Artists Local

Interview: Mark Storen

Interviewed by: Sam Farringdon
Image credit: Simon Pynt

There are certain artists that have a presence, a charisma about them. The way they hold themselves, their charm, is as mischievous as it is seductive. Mark Storen is such an artist. An esteemed veteran of the Perth theatre scene, Mark has made a name for himself as an in-demand writer, director, performer and provocateur. His shows have played from Adelaide to Winnipeg, Berlin to New York; while his last solo show, The Polite Gentleman, was nominated for an impressive 5 Blue Room awards in 2012. Warm and effervescent, he speaks honestly and openly about his journey over the last three years, en route to founding his new company, Whiskey & Boots, and launching his new show, Benjamin & Mewith his first Pozible campaign.

Your last new show was The Polite Gentleman, and we haven’t seen or heard much from you since. What have you been up to?

I’ve been doing a lot of teaching – I’ve been a sessional academic at Curtin University, and I directed a couple of productions there last year (Teeth2Tail; Ruben Guthrie). I’ve done a few little smatterings of performance… the last thing I did was with the Perth Theatre Company, which was White Rabbit Red Rabbit by Nassim Soleimanpour. That was last year, and that was a great experience, because essentially you get the script on the night and you just do it – there’s no rehearsals or anything like that… which I didn’t mind! But mainly I’ve been collecting ideas and figuring out what I wanted to do next. I spent some time in Barcelona, and I guess I was distilling my practise down a bit – consolidating it in a way. I felt like I was doing a lot of different things and had my fingers in a lot of different pies: I was a director, I was a teacher, I was a writer… You know, it’s great to be diverse, and you have to be diverse if you’re an arts practitioner, or an artist, or whatever you want to call yourself… But I found I was helping other people create work and not really concentrating on my own as much. So I guess I was exploring a little bit.

How did that inform your decision to launch your new company, Whiskey & Boots?

I kept on coming back to this idea of storytelling and it seemed like my writing was quite resolutely leading me that way – rather than writing plays, or a novel or a short story. What I was writing was very performative; it translated really well into a direct storytelling style. And I kept coming back to music as well, cos I missed playing, and I hadn’t been playing music so much. It came down to “well, what do I enjoy the most?” And I really enjoy the immediacy of live performance, and I really enjoy the direct storytelling style – the conversation with the audience, that instant engagement. And I love playing a little bit of music… So Whiskey & Boots is launching that sort of style – my own brand of storytelling and music.

Where did the name come from?

It came from a mate – Chris Donnelly. We were talking about doing a project together… Both Chris and I didn’t have a company at the time, and so he came up with the name “Whiskey and Spurs”, cos he’s a massive fan of wearing cowboy boots and I’m just a massive fan of drinking whiskey! We’re still talking about doing that project, but it’s become a larger scale project, and it’s something we’ll need to develop a little bit. But I asked him, “hey man I’m starting a new company and, um, would you be ok if I stole the name you came up with, but twist it slightly…” And he was totally fine with it! It just seemed to fit. I like boots. I like whiskey. Easy!

You launched Whiskey & Boots, with a Pozible campaign for your new show, Benjamin & Me. It was your first crowd funding campaign; what prompted you to take the plunge?

Well my producer, Georgia King, had run a few Pozible campaigns before and had significant success with them. We also secured “match funding”, through Creative Partnerships Australia. We felt very lucky and privileged to be selected for that, it’s quite a competitive application process. They offer dollar for dollar match funding for whatever you raise through your Pozible campaign. So that was more impetus to do it. The great thing about Pozible is establishing that you’ve got an audience, which is, you know, comforting! And it exposes you to a wider range of networks, through your creative team. It’s very much a team effort – every person that is part of your creative team is part of your Pozible project and they’re helping to get it out there. So the reach is wider and if people really respond to it, then they get really interested in the show. And because of the rewards, you’re basically giving people something back… I think it makes people feel apart of the art they’re investing in, and so they take ownership of it, which is a really good thing.

How did you find the Pozible process ?

