An Interview With Samuel Orange – Transmuting Life Into Art

Art & Culture

In an unmarked Greenwich townhouse on a featureless main road, there lies a secret theatre. The house, the theatre, and the drama that unfolds within are born from the ambitions of Samuel Orange, creative director ofmaverick theatre company, The Alchemic Order. Orange has converted his house, room by room, to create a constantly refining set on which to stage his rendition of Oscar Wilde's Picture of Dorian Gray. The staging and performance, and perhaps even Samuel Orange's life, have developed in steady symbiosis to create a piece of unusually immersive theatre. When the lights come up and the scripted lines run dry, the actors stay in the house drinking with audience members, and a membrane of Wilde's language remains glistening in the air, theatre transposed from the stage into life. 

The Alchemic Order are performing a last run of their rendition of Dorian Grey before Christmas – it's a fine night out and we'd recommend it. In advance, we spoke to Orange about the trials and tribulations of creating a play, and then a stage around it. 

First off, to introduce things, who are you what is your role?

Samuel Orange. Founder and Artistic Director of The Alchemic Order.

Do you have any background in the theatre?

Yes, I have been in the theatre since I was 13 years old. I trained with The National Youth Theatre and later at The School of the Science of Acting, now The Kogan Academy of Dramatic Arts, a school in London, which is effectively, the sister of Stanislavki's GITIS school in Moscow. Later, I trained at TrinityLaban conservatoire for music and contemporary dance. I have mainly worked as an Actor to date.

Im interested in how people can create their own performance spaces – what were your first steps in turning your home into such a space? What inspired the decision?

After graduating, I could not get an agent, therefore not many auditions. I was troubled by the precarious wheel of fortune factor of the profession, which seems to be run by agents. The agency of actors seems to be the determining factor of their careers, rather than their skill or vision. I don't think that the agents I spoke to could place me in any particular category of standard types. I felt like I was flogging a dead horse. I did not want to leave my artistic work at the mercy of business and management interests. Instead of looking outside of myself, I rebalanced and thought that I will create from inside. This meant that it would be from scratch. I established The Alchemic Order in 2013. Theatre, at its heart, is a shared experience between actor and audience, originating in the psycho-spiritual foundations of the Actor. I utilised everything I had to hand and set myself the task of translating my favourite work, The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde, into a theatrical experience. I thought, what better place to create than in my own home, my audience as guests at the centre of my dwelling?

What have been the biggest difficulties?

Like anything worth doing in life, the biggest difficulties have been in learning about oneself. This has been quite an intense time. To begin with, I assumed roles that I was untrained in. With multifarious responsibilities, I was learning on the job. I sold some equity in the house itself to fund the project. I was sharing my ideas, teaching, collaborating, building structures in my house and garden as well as designing and making costumes, rehearsing, living and breathing the novel with my team and in fact, my tenants. Some of my team also became my tenants. Every day is a learning curve. With such close proximities in every aspect of your life, you learn to appreciate how everything reflects you and how each action resonates and returns back to you. This has been the most difficult and exposing element, but definitely the most rewarding lesson that I have learned from this process.

Another challenge has been in changing the medium of literature into theatre; the novel into a play. I don't simply mean the adaptation process in general. We learned that this particular story has a life of it's own. It has to be the most misunderstood novel of all time. When we delve beneath the narrative or plot, we find this hidden treasure-trove of secret languages, of propositions, of fascinating studies of our cultural identities, of our heritage, of what it means to be creative and how the world is made by our alchemy. Wilde did not write it as a play because it is almost impossible to make a theatrical experience whilst maintaining the integrity of its multi-layered meanings. I quickly discovered that I had unconsciously invited processes and presences that I had been unaware of when I conceived the project. In other words, in the history of thought and idea, I was tapping into a kind of collective unconsciousness, a line of ancestral creativity, beyond representation into something of action. Theory and practice seemed to be converging. People in the company, particularly the actors, were undergoing something more akin to ritual rites of passage, rather than fulfilling a conventional professional capacity. It has been dramatic in its most profound sense. It is ironic that a central theme of the novel is the appearance of a changing medium (the painting), as by changing the medium we stumbled upon this path.

