Shy Magsalin is a passionate theatre maker who has studied and worked with some of the best companies in the world. Is Australian theatre culture strong enough to keep a talent such as hers from leaving our shores permanently?
Shy Magsalin- To keep you really hungry keeps you inspired to keep learning
Madam Fling Flong’s is a favourite little haunt of mine. Over the top of Sonis on King Street in Newtown, it’s tucked away enough not to have had everyone discover it, and yet accessible enough not to be full of the overly polished set. I am here with a coffee based cocktail already on the go, justifying it to myself as a wake up for my interview with Shy Magsalin, a young theatre-maker.
I’ve known Shy for about five years through mutual friends. In fact, when I first moved to Redfern, it was her old band “Kilbot” which played at my housewarming. At the time, she was wielding a bass. Shy is a little “shy by name, shy by nature”, sweet, unassuming and often found nervously pulling her hands into her jumper as though they are little turtles burying themselves in their shells. However, despite this delicacy, Shy is extraordinarily good at what she does, and passionate too, qualities which I admire. The first time I ever saw Shy perform, it was at imPACT Theatre. She had invited me along under the guise of seeing a show she had worked on, giving me the vaguest of impressions that her role had been more “behind the scenes” then actual acting. So when she began as my fellow audience member and then joined in with the actual actors about twenty minutes into the performance, I was left with an empty chair and a rather uncomfortable sense that at some point, the same strange possessive power would overtake me and I too would end up staggering to centre stage and performing for the crowd. It certainly gave everything a sense of being entirely real. So much so that when they ended up brutally gaffa taping up one of their fellow performers, I felt a deep seated desire to help, look away and pretend things weren’t happening, or run. It was too real and provoking extraordinarily strong responses in me. But that was the point, she told me later, as we stood out front of the theatre with my hands shaking over a cigarette. Not to shock or be ruthless for the sake of it, but to create such a real theatre experience that the audience was no longer just a tired, complacent voyeur. In that way, Shy and her theatre style all of a sudden made a heck of a lot more sense.
When we caught up for her interview, Shy, although a Sydney girl by birth and heart, was only visiting from her current home town of Brisbane for a week or two. She had left Sydney to follow training and to seek out other theatre makers who were looking to challenge themselves, which may have been why it took a couple of phone calls a and few directions for her to find Fling Flongs. As darling as she is, like me she is bloody hopeless with directions and places. But once she arrived, and the briefest of catch up pleasantries had, here she was, with a cocktail sitting barely touched upon the table, transforming from my friend to someone of an exceedingly professional level of theatre maker only after a few questions.
It isn’t hard to see why. Theatre consumes her. When Shy isn’t practicing it, training or putting on shows, she is dreaming, thinking, planning, saving and trying to make money so she can do the next project or the next bit of learning. Her daily life is geared around theatre because theatre “keeps me on my toes. The moment I think I’ve settled into something, I’m reminded I need to keep moving and that I need to keep learning.”
Image Courtesy of zenstick.com.au
Shiereen Magsalin in “Up all Night”. Written, Directed and Performed by: Erica Field, Shiereen Magsalin, Kat Henry, Noa Rotem. Photograph courtesy of: Adam Sebastian West of Zenstick Photography
Discovering a love for theatre when she was just sixteen, Shy is determined to make a career as a theatre maker. To be able to pay the rent, she has sought office jobs, often working as a temp filing and doing work which does not interest her in order to keep paying her bills. In contrast, she has travelled to Japan, New York and Sweden to train and perform with some of the world’s best theatre companies. This obsession is her lifetime pursuit. She aims to put together her own theatre company, travel internationally to make connections and tour and hopefully support herself full time through these endeavours. More than anything though, Shy is aiming to continually learn about her craft and put those learning’s into practice.
