Friday, 7 December 2012

Am I Happy Yet?

I am currently working on a new theatre project with actor Joanne Davis called Am I Happy Yet?  I recently spent three days with Joanne and visual artist Sarah Lloyd developing the first draft of the work.

Rebecca and Joanne, art HALL Learmonth, December 2012

Joanne and I started working together about eighteen months ago when Joanne joined me in the production of my series of monologues Bits and Pieces.  

Bits and Pieces - Beverley Geldard, Rebecca Lister, Joanne Davis

While working together Joanne and I discovered that we both had a shared interest in the subject matter of grief, loss, sadness and happiness.  In a former working life Joanne had worked as a palliative care nurse and during 2011 and 2012 I worked as artist-in-residence with Support After Suicide working on a writing, publication and performance project with community members who have lost a loved one to suicide - Nothing prepared me for this.  

And so began months of discussions about exploring the subject of happiness, sadness and contentment and the possibility of  working on developing a new piece of theatre based on our explorations.

We were particularly interested in the material that was presented in the new DSM 5 and the statements that were being released about grief and depression.  We were particularly interested in this area as there appeared to be an increase in what is frequently referred to as the pathologising of sadness.  We felt alarmed about the potential for normal human grief to be diagnosed as an illness or disease.  From these initial readings we then started to research further and came across articles by Gail Bell, The Loss of Sadness by Allan V. Horwitz and Jerome C. Wakefield and From Melancholia to Prozac - a history of depression by Clark Lawlor.

It became apparent that there was an abundance of information, discussion and debate around the topic of happiness in our society and how we obtain it, why we want it and how it alludes us.  However much of the information is erudite, scientific and not particularly accessible to the average reader.  What we wanted to do was to develop a piece of theatre that was accessible, thought provoking and real.  And hence began our journey.

We realised that we had access to an enormous amount of literature around the subject of happiness but what we wanted was input, ideas, words and thoughts from our friends and colleagues.  We decided to send out a short questionnaire to people asking some general questions:

  • how do you describe happiness?
  • what makes you happy?
  • can you describe a moment when you felt happy?
  • what is contentment?
  • is contentment different from happiness?
  • can you describe a moment when you felt content?
We received numerous responses to these questions and these assisted us in further developing the direction of our project.  The reoccurring themes were around belonging, connection, doing things that were meaningful, caring for self and others.  the other key point to emerge from our questionnaire and research was to do with sadness and the role in plays in our lives.  Many people stated that they had struggled with sadness at various times but that being able to sit with that sadness without fear was crucial to understanding it. 

So armed with all of this research and knowledge we wondered how on earth we would be able to pull and shape it into a piece of relevant and accessible theatre.

Joanne is a member of Ballarat company Yarrowee Productions and early this year they were successful in receiving  funding from the City of Ballarat (Community Impact Grants) to assist in the exploration and showing of new work.  Joanne submitted a proposal to Yarrowee that we, together with visual artist Sarah Lloyd, would engage in a three day 'hot-house' workshop and develop material for a works-in-progress showing at the end of the three day period.

visual artist Sarah Lloyd

Sarah Lloyd is a visual artist, writer and performer and lives in the small town of Learmonth near Ballarat in Victoria.  She is a great friend of Joanne's and they last collaborated together on the Tea Tales projects.  she is also owner of the wonderful Learmonth art HALL where she works as an aritist, facilitates workshops, teaches, exhibits her and other artists work and provides a beautiful central space for other community based projects.  

art HALL Learmonth

Joanne and I decided a few months ago that the work would be a one woman monologue and that I would write the piece for and with Joanne.  In the week leading up to our hot house weekend I began to write notes for potential, develop some ideas for a character and write some short scenes.  Together with this material, our research material and our responses to the questionnaire we began work.

From the beginning of the process we decided that our character would be a woman named Greta and that the narrative arc of the work would centre around a surprise party organised for Greta on the day of her 47th birthday.  One of the basic premises of seeing what a character can do or reveal is to put them under pressure and see what that creates.  We decided that the set-up of a surprise party would be enough to create pressure for Greta.  

chirpy Joanne - day 1

We spent the first day talking, reading material I had written, reading the notes sent to us and generally discussing what happiness means and how if effects people.  It was really important to spend the time exploring the subject matter and trying to get a handle on what we wanted to explore before taking to the floor and developing the character, improvisations and scenes.  Sarah was actively engaged in all discussions and when Joanne and I were looking at specific scenes, she began to draw.

visual artist Sarah Lloyd - art HALL Learmonth

works-in-progress table

Toby - our companion for the weekend
Sarah and Beck - working, lake Learmonth 

By the end of day one we had started to formulate a bit of structure around our ideas; we had a few scenes that we thought would work; we had an idea of the journey of the character in regards to her tenuous relationship with both happiness and unhappiness and felt that we also wanted to explore some scenes that looked at contentment.  We ended work in the early evening and then headed back to Sarah's wonderful property outside Learmonth.  Sarah and her partner Geoff set us up in the 'barn' which is a beautiful fully renovated old barn which was our 'home' for the next two nights.  After a twilight walk around the lake we settled in for the evening with good food, wine and conversation with Sarah and Geoff.  We went to bed tired but happy!

