“In the current theatrical climate it feels like the well-written play is an Avant Garde concept” – director Ben Pfeiffer on the Melbourne premiere season of ‘Wit’

5 years ago
Til Knowles

I don’t mean to give away the plot, but I think I die at the end.

Vivian Bearing (Jane Montgomery Griffiths) is a brilliant and uncompromising professor of English Literature who has spent years specialising in the Holy Sonnets of John Donne. Diagnosed with stage four ovarian cancer, she agrees to undergo an experimental chemotherapy treatment that (although not guaranteed to save her) will provide excellent research data for the future of oncology.

Thus goes the plot of Wit, the Pulitzer prize winning play by Maragaret Edson. For the first time, it is about to be staged in Melbourne, by the always adventurous and critically acclaimed production company the Artisan Collective. A daring mix of human experience, good writing and excellent acting, Wit is set to be a sell out season, not least because it’s directed by company founder and actor Ben Pfeiffer. Pfieffer is a man with an ambitious passion and a large range of talents. We asked him a few questions about strong women, emotion and the Artisan Collective.

What drew you to Wit?

Many things drew me to this play. It’s about single, middle-aged woman who is neither a wife nor mother. She is strong, independent and successful, an uncommon leading lady and I love her.

I studied Donne in high school and was enamoured with his writing, his wit and his incredible mind. The play tackles many themes that speak to me personally; grief and loss, mortality, perseverance of the human spirit and the journey to truthful self-acceptance.

In the current theatrical climate it feels like the well-written play is an Avant Garde concept. To watch an actor’s technical prowess and masterful use of language seems dangerous. It’s an utter delight to witness.

What are the difficulties of combining medicine, literature, and theatre?

I’d say the difficulty and the pleasure are one and the same; finding the common denominator in all three pursuits.

The passion that drives the journey of discovery in all three fields has been key in understanding this play. Searching for the poetry in medicine, the science in language and economy in theatre. It’s been a delicate negotiation to get the balance right.

What’s the most exciting thing about this production?

The most exciting thing is that this is the premiere season of Wit in Melbourne, second to that is the stellar cast that are taking it on.

Many people will be familiar with the film version starring Emma Thomson and Aileen Aitkens, but with theatre being a totally different medium, it has afforded for us to take some risks in that regard.

As a play it is fully aware of the employment of theatrical device, fully aware that it’s being watched. Blurring the lines between the depiction of truth and discovering the elements of metatheatre have been thrilling to explore. The audience is in for an absolute treat with this line-up of actors.

You’ve spoken before about how you believe that theatre has the ability to hold a mirror up to the audience. What do you think Wit will show us?

Considering Wit is a play about death, approaching one’s own mortality with grace; the ultimate irony is that audiences will (hopefully) leave the theatre filled with hope, with a stronger sense of how to live life.

Edson says it best “I want people to walk away from this play feeling closer to the person next to them”.

Wit Image 1

You’re often noted as a director who helps create powerful and engaging stories, particularly about women. Wit fits this description too, focusing on an independent, nuanced character without a love interest (as you said yourself). Is gender a consideration for you when choosing scripts to develop? What do you think of the idea that artists have a duty of representation?

Gender representation is always something I consider when choosing a project.

The depiction of all minorities feels crucial to me be it gender, race, religion, sexual orientation or age. I think artists are totally aware of their duty in regards to representation. I wish casting in Australia would be equally so. We are getting there slowly, slowly, but there is a plethora of underutilised talent in this country.

I look forward to the day when every walk of life can feel truly acknowledged and authentically represented in all facets of the arts.

Wit is being performed at fortyfivedownstairs. What’s it like performing in that space?

fortyfivedownstairs is a stunning space. Even though it’s set amongst the buzz of the CBD, it feels like a universe unto itself when you descend those stairs and enter the vortex. Given the clarity of the world we are creating with this work, I think this experience will be amplified.

What lead you to start the Artisan Collective?

I wanted to create a platform for my peers and I to collaborate – therefore sustaining creative momentum.

In pursuing my own directorial path I have grown as an actor and artist. I place great focus on fostering a nurturing environment that can be a safe house for actors to truly flourish. That is the hope at least.

It’s the eighth season of the Artisan Collective. What’s changed since 2009? What’s changed since the seventh season?

My aesthetic has definitely matured and become more refined over the years. I’ve really enjoyed my directorial journey – both the highs and lows. Each project has been a step towards distilling what interests me in theatre as a medium. I’ve been getting braver with each project and this particular piece has been an absolute gift.

One definite change – I no longer act in and direct the same project. I did it once and will never make that mistake again.

Recently you’ve been doing a fair amount of film acting. How does that differ from your theatre work?

I never thought I’d be one for film acting and yet I’ve fallen head over heels. I adore the art form, both the acting and behind the scenes. I’m always fascinated with the cross-pollination of theatre and film, allowing the two mediums to co-exist in the one project. I am very thankful for my directing experience, as it has altered my acting for the better (and vice versa).

If you could direct any play, what would it be and why? Or, as it seems pretty likely that you do direct the plays you want to, what’s next on the cards for yourself and the Artisan Collective?

I place a lot of faith in timing.

Wit has been in my mind for nearly a decade, but I was adamant about waiting for the right moment rather than forcing it. I sometimes get swept up in the desire to “make something work”. I see the seed of potential in a project as well as its flaws and cannot resist the urge to explore how to frame it, shape it, edit and distil it in order to make it work. This is not always a great thing.

I guess what I’m saying is; as the years pass I’m getting better at choosing projects that I have a distinct connection to. This connection, for me, has marked the difference between a success and a failure.

What’s next? I’ve written a feature film that is in development – which has been wholly satisfying to work on. At this stage no theatrical projects are locked in, but I’m always keeping and eye and ear out for the possibilities.


Wit is on at fortyfivedownstairs from the 31st of August until the 17th of September at 7:30 Tuesday – Saturday at 6pm on Sundays. Tickets are $38 or $32 concession, and are available online.

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