The long, happy haul: touring The Theft of Sita

Wendy Blacklock

On paper it was a good tour. A week of re-rehearsal in Sydney, 2 weeks in the Drama Theatre of the Sydney Opera House, then off to New York, London, the Belfast and Aldeburgh Festivals and 2 regional centres in the UK. Work for 9 weeks, with lots of travelling, tight bump ins and 4, 5 or 6 performances each week.

The Theft of Sita company is made up of 24 independent freelance artists and technicians, who were brought together by director Nigel Jamieson and composer Paul Grabowsky in preparation for the premiere at the 2000 Adelaide Festival. Nigel and Paul had presented their idea for a puppetry/music theatre piece to a gathering of festival directors way back in October 1998. Performing Lines had been asked to produce if the project received funds from the Major Festivals Initiative, which it did, and Adelaide and Melbourne had put up their hands to present.

It was to be a collaboration, using a dalang co-composer and some musicians from Indonesia, with rehearsals in Bali and an out-door production in the style of the wayan kulit. It was budgeted with lots of airfares, accommodation and per diems included, to accommodate the many home bases of the potential company. Who else would cast Australian puppeteers from Sydney and Canberra, musicians from Sydney and Melbourne, technical crew from Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney and 6 Balinese puppeteers and musicians? The answer is that the very best people were required for what turned out to be a special show.

Suddenly on the eve of a creative development/rehearsal period in Bali the East Timor crisis erupted. The phone began to ring with a question that would be echoed over the next 2 years. Is it safe to go? Rumours of the antagonism towards Australians travelling in Indonesia were rife, but surely Bali, the sleepy friendly holiday island was safe?

They went, but the trip was not without problems. Recasting the dalang and a change of musicians became necessary. Also a change of schedule for full company rehearsal became obvious. The Adelaide Hills had never seemed so attractive. It had enough power, a large enough rehearsal space, even lodging at the Christian Elcarim Convention Centre with home cooking courtesy of Nigel’s wife, Rosie McDonell. What's more, international festival directors visiting the Performing Arts Market could even drive to the Hills and see rehearsals and that was how the show was invited to the Theaterformen Festival in Hanover.

People often ask how long it takes to land an overseas invitation or the lead time it takes to set up a tour. It varies of course, but in the case of Hanover a representative saw a rehearsal in the Adelaide Hills, another representative saw the full show a few weeks later in the Botanic Park and three months later the show was remounted to open the new 800 seat venue on the Expo site in Germany.

So how did the 2001 tour come about? Joseph Melillo from the Brooklyn Academy of Music was visiting Australia during the Adelaide Festival looking for interesting product that could represent Australia during his Next Wave Festival at BAM [Brooklyn Academy of Music]. The Festival has been described by the New York Times as “the foremost showcase for contemporary experimental performance in the United States”. For the first time Joseph had decided to have a focus on one country and the Australia Council had made a commitment to assist with financial support for his choices. BAM uses two venues, the Opera Theatre and the Harvey (a wonderful 900 seater that was a vaudeville venue). It had been closed for many years and the story goes that when Peter Brook was looking for a venue for the Mahabharata he, and the then artistic director of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Harvey Leichstein, had peeped through a window and seen the decaying old theatre and managed to re-open it. They have been using it ever since.

But Joseph Melillo was not able to see The Theft of Sita in Adelaide. He had already left for Melbourne by the time it opened. Phone calls and promotional material followed, but it was not till Joe returned to Australia many months later that I was able to get an appointment with him to see the archival video–a truly terrible video as it is virtually impossible to photograph Sita and do justice to the amazing puppetry. However, Joe knew Paul Grabowsky’s work and had talked to Robyn Archer so an invitation followed. Sita with its combination of disparate elements, such as ancient and modern storytelling, eastern and western music and Australian and Indonesian culture was a good contrast to Joseph’s other choices for a celebration of Australian arts and culture.

The main stage productions at BAM were to be Belvoir Company B's Cloudstreet, Chunky Move, The Theft of Sita and Bangarra. Dance Theatre. In the other venues such as the BAM Café a series of 10 live music performances would take place; in the Rose Cinemas 30 feature length and short films would be shown, and dialogues and discussions would be slotted between.

We could get to New York but it was a long way to go for 4 performances, so when Lucy Neal and Rose Fenton of LIFT [London International Festival of Theatre] asked us to be one of their first touring projects in the UK, we jumped at the opportunity. The LIFT Festival has been importing international work into London during the summer for many years, but are now changing their policy to work on a year-round basis and include regional venues after a London season.

Rose had seen the dress rehearsal of Sita in the Botanic Park Adelaide and Lucy had come across to Hanover to also check it out. They were typically enthusiastic and so began the applications to the Arts Council of Great Britain to get the extra funding needed to tour this very expensive production. They needed 3 regional venues and although the Belfast Festival had expressed interest that couldn’t be counted. Meanwhile at home I had applied to the AICC [Australian International Cultural Council] for money to cover the airfares. Following the success of the Heads UP program in London it seemed possible that there could be support for another Australian production to be presented there. (As already noted, with company members scattered all over the globe the air fares are not inconsiderable!)

A further stroke of luck. Philip Rolfe, executive producer at the Sydney Opera House had a 2 week space in the Drama Theatre, prior to the New York dates. That meant we could re-rehearse in Sydney, and settle the performance before setting off for overseas. The tour was extending and the musicians were not used to performing the same show night after night. Shelley Scown, the wonderful singer who plays Sita could not leave her family for 9 weeks so a replacement after London needed to be found. One Balinese musician needed to be replaced. The show also needed some refinements in staging as the company performed on a rostra but this would not fit at all the venues we were playing.

When one speaks of a re-rehearsal period of only a week it makes no allowance for the months of prior work the technical and administration staff have to do. How many times did we email the requirements for the gongs which the Balinese play but we can’t tour because of the weight? Even though presenters liaise with the local Indonesian consuls there is always difficulty explaining the pitch and the need for bronze gongs, not other metals. The gongs are traditional but the music played is not.

And the visas. The line in the budget was $7,000 and was all spent. The Indonesian artists required 3–one for Australia, one for the USA and one for the United Kingdom. Not difficult but time consuming to organise when Performing Lines is in Sydney and the artists are scattered around Bali. Previously we have sent money to their bank accounts in Indonesia only to find the Bank charges a fee of 20%. So the connection with Asialink residencies has proved extremely useful. Whoever is in the vicinity of Bali (this time it was Mitzi Zaphir, on a previous occasion Sue Ingleton) drops off required funds. It is known as the Performing Lines International Courier Service. The Australian visa is not difficult to get but the English had to send to Jakarta, by courier at 70,000 rupiah. Must pay in rupiah which is strange as some extras in Bali must be paid in US dollars.

It isn’t a tour if everything goes as you wish / hope it will. Firstly, 2 of the proposed venues in the UK fell through. No regