The Empty City: Stage Adaptation 2008-2013

What you’re about to read touches on the complexities of turning a picture book into a performance. As I write this,  we’re right in the thick of it. By 2007, The Empty City had been published, well reviewed and out in the shops. by 2008 the thrill of seeing the book I’d made with Jonathon proudly nestling on the shelves at the shops and in libraries had certainly not dissipated , but I stopped going out of my way to look for it and was working on lots of other things,  including options for a follow-up.

I’d developed 2007’s Fallen Awake with Jonathon, Andrew and Luke, and was starting to consider further possibilities for the stage as a canvas for live and projected image-based storytelling. I wanted to go deeper with this, but with a bigger vision comes attendant challenges of getting the works resourced, managed and into production.

David Fenton had started working at QUT at that time, and we’d linked up and talked about making something. It was his idea that The Empty City could be adapted for the stage. It hadn’t occurred to me.

We talked it out and the two of us put together a few applications for funding to develop the work, one of which was successful. The team was myself on writing and music, David Fenton on direction, Jonathon Oxlade on design, Luke Monsour on video/animation and Lucas Stibbard on devising/performance.

the-empty-cityIf you know the book,  you’ll understand that it’s not immediately obvious how these 36 images and 237 words might be adapted for the stage.

Two things were clear to me. Firstly, I knew I had to completely eradicate text or spoken word from the story. Secondly that this would not be a straight adaptation, confined by the source text, but a complete reinvention.

I’d assumed we’d approach the adaptation entirely collaboratively at first,  but David requested a script to launch the process,  so I wrote Draft One (4965 words.)

Creative Development One 

David also suggested I compose music for the creative development. The last soundtrack I’d done was for Jonathon Oxlade’s Scribble, where I’d written and performed all the music and sounds on acoustic instruments and cheap keyboards. I wasn’t certain I had the resources to compose the 45-50 minute soundtrack for a project of this scale, and was concerned that I might be too close to the work to soundtrack it as well as write it.

I wasn’t sure what the show should sound like. As a reference David suggested the song ‘Let Me Tell You About My Boat’ from Mark Mothersbaugh’s soundtrack to The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou,  a movie I still haven’t seen. In response I created a piece called ‘Crockery’ which was an energetic coupling of multiple ukes and other instruments. It was tight,  fast, fun and unassociated with any ‘scene’ from the book. David liked it, we used it to soundtrack an animated promo made from Jonathon’s illustrations as we sought support. While it won’t appear in the final version, this piece came to stand as an emblem for the process to come: music first.My early notes on the soundtrack reveal that I thought an empty city might be populated by ‘electronic voices, tones and pings’ and that I wanted to explore the ‘sounds a piano made after you hit it’. I also thought the uke would be good for the ‘voice of the boy’ because it was ‘bright and lonely’. I hardly had the facility to pursue the use of bassoon.

At the end of 2008 we began the daunting task of developing the adaptation. Creative development. You’re not only developing the creative work,  but if you’re doing it properly you get creative about how it’s developed. We spent our first week on a range of tasks using the script a a jumping off point. This included broad discussion of themes, story and form and resulted in a new draft of the script which included images we’d all made – a collaborative storyboard. I responded to this with Draft Two (8339 words)

'Escalator' Sketch from Script Appendices (Megarrity)

‘Escalator’ Sketch from Script Appendices (Megarrity)

In January 2009 we worked for a week or so in one of the studios at QPAC to prototype the work. A core challenge was not only to work out what we were making,  but how we were going to make it. Each artform we were intending to integrate had different characteristics and timelines for creation. I decided not to be too precious about the music and at this stage keep it rough.

I made a raft of ukulele-based pieces of music, and brought these to the project. I also used piano and cello,  neither of which are instruments I can really play. None of these tunes was assigned to a particular scene,  in fact part of the process involved asking the team where they thought these tunes could ‘fit’. I decided they’d have to possess musical legitimacy first, however fragmentary. Then they would find their place in the performance we were making,  rather than being created to fit. My intention was to avoid cinematic cliches and default positions in this soundtrack.

