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An artist’s brush with death

The Director co-stars Lara Thoms and Scott Turnbull met at a ‘Funeral Party’ in 2016... Turns out they were a match made in heaven.

Sydney Opera House

Armed with first-hand experience and a healthy dose of humour, charismatic ex-funeral director Scott Turnbull and artist and creator Lara Thoms demystify the macabre and sometimes playful elements of the ‘death industry’ in The Director.

Nothing is off limits, including the smell of a crematorium, the tools of the mortuary, and driving tractors into a funeral chapel. At a time when dying costs an average of $10,000 and funerals happen within a week, death can seem like a very expensive drive-thru meal.

Blurring the roles of funeral director and theatre director, Thoms and Turnbull ask each other to perform tasks, share knowledge and give feedback on each other’s actions.

We chatted with Thoms and Turnbull to discover how this quirky collaboration made its way to the Opera House stage.

How did you meet?

Lara: I was working for Dark Mofo in Hobart and was looking inside Scotts crematorium on my  first day of work. I was curating an event called The Funeral Party at Scott's family funeral business and he asked me if I wanted to take a look inside 'The Big Scone Cooker'.

Scott: I first met Lara in 2016 whilst working on a project for Dark Mofo, called the Funeral Party. I was the funeral director she was arts director. 

What were your immediate impressions?

Lara: At first I was intimidated, I was in a conservative space looking at a guy in a three piece suit, and I was asking him if we could party on his beige carpets. But within minutes we were sharing laughs.

Scott: My first impressions of Lara were that she looked a bit scared as we met in a funeral chapel. Lara also seemed like a quiet, personable type.

What compelled you to work with each other?

Lara: I felt like Scott was a natural story-teller and had a wicked sense of humour. He also had an insight into a world I was so curious about. It is so hard to find first-hand knowledge about the death industry I had a million questions, from what fragrances he sprays on the deceased to if people forget to pick up ashes, to what the profit margins on coffins are.

Scott: I think Lara said she wanted to make work about death and funerals during in our first week together. She asked me to do a small performance at the Funeral Party. I was compelled to give it a go as I’d never shared my experiences of the funeral world in a performance before, and well, I am up for giving most things a go at least once.

How did your relationship evolve over the course of working together and developing The Director?

Lara: I think at first Scott thought I was a bit of a wanker as I was getting him to do warm up exercises and using strange performance terminology like dramaturg. But he also had his strange industry terminology and insights and we quickly learnt each other's languages. We also learnt to trust each other to push ourselves into uncomfortable places to bring our two worlds together. Scott and I are very different, but share a cheekiness and vulnerability in our work.

Scott: After the Funeral Party, both of us were able to open up about our experiences and respond quickly to each other’s questions. My belief is that this lead to a work that is personal, informative, humorous and entertaining, and our relationship is all of those things too. We also had a few ‘rugged’ discussions where we both felt out of our depths which increased our respect each for other as people and performers.

What are the other’s best qualities as a deviser / performer?

Lara: Scott has so much commitment and energy. He gets in early to rehearsal and vacuums. He meets everyone on the street, he invites Uber drivers to the show. I would say his humour is his best quality but he has a few too many bad dad jokes to qualify for that. He can talk really, really fast and will answer every question I throw at him, even if it is confronting for him.

Scott: Best qualities about Lara from my perspective are that she has the ability to take conversations and my mad ramblings and turn them into something that makes sense to the masses through strange contemporary performance techniques. Ha, if you said 10 years ago that this would happen I would have laughed my ass off.

At first I was intimidated, I was in a conservative space looking at a guy in a three piece suit, and I was asking him if we could party on his beige carpets.

What have been some of the surprises / challenges of working together?

Lara: That Scott is such a natural performer. I knew he would be great when I met him but I never expected him to get nominated for a performance award (Greenroom award) for his first ever experience onstage! I also didn't expect us to become close friends - he taught my daughter how to walk in the rehearsal room - he is part of the family now.

Scott: What’s surprised me was seeing our conversations turned into multi-dimensional performance. I didn’t realise how sound, light, pace and physical elements could shift things.  I also found it a challenge working with an artist who sometimes didn’t understand my need for cleaning! I once found a really old stir-fry in our shared fridge. It is always hard to perform a set of instructions many times over and keep it feeling fresh each time, but the team found methods to keep me on my toes. I never quite know what they will throw at me each night. Some shows feel really different to others and Lara can ask new questions to me within the performance that I have never considered.

How is your personal experience of the ‘death industry’ represented in The Director?

Lara: I had a very specific personal experience through family members and it made me think that the industry was generally conservative, stilted and lacked transparency. Scott had a foot in both worlds, he had a very traditional business but within that did very creative acts such as a Wizard of Oz themed funeral or letting farm animals into the chapel.

Scott: My personal experience is almost every aspect and element of the death industry - from embalming and dressing a body, riding in a billy cart coffin, the cremations, floral arrangements, community education and giving people the opportunity for a more creative funeral. I’ve arranged funerals with glow sticks instead of flowers and held dance parties in my chapel. There are all sorts of stories, you will have to come and hear them.

The Director plays in the Sydney Opera House Studio from May 15 - 19 as part of Festival Unwrapped.

Find more about Theatre at the Opera House