If you’ve seen or read about The Empty City, stage adaptation of the picture book (illustrated by Jonathon Oxlade) that opened in mid 2013 at the Brisbane Powerhouse (The Human Company/MAPS for Artists), you’ll have a sense of what a layered piece of performance it is.
Over the 5 years it took to make it, me and the team compiled quite a few ‘promos’, cobbling together elements from creative development: now there’s a finally taster for the show that draws from the finished product. I like the image Youtube selected as the snapshot below: a (video of a) live actor performing with a screen depicts a boy interacting with a screen in a cinema. A moment of mise-en-abyme that sums up the challenge and fascination at the heart of this piece.
As writer and co-composer on the project a lot of my work involved words on pages and screens, waveforms and vibrating air of sound and music. The project generated a flurry of documentation, both internal and external as we experimented and synced music, live action and animation.
We made a relatively high-tech live performance within very tight parameters of time and resources. Our entire budget would probably have funded the first two seconds of the average car commercial on telly. So there was a lot of experimentation and improvisation in working out not only what we were doing, but how it was going to be achieved.
Therefore there were gigs and gigs of video ephemera created around the process, a lot of it rough, and not meant for anyone outside the team to see. If you’ve read this far, you’re already interested in how this stuff’s made, so I thought I’d share it now.
Final Scene Animatic
The last scene of the piece was written in July 2012 for the Queensland Premier’s Drama Award: an event that culminated in a playreading of this non-verbal piece.
Tom and his Mother, viewed through a shop window, interact with each other, and exit. The scene would happen on video. When the team came to film it in 2013, it was problematic – being non-verbal, and carrying a lot of information, in eyeline and body language, it was too subtle, and needed a simplification and redraft. This needed to happen on the page rather than in the rehearsal room or film studio.
Somewhat daunted by the task (‘rewrite the final scene’) I needed to ‘see’ it before I wrote it, so I made the below animatic with bits of paper, taking photos with my i-pod. A primitive moving storyboard, it enabled me to pre-visualise what I was writing. In doing this I saw the scene was about ‘moving on’ and therefore best achieved with strategic entrances and exits, not with glances and eye-contact. it needed to be a theatrical moment on film, not a filmic moment in a live performance.
Behind the scenes interview
The Brisbane Powerhouse’s marketing team made this. It was shot in the rehearsal room towards the beginning of the process. I’m not sure how it’s useful.
Video Game sequence: mockup
(spoiler alert) In a climactic scene where Tom is in Mr Crazy’s, a novelty/toy store, he is hassled by one of the toys. The script outlines how he disappears into the store, and then appears inside a video game he’s played earlier, pursued by his nemesis. I mocked up this piece to experiment with how this might look, cutting and pasting images in a primitive ‘paint’ program, as well as playing with music generated from generic video game loops.
The scene wasn’t needed so we cut it before we attempted to realise it properly; here’s a slapdah animation I made to experiment with how it could work.
Cinema Trailer: mockup
After being unable to watch the end of a movie trailer blaring at the front of a cinema on his journey into the city, once Tom’s in control of his own itinerary he makes his way back to the movies. The trailer is as empty of meaning as the city he’s in is empty of people. This is a place for the performance to play with the seductive meaninglessness of what much of Hollywood excretes.
The music of this sequence came first, the voice-over performed by Sandro Colarelli as part of the development the play underwent as part of the Queensland Premier’s Drama Awards. Brett Collery and I enhanced the audio, looking for the biggest metallic thuds we could find.
The script specified footage of empty capital cities from all over the world. I did up a rough, using timelapse footage of Brisbane (captured by Luke Monsour) of this on my laptop to get a sense of how sound, vision and and text might converse. Luke later edited a more professional version for incorporation into the show’s layered projections.
The last sound effect I made for the show was the sound of the protagonist hitting a ceramic bowl. I did this very late one night, shortly before the show opened. There was something ceremonial about this, a kind of prayer-ful gesture made in the hope that this wild show was going to work, so I filmed the act and sent it to David Fenton, the director, who got the joke, and the hope.
This video perfectly captures all the glamour and excitement of making a theatre soundtrack.
Day Before Opening
On the last day, with the script long finalised, the music in place, and a key prop finally arrived in the theatre, I had little to do but work on my theatre tan,and fret mildly. I filmed this as The Empty City emerged out of the darkness.