Shop talk ~ theatre notes

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Shop talk

Recently quite a few theatre bloggers have been tracking their creative processes: George Hunka, for instance, is logging some of his thinking material as he writes a new play in his Elf King notebooks on Superfluities Redux. I don't especially want to do this myself - if I wanted to talk about my writing process, I would start a different blog - but I thought some readers might be interested in hearing about the theatre workshops that have absorbed my energies for the past fortnight. Also, they've been fab.

These were two entirely separate commissions that the cosmos decided should be workshopped at the same time. Night Songs, with music by Andree Greenwell, is being developed by Bell Shakespeare's Mind's Eye, and Mayakovsky, scored by Michael Smetanin, is a Victorian Opera project. They couldn't be more different from one another: Night Songs is a music theatre work intended for young adults, and Mayakovsky a contemporary opera. Both are very much in process, and the workshops permitted us writers and composers to get under the hood of the work and give the mechanics a bit of hammering, with the talents and brains of performers and directors to hand. Both weeks ended with showings of the work to small invited audiences.

The Night Songs workshop was at the Bell Shakespeare studio in Sydney. I co-wrote this text in a tag-team process with Daniel Keene and so we tag-teamed the workshop too: I was there for the first half of the week, and Daniel for the second. This worked brilliantly in every respect, aside from the fact that I missed the showing and associated drinkies. Reports were that it went very well indeed. Andree had set about half the songs, and by the end the showing was a reading of the entire text, interspersed with songs where they were completed. We had a great team: Matthew Lutton directed the workshop, with actors Paula Arundell, Cameron Goodall and Thomas Conroy and musicians David Trumpmanis and Loretta Palmeiro, and Courtney Wilson was our hard-working stage manager.

Mayakovsky, which was at Victorian Opera in Melbourne, was much more about exploring the music: Michael Smetanin and I have worked closely on the libretto over many months, and it is pretty much finished. I rather expected to be a useless excresence at the workshops, but fortunately 'twas not so. It was also a chance for me and director Peter Evans to hear the music. I've heard bits over the phone from Sydney, with Michael singing the odd note, but let's face it: it's not the same. Under the exacting musical direction of Richard Gill, four singers (Frederica Cunningham, Olivia Cromwell, Timothy Reynolds and Matthew Thomas) worked painstakingly with pianist Daniel Carter on about half an hour of music, which was again given a showing on Friday. I know I shouldn't say so, but I think it was awesome: this is an opera with grunt. (I mean that literally. There are wild animals on the electronic soundtrack.)

I can't think of a better way of working on a performance text. This is not "development hell"; it's a directed, intensive exploration of a work-in-progress with carefully picked teams, free of the pressures of production. You can get a lot done in a week, if you're working with the right people. And I was. Exciting, inspiriting and enormously satisfying. Huge thanks to everybody involved.

Pictures: top: the Mayakovsky libretto; middle: Night Songs workshop in Sydney with (from left) Matthew Lutton, David Trumpmanis, Cameron Goodall, Paula Arundell, Thomas Conroy and Loretta Palmeiro. Bottom: Mayakovsky workshop at Victorian Opera, Melbourne, with singers (from left) Frederica Cunningham, Olivia Cromwell, Timothy Reynolds and Matthew Thomas.

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