GETTING TO KNOW: SHELLY HIGGS

Shelly is a professional theatre director, producer, dramaturg, sometimes co-playwright, multi award-winning photographer and a mum of four spirited kids.

Shelly trained as an actor (BA Acting CSU 2002), (RADA 2004) and co-founded regional theatre company Gearstick Theatre with Craig Alexander in 2002.

With Gearstick, Shelly spent a decade producing dozens of shows, touring them regionally and to major metropolitan centres within Australia, playing Fringe Festival circuits and creating theatre in education performances for schools within the Riverina.

Shelly’s directing has primarily focused on plays produced and toured within a regional context and productions within the Independent Theatre Sector. Credits include: Closer by Patrick Marber, Baby Talk by Doug Wright The injuriousness of Tobacco and The Bear by Anton Chekov (Jetty Theatre, NSW), Irreconcilable Differences (Shakespeare adaptation toured as TIE piece throughout NSW and VIC), Cinderella (adaptation for Jetty Theatre), Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol (The Street Theatre, Depot Theatre) and And Then There Were 3 (The Street Theatre), and 7 Great Inventions of the Modern Industrial Age (The Street Theatre).

Shelly is currently project co-ordinator for The Street’s First Seen new works-in-progress season and has worked on a number of creative developments for The Street as director or dramaturg including The Refuge by Geraldine Turner, Marion and Walter by Peter Coleman, Life’s a Bitch by David Cole, and Diode Yang by Graham McBean.

Above all, Shelly is a storyteller; and in line with her work as a professional photographer, her theatre work is grounded with a strong visual aesthetic and a search for authenticity.

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THE STREET TALKED WITH SHELLY HIGGS AS SHE GOES INTO REHEARSALS FOR EPITAPH, A NEW WORK COMMISSIONED BY THE STREET THEATRE FOR PRESENTATION AT THE AUSTRALIAN WAR MEMORIAL.

WHAT INTERESTED YOU IN DIRECTING EPITAPH – A WORK TELLING THE STORY OF AUSTRALIAN FAMILIES WHO FOUND THEMSELVES FACED WITH THE EMOTIONAL AND INTELLECTUAL CHALLENGE OF FRAMING AN EPITAPH FOR A LOVED ONE AFTER WORLD WAR ONE?

I think Epitaph is an important story to tell. It is easy to disconnect ourselves from the horrors of war and to not think on what it would have been like, or sometimes still is like, for families in the aftermath of a loved one’s death. I think it is important to think on these moments, even if only briefly, as it is through empathy that we perhaps create a world less consumed by senseless violence and loss. Acknowledgement is important. How do you even begin to create a epitaph which somehow honours and gives meaning to the death of your son/brother/husband? To sum up a life? It’s a confronting question – this play has a rich emotional landscape and creates a beautifully crafted answer.

ARE THERE ANY SPECIFIC CONSIDERATIONS IN MAKING A WORK FOR PRESENTATION IN A MUSEUM/CULTURAL INSTITUTION?

I think it is always important to consider the context in which a play will be performed. We are very lucky to have the great resource that is the Australian War Memorial as part of this work, but with that comes a sense of responsibility. We have to be careful to be specific, and true to history because this show is a Museum piece. It needs to be accurate to the people and time, whilst still being a creative theatrical performance which will entertain and involve the audience. Epitaph has been expertly formed by Ross, to work within the museum context.

WHAT ARE THE CHALLENGES IN DIRECTING A WORK FOR PRESENTATION AT THE AUSTRALIAN WAR MEMORIAL?

Perhaps, the biggest challenge is creating a piece with all the theatricality that I would usually employ, within the constraints of the space, not having an operator and the fact that our audience is a moving wave of people of many different ages with many different backgrounds. However, any challenge we face is just a matter of a bit of creativity on how best to approach it; and, it is this problem solving that makes theatre so much fun!

WHAT WAS THE WORKSHOP PROCESS YOURSELF AND WRITER ROSS MUELLER UNDERTOOK FOR EPITAPH?

