Air-conducting. Plenty up my sleeve. Non-verbal but with plenty to say. A concerto in my viens. Directing. No direction. Pre-digital prestidigitation. My first show.
Towards the end of the university drama degree I was doing, the opportunity arose to do an indpendent directing project. I’d tried directing before, selecting Japanese playwright Kobo Abe’s Suitcase. I was fond of that play, but didn’t really know what it was about. I kind of pretended I did. Rather than direct another show from a script that I didn’t understand, I decided to make something original. Maybe I’d understand it better. Why spend all that time trying to interpet a script with actors when you could make up your own actions, and still not know what you were doing? I’d write this new thing. Devise it. Be in it too. Not a strong start for a ‘directing’ project, really, but I was obsessed. Obsessed with a violin concerto. Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto #1.
From its dramatic opening: timpani, brooding chords, stabbing violin, to its swooning adagio, there seemed to be stories in the music. Its influence on my body went from a kind of ‘air-conducting’ to considering what kind of routines might emerge from the music. I was all too aware of what being pretentious was all about, but what I had in mind seemed to transcend that. I wanted to perform to it.
The scenario became the performance of a magician who expected magic to just happen, rather like a ventriloquist impatiently waiting for his dummy to speak. The spectacular music would soundtrack a series of performative failings until a ‘volunteer’ planted in the audience would appear. The magician would then fall in love with her, then make himself disappear. It was a foggy, late-adolescent metaphor for romantic love, and remained mysterious and unresolved as a story, even to me.
I didn’t enter the project with a full idea of what was going to happen in the play, but let the music direct the work, and as I got to know the concerto intimately, shape the physical action. I collaborated with Gillian Gardiner, one of my fellow students, on this, and with the assistance of Wesley Enoch, who stage-managed it, devised and performed it in 1989 at the university theatre.
I got a fairly average mark for my ‘directing’, but that wasn’t really the point. I was compelled to experiment, not always deliberately, with devising theatre to music. The show’s ‘script’ existed as a list of actions. I later wrote it up as a short story, but it didn’t work on the page. The ‘script’ did what the performance needed it to do, which is the reverse of how these things usually work. My peers, and audience members, seemed a bit mystified by it, but it was entertaining enough, I guess, and I suppose it looked like I meant it, however cloaked in irony it was.
Working with students now as I do, encouraging and guiding them towards their own creative processes, I recognize this kind of intent. There isn’t one way of doing things. Sometimes you muddle through, but you’re compelled to explore a particular direction with a lot of energy. Stumbling into something rather than staging a pre-determined leap. Reaching, fully extended, but not quite grasping. My teachers could have encouraged me to do something more sensible. Instead, they kept away, and trusted me to do my thing. In my teaching now, I want to provide a space where my students can surprise me, rather than give me what they think I want. I’d prefer it if they surprised themselves.
No video exists of The Magic Show. We performed it a few more times after I graduated, once at La Boite Theatre (1990). There are images from a subsequent season at Metro Arts (1991), a small theatre in the Brisbane CBD. It didn’t change or improve greatly, but people seemed to like it. It was a good education for me to manage re-mounting the shows, liaising with venues and doing publicity. Not my forte, but I’d put on the tux and music and I’d feel less like a fool. I went to see the concerto played live, and wasn’t as moved as I expected. I then stood nervously out the front of the Performing Arts Centre and offered handbills to concert-goers advertising performances of my ‘Magic Show’.