“Grief is love”: First Nations Emerging Critic Carissa Lee ponders funereal realities in The Director
After The Hamlet Apocalypse and Bushland, The Director, part of the Mere Mortals Arts House season, is the third production about death that I’ve seen in the past month. To be honest, it’s a bit overwhelming. I thought I was doing ok, as the previous productions made the audience consider the deaths of strangers and ourselves. However, The Director takes you through what it’s like to make arrangements for loved ones who have died, and this affected me in a way that I wasn’t expecting.
Performance artist Lara Thoms and former funeral director Scott Turnbull created a production called The Funeral Party for Dark Mofo in 2016, which sounds like a wonderfully gothic event. Turnbull and Thoms both talk about the importance of being acquainted with death, which is reflected in both these productions. The Funeral Party featured bands playing in Turnbull’s chapel as he roasted marshmallows on the crematorium flames, and illuminated coffins in which partygoers were invited to lie. A posed “corpse” lay on a bench covered in a sheet, worked on by a make-up artist.
The Director also begins with a motionless man (Turnbull) on a metal bench, this time with a young woman (Thoms) dressing him in a suit. She takes her time. There’s no sense of “performance”: the dressing sequence continues for some time in a comfortable silence, as she works in a professional yet gentle way. I could have watched her do this for hours, there was so much in the act. Some audience members found laughs in these tender moments, which perhaps was their way of dealing with its duration. And maybe it might not have been comfortable for everyone.
Once Turnbull is dressed, Thoms greets us with a welcoming smile and tells us about the body on the slab before her. He was a funeral director for 21 years before he sold his business to Invocare, a company that owns most of the funeral homes in Australia, but you wouldn’t know because they keep the original/family names of a lot of them. Once funeral homes become a part of a franchise, there is a risk that there will not be as much time taken when planning a funeral. Turnbull’s “body”, now dressed, gets up, and rates Thom’s dressing skills (he gives her a 5/10). He says that it’s time to “do the cremation”.
We are taken through the process of cremation, with Thoms using Weetbix as a substitute for the “body”. She puts it in the microwave dry, and during the two-minute cremation, Turnbull informs us that cremations can take up to one and a half hours, and cost around $950. While he’s listing facts, we watch the Weetbix beginning to burn. When the actor takes them out, the space fills with the smell of smoke.
Turnbull instructs Thoms to put the remains on the metal bench, to pick out nails and metal things that were included in the cremation. He says, much to my horror, that it’s now time to render the clumps into “romantic-looking dust”. They put the clumps into a nutrabullet, and the remains come out as we would normally see them. Dust. Despite the brutality of this moment, Turnbull reiterates that there is no rush with this process, and that it should be done calmly and quietly. Thoms places the ashes in a Nestle jar, which is meant to represent an urn.
The two performers take turns, one sitting in the audience while the other stands and is directed by the seated one. In one scene, Turnbull does a spiel on the best coffins, selling them like a car salesman, as Thoms directs him to deliver his speech in a more lively way. When Turnbull sits, he quizzes Thoms on the price of funerals, from the catering and the priest to the actual burial plot and digging the hole (all horrifically expensive).
Kenneth Pennington II’s sound transports us into the settings of the text, the cold drone of the morgue area or the sound of a crematorium running over the top of the microwave. Roughly in the middle of the performance, Turnbull takes us through the motions of a hectic five funeral Friday. The background music, an increasing heartbeat and the sound of funeral patrons increases in volume to illustrate the increase in activity, to the point where the performers need to shout over the din.
The Director is a touching production without being condescending, giving us a rare insight into an industry that makes money from death, and yet seems to care very little about the people affected by it. The performers sharing personal stories of the deaths that have affected them: a Wizard of Oz themed funeral, complete with a yellow brick road, or a heartbroken, elderly pet having to be euthanased, to be buried with their dead owner.
Turnbull emphasises the importance of not rushing into funeral arrangements. “A funeral means an opportunity to stop,’ he says. “It gives enough time and space for people to let the memory turn into something they can grow and control themselves, instead of the memory being a blur.”
Since death is a topic a lot of us don’t want to talk about (myself included), this is a valuable piece of theatre. Hearing the stories of people whose loved ones have died, particularly Thoms sharing the experience of her father’s death, reminded me of the sadness of a world where we can’t keep everyone forever. We walk on a planet that has footprints of people who passed centuries before, and those footprints will one day be all that remains of us.
The Director reminds us that although death is unavoidable, awful, and traumatic, we need to continue living, and to honour the grief that comes with life. As my Peepay Richard Frankland says (Peepay is Gunditjmara for father figure), grief is love. I hope more artists like Thoms and Turnbull continue to help us, not only to face the idea of grief, but to allow the stories of our own love to grow from it.
The Director, lead artist Lara Thoms, co-creator, performer, Scott Turnbull. Co-creator and dramaturge Aaron Orzech, dramaturgy by Lz Dunn. Sound by Kenneth Pennington II. Lighting and design by Latie Sfedtkidis. Performed by Lara Thoms and Scott Turnbull. The Director at North Melbourne Town Hall, Arts House. Until December 2. Bookings
Auslan performance – 8pm, Saturday December 1