Anne-Louise has more than 25 years of experience in the performing arts, working as a director, producer, performer, dramaturg and arts manager. As an independent artist, she creates original new work under the banner of The Society of Histrionic Happenings, recently curating and producing The Gift: Remembering Bob Sredersas an immersive installation for Wollongong Art Gallery’s 40th anniversary year (2018), and currently developing new music-theatre work The Siren Project for production in 2021.During her time as Artistic Associate at Merrigong Theatre Company (2003-2014) in Wollongong, Anne-Louise played a key role in developing the company’s producing capacity, community relationships, and reputation as one of Australia’s busiest, most dynamic regional venues and theatre companies. She directed seven Merrigong productions, six of which were new theatre works commissioned and developed by the company, including Charcoal Creek by Marcel Dorney (2012), and Dead Man Brake, a verbatim text by Australian playwright Alana Valentine with music by Daryl Wallis (2013). She is the director of Merrigong’s The Strangeways Ensemble and has co-devised and directed their three productions to date: The Man Who Dreamt the Stars (2014), the love cabaret The Outside Man (2017), and most recently Trash Talk (2020).
THE STREET TALKED WITH ANNE-LOUISE ABOUT HER WORK AS DRAMATURG ON THE DEVELOPMENT OF NIGEL FEATHERSTONE’S THE STORY OF THE OARS BEFORE ITS FIRST SEEN SHOWING THIS MONTH.
THE STORY OF THE OARS IS A NEW AUSTRALIAN WORK BY WRITER NIGEL FEATHERSTONE. WHY IS IT IMPORTANT TO YOU TO BE WORKING ON BRINGING NEW STORIES TO THE STAGE?
I am a passionate advocate for telling Australian stories and supporting new Australian work to be developed and produced. The Street’s First Seen program is integral to Canberra’s cultural landscape – I think that the process of making theatre in the place you live, about the place you live for the people who live there, is a positive act of reinvestment in the place and its people. Most of my work over the past 15 years has been in this very particular space and I have experienced firsthand the powerful and positive impact of telling stories that directly relate and speak to an audience. I also think it’s incredibly important to be nurturing new voices. Nigel is a highly accomplished writer who is now turning his talents to playwriting and it’s very exciting to witness his embrace of this new form of storytelling.
WHAT INTERESTED YOU ABOUT THE STORY OF THE OARS AS A WORK-IN-PROGRESS?
The work-in-progress stage of a new work is always an exciting time in a work’s evolution – not dissimilar to the rehearsal process, as both are about getting to the guts of story and character. It’s a time of questioning and experimenting which I find deeply satisfying and lots of fun. I also get to work with interesting people and while my job is to share my experience, I am always learning from the other creatives and developing my own skill set. The subject matter of The Story of the Oars also drew me in – I lived in Canberra for 10 years from the mid 80s to mid 90s and that drive around Lake George was always an evocative landmark on our way home from family holidays. But mostly, I was very taken with Nigel’s imaginative spin on the lake’s inherent mysteriousness and the work’s poetic and musical potential.
THIS YEAR’S FIRST SEEN SEASON AT THE STREET IS BEING DEVELOPED AND SHOWN VIA ZOOM, WHAT ARE THE CHALLENGES IN YOUR WORK AS DRAMATURG IN THIS WAY?
My preference is always to work in person with a playwright, but it is possible to conduct script dramaturgy with a writer over the phone or email. So, Zoom hasn’t particularly hindered working one-on-one with Nigel. However, without the physical “IRL” space to explore the dynamics of character and relationships, I was unsure how the virtual space of Zoom was going to work once we brought the actors on board. But challenges also inspire creativity and our director Zsuzsi has been incredible, running movement exercises with the actors to help unlock character, motive and story and the actors themselves have more than risen to the challenge, managing to find ways to embody their characters through the medium of a flat screen. Surprisingly, the Zoom lens has provided a focus to the work’s development – the opportunity for detailed character work and a radio play clarity to the reading of text.
HOW DO YOU WORK WITH THE WRITER AND DIRECTOR DURING THE CREATIVE DEVELOPMENTS WITH ACTORS?
