No Plain Jane

Theatre reviews and musings (mostly) from Adelaide

Tag: Ode To Nonsense

Ode to Nonsense blog four: wrap-up discussion

The following is an edited transcript of a conversation between me and Andy Packer, the Artistic Director of Slingsby and director of Ode to Nonsense. I interviewed Andy several times before the production opened, including time spent in the rehearsal room and tech, before reviewing the work on opening night. You can read my previous pieces on the work here.

Jane: I really appreciated you having me in the rehearsal room. I think it was really valuable just in a general, much broader sense, because I haven’t spent a lot of time in rehearsal rooms. It’s a weird place where I sit, almost, in this industry, where I’m very connected to everyone and I invest a lot in having really strong connections with the community, but I only ever see this end point which is such the tip of the iceberg of the whole ecology.

Andy: You kind of see the church service without everything else that goes on through the week.

Yeah.

It is interesting. I’m glad you were able to come in. And I really appreciated all of our conversations and what you wrote. And I think it’s really important that people critiquing or writing about theatre understand the process that we go through. And things that may seem ill-considered are not necessarily un-considered. So it’s great. I think it should happen more.

Yeah, definitely. I think it should happen more but I am at this point in my career where I am trying to figure out to make it a career, and how to make it sustainable. And that means writing preview pieces more often than not, because that’s where the money is. Stuff like this I’d love to do, but where is the money to sit in the rehearsal room?

It’s the same with artists, as well. You’ve got to create demand. You’ve got to do it and do it and do it until there is interest, and then hopefully there is an audience which means there is some commercial viability to it, you know?

Yeah, absolutely. 

I don’t know if you’ve read any of this stuff: there is a British critic called Andrew Haydon and he coined the term ‘embedded criticism’, and so lots of people particularly in the UK have used that term. Then Jake Orr and Maddy Costa have created Dialogue, and that’s about having conversations with artists and understanding process, and also thinking about what artists want from reviews. Not that that’s the be-all-end-all of what a review can ever be, but it’s about engaging on this really deep level.

And so obviously I’ve been involved with a lot of those conversations online, and I’ve read a lot of their writing about it. So I went in the first rehearsal thinking ‘oh, I’m doing embedded criticism’ and I came out thinking I’m not. What am I doing? You can’t do criticism of that room. And so I started to think of myself as an embedded critic – because I am a critic, that’s how I describe myself – but it took me a while to figure out what my relationship was to the work in that room and how I could respond to it.

Also we didn’t set up any strict rules. I was pretty open to the fact that the reason we were bringing you in was not so we could ensure that you would write a better review, I was really clear on that. The outcome of your response to the work was completely your own, but hopefully what would happen is you would get a better understanding of us as a company and us as a team of artists and the way that we work.

I think probably for myself, I can’t speak for anyone else, what I would love to see more in reviews is long form. Like Theater Magazine in the US: it’s longer form exploration of the artists, the context, and then the work is part of that, as opposed to ‘it didn’t work’ or ‘it worked, it was brilliant.’ Even ‘it worked, it was brilliant’ is great for picking out quotable quotes to put on posters, but it’s not journalism. That’s when I think a bit of writing is really interesting, when it takes all of that into consideration.

And I don’t think you necessarily need to be in a rehearsal room to understand that, but I do think you need to have an ongoing conversation with an artist or with a company.

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Review: Ode To Nonsense

Slingsby's Ode To Nonsense, photo by Andy Rasheed

Nicholas Lester and cast. Photo by Andy Rasheed.

Previous to seeing and reviewing the show, I spent a significant amount of time with the company in rehearsal. You can read my documentation of that in parts one, two, and three. This experience undoubtedly coloured the way I saw the work, so take from this what you will.

Edward Lear (1812 – 1888) was one of the first writers to create work specifically for the entertainment of children. His nonsense drawings and writings have lived on, endearing themselves to many new generations of children, while his paintings and illustrations of wildlife and landscapes command ongoing respect from a whole different audience. Ode to Nonsense is an ode to the life of Lear, from Adelaide theatre company Slingby, in conjunction with the State Opera of South Australia.