Bruko Soprano Ukulele

Bruko Soprano Ukulele

It’s easy to imagine a scenario where a show needs a ‘sad tune’ so one is written to order. Goehr (1997 in Delige 2006:15) sums up this approach as ‘composing backwards’, a process in which “…you start with an intended effect and work backwards from that to the musical materials and organization through which it might be achieved”.

Goehr calls this “muzak”.  I knew I didn’t want to compose like this. Delige suggests this ‘muzak’ approach is in opposition to “…music, where you work forwards from the combination of musical materials to aesthetic effects that perhaps could not otherwise have been envisaged”

This also involved playing with ‘playing’ in the room, layering music into the process of construction so it’s never just an end-stage add-on,  or a ‘sonorous sticking plaster’ as Nicholas Cook would have it. Here Lucas Stibbard and I collaborate on the realisation of a scripted task, under the initial guidance of David Fenton. See how the music shifts and responds to what’s happening,  rather than dictating, or being dictated to. Just as a good conversation between two people can be unpredictable and surprising, I wanted music and performance to share a similar dialogue. This composition therefore becomes performative because it’s built in performance. 

Creative Development Two

In January Creative Development One resulted in a work in progress of around 35 minutes which played to an invited audience of children and relevant arty types,  who dug it. We then built on this in July 2009 with a second creative development more focused on the second act of the piece, and the representation of narrative transitions between acts. We had the process of construction (if not the workload) more under control this time around. The performance expanded significantly in duration and detail.


Tony Brockman in The Empty City, Creative Development Two, July 2009 Photo: Ray Pittman

Musically I began to attend more to leitmotif as it emerged,  and the  sounds of geography in the piece – that is, how the journey was represented musically: what locations sounded like.  I wanted to do this musically,  rather than with sound effects.  Again the audiences really enjoyed it. One child suggested it was ‘3-D theatre’.

Lots of them loved the parts of the play where the protagonist ‘played’ the world as if it was an instrument. [my paraphrasing] We found this kind of stuff out because we asked them and carefully attended to their responses, which were written, drawn or spoken. This kind of research with children isn’t marketing-based ‘focus group’ crap, it’s about genuine curiosity and the provision of a space where very young children can share their opinions of the work and ‘talk back’ to the show.

One of the issues with showing a work like this while it’s in progress as that its screen content lends a ‘finish’ to a piece that is in fact a long way from being finished. In subsequent months we sought support for either further development or production, and I completed Draft 3. Creating this non-verbal production involved a lot of words.

Creative Development Three: Scriptwork

I collaborated briefly with dramaturg Julianne O’Brien to create a new draft of the script in 2010.  (Draft Four, 10,493 words). Having been so involved ‘on the floor’ in creating the work, to rebuild it solely as words on the page was… well I won’t say refreshing,  because it was hard work, but a valuable exercise.  I’d been intimately involved in the realization of the work in development, and knew how tricky it could be to stage these words.  I decided to free the story from the constraints of what was  ‘achievable’ and push towards what might be ‘possible’. Narratively I wanted to balance the work’s apparent need for a episodic structure with keeping it open and retaining its other-worldly flavour.

The character of The Boy in the play finally got a name.

David and I worked on more applications and continued approaches to potential production partners and at the end of 2011 I entered it into the Queensland Premier’s Drama Award, where, after a process of pitching and recalibration of potential development process,  it was selected as one of three finalists from a field of 82. The winning script would be produced as part of the Queensland Theatre Company’s season in 2013. All of the finalists were to be further developed and presented as playreadings. The Empty City is non-verbal,  so by definition it required an innovative approach to offer the fullest sense of the work’s possibilities.

A playreading of a play with no dialogue.

Creative Development Four: QPDA

Sandro Collarelli, Jessica Veurman and Anthony Standish read The Empty City, Queensland Premier's Drama Awards,  QTC July 2009

Sandro Collarelli, Jessica Veurman and Anthony Standish read The Empty City, Queensland Premier’s Drama Awards, QTC July 2009

This numbering system’s retrospective. I don’t think any of us thought we’d still be working on it this long – maybe other projects or teams would either get it up or give it up. But we’re tenacious. The artwork is interesting and unusual, so why shouldn’t its road to production be the same?  By 2012 the project was being assisted by MAPS for Artists which removed some of the weight of producing the work from our shoulders and allowed David Fenton and I to focus on the complicated process of presenting the new draft I wrote (Draft Five, 9224 words) as a playreading with a ‘live’ soundtrack (played tracks under the spoken text) and a slideshow of detailed storyboard images.

Davids (Megarrity and Fenton) operating sound and visuals,  Bille Brown Studio,  Queensland Theatre Company July 2012

Davids (Megarrity and Fenton) operating sound and visuals, Bille Brown Studio, Queensland Theatre Company July 2012

In The Empty City’s  previous performances it had seemed more ‘finished’ than it really was. In this playreading there was a reversal – it must have seemed less ‘finished’ than it really was. David Fenton and myself were operating sound and visuals up the back, and so were active,  if invisible agents in the playreading.

I kept the music low in the mix, and we began to experiment with the voices of an empty city. This piece is a little demo I did for that event. With the piano motif removed, it underscored some of the spoken text in Act 2.

There were kids in the audience of the playreading,  which was a public event at QTC’s Bille Brown Studio in July 2012. Above the music,  above the words, it was clear the work, even as spoken text,  had an effect on its audience. I love the musical counterpoint of child and adult laughter interweaving at events like this. Naturally the music would be relegated to underscore in such a text-heavy presentation. I created some new pieces,  but noted that I had to remove any prominent melodies lest they distract from the play-text. Therefore the music became a bed that appeared at moments of emphasis or change in the work, and context demanded it make the obvious shift from being a feature to being less perceptible.

QPDA Finalists 2012: Stephen Carleton, Maxine Mellor, random arts minister,  Wesley Enoch, David Megarrity

QPDA Finalists 2012: Stephen Carleton, Maxine Mellor, Arts Minister Ros Bates, QTC Artistic Director Wesley Enoch, David Megarrity

Between the playreading and the awards presentation in August I’d had a pretty terrible accident and had shattered my elbow. No longer able to do a range of things,  including writing or playing music, I showed up to the ceremony a day or two out of hospital, dosed up and spaced out on some pretty intense painkillers, and met the Arts Minister.

The award was won by Maxine Mellor’s Trollop, and the team went back to the drawing board, and the application forms. Now,  five years after we started working on it,  The Empty City opens at the Brisbane Powerhouse in June 2013.

A lot of this blog has been reflection on the past. This is happening right now. I’m hard at work on the soundtrack with Brett Collery, working with a more complex sonic palette and at a higher resolution. Draft 6 (9, 310) of the script is done:  recording,  animation and filming are happening. The set is built, the screens stand ready. Many pieces are hovering,  ready for assembly. Rehearsals start today.

Below are some grabs from a filming week in April 2013, where we came up with rough versions of scenes with actor Tom Oliver, the star of the show. These rehearsals will perform as templates for screen and music, and the cardboard and sticky tape will be transformed into coloured light. In a way,  these were the last moments of creative development.

Thanks for reading. Come and experience the final version. It opens on June 27. Share the link. Spread the word. You don’t have to be a kid to dig it. 

The Empty City has been supported,  at various stages,  and in various ways,  by Arts Queensland,  Australia Council for the Arts,  QPAC,  QUT,  The Queensland Theatre Company, Windmill and MAPS for Artists. We’ve also been supported by our friends, many colleagues, assistants and collaborators and loved ones.

4 responses to “The Empty City: Stage Adaptation 2008-2013

  1. Perfection – somehow I seem to remember it all just like that – glorious – love how the pain of child birth just drifts away lol

  2. Pingback: The Empty City: Soundtrack to Score 2013 | lifeinthelongtail·

  3. Pingback: Tyrone and Lesley in a Spot Part 2: Creative Development | lifeinthelongtail·

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