“One of my main goals is to keep learning and striving and straining and not feeling like I ever have ‘it’ because at that point I think my art would be over. “ Shy explains, “Being an artist, you are constantly studying and learning all the time, you never stop. It’s within the things that are going on around you and the politics and in the social context in which we live. I just don’t see how you can ever think you are at the top of your game all the time when the world is constantly evolving and you have to evolve with that. To be constantly interested and engaged in what you are doing, you have to keep pushing yourself and moving yourself and finding new ways of doing things and new techniques and approaches. I don’t know if I could face university ever again, but what I mean for me by constantly learning, I want to go back to Japan and study with Suzuki in Toga again because I think there is so much to learn and practice. There are people who have been training there for twenty years and still claim they don’t have it. To keep you really hungry keeps you inspired to keep learning.”
It was in fact the idea of study which inspired Shy’s move from Sydney to Brisbane.
“I left in 2007 just before I went to the U.S.A. I had become interested in training method called the Suzuki Method of Actor Training and that just wasn’t readily available to study in Sydney. I did a little bit with the ImPACT Ensemble here but it wasn’t really training you could study in depth, it wasn’t really full Suzuki Training and in Brisbane there were potentially two companies whom I could train with- Zen Zen Zo and Frank Theatre. At the time, Sydney was more a place for dipping your toes in all sorts of different methodologies but no one really pursues growth and development through study over a huge period of time. In Sydney it’s more about collecting your own information from here and there and developing your own kind of thing from the pieces. In Brisbane they were much more interested in taking one thing and running with it, and developing themselves within a realistic interpretation of the sort of theatre it really is. So I wanted to move there to see what I could do towards setting myself goals and developing myself for the longer term.”
But exposure to the New York SITI company and their method of training also influenced Shy’s choice to study in Brisbane in ways she never expected.
“Within a few weeks of moving up to Brisbane, I went over to the U.S.A. I was invited to go to New York and trained with the SITI Company in the Suzuki Method and Viewpoints. I stayed and training with SITI Company for a month, a really intense month, and it completely changed everything. All of a sudden I started thinking “what am I doing in Brisbane? The training is so different in Brisbane, their attitude is so different, it was as though they were taking it seriously but they’re doing it like a smaller version” and I suddenly realized I actually preferred how they were doing it over in the U.S.A as opposed to what they were doing back home. So when I came back to Brisbane both experiences allowed me to see a wider scope of this particular training. Like how there are different levels of it and how people use it I guess for their own, to shape their own values and philosophies and aesthetics. I finally realized what I wanted out of the training and I just wasn’t really getting that in Brisbane.”
Study aside, the experience made Shy realise something else quite distinct between the Brisbane and Sydney scenes, “A lot of the people, other theatre makers I came across, were really, really valuable friends to have. Their attitude towards theatre was unlike anything I had witnessed in Sydney. When I was living in Sydney, it was more shaped around being a performance artist as opposed to making theatre and once I got back to Brisbane and got into it, I got in touch with theatre again instead of randomly creating works that were placed around a black box theatre which didn’t really mean much to me after very long. It definitely fulfilled that need to be in touch more with theatre and finding myself involved in something a bit more epic.”
But anyone who goes to great lengths to chase down their craft and the best places to pursue it are going to be able to see things in a unique way. Shy, whilst having moved to Australia as a young child from the Philippines doesn’t see anything uniquely Australian or contemporary in its reflection of her works. Her experience in Toga, Japan has lead to more of an adaption of style then either her birth or native culture, and her outlook on her works is far and away removed from looking at her own ethnicity or Australia on the whole. Still, she has reaped some unexpected benefits from her cultural identity.
“I was able to tour my show “Mantras for Breathing” down to the multicultural festival and say “I am Filipino in ethnicity and that qualifies me”, even though my show had nothing to do with me being Filipino or anything like that. It was not targeting multiculturalism in any kind of sense. I guess training overseas they are very interested in having people of all different backgrounds and it helps that I am an Asian Australian. I meet that requirement so they can tick that box and say Ok to me going over there to train. And with this project I am going to be doing over in Europe,it’s all about bringing an international ensemble together and they totally bank on these sorts of things. Not that it’s really relevant unless the content of your project is aiming specifically at content of that nature. I have never really had any negative e experiences from it. A lot of people draw on the fact I am from a Filipino background yet it is not something that I really pay attention to- I write the kind of work I want to write.”
