Gavin Webber: There’s more to life than praise and sexual interest

Two blokes square off in an office. It’s hypermasculine, it’s dangerous, it’s white male violence where phones and whiteboards and words are weapons. It’s pointless, it’s painful, and it leaves the participants both the worse for wear. The male ego, so keen for stoking, lies battered and broken on the floor. Who dares wins…til they don’t.

Cockfight by The Farm is returning to Australia for a national tour throughout August and September, produced by us in association with NORPA. It’s unclassifiable – it’s dance theatre that’s funny and virtuosic. It’s theatre with movement and clowning. It’s dance with words and a narrative that hits you in the guts. It’s also really bloody.

We caught up with performer and ‘farmer’ Gavin Webber for the first in a series of chats with the creative team.

‘Two blokes in an office’ – what was the attraction? Where did the idea begin?
What’s not to love about two blokes in an office? Do you think 3 blokes would be better? We’d have to change a lot of choreography so think carefully before you answer…

We didn’t begin with the office idea. We started with the myth of Icarus and his father Daedalus, wax wings and all that. Except we found a second part of the Daedalus story where he retires to an island as a famous inventor. His nephew Perdix is also an inventor and, as it turns out, a slightly better one. So Daedalus pushes him off a cliff. We thought that was pretty cool.

The office came in later as a solid place to begin a poetic look at masculinity and ageing. The real starting point is Josh and I. I’m old. In dancer years I’m like Jean Claude suspended between those two trucks. You watch him. Maybe you think it’s admirable but you are also thinking something is going to pop, probably a hip joint. Josh is much younger than me and has vitality on his side. The way those observations made us feel, and the experiences of our two bodies undergoing extreme risk, is at the core of the piece. The alpha male fiction falls away and reveals the two of us tied together.

Did you draw on your own or friends experiences for the piece? Or even the TV show The Office?
We love The Office (yes English version) but we have no illusions that we’re as clever or as funny as that. But how could you not think of David Brent when you are trying to be an arsehole older guy in an office, trying to keep the next generation in line? It’s definitely there in the mix, but we don’t reference anything directly, we just have influences. They’re inside when we create, you don’t even really have to think about it, they just emerge of their own volition.

Humour is important in this work and happened naturally through improvisations that went on for hours. A lot of the work was distilled out of them. We did the research, watched movies, listened to old man songs from the seventies, talked about our fathers and then just got going.

The piece has been said to pit ‘aspects of maleness under the microscope’. Tell us a little bit about how you’ve explored that and how it manifested in your movement/performance
We started with the simple idea of a power play and the moment in time when the power shifts. That moment holds everything, like a prism fracturing light. On the other side of it are redundancy, triumph, despair, compassion, disgust, comedy. On and on. One moment that shows the complexity of the human experience and the way we inter-relate.

I think the Josh’s experience in this exchange is really interesting and I always think about playing tennis against my father as a teenager. I wanted to beat him but when it happened I was appalled and triumphant at the same time. I knew there was no going back. The next time would be easier and the time after that, easier again. Time moves forward and once that step is taken there’s no turning it around. The clock is ticking and you’re next in line.

Can you share some of your favourite moments from the piece?
I love a lot of things. I love it when I catch paper in my mouth. I love the sound of fluorescent lights blinking on and off like a lightning storm, the look in Josh’s eye if I surprise him with something new, the feel of the floor under my cheek when I slide along it, the perfectly suspended weight between our bodies, the fight to survive each night and the relief when we cut our ties off once it’s finished.

I love opening the door each night to enter the world that we have created as a team. We’re making a mark on the back of the wall each time we step through that door and begin. I love seeing that number grow and knowing that this work we’re all so proud of has the opportunity to reach so many other people. I love that.

You’ve toured the show around the UK and Chile. Did it differ at all for different countries? Or is the competitive office relationship a universal narrative?
We wondered early on whether the office setting would mean the work had a narrow response but it doesn’t. The themes we work with are universal and clearly resonate with all sorts of people. They’re not limited to age or gender. Pretty much everyone has a boss, or an employee who wants to be one. We had some response forms from early seasons and we found we had the same reactions from teenagers as people in their seventies.

We’ve been twice to the UK. We went once before under the banner of Splintergroup with a show called roadkill at The Barbican. That was interesting because it dealt with the agoraphobia of the Australian landscape and the urban myths that develop when you live with that sort of wilderness at your back. Some of that was hard to grasp for an English audience. Driving for weeks for instance, and going nowhere. Cockfight wasn’t such a stretch. The sense of humour of it and the emotional themes worked.

After that we went to Chile and had subtitles. It was our first time for that and meant we had to stay on script. Normally there’s a bit of leg room. Sometimes there was a delay to get a laugh. Or the laugh wouldn’t come. Or they laughed suddenly when we didn’t expect it. Or they just walked out. No they didn’t. Really.

 

You’ve been working together for a while now, what’s your creative process like, with that time under your belts?
We start working without thinking, get riled up and interested, then confused, so we start again. We talk. Sometimes one of us gets tired of talking and heads out to a cafe, or the toilet with their mobile phone in hand. After a couple of hours we get back together and start again. Suddenly, without knowing, we’ve started an hour long improvisation are Kate and Julian are feeding in music and ideas and then we’ve made whole sections of the piece. So we stop and talk again. Someone gets bored and wanders off. We do some yoga and start again.

Then the designers come on board and eventually someone who keeps a schedule. The process has to incorporate them so we now need to articulate it. That helps us and in a way we’ve started again. The work is building and taking over. It’s in the room, listening to us when we talk about it and we know when it’s not happy. It’s scoffs at a bad idea and claps when we nail something. It’s impossible to ignore, so we keep feeding it, helping it grow. Eventually we take it outside and show it to others. Check out what we’ve raised there in the dark of that room. We’re very proud parents.

Can you hint at who may win in this office fight?
I can but then I’d have to shoot you in the head (metaphorically speaking). Josh wins, or at least he thinks he does. he gets the girls and the boys. He gets everything. All I get is the shadow of a former self wandering the corridors. Sometimes I catch a glimpse and think, I used to be handsome once. I used to get the girls and the boys. Not anymore.

But there’s more to life than praise and sexual interest. At least that’s how I console myself. I think of my integrity and how Josh is compromising his. That’s how I win and he doesn’t even know it.

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Performing Lines acknowledges the Traditional Owners of the lands on which we work – the Gadigal in Sydney, the Whadjuk in Perth, and the Muwinina in Hobart – and pay our respects to their Elders past and present.

We extend those respects to all First Nations peoples on whose lands we travel and perform.