Niceties and Dastardly Deeds – Side Pony Productions’ The Confidence Man

By Urszula Dawkins


In The Confidence Man, bold young Perth company Side Pony Productions immerses the audience in a gripping thriller; part-Hitchcock and part-Dogville. Urszula Dawkins speaks with Co-Writer and Side Pony Productions Artistic Associate Adriane Daff about how nice people do dastardly things, and why it’s sometimes OK to laugh.

Side Pony Productions is the vehicle for director Zoe Pepper, whose quirky creations have included the slightly lunatic and deeply perceptive Heart of Gold; tragi-comic epic The Wives of Hemingway and award-winning lion-family drama The Pride. As Artistic Associate, Adriane Daff has worked on most of Side Pony’s creations. Both she and Pepper are keenly interested in the contradictions of human behaviour.

There’s no such thing as ‘good people’ or ‘bad people’, according to Daff. External pressures can push ‘good people’ to do ‘bad things’, she says, “and that’s what’s so amazing about human beings”.

“The stuff that some people do – you just could not make that up,” says Daff. “It’s so dramatic and makes for excellent stories, excellent theatre.”

Pepper and Daff begin their collaborations by discussing the “crazy stories we have heard, where people have done some pretty gnarly shit to one another,” says Daff.

“And we sit there going ‘why? why? how could they DO that?’ Then we kind of riff off the whys and hows to make a story – to maybe understand why people do what they do, and maybe provide an empathetic experience when people come to see one of our shows.”

Humour and irony are qualities that sit well with the murkier sides of human behaviour, when it comes to creating theatre.

“[Side Pony’s work can be] pretty dark… the things we are dealing with or asking the audience to think about. And if you’re killing people off left, right and centre, as we have a tendency to do, then I think you have to give your audiences a way in.”

“I think one of our funniest and most ironic works is The Pride: it’s about a family of lions doing home renovations and the actors wear big fluffy lion costumes the whole time. One of the most common things people said to me after seeing the show was, ‘you all looked so adorable and it was so funny and I was having such a great time; and then when I least expected it you kicked me in the guts’. I loved hearing that, because I think that’s what Zoe as a director does so well: she brings you right in with black humour and lots of dark fun and then by the end you’re drawn in enough and you care enough about the characters to cry and die with them, so to speak.”

Confidence Man-blog

The Confidence Man is performed by audience members, playing out a tale of betrayal, deception and moral philandering with the help of headsets. The performers’ faces are hidden behind looming, outsized masks, and, reminiscent of the movie Dogville, the story plays out on the floor plan of a suburban home. The effect is both disconcerting and absorbing: the anonymity of the mask seems to make space for the watcher to project themselves into the story. Audience members wear headsets too, experiencing the show in a range of ways: some will stay with the point of view of one character throughout the show, while others can toggle between channels to hear the thoughts of all six characters.

Daff hopes the combination of audience-performed roles and ‘listening-in’ will create an intensely empathetic experience.

“What better way to give people an insight into why people do what they do and why they make the choices they make, if you can literally ‘live’ inside their heads and carry out their actions for them. The niceties as well as the dastardly deeds. You can only do that to a certain point in a traditional actor-audience relationship.”

The use of headset instructions is an innovative variation on the ‘autoteatro’ technique pioneered by Europe-based company Rotozaza, which brought the audience-performed Etiquette and solo supermarket experience Wondermart to Arts House in 2010. Daff also mentions as inspiration the work of experimental theatre-maker David Rosenberg; and Punchdrunk’s head-bending Macbeth-remake, Sleep No More, in which masked audience members follow the characters on a two-hour chase through a network of rooms and corridors.

“I wouldn’t say we’ve been too heavily influenced by anyone in particular,” says Daff. “Zoe has a fairly particular style and aesthetic and that naturally leads her to do things in her own sort of way. Plus we know what our strengths are…that meant a focus on character development, a reasonably complicated and engaging story line and some big masks that gave the audience/participants enough anonymity to feel free to act as the characters – and that were designed specifically enough so you got an immediate sense of who you were: the teenage daughter, the down-trodden father, etc.”

The variation and risk of an audience-performed work adds layers of depth, too, to the thoughts and actions of The Confidence Man’s characters.

“Probably the most striking thing about the work is the bizarre contrast of what is a reasonably traditional plot line and delivery via the audio; juxtaposed with these oversized masks and the audience’s own acting style… I get a real kick out of seeing how [the audience] will interpret the actions we ask them to do. People can really surprise you. And it’s just wonderful when they do.”

And for those who choose to play one of the characters?

“If you do play one of the characters, we do look after you… You are very anonymous because of the mask and the character you are asked to play, which has proven to be a really liberating thing. Be bold and have fun!”

The Confidence Man
Arts House, North Melbourne Town Hall
Wed 28 Aug – Sun 1 Sep 2013


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