Krystalla Pearce and Bridget Balodis
Point of Origin, Rat King Theatre
Left: Bridget, Right: Krystalla
Krystalla and Bridget are Australian theatre makers living in New York. Both originally from Melbourne, Krystalla moved to New York for work and soon found love; Bridget moved to New York for love and soon found work! They are both working on a new play Point of Origin, which opens at The Brick Theater in Williamsburg on April 27th. Krystalla co-wrote and performs in Point of Origin; Bridget is co-directing the show.
Point of Origin is an immersive theatre experience. It starts with a leg of lamb being placed in an oven on stage. As the aromas fill the theatre, the cast figures out how to tell three stories – about a shape-shifting hag witch from Finland; a slimy con artist from Greece; and their descendants, an Australian woman and an American woman who find themselves in New York. Sometimes these stories are told with words, other times through dance, but most deliciously they are told through food. The audience receives tastes of food throughout the performance and share in the leg of lamb at the end of the play.
1. Tell us a little bit about your backgrounds – where did your interest in theatre begin and how did it lead to living and working in the US?
K: When I was about five years old, I went to see The Mikado in Melbourne – my dad used to be a serious Gilbert and Sullivan groupie. We were pretty close to the stage and during the finale, the actor playing the Mikado winked and waved at me. That’s my first memory of experiencing the rush of live performance and something that is crucial to my own work today. I used to make plays for my parents whenever they had dinner parties and was heavily involved in theatre at school and university. But I worried that it wasn’t a ‘real job’ so upon graduating, I got a serious government job and continued to write and direct in my spare time. Almost five years ago, I got an even more serious government job that moved me to New York. I soon realized it wasn’t for me and returned to theatre making and completed my Masters in Performance Studies at NYU. While studying, I met my friend and colleague Tessa Allen. We started making work together and then co-founded experimental theatre company Rat King Theatre.
B: My father is a playwright and when I was a kid he was an associate director at Melbourne Theatre Company. Even when I was little I loved going in to work with him, getting to see the costumes, wigs and set workshop, I thought it was pretty magical. Even though my folks tried to advise me against a career in the arts (there's no financial security!), for a long time growing up I wanted to be an actor. I kept on at that dream all through high school but once I was at university I realised I had more fun being in charge of things! After completing my undergrad degree I studied directing at the VCA and worked in Melbourne for a few years, and I was recently part of the MTC's women directors program. In 2013, I met my girlfriend and she already had plans to move to New York and I just thought, why not? I've been here now about 18 months.
2. What’s the story behind the name Rat King Theatre?
K: A Rat King is a folkloric creature that is born when a number of rats are entwined by their tails, which have been stuck together by blood, dirt, ice, or sh#t. One of the more recent sightings was in New Zealand and is on display at the museum in Dunedin. We named our company Rat King Theatre because we want to get tangled up in deep and silly sh#t. By intertwining many art forms – but particularly theatre, dance and food – we highlight the impossibility of detangling our stories, memories, and identities. We hope to blur the lines of who we are in the hope of expanding what we may become.
3. How did the concept for Point of Origin originally come to you? What was the process of getting this idea off the ground?
K: Point of Origin began as Tessa and my Masters theses. We were both interested in our families’ immigration stories – mine from Greece to Australia and hers from Finland to America. I was particularly interested in my grandfather who led a pretty crazy life of crime and running between Australia and Greece. He lived the last years of his life in Darwin (unknown to his family in Melbourne) and about six years ago I went to Darwin with my mother and brother to piece together the end of his life. I wanted to explore how the three of us had remembered this experience differently. I also wanted to explore my feelings of ‘Greekness’ and ‘Australianness’ as a Greek-Australian woman living in New York. How much of those identities have I created myself and how much of them have I inherited from ancestors like my wild Greek grandfather?
Over the past two years, Point of Origin has developed from a theoretical exploration of these ideas into a more traditional – but not too traditional – play that tells three stories: about a Greek con-man who moves between Australia and Greece, about a Finnish fairytale witch who makes her way to America, and about two women who develop a friendship in New York as they grapple with their family histories.
4. What makes this project unique? What can we expect to discover?
K: The food! All of Rat King Theatre’s work explores different modes of storytelling – especially how we can tell stories with our bodies and with food as well as with words. Point of Origin includes some pretty amazing dance numbers and there is a working kitchen on stage. The performers cook and serve food to the audience throughout the show. The food is mainly Greek and Finnish but Vegemite makes a cameo appearance.
