Igniting imaginations

Performing Owls Do Cry (from left) Arlo Gibson, Comfrey Sanders, Ella Becroft and Hannah Lynch....
Performing Owls Do Cry (from left) Arlo Gibson, Comfrey Sanders, Ella Becroft and Hannah Lynch. Photos: Supplied
For the first time, Janet Frame’s first full-length work, Owls Do Cry, will be brought to life on stage. Red Leap artistic director Julie Nolan tells Rebecca Fox about the pressure of premiering the work in what is considered Frame’s home town of Oamaru.

Janet Nolan has fond memories of reading Owls Do Cry, a story about the Withers siblings - Daphne, Chicks, Toby and Francie - and their lives in small-town New Zealand following a family tragedy, at university.

Ross McCormack in rehearsals for Owls Do Cry
Ross McCormack in rehearsals for Owls Do Cry
''I remember this feeling of deep melancholy and at the same time a sense of beauty and brightness.''

So when Pamela Gordon, of the Janet Frame Literary Trust, gave permission - the first time she has done so for this book - for Red Leap to use it as the basis of a theatre production, artistic director Nolan thought she had better read it again.

''I thought to myself, 'What have I done? How can we possibly make this book?'''

But her love of Janet Frame's writings and the relevance of her books spurred her on.

''To me her work is genius, her work is indelible. There is always layers and layers to her writing.''

Red Leap's vision as a company is to support the telling and performance of women's stories and Nolan, its co-founder, wanted its next project to be an adaptation of something already written.

Frame's Owls Do Cry fitted the bill, but has created ongoing challenges for Nolan and her artistic team director and choreographer Malia Johnston, dramaturg Toi Whakaari's director of actor training Heather Timms and designer Penny Fitt.

Arlo Gibson embraces the different in Owls Do Cry.
Arlo Gibson embraces the different in Owls Do Cry.
''It's so epic in scope and form, completely unlike anything else.''

It soon became clear to the team, that they could not just put the book on stage as everyone has their own experience of it.

''It's different for everybody. I was talking to a woman the other day who said how nostalgic it is for her. Then when I was talking to young people reading the book they relate to completely different things.

''We realised it would be an impossible task to meet everyone's expectations for what the book meant to them.''

So they decided to take a contemporary response to the work using a process of collaboration and exploration using live music, song, poetry, dynamic movement and audio visual.

Nolan sees it as an acknowledgement of Frame's own ''rebellious'' and ''ballsy'' approach.

It will require the audience to use their imagination - something Nolan feels strongly that theatre should promote.

''Now more than ever we need to encourage people; in the arts we need to champion peoples' imagination. We are in a time where we are spoon-fed so much information and so there is a really beautiful challenge in the arts to ignite imaginations these days.''

It meant the team went down a lot of ''dead ends'' in their search for what felt right.

''Every time we got nostalgic or time period it felt dusty and no longer felt relevant, but as soon as we were brave with it, tried things out ...

''We are expressing themes from the book, but in an abstract way.''

The approach has been welcomed by Gordon who had not given permission for it to be adapted for stage before - neither did Frame when she was alive - although they had always through it would translate very well to stage.

''It's a classic novel highly regarded around the world.''

She changed her mind because Red Leap had not fallen into the trap of mistaking the novel for non-fiction as many had in the past.

''They wanted to adapt the story of her life, not the novel.''

However, Red Leap ''got'' that Frame wrote fiction novels and wanted to use the story to springboard its important themes.

''They're not doing a straight adaptation. I've seen their work and it's innovative and exciting. It's the sort of thing Janet Frame would have enjoyed.

''It's a little bit different, experimental and brave: using music, multimedia and dance - all things she would have appreciated and encouraged.''

Gordon is looking forward to seeing the work on stage.

''It's a pleasure for me. An honour too.''

As a result of the challenges, this work has a very different feel to Red Leap's other works - Paper Sky, SEA, Dust Pilgrim - which have been heavy on imagery and puppetry, says Nolan.

''I love that as a company we are not repeating the same flavour of work. There is a lot of language through body, a lot of song, which is an absolute delight.

''It is a lot more abstract. I think it takes you darker and extremes of lightness.''

They have cast Ross McCormack (Triumphs and Other Alternatives, System), Margaret-Mary Hollins (Last Legs, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night), Hannah Lynch (RUSHES, The Visit), Red Leap Theatre's associate director Ella Becroft (Dust Pilgrim, In Dark Places), Arlo Gibson (Step Dave, Mating in Captivity), and Comfrey Sanders (Jekyll and Hyde, Shortland Street - The Musical).

The team has created songs inspired by the book and a lot have made the soundtrack for the production.

''There is a real sense of ownership in this production.''

Nolan is very excited and inspired by the work, about the new territory the company has entered and its potential to provoke debate.

''It's really brave.''

Johnston has been able to take the raw material from the team's workshops and structure a really ''exciting and vibrant'' emotional journey, she says.

''I really respond to that.''

Having a strong female creative team behind the production had helped ensure the pressure of the production did not fall on one person.

''We've become very good at problem solving ... it's all paying off now.''

They have been working on the production for a couple of years, including two workshops before the six-week rehearsal period began.

''There has been so much thinking about it. I've read the book so many times and each time I return to her work I unearth another layer.

''Her wit and the ways she comments on society is so sharp. You can read it once and not get it, that is the cleverness of her craft and her work.''

Nolan says they chose to premiere the work in Oamaru, where Frame's family settled after stints living further south, so the work would be exposed to an audience who knows Frame.

''We do not know how people are going to respond, but we will take on board whatever the reaction is and use it to further develop the work.

''We've done our best to craft things.''

To see
Owls Do Cry, Waitaki Arts Festival, Oamaru Opera House, October 4-5.

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