We have been fortunate to have had two dedicated workshops for this piece. The first was focused on the story and crafting the script. We worked with actor Kristian Jenkins to delve into the characters in the play and to find the core of their journey’s. What was important? What was the crux of their need? From here, Ross chiselled the script down into its 10 minute form – which is actually quite a challenge, especially when you have so much material.

The second workshop focused around design and production. We worked with designer Tiffany Abbott and undertook a process of working through ideas and seeing which ones resonated with us all and worked within the context of the piece. It was important to visit the War Memorial to visualise the space and see how to best bring it to life.

TALK US THROUGH YOUR VISION FOR BRINGING ROSS MUELLER’S SCRIPT TO LIFE?

Epitaph is a very character driven piece. It has humanity at its core and finding the voices of the characters, and the depth of each character is really important; so that will always be a starting point for me on a work. With Epitaph, I have been inspired throughout the workshop process to quite a strong visual concept with the use of light and dark to create an added depth to the piece. Another world almost exists within shadows and I want to explore the visual language of that as we progress in rehearsals.

HOW HAVE YOURSELF AND DESIGNER TIFFANY ABBOTT DEVELOPED THE VISUAL LANGUAGE?

The script is very rich with images, so it was a great starting point for us to begin discussions. There is a lovely current of domesticity throughout the piece, and a lot of images came from this and helped us decide on what we wanted to represent symbolically throughout the play. The visual language is an ever evolving discussion; I do think very visually so I like to work in creating strong images and then fill in the detail as things progress. Tiffany is very open to discussing ideas and we bounce off each other really well.

WHAT DOES ACTOR KRISTIAN JENKINS BRING TO THE ROLE?

Kristian is a very generous actor and has been a really valuable part of the workshop process of Epitaph to date. He brings a great sense of character to the piece and delves into the psychology of the parts with ease. I am looking forward to tapping into the emotion inherent throughout the work and Kristian being the conduit between the text and the audience.

TELL US ABOUT YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH THE STREET?

I have had a great connection with the Street over the past seven years. Through this time I have been given the opportunity to work on a lot of new work, as both a director and dramaturg; write plays with penetrating dramaturgical advice from Peter Matheson through the Hive program, produce and direct And Then There Were 3, direct a couple of one man shows, and last year direct 7 Great Inventions of the Modern Industrial Age. I also document a lot of productions photographically, which is a great way to keep up to date with what is happening. Being Project Co-ordinator for First Seen this year, has given me a closer relationship to actors and directors within ACT and a better understanding of the sector as a whole.

WHAT ARE YOUR GUIDING PRINCIPLES FOR DIRECTION OF A NEW WORK?

For any work, I am led by a search for authenticity. I want to feel the truth of a piece. I want to believe every word the actor is saying. I want to feel things viscerally. With new work I think it is important to trust the other people working on the project. You need to honour the script. You need to work within the framework you are given. It’s all about realising a shared creative vision and working together to achieve this.

WHAT KIND OF THEATRE DO YOU WANT TO MAKE?

The search for meaning is a big personal motivator of mine. I am driven to make a difference, for what I do to have meaning; whether it is creating art, theatre or providing opportunities for my kids to experience joy in life. Theatre for me is about making people feel. Whether that is making them laugh, cry, feel scared, annoyed, challenged, I don’t really mind, just as long as it isn’t apathetic.  I want to make theatre that is honest, that ‘holds a mirror up to nature’, that asks questions and provokes thought. But mostly I want to make theatre that entertains. That’s its main job. The rest is up to the audience.

WHAT ARE YOU READING/WATCHING CURRENTLY?

I’m very eclectic in my reading. I’m currently reading Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl, which is about a psychologist interred in Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II, and is all about survival correlating to the level of purpose in one’s life. I’m also reading A novel so light, fluffy and romantic I have no desire to share its title, and Pillowman by Martin McDonagh. I also read the same fairytales on repeat every week, many stories about pigs and elephants and plenty of Revolting Rhymes, but that’s just how four year olds roll.

My TV watching currently sees me shifting between documentaries on the criminal mind (The Staircase was great!), badly dubbed Cable Girls and Osarks.

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