The Brisbane fringe festival was coming up and I wanted to make something new, something cheap and easily realisable. Since my first taste with TN!, I’d subsequently taken gigs in a few dodgy shows for kids and had hated it. I thought they deserved better. By 1997 I’d done some teacher training, I’d continued work as an actor and musician, and had started making films as well. So when Susan suggested that I make a fringe show for kids, I went for it. I’d performed in some good shows for children, and some that were completely appalling. Both ends of the spectrum inspired me to quit complaining and just make something for this audience that was amazing.
A bit slow on the uptake, I’d gathered a sense that making shows for children wasn’t just a stepping stone to getting ‘proper’ gigs – it was actually a very specialized kind of performance making. I’d found making theatre for children and young people (where I’d started as a young actor) 26.5 times more interesting than the adult shows I’d worked in professionally. The antecedents and contemporary practitioners I found were aesthetically refined and intellectually rich. Shows that I’d been moved by as a child, such as Phillipe Genty.
Nobody much asks you why you’re doing theatre for adults. But when you start making theatre for children, it’s one of the first questions people ask. Right or wrong, it comes with the territory. I chose to work again with Gillian, with whom I’d made The Magic Show, and started to build the concept of the play. I’d return to the non-verbal. I’d use the music of local composers Tom Adeney and Lynette Pratten, who I’d met in my work with Music for the Heart and Mind. Two contrasting characters would negotiate a surreal domestic world. I’d use music to build up a set of performed sequences that would add up to something. So far, so good.
The piece would be minimalistic, non-verbal, and involve the drama and weirdness of an ordinary morning in an extraordinary place. It would track the process of waking to eating. There would be performing objects, as well as people. I would find a way of incorporating my iguana into the show that wasn’t completely gratuitous. We’d horse around with sleeping bags and huge pieces of newspaper, just as Phillipe Genty had asked me to do when I auditioned for his troupe. It would be non-didactic and only use the kind of magic or illusion that kids could do themselves. There would be a single word spoken in the show, and only once. ‘Toast’.
I started researching the theory of making performances for children. I started considering the fact that they already had their own culture and experience that was different to, but no less important than those of adults.
That culture was dynamic, complex and changeable. They’re a radical audience to perform for, even those crushed by the school system. I started to consider children, as others had, as human beings rather than human becomings.
This constant desire for rationale could be annoying to you, if you’re anti-intellectual, and not used to being asked why what you’re doing might be worthwhile (see most adult theatre) or, it could be a challenge. What a fun place to play. To play with expectations.
We made the show on a shoestring. Lots of cardboard boxes painted blue. We performed the show on the stage of the Princess Theatre, Brisbane’s oldest theatre (1888) We reversed the performance space, inviting the audience up onto the stage and played it backwards, with our backs to the curtain. In this way the show was already playing with expectations, even before it had begun.
I arranged two ways to get up into the performance space: one labelled ‘exciting entrance’ which was a large cardboard box shoved under the heavy red stage curtains: a tunnel to crawl through. There was also a ‘boring entrance’, a side door. Most grown-ups took this one.
The show went down well, as far as I could tell. You learn to listen to an audience while keeping busy with your performance. The ripple of children’s laughter goes in and out of phase with the lower rumble of adults ‘speaking’ to the show, as surprises are revealed or new options explored and repeated for comic effect. While everything was kept simple, it wasn’t simplistic. Nothing was ‘dumbed down’. I was aiming for a kind of ‘dual address’ where adults and children enjoyed the same show in the same way at the same time. If we’d paid ourselves wages of course it would have been a different story, but enough people came to see the show for us to cover costs and make $70.
I decided I could make more and better performances for children. I was later awarded a Brisbane Lord Mayor’s Performing Arts Fellowship and went to Scandinavia and Germany to research their approaches to making this kind of art for this kind of audience, returned to Brisbane and made Backseat Drivers.