A cultural sponge, it appears the work of others have had the greatest affect on Shy.
“Firstly let me start with talking about my training with the SITI Company. The SITI Company are a company based in New York and the artistic director is a woman by the name of Anne Bogart and she’s written numerous books including “A Director Prepares”. I have been a fan of hers since I was nineteen and learning about her at uni so when I went over there, I got a richness that just isn’t available back home. Also being around all these other people, theatre makers who were on the same level as me, it was intensity that I didn’t really get back home with other companies and trainers. I learnt so much about making theatre and being human and being an artist. And being in this world can at times be so difficult and just knowing there were a group of people who had created this theatre against all odds inspired me. At the same time, they challenged the absolute shit out of me. But I think what’s different about that company is they really create an environment where it was just impossible for you to succeed. There is kind of like a notion over here that is “take risks, but don’t be shit” whereas over there it’s more like “it’s good to be bad”. I had no option but to be really, really shit and fail and really learn how to be shit and fail so that I could learn to be better on the back of learning from that failure and those feelings. So that was New York.
In Japan I first learnt about real Suzuki. It was developed by a director who was from Japan. I first heard about it when I was at uni and the interest grew from there. So when I went over to Toga, it was like meeting the ultimate hero and watching his company. It was unlike anything else I have ever seen. This training that he has developed, it’s very martial, it’s very disciplined. Actors do become pure, there is no ego involved what so ever and I was over there and I was just thinking ‘God, his theatre and this community just comes from such a humble place” and it’s really horrible to say but back here in comparison it just feels like it’s all about ego. Over there they make such an event out of their work. They’re in the mountains. I had to get an overnight bus from Tokyo and then catch a train to some little country town and then get a private bus all the way up the mountainside to get to this community. They hold this festival every year and they get a thousand people going to that festival, quite possibly more, all the time so you get to make this unreal journey to get to this one place and it’s just so special. You just don’t get events like that just anywhere. Just being there taught me a lot about community, humility and forcing myself to look at and meet myself. It’s sounding a bit wanky, but it was a really good experience that I don’t think I can repeat. I haven’t gotten that anywhere else, it’s not in the Australian sensibility. I don’t think we have got the right attitude to know what it is to not make excuses for yourself and to not be lazy and not find the easy way around things and to say “Ok, this is what I do and the stakes have to be this high for me to make this artwork because otherwise what’s the point?” – to really raise the bench mark and go for it.”
With a couple of cocktails into us both now, the passion is flowing freely from Shy. Inspired by her experiences overseas, she is interested in creating a unique experience within her own theatre. Driven by wanting to create a situation whereby the audience feels as though they have been given the best possible experience, that they have received their money’s worth and touched beyond that of an experience of being a passive member of the audience, Shy is seeking to use her skills to create something more within the Australian theatre scene or the works she creates.
“At the moment, I am paying for my ticket, I am walking into the foyer, I am being shuffled in, the lights go out, the show going on in front of me, I applaud and then the stage lights come back on, the house lights come back on and I leave the theatre, have a cigarette outside and talk about the show maybe with my friends. I don’t feel like the event is important enough, I don’t feel like the event that I am witnessing is important enough. When I was in Toga training, I was also there for the Toga International Theatre Festival, or the International Toga Theatre festival, the words are arranged somehow, anyway, like I described before, the audience is making a huge journey from the major urban centres in Japan to the Japanese countryside, to the Japanese Alps, so already there is this sense of this is a journey we are physically making, we’ve had to take a day out of work to do this and its going to consume our entire weekend. So when the people get there, they are already have a build up. At the site there is a beautiful and massive amphitheatre. I am sitting in the audience and watching the show, and as the last actor leaves the podium over the pond these fireworks just erupt and it’s the most amazing thing because I just found it funny because this director who has been so much about artistic integrity does this massive display of fireworks. And then once the fireworks died down about ten minutes later, Tadashi Suzuki comes out on stage with the mayor and the company roll out two huge barrels of Saki onto the stage and Suzuki gives his speech in Japanese and the company members crack open the two barrels of sake and you see several hundred people descend onto the stage with their paper cups and so everyone’s just on the stage socialising and drinking sake . You don’t get that sense of occasion with theatre in Australia. He does this after every single show at the outdoor amphitheatre and you feel like wow, I feel like I am really part of something. The community have actually got behind this and it’s an event, it’s not something passive, it’s not like just going and watching a film. There is a sense of occasion and a level of involvement that I really, really find quite spectacular and special and I think we could do with more of that here.”
