February 19, 2014

Festival Trifecta

Murray Bramwell talks with Rosemary Myers about Windmill Theatre’s program of new work and revivals in the Adelaide Festival.

If you look under “Our Claims to Fame’ on Adelaide’s Windmill Theatre’s website there is a list of awards and nominations the company has received over the past five years – and it is astonishing. Last year alone, for their hit show School Dance, there were six Helpmann nominations (including two winners –Best Presentation for Children and Best Supporting Actor for Amber McMahon). There were also Sydney Theatre Award nominations and a South Australian Ruby Award. In 2012 there was a Sidney Myer award and nominations from critics’ circles and the Melbourne Green Room.

Established in 2002 by Creative Producer, Cate Fowler, Windmill is a prime example of what can happen when theatre is well-resourced and given room to create and develop. It is a familiar platitude to say that children and young people deserve the best theatre with the most capable artistic teams, but it rarely happens. Windmill is one of those exceptions (as is Adelaide’s other premier children’s company: Patch Theatre, under the direction of Dave Brown)

Starting as a company for audiences up to age 12, Windmill changed tack in 2008 when its new artistic director, Rosemary Myers was appointed. Myers’ work with Arena Theatre in Melbourne was already widely regarded, if not legend, and she recalls the pitch she made when she was interviewed for the Windmill job:

“I said I thought the company should have a signature stamp and a core investigation – a group of artists pursuing something. I wanted to bump up the age level to which the company worked and include teenagers. For me that older group is really challenging and most people are really scared of them. Kids coming to the theatre is very sellable, and adults are sellable, but people don’t like investing in teenagers because they describe them as the ‘lost years’ and say they don’t come to the theatre.

But my point is that the theatre doesn’t speak to them and it doesn’t excite them. They are hard to market to – but, essentially, just because it’s tough is no reason we shouldn’t try. And it is so liberating for art makers because it is such a contemporary palette they get to work with.”

The first project Myers developed with Windmill was a re-jigged version of The Wizard of Oz with a strong cast including the excellent Ursula Yovich as Dorothy. Most distinctive, though, were the eye-popping technicolor designs by Jonathan Oxlade (in collaboration with video artist Chris More). Myers had been following Oxlade’s work in Brisbane and had wanted to bring him into the company where he has become an important fixture in the creative team.

“I think that’s what my time with the company has been about- connecting with like-minded artists… Matt Whittet is a similar part of that puzzle. There are a lot of amazing writers around but in choosing collaborators to make a theatrical language, you have to be in tune. “

Whittet also joined the caravan in 2009 – for the 18 month development of the Robin Hood re-make, Fugitive. Myers recalls -“I knew him as an actor and always liked his work, this skinny guy you can’t stop watching.” But it was her friend, Chris Mead, who was running Playwriting Australia, who recommended Whittet as a writer and sent Myers the script of Twelve, an early play written for Belvoir Street.

“I read the script and just loved it and said come over and we’ll do this development on Fugitive and see what kind of rapport we have, if we have any at all. The whole play was virtually written in a week, we were so on fire about it. That was when we brought in Jonathan Oxlade (and musician and sound designer Luke Smiles) and the team just clicked.”

Fugitive, which first opened in Adelaide in August 2010, returns as part of the Windmill Trilogy season in the 2014 Adelaide Festival- along with School Play, making a triumphant return after a national tour and its debut in the 2012 Festival. The third work is brand new, Girl Asleep, also written by Matthew Whittet, is based on the Sleeping Beauty fable and opens on February 28.

School Play, the company’s most successful production to date, brought together Myers’s team – Oxlade, Whittet, and Smiles – not only as designer, writer and musician, but as performers as well. Rosemary Myers comments:

“I‘d known Luke Smiles as a sound designer, I also knew him as a dancer. I said lets have artists performing. Jonathan was always hilarious, Matt wrote the show but was also in it. I said I want all three of you in it – and it does have an autobiographical component to it. “
Myers also has a core of actors whom she works with. Amber McMahon, hilarious as the belle of the ball in School Dance returns for Girl Asleep, others including Jude Henshall, Ellen Steele, Nathan O’Keefe, Patrick Graham and Geoff Revell have featured in Windmill productions and development workshops. Intensive development is a key feature of Myers’ approach. Productions are often twelve to eighteen months in preparation.

“I like to have a template of the design and to do a test of it all because these shows are so finicky. I like to have a draft of how it’s going and what it all means dramaturgically. That’s a great thing about Windmill. We do our own seasons so we’ve got autonomy, we can steer our own ship. These works are expensive to make, so why not ensure they are as solid as you can make them by the time you put them out there?”

Reflecting on the three works being performed in repertory in the Festival, Myers notes that the new work, Girl Asleep, was intended, in part, to complement the other plays.

Girl Asleep, yes, has a girl perspective but that wasn’t our first thought. With Fugitive we thought a retelling of Robin Hood would be interesting for these times, and we thought : OK we have done the alpha male story, but that’s quite a foreign story to a group of artists. We’ll tell the loser story now, the teenage loser story that became School Dance, that was much closer to home. So now let’s tell the outsider story. It’s loosely based on Sleeping Beauty but the central character, Greta Driscoll is an outsider.

“Sleeping Beauty is such a psychological, Freudian story but if you read Bruno Bettelheim he talks about the explosive and dynamic phases of adolescence – these two extremes: the dynamic, crazy, full-on part, or the somnolent, disappear-into-your-room part. This play is more about that dream state – and while it should speak to everybody, this is a girl’s story.”

Later in the year the company have funding to make a film version of Girl Asleep, before embarking on a stage tour next year. And performing to large, mixed audiences is central – as Rosemary Myers enthuses:

“We find it thrilling to think about the theatre and that’s been a big part of what we have done with Jonathan and Matt. We don’t consciously say : ‘we are living in age of CGI ’ but we’ve enjoyed creating a theatricality that is so much about being ‘live’. It’s actually very old school, we do a lot of costume changes and wigs, but with a contemporary spin on it. It’s really about going to an audience and saying: we are all here together in the room. Here’s how we are going to make someone invisible. We’ll put them in a onesie with sparkles on it. It’s a funny way of saying someone is invisible and we are going to enjoy that leap of the imagination.”

Published online at The Daily Review, February 19, 2014.

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