Interview by Cynthia Troup, Photography by Cameron Ford and Daisy Noyes
Actor Emma Annand is a Brunswick resident who has been part of the creative team bringing the work Undercoat: A Parafoxical Tale to La Mama Theatre for its premiere season in early June. Undercoat is billed as “a supernatural tale of encounter with the Australian wilderness, in which the remnant wilderness ‘answers back’ as a provocative chorus of three red foxes.” Annand plays the youngest and most exuberant of the three fox characters, who is absurdly called Ruber tha Ruder Chicken Fox.
“Red foxes are local to us here in Brunswick, they’re in Royal Park, Princes Park, everywhere, under our noses, on all our pathways—they’re well aware of us humans and our habits. We’re just another element in the landscape, but as humans we tend to think we’re the main element,” Annand observes.
“In 2015, when I first read the script for Undercoat and the part of Ruber, I enjoyed her snappy, spiky attitude. Now, though, when I think back on my interpretation, I see it was so human-centred. Over the past months of rehearsal, Ruber’s become so much more of an intelligent animal—who plays with human language as a teasing game of irony. The dissonance between intellectualised concepts and the reality around us is pretty funny. Ruber’s at least one step ahead of She, the main character, but has to be many steps ahead of the audience. Foxes are so smart and quick!”
“Ruber is also a pragmatic and ruthless survivor,” Annand continues, “and she communicates in rhyme, with an underlying beat. This mode of rap poetry helps to set a distinctive way of moving, as well as strange and very quick thought changes. And because thought patterns are different, it helps me transform myself towards a different way of being.”
An intergenerational team of eleven women has come together to make Undercoat, and Annand describes the shared process as “very focused and invigorating.” “As in the best masterclasses, I’ve been nurtured, guided, and prodded to go to places previously unknown in myself, and that’s been a joyful process. [Director] Bagryana Popov brings such a positive, intuitive energy to her work. She’s rigorous, always looking for depth. One day she said to me, ‘once it’s known, it’s dead.’” Laughing, Annand adds, “I loved that statement so much I wrote it on my mirror in lipstick. It’s a wonderful reminder that every moment is fresh. I’ve also been delighted to work again with [Associate Director] Alice Darling. Alice has such a clear perspective, and a calm approach. She asks the perfect questions, and makes you feel like you got to the answer by yourself.”
In Undercoat Jean Goodwin plays the fox character called Ranger. “Like me, Jean studied at the Victorian College of the Arts, but we’ve never acted together before,” Annand says. “Jean’s found a streak of humour in Ranger that connects with popular culture. Ranger’s a street-smart, urban creature, while Ruber’s more nature-oriented, and territorial; I’m constantly protecting and warning. Each of the three foxes is very different, uses language differently, has a different knowledge of humans. The paradox is that, at one level, Undercoat’s about human concepts of wilderness and animal existence—so many paper-cut-out ideas we’re attached to—but the same concepts can only be questioned through human language.”
Caroline Lee and Maude Davey are the more experienced actors in Undercoat. “I have so much respect for them,” Annand affirms, “they’re powerful, skilful women, fun, and a privilege to work with.” “No-one’s taken Undercoat: A Parafoxical Tale off the page before—the work is brand new—and ours is a great team to bring it to life.”
Annand describes Undercoat as “a clever warning about the need for awareness of our attitudes to wildlife, including urban wildlife—in the context of climate change.” “The wisdom of the script seeps into you,” she says. “I feel like I’ve been let into a secret, and this secret is an awareness. The secret of the foxes thriving, constantly adapting with the changing wilderness … and how we humans can be quite rigid and limited in our thinking.”
The script of Undercoat refers to the importation of the red fox to Victoria in 1845—and to the arrival of the species in Western Australia in 1911–12. Ideally Undercoat will travel west faster than those daring animals of more than a century ago. The opening season at La Mama was a near sell-out, and now the Undercoat team hopes to take the work to The Blue Room Theatre in Perth, in early 2018.
Before then, Annand is pleased to relax her Ruber ways, and turn her talents towards other new ventures. “I’ve started working across more modes of acting, which has always been a goal of mine. I’m especially excited about upcoming projects, my teaching—and, who knows, I may write a script; there are notepads of ideas around my house. Ultimately, I don’t really know what will follow Undercoat, and that’s what I get a kick out of, the unpredictable nature of it all.”
‘Undercoat: A Parafoxical Tale’ ran at La Mama Theatre in Carlton from 7-18 July. You can find out more about the production here.
Part of the production ‘A Quarreling Pair: A Triptych of Small Puppet Plays‘, Cynthia Troup’s ‘And When They Were Good’ can be seen among the shows for adults in La Mama Theatre’s Melbourne Festival of Puppetry, programmed for 6–9 July.
You can find out more about Cynthia Troup and her work at http://cynthiatroup.com
Feature image Emma Annand, by Cameron Ford.
Image of members of the cast at ‘Undercoat: A Parafoxical Tale’, by Daisy Noyes