The contemporary notion of professionalism in art is something that I am constantly striving against. It pre-supposes the industrial aspects of the art and the artists work. Being professional has become synonymous with careerism. As the means of the productivities associated with capitalistic endeavour predominate, elements of craft suffer as the contractors, dealers and salespeople take over the actor's lot. The product and it's packaging, marketing and retail value take precedent over process and the nature of its creation. In fact, some actors do this to themselves. Yet therein lies the rub; the process is the product. The modern sense of success, based upon perverted notions of outward achievements, may have won the day, but this does not mean that we have to abide. Again, it is ironic that I chose to begin in my home; I slowly began to realise that it was almost like a return to the pre-industrialised cottage industries. And like those cottage industries, we have faced all the similar issues in attempting to create and offer our wares in this society of factory-based systems.

And your greatest successes?

The audience response. Most people who become guests in my home seem to sense the depths of the creation and it seems to enthral or inspire them. I am always awed by the fact that they sense other dimensions here, even though the esotericism is not explicit. Many are somehow aware of presences, or the spiritual sense of purpose or simply, love. They can tangibly feel the love, the warmth, the passion. Apparently, physicists are seeing the ancient wisdom of matter in motion, to the point where they detect changes in the frequencies of bricks in certain buildings and they attribute these changes to the history of experience within the space itself. I believe at The Alchemic Order that we have encountered this in the most direct and tangible manifestations.

The growth of people working in my company is another success and this is intricately linked to my first answer about the audience response. I am not speaking merely in terms of their knowledge or craft. With such close physical quarters, one has the opportunity to understand how the relationship between performer and audience is negotiated and developed. It is part a process of direct interaction, between what is produced and what is received. It cuts out the middle man. The sense-data, the ideas, the individualism of each person is somehow intensified and heightened. Being and becoming as one. Spiritual growth.

Do you have any particular practitioners that you look to for inspiration?

Naturally, the history of theatrical practitioners have indirectly influenced me. I have my personal favourites. Yet something has changed me during this particular process. I have somehow gathered certain collaborators who seem to be free of the anxiety of influence. Possibly even influence itself. I have felt the creative potential inherent in being free of certain standard constraints. I have also felt in a conscious capacity the involvement of some whom we might ordinarily consider to not be alive in the physical sense.

Is Dorian the first production you've put on in the house? How did it come together?

Dorian is my first production in the house and with the company. I have thrown some rather theatrical parties here, so the audience of Dorian becoming guests at my house isn't so much of a shock. I began about three years ago to assemble collaborators and finance. Various people gathered through different means. Some were previous collaborators on other projects, some I met in the most beautiful co-incidences, some interviewed and auditioned, whilst others, it has to be said, knocked on the door and seemed to come from nowhere. The adaptation of the novel has never really ceased to date. It is constantly evolving, coming together in new ways as new people become involved and new depths are discovered within the novel itself. Sometimes Wilde himself plays a significant role, in terms of provocations, guidance, alterations of circumstances, events and in fact communicating with me and some others within the company.

And how much has the environment shaped the development of the play? It's a very cinematic experience..

.It's funny that you ask this as the idea of a new or changing medium of the painting within the novel prefigures the cinema, or at least the moving image.

I have come to believe that this house has a life of its own. The geographical and architectural alignments have spoken to me and the adaptation process has been partly one of discovering just how suitable the spaces lend themselves to this experience. The house is Georgian, built in 1773. In the Victorian era, the reception rooms would have been parlours or salons where talks, games, performances and drinks parties would take place. Therefore, it is perfect for certain scenes of the play. My study has become Dorian's study. The basement is now an opium den. The top floor is an old schoolroom where the painting sometime dwells. The garden becomes a theatrical space in itself whilst I think that the cinematic elements begin to take place when the guests are directed to look from the garden vantage point into the windows of the house. One thinks of Hitchcock's Rear Window and notions of scopophilia. A displacement of self, as Dorian first observes something altered in his portrait, takes place when the audience are outside looking in. It isn't an accident that the portrait starts to move in the study; precisely the place where our consciousness begins to change. Objectification ensues.

I think that every possible theatrical configuration happens at one point or another during the play, just like the multi angles of a camera, capturing motion for a film. For example, the first scene is in the round, gathered afoot Dorian's bed; this is the foundational configuration of the dithyrambic Greek theatre, the awakening of Western drama. Dorian is both masked and veiled and above him is a mirror in which through the art, he is to see himself. He is lay like a mummified Pharaoh, a still sculpture that is about to come alive with the historical wave of a new artistic vision, like the Kouros of archaic antiquity moving into high classical motion. We move into a traversed staging, where Lord Henry Wotton meets Dorian at the alter of his portrait; this recalls the idea of a church marriage, with an isle in the centre and Basil Hallward reluctantly giving him away. This is something that is subtley woven into Wilde's text, in the spatial and choreographic patterns described within the initial chapters. Also, an idea of moving into the future, as time moves from a cyclical perception in the round, to a progressive linear one. I found that the spaces were uncannily supporting the reading. So much so, that if I am perfectly honest, I think that Wilde, within his dimension, chose the house for me in order that this could be staged here. This is a realisation that came to me in a kind of revelatory message from him.