Taken from ‘Elegy’
Theatre is always a funny creature to talk about. As an established art form steeped in history and with students in high school still being exposed to the likes of Shakespeare and cornerstone works from Australian and international playwrights alike, the audience is a hard thing to quantify in modern terms. Having spoken to pro-film lobbyists who believe theatre to be a dying art and not seeing any ways to cross platform theatre across technology like visual arts, film or music can, how will theatre continue to compete in the market place as this beautiful yet limited art form continues?
“It’s always good to shatter expectations and to leave people quite surprised and give them new experiences. All I can really do is speak from my own experience and when I am watching film it’s a lot more passive and when I’m watching theatre I think it should be a lot more tangible. Theatre makers need to avoid the trap of trying to put projectors and film in their productions just because and I think analyse the differences between works for the screen and for the theatre and focus on highlighting the unique differences between the two,” explains Shy.
Like any creative practitioner in Australia, it is the passion, drive and love of their craft that keeps them going. Money is thin on the ground, and theatre is no different. Costs in hiring actual theatres can range up to the thousands for a few days run, light hire, sound operation and the hope of actually playing actors and production crews go out the window with most independent productions. Shy herself has been greeted with significant debt in order to put on her own productions or to be able to perform or train with overseas companies, however her enthusiasm and desire to continue with her craft does not wane. For those looking to embark on a theatre career, Shy has the following to say.
“Don’t do it unless you really love it. Seriously. I know there is a temptation to go “oh yeah”, but no, really, don’t unless you really, really love it. You are choosing a hard road and need to be prepared for that, so that love of your art is paramount. There is so much you want to tell younger people but so much of it they have to discover for themselves. The most valuable teacher I have had has been valuable through what she has not told me- you know as much as I have been like “I am really struggling here” she has gone “yeah that’s a good place to be”. One of the most important things I have gotten from one of my teachers in Toga is “don’t be so consumed with your own experience in all of this. You have to take care of other people around you and take care of your environment and the experience will come to you” because I think that’s a trap in art. Be aware of yourself and your surroundings and the others around you. When people are so interested in exploring themselves you can lose out. A lot of the time what you create is only 50% self expression and the other half is everyone else’s interpretation of that and to keep that in mind at all times and go from there. Whilst it is important to keep you sensitivity, being soft and wobbly all the time doesn’t help especially when you are struggling so much. You know the answer to everything is not bursting into tears, there is a lot of fortitude involved in this work and as soft as you may be on the inside, you have to be a bit of a warrior too. Being fluffy on the outside and strong inside helps!”
And with that, it was time to ditch the cocktails and head off to a nearby Thai place to forget all about the theatre maker and the writer trying to make their ways in the world and just talk as old friends do- about relationships, shared friends and odd happenings.
After the interview, Shy travelled to Stockholm, Sweden to work on devised theatre piece The Blue Book Project with the International Theatre Ensemble and went to New York shortly after to train with SITI Company once more. Since then Sydney has become home again, and while she’s dabbled in a few projects and taught actor training workshops, she’s poured most of her energy into forming her own theatre group, The Earthcrosser Company. Shy independently produced and directed Earthcrosser’s first major production, Cold, staged at the Parade Theatres in May this year, and is about embark on creative development for the company’s next epic project, The Execution of Amelia Devine. You can follow her journey here www.theearthcrossercompany.com