No Plain Jane

Theatre reviews and musings (mostly) from Adelaide

Tag: Chris Drummond

On Babyteeth: seeing a play twice, the nature of breath, balancing relationships, and why I don’t like the term life-affirming.

To listen as you read:

In this piece of writing, I talk about the beginning and the end of Babyteeth and all the pieces in between. This is not a piece of writing for the spoiler adverse. If you want to hold out and learn the story as it plays out on the stage, leave now. This is a piece of writing for those who want to pore over details: for those who have seen the play, and for those who have not.

Babyteeth photo by Shane Reid

In the beginning, we see the end. The end of the play; the end of a life.

A family starts just another day. A mother talks about making pancakes. A father has forgotten to put on his pants. The young man they barely know smokes his cigarette just outside the door.

The mother enters her daughter’s room, to find her daughter’s life has left her daughter’s body.

And at the end, when we again watch this beginning, I remain unmoved.

This is the story of a play I was hopelessly, achingly disappointed in. This is the story of a play that my friends said made them bawl. This is the story of a play my friends said they found beautiful. This is the story of second chances more than paying off. Of a play finding its feet.

This is the story of a play I saw twice.

On opening night, something was missing. No energy passed between the characters. No tension was traded between moments and scenes. There was a distinct lack of movement on stage.

On the page, Rita Kalnejais builds her world around people’s breaths.

Characters use commas like they use air. Often these people are breathless – a breath at that moment would change the course of history.

 But these characters I watched never felt breathless: they never felt like they had any breath to lose.

On opening night there was a medical emergency in the audience and we were asked to leave the theatre. In this makeshift interval we caught up with friends, we discussed the state of the world. We wondered, as time ticked on, if we would be invited back into the theatre that night, if the audience member would be okay, if the cast would be, too. But invited back we were, the cast picking up from the beginning of the scene they had to abandon.

And those first five minutes back in the theatre were the best five minutes of the play. In those five minutes the cast found tension. An energy crackled on stage as a petulant daughter scowled at her mother, as parents tried to settle a fight without showing their daughter that a fight was being had at all.

And then, as soon as we had it, it was gone. We were back in a world without breathing. There was no pull between the stage and the audience. The story was relayed to us in muted tones.

The world of Babyteeth was still.

And I left frustrated. Disappointed in a production that failed to find its way.

My friends started to go, and their reports trickled in. Am I the odd one out? I thought. It would hardly be the first time. But then should I go again? I asked one friend who raved. I heard that it was a bit cold the first performances, he said. Definitely see it again if you can. 

And so, one week after I went the first time, I went again.

It’s not unusual for me to see works more than once. Before Babyteeth, in 2013 I’ve returned to four productions: Hedda Gabler after a couple of weeks, Persona after a year. For works I am taken by, I enjoy the chance to pick up new details for the first time, to study the piece and pick it apart, to see how it changes after I’ve grown up a year, to see how it responds to a new space, to take friends along on the journey with me.

This, however, was the first time I returned after disappointment.

But in that week, the cast found breath. Not always. Sometimes the world built by director Chris Drummond still felt too still, but when it didn’t breaths circled up and around the characters, through the world, connecting the people on the stage to one another, the people on stage to the people in the audience.

Kalnejais’ Milla, played here by Danielle Catanzariti, exists in a world that is breathing. As she is losing her breath, she feels more acutely the breath of the world.

MILLA looks up through the smashed glass ceiling of the station, at the squall of pigeons, doomed skywriting plane, clouds, unbelievable space.

Hilary Kleinig’s composition brings much of the breath to this world and often when it is absent the world feels too still. Her rich cello swirls around and engulfs the theatre; her piano hesitant with breaths seeming to catch and fall between the notes. The music intersects with Geoff Cobham’s lighting design: soft blues and radiant yellows, unnatural and iridescent against the raw wood of Wendy Todd’s set.

Drummond’s work is most seen with Brink Productions. There, he directs plays that he has had a hands-on role since the very first devising workshop in the rehearsal room. He works with diverse playwrights with varying results, but you always walk away with a sense of his fingerprints to the work.

