Twister. The Jackson 5. The Osmonds. Shuggie Otis. French film soundtracks. Putting on a show in your lounge room. “What are those big CD’s?” Show and tell.
In 2002 the Queensland Theatre Company put out a call for submissions for shows for a particular audience. 9-12 year old girls. After the success of Backseat Drivers I thought I’d give it a burl. Four years earlier I’d put together an proposal for a show called ‘show’ for the 1998 Out of the Box Festival. It had gone some way towards being programmed but had stalled, and instead I ended up working as an actor on someone else’s show, playing a wizard with a wig in a gig that had hardened my resolve to make theatre for kids that didn’t suck.
Music was at the center of this sketchy idea, and in the unsuccessful proposal, I wrote that Music is integral to SHOW. It can create mood, an emotional map and in some cases be the catalyst between idea and performance. [from first draft, 1998].
Making a show called show opened a knot of wordplay that helped build the idea. The girls make a show, and in doing so, “show” each other who they really are.
A strong image for the show early on in the writing process was the idea of a girl playing twister. By herself.
I did a lot of research into the demographic, and in heightening the contrast between the two characters, was playing with ideas of coolness and dagginess. This pointed me towards the idea of bullying – a theme I’d played with in Ukulele Mekulele, but with a particularly feminine slant. There was no way I was going to reveal that this was the theme of the play. I’d been there and done that with Ukulele Mekulele and it spoils the fun. I wanted to actively work against the idea that theatre for children had to have simplistic lessons in it. Didacticism destroys the dramatic. Children deserve better. When I found this quote, I realised there might be more to the solo twister idea than absurd humour.
Our culture has girls playing a perverse game of Twister, pushing and tangling themselves into increasingly strained, unnatural positions. We are telling girls to be bold and timid, voracious and slight, sexual and demure. We are telling them to hurry up and wait. But in the game of twister players eventually end up in impossible positions and collapse. Simmons, Rachel Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture Of Aggression In Girls Schwartz Books (2002:115)
Show’s 1970’s look might have looked like an exercise in nostalgia, but it wasn’t. Taking archetypal characters, relationships and behaviours into a different era pushes the particular towards the universal. The show would have worked soundtracked by Britney Spears or whoever was top of the charts at the time, but would have dated and alienated its audience within 6 months. I wanted vintage music. And the best thing about writing is describing things that don’t exist yet, as if they do. You can just write it.
By this time I’d worked with both Bridget Boyle and Liz Skitch, both very funny performers. I began to envisage the show with them as the characters. I raised the stakes by making it a birthday party to which only one guest ‘shows’. I wanted to use screen, and I made this a (literal) window into the adult world, where the mothers of the two girls would occasionally appear, and nifty transformations would occur between video and realia. I’d get to work with Luke Monsour again to make this. The 1970’s would also offer up some great possibilities for Jonathon Oxlade’s design. And music.
Burning bright at the centre of the growing show was the idea of dancing ecstatically to the Jackson 5’s I Want you Back. Following funk further, and looking for female vocalists, I found funk compilation I’m a Good Woman. I was also into a compilation of French film soundtracks called Shake Sauvage – moody, slapldash funk. It sounded like soundtracks made by borderline amateur composer/musicians who had very primitive ideas about how music could make mood.
Could these soundtracks be re-purposed for a new context? I also wanted to bring the sound source onstage and explore the characters soundtracking their own ‘actions’ on-stage, in front of us. They’re playing their own soundtrack on the record player, so the sound is coming from the story. I now know the technical term is diegetic but I didn’t at the time. I also wanted to experiment with what happened when the wrong music was deliberately put under dramatic action.
Browsing in a thrift shop, I found the crummiest children’s album I’d ever come across. ‘Sammy Sparrow’s Children’s Party’ was made in the deepest, darkest 1970’s by 2UE radio broadcaster Gary O’Callaghan. The idea was you’d put this record on at your party and Gary and Sammy Sparrow would guide you through a set of ‘fun activities’. It was terrible. I wanted to use it, but had to closely edit it so it simulated being infuriating rather than being actually maddening. Naturally the activity narrated here would be better with more than two participants… My proposal was accepted. We did a week’s creative development which then transferred into a rehearsal and production. I was to work with two actors QTC had already employed: Rebecca Murphy and Sarah Kennedy. This project, while still non-verbal, was going to be more script-based than Ukulele Mekulele. In this script, I got more specific about how I wanted music to be used:
m u s i c a n d s o u n d The record player is a key part of the action. Soundtrack music and popular hits from the period are integral to narrative and mood. Other sound effects such as rain, a record stylus scratching and skipping, contribute to authenticity. The soundtrack is synced to and played from the vision source. The songs are italicised in the script and a detailed tracklisting is included [from Draft 1, 2003]
This track’s written by Shuggie Otis:
Halfway through, I sensed the soundtrack, as eclectic as it was, was getting too ‘samey’. I’d written in a contrasting movement code for each of the ‘girls’ with the ‘cool’ character being into funky dance moves and the ‘daggy’ character being rather uncoordinated. Working with choreographer Neridah Waters, we’d come up with some good, playful movement, but we still hadn’t nailed the ‘dance-off’ that was in the middle of the show.
One day in rehearsal, I was watching the actors drill the dance-off with Neridah, running over it repeatedly for memory. It still wasn’t working.
They didn’t need me, so I was listening to music on headphones, refining the script on a laptop. I skipped a few tracks down to Mozart Clarinet Concerto in A Major K622 ii Adagio and looked up at what was happening on the stage. The gentle, undulating classical music was a fantastic juxtaposition to what I was looking at. Instantly I suggested a change: that the Cool Girl’s attempt to impress the Birthday Girl emanated not from pop-star choreography, but from the prissy, refined movement of ballet. We re-devised the scene. The music, in combination with a beautiful performance from Sarah, brought a unique combination of haughty poise and inexpertly disguised vulnerability to the moment.
Audiences loved show. In the middle of one of its tours, I went out to somewhere west of Toowoomba to watch it performed, and I watched as the boys in the audience went from an arms-crossed, ‘this is for girls’ attitude to getting right into its spirit of naughtiness and, it must be said, borderline psychological cruelty.
Smaller children watched the characters flipping the black vinyl LP’s and operating the record player and often asked the actors what those ‘big CD’s’ were. At that time, it was also unusual to bother touring a show with projected video into schools, and I think the audiences appreciated its refined aesthetic. The teachers liked the 1970’s references, too.The show was remounted in 2004, for another Queensland tour plus a season at the Sydney Opera House. I was to direct this production also, and auditioned some great performers. Auditions are inherently weird, whatever side of the table you’re sitting on. I tried to make the audition experience playful and all of the individual actresses could have performed either of the roles quite capably. The new cast was Liz Skitch and Kellie Lazarus.
The costumes needed to be re-made. Jonathon was re-contracted, and the costume department got on to adapting the design to accommodate the early stages of Kellie’s pregnancy. The rights to use the music in dramatic context were renegotiated, and it was discovered that all of Michael Jackson’s music was now unavailable. (Motown had revoked all dramatic context rights pending the making of a Motown Musical they were planning)
This was frustrating. The song was perfect. But I did some more research. I loved listening to music and calling it research! I found a song called ‘One Bad Apple’– it had been recorded by the Osmonds, and sounded like a copycat version of ‘I Want You Back’ , in its sugary optimism and musical bounce. But it still contained the same danceable joy. It fitted perfectly, and the rights were available. It turns out the writer, George Jackson, had the Jackson 5 in mind when he wrote it. Goes to Show.