Brisbane Festival Interview: Deborah Pearson talks us through History History History

If you’re a lover of cinema and history, Deborah Pearson has you covered! In a unique performance that uses audio and memory, History History History transports audiences back to October 23, 1956 and recreates a film that was supposed to screen at the Corvin Cinema the night the Hungarians rose up against the Soviets.

Making her Australian debut at the Brisbane Festival, we caught up with Pearson to talk about what inspired this thought-provoking piece and what can be gained from reflecting on our own ancestry.

Where did the idea come from to “remember” in such a unique way?

Interesting question!  The piece was not really about remembering for me, so much as it was about discovering – but I suppose that discovering the past and showing it to an audience performance to performance is a form of remembering.  This was a time in my family’s life that I had heard about through my mother and grandmother since I was born, but I really only knew the story in fragments, from their perspective.  Once I decided to make a piece about this film that has a very direct and personal link to my family (which I won’t talk about in this interview because I quite deliberately reveal it in the show itself…) I was most excited about learning about new elements of the story connected to it through people other than my family – gathering a bit of the minutae of the past that gets lost in a family’s act of remembering.  It was very exciting, for instance, when I discovered that the screenwriter of the film was extremely involved in the Hungarian Uprising (in fact, he wrote and published one of the first books about the uprising, in 1959, only three years after it had happened), and even more exciting when I was able to track down the screenwriter and have him agree to meet with me.  His memory of the events, which enriched and re-contextualised everything I knew through my family’s memory, is one of the lynchpins of the narrative of this piece – along with the fact that memory is such an insufficient and incomplete way of dealing with history in general.  We’ll never really know the past.

What is your fascination with history?

I am fascinated with the idea that “history” is the collective, often institutionalised and agreed upon (in retrospect) version of the past, but time and experience is such a complicated thing that it’s really a very biased and incomplete version of what happened, and entirely different depending on who is narrating the events.  I’m also interested in the ways that personal and oral histories can jump into and complicate those sweeping societal and historical narratives, and humanise them – suddenly creating a real time and place populated by human beings complete with flaws and uncertainty – something that feels so different to the very concrete way that history is taught in school.  History is also always changing – we contextualise the past differently according to the present.  That can be really frightening but also wonderful, depending on who is in charge.

Is there something we can gain by it?

Supposedly history could help us avoid repeating mistakes, but it seems that if there’s one thing you can rely on, human beings want to make mistakes for themselves. Meaning historical mistakes do get repeated in different guises.  But knowing about history can help you identify those mistakes as they are happening, and what their possible repercussions might be, arguably?  That said, on a more existential and political level, I think it’s really important to think about our fragility, our smallness, and history helps us do that.  It’s like looking up at the night sky – you see how tiny you are, and how close you came to never existing at all – and how uncertain and possible the future is.

History can be quite a solemn ordeal, how do you change that feeling through this production?

This show is about the history of a film – a 1956 screwball comedy about Football and Totalitarianism made by the Hungarian Communist Party, an arm of the Soviet Union.  The show spreads out to tell three stories – the story in the film and Of the film, the story of the Hungarian uprising and refugee crisis, and my family’s story.  The film itself is hilarious – just because it’s in the past doesn’t make it solemn – and my grandmother and mother, whose voices are prominently featured in the show, are also very warm, funny and human.  It’s interesting to assume that history is solemn – idiosyncrasies, humour, uncertainty, love, these things all existed in the past just as they exist in the present and will exist into the future.  I try to capture a bit of the uncertainty of the past in the show, and that makes it not solemn so much as rich, weird and complicated.

Is this your first time to Australia, what are you looking forward to about  visiting Brisbane?

I actually did an exchange to the University of Melbourne in 2004 and performed at the Next Wave Festival in Melbourne in 2014, so this not be my first time in Australia.  That said, although I’ve visited Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide, I’ve never been to Brisbane.  I’m really looking forward to the weather and to seeing the coast.  I’ve heard wonderful things about Queensland and have always wanted to visit it.  I’m also looking forward to seeing the other work in the festival, which I’ve heard great things about!

Do you have ancestors that tie into the story?

I have a very personal link to the story and film, which is revealed in the show.

What are you looking forward to at Brisbane Festival and why?

I have always wanted to see Zoe Coombs Marr in action and I can’t believe I haven’t already.  I am definitely going to see Trigger Warning if I can.  It looks incredible.

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History, History, History will be playing at the 2017 Brisbane Festival from September 12 to September 15 at the Theatre Republic. Tickets available at: http://www.brisbanefestival.com.au/whats-on/history-history-history