A significant departure for the company, this work moves from the intimate work Slingsby are known for – both in terms of performers and audience – into a production with a cast of eighteen and an audience of 1000.

Walking into the old Her Majesty’s Theatre under a garland of green flags and fairy lights, director Andy Packer and designer Geoff Cobham have created a world that speaks from the same world of their previous works. With much of the usual suspects in the creative team, including Quincy Grant as the composer, visually and aurally the work seems to capture the spirit of Slingsby that has brought the company such acclaim. In Ode to Nonsense though, there is something that doesn’t quite gel, and we are left with a work that is curiously flat.

Lear (Nicholas Lester) has returned to his adopted home of San Remo with his perennial servant Giorgio (Adam Goldburn) to see his love Gussie (Johanna Allen) – not that he could ever admit to that. While Jane Goldney’s libretto has found moments of great heart in these scenes, and moments of joyous frivolity in the embracing of Lear’s nonsense, the gap between these moments is never truly bridged, and so audience members are never truly immersed in either world: Ode to Nonsense never reaches beyond the proscenium.

It’s a work that perhaps is captured in nearly-theres. In exploring the world of Lear and his friends, Goldney’s work alternately suffers from under-exposition, requiring a solid knowledge of Lear’s life and work, then over-exposition with too much stake in explanation placed in a single song. Taken in isolation, Goldney’s scenes under Packer’s careful touch of direction paint insightful snapshots of old friendships, of never embraced romance, of the triumph of embracing worlds and words that cannot be truly grasped or explained. Built up into a narrative, though, neither Goldney nor Packer have solved how to stop the strands unraveling.

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Ode To Nonsense blog three: out of the rehearsal room

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.”

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Ode To Nonsense blog two: in the rehearsal room

On a Wednesday morning, the third day of Ode To Nonsense rehearsals, I enter the rehearsal room for the first time. I received a message from director Andy Packer the night before, telling me he was looking forward to having me in the room, but just so I was aware, the repetiteur – the rehearsal pianist – won’t be there that day due to unexpected family circumstances.

A rehearsal room for an opera without a pianist. It’s perhaps not the most auspicious start for me in observing the process.

But on the rehearsals must go, and so I sit at a table at the back of the room – covered with books about Lear, collections of his nonsense and his paintings – with notebook and pen, ready to watch and learn. Without the use of the piano, the company focuses on the small sections of unsung text from Jane Goldney’s libretto. Perhaps never more than a dozen or so lines, the space without the piano is giving Andy and the cast the space to focus in on these sections: on intent, tone, and character.

Working with the three principles – Nicholas Lester as Lear, Johanna Allen as Gussie, and Adam Goodburn as Giorgio – Andy constantly asks questions: “I wonder if …”, “There could be … ” “Perhaps …” The process feels like a constant conversation between him and the performers, his suggestions through words, their suggestions back through performance. As he explains things, he tells the cast he is using this time to develop a shorthand language with them, so when they’re in the theatre it will only take a few words to remind them the ideas they found in the rehearsal room.

I get a kick out of watching Stage Manager Stephanie Fisher and ASM Marie Docking take reference photographs of the prop arrangements with their iPhones – the future is now – but then problem solve in delightfully low tech ways. A letterbox is mocked up from an old box and some paperclips. When the letters won’t stay put, a bit of gaffa tape over the front solves that.

I feel somewhat awkward sitting in the back of the room, not quite sure of my place or what I’m doing or if anything I scribble down in my notebook makes sense. But everyone in the room is endlessly welcoming. During lunch, the cast sit and talk about operas – particularly contemporary performers, composers, and directors – and when I’m back at my table I write down a list to go home and listen to. Listening to passionate people talk makes me want to find out more, in a way I hadn’t been interested in before. I end up downloading Damon Albarn’s Dr Dee at the suggestion of Andy, and then find myself singing the songs. Completely unexpected.

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

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.”

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