Ode To Nonsense blog three: out of the rehearsal room

by Jane

After two weeks at the State Opera Studio, the Slingsby team made their way into town to bump into Her Majesty’s Theatre. On the Monday, I again spoke to director Andy Packer, before spending Thursday in the theatre watching tech.

“This is a very fast process,” he tells me. “Normally you would have four weeks before you go into the theatre, but then you probably only have a week in the theatre, so this is slightly back to front.”

While the company originally wanted three weeks in the rehearsal room, we spoke about how opera can be quicker to put together on the floor. “With non-musical theatre,” he says, “what you’re trying do in those four weeks is find the sense of the thing – which we’re trying to do as well – but you’re also trying to find the rhythm that makes the piece. And with music theatre, with opera, that’s already set for you. The rhythm and pace, the dynamic, is in the music, so it fast tracks that process for you.”

At this half-way point, Andy was feeling “really good” about the work. “I feel like the first week was really about ‘is the story there and is it clear.’ […] I feel very happy with the flow of the piece and that’s in terms of energy levels on stage, size, variation, I feel like I’m being lead through it by the story, which is great.”

The second week, then was about blocking the work: “which, as you could see, we didn’t quite get there.” Indeed, on the Thursday in the theatre, Andy and choreographer Larissa McGowan sat down to discuss the choreography of the final number The Owl and the Pussycat, Andy’s score covered with notes.

Speaking about my rehearsal room blog, Andy said he appreciated the perspective of allowing an outsider to “observe some element of the rigour that we go through and the process that we go through to find a moment that lasts two seconds on stage – it might actually be five hours work.”

Indeed, in the theatre this balance seems to take even longer. Now it isn’t just the performances that need to be balanced: lights, flight elements, projections all need to be carefully calibrated and slipped within the tight scoring of the work. Transitions between scenes are tried and tried again, it’s discussed if the order of elements moving can be changed, how clear the story will be, is this creating too much of a lull? Composer Quincy Grant is asked to write four extra bars of music to save a transition that won’t work over the current stretch of music. Even then, Andy adds, they’ll need to wait for a proper run to see how it all flows.

In the theatre and out of the rehearsal room, for the first time I’m realising how much the projection work is threaded through the show. At the same time, though, I love watching the elements of old stage magic: knowing there is a large crew backstage on the fly system, lights and crowds used to divert from the tricks the audience shouldn’t see.

One of the things we discuss about the work is the relationships between all of the creatives. Of working with designer Geoff Cobham, he says “it’s just really beautiful.”

“Geoff doesn’t need to come and ask me ‘is this okay’ and I don’t go ‘what are you doing?’ – we’re making the show together, and that’s just incredibly freeing to know that I have that 100% confidence in what he’s doing, even though I’m not aware of all of it all the time.”

Working with all of the designers, Andy says, is a simple process of introducing them to the work “and then they’re artists so I just let them do their stuff. I’m not controlling everything. My job isn’t to make all the decisions; my job is to make sure everything is heading in the same direction.”

“And the more they’re passionate about their work – our work collectively – the greater refinement happens,” he says. “So it really is a collective that is making this piece. So it’s a really beautiful surprise when Ailsa [Patterson, costume designer] comes back with these incredible drawings.”

There is an easy camaraderie in the theatre. Everyone has a job to do, but the protracted timing of tech means not everyone is working at once. Family members come and visit, sitting for a while to watch; jokes are thrown about; every great artistic influence from Brum to Total Eclipse of the Heart (Literal Video Version) is discussed; a vector computer game is developed and becomes an increasingly complex joke.

The desks for the creatives are set about three quarters of the way down the stalls back from the stage. Andy frequently moves around the space: checking sightlines, sound levels, and design elements from the front rows or the back of the balcony. Sometimes Andy asks questions of his cast from the auditorium, at other times he is up on stage, quietly working things out.

Just as an observer of the process, the day is long. The planned run never happens, too much is left to be tweaked and fixed. And yet there is something so compelling that when I say I’ll stay a couple of hours into the evening I stay the rest of the night.

Slingsby is a unique company in Adelaide in that they burst onto the scene and immediately started touring: their work known for its commitment to life after Adelaide.  So how much is Andy thinking about this future life while creating the first production? “Not at all,” he answers.

“You have to completely put aside any ambitions for the work beyond what you’re currently doing, because otherwise it’s really disrespectful to the audience. The only way and the only reason it would travel is if it connects to its audience.”

Through this whole process of conversations with me, Andy has been very upfront and unabashed in acknowledging he doesn’t know what will truly end up on the stage in front of an audience. This spirit clearly extends to talking about work to producers and presenters. “I’m very honest with people,” he says. “I say we’ve made this show, we’re really excited about it, I’d love for you to come and have a look, it might be a dog.”

As we are about to part on Monday, I ask if there is anything else we haven’t spoken about. “It’s still a great adventure,” he says.

“I still have no clear idea of what it’s going to look like in the end, even though I know what all the components are. I know we’re going to have more discoveries […] and the things that weren’t planned that are discoveries are the most exciting bits. And as we put all of the pieces together there are choices to be made about when certain images begin to form on stage, and when a sound comes and goes, that dramatically changes the meaning and the sense of things, and that’s really exciting”

“And maybe because I have a production background, as well, I just really love that side of things, and I love that palette and getting to play with those elements. So this week is going to be one big lolly shop for me.”