Talking to Mei Saraswati is like having 20 minutes with your own personal cheer squad having a jump and a shimmy at everything you say. She’s a beat-making musician used to working alone, having her first foray into theatre-making with new play From the Rubble – a collaborative effort from a group tasked with the unenvious responsibility of translating the stories of Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent Sophie McNeill – and though she admits to being terrified walking into that rehearsal room for the first time, when she came across the play she knew it was something she couldn’t not do.
Here, she shares the process behind making the play, how her role changed from composer to performer, what it’s like to work in a group, and then she dished out some solid life advice and I felt like I could probably do anything.
Read on with this warning: you’ll probably finish this wanting to make some kind of positive change in your life.
What’s it like to work collaboratively?
I’m kind of used to just working alone when I’m making my own stuff, but I really long to still be able to express what’s going on in my head and my heart in collaboration with other people. I got asked to join From the Rubble last year and it came at a really good time, so I’m pretty thankful for that. it was a whole new world – especially because I’d never worked with theatre before – but I really appreciate the way the environment was set up.
We’d run a few improvisation sessions during development, because Mel had an idea of what the play would be about but I guess she wanted those really honest, human details within the piece. That’s where me, Mikala and Tina came in. I guess the main lesson I took away from that is that you need to establish an environment that is very open and accepting of your suggestions. You need to be supportive and encouraging in order the get the best out of people that are new to the scene, new to theatre. That really facilitates a good working environment.
Were you friends with your collaborators when you started working together?
Um, no. I knew of Mikala – I’d met her at Proximity Festival, and my friend moved in with her – I’d met her, but I didn’t know her very well. And Tina is from Victoria, Fleur’s from Adelaide, Ian Sinclair I didn’t know him, and I’d never met Mel before, or Joe Lui before or Hugo the stage manager. I’m really amazed by how quickly we all became quite close. When you work on a project with pretty much complete strangers you form friendships really quickly.
But that still must have been really confronting – doing something you’d never done before, with people you didn’t know.
Yeah, I was so scared!
Can you take a lesson from that? Or was it just like, “man, this is really scary”, and that was it?
You know when you have that feeling of “this is something I really want to do, and I’m shit scared, but I just can’t not do it?” And you feel like it’s just pulling you along, like keep going, and you don’t care if you look stupid or not. I was talking about that encouraging and supportive environment – it was scary, but the environment helped me come out of my shell.
How were you with the music?
I’m not a musician – I’m kind of self-taught, I don’t play an instrument – I do a lot of sampling. I sing. I feel like I’m not – I’m not a straight-up musician, kind of thing. So I was thinking, what do they expect of me? But Mel was very accepting of any ideas I put forward. And then there’s Joe Lui, who’s such a bloody genius. He was there, so I thought, “oh cool, I’m not doing all the sound by myself.”
That’s the cool thing about working in a team – you can help each other out, there’s not too much pressure on one person.
What brief were you given? What were you asked to do when you came on board?
I was asked to compose the music for the show. And then Mel asked me if I would be opposed to singing on stage. I said that I’d prefer to do stuff off-stage – you know, behind the scenes, but no I wouldn’t be opposed to it. And then on the first day Tina and Mikala were doing these improvisations, and they just looked really fun. I thought, “cool, I’ll do that too.”
You kind of get sucked into doing different things because they’re fun.
You open on Monday – how’s the show coming along?
It’s good. It’s a very technical show – there are a lot of projections, all this sort of stuff, so that’s pretty tricky, but they’re handling it pretty well. We’re still grinding, probably until the last minute, but I think that’s just how it is.
When we got into the PICA space at the start of the week it was really scary because you realise it’s actually happening. but to be honest me, Tina and Mikala are having a really fun time. We keep losing it in giggles; having a lot of fun. I guess the people that are dealing with the technical side of things – they’re working quite hard at the moment. It’s going good. We’re excited.
I’d love to hear about Sophie McNeill and her stories – was that something that attracted you to From the Rubble?
Yeah, totally. I’m always into art that’s not just purely for entertainment, but also wants to say something. Everything linked very beautifully. I’m watched a few of Sophie’s journalistic forays, and what came across was that she was always trying to go deeper into the human experience in tough situations. So, I kind of think the show is an extension of a news story or a news article or a piece of news that you can read it, but not really feel it. I feel like with Sophie McNeill’s journalism there was a real consideration for, um, what humans have to go through, when they experience harsh conditions.
I’d love to hear about that in the context of your music – you’ve said you want to explore the world sonically. Is From the Rubble an avenue for that?
Yeah, totally. But the thing is, the way I make music sometimes isn’t very conscious. I’m very intuitive. So, like the song that I did compose for this show came about during one of our development sessions. It’s really cool to actually be immersed in an environment and making at the same time. In the space where people are improvising, in the space with other people. You kind of soak up these things subconsciously, and then it can come out in music, if that makes sense.
I didn’t go to development and do a day there and then come home and write the song, it all happened at the same time.
Is this going to inspire you to make something else?
Me and my friend Tess keep talking about how we want to make a theatre piece about the lost wetlands in Perth.
That’s so awesome that you can go from being so terrified of doing From the Rubble, to wanting to make your own piece.
We’re all talk, though! Tess is a set designer, so she knows about stuff —
And now you’re a seasoned theatre-maker —
That’s right! if you have a real drive, if it’s something you really care about, you don’t mind looking a fool for it. You don’t mind putting yourself out there for it.
That’s something I struggle with – I’m timid, I hold myself back from stuff, and it’s frustrating because I know exactly how good something could be for me by how frightening I find it. All the best things that have happened to me have also been the scariest things.
It’s easier with a team! It’s easier with people. Because if you’re relying on people —
There’s something more important than your ego there.
I’d love to know – in line with your theatre plans, and budding career as a motivational speaker – what are your plans for this year?
Oh my gosh, I need to finish uni. I need to finish that bloody bachelor’s. It is like unwashed laundry sitting in the corner of your room. It’s like that kiwi fruit sitting in the corner and the more time passes the worse it gets and you know you need to do something about it but you don’t want to.
Nah, uni’s not like a kiwi fruit. Uni’s great, I love it. But what I really want to get into – I’ve been talking to Tina about it – is groups that do role-playing and drama therapy. I think that’s so cool. And I’ve been reading about this guy, John Lewis – he was an activist in the civil rights era – he was part of a non-violent organisation – and they would do protests and sit-ins, but they would do role-playing before they’d go out, and drama played a really big role in how they’d prepare themselves for the outside world. What sort of abuse they’d come into contact with.
I think there’s cool potential for problem-solving, coming out of your shell, and I think sometimes I feel socially … dumb; I get anxious and I feel awkward. But with theatre it doesn’t matter. You can play a fool and it’s fine, it’s just theatre.
I think it’s pretty therapeutic, and I want to learn more about that.
And look at what it’s already done for you, by the sounds of it. it sounds so great.
Do you want to do theatre now?!
Oh, totally. No, actually, I want to do improvisation. See this is my thing with being timid. I used to love improvisation at school – I did this thing at school called theatre sports, and I loved it, and I did it every year. But I stopped doing it when I left school, because I felt awkward about it, or because I didn’t have that group of people there! Now I have an opportunity to do an improv course through work, and I’m excited but really scared.
Yes! Oh my gosh! Do it, do it. Hell yeah. The thing with improv is you’ve just got to run with it, and accept the things that people say. Just go for it.
Hey, good luck.
From the Rubble plays at PICA from 16 March to 28 March. Tickets start at $20 from the Perth Theatre Company website.
Words by Sophie Raynor