Water Cooler Converstations: Justin Lewis

Justin Lewis sits smiling at the camera while tying his sock on his front pouch. HIs tan coloured dog is sitting next to him.

We sit down with Director and Co-Writer of Dirty Work Justin Lewis to get some behind the scenes thoughts on the show.

What were your main ideas for Dirty Work?

The first idea was to do with using choirs in the performance, specifically choirs who would have time to learn songs but not rehearse action. And, we wanted to make a show that was a drama with the choir as active participants, rather than the choir just as some kind of set dressing or musical accompaniment. We thought about the immersive theatre techniques we used in Mrs Krishnan’s Party as ways to guide and direct the choir.

We want to entertain the audience. To honour the cleaner without being patronising or making some kind of fantasy that solved all her problems including those that cannot be solved in an 80-minute drama (like proper pay and working conditions). As artists, our job is not really to solve complex economic, social, or political problems, but rather to shine a light on these things. We do want to see the characters being forced to confront their flaws and undergoing change that sees them come out stronger (in a comedy) or not changing and suffering (a tragedy). Dirty Work is a comedy in that the hero overcomes their flaw – and it’s funny.

What are some of the challenges of directing Dirty Work?

Figuring out how to work with the choirs was a major challenge. The actors need to be able to guide the choirs while keeping the story going. And we had to figure that out without much time with the choirs.  We only had a couple of sessions with the choirs before putting the show on with an audience, so we had to be very clear with the choirs and solve a lot of problems before they arrived.

Figuring out how to fit so many people on a small stage and get good movement on it was a challenge. In the end, we made the crowded nature of the space a virtue – the choir love being part of the action and engaging with the actors.

We had to figure out how to make the choirs feel safe. When they arrive for the show, it will be the first time they have had anything to do with the story and they are on stage the whole time. From the moment they arrive in the theatre, through the performance and afterwards, we have to take care of them.

What are the elements of mask for this production?Actor Catherine Yates stands wearing sunglasses and a scarf while holding a coke bottle and grinning towards the audience

Mask is at the heart of Indian Ink’s work and takes many forms. The key is that the mask creates some kind of gap or difference between the actor and the character. The actor and the audience can pour their imaginations into this gap which brings life to the performance. We have two kinds of mask in this show:

  1. Teeth as worn by Joy. They are comic, a little larger than life
  2. Costumes and costuming such as glasses, a scarf, a pair of shoes that give the actor a particular way of moving or seeing the world.

Masks create a gap – they also create a restriction of some sort that requires the actor to move / behave in a certain way. This limitation actually frees up the actor to play and make a bigger physical, vocal, and mental transformation.

What excites you about the production?

I think this production does some things I’ve never seen done before and that’s always exciting. I’ve seen shows with choirs before but never so integrated into the performance. I love that there is always a random element to each performance because the choirs are changing, they don’t know the story and we can never be quite sure what they will do. This is exciting for everyone – choirs, actors, and audience.

Justin Lewis holding a staper while sitting at a deskWhat inspired you?

The spark for the show was an article by French philosopher Camus who wrote an article about Sisyphus (the Greek who is forced to roll a rock uphill every day only for it to roll down again once he gets to the top). Camus talks about how that is a metaphor for the human condition – it’s absurd. And he says that even Sisyphus who is doomed to eternal toil has moments of joy. So, it’s a hopeful message even in the middle of toil and hardship.

We also looked at books about the nature of the modern workplace, class, and economic disparity in the 21st century. There was a lot of meat in this material, and we had to strip it right back to a story that plays out in almost real time – which means it has to be simple. There was also a lot of fun and rich material just in the world of the office which juiced us up.