Day Two:  We were back at the hall by mid morning and Joanne was keen to get up on the floor and start working with some of the scenes that we had written the day before and the ones that I had written earlier during the week.  We also started to use some of the props and bits and pieces of art work scattered around the hall and these pieces become instrumental in the telling of Greta's story.  As the day wore on we started to feel that a narrative was emerging.  (props made by students from the art HALL art CLASSES and Tim Sedgwick)

Beck and Joanne - day 2
props in the space
Our character, Greta, was to be thrust into a surprise party in her own home and the  intensity of this situation pushes her into reflecting upon a variety of situations and scenes throughout her life - which provoked feelings of anxiety, sadness, happiness and contentment. 

starting to move and block
singing at the school concert - 'Ben'

We decided to show these scenes by moving backwards and forwards in time, with each present time situation taking place in either the party or in the bathroom at the party.   This was a long day and we worked until about 9pm developing ideas, scenes and connections.  By the time we finished on Saturday we had a structure for the play - the surprise party with the audience playing the party guests, a large number of connecting scenes moving forwards and backwards in time, a number of scenes blocked and even a couple of songs!  We ended the day with food, wine and late night conversation.

"I will call this file - creating a happy reality"

Day 3:  The showing.  

We were up early making last minute scene changes, printing of script and preparing the hall.  We had about 30 pages of script to show and about 25 scenes.  The showing was timed at about 60 minutes.  On entry to the space the audience were to receive a party hat, a lolly bag, a party whistle and a glass of wine.  Each audience member would be greeted as though a guest at a surprise party and told to sit and wait for Greta.  

last minute edits
Last rehearsal

"piggy, piggy, piggy me!"
"i have been given a Dragstar bike for my birthday"
"again my heart drips"
"each gesture, expression, movement is captured"

Sarah finishes her art and begins to hang:



"it's my party"

The audience arrives, takes their party objects and is seated.  At 4.10pm the showing begins!

whistles, hats and lolly bags for the audience

"does coffee feel good once it has expressed itself?"

"I know this scenario"

"for weeks he has stayed in his room"
"there is a lull in the conversation - i don't like lulls"
"i feel like i have a small bird in my chest"

"i am in a rage - the washing machine has broken down"
"encased in a membrane"
"i long for a membrane to encase me"



appreciative audience
After the show we have a short discussion with the audience about the work. Feedback was very positive and comments can be read here.


question and answers


audience discussion

Sarah and audience member discuss the work
A 'hot house' process is a fantastic way to get to the guts of a new work and explore really quickly what it is you want to say. We still have an enormous amount of work to do on this project and are looking forward to exploring it further in 2013.

Events like this would not be possible without lots of support, so many thanks to:  city of Ballarat Yarrowee Productions, Sarah Lloyd, Geoff Bonney, all the people who responded to our questionnaire and of course the audience who came to the showing and took the tie to engage with us and our work.

Many thanks to Rupert Russell for the wonderful photos on the day.  A full album of Rupert's photos from the showing can be viewed here.

More to come in 2013.

Saturday, 10 November 2012

I'll be there - songs of solidarity with the Victorian Trade Union Choir

I'm currently working with the VTUC as the guest writer and director for their new show I'll be there. This week rehearsals began in earnest.

The choir was started in 1990 under the artistic direction of Sian Prior.   For the last 18 years the wonderfully talented and committed Michael Roper has provided the musical direction for the choir.  Late last year the choir celebrated it's 21st birthday with a concert bash at Trades Hall.  Some of the choir members performing in I'll be there have been with the choir for the entire 21 years!

I'm stoked to be working with Michael again, having performed with him in the mid 80's on the Street Arts Theatre Company's show Happy Families by Hugh Watson.  

All the members of the choir have had some association with the Union movement in Australia and for many internationally as well.  They have either been long term union members, or worked for unions or supported unions.  In it's 21 year history the choir has sung at numerous strikes, picket lines, demonstrations, public events, anniversaries and celebrations. 

I'm loving my residency and really enjoying developing the I'll be there show with the choir. Whilst all of the choir members are experienced singers for many this is their first theatre experience and they are approaching it with gusto and determination - as you would imagine a union mob to do!

Rehearsals are incredibly productive and filled with singing, laughter and a great sense of camaraderie. The show is made up of a series of vignettes based on stories told and developed by choir members about their involvement with the union movement, the choir and the history of the union movement in this country.  The show is lively and engaging and is peppered with both humorous and poignant stories.  I hope you get a chance to see it.  More info and bookings.