TERESA IZZARD: S-27 Immersive dystopia

S-27 is a dystopian theatre piece set to take over the winding rooms and halls of the Fremantle Arts Centre from Friday, July 12 until Sunday, July 21. Presented by boutique independent theatre company Feet First Collective as part of Fremantle Festival’s 10 Nights in Port, the story follows May, a photographer who must document dissenters who have rebelled against an authoritarian regime and imagines a dark, complex future for Western Australia. BRAYDEN EDWARDS spoke to director Teresa Izzard to find out about the origins of the production and the challenging questions it poses for audiences.

S-27 seems like a challenging production to take on both for its content and also in its production, what was it drew you to the play? Was it the opportunity to be part of something that offered such a unique experience for both the audience and the team itself?

The play’s elegant structure and challenging content drew me to want to produce the work. I felt it would be a chance to reflect on the atrocities that happened in Cambodia, but through the archetypal lens the play provides.

So it tells the story of a dystopia that was inspired by the history of Cambodia’s S-21 prison during the Khmer Rouge regime. What was it about that story that provided such a strong source for these ideas?

I think that for me the choice to set this play, which has some very specific references to S-21 and the Khmer Rouge, in an unnamed western country reinforces its message that this can happen anywhere, anytime and that no one is really safe.

Some great writers have created their own idea of what a ‘dystopia’ would look like to explore moral and political questions on a conceptual level. How does the world of S-27 compare to say those of Orwell, Huxley, or Zamyatin?

There are definitely parallels, particularly to Orwell.

S-27 Director Teresa Izzard

S-27 is described as an immersive experience that utilises the indoor and upstairs spaces of the Fremantle Arts Centre, a place some of us wouldn’t have had the opportunity to visit before. What was it about the Fremantle Arts Centre that made it ideal for bringing a production like this to life?

Feet First specialises in activating unusual spaces. In 2016 we took over the Moores Building with our first production Frankenstein: Some Assembly Required. The opportunity to work at the Fremantle Arts Centre for S-27 brought with it another chance to create a site sensitive work. With S-27 we are using several areas to create a journey to the main performance venue. We want the audience to be part of the world of the play before they take their seats. Fremantle Arts Centre has not been a prison but it has been a place of imprisonment, so it lends itself very well to the stories we are telling.

The play is set to follow the character May, a photographer documenting dissenters against an oppressive regime. How is this an effective way to explore the moral challenges one might face under such circumstances, both for the character and the audience?

May is confronted by seven prisoners during the course of the play, and her interaction with each one exposes a different aspect of her character. I’ve described the journey as a pressure cooker, but the people she interacts with also represent different aspects of the Cambodian genocide. The job she does is to take their photograph, but essentially she also becomes a last port of call before death. She is also being tortured in a way as she has to resist human impulses in order to ‘process’ them and send them to certain horror.

Sometimes what one culture might view as a ‘dystopia’ is not too far from reality for people somewhere else in the world. Is there a message we can take from this play that is not only relevant in an abstract sense but also the here and now?

Absolutely, but we don’t want to be didactic. Instead, we want to provoke reflection, thought and perhaps change… We’ve got strong and clear reasons for putting this play on here and now. We want to know whether our audience comes up with similar responses to the material. Part of the performance will offer an opportunity for the audience to share their thoughts about this.