Babyteeth doesn’t come from this lineage. And yet, it feels uniquely appropriate for Drummond. The plays he has worked on through development often have a sense of times and places intersecting: from the eighty years and two continents we traverse in Andrew Bovell’s When The Rain Stops Falling, to the lives of strangers in the same city on the same day in Bryony Lavery’s Thursday.

Kalnejais plays with a similar sense in her text as scenes softly flow into each other, and this production is at its strongest when Drummond really works with these slippages of time and space. Outside Gidon’s door, Milla cries on a train platform. Anna stands up from Gidon’s piano stool and walks towards Milla’s bedroom door.

Occasionally this movement isn’t found. A full blackout feels out of place and lasts a few beats too long. Scenes don’t flow over and into one another: it feels we are being shown the quietness of an empty stage, rather than the quietness of a lived space.

In Belvoir’s original production these intersections and flows between spaces were solved through using a revolve. Here, the living space of Milla’s family, Gidon’s apartment, Henry’s office all share one space. Through slated wood we steal glances into the bathroom, through the smallest of slivers we can see into Milla’s bedroom, until the action takes place in this room and a bed rises from the traps system created by elevating the stage level in the Space Theatre.

Babyteeth four photo by Shane Reid

In the final scene, Kalnejais asks for the stage to be turned around: what we once watched from inside the house, we now watch from the garden. The benches in the family home lower, the wooden walls move out and cross the front of the stage, and suddenly we are outside looking in. It is intelligent and moving set construction.

Babyteeth is a lovely play to read on the page. Kalnejais writes impossible stage directions, there to expand the world of the piece in the mind of the reader, to give clues to the creatives.

She writes:

A crowd of greased-up, slick-back’d pigeons fling themselves at the sky. Feather and lice fall on the platform with their shadows.

She writes stage directions that bore down into the heart of the characters. She writes:

ANNA nods looking at the stream of water as if it were a skipping rope – as if with the right timing she could slip in without disturbing the stream of droplets.

Kalnejais’ Milla is softly haunted, grabbing glances at and hearing snatches from a world that exists beyond the world she currently lives in. And still, she grounds herself in an unadorned reality.

“A cloud like a … I don’t know. Just a cloud. Isn’t it? But very white.

I guess it could be a dragon. Or … I keep coming back to the fact it looks like a cloud.”

Catanzari starts her performance too naïve, her fourteen-year-old Milla too young as she meets Matt Crook’s twenty-five-year-old Moses. As the play progresses and Catanzari finds the ground that Milla stands on, this deep investment in reality, her performance becomes stronger. This strength of character battles against a growing weakness of body, Catanzari’s small frame seemingly trying to climb inside itself, a hunch in the back becoming more pronounced, a stoop in the legs struggling to hold her body.

Drummond gives just the slightest of hints of this haunting of Milla: once we catch the sound of a call to Milla as if traveling on the wind; sometimes Kleinig’s  music embraces notes like an ethereal voice; Cobham will place Milla in a bright yellow spotlight. But here, too, often the stage is too still, no hints are given to connect Milla from this world to that.

Kalnejais refers to this haunting as what the dead said moments, and passes the solution for staging them over to the production. When we read them on the page, there is a real sense that this is Milla’s story. The reader is offered insights into her life above all other characters, it’s her who we see the innermost core of.

On stage, however, you sense there is a balancing issue in this text. Too often Babyteeth doesn’t feel like Milla’s story at all. Through both Kalnejais’ writing and Catanzari’s performance, it is Milla’s relationships that are the most compelling. When she is with Chris Pitman as her father Henry, cautious and caring, a love encompasses the stage. As Milla sits in the lap of her mother Anna, Claire Jones gives us a woman that is nervous, often hesitant, sitting on the edgy of a bubble that threatens to burst at any moment letting her emotions get the better of her.

It’s the hugs and the fights between these characters that the work most comes alive in. These moments predicated on Milla’s illness, and those resting only on being a family with a young daughter.

