interview: hannah courtney from the tempest – steampunked!
We chatted with Hannah Courtney, the choreographer of The Tempest – Steampunked! (Part of the Sydney Fringe Festival). She tells us about the inspiration behind the choreography for this Jules Verne-esque world and fills us in on all things steampunk and Shakespeare.
Hey Hannah, can you tell us a bit about how you got into choreography, and your background?
I started doing ballet when I was three and I never stopped! I’ve never been one of those exam, eisteddfod, six days of class a week types though – I did ballet once a week for fun, then added jazz, tap, contemporary and musical theatre classes at different times throughout my life. I think the reason I’ve stuck with it for so long is that it’s only ever been fun, never stressful. I now teach at the same dance school I grew up in (Jenny’s School of Dance on the Northern Beaches) and there we try to foster that love of dance as stress-free fun and exercise. There’s absolutely a place for the full- time students in the dance world, but there’s also a place for the regular kids and adults who are never going to be prima ballerinas, but just love dance and don’t want to give it up when they get to their teens. So it was from this springboard that I branched out into our fields of performance. In high school and university and through amateur and then independent theatre, I have participated in many plays and musicals, taking on quite a few different roles – acting, dancing, directing, stage managing, and of course, choreographing.
For those of us who aren’t familiar with the term, what exactly is steampunk?
Steampunk is a modern-day movement inspired by the past and characterised by some spectacular costumes. It tends to be based around the look of Victorian England, but with a twist. Back in those days, the most advanced technologies were based on steam and cogs, like that used in clockwork. That meant that the science fiction writers of the day, like Jules Verne, imagined a future that would be powered by steam and cogs. The result is the steampunk movement: savvy, stylish people around the world today dress in clothes that reflect how people in Victorian England imagined the future. So, if you haven’t wrapped your head around that, here’s an idea of elements that tend to feature: corsets, bustles, Victorian gowns hitched up to display laced boots, tophats and goggles, monocles and suspenders, explorer outfits, cogs and wheels (lots of clockwork on display), leather accessories like belts and bags, ammunition sash belts, ray guns, Zeppelins (blimp airships), steam trains… the list is endless! It makes for some absolutely awesome costuming for both women and men, and allows the imagination to go crazy in terms of the setting of the play.
What’s your latest project all about: The Tempest – Steampunked!
The show is Shakespeare’s masterpiece about a magician and his daughter living on a secluded island, and the band of lords and servants who are shipwrecked on that island by a terrible tempestuous storm. In our production, the time period has been steampunked, so we swap the Shakespearean setting for an imagined Victorian science fiction future – the ship becomes an airship wrecked by a lightning storm, and Prospero the magician becomes a Nikola Tesla type figure. Tesla was an inventor who is particularly famed for having experimented with electricity. He’s become a bit of a poster boy recently for science lovers – one of the most revered mad scientists. Of course, I always look forward to seeing shows I’ve helped develop on the stage, not least with this one because the costume and set designs are just stunning. But the geek in me is even more excited about seeing this production in the theatre because the set actually incorporates a Tesla Coil. A Tesla Coil is a device that shoots out electric lightning bolts! Don’t worry though – our mad scientists behind the scenes have made sure it is completely safe for audience and actors, even if it looks incredibly scary.
How did you get involved with this production for the Sydney Fringe Festival?
I had worked on several shows a few years back with the Director/Producer, John Galea. He told me he had this great idea for a show and would love me to choreograph. I was so excited by the concept (come on – there’s going to be a Tesla Coil on stage shooting lightning-like electricity around the theatre!) that I had to be involved.
What approach to the movement and choreography for The Tempest – Steampunked have you
My main role was as movement coach for the show. I took the actors for a full day workshop, where we all got very well acquainted with our own (and each other’s!) bodies. I guided them through exercises which allowed them to shake off their own unconscious movement style and slowly build up the movement bank – walks, unconscious gestures, emotional bodily reactions – that forms the physicality of their characters on the stage. There was also some choreography involved. There is one scene in the show which involves a bit of spectacle – something of a celebration. John wanted an old style dance to start off the festivities – the type of partner dancing we’d expect in medieval times, or at a Jane Austen ball. The dance is a bit of a mish-mash of the styles of those few centuries, with a bit of a modern twist thrown in to reflect the strange time-travelling aesthetic of steampunk. You can also look forward to a few amazing circus skills on display from our talented cast who are also Sydney circus performers.
What were some of the challenges with this piece?
Honestly, this show has been a delight to be a part of. Of course there is always the work of researching new dance styles when they’re required for choreography (thanks to the internet, this is quite fun now!), and the time and energy that formulating that choreography requires (although this is an artistic release for me, not a chore). It’s always a bit worrying coming to movement workshops and not knowing what to expect from the actors. These exercises only work if they absolutely throw themselves in and trust that something will come of them. Luckily, this cast was a dream – they didn’t hold back and really gave it their all, letting me work them until they’d completely changed their own physicalities and ‘grown’ their own characters. They are a talented bunch, but best of all for someone in my role, they’re also a focused and hardworking ensemble.
Thanks for chatting with us Hannah. We look forward to seeing it!
When: 29 August – 8 September, 2012
Where: Sidetrack Theatre, Marrickville