B: I think it's wonderful to hear the perspective of third generation immigrants - people whose grandparents left their homes and immigrated - I think there is a sense of loss and displacement that come with being a third generation immigrant - a feeling of not quite belonging anywhere- and unless it's your experience you might not be that aware of it. There's a conflict between claiming your heritage and not feeling entitled to it, particularly when there are language or cultural barriers between you and your grandparents. This work is about those third generation immigrants, what mechanisms they have for shaping their cultural identities and looking for a sense of belonging, and how food, stories and travel are a part of that.
5. Can you give us a little insight into the inner workings of Rat King Theatre? What does a typical working day look like for you both?
K: I’m not sure I have a typical working day! With a show weeks out from opening, my days are pretty jam-packed. It is certainly a challenge having multiple roles in this current project – I’m a co-writer, one of the six performers, a cook and also co-Artistic Director of Rat King Theatre. So I have to be very conscious of balancing my time between the creative side and the business side of running a company. In addition to Rat King, I work as a theatre teaching artist. Most of my teaching work is in underserved communities so it takes me all over the city – from Washington Heights to Sheepshead Bay, from Brownsville to Staten Island. My days are long but I do have some freedom to manage my own hours so I can sneak out for a mid-afternoon run or lunch with friends.
B: When you're freelancing your days can be pretty different but for me, I would spend most mornings on the computer, answering emails, checking in on a couple of projects I have in Australia, then maybe have a meeting or two and then get to rehearsals in the afternoon or evening. Artists anywhere work long hours but in New York the hours are even longer, you really have to make an effort to have downtime!
6. It sounds like food and mealtime is a key element of the show. What food do you miss most from home, and where do you go/what do you do to satisfy your cravings for the meals you left behind in Australia?
B: Vegemite! That's the big one for me and whenever someone's coming to visit, that's what I get them to bring. I was recently in Australia though and didn't realise how much I had missed Ozzie biscuits, I went mad for anything Arnotts, especially with a cup of tea. And of course I miss my parents' cooking, comfort foods, but I missed those even when I was living far away from them in Australia.
K: Definitely Vegemite but I’m pretty well stocked up on it at the moment. For me it’s more access to fresh, inexpensive produce. I miss the South Melbourne and Victoria Markets, and American lamb has nothing on Australian lamb. I also really miss having my own veggie patch.
7. What is the biggest difference you have found between working in theatre in Australia and the US, if any?
B: For me there's a big difference in the writing, in the particular sound of Australian text, our sense of humour, dryness and I guess a kind of frankness that isn't so present in American plays. It's been wonderful working on Point of Origin because it means engaging with a play that, because there are two writers and also devised elements (where the actors get to make stuff up), has many different voices and experiences in it.
K: I agree that the flavour of American theatre is very different and sometimes that excites me and sometimes I long for an Australian tone. The pace of work and life in general is much faster here and I think that adds and detracts to the theatre that is made. Unlike Bridget, I have more experience working in an American theatre context rather than an Australian one. I hope to start doing more work in Australia and am interested to see how the added time and space of the Australian perspective will affect my work.
8. What has been the biggest challenge/learning point you’ve encountered while working on this show?
B: I think the biggest challenges are yet to come! And they'll be to do with the food. We're really excited about being able to make food a part of the show but with it comes logistical challenges as well as artistic ones!
K: Yep, definitely the food.
9. What can we expect to see from you both in the future?
K: I’m working on a project with my mother about connection to a homeland in which we’ve never lived; we’re hoping to perform it in Greece over the summer. And Rat King Theatre has another new play in development that we plan to show in New York late summer. It’s also about women and food but this time the women are in different places – one has just left their partner, the other is getting ready to start a family.
B: I'm working on a piece in Melbourne, it's a sci-fi, feminist play called GROUND CONTROL and then I'm back in the summer to do a little producing for Anna Kohler.
10. How can people find out more about the show or Rat King Theatre?
Tickets are available via The Brick website (www.bricktheater.com) as well as Rat King Theatre’s website (www.ratkingtheatre.org). We also have a Facebook page (www.facebook.com/ratkingtheatre) and Instagram profile (www.instagram.com/ratkingtheatre). Hope to see you at the show!