To understand why audiences speak of cinematic experience when describing the show is complex. I do not use film, screens, projectors or advanced lighting and there is only recorded sound once. I think these days our imaginations are intrinsically cinematic. I think that the cinematic experience happens on subtle levels as our eyes become like cameras and the multidimensional perspectives and spatial journey's of the audience are understood or experienced as moving cinematographics. I think that because the theatre has become somewhat two-dimensional, when we exist in multidimensional space, we have the opportunity to be immersed both within a world, whilst looking into it, whether it be fantasy or reality. Rather like losing oneself in a film. Add to this the fact that we are in a real home and that some of the set might appear like a film sets or that some sets change before our eyes, then we are moving into other realms of perceptivity, or cognition, which are difficult to decipher. Whilst watching a film, the sets seem to us more real than when we attend most theatrical performances, even though we are watching lights flickering on a screen. This is part a failing of the theatrical industry, that many practitioners attempt to rectify by turning the theatre into the cinema by using technics or casting movie stars. I feel that we have to return into ourselves in order to make something transcendental within the theatrical experience. Perhaps this is something of what we have done with Dorian, unconsciously.

Living in your performance space, does it become hard to find a separation between your life and the life of the performance?

I do not think that there is a separation anymore, if indeed, there ever was. Firstly, the people involved with this work have undergone some strange osmosis between their lives and the lives of their characters or roles within the company. Likewise, I have undergone rites as an Actor that have dispelled the imaginary line between Actor-character-audience. As I said before, we seemed to have moved somehow from art as representation into a kind of reality; although not entirely. The suspension of disbelief inherent in witnessing a fictional piece has partly been dismantled. For example, I am the Director whilst playing Lord Henry Wotton in my own home; the etymology of the name Henry is, 'Home Ruler'. Within the company this is generally the rule – that persons are playing out their real lives, both really and/or fictionally or vice-versa somehow. Nevertheless, the piece isn't entirely fictional. This is what I have discovered about the meaning of the power of a story. Some stories are alive. This is why it has taken 123 years for this text to be grasped properly. It is an explanation of the nature of creativity itself. As Wilde says, in the preface to the novel, "All art is at once surface and symbol. Those who go beneath the surface do so at their own peril. Those who read the symbol do so at their own peril." So in answer to the question, in order to make an omlette, you've got to break some eggs, I suppose.

Do you have any plans to use your space for different performances, or do you intend to keep refining Dorian?

Currently, I am thinking of both options. I do not feel that I am finished with Dorian quite yet. Or rather, Dorian isn't finished with me. I intend to change mediums, specifically, to begin the process of making a film and developing the musical score. Somehow, I know that the theatrical experience that we have begun here is linked to this film and music. I am not sure how at the moment. Yet I would certainly like to develop further projects, aside from Dorian. I have also realised that this particular space has to be considered in a specific manner, just as it has been with Dorian. It is both the portrait and it is a character. It isn't a 'site-specific' performance. It almost is the performance.

If money were no object, how would you develop the performance next?

I am loathe to imagine money as an obstacle to creativity. Yet I understand that things cost. Yet although things cost, experience does not necessarily cost anything. I would imagine that the piece evolves according to experience. I mean that the story, as representation, would not necessarily take precedence over the experience of the guests. I wouldn't want it to become a theme park. Rather, a living, breathing space, where guests can experience some of the transformational processes that I and others in the company and audience have done within it. I am exploring certain research and development angles that would allow us to investigate further the nature of what we are discovering here. In order to develop the performance we need to construct methodologies that would allow us a more comprehensive insight into how to create this experience consistently. I have several colleagues with whom I am in discussion with regarding the future of this project.

What do you think Oscar Wilde would have thought?

Oscar has been guiding me, and others, before I was even aware of it. During this process, I have learned to see things alchemically. Hence, the name of my company. I am understanding, to an extent, when ideas, circumstances or people arrive from him or from myself. I feel entrusted with this work and it is a great honour. So therefore, it has increasingly become a process of me getting out of the way, in order for his vision to come through. I am not an expert at this, yet the lessons I have learned from this working relationship have been invaluable to the whole project. In other words, this is what Oscar Wilde thinks.

Tickets and more info on The Picture of Dorian Grey are available on The Alchemic Order website.