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

by Jane

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.

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