Kalnejais’ takes us beyond this core family. She shows us Henry and Anna in strained, dulled conversations. Kalnejais then takes us into Henry and Anna’s worlds beyond their family, the foils for each of them there holding purpose in the text. In a burgeoning relationship with Henry, Alyssa Mason’s Toby is the young woman his daughter will never be and brings the promise of new life as his daughter loses grip on hers. Through the sometimes crass Latvian violin teacher Gidon (Paul Blackwell) and the young boy Thuong (Lawrence Mau / James Min) who he takes on, Anna must acknowledge she will lose a girl she perhaps never truly got an opportunity to know.

Babyteeth three photo by Shane Reid

But still, while we learn more about Milla’s family, a family of which Milla is always at the heart, it feels like Milla herself is too often relegated to the shadows.

At the centre of the play is Milla’s relationship with Moses, the young drug dealer who first meets Milla by helping her with a blood nose, and then asking her for money. Crook’s Moses may be wrong for Milla, making the best of a situation he has found himself in – a bed, a pantry stocked with food and with drugs – but he still carries himself with a generous heart.

The terminal unromantic that I am, I get the feeling Milla knows this isn’t her true love. She seizes onto this young man because he is kind to her, yes, but also because he is there. Because as she feels the grasp she has on her life becoming ever more tenuous, grabbing onto this man feels like the safest option. She is living out her days hopeful for the world that speaks to her, for the love of her parents, for the jokes and the life they share, for a world where love is a grand adventure still to be explored. She holds on to this man not because she thinks he is her one true love – but because she knows he will be her one love.

The story, therefore, is of Milla’s romance. But it isn’t a romance. A tragedy, perhaps, that a young girl must try and manufacture a first love story, knowing it will be her last.

With Babyteeth, we are given the first production in the State Theatre Company’s new commitment to giving new Australian plays second productions. Under Artistic Director Geordie Brookman we are seeing the strongest artistic program in many years, and if reports are to be believed their strongest audience numbers. These productions are only one of the ways the company is working towards strengthening national connections, but for me it is the most exciting. It is a commitment to giving Australian playwrights pride of place, it gives playwrights the ability to revisit their work, and will hopefully allow the lives of some plays to flourish more fully.

Outrageous Fortune: The Life and Times of the New American Play explores the nature of new play development and production in the American not-for-profit theatre sector: a sector that seems to hold many similarities to our own. In the study, the authors speak to the fact that productions begat productions: once a play is produced by three American theatre companies is more likely to find its way into theatres across the country. How these economies work in a country so much smaller I don’t know, but it will be exciting for Adelaide audiences to watch these plays come in – and hopefully go on.

Finally, I want us to take one step back from the play for a moment.

In relation to Babyteeth, I’ve been fascinated by the way people speak about death and loss. Or, more accurately, the way we speak about life in the face of death. From the marketing of this production, to the marketing of the original production at Belvoir, from reviews now and then, the play is repeatedly described as ‘life-affirming.’

Do we need to watch a play about a fourteen-year-old girl coming to grips with the fact that she can no longer fight for her life to have our own lives affirmed? Is it a strange cultural tick, this there but for the grace of god? Are we supposed to think at least it’s not me? Or is this a romanticisation of suffering: what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Everything happens for a reason.

Do we need to find a happy and uplifting metaphor in the theatre to make it palatable? Is it not enough for a play to acknowledge the world can be terrible; terrible things happen; that is life. Is that not good enough for the theatre? Do we think that’s not good enough for audiences?

We live in a world of at times unfathomable tragedy. If its war or starvation or abuse or illness, if it’s a tragedy that is happening to a country or if it’s happening to a family: do we need to desperately search for some good in that? Does theatre need to pretend there is good in that?

I don’t think theatre should have to comfort us. It shouldn’t have to hold our hand.

The final strands of Kalenjais’ play show us that life moves on. Nothing more; nothing less. The world will keep spinning. Grief will keep consuming. Milla’s parents will live on because parents live on. Not because their lives are affirmed: because their lives exist.