As a dramaturg, my job is to understand what the playwright is trying to achieve with the story, the narrative arc and the characters, and to support the development of that. When the actors are working with the script, I am listening to them and then asking questions, mainly of Nigel, but sometimes of the actors as well. It’s been great having a director as part of this process as it has allowed us to just listen and observe. Zsuzsi has turned questions that have come up from myself or Nigel, into actions for exploration with the actors, as well as offering her own exercises which have provided further illumination and unexpected discoveries. The Zoom chat function enabled myself, Nigel and Zsuzsi to maintain a live conversation during workshops and readings. These chats have been saved as records of the sessions for Nigel’s future reference.
WHAT DO YOU HOPE TO GLEAN FROM THE FIRST SEEN SHOWING?
Public showings always walk that tight line of both having to present a work in progress (not a finished product) and wanting to put our best foot forward to ensure that we are offering the audience a good experience and we are getting the most from their feedback. But there are two clear desirable outcomes for me from this showing at this stage of the work’s development. Firstly, that the audience understands the play’s narrative arc – that there is a clear beginning, middle and end – and that each of the four characters are clearly wrought. Secondly, I would hope that the audience comes away with a strong appreciation of the work’s poetic form and intention even though the integral musical element is still to be developed.
HOW DO YOU WORK AS A DRAMATURG VERSUS AS A DIRECTOR?
Both roles are about serving the text and the writer’s intention. As a dramaturg, I’m working in the writer’s imaginative space, supporting the realisation of a single vision through listening, questioning, offering other ways of looking at scenes, and taking lots of notes. As a director, the role is more dimensional. I’m still working in the writer’s imaginative space but I’m bringing that space to life through my vision of how it will be realised on stage. I’m also collaborating with other creatives – actors, designers and producers – who all bring their own perspectives and skills to the process of realisation. In this sense, directing itself is a dramaturgical process for me – working with actors and creatives to ensure that all the theatrical elements support the vision of the production.
WHAT KIND OF THEATRE DO YOU WANT TO MAKE?
For me, theatre is an opportunity to bear witness to the enormity of human experience. I aim to make theatre that opens an audience up to new experiences or points of view. I always aim for my work to be intelligent, poetic and visceral – I want my audiences to be held by the work, entertained, and transformed, to come out of the theatre lifted and with new ways of seeing. I often work with live music and song, which is strange because I don’t play an instrument or understand how music works, but I’ve always loved how it makes me feel. There is that sensation you get at a live concert when you’re in the audience sharing this incredible experience with a sea of other people and your mind is totally blown – theatre has to be that for me – it has to get to the core of something essential.
WHAT IS YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH THE STREET?
I was finishing my degree at ANU when The Street was first built and was an actor in a series of rehearsed Patrick White play readings here in the first year or so of the theatre opening. The Canberra theatre scene in the early 90s was so much fun – I had the best time – and the establishment of The Street was a game changer, bringing a new maturity to the scene as a dedicated space for local professional practice. More than 25 years later, it’s wonderful to be back as a practitioner and to be a part of the development of a new work by a local writer. In early March, before the shutdown, Nigel and I worked in the beautiful rehearsal space which looks out onto University Avenue and the pedestrian path I walked to university nearly every day for six years – I have many happy memories of that time.
WHAT’S INSPIRING YOU CREATIVELY AT THE MOMENT?
Time and space – even though COVID19 has inspired a lot of anxiety, it has also offered me the opportunity to slow down, and I am grateful for this.
This project – working on creative projects, mine or other people’s, is always inspiring and is my favourite thing to do.
Work – in a time which is proving difficult for a lot of people, I am appreciative of having work. It also gives me hope and hope is a powerful creative force.
WHAT ARE YOU READING/WATCHING CURRENTLY?
I am watching a lot of comedy, particularly strong ensemble casts from TV series such as Community which I have just mainlined on Netflix, and reruns of Seinfeld on free-to-air. Although I think this is a sane reaction to an insane time, I wish I could write something that sounds more edifying and impressive!