No Plain Jane

Theatre reviews and musings (mostly) from Adelaide

Tag: Theatre for Young Audiences

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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Review: Me and My Shadow

The Space Theatre is filled with the din of excited children. The Saturday morning outside is showing Adelaide’s first strains of winter: dreary, making the world in great need of a blanket and a cup of tea. But inside, children yell, bang their seats, pose for a photograph on their mother’s iphone, try and dissect what they can see on the stage: look, I can see a shadow! They hold none of the trepidation of the blustery Saturday morning.

In front of me, a mother shows her children how you would make your hands into a shadow for a dog: the thumb an upright ear, the index finger hooked to make an eye, the middle and ring fingers the snout, the little finger moving up and down for the mouth: yap yap yap.

The house-lights dim and turn off. There are a few startled cries from the very young; a few excited yelps from the older kids who know what’s happening: it’s about to begin.

The Girl (Emma Beech) sits in a pool of light, concentrating absolutely on her scissors and butcher’s paper. Snip here, cut there, off goes the off-cuts into a paper bag. Open up the sheet and reveal the line of paper girls.

It’s bedtime, but she and her paper dolls are not quite ready for bed. How could you ever be ready for bed when there is a world of things to discover, create, and play with? Out comes the torch, shining a spot light around the space; then it is a car, and then a rocket ship.

The pool of light moves so it’s shining on the Girl, and she starts to make shadows with her hands. She makes a dog, and the children in front of me turn to their mother excitedly – they just learnt how to do that!

The Girl’s body is then encased in light, behind her a shadow: a new play thing. With paper bags and a shadow for a friend, what more could a girl need?

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You can never guess who gets in

It is very difficult to talk about children as a certain group of people.  They are very very different.  Even children six years old is not a group, they are very very different.  And that’s the same when you talk about adults, you would never say that ‘this is the same group of adults that understands an experience in the same way’.  And I think that when you talk about children it is like they are one group of certain people, and I think they are not.

So I think the way of talking to and with your audience is to start by realising you never know who they are, you can never guess who gets in, so you have to find a way of talking to the people who enter.  So for me it’s very important that when I tell stories and I do performances that you have the space where you can really watch and see and understand ‘where are we now, who is there, who am I, who are you?’ And I hate when I leave the theatre, and the audience leave, and I understand I don’t know what happened.  We never meet.

They watch me and I watch them: it’s very important.

– Bodil Alling, ‘the queen of Dutch children’s theatre’
speaking to ArtWorks

Australian Theatre Forum: Funding children’s theatre as opera

Open spaces thoughts: one.

In Open Spaces today I attended in earnest the sessions on funding theatre for young audiences with the money that is received from opera and the discussion on critics, I butterflied around one session moving from a group on musical theatre to a group on new work, and then ended up listening to people talking about New Australian Theatre – but by that time I was needing something to eat and was rather disengaged.

The talk on theatre for young audiences was just all rather lovely, as expected.  With the idea put forward: what if we could subsidise seats in those theatre to the level where they have the same per-seat income as a seat at an opera performance, what could that mean for the sector?

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Review: The Book of Everything

With special guest reviewer Aria Noori, aged 11.

"You're a very special boy, you know." (Whittet and original cast member Yael Stone as Eliza.)

The Book of Everything review by Jane Howard, aged 22

It is the summer of 1951, and we are in Amsterdam, Holland, Europe, Northern Hemisphere, Earth, Solar System, Galaxy, Universe, Space.  We have a birds-eye view of Thomas Klopper (Matthew Whittet) aged nearly ten, and his book of everything.  Pappa (Pip Miller) says all good books are about God, but Thomas isn’t quite sure what his book will be about yet.

Thomas sees things that other people don’t see.  In his imagination, he sees terrible hailstorms in the Amsterdam summer; he sees tropical fish, his favourite guppies, in the rivers and canals.  In his house, he also sees things that aren’t seen outside those walls: he sees his father hit his mother (Claire Jones).

Based on the book by Guus Kuijer, The Book of Everything is delightfully funny, heart-warmingly touching, and heart-achingly sad.  It is brave theatre; theatre for children, about children; theatre which at times is hard to watch.  More sad than it is scary, Richard Tulloch’s adaptation tackles some big issues: domestic abuse, questioning and redefining faith, protofeminism, unlikely friendships, lasting effects of World War Two, love.  It is certainly a piece for older children, and one that saw many shielded eyes, but through the sadness seeps through an undeniable bravery, the strength that children can find in themselves, the happiness that is waiting for them. Read the rest of this entry »

“I think it’s a real tragedy.”

