The Asialink Connection – Robert Draffin and Eastern Praxis

earthy, engaging, brilliant - robert draffin

Theatre maker, director, and educator Robert Draffin has a body of artistic work that spans thirty two years. He has directed a total of 65 productions, more than half of them original and devised works, and has been involved in a number of international exchanges across China, Indonesia, Singapore, India and Japan (among others). In addition, he has taught at Melbourne, Monash, Latrobe and Deakin Universities, as well as serving as the Acting Teacher for Opera Australia, and most recently as Lecturer in Acting at the VCA. Draffin’s experiences have culminated in his establishment of Liminal Theatre and Performance in Melbourne (alongside other, equally distinguished practitioners), where his investigation into the dramatic art continues. I speak
to Draf about his work with Liminal, his creative travels across Asia and the help provided to him by Asialink, and what the future has in store for him.


You have worked with a great many companies and practitioners across Asia. Could you tell us a bit about these experiences?


In 1987/90/92 I went to Indonesia to study Topeng with Ida Bagus Sutarja (Dancer/Carver/Braham priest of MAS Bali). In 1992, I went on to work with the poet Rendra (Bengkel Teatre) in Java. In 2000, I was asked to join TTRP (Theatre Training Research Program), set up by the late Kuo Pao Kun to investigate links between traditional and contemporary theatre training. In 2001-03, over a concentrated three-year period with TTRP (27 months working in the programme- 15 months full-time and 4 x three-month periods), I worked with traditional artists from Indonesia, China, Japan and India and with two contemporary theatre directors from the Beijing Central Academy of Drama. I have directed actors from India, Philippines, Malaysia, China, Taiwan, Singapore, Indonesia and Japan. I collaborated with two acting/theatre directors from China (Ma Hui Tian & He Bing Zhu) exploring the intersection of my own methodology with the methods of the Chinese, based on a system developed at the Central Academy of Drama Beijing. I was fortunate to observe master practitioners in Beijing Opera (Zhou Qing Ming & Li Qiu Ping/ Shanghai China) for 14 weeks,Bharatanatyam (N Yagna Prabha /India) for 12 weeks, Wayang Wong (Sardono Kusumo/Indonesia) for 14 weeks, and NOH theatre (Kanze Yoshimasa /Japan) for 7 weeks. I was also part of regular seminars debating the issues that the programme raised. The pure weight of this experience, especially the traditional forms, challenged and redefined every aspect of my work. I had to work across cultural, linguistic and aesthetic boundaries and it forced me to establish the placement of my own work in the programme.

It also introduced me to Tai Chi (which I have continued as a personal practice under the guidance of Madame Goh Lay Kuan/Singapore), and this became a vital bridge to the whole experience. Since returning to Australia, I have been consolidating what I have learnt from these experiences and applying specific processes in on-going sessions with the theatre company Liminal Theatre and Performance in Melbourne, which I co-founded in 2003. My proposed project in China will be a valuable next step in developing this process further, offering a higher level of integration and directly influencing the quality of my future work.


So all of this has been instrumental in the founding of Liminal?


In 2003, with Alan Knoepfler and Mary Sitarenos, I co-founded Liminal Theatre and Performance as a vehicle of syntheses, enabling focus and continuity in my work practice. Liminal Theatre and Performance is a practical forum, exploring and testing ideas, and is a centre for creating projects and theatre productions. It is a practical base, dedicated to continued research and the creation of new works with a group of specifically invited artists – it is dedicated to setting up collaborations with Asian artists. Liminal’s research is shared with the public by holding regular acting workshops in our Studio at the Abbotsford Convent. I am currently holding a two year Research fellowship form the Australia Council for the Arts. Simply Liminal was formed in response to wanting to work in a particular way as artists, for we all had had similar training and had very similar ideas on practice and theatre making. From there it attracted other like-minded artists.


What lies at the heart of your investigation of theatre and its form?

The body -working from kinaesthetic, rhythmical foundations, working intuitive not rationally. Working comfortably in the unknown not the known. Working from encounters between people and ideas and time and space. Working with language as a physical action of living human expression, not as an intellectual device of communication of ideas.


The Liminal website describes an examination of theatre as ‘texture and transformation’ -could you expand on this notion for readers who may not be familiar with the vocabulary of the performing arts?


Texture is working with many elements at the same time, e.g.; sound, light, voice, text body -allowing them to exist as an interplay of shifting relationships and rhythms. To find how they move together in a living moment. That is the organic living tension and not a juxtaposition (a series of elements running at the same time) so that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Transformation is reaching a moment where the imagination is engaged in both the artist (the work) and the viewer (audience / witness). This is the moment of the muse, the alchemy, the magic. Something lives. In performance where action becomes a metaphor for something greater / deeper. Realization and Revelation maybe, a moment of potential change. Difficult to achieve but an inspiring objective.

What would you say are the primary influences or motivations behind such work -does it share in any way Artaud’s imperative of non-physical language as outlined in his Theatre and Its Double and other writings?

I am not a knowledgeable authority with the work or ideas of Artaud’s so I could not make that comparison or know if I share anything of his work. However, the motivation behind our work is quite simple. It works for us. You find a practice that allows one to find a freedom and range to ones work and one follows that directions. We are not on a mission of converting others to this process or are we interested in any ideological commitment to a particular truth. We are just following and researching a process that connects to us. A natural unforced encounter. We have been influenced or inspired would be a better word by the works and words of Brook, Grotowski, Yoshi Ioda, Sardono Kusumo, Zeami and many others. My own mentors have been Lindy Davies, James MacCaughey, John Ellis, Ida Bagus Sutarja and so many fine actors I have worked with such as Mary Sitarenos, Robert Meldrum, Ernie Gray and Alan Knoepfler.


What is it in the Eastern tradition that separates it from that of Western practice?

Simply, the body has not been separated from the mind. This is old knowledge and profound especially in the practices of spiritual encounters, martial arts and medicine. It also embraces the spirit / the life / the power of the imagination. Mind-body-spirit as one. The traditional still exists with the contemporary (although it is still a struggle finding this balance in modernity as the economic pressures and methodologies of the west are very powerful and financially attractive in the short term). It is pre-postmodern. Very inspiring place to be and reassuring that this state still exists in the world and has not been seized by artistic intellectuals and ideology (been a few of them in Asian political spheres though). Their concept of duality is a conversation not a battle. The communal is still at work. The concept of the individual or the psychological ‘self’ is not central to their thinking. It is the conversation of many elements that can coexist together as one. For example there is no distinction of art and life. Art does not have to equate with trauma. An interesting dialogue between the domestic and the mythic. Duality as a shifting and changing, balanced conversation not a collision (it is not about power). A different relationship to time (it is a flexible concept). Time can expand or contract.It is quite an inspirational challenge to one’s own aesthetic position and practices.


 How did you first encounter the work of Gu Yian?


I met him in Melbourne. The meeting was set up by a Chinese artist, a friend of mine from Singapore Lee Chee Keng, who was in China and who said I should meet Gu Yian, for we shared many common ideas. We did and instantly knew we had to work together and find ways we could continue a very fruitful encounter. AsiaLink gave us that platform and we are still continuing.