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ear to the edge of time: an interview with gabrielle scawthorn

This image: Gabrielle Scawthorn in ‘Ironbound’ . Photo by Jasmin Simmons
Featured Image: Gabrielle Scawthorn in ‘Ear to the Edge of Time’

EAR TO THE EDGE OF TIME by Alana Valentine is inspired by true events.  A young radio astronomer who makes a universe-shifting discovery, only for her work to be claimed by her older, male, supervisor. As she wrestles with her frustration and the potential consequences of speaking out, the decision about whether she should go public is suddenly and irrevocably taken out of her hands.

Sydney Arts Guide had the opportunity to speak with one of the stars, Gabrielle Scawthorn, who has just had rave reviews for her work in IRONBOUND.  (SAG Review)

SAG:                Thank you for stepping out of rehearsal to chat with our readers.  You’ve just come off a very big show and straight into this one, you must have been busy with rehearsal and prep and a show on the boards.
GABRIELLE:     ( laughing) Yes I was.  Which I haven’t done in quite a while.  I’ve done it a couple of times before but this is the first time in about 3 years.  There is a skill to it! It is a different ball game entirely, kind of taking one hat off and putting the other on with an hour or so turnaround.

SAG:                I bet there is.  Was the KXT dressing room littered with astrophysics books? 
GABRIELLE:     No, no it wasn’t. The guys made fun of me because the dressing room is very small and the lovely boys I did the show with were all very, very caring and so on the first day that I came in they said ‘ how are rehearsals. Tell me all about it ?’

But I have a really strict rule that I don’t like to talk about one show when I’m about to do the other one.  And so I had to say, sorry guys I can’t talk about it … that can’t come into this theatre.  So no, there were no astrophysics books in there.

SAG:                So you keep the creations very separate? 
GABRIELLE:     Yeah yeah. I think it’s the only way, for me, to do it is to completely compartmentalise the two of them in completely separate arenas. Otherwise you get on stage and you start thinking about a completely different scenario. Which is not going to help anyone.

SAG:                So is this character in this new play based on a real person?
GABRIELLE:     Yes it is.  The story that happened to a real scientist is used in our play and there are lots of true science stories that Alana has very skilfully and cleverly amalgamated into one narrative.  And there’s also lots of verbatim because she’s interviewed the actual astrophysicists at Parkes and that creeps in as well.  So we’ve tried to really look at the moral implications of what happened to the scientists as opposed to a direct character study of these people.

SAG:            Yeah I can imagine.  I have been watching Alana’s work for a very long time and she’s so meticulous in that kind of research.
GABRIELLE:     Absolutely. And she’s been in the room with us.  We’ve had her for most of the first week and then she comes in one day per week to see how we are tracking.  She’s been very generous with hearing our ideas as well on, you know, slight tweaks and changes which is pretty remarkable for a writer like Alana.

SAG:                And if I know Alana’s work but there’s lots of humour in there?
GABRIELLE:     There really is.  And we had to restart a scene four times last week because Chris Stollery just makes me cackle.  And I’m not a corpser but I need to try very hard not to.  So, yes there will be a quite a few laughs along the way.

SAG:                And what about your research ? I had a crack at understanding neutron star physics and it did me in.
GABRIELLE:     Yeah.  I have a very in depth monologue about a neutron star … what it is, what it does and what can happen to it.  And this monologue is verbatim, so it’s coming from the point of view of someone who really knows what they’re talking about. And what I found was: I thought that I had an idea of what these individual scientific elements were, but you have to just double check everything.

Because if you don’t have a very clear idea of the thoughts that these people are putting forward, in quite intricate terms, I don’t think you’ll have much of a hope communicating to 200 people what you’re talking about.

SAG:                I can see that, just reading it on the page on the computer, it’s very difficult to understand and I suppose that’s your job to make sure that people don’t disengage from the concepts.
GABRIELLE:     This play deals with some very complex ideas about intellectual property in the science arena. And I always come to IP from an arts perspective but intellectual property is in every discipline.  Except this seems to be a different set of boundaries around it and so the play has so many ideas that are the central focus and the characters just help to get those ideas across.

I have not done an ideas driven play in a while and it’s so stimulating in a different kind of way. Like how do I make these ideas as clear as I can for someone to digest?

SAG:                So the story is that the credit for your character’s work is taken by someone else?
GABRIELLE:     Not the credit. But the moment of discovery. So that Eureka moment that scientists talk about.  And scientists, they don’t tend to talk about the moment when they got first credit on the discovery, they talk about the moment that they confirmed their suspicion.  And that moment was taken from her.

SAG:                Wow.  That sounds amazing, I have goosebumps.
GABRIELLE:     Yeah!  Look I’m only early in rehearsals so I’m still discovering things myself but what the play does really well is: it looks at the difference between ego and credit versus that moment of bringing something into existence.  And the subtle differences between what those two things are.  And they are actually very separate.  And it’s also how much this character wants to admit the importance of having one of those moments in her life.

SAG:                Sounds extraordinary.  And what about the staging?  IRONBOUND was a pretty bare stage.
GABRIELLE:     This one is very, very pared back again. It’s essentially a blank canvas, bare bones stage and four actors and that’s all right because I can’t forget a prop!

There are massive ideas in the play, though the play is super naturalistic, but the ideas themselves stretch the vastness of the universe and to confine that into a realistic office setting is not the most helpful way to get those ideas across.

SAG:          So given all that, what is it you want the audience to take away from the theatre?
GABRIELLE:     A discussion.  People are definitely not going to get any clear black-and-white answers from the show but hopefully they’ll get a lot of questions. I think it’ll be one of those shows that people can’t wait to get out in the foyer to have a good chat about what’s just happened. And there are no right or wrong answers, it’s such a vast matter that people will have their own viewpoint about the incident that sparks the show. 

So, yes, a discussion and maybe one or two facts about the universe they didn’t know before.

The world premiere of EAR TO THE EDGE OF TIME with a stellar cast of Gabrielle Scawthorn, Belinda Giblin, Christopher Stollery and Tim Walter, and directed by the internationally-acclaimed Nadia Tass runs at the Seymour Centre, 11th – 27th October 2018.  Produced by Sport for Jove [Facebook] and Seymour Centre [Facebook].


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