Declan Greene, playwright of Moth, talking to Artworks in their very interesting piece on young people and theatre.  Well worth a listen:

“I think that if you’re going to recognise theatre as just as a form of live art, just the experience of getting together in a place and participating in that performer/audience dynamic, I think that’s something that’s still very relevant to young people, because young people will go and see live music and they’ll go and see stand up comedy.  I just think it’s a general failing on the people who program work in mainstage theatre companies that they’ve fallen so far behind and they’ve lost younger audiences.  I think it’s a real tragedy.”

Review: Aleksander and the Robot Maid

This review originally appeared on

Aleksander and the Robot Maid, Drop Bear Theatre’s new steam-punk adventure for children explores a technologically advanced age. But, instead of the future, we’re taken back to industrial-revolutionist Russia in an alternative history: one with robots.

Young Aleksander (Tim Kurylowicz) is moving from the country to the big city Robotica with his guardian Miss Katarina (Sarah Lockwood). Here, they never need work again: the robots will do everything they require. While Miss Katarina cannot wait for her life of relaxation and luxury, Alek isn’t so sure: what will he do all day, when he has nothing to do at all? Aunt Lychova (Margot Politis) warns Alek of the dangers of getting to close to the robots, under the care of the menacing Mr Whipp (Andrew Brackmann) and tells him to take his peppermints for his health. Left without a father after a robot-mishap, Alek is at first scared of the robots, but then befriends one he calls Daisy (Carolyn Ramsey, remarkably expressive as she jerks around the stage, head concealed in a cardboard box.). Aunt Lychova is less than supportive of this friendship, as she strives to make Robotica the utopia she dreams it to me.

For ages eight and up, Caleb Lewis’s script directed by Ali Gordon, is frequently quite menacing, but always maintains a steady heart through the burgeoning friendship of Alek and Daisy. Lewis deals with many familiar stands of work for children, exploring the ideas of who and what exactly is human; what makes us us, and what defines the other?

Marin Curach and Tomy K C Leung’s set is simple, initially, as just a single box is moved around the space to create the different locations, and the strength of the design in the illustrations melding the industrialist Russia with robots shown on overhead projector by Matt Huynh.

In the second half, though, as curtains are pulled away and the set can literally come to life, the excitement of the script is finally realised in an excitement of design. As it stands, the production would benefit from some significant tightening and a slightly faster pace. The piece is at is strongest as Alek moves towards finding out more about the hidden side of Robotica, the secrets kept by Aunt Lychova, and the threat of robot-handler Mr Whipp.

Occasionally, the play moves off this primary line, spending too much time away from the mystery and the friendship of Alek and Daisy. Additionally, some ideas aren’t fully explained in the current script: it is clear that the peppermints Aunt Lychova forces on Alek have some quality which perhaps discourages a connection with the robots, but their purported purpose or action isn’t explained.

These are minor quibbles though, in a play filled with heart and joy of young friendship and seeing through the lies of authority and differences in status. Lewis surrounds this story with darkness and fear, and while he and Gordon do take the piece in to some very scary places, it’s an exciting and invigorating type of fright, where Alek’s bravery sees them through the day.

Drop Bear Theatre and the Seymour Centre’s The Reginald present Aleksander and the Robot Maid by Caleb Lewis.  Directed by Ali Gordon, composition by  Scott Gillespie, design by Marin Curach and Tomy K C Leung, lighting design by Sophie Kurylowicz, Illustration by  Matt Huynh, stage manager Lydia Nicholson.   With Andrew Brackman, James Deeth, Tim Kurylowicz, Sarah Lockwood, Margot Politis and Carolyn Ramsey.  In the Reginald Theatre.  Season Closed.

