the theatre-scene in Perth is such that you can only work in small venues with small casts when you start out, which limits the number of ideas you can put into a play. If a character is 5 or 6 different voices, it becomes very muddled. I’m excited to be able to create something larger, with a bigger cast and sub stories.” Once Isaacs concludes his writing, Black Swan will assess the play; electing to workshop it, put it straight into production for the following year, or pay out the contract and not take it any further.
When producing work with The Last Great Hunt, Isaacs is often heavily involved in every aspect of its creation, including the set and costume design. However, this is not the case in large-scale Black Swan shows where set, costume, lighting and sound roles are very clearly defined and highly trained professionals might be engaged weeks before the actors even get in the room.
“For me, it is always the director’s rehearsal room, even if it is your script. The most important working relationship is that between the writer and director,” Isaacs says. “As a writer, I always have a very clear idea of each scene, what the characters look like, and what set they’re on. I’m involved in making theatre-shows, so I always think about about the practicalities of how my work will appear on the stage. However, I wouldn’t imagine that there is any playwright in the world that would say there isn’t value in having an actor or designer work on your play. Theatre is a conversation you have with yourself, other artists and the audience. It has to be able to accept that collaboration.”
When considering the impact The Last Great Hunt has had on WA, Isaacs humbly expresses his pride in the work they’ve made. “We’re always looking to challenge ourselves, both in the stories we tell and how we tell them. Adriane [Daff, another Hunter] always says that we demand each other to be excellent and there is a real drive in the company to push ourselves and each other. Every time I have an idea, I have 6 talented artists questioning and pushing me to make that idea as good as it can be, so every production is preceded by vigorous and thoughtful discussions.”
The company is thriving, deservedly, and is 1 of 6 new arts organisations to receive recurrent funding from the State government for the first time. An incredible achievement and opportunity, Isaacs says “most of the money will go into creating a professional infrastructure, including General Manager and Producer positions. We will walk the line between having professional structures in place and keeping a sense of freedom, but we need a business model set up to allow us to make more shows.”
This structure will help the collective get content developed into productions that pay for themselves, ensuring they’ve built upon that income once the funding expires in 3 years. “Artistically speaking, the money gives the 7 founding and core artistic members of the company the chance to spend around 10 weeks every year creating and developing new works. In the past, a lot of our ideas have happened quite quickly, being made in 3 or 4 months. We’ve always felt that the ideas could have done with a little more development time, or space to let the original artistic thought grow and become more complex. More space between the creation of an idea and it going into production certainly helps some (but not all) ideas.”
The company’s name was decided because it gives “a sense of adventure, a sense of an event happening, and a sense of trying to capture things. The word ‘hunt’ means to pursue with the intent to capture. It’s really what we do when we discuss the ideas behind our shows, we try to pursue the thoughts and moments with the intent to capture it and give it to the audience. ‘The Last Great’ was a way of saying that every show we do will be treated like it’s the last show we will ever make. We’re giving everything we have to each work, rather than saving something for the show after that.”
Isaacs purports that their art exists to create discussion, and believes the most important discussion is “who gets to say what? Who has the authority to discuss certain matters, and what voices do we really need to hear from in conversations about politics, race, age, and sexism? I think we need the voices of people these issues directly affect, rather than those on the outskirts. It’s a really good conversation to have because it questions the intentions behind the art that you make.”
With an interest in one day taking on a formal mentorship role or a permanent position at a company, Isaacs suggests he is still “understanding how I work” and that he has “a lot to learn.” Having already built a reputation as a talented, innovative and thoughtful theatre-maker, Chris Isaacs is certainly a prodigy, a word usually reserved for children who play the piano when they ought to be asleep in bed.
Interview by Samuel J. Cox