In High Water with Elysse Cheadle


In February, just before MacroMatter took the production High Water to Montreal to _____ festival, Dramaturg Kathleen Flaherty interviewed Elysse Cheadle, the Writer/Director of High Water, about the unique dramaturgy of this creation in a fish tank. Elysse Cheadle is a theatre maker, performer, writer, and director living in Vancouver. Since completing her degree in Fine Arts from SFU, Elysse has focused on training in contemporary dance, and devised creation practices.  As a theatre-maker, Elysse’s work is driven by a curiosity in objects, an interest in science, the abstraction of dance, and the playful tensions of magical realism. She continues to seek new opportunities to work collaboratively with artists from different disciplines to create unique pieces of contemporary theatre.


KF:  It’s been a long time since you did this, but can you remember what you and Rob [Leveroos] were doing when you first started working on High Water together?

EC:  The very very first day I remember quite clearly because we got together at my house and we just played with tubes and buckets of water in my back yard. Which was quite fun and silly. On that day we wanted to learn about syphoning.

KF:  You weren’t out with your mouths on a tube.

EC:  A tube of water. We laid buckets out all over my back yard and we were trying to see if we could get the water to go up the tube – is it possible to overcome the force of gravity and make the water go up the tube onto the next step? And everything was very expansive at that point, this whole web of tubes going on. Rob had brought a whole bunch of books about the science of water; we were going to try to remake the experiments and see what we could learn. So it really started… I don’t want to say ‘without a direction’…the direction was just, “Let’s explore the properties of water and follow what interests us.”

KF:  Had you already figured out it was going to take place in a tank?

EC:  Yeah, so that was Rob’s only offer to me. To be involved in the project, he said he wanted to make a show that took place in a fish tank as the fish tank slowly filled with water. And that was it.

KF:  And what on earth about that elevator pitch made you say “yes”? (laughter)

EC:  That’s the only kind of elevator pitch I’m interested in. Because I’d worked with Rob – at that point, we’d worked together on his grad show and we also had worked together on Sketches of Snortoose, which was before Mr. Snortoose and the Machine Children’s Machine. I just wanted to work with him again. I think we’re kind of a funny duo because we’re interested in the same kinds of things theatrically; we’re both very excited by absurdism and like working with objects without narrative and silliness and that sort of thing. But then we approach it very very differently. We’ve been working on the show for three years and I’m not sure we found a completely smooth way to go about that – we’re always in conflict, which is exciting. Because it’s not personal.

KF:  Can I explore that a bit – about artistic conflict and what’s exciting about it, how you keep it out of being personal?

EC:  I think that’s very hard.

KF:  I can think of people that I worked with that we didn’t talk for 10 years afterwards. We pretend that it hadn’t been a creative conflict gone wrong, but that’s what it was.

EC:  Yeah, it is hard because the work becomes so personal and the show becomes so personal, but having the brackets around it is essential. I think. And our whole community, everybody’s working with their friends all the time, which is wonderful, and we have these amazing relationships with people in special ways that other folks outside of the arts don’t get to have, but it’s also kind of risky every time.

KF:  Good point. I think of you more as a writer than other things, but obviously you’re a theatre maker in general, right? Did you have specific roles that you were fulfilling and how did that change over time?

EC:  Rob hired me as a writer. I think that was the initial idea, that we were going to play with these objects together and then as the piece started to emerge I would go away and write something and bring it back to him and he would include that in the next stage of development. But the impulse to add text was never there for me.

KF:  Huh.  So you evolved into becoming more like a dramaturg.

EC:  Yeah, I felt that. Like we (EC and KF) were both the dramaturgs of the piece.

KF:  I felt like I was the consulting dramaturg and you were the dramaturg. So I appreciated being let in on the very fragile places where you would say, “Okay, we’ve got something, we could use some other eyes on it.”  You were in there the whole time, with a dramaturgical eye, to structure content and meaning, I guess.