A Catch Up and Newsey Pieces

  • Having been almost completely obliterated by the Festival season, I was one of those lucky people who found work getting more intense post-Fringe than during it, hence the overall lack of posts bar some catching up re-posts from other sources.  Outside of work work, I spent five days working for the Come Out Festival as a delegate host, which was one of the most inspiring and satisfying art experiences I have had perhaps ever.  To spend five days surrounded by artists and programmers and administrators, seeing theatre for children with children, is incredibly gratifying.  I saw some truly incredible work (and, yes, a few terrible pieces), including two works which completely changed my outlook on everything: Hans Christian, You Must Be An Angel a theatre installation unlike anything I’ve ever experienced, by Teatret Gruppe 38 from Denmark which was filled with more magic and joy than can possibly be explained:And Thick Skinned Things by Dutch group Stella Den Haag, a curious monologue about a woman who “belongs to the legion of the uncomfortable.”  Nora lives alone, struggling with everything, even her garbage bags, until she finds comfort in the way the man next door lays down his garbage bags:

    Can you find comfort
    in the way a person puts his garbage outside
    I would wonder desperately
    Can this be?

    Until one day, he is gone, and all that Nora can do is run into the forest, and dig herself a labyrinth: “I am a mole. I speak softly.”  It was in this play by Hans van den Boom, about sadness and loneliness and isolation, under a masterful performance by Erna van den Berg that I actually found an incredible peace and calmness and started to repair myself from the extreme tiredness of the season.

  • ActNow Theatre has a new Artistic Director in the form of director/writer/actor/administrator/friend Sarah Dunn, and with the help of publicist Sophie Bruhn, they are starting to conquer social media.  I did my Arts Admin Traineeship with Sarah, and I am greatly looking forward to raking her over the critical hot coals seeing what she comes up with. They will be revealing their new logo and officially welcoming Sarah to the fold May 13.
  • Edwin Kemp Atrill, the former AD for ActNow, will be stepping over to the University of Adelaide Theatre Guild taking their inaugural Artistic Director Grant, which is a brilliant initiative for emerging directors in this city.  2011 has already been programmed for the company, so we will possibly have to wait until next year to see what stamp Edwin puts on the company.
  • In May, Adelaide’s independent theatre companies are starting to emerge from the post fringe drought.  This week, opens The Eisteddfod by Lally Katz.  Katz is one of the most produced playwrights on Australia’s main-stages this year, with world premieres playing at Malthouse, Melbourne Theatre Company, and Belvoir Street, and if you are interested in Australian playwrights and/or female playwrights you should be making an effort to see this show. Coming up later in the month, Accidental Productions will be presenting a new work by Adelaide playwright Alex Vicory-Howe, Molly’s Shoes from the 20th, and also from May 20 Tutti are presenting One directed by Daisy Brown, who you may remember from my rave of Ruby Bruise.
  • And for something a little different from what I usually write about: to catch some Adelaide theatre actors on the big screen, and see why my job became more crazed post-Fringe, the Mercury Cinema will be screening the best South Australian films of the last year on May 6 – 8, with the South Australian Screen Awards announced May 13.

Review: Bubblewrap & Boxes

This review originally appeared on

Luke O’Connor takes special care of his boxes. One day,Christy Flaws arrives in a box of her own. What follows inBubblewrap & Boxes is a series of farcical chases with interpretations of the letters and postcards found in a mailbag.

A generally agreeable show, it fails to rise above mild amusement. The show is at its best – and its young audience the most content – when the show goes back to its title: boxes. The simple pleasure of playing with the boxes: hiding, darting in and out, protection of the small boxes, and not wanting to leave the large boxes. The clowning (and, in particular, the pratfalls) that came with this was the biggest hit with the audience.

The attempt to impose multiple narrative structures, as the two characters take their clues from postcards and letters, is not completely successful. As with the boxes leading the way to simple adventures, the more simple the narrative the more successful the conceit becomes – reading a postcard with a picture of a shark on it gives the actors more to do, and the audience to respond to, rather than an image of the Eifel tower.

Acrobatics are relatively simple, and fluently executed. When they get a chance to play in their roles across the stage, rather than moments of stagnancy, you see O’Connor and Flawshave generous clowning personalities: O’Connor at his best when running in a panic, Flaws at her best when her character shows off.

This show is fine, the performers have talent, and the young audience in the hot Bosco Theatre tent was amused without becoming restless. Yet, it never took any elements and raised the production into something special, beyond much more than an adequate piece of family theatre.

Asking for Trouble presents Bubblewrap & Boxes. Performers Christy Glaws and Luke O’Connor, sound designer Ania Reynolds.