December 01, 1994

The Red Shed Company- Still in the Pink

Murray Bramwell

There is much to admire about the Red Shed Company. You might start with its excellent production values. Or its increasingly confident and innovative writing. Or the distinctive clarity and precision of its acting styles. Or the range and intelligence of its themes. Wherever you want to begin the list, it is clear that in eight years of operation the company, which burst into being, waggishly announcing itself as the RSC, has earned the affection and respect of audiences, peers and critics.

“Initially we saw ourselves as a stepping stone into the industry,” recalls foundation member Tim Maddock, “Everybody had just graduated and we didn’t want to just twiddle our thumbs. So we decided to start doing work that would generate interest from the industry- when people saw what individuals could do. We thought we would enter the industry this way. But that changed as the work we did was of sufficient calibre to justify funding and for us to form a permanent company.”

It was from this enterprising beginning, encouraged and guided by Flinders University Drama Centre Director Julie Holledge, that the Red Shed established itself. The first productions were restagings of student projects – new writing from Debbie Horsfall and Sam Shepard for instance – but with David Carlin’s Bawky Play the company began to display its considerable ability to produce original work.

Much was to follow. Cath McKinnon’s Immaculate Deceptions confirmed the company’s flair for comedy as did In Cahoots, Melissa Reeves’s good-natured spoof of the Brownie movement. With these new works came new audiences- a young, lively following, many still at high school and influenced by the freshness and commitment of the Red Shed collective.

There were also astute choices from new writing coming out of the UK. Tim Maddock’s production of Road, memorably staged in the industrial grunge of the now demolished Wetpak space at the Lion Arts Centre, brought audiences close-in to crisp, powerful acting from Sally Hildyard, Ulli Birve, Syd Brisbane and AFI Best Actor Nick Hope, whose character in the acclaimed film, Bad Boy Bubby, has discernible origins in his performance in Road.

There are others that come to mind. Irish writer Frank McGuinness’s account of the Troubles, The Carthaginians, performed in the familiar intimacy of the Cardwell St Shed, introduced audiences to further high calibre work, ably directed by Cath McKinnon and with fine performances from Eileen Darley, Geoff Revell and others.

The Shed has been well represented in the Adelaide Festival. In 1990 Frankenstein’s Children astonished mainstream audiences with an innovative set and yet another offbeat location- this time the former East End Markets. Punters found themselves sitting in the middle of the action never quite knowing what was going to happen next. Such techniques, like the promenade formats of Road and Body of Sin, are now commonplace in the theatre but the Shed productions were among the first in Adelaide to present them in disciplined, ungimmicky ways. Dog Eat Dog, like Frankenstein’s Children also about the forces of history -and also written by David Carlin – was among the best of the local work in the 1992 Festival.

The Red Shed Company, home to many actors, writers, directors and designers, has nevertheless been carefully managed, sustained and propelled by a dedicated core who have provided the kind of continuity needed to evolve from a loosely based collective, a so-called “alternative” company, to a fully professional, permanent company. The Shed members embarked on country tours, negotiated the byzantine intricacies of the arts bureaucracy, devised and promoted repertoire, and commissioned new work.

Commissioning new work can prove a nightmare for any theatre company. A lot rides on a new show- the company’s hard-won reputation, the allegiance of the audience, the continuing support of critics. Often shows are promoted before they are even finished. Writers can go weird under pressure, or endlessly change their scripts, or refuse to change anything.

The Red Shed has had a particularly admirable strike rate. Works by David Carlin and Cath McKinnon have been diverse and of a high standard. As have new plays from Melissa Reeves and more recently, Daniel Keene. I have already mentioned In Cahoots as important in the company’s progress. Sweetown, Reeves’s witty exploration of the construction of history- and the denial of Aboriginal massacres in many parts of rural Australia- was one of the highpoints of the 1991 program. Directed by Cath McKinnon and designed by Tim Maddock, Sweetown toured successfully to country centres where many identified strongly with its themes. It was revived in 1993 and at the 1994 Adelaide Festival won for Melissa Reeves the South Australian Premier’s Playwright’s Award.

Melbourne-based writer Daniel Keene has also formed a highly productive link with the Red Shed. His two-hander, the gritty underclass portrait, Low, featuring Ulli Birve and Syd Brisbane, is still talked about by the many young people for whom it was a revelation, a glimpse of the impact and intimacy theatre can offer. Keene’s dream play All Souls, beautifully written and splendidly staged by Cath McKinnon remains also a highlight for the company.

Because You Are Mine, designed by Mary Moore and directed by Tim Maddock was yet another fine example of Keene’s work. Staged in 1994 in the Festival Centre Space, it examined the tragedy of the civil war in the Balkans in a production that Maddock is justifiably proud of-

” I loved doing it. In Adelaide you don’t get the chance to direct very often and Mary and I wanted to do something different. We were pushing to find a formal language that was different. We used video and did things like bring up the lights for scene changes. It was sometimes hard for the actors but it worked. We experimented with sound also. There was a lot of playing around with form as well as interpretation of text.”

It is just this search for freshness and clarity which best characterises the Red Shed’s work. Always intelligent, principled and self-critical the Red Shed have been Adelaide’s secret for too long. It is to be hoped that 1995 will see the company touring to other cities, and to festivals both here and overseas.

Good theatre is the hardest thing to produce- and the Red Shed has produced a great deal of it. And the now company is facing the increasing challenge of maintaining the standard.

“I hate a high percentage of the theatre I see,” Cath McKinnon candidly observes. “I get absolutely bored. So I think- `Well, why am I doing this ? What am I in ? I am in this thing and I don’t actually enjoy most of what I go and see.’ I think you have to ask- `What is relevant ?’ It’s what we ourselves are saying more and more to each other. Instead of letting cliches linger or wondering how we might please the audience we have to ask- `Do WE like it ?’ We have to ask ourselves- `is this boring ? does this sound like what other people are already doing ? Does this just sound like some kind of dogma ?'”

“It’s important that we know why we are doing things- not for funding bodies or whatever, but to say what we want to say. In myself I’ve realised that the strongest point for us is right now- because I’m clearer about where to go and why we’re going and what it is we want to express. It doesn’t mean you didn’t know before, but it is a clearer path.”

The Red Shed Company has not only proved itself over time, it has produced original work that is first rate. There are few companies anywhere who can say as much.

Lowdown, February, 1995. ? Not verified

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