Storm Boy: The Avengers Film of Australian Visual Theatre, says Queensland Theatre's Artistic Director Sam Strong
This afternoon, Broadwayworld Brisbane chief editor and reviewer, Virag Dombay, sat down with Sam Strong to talk about Storm Boy and Queensland Theatre's upcoming projects.
Virag: There's a number works in Australian literary 'canon', so to speak, and there are so many Australian works that you're taught in schools and have on your bookshelves at home. There are so many stories that you could have chosen to tell, so why choose Storm Boy?
Sam: I think the answer to why Storm Boy now and why I'm interested in doing Storm Boy lies in which it is so cherished by so many people in whatever medium they've encountered it in. It's one of those unique works in which the appeal of the work crosses over mediums; from the book to the various film incarnations to the stage versions and I think a part of that appeal speaks across generations. There are relatively few works that can speak simultaneously and with equal effectiveness to both a young audience and an old audience. They're works that don't talk down to a younger audience but still delight an adult audience. Storm Boy brings out the inner child in adults and speaks to the adults within children and I've always been really attracted to the cross-generation appeal in that work. I think that also relates to the story dealing with adult content at its heart; that is about love, loss and letting go. In the original Storm Boy, especially in Tom Holloway's adaptation, the story is dealing with grief, which is incredibly sad but ultimately very hopeful. This also attracted me to Storm Boy as a director as it enables you to do both delight and move an audience and in quite quick succession.
Virag: Boy Swallows Universe is also a cross-generational work with childlike qualities at its heart as was Jasper Jones in Queensland Theatre's 2018 Season. As an artistic director, are you interested in programming and exploring more debut Australian works with children and the essence of what it means to view the world from the lens of a child at its core?
Sam: Yes, absolutely. I think programming cross-generational works is important but I think it's a very delicate thing and interestingly every cross-generational work that I've done hasn't been explicitly that. Jasper Jones and Storm Boy are adult shows that you can take young people to and yes, they are family shows but not that kind of family theatre that is, and I hesitate to use the term, dumbed down. They're just more mature works that just happen to speak to children and a younger audience.
Virag: Storm Boy is a collaborative work between you and Dead Puppet Society. How did the creative partnership come to be? Was it something that you had both been wanting to do for a while and Storm Boy was the perfect story to tell?
Sam: One of the reasons to do Storm Boy was it was the perfect excuse to get to collaborate and work with David Morton, Nicholas Paine and Dead Puppet Society. David and Nicholas have had a close association with Queensland Theatre while I've been artistic director and I'd seen and admired their work up close with The Wider Earth. The idea of doing Storm Boy came up but it very quickly posed the question of 'how do you do the animals' and the quick answer was to get the people who are the best at it. And that was a part of the brief to David to, to not just bring Mr Percival to life but to animate all of the animals of the Coorong. As a director, I was excited in creating a more human relationship between Storm Boy and Mr Percival and I think that, the beauty of puppetry is that it enables you to create an even more intimate relationship between Storm Boy and Mr Percival. And, I don't think that that would be achieved if you used a real animal.
Virag: In terms of the staging of the show, I imagine that the dimensions of the theatre it was originally staged in Melbourne is quite different than those of the QPAC stage. Has there been many changes so far in terms of staging and set pieces in transitioning the show from one venue to another?
Sam: We are literally in the process of doing it right now but I always find that the second life of a show, whether it immediately follows the first life or is separated by a couple of years, is a really delicious opportunity as a director. You get to start from the place of knowing a show but then you also get to address anything that you might want to change from the first time around and you get to continuously improve it. I'm also the type of director who doesn't just go 'I made it and there it is' and one of the reasons I like working in theatre is that you get to continually evolve what you're working on and so the show is never finished. And so, we are, of course, taking that opportunity to continue to evolve it here. When the show's been designed, it's been designed for both theatres; it was a 600 seat theatre in Melbourne and 800 seat theatre in here so they're similar to scale. However, it's interesting as the show sits even better in QPAC than it did in The Sumner in Melbourne because of the nature of the rake of the stalls here.
Virag: That's really interesting as it's normally that opposite way around. Normally adapting a show to the QPAC stage is much more work.
Sam: There were a lot of wins and what I love about that is that it's the out-of-town try out in Melbourne which is great and then it comes up here and you get a show which is running but you also get a team that gets to evolve it, which we are doing with a key moment in the show. You get the best of both worlds and that's what keeps it interesting for me too; getting the chance to make stuff even better.
Virag: In terms of the amount of puppets and puppeteers you have on stage, was it difficult to not only find the right amount of puppeteers but of puppeteers that were versatile to essentially take on an acting role in the show?
Sam: I think ultimately it wasn't too difficult of a process which is because we got the right people pretty early and what's amazing about Drew, Emily and Ellen is that they're triple threat performers. They're all great actors in their own right but they're also incredibly specific movers and amazing technical operators, which is quite a feat. They make things that are quite physically challenging to do with the puppets look effortless and easy, which is the art form. They're a vital part of the show and that was part of the ethos of the production. When we started rehearsals, we said that we don't want two streams of the cast and the puppeteers but that we want an ensemble which is seamlessly integrated. And that's the way all the designers on the production work as well. And what's been so lovely about the design is, and term I like to use to refer to our team is the super band or the avengers film of Australian visual theatre making when you have the set, costume, lighting and sound behind Jasper Jones combined with AV and the puppetry of The Wider Earth. You have this extraordinary coming together of the people that are at the top of their game in the country on top of their disciplines so it looks and feels as what you'd expect it to. And, it's quite an intimate team; we have six actors (including the puppeteers) and it's a play that's very much based on the relationships between people and when you're working with a team that is as lovely as they are talented, it makes my job a whole lot easier.
Virag: Boy Swallows Universe has been picked up by the media a lot lately, with the news of all the different mediums that are making new adaptations of the work. How did you manage the secure the rights to perform and cultivate it as a theatrical work, here in Brisbane?
Sam: There's a short and a long answer on how we can do the premiere of Boy Swallows Universe. The short answer is that Queensland Theatre and Brisbane Festival are the perfect place for it. You have a quintessential Brisbane novel coming to the stage in Brisbane. The story particularly resides in my body of work, with new adaptations of Australian coming of age novels with male protagonists and it's a genre and a style I really enjoy. The long answer is that it was quite an extended process between Tim Megarrity, the adaptor, Trent Dalton (the author) and myself (and Queensland Theatre) that was about negotiating the stage rights and the exact form of the adaption. What helped that process was that we started it very early, even before the book was published which meant that we were able to bring it to the stage as quickly as we are. The drafts are very advanced of the stage adaptation and advanced enough for us to do it in our 2020 season. The great thing about theatre is that it can move quicker than film and we had a bit of a head start.
Virag: I think, for a lot of us that are immersed in the world and ways of Queensland Theatre, we were very surprised to have the announcement a few months ago of Boy Swallows Universe being in the 2020 Season when we are so accustomed to having the season announced towards the end of the year. Was it announced early because of the excitement of this opportunity or because it was all over the media because of its new transformations around the world?
Sam: On one hand it's about keeping things a bit more interesting and keeping people on their toes a little bit but also it was such exciting news that we wanted to get it out in the world. That's the other thing about why Queensland Theatre and why here and why me, is that, without exaggeration, Boy Swallows Universe is the most exciting Australian novel that I've read in twenty years and I could not be more pumped about the material. From the minute I read it, I knew that I wanted to do it. It's amongst the most exciting things that I've ever had the privilege of creating. My individual passion for it as a director fast-tracked it as well.
Virag: I have to ask, do you think you'll be using your revolver in Boy Swallows Universe? As it worked really effectively in Jasper Jones in the transitioning from one house or one destination to the other and Boy Swallows Universe evolves around quite a few landmarks?
Sam: My response to the staging of the work is to stage it in a way that the work demands. I think when you're dealing with a story that has multiple incarnations in different media I'm always asking myself, how do you bring a story to life that is uniquely theatrical. To use the kind of cooperate speak, how do you add theatrical value to it because you've got to be able to do it in a way that its different and better than the book and the film. And if you're not doing that, then you're not doing your job. So, when I'm thinking about starting to talk about how we are going to bring Boy Swallows Universe into the theatre, I have to make it even more exciting in the theatre then it is in other mediums. Which is fun and a great challenge. What that precisely looks like and whether or not we will have a revolve, I don't know yet.
Virag: When programming Boy Swallows Universe, was there any concern that some of Queensland Theatre's regular theatregoers might not be as familiar with the story as others, because it is a recently published work?
Sam: I think the appeal of Boy Swallows Universe is not so much about it being an amazing novel but of it being an amazing story. And I think regardless of whether people know the novel or not, the story is so incredible and hopefully, the theatrical life that we give that story is as captivating as the story itself. So, in a way, I don't make adaptations exclusively for people who've read the source material because I think that's too narrow. My job is to make a stand alone work of art in a theatre and that has got to work completely independently of their source material. If the theatre version only works for the people that have read the novel then it's not doing its job.
Storm Boy opens Wednesday the 31st at QPAC.
Bookings are available via the QPAC website.