Fellows Focus – Matthew Prest

4 October 2012 Fiona Mackrell

Sydney-based theatre maker and performer Matthew Prest has recently returned from an intense month in France only to throw himself into the development of a new work, Whelping Box.

Soon after discovering he had been awarded a Creative Australia Fellowship, Prest was making arrangements to travel to Paris. There, he participated in the L’École Bouffon and Clowning workshops under the tutelage of renowned actor Philippe Gaulier, something he has wanted to do for years.

The traditions of Clown and Bouffon are quite different, Prest explains. The Clown is the ‘idiot’ whose only aim is to be funny, something Prest said was exceedingly challenging. The Bouffon by contrast is intelligent; he parodies and satirises. Bouffon can be funny but there’s also a darker, at times discomforting element to the humour. ‘I found it spoke a lot to my practice,’ Prest says. ‘I think it will feed into the work I do.’

At 31, Prest already has an impressive CV. Having studied sculpture, performance and installation at the University of NSW, College of Fine Arts his first outing as a director was in 2008 with The Tent, followed in 2010 by Hole in the Wall. Both works were also collaborations with his partner, puppeteer and founding member of My Darling Patricia, Clare Britton.

With Whelping Box, his latest work, in collaboration with Britton and Branch Nebula’s Lee Wilson and Mirabelle Wouters, Prest is exploring ways to intensify audience experience. ‘I want the performance I make… to bring a group of people into that space together,’ he explains, ‘to be as much in the present as possible.’

Though Whelping Box is a performance driven piece the space is also critical to the experience. Being enclosed within the same 9 x 9 metre arena-like box as the two performers, Prest and Wilson, will be confronting for the audience. The aim is to juxtapose a charged space that has a sense of danger with lulling the audience into feeling safe and protected; intimate voyeurs of the performance. The work is ‘in the present’ in that it’s not representational, the actors are not playing characters or alluding to some other place or world. ‘We’re performing tasks and actions on each other, with each other, there in that space with the audience witnessing.’

The theme of Whelping Box, ‘Gods, dogs and men’ explores both the desire to be more than our mortal selves, to be more like gods, and the opposing desire to shed our civility and politeness and be wild.

Prest’s training in France and Whelping Box mark the first stage of Prest’s Fellowship plans, which encompass professional training, development of new work and community practice. Later this year he will reunite with the team behind Hole in the Wall to further develop the work. They will also develop a new production next year. Then he hopes to participate in the 2013 summer program at Robert Wilson’s Watermill Centre near South Hampton, New York and study with Mario Biagini at the Workcentre of Jerzy Growtowski and Thomas Richards in Pontedera Italy. The final part of Prest’s Fellowship is to develop a weekly studio in Sydney where invited artists can come together to exercise and the physical aspect of their practice free of the pressures of a professional engagement. He hopes the studios will provide a fertile place for ideas to develop and help build a shared artistic community.

Even as his plans become realities, Prest is still a little overwhelmed by the opportunities opened up by the Australia Council for the Arts Creative Australia Emerging Artist Fellowship. Not only has he been able to fulfil long held ambitions, he now has far greater certainty and ability to plan new work over the next two years. ‘It’s pretty great,’ he says quietly. ‘It’s amazing.’

23 October – 3 November 2012
Tue – Sat 8pm | Sat 27 Oct 2pm
Carriageworks 245 Wilson St, Eveleigh 2015
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Image Credit: Matthew Prest, Whelping Box. Photo: Lucy Parakhina.