Fears are something we are thought to grow out of, as we leave our childhood beds and the threat of monsters hidden beneath them. Yet, the ‘things that go bump in the night’ encountered as an adult have the potential to be far more real and dangerous. Pin Drop, currently showing at Malthouse Theatre Melbourne, takes us to that most unsettling of places – the liminal space between the realisation of a threat and the terror itself revealed. The stranger breathing down the end of a phone line, the man following behind us as we walk along a lonely street, and the more ethereal terrors – eerie shadows cast by light, the creak of a floorboard in an empty house, a certain phrase or word that chills. Killings interviewed Tamara Saulwick on the inspiration for her performance, and her exploration of those most disturbing of emotions.

Pin Drop is essentially an exploration of a single emotion – fear. Where did the inspiration come from to explore that particular sensation?

There are probably a number of answers to this question. One of them is that I was interested to make a work that could to an extent sustain a single note in the way that perhaps an old-style suspense movie is able to do. The catalyst for this came from a new music performance I saw a few years ago which managed to do just that – it seemed to just build and build. Fear can work in a similar way and seemed a well-aligned theme with this idea of sustained suspense. Fear is also of interest to me because it is something we all have in common and our own personal relationship with. I felt sure that there would be a multitude of compelling stories out there related to this theme and discovered that I was right. And of course, I also have my own experiences and relationship to the topic, and a subsequent interest in the similarities and differences between my own experiences and those of others.

The play is a deeply unsettling experience, partly because the audience is kept always within the moment before the revelation. Many of the stories are left unresolved and we are rarely allowed to experience the full horror of the threat – we are kept always within the space before. Was it important to your project to not provide that moment of catharsis when the object of fear is revealed and resolved?

The space of not knowing the full picture is integral to how we experience fear and indeed also to the stories in the piece. In these situations there is a lot of guess work. I was interested in this grey zone –and I think it is in this space where the imagination is very alive. The ‘space before’ as you describe it is for me is the really interesting bit – it is where we are wrestling with ourselves. Some of the stories are told through to their conclusion and others are left hanging … these decisions were based on an intuitive response to the material and how it would work within the dramaturgy of the piece as a whole.

Pin Drop is very effective in its use of ‘real’ people telling remembered tales of their experiences of fear. Yet, though of different ages and races, all the interviewees are female. Was that a deliberate decision? Do you think that women experience fear differently to men or is fear a universal experience?

Fear is an enormous topic – there are so many ways in which it can manifest. It was important for me to narrow that down in order to gather more specific content, which in the case of Pin Drop is the fear of threat from a stranger. For example, walking alone down a quiet street, or a bang outside the window at night. I do think that the male/female experience of this territory is to an extent distinct from one another. My decision to interview just women was driven predominantly by the desire to continue to focus the material. I think the work could equally be made by gathering stories from men.

Your performance in the play is a kind of schizophrenic inhabiting of the multiple interviewees relating their tales of fear. Yet it is also a very physical performance with your body and the shadows cast by the play of light an integral part of the experience. Do you see your character as fearful or to-be-feared?

I don’t really see myself as a character in this work. I see myself more as a facilitator or transmitter of the stories and voices of the interviewees. So in this sense my role is a very fluid one – sometimes inhabiting their stories with my own voice, sometimes accompanying their prerecorded voices with movement, sound or image, and sometimes being in a kind of duet. I think in the audience’s mind I could be seen to be slipping to and fro between perpetrator, victim and witness right throughout the work.

Were any of the recounted experiences of fear your own?

No – all of the stories, and indeed every word spoken in the piece came directly from the interviews I did with other people.

An assemblage of household objects are the only elements on the stage. How did you select those objects and what are their significance? Do you see the everyday as having the greatest potential to be menacing?

The objects were chosen for their look, for potential associations, but more importantly for the sound that they make. They are all used to generate live sound that is incorporated into the audio design of the piece. In Pin Drop there are so few visual elements, that people will inevitably create associations with these objects, so a pair of scissors or a kitchen knife have the potential to quickly take on menacing associations.

Pin Drop is described as a ‘sensory experience’, and the performance does indeed happen largely within each audience member’s mind and senses – in their reactions to the sound scape and the lighting effects. Do you feel it’s important to make the audience an active part of performance rather than passive observers?

Absolutely – for me this is critical. My aim in making this work was to create an evocative rather than descriptive space for the stories, one that invites the audience to enter into it. In the program notes I wrote that in Pin Drop personal accounts provide anchors against which image and sound can pull. There is space for the audience to bring their own imaginations and memories to bear on the work, and from the spaces between prerecorded voices and live performance, between what is heard and what is seen, between performer and audience, the piece emerges.

Pin Drop is currently showing at Malthouse Theatre Melbourne until 7 August.

– photo courtesy of Ponch Hawkes.