EC:  Yeah. But then I also have questions around the term ‘writer’ (and I think you’re going to completely disagree with this) but I wonder if being a writer means you have to use any words at all.  I still do kind of feel like a writer on the show.  Recently, this past week, we’ve been doing runs of the show in my garage to prepare for Montreal. We’ve been doing dry runs, because all the objects are packed away and are being shipped to Montreal, so we’ve literally been doing a dry run – Rob’s been miming the objects and I have to run the lights in Montreal, so I’ve been practicing running the lights and calling the cues and Alex is doing the sound, learning the sound cues. And because Alex doesn’t know the show and Rob miming doesn’t really help him, Rob has been speaking what he’s doing. And a lot of the ways he’s been describing the moments, or even the voice he’s using while he’s miming the show, are words that have come up in rehearsal. Or little catch phrases that I had given him at the beginning of the process, when I was encouraging him to be speaking under his breath during the show – I would say,  “talk to the objects and don’t worry about what you’re saying… we can cut it out but I want you to have a running dialogue.” And I feel like that is the writing of the show and what he is speaking does feel like the written script, and the audience isn’t privy to that script. I feel like I’ve written the subtext.

KF:  Yeah. You have written the subtext. And, to be honest, I don’t disagree with you – I think somebody could write a play consisting entirely of stage directions. Or sound. It’s just a real challenge to me to figure out if there is a narrative and how you determined in the end that the narrative would be developed in our heads.

EC:  I don’t think we ever wanted a ‘narrative’. That was never a concern. We weren’t talking about a narrative; we were just playing with the objects and seeing how to put it together. And I’ve said over and over that I think it’s a dance show and I still really do think it’s a dance show. The images are more a choreography. And I think there’s tons of tiny little narratives that happen in the show. And I think the beginning, middle, end, if you really want a narrative, it’s so clear in the visual of a tank filling with water… I can’t write better than that.

KF:  So I guess the deep dramaturgical question, and this is probably a dance dramaturgy question, which I don’t know anything about, without a narrative to use as a decision making process, what do you use instead? How do you decide what’s part of it and what’s not?

EC:  That’s such a funny question to me. For this process specifically, how did we decide? We started selecting moments that gave those of us in the room some sort of big response, whether  because the object did something exciting or because by putting two things together a really clear image arose. And those moments had to exist at certain times because they only existed at certain levels of water.  So that produced an order, at least a scaffolding of an order. So we had 35 or 36 moments or images that we knew had to happen at specific times. Watching the show now, and I think this happens all the time with all types of theatre creation, but when I was watching it this time, I realized how much the transitions have become the content. And I remember that we really really struggled with transitions in the show – I don’t know if you remember that – we just couldn’t figure out what they were, how do we do it smoothly? And briefly we thought what if we just do lights out, lights back up, it’s a new scene. But so much of the challenge of trying to find ways to move from one image to the next produced meaning, or produced movement that was exciting to me. And this idea of… because it’s the perfect, because the tank is the same shape as the TV, we talked so much about using transitions that were inspired by film transitions – cross fades and wipes and that sort of thing. So that became a whole vocabulary we could play with.

KF:  Travelling shots, tracking shots.

EC:  Zoom in, zoom out.

KF:  Nice. I’m interested in what were for you the biggest challenges in creating this piece. You know, things that kept you awake at night.

EC: I think the fact that leading the room as a director, it was very hard to have momentum. One of the ways that I really like devising, and leading or directing devised performances, is being able to lead the performers in some sort of guided improvisation and as I see things that excite me, asking them to follow that or asking them to play against it, and that sort of live loop of communication, back and forth between the performers and myself.  And I work well in that sort of flow, I think, because it takes me a long time to get places. I like to follow an instinct and go back and think about what it means and come back with a new lens on it. But because everything in this show is based on the height of water, we just had to stop and start so much, so trying to find flow and momentum in the process of devising was really really hard.

KF:  Especially if you have to empty the tank and clean it and fill it and start all over again.

EC: Exactly.  You can’t just say, “Let’s go back to this and try it.” It takes so much re-winding and so much un-doing, so it took a lot of that…the fluidity out of it.

