Cliff Richard. Ukulele music. The back seat of a Valiant. Elvis writes my soundtrack. A good Korea move.
In 1997 I’d made a show called Toast for the Brisbane Fringe Festival. Non-verbal, and supported by the music of Orff, Mozart, and my friends local composers Lynette Pratten and Tom Adeney. It had made a profit of $70, but more importantly, Toast (which led to a Brisbane Lord Mayor’s Performing Arts Fellowship in 1998) had set me on the road to making children’s theatre that wasn’t afraid to be innovative, entertaining and excellent. I’d been to Scandinavia and had seen how good it could be.
In 1999 The Queensland Theatre Company was asking for proposals for new children’s works. I put together a show concept based around two kids traveling along in the back seat of a car, bored out of their minds, negotiating their differences, their relationship, and the emergence of collaborative creative play. Behind them would be video representing the back windscreen of a car, where the road rolled away, and surprising things appeared. They were on their way to the beach.
The playing style would be child-like, rather than an acted representation of childhood by adults. That just ends up looking weird. The show was non-verbal, and driven by music, which may or may not have been playing on the ‘car radio’. It would be set in the 1960’s. This was for a few reasons: I loved the look of the era, I wanted the show to be well-designed, and I wanted the characters to have to interact without access to phones or handheld gaming devices. But mostly it was because of the music.
I researched and compiled the soundtrack for the show well before it was fully formed as a narrative, and had a collection of songs that I thought might have the potential to be ‘played’ with and to. I was a bit obsessed with the music of Cliff Richard and The Shadows. I’d found a CD called Legends of Ukulele which was driving me nuts with its total brilliance. There were stories in this music, even if I didn’t know what they were yet.
Song selection and story shaped each other.
The proposal to QTC got up and this gave me the opportunity to work on the show for a week with actor Lorrain Dalu and director Sean Mee. I took the week’s work seriously, writing a lot, and bookending it with a research/workshop with kids of the audience’s intended age, who’d also come to the work-in progress showing. Consulted with early childhood specialists and the Department of Transport. Naturally while the ‘car’ was in ‘motion’ the characters had to wear seat belts.
Before the week started, I prepared a second draft of the script, with suggested music and onscreen action in columns running alongside (rather than integrated into) the action text. I felt like a show like this needed its own script format.
I drove out to a car wreckers and purchased the bench seat of a big old Valiant, and the company’s workshop mounted it on a metal frame. I gaffa-taped a video camera in the back seat of my car and drove to the beach, gathering rough and ready footage that I’d show on a big old TV behind the seat. After a week’s hard work writing, talking and playing to music, we had a work-in-progress performance, which, while rough as guts, was a roaring success with its audience. Here are some roughly edited excerpts from the WIP, bathed in the fuzzy nostalgia of VHS.
Limiting the sonic palette to music from a certain era was a useful device, in retrospect. The soundtrack was 13 songs from the 1960’s, 7 of which were by Cliff Richard or the Shadows. There were some ukulele tracks with an evocative lounge music vibe. There were two tracks from the Elvis Presley movie Blue Hawaii. As Liz Skitch, (who’d been cast as the girl) and I got to know the music better, we kind of toggled between choreography and theatrical performance in realizing the physical action. The structure of the songs assisted us in rendering the structure of each sequence. Once superimposed with physical action, certain details and depths emerged out of the arrangements of even the simplest tunes. At times it was like these tunes had been written for our show rather than the other way around.
Building music into a creative process gives your unfinished work a ‘finish’. It’s fun to work with and makes you feel less like a doofus when you’re a performer doing silly things onstage in rehearsal. It’s like jumping around on a springy bed – it lifts you up, but is there to catch you.
It worked for our audiences too.
The moment the drums and chant of Elvis’s Slicin’ Sand started, the children spontaneously started bouncing and dancing. The Shadows twangy guitar immediately brought to mind surf music. The joy was infectious because the music was good.
This tune soundtracked the car ‘backing up’ to the beach, the rear windscreen filling up with a wide blue seaside horizon. We’d leave the stage and appear onscreen, running excitedly down to the sea. Check the dance moves:
This set of potential tunes wasn’t just background music. They’d been there from the beginning and the narrative had been built around and into them. Music became not just a choice of style, but substance in a kind of symbiosis with its dramatic context.
The next year the show went ahead as a co-production with QPAC’s out of the Box Festival. The company was unwilling to pay for the rights to incorporate the more expensive songs into the show, so I offered up a portion of my royalties to ensure we could use the Elvis songs. The first production, (designed by Lisa Burnett) knocked them out and sold out.
What could have been a tough ask – essentially two performers sitting on a car seat for 45 minutes – tested its audience but won through with its inventiveness, variation and quality of theatrical skill. (Lowdown Dec 2000)
The audience remained fully engaged for a 45-minute how about boredom which is a testament to the show’s understated brilliance. Featuring a simple set of a bench seat, a back window of projected images, and the necessary accoutrements of a day at the beach, BACKSEAT DRIVERS effectively details the minutiae of sibling interaction. Relying on few words, the performance is a journey through anticipation, restlessness, measuring space and sharing time. (Real Time Dec 2000)
There was a tiny amount of money to document the show on video. I asked my friend Luke Monsour (who’d helped with the ‘back windscreen’ shoot and edit) if he’d help out by shooting it, and snuck some hand-held shots in during our lunch breaks. Then we edited a promo for the show together off our own bat, and in our own time. The amount of text in it indicates it was made pre-youtube. I was surprised at how terrible my acting looked on video, but the promo did its job, which was to capture the concept and feel of the show in a bite-sized grab. I reckon the only way to make theatre look good on video is to turn it into a film, and then it’s not theatre anymore. However, I’m certain this clip assisted with the show’s subsequent life.
Backseat Drivers toured in Queensland after its initial season at the Performing Arts Centre. It was remounted for another season, and toured to Korea with Bridget Boyle as the other cast member. This was the first time the Queensland Theatre Company had toured overseas. Finally it was re-mounted for a third time in 2002 with Damien and Helen Cassidy performing in the show. I’d moved out of the cast. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I had been performing my way towards writing.
The script for Backseat Drivers can be found here.