‘This is just the beginning’: Theatre maven’s grand plans

Let’s start with the bit of this story that sounds like a lie. My lunch with Anne-Louise Sarks, the artistic director of the Melbourne Theatre Company, lasts exactly the duration of their current play. I know this because I arrive just as the final few people are being called into the theatre for that day’s matinée, and when we say goodbye we both disappear into the crowd of people filing out of the Southbank Theatre into the rainy street.

It’s rare to meet someone who inhabits theatre so completely, for whom it is so clearly a deeply embedded part of who they are. It makes sense, then, that Sarks’ choice of restaurant is Miss Pearl Bar + Dining, which sits within the same building as the Melbourne Theatre Company – you enter through the same lobby you walk through when going to see a show. From our spot in the corner we can see the occasional latecomer, people peering through the windows, staff going about their work. Somehow, while it feels as though she always has her full attention on our conversation, she’s also keeping an interested eye on all the happenings just on the other side of the glass.

Lunch with Anne-Louise Sarks, artistic director of Melbourne Theatre Company at the Miss Pearl Bar + Dining.Credit:Eddie Jim

Theatre was always going to play a large role in Sarks’ life. Her parents were involved with amateur company The Genesian Theatre in Sydney when she was small, they took her to musicals (“all of them” she adds with a laugh), she studied drama at school, and then went on to study drama and acting in both Sydney and Melbourne, including at VCA just around the corner from where we are having lunch.

Her first arts degree took “way too long” she reflects. It’s ironic – getting hands-on experience kept getting in the way of her studies. While there she ran the Sydney University drama society, started an arts festival that is still running, and so kept deferring. Then “around the time it was meant to wrap up I realised I didn’t have the craft – I had the passion and desire but not the actual skills I needed to tell the stories I wanted to tell.” So she came over to Melbourne to study some more.

Stories are something that Sarks comes back to a lot, both across our conversation and in her work overall. Her interest is genuine – “stories” isn’t simply a neat hook. She doesn’t let any of my passing comments lie – she asks questions about my work, my family, the other articles I’m working on. When our photographer Eddie Jim arrives she is curious about the other shoots he’s been on that morning, his day an eclectic dance card of locations that range from artist studios to football clubs.

Chicken and ginger dumplings with black vinegar, garlic and shallot.Credit:Eddie Jim

The first time Sarks and I met was a few weeks earlier – at this restaurant actually – when she had just announced her first program as artistic director. It’s a vibrant and energetic collection of works, and Sarks herself will be directing two of them. In putting it all together she explains “the impetus at the core of it was about story.” She pauses. “New stories – stories that we haven’t heard before, or if we have heard that story before, or we think we know that story, how can we go deeper? Or what else can be uncovered?” In choosing a project she emphasises, “you have to have a question that needs to be answered.”

Steamed local snapper, fried bone and wakame broth, mussels and ginger. Credit:Eddie Jim

Story is also why, despite her initial attraction to it, she didn’t end up pursuing acting. On leaving VCA she set out on a series of auditions, but found the range of roles, of what was being put out in the world at the time, quite narrow. “The thing about being an actor is it is such a difficult, vulnerable job. I have so much respect for actors,” she says. It wasn’t a good fit as “I found it very hard to not have control over the stories that were being told – I wanted to have a more active role in which stories were being shared and how they were being shaped.”

So, she started creating her own. A big turning point in Sarks’ career was Medea, a work she created in collaboration with actor and writer Kate Mulvany. It subverts the ancient greek tragedy, written by Euripides, putting the children at the centre of the action. Medea was extremely well received. “Then a company in England wrote and asked for permission to do the play – and in a moment of sort of great bravado, I said to them, you can absolutely have the play, but only if I can come and direct it.”

Kingfish with yuzu dressing, chive oil, pickled red chilli and laver.Credit:Eddie Jim.

There’s still an edge of disbelief in Sarks’ voice as she recounts this. Opportunities started to flow in after that, kicking off a seven-year stint of directing all around the world. “I never actually meant to have this international career, but I watched male directors around me do that and I think there’s a part of me that thought, why not me? Why shouldn’t I also go and do that thing?”

Two competing drives slowly emerge over the conversation – the desire to breathe new life into a play, to put different stories on the stage, but also to have ownership of your own work. I ask her how she reconciles this – about letting go of something you’ve written and letting someone else steer it.

“I think the clues to a work are inside the work itself,” she says. Part of the process is trusting that you’ve embedded the key elements inside the work itself – and then you can set it free. “But maybe on some level it is about knowing you’ve satisfied something as an artist yourself, too.” She pauses. “I clearly still had questions alive inside me around Medea that I wanted to answer.” Now, however: “This is famous last words,” she says with a laugh. “I’m not sure I would do Medea again. I don’t know if I have a question about that work right now.”

Sarks has experienced theatre from almost all angles; audience member, actor, writer, director, and now artistic director. These roles are also not discreet – many continue to overlap and feed into one another, strengthening her insight and allowing her to see where there are gaps, where things could be tweaked, what’s important.

“It’s so important to me that there is an open invitation to all Victorians, to all people, to come into this space.”

Her first time back in a theatre after lockdowns, she was surprised at how emotional the experience was. It’s not just about what’s happening on the stage, but how it’s being taken in by those around you. The one person who laughs at a joke. The woman who starts a standing ovation. The man who applauds twice as loudly as anyone else. “I remember listening to people laugh at different spots and thinking, this is what I’ve missed. I thought I would have just missed the theatre, but I actually missed being in an audience and people having completely different opinions to me about what was funny. I wouldn’t have been able to tell you before that moment that that’s what I loved most about theatre. But it’s really shifted the way I understand it now”.

The food at Miss Pearl is designed for sharing. It’s here I get a brief insight into how Sarks likely is as a director – decisive but warmly diplomatic – as she cuts through the potential polite dithering that can happen when two people are choosing what food to share by suggesting we each put forward three things we’re interested in and then see where the overlap lies. (“You know that thing, ego depletion, where if you have to make a large number of decisions every day, there’s a point where it becomes harder and harder?” she says when we both look down at the menu and are silent for just a bit too long.)

We end up with a selection that shows a good cross section of what Miss Pearl has to offer. There’s a delicate plate of kingfish, and some surprisingly filling dumplings. A serve of local snapper comes paired with mussels and broth, and the dish of crispy eggplant which I’d been somewhat on the fence about turned out to be a firm favourite. The house pickles are also a surprise highlight – though not to Sarks who from a past visit knew to order them.

Sarks has a lot of plans for the Melbourne Theatre Company, with one of them making theatre less opaque and to bring in more audiences.

Receipt for Elizabeth Flux’s lunch with Anne-Louise Sarks at Miss Pearl Bar + Dining in Southbank

“I’m having a lot of conversations at the moment about how we can make theatre more accessible,” she says. “It’s so important to me that there is an open invitation to all Victorians, to all people, to come into this space and to be part of that experience.”

Part of it is financial accessibility, but another part is also creating the desire to see what’s on offer. It comes back to stories – allowing audiences to feel ownership over them, connection, and to see themselves represented. “As an audience member I’m interested in what is it that I haven’t heard before, or that I don’t already understand about myself or about the world – and how can theatre open that up for me? And I don’t think I’m alone in that.” It isn’t just about what happens in the hours spent in a show either. “It should be bigger than what’s happening in that room – what is the conversation that follows after?”

There’s a noise outside the restaurant and we watch as the first few audience members start to make their way down the stairs. “This is just the beginning. I have so much I want to do – so much I want to make possible for other artists. So it doesn’t feel like there’s any time to waste.”

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