The Snow Goose. The novella by Paul Gallico... Was not my childhood love... but it certainly has become my adulthood love. On the other side of the first run of our stage adaptation of the 1940's classic - I have discovered the haunting beauty and gentle poetry of this story. But to be honest. When Simon and Helen Cooper first asked me if I would like to be involved in the adaptation - i'd never read it. I was still studying in Florence and I rushed out, bright red gum boots splashing along wet cobbled roads to the only English book store and I ordered a copy. I read it in what felt like a few minutes in my favourite cafe over a latte... I put it down and thought... Gosh. Okay. It's simple, it's sentimental, it's sparse... there is really a lot of space in this story... all beautifully described. But theatre is not the written word and we cannot simply do a transcription for the stage and hope it will fly... but rather to be inspired by the story to find the story within it that will work for us... the creators (James Cairns, Taryn Bennett and myself)... To find out why we like the story and then tell that story. Find places to expand and extend and discover something new... both in terms of stage craft, characters and event narrative.
So we began... one hot summers day in January 2013... with a warm up. Like all good theatre rehearsals should start. Stretch. Resonate. Get ready to play. And we did play. We told the story from the perspective of everyone in the story... from the postmistress to the hunters, the soldiers to the recruitment officer, the snow goose to the lighthouse... everyone except the to lead characters. This way we learned so much about them and found connections that were perhaps not in the original story. It was on this first day of rehearsals - when I saw the hunters - that I decided to try half masks. There was something so right about their contradicting dynamics - their sense of fun and their small minded meanness... that cried out for a primary mask... So I got to work.
(Here are James and Taryn in our reheasal room in Brixton)
(Here are James and Taryn in our reheasal room in Brixton)
I have never made a primary mask before - I had only played Matteo Destro's primary masks - so it was all rather scary. And of course I have made masks and learnt quite a bit about how to do it from Matteo... but now I didn't have him there to call on for 'HELP!' I made a hundred mistakes. Some could be fixed and others are still there... waiting to be corrected. Righted. Redone.
|Taryn Bennett... and her extraordinarily petit face mould|
So whilst I was making them, the whole time I had Matteo's voice in my head... 'Find the plain.' 'Find the volume.' 'What's the consequence?' 'Take a risk... even to the point of destroying it.' ...And I destroyed many. I am proud to say. So here we have The Hunters... ta-daa...
With these masks I pay homage to my teacher Matteo Destro. Whilst they are nothing like the brilliance of his work... they did play. And the actors had a tremendous amount of fun. And I love them. And now that the show is neatly packed away in crates waiting for 'next time' ... I really miss them. Thank you Matteo. Again.
|James Cairns as Frank and Taryn Bennett as Mr Cartwright... in action.|
photo by Sam Lowe
Initially both lead characters were not going to be masked but once we started working it became so clearly and plainly obvious that Rhayader needed to be masked... a hunchback living alone in a lighthouse. Mask. For sure. But certainly not a primary mask - so now we were combining mask styles - which I knew we would do right from the beginning and I just hoped it would work....
The moment James put on the mask ... and we found the right voice... he instantly moved both Taryn and I. Taryn said she could see why Frith kept going back to the lighthouse... he's so lovely! And kind. And he was so lovely. So tremendously moving. Mask. Amplification. Subtly. Sentiment. What a wonderful thing.
|Taryn Bennet as Frith and James Cairns as Rhayader|
photo by Bazil Raubach
It was also clear that Frith should not be masked. Somehow she is the innocent. Juliet... or Beauty and Rhayader, the Beast. She is the one who grows and learns and changes. The emotional crescendo is with her... When studying melodrama Giovanni Fusetti would often ask us where do you want to break the audiences heart... Name it, and go for it. And with us it there was no question that it was with Frith. And her being unmasked gave depth to that decision. I believe. For us perhaps Frith is the lead character and not Rhayader as it is in the original story. The challenge was how to play a mask without physically wearing one - so that Frith is not playing in a different style to the rest of the play. With 'naturalistic' performance the rules of action/reaction and articulation do not need to so incredibly rigid. But with mask... this is the difference between clarity and porridge. So it was a challenge... An exciting one. Taryn played in red nose - the smallest mask - until a few days before the end of our rehearsals. And in my opinion it happened. It worked.
|James Cairns as Frank and Taryn Bennett as Val|
photo by Dani Bischoff (as well as all photo's below)
Val was also a humane-half-mask. So she was in the same 'world' as Rhayader which was also right. She has a big scene with Frank and the different masks on stage worked. What works, works.
|James Cairns as the General and Taryn Bennett as Frith|
And then there was The General. A character where James really tapped into performance flow... it was wonderful. His short sharp scene lit up the stage. Here we used the mask I only know as Doctore in Commedia... it follows the T shape of the face. Initially I thought I would use them for the news readers... but in the end the news readers were masked by hats, a little microphone and a spot light...
The device of using the news readers was wonderful for time and place... we found real BBC news broadcasts and transcribed them... 'This is London.'
Making them live and not pre-recorded was exciting, at times creating split second choreography on stage... where often I thought... oh dear he's not going to make it. But he did. Every time.
What was very interesting about using mask to tell this story is it brought to the stage all the elements that make the novella so wonderful... Beauty without being self conscious. Sparsity without being boring. Sentiment without becoming sentimental. I feel so very lucky to have been a part of this process.
At the end of third year at Helikos the students were each given a 'Command' - a personal sentence - as a provocation to create their final piece of work. As I did not finish my final year at Helikos due to work opportunities at home - one of which was The Snow Goose - for me this piece is my command. And in some ways all my teachers were there with me all the time. Making the masks and in the rehearsal room. I cannot say enough about the brilliance of that school.
In the moments before we opened the doors for our premiere performance in Grahamstown. I was shaking like a leaf. After a very messy technical rehearsal the night before, getting to bed at 2am, not being able to sleep, I honestly thought... We're not ready... What have I done... I have wasted Simon's money... I have let the actors down... I have forced these brilliant performers into wearing masks and shook to a degree the foundations of their training... taking away much of what they would normally rely on. Oh my word. There was not enough time. I need more time.
The doors opened. The Andrew Sisters sung merrily as the audience poured in. A full house. 200 people. 200 people who grew up with The Snow Goose as their childhood love. I am so sorry Paul Gallico! We get clearance from front of house... and we're on. As I was running sound and calling lights I honestly don't remember anything else until there was a thunderous applause and an audience leaping to their feet. My eyes filled with tears and relief and I thought. I love theatre. It is so scary. All theatre by its very nature is experimental. Who knows anything.
|Dance some more.|
|Dance dance dance...|
So thank you... Simon and Helen Cooper. Taryn Bennett and James Cairns. Nick Warren. Barbara Draeger. Duncan Gibbon. Alida van Deventer. Peter Connell.
I cannot wait for the next run. Aah.
A few sound bites:
Ow. My poor poor heart. I was giddy with admiration, gratitude and honestly, love, when I left the Drill Hall after watching The Snow Goose. This play is proof of that elusive magic made between actor and audience in well-made theatre; an energy with the ability to get you buzzing. ~ Kei-Ella Loewe, Artsblog
This play is a must-see. It will make you cry but it will shift your parameters as to how good theatre in this country can actually be. Don't miss it. ~ Robyn Sassen, Artslink
With the significant talents of James Cairns and Taryn Bennett, masterfully swapping faces (literally) to play all the story's characters, the story of the unlikely friendship between two people over and injured snow goose thrown off course over pre-war England is brought vividly to life. ~ Gayle Edmunds, City Press