This terrifying piece makes people faint. How do actors stay sane night after night?

AAstonishing for its violence and unflinching graphic depiction of trauma, British writer Sarah Kane’s 1998 play Cleansed has been described as “impossible to stage”. Filled with grotesque nightmarish incidents – torture, assaults, drug use and surgical procedures – it seems written to challenge the creative imagination as much as it challenges the audience to sit in it; among the most baroque of Kane’s stage directions is one that requires a character’s severed feet to be carried offstage by rats. And some will not stay there: when the piece was revived in 2016 at Dorfman in London, dozens of spectators left the auditorium. Several passed out.

None of this has deterred Sydney-based director Dino Dimitriadis, who is creating a new production of this rarely seen ‘in-yer-face’ drama at the Old Fitz. Theater in Woolloomooloo, Sydney. But how do you rehearse an “impossible” piece? And in a time when the emotional and physical well-being of actors is under scrutiny, how do you care for those in Kane’s unplayable play, night after night? In fact, why do it at all?

” From our point of view, [Cleansed] It’s not about attending a horror show – it’s about discovering the breadth of experience of what it is to be human,” says Dimitriadis. “I want audiences to know that we’re trying to create a meaningful experience for them. We’re not afraid of its end, but I want audiences to see beyond that end and see Cleansed for what it is: a play about our need for love and connection.

It’s 11 a.m. on a Saturday morning. Two actors are about to rehearse an intimate love scene with only three stagings: Carl kisses Rod; Carl makes love with Rod; They both come. It’s a sweet, tender scene with a number of challenges to overcome – not least that in earlier scenes, Carl (played by actor Stephen Madsen) has had parts of his body destroyed. He has to indicate it in a scene that also requires full nudity.

“Here, we are staging the unstageable,” murmurs Dimitriadis. “I’ve never been more safety conscious.”

Stephen Madsen and Charles Purcell rehearse their scene
“It will by no means be a ‘safe’ production, but it is from a safe space.” Stephen Madsen and Charles Purcell rehearse their scene. Photography: Robert Catto

Physical safety and mental health are his main concerns: “It’s not easy material to do and it’s sometimes very painful to see colleagues act in states of extreme distress.” The company has a mental health professional on standby for the entire season. “It’s about establishing a caring culture in everything we do,” says Dimitriadis.

Before rehearsing the scenes, the actors perform an agreed tactile exercise. Face to face and looking into each other’s eyes, they place their hands on their face, hair, arms, torso, legs and feet, while saying “yes, yes, yes, yes”.

This level of care is new for Madsen, who plays Carl. He finds it rewarding. “The journey that Carl is pursuing is something I don’t think I would attempt with any other company,” he said after the rehearsal. “When you’re on a team that’s motivated by creating a safe environment, that gets you going. This will by no means be a “safe” production, but it is from a safe space. It gives us the power and the support to see how far we can go.

Cleansed has also engaged the services of Bayley Turner, a privacy and consent consultant. It’s his job to help actors through a difficult process and to protect performers and producers from some of the issues that have plagued the entertainment industry for years: proper backstage and rehearsal room behaviors, for example.

“Usually an intimacy coordinator is just brought in for a problematic scene,” Turner explains. “On Cleansed, I got a lot more feedback and was able to develop policies specific to that distro.”

Created by an all-gay creative team, Dimitriadis’ cast includes several gender and trans performers, who may be more vulnerable than their cisgender colleagues in certain circumstances, says Turner, a trans woman herself.

“The trans body is so politicized and media representation is so loaded,” she says. “By placing an actress with a bare penis on a stage, for example, you evoke ideas that have come down to us over the years, that trans bodies are disgusting or unnatural. This can be an incitement to violence. We have to be very respectful of the performer when you put them in a position like that.

Some in the industry have suggested that coordinators’ intimacy and creative spontaneity are antithetical, Madsen says. “There are actors who worry that intimacy coordinators are somehow infantilizing everyone and stopping people from making provocative art. But my experience is absolutely the opposite.

“It’s like bringing in a fight choreographer to craft a fight. If I were to put on a fight myself, it would be pretty docile because I’d be afraid of hurting the other person. But as soon as there’s a coordinator in the room helping you through the process, you’re able to make something more dynamic, more dangerous, even if, in fact, it’s safer.

One element of the show remains unpredictable: the audience. Dimitriadis is prepared for unexpected answers. People who need to leave the tiny Old Fitzroy can do so without interrupting the play space, for example, and the cast has a safe word that, if spoken, will immediately stop the show.

Dimitriadis hopes audiences can both support and understand. “The important thing to remember is that Kane writes about what can happen to the human soul. You can’t stage a soul so she uses the human body as a metaphor for what happens to the soul. To a certain level, there’s a very strong reality going on – someone is beaten, someone is mugged – but on another level, the play is above that level It’s an emotional case study, not a spectacle of horror.

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