I actually really enjoyed it; I’ve always been a little skeptical about opportunities to secure funding, or fundraising – I mean, it can go either way – but I found that the Pozible campaign really helps you focus on what your project actually is, and which part you actually want funded – what you’re asking for. You have to be really clear about that, and that’s a really great thing for creating the work because it puts a plan and a process in place.

What’s your take on Pozible as an alternative model for funding independent artists?

Well, I think the greatest struggle for independent artists is finding the money to realise their projects. In terms of the structure and the nature of funding in Australia, it’s getting harder and harder: there’s less money and more competition. So things like Pozible are great because you’re provided with a framework to take charge of your own fundraising campaign. It’s more a philanthropic approach to funding work, which has been happening in the States and Europe for a long time. I think it’s a very positive thing.

Tell us a little bit about the show, Benjamin & Me.

It’s about a boy and his dog, who come from a very inventive, eccentric family. The dog is Benjamin, and the boy’s name is Will. Will has this dream that he wants to build the first boy-dog flying contraption, and so he does it, with Benjamin helping out. And so they go on this amazing adventure, and they both find love for the first time, only to lose it in different ways. It’s really just this beautiful tale about two good friends… but there’s a lot of irreverence and eccentric characters in the story. When I started writing it, it was very much in the style of my last show,The Polite Gentleman. But this time, I found I was writing something that was a lot more family friendly.

Was that a conscious decision – to write something more family friendly?

I think I was conscious of it before I wrote it, but it became clearer as I was writing it. It was like all of a sudden I’ve decided I’m going to use my powers for good, rather than evil! (laughs) But I think so much of my work has been for a late night crowd – and I love that and it’s great – but with this particular show, I’m just starting to rediscover what I love about creating and performing work again, and I actually want to share that with the widest audience possible. I mean, I’d love my nieces to come along – I’ve got five nieces, and I think this is a show that they could come along to, and my parents could come along to, without driving home going “what did we do wrong?” (laughs) A lot of my shows have been quite confronting, up in your face, and dark. And I guess that’s the challenge for me – to inject my style, and my sense of irreverence – and present it in a different way for a different audience. That’s really exciting and challenging, but quite joyful as well.

Was the creative process different to how you’ve worked in the past?

Totally. Before, I used to write a lot of ideas on the road as they came to me, little vignettes, and then it would be like a collection of things I would refine into one kind of cohesive piece. For Benjamin & Me, I feel more like a writer, because I’m really crafting it from start to finish. It’s helped having a mentor, Finegan Kruckemyer. He has worked a lot in children’s theatre and he’s had 71 commissions worldwide. So it’s been really helpful to have him there to bounce ideas off as well. It’s given me more clarity about how I want to make work, particularly my own work.

What inspired or influenced the creation of Benjamin & Me?

The initial idea actually just popped. I came home one day, and I sat down at my bench and it just sort of all came pouring out. I had been seeing a few more family friendly shows, so maybe that was impacting on what I was thinking about creatively; but you know, I started out working in kids theatre, and I work a lot with kids still. So I know how to relate to them and engage them. Also, I’d been to the States as tour manager for The Last Great Hunt’s, Alvin Sputnick: Deep Sea Explorer, doing a lot of children’s festivals. And there was a company called Manual Cinema, based out of Chicago, that tell stories with paper cuts on overhead projectors, and it’s soundtracked by a live band. What I really liked about those guys was that it was a really simple idea, a really simple storytelling style… but they made it very intricate and layered, through using simple technology.

Is that something you’re aspiring to?

A little bit. We’ve got an old school slide projector for all the illustrated images that we’re going to project, because we’ve got an amazing illustrator working with us in Jacinta Larcombe. But to operate it, it’ll be me clicking a button. And I love that, I love the clicking sound of that old Kodak carousel slide projector. Ultimately, it’s really just about stripping things back – making it simple; earthy. I’m no longer concerned with trying to reinvent the medium so much, it’s just kind of back to me having a conversation with the audience – and hopefully we get some enjoyment from that conversation.

Whiskey & Boots’ Benjamin & Me is now running at The Blue Room Theatre at 6pm until 24th October.