An Ode To Nonsense Blog One: pre-rehearsal discussion with Andy Packer

by Jane

Over the next month, I’m going to be spending some time with Andy Packer and the team at Slingsby as they prepare for the world premiere of Ode To Nonsense, their new opera for families, presented with State Opera South Australia.

While Andy has been working on the show for twelve years, it all started to come together this week in the rehearsal room. I spoke to Andy last Thursday, and will speak to him again before opening, as well as writing about spending time in the rehearsal room, before seeing the show and writing a review with all this perspective.

I know very little about opera, and have spent very little time in rehearsal rooms outside of student productions. I’m not sure what will come out of this process yet, for me or for him, but I think we’re both curious and excited to see what will result.

Andy is an artist it is always wonderful to speak with. His energy and passion is infectious, his joy for his work delightful to witness. Slingsby premiered in 2008, its premier performance The Tragical Life of Cheeseboy going on to tour internationally “220 times in 40 venues in 25 cities on 5 continents”. While still young, it is greatly respected and an important piece of the puzzle that makes Adelaide a leader in the creation of work for young people.

An Ode To Nonsense is the fourth work for the company, and is based on the work and life of Edward Lear, perhaps most well known for The Owl and the Pussycat. Lear has always been a presence in Slingsby, though, with the company taking their name from his The Story of the Four Little Children Who Went Round The World:

Once upon a time, a long while ago, there were four little people whose names were Violet, Slingsby, Guy, and Lionel; and they all thought they should like to see the world. So they bought a large boat to sail quite round the world by sea, and then they were to come back on the other side by land.

It was twelve years ago – before Slingsby as a company even existed – that Andy “fell in love with Lear’s work.” It was from that point, he described, he’s been “working away, trying to find the right way to celebrate both his work but also his life, and what I think maybe we can all glean from his existence.”

Andy originally conceived this as a small cabaret show based on The Story of the Four Little Children … with a development showing in 2005. From this showing, though, Andy realised “it was a bigger story.”

It was while directing Motzart’s Bastien and Bastienne that he decided opera was the right form for the story.

For me, as someone who doesn’t have an education in opera, this striked me as an interesting choice. So much of opera is caught up in the heritage features of the art form – it’s not at all surprising the opera Andy was directing for State Opera was by Motzart.

“The thing that is great about opera,” he told me, “the thing that I fell in love with, is there is no other artform where you can change gears emotionally quite so quickly, because the music is driving the story.”

“There is a moment in Ode to Nonsense where Lear is being teased by Gussie and Giorgio: they’re teasing him about one of his nonsense recipes. In the recipe it says take the ingredients and place them in another room, then bring them back and then throw the whole lot out of the window, and they’re singing that and being cheeky, and he’s singing that and repeats the same text and basically talking about throwing himself out the window. And only music can make that clear to you. It’s the same words, seconds later, but because of the music it has a much deeper and quicker emotional resonance. What opera’s particularly good at is taking the personal and making it epic. Making it a big philosophical story as well as being a personal story.”

And as for the perceptions of opera as a heritage artform? Andy describes that stigma as being “completely unnecessary.”

“I understand where it comes from, and it makes sense for that stigma if all we keep doing is the same twenty-five operas […] and it is the same twenty-five operas being performed everywhere.”

He continued: “I personally have no problem with the amount of money spent on opera, because that is an enormous amount of artists being employed, that’s why it costs so much money, because any time you’ve got 150 or 200 people on stage that’s going to cost a lot of money.”

“But I think we all need to work harder to produce new work that is creating opportunities for contemporary storytellers and contemporary theatre makers.” While Nonsense is based on Lear “it speaks to a contemporary audience and it’s a new work, written from a contemporary perspective.”

While Andy talks about casts of 150 or 200, Nonsense is considerably smaller. Three principles, seven musicians in the pit, a youth chorus of twelve, and three acrobats.

The youth chorus, aged 10 to 14, are the same age the audience will start at. For Andy, “they really do personify that childish energy dramatically within the piece; they represent that inspired innocence that we all grow out of, unfortunately.”

Before going into rehearsals, he told me one of the things he is looking forward to about the rehearsal process is working with these young artists at the beginning of their professional careers. They may be young, but Andy will be working with them in the rehearsal room as professionals. In a pre-rehearsal get together, he told me, he told the chorus “this will this will inevitably be part of your career development, and development as an artist, but we’re not bringing you in to develop you, we’re bringing you in because you’re brilliant at what you’re doing.”

Still, a cast this size, and a theatre that sits 1000 is a far cry from the more intimate work Slingsby is known for. For Andy, taking what worked for Slingby on the small scale and trying to make it work on a big scale is key. This will mean a show that begins the moment the doors to the theatre open, with cast members inviting the audience into the space, and the whole theatre taking on the world of Nonsense.

“Geoff [Cobham, the designer] and Quincy [Grant, the composer] and I are very interested in making theatre as live as it can be,” he said. “That’s what theatre does that no other artform can do: that human interaction. So it seems to us redundant to pretend it’s film. So the more we can get in amongst the audience and have a personal interaction with them the greater the experience becomes.”

“There’s not many companies in the world that would be trying to take what works on a very small scale and trying to make it work on a big scale but that’s what we’re particularly interested in, so if we can crack it then it will be awesome.”

As we wrapped up our first conversation – one I’m sure I will reference again over the next month – we spoke about me coming into the rehearsal room, what I described as an “interesting generosity of you and the company to invite someone into what is usually a closed space.”

In response, Andy spoke about the clarity he often finds in what he is thinking about when asked to talk about it: “it helps to distill things for myself.”

“But also we are adventurous,” he continued. “We don’t know. I’m absolutely open to the idea that as prepared as we are, we don’t know what the outcome is going to be. And I’m really happy with that openness.”

Part of the process through this, for both of us, is acknowledgement that I am in the room as a critic. This doesn’t mean I’m going to be reviewing the process or what is going on in the rehearsal space, but it does inform the way I view work.

“I think the more as artists we’re all open to scrutiny and questioning, the more I’m going to improve as an artist,” said Andy. “That’s part of self-refection, and reflection and feedback is part of improvement. So I guess this is us as company and me acknowledging that this is another step towards making a better show. This one, but also the next one and the next one and the next one and the next one.”

Me being there is perhaps just part of a much larger picture, feeding in just a part of the responses back to the show – responses that will come from other critics, but audience members, too. “I think if you invite criticism, if you invite feedback, you have to be genuinely ready for it,” he said, “and this is perhaps also part of me really preparing myself for whatever that feedback is from an audience as well.”

So perhaps the two of us aren’t quite sure where this will take us. I’m very excited to find out.