Macromatter (Rob Leveroos) in traveller's hat reaching into colourful fishtank

Macromatter (Rob Leveroos) in High Water. Photo by Ash Tanasiychuk

KF: (laughs)

EC:  So that was really challenging. And then also I think….I mean there’s always work to continue to do on a show and I think it’s hard sometimes to know… how to say this… the questions that came up a lot from outside were: Who is Rob? Are we supposed to look at Rob or are we supposed to look at the tank?  nd I don’t think I’ve settled on a response to that. Because in one way I understand that there’s this sort of convention of puppetry, or of watching, that we are led to understand whether the puppeteer or the puppets are foreground or background. And we switch back and forth so much in the show. Or, maybe not even back and forth – I think both are really present a lot of the time, at many moments. And it’s hard to know when …when do  you listen to your instinct and think, “Well, we’re getting this response because we’re creating something new and people are unsure of how to watch it because it’s new.”  Versus when it’s just unclear and we should make a change.

KF:  I would like to talk a little bit about the audiences. Because they’re very different, right? You’ve got adult audiences and child audiences and mixed. Have you done it enough to get a sense of what the difference is between these audiences? Or how many different types of audience there are and what their different responses are?

EC:  This was the most inconsistently received show I’ve ever been a part of. (laughs) So, I don’t know. It was very…

KF:  So it’s cutting edge.

EC:  Again, this is one of those moments when it’s hard to know if… are we getting inconsistent responses because it’s offering something new or are we getting those responses because there are a ton of things to fix and it’s to confusing or too…whatever. It’s really hard to know. And the fact that different moments landed so strongly with each audience.

KF:  For example?

EC:  There wasn’t one joke, one moment, that every night people would respond to in the same way. Each audience would have a big reaction at a different moment or total silence in a moment.

KF:  In my opinion, you’re offering the audience an opportunity to go along on a magic carpet ride or some equivalent. So, as much as they can each give over to that, because they’re receiving the piece in their own heads, they will respond to different things in different ways. Do you also mean a critical response, a wide variety, or was it…largely positive but everybody laughs at different moments, or…?

EC:  I don’t know how to answer that question. I’m wary of the thought… you are describing…because there’s no narrative, people are left to make up their own…make their own stories or their experiences, but I want to be careful about that because I think there’s a distinction between something without scaffolding or direction, where somebody can see anything they want in something… I think we do a lot to lead people in what they see. The show is made up of thousands of vey specific choices. This is one of the things that both Rob and I like to do: look at these tiny tiny little moments and make these ridiculous little choices about things. We want space for people to have their own experience, but also we are shepherding that experience.

KF:  Oh, of course.  I guess what I mean by that is… the range of experience they can have, or they feel allowed to have, I think, is somewhat larger because, like in visual art, there’s no, “This word means this.” Colour doesn’t mean anything particularly; of course it’s going to suggest a range of ideas and emotions, but you still have no control over whether the viewer has those ideas or not. I think that’s true with words too, but particularly applies to anything that’s not naturalistic or not based on psychological naturalism or narrative in a conventional sense. There’s no sense of, “This can’t mean what I was thinking because the story goes this way.” I don’t mean to imply that it’s completely free choice – you’ve made hundreds of choices, not to mention, as you say, the scaffolding, which is made of big choices. So, is there a difference between the way adults watch the piece and the way children watch it, in your experience?

EC:  (long pause) The children are so much more transparent about their experience than the adults are. Because we’ve been socialized to be nice little theatre goers and sit quietly and pay attention in a specific way. So it’s hard to know what the experiences of the adult audiences are. Other than from the vocalizations and body language… but I can be reading people incorrectly.

KF:  You probably are reading quite accurately – I mean, you can tell warm applause from half-hearted applause, you can read restlessness, those kinds of things that we all experience in a play.

EC:  Yeah. I feel that the really young audiences we had, the Grade Ones, maybe because their attention span is not as long, they seemed really good at watching a series of moments and getting excited about those moments and then being able to put aside the one that just happened and move on to the next.