GIDON takes the little Gliga violin from the case and fits it under THONG’s chin. It is as if this violin has been made for him.

GIDON picks up his instrument and plays with him.

ANNA places her hands on the piano. She takes a deep breath. They play and play and play.

The world Kalnejais has created is filled with laughter and with kindness. For Toby and Thuong in particular, it is filled by a grand and expanding future. Perhaps that’s what people mean when they say it’s life affirming?

For me, I’ve just found living in the face of grief to be life.

And for me, that’s what this play is. It’s not tragedy nor comedy nor romance, but life. As huge and a tiny as that is: it’s everything. I don’t need my life affirmed to appreciate that. I just need my life.

Babyteeth by Rita Kalenjais, directed by Chris Drummond for the State Theatre Company of South Australia in the Space Theatre, 16 August – 07 September 2013. Tickets available here.

Designer Wendy Todd, lighting designer Geoff Cobham, composer Hilary Kleinig, associate sound designer Andrew Howard. With Paul Blackwell, Danielle Catanzariti, Matt Crook, Claire Jones, Alyssa Mason, Chris Pitman, and Lawrence Mau and James Min alternating in the role of Thuong.

All quotes taken from Babyteeth (2012), published by Currency Press in association with Belvoir. Available here.

Music featured here by Hilary Kleinig. Photographs by Shane Reid.

Further reading:

Outrageous Fortune: The Life and Times of the New American Play, a study of the Theatre Development Fund, written by Todd London and Ben Pesner. It is available here. 

On Guardian Australia, Alison Croggon writes on Second thoughts: return visits to favourite productions.

Rita Kalnejais’ first play BC, produced by Hayloft Theatre and Full Tilt in 2009, published by Red Door, an imprint of the Australian Script Centre can be read here.

Further listening:

We’re Gonna Die by Young Jean Lee, a theatre/cabaret piece about coming to grips with death and pain. “The thing everyone has in common: We’re gonna die. You may be miserable, but you won’t be alone.” Recorded with the band Future Wife, available in iTunes here, closing song available to listen to here.

I’m gonna die, I’m gonna die someday,
Then I’ll be gone and it’ll be it okay.
Someone will miss me, someone will be so sad.
And it’ll hurt, it’s gonna hurt so bad.

Goodbye ’12, Hello ’13

It’s been a bit of a hiatus here on No Plain Jane. I ended the year in what can only be described as theatre overload. I estimate I overdosed by four productions, and perhaps would have been better off bidding the year farewell in November. Nonetheless, three of these productions have reviews in various states of half finish on my trusty computer, so we’ll see if any end up here. Also in progress are the “best of” and “looking forward” posts – stay tuned.

Primarily I’ve been hibernating away the summer, but there are a few places my work has been showing up since last time I wrote here. You can find me writing for ABC Arts Online’s Out & About series, in the current edition of un Magazine, and still with the Adelaide Review. This Fringe, I’m again putting on my producer hat with Melbourne dancer Gareth Hart’s Symphony of Strange.

I’m writing this with my copy of un Magazine by my side, a gorgeous publication with STILL FREE written down the spine. While I think the internet and blogs are incredible platforms for sharing and storing writing, there is still something special about the hard copy: about how it leads you to reading what you mightn’t had otherwise, about the record it keeps, about the cataloging and classifying and curating writing.

In her book Seven Days in the Art WorldSarah Thornton describes art magazines as a place where “art is an excuse for words”. And for one reason or a million this is an excuse I love. But what of the future for it? When Alison Croggon wrote of the hanging up of her Theatre Notes hat, I shocked even myself by crying. Alison’s blog shaped the path for me and countless other writers and while for her – and her other writing pursuits – it is clearly a positive choice, it’s hard to see its loss as anything but sad for Australian theatre.

It’s easy in these discussions to get caught up in navel gazing, but what is the future of this crazy career path I’ve chosen for myself? How long can I afford sustain it? How long can the Australian theatre industry afford to not sustainably support it?

I spoke to Chris Drummond of Brink Productions in December for the February Adelaide Review. Talking about arts writing, he spoke about the record of Adelaide theatre being lost: “the critics and then the writers who record the history make the history and Adelaide hasn’t been good at recording the life of productions, where as Sydney and Melbourne are very adept at that.” Of Theatre Notes, he said “I can easily remember a pre-Theatre Notes era. And so it’s not that impossible for that to just go away.”

This isn’t only an issue which can easily effect smaller cities like Adelaide and Perth, but there are the questions of what work is being written about in all cities – are independent companies covered? will we be able to look back on the beginnings of careers? – and, perhaps even more importantly, where is the record of work being created in our regions going to come from?

In this internet age, much work will be written about. But will it be recording a history, or will it just be written for the here and now, for those with $20 or $50 or $100 burning a hole in their pocket, deciding which show to buy a ticket for?

These are the questions I’ll be carrying with me into this new year. I’ll try and keep on asking them, and maybe even answering them. See you in the theatres.

***

For further reading, if you missed it, Jana Perkovic asked some very pertinent questions about the future of Australian arts writing on her blog in an obituary to theatre notes, and perhaps to criticism, and in theatre criticism in australia: what is actually going on?, with some stats

No room with a view

This article was first published in the July 2012 Adelaide Review

Adelaide’s theatre community is in urgent need of space to rehearse their work.

Preparing for the world premiere season of Involuntary with the Adelaide Festival Centre’s inSPACE program, director and choreographer Katrina Lazaroff found her company missing one integral feature: rehearsal space.

After “looking all over Adelaide” Lazaroff was lucky the Adelaide Festival Centre staff solved the situation by splitting rehearsal time between the Dunstan Playhouse and Space Theatre.  “It’s almost never heard of that you get to rehearse in a theatre,” she says.

In 2010, Arts SA prepared an audit into the lack of suitable performance spaces for Adelaide’s professional dance and theatre community. Alongside citing a lack of suitable venues, outdated technical equipment, and inadequate disabled access to performance spaces, the audit also spoke to a lack of rehearsal space.

Two years on, companies are struggling to find suitable space to develop and rehearse their work, and few are as lucky as Lazaroff. Chris Drummond, Artistic Director of Brink Productions, says every show “involves a saga where our production manager Françoise spends weeks and months looking for a rehearsal space.”

Their latest work, Land & Sea, was forced to rehearse in their performance space, the Queen’s Theatre. While an evocative venue, it is, in effect, an empty warehouse with a concrete floor and tin roof, which Drummond describes as “harsh, cold and incredibly noisy due to the building site next door”.

Read the rest of this entry »

Sea Bloom

This article was originally published in the May Adelaide Review

Since her first play Tender opened in Belvoir’s independent theatre space in Sydney in 2006, playwright Nicki Bloom has seen her plays produced in Aubrey, Brisbane and New York City, with additional readings in Melbourne and London.

Her plays and prose have won some of Australia’s most prestigious writing awards, and in 2008 she won Australia’s richest playwriting award: the Patrick White Playwrights’ Award.

This year began with two awards for Bloom at the Adelaide Festival Awards for Literature: the Jill Blewett Playwright Award for A Cathedral and the Barbara Hanrahan Fellowship for The Sun and the Other Stars. Now, the South Australian-based Bloom is preparing for the world premiere of her latest work, Land & Sea, which opens with a preview at the Queen’s Theatre on Friday, May 11.

Talking to Bloom and director and dramaturge of the work, Brink Productions Artistic Director Chris Drummond, on the second day of rehearsals, the pair exudes with pleasure the final discoveries, which are being made in preparation for opening. Land & Sea has been in development since 2008, and the pair is clearly excited and ready to see it take its new life in front of an audience.

From a prose and poetry background, the language in Bloom’s plays exhibits a strong sense of structure and form. “All playwrights have different views on this, but I come pretty firmly down on the side that you’re writing literature,” Bloom says. “Of course you’re writing a play, and you’re writing something to be done, but it also has great value as a piece of text.”

Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Land & Sea

Sorry about the published draft, if you happened to catch it anyone. WordPress reaching back into the bowels, enjoy the inner workings of my brain. Here’s an interview I did with Nicki Bloom and Chris Drummond to make up for it.


There is this strange thing when I see a work which emotionally impacts me. I simultaneously feel that I need desperately to write about it, while also feeling writing about it can do nothing but transform it in a way I don’t want.

I want to sing its praises from the roof tops; I want to keep it a secret.

I want to feel I’m a good enough writer to put it into words; I feel like there is no way I possibly have the skill.

I left Land & Sea and I felt like I needed to go into a corner and cry. But I also felt safe in the space of the foyer, like I didn’t want to walk out into the world so I could find that corner I needed.

I felt, somehow, that this was the wrong emotion. The work, while filled with strands of sadness, wasn’t overall a sad story. Or, perhaps it was.

It wasn’t, perhaps, overall a story.

Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Skip Miller’s Hit Songs

Skip Miller (Chris Pitman) stands in a gallery and looks at his photographs.  At the exhibition he is joined by brother Neville (Rory Walker), partner Alison (Lizzy Faukland), friend Augustus (Mondi Makhoba), and Patience (Assina Ntawumenya).  Patience came to Australia to find herself pasted on newspaper, bus shelters, billboards, and Skip’s agents have found her and brought her to the exhibition opening of the photographer who made her a house-hold face.   Skip Miller’s Hit Songs traces the lives of these characters on their lives, and their past which lead them to this moment.

Alison (Lizzy Falkland) and Skip (Chris Pitman) look at the photos in Skip's exhibition. Photo Chris Herzfeld

Skip, we are told, is an excellent photographer.  He goes in to the heart of war torn, drought ravaged African countries, and there he takes out his camera, and he documents.  Through the lens he brings a focused eye to a group of people who are suffering extraordinary amounts.  Through his photographs he captures unblinking eyes, and through them, we are told, you can see through to the pain and the hope, and you are captivated in the eyes of another.

We must be told these things, because the photographs shown to the audience in Skip Miller’s Hit Songs never justify this praise of a talent or dedication of a lifetime.  And if your production cannot justify the excellence of your titular character, how much of the production can really be justified at all?  In the final moment of the play, slightly confusing in its lack of explanation, Neville stands and explains just how brilliant his brother was: his talent, his hit songs, were the photographs he took.  Behind him, the wall fills with photographs of African people.  But there is nothing remarkable about these photographs; unless perhaps you were to remark on just how much they looked like the photographs we all have of ourselves, sitting in our wallets, of our identification.

Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Harbinger

I’d been suffering with a fever and stomach bug the week before I saw Harbinger, and it was rather horrible, but coming in waves, so I started Harbinger okay.  It then hit me again towards the end of the play, so there was a portion which I struggled to absorb.  It then stuck around for most of the week after I saw the play, and when I finally thought I’d kicked it, it came back while I was writing this review.   I apologise in advance for the level of delirium this was written in.

The Harbinger promo flyer

A short re-enactment, detailing where the marketing for Harbinger came from (in a way which actually, I am informed my Matt Whittet in the comments, is not the way marketing happens at all.  Life is so much funnier in my own head!)

In 2009

Sean Riley: “Look, I’m really sorry Chris, I know I said I would have Skip Miller’s Hit Songs for you, but it just isn’t going to be ready by next year’s season.  Do you think I could have some extra time?  Just until 2011.”

Chris Drummond:  “That will be fine, Sean.  We’ll find someone else to write a play really really quickly.”

Back in the Brink office

Drummond:  “Who do you think we can get?  That Whittet kid, he’s writing something for that Windmill lot, isn’t he?  If we overlap their season with our rehearsal period, we wouldn’t even need to pay for his accommodation to be in Adelaide or anything.  And Windmill always gets good reviews, so we can surely sell some tickets off that!”

He calls Whittet.

Drummond: “Matthew!  Look, we’re not going to get this play we’re supposed to show next year ready in time.  I know we usually go through a long and exacting development process, but you can write us up something really quickly, yes?”

Keep Reading! (I promise there is an actual review in here)

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