December 29, 1990

Summer at the River Bank

Filed under: Archive,Interviews


Ratty, Mole and Badger are returning to the Botanic Gardens this week. Murray Bramwell talks with Director Elena Eremin about Park Projects’ new production of The Wind in the Willows.

According to the mythology Glenn Elston hatched the idea for his highly successful outdoor productions of The Wind in the Willows five or six years ago when he was living in London . He had never read Kenneth Grahame’s rodent classic before and after discovering it in the cheerless temperatures of the English winter he decided it would be a bottler idea for summer entertainment in Australia.

He was right. After opening in 1987 for a season in Melbourne’s Botanic Gardens, Elston’s company, known then as FEIPP (Fantastic Entertainment in Public Places) played further sell-out runs at the Sydney and Adelaide Festivals in 1988. Since then he has mounted productions of Alice in Wonderland and A Midsummer Night’s Dream both of which drew full “houses” in this year’s Festival.

With so much demand, duplicate companies for The Wind in the Willows have been formed to play seasons in different capital cities- which is where director Elena Eremin comes in. She set up the first Sydney season and in the past few weeks has been here in Adelaide rehearsing an all-new local cast in readiness for the vicissitudes of Toad Hall and the Wild Wood.

Elena sees her task as that of continuing the spirit of the original production- “Glenn worked with a group of actors who all had a great fondness for the story. They must have -because they did the show for three years. It is hard work working outside all the time but the group had very strong commitment.

“When I helped set up the Sydney production while the original cast stayed on in Melbourne it became clear that you could recreate the show with a different group of people. The script was clear enough, all the integrity was there for it to be reproduced. The new cast found an affinity to it similar to that of the originals. It is always difficult coming in on something which has been created by another group. But there’s enough fun, enjoyment and other elements to make an entertaining show.”

Glenn Elston, in consultation with Elena Eremin, has chosen a strong local cast for Adelaide. David Sadler plays Ratty, Gary George is Toad, Jenny Anderson is Mole and Peter Findlay plays Badger. Graham Kelleher has the marshalling role of Head Chief Rabbit and Andrew Donovan is his assistant.

“You have to be fit to do these shows,” Elena notes ,”When we recruit we are looking for people who are able to cope physically with demands. We need to be very clear about that.”

As in previous Elston productions The Wind in the Willows is in promenade style with the events taking place in various locations around the gardens.

“The primary challenge is to make something big,” Elena explains, “It has to be because you are surrounded by so much space. If it is not big it will be lost but when you do that you can also lose the detail. The bigger it is the less it belongs to you. Once you lay that base by making large shapes and creating a large voice then you start to modulate it, introducing the subtleties and the mannerisms. So in the first week of rehearsal we are huge and then in the second week we create the small moments and find the inner creature.”

“It is a well-loved story and the actors get very connected to their characters – as does the audience too. They come looking for their favourites. The characters are never entirely animals -just as in the book. They are very human and they have the paraphenalia of human beings around them. Badger wears a dressing gown for instance, and Otter, a wet suit.”

A key to the success of the Park Projects is their ability to make the logistics of the performances into fun. As Elena explains -“The audience is given a role. They all become rabbits and when they enter all the animals say hello, everyone on arrival has a moment of greeting.”

It is also important to be able to keep the show together in a public venue with other activities going on around it. “If there are people on the perimeter , if there are sprinklers going, you just have to allow for that. If you battle against them then the performance becomes something that’s hard to do. You just have to accept that you are outside and that there are other things happening in the world.If the focus is correct and the intention is there and the actors are clear about the parts they are playing then the rest will come.”

“Audiences are limited to four hundred- otherwise people miss out,” Elena explains .”In Sydney we sold out quite early on and people were quite desperate to come. They’d say -`But you’ve got the whole gardens.’What they don’t understand is that while we have the whole garden we have restricted playing areas where the performance has to be visible and audible -and it is very important to us that we take care of the gardens.”

“”It is very beautiful here and the gardeners, particularly here in Adelaide, are just wonderful. They are very accommodating and it is our responsibility to take care of their work. More than four hundred people start to feel that they are missing out. They start talking to each other during the performance and they start picking at the plants and so on. We do a chat at the start of the show saying that we care about the gardens and want all the rabbits to do the same. That’s the joy about them being animals, because animals do take good care of their environment.”

Elena has used locations selected for the previous production of The Wind in the Willows although the Botanic Gardens have altered in three years so for the Wild Wood she has chosen a new site. Mostly, though, as director she is concerned with the art of recreating an existing success. “There have been some very good decisions made in the course of this show,” she explains,” You can make other ones for the sake of your ego but it is wasteful. Only if I didn’t like something would I want to do something different.”

Although she agrees it is difficult for the actors to feel they have a complete connection to the production. “They are missing out on a whole chunk of process. The props are made, the sites are chosen and we have a short rehearsal period. I have this script and the concepts and a group of people comes in and makes contact with it all.”

” It is delightful to discover that it really does come together each time I do the show. It reaffirms the fact that there are some very nice characters in the story and they are very connected. Essentially they are all content with their lives, it is only Toad who is like us and is never happy with the way things are. The others are very tolerant of each other’s quirks and foibles. That’s what people love about The Wind in the Willows and what makes it a classic. And, Elena concludes, with what could also be a description of the Park Project itself , “it is a story that will continue for a very long time.”
“Mole and Badger return for summer” The Advertiser, December 29, 1990, p.13.

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