KF:  Ahhh.

EC:  Whereas I think the adult audiences are better at trying to look at something as a whole or have questions about the whole shape of it, whereas the kids were more focused on particular objects or particular sequences, and not so concerned about zooming out, about how those pieces related to each other. I think both of those abilities are ways of watching and are important for the show, being able to enjoy a little moment and let it go is very valuable for it, then also, being able to think about the larger structure.

KF:  This may be a premature question, you may not know:  how has working on this piece  affected your own other practice?

EC:  I don’t think I know yet.

KF:  I’m dying to hear what happens after Montreal.  Because it’s a very different theatre culture.

EC:  And because it’s not being advertised as a children’s show.

KF:  Performance art or something.

EC:  It’s in a puppet festival. So people will come in with very different expectations than they came in with at PuSh.

KF:  That’ll be great.

EC:  Yeah, it’ll be interesting to see how that changes things.

KF:  I feel like you’ve answered my questions.  Is there anything that you want to say?

EC:  I could say something about one of the first interactions I had with Rob when I was still at school. I was telling him that I was making an “experimental” show… I think it was when I was making Snortoose, and he said, “Oh, what’s the experiment?” And that really stuck with me. Because I think that’s a word we use a lot and I kind of forgot the meaning. “Oh yeah, what am I actually experimenting with?” I like that the way we started to develop High Water  was through truly doing these experiments, these science experiments, and it was such a nice way into a process. Learning to do something new and trying these experiments where we didn’t know what the results would be and trying to fit that back into theatre.

KF:  Because when we make theatre from scratch, we’re trying to experiment with the relationship between form and content in many different iterations and, since you’re creating the content AND the form, this is kind of an extreme… (laughs)

EC:  I guess it was a new…form…

KF:  Fish tank theatre?

EC:  Also, working with… I work with objects but in a very different way than Rob does. I would say he’s more experienced in puppetry than I am, so that was very very new for me.

Macromatter (Rob Leveroos) manipulating objects in High Water. Photo by Ash Tanasiychuk.

KF:  How do you use objects differently from that?

EC:  Even just the scale. Rob loves all these tiny little objects and I always use… I like simple shapes, I like big boxes, a chair, a crate, a piano – those are the kinds of things I’m really attracted to, so working with all these little finicky funny dinky tiny pieces felt very foreign to me. And trying to find the joy – I mean, I found lots of joy in those objects, but it was… I had to search for it a little more at the beginning.

KF: (laughs)

EC:  We all brought stuff into the rehearsal room, and the types of objects I would bring in and the types of objects he would bring in were very different. I was bringing in lots of natural materials, I brought in lots of rocks. And bricks. An antler. Things like that. And he was bringing in these neon plastic toys. So for me trying to, because that’s not the kind of material I was naturally attracted to, it took me a bit of time to find my way in. And now I love the objects we’ve selected. I think I love every one of them. Except for one. You know.

KF:  You’re trying to get rid of the swimmer. (They laugh.)

EC:  I even wanted to put the swimmer in a ball of ice. We tried that.

KF:  Ohkayyy.  You’re trying to kill off the swimmer.

EC:  Also, working with electronic sound was really new for me. I wonder if that’s something I’ll take forward. With Nancy [Tam]’s process, where I have so little context for the program she’s using and how it works and how long does it take for her to build something? Can quick changes happen? That was another way that finding momentum in the rehearsal was a challenge for me, just because of the…

KF:  Yeah, improvising with sound.

EC:  And it was so important that the sound wasn’t just layered on, that it was part of the creation process and an equal player and all that. It was just a very different rhythm of creating than I normally have.

KF:  I admire you all for how patient you were. I don’t think I could have lasted every day. How do you keep your attention?

EC:  I guess that’s the selection process of what stays and what goes. The things that bored us, because we have to watch it a million times, that’s gonna be cut.

KF:  You’re right.  But I have to say, I was delighted to be a  witness to that whole thing.  So I hope the audiences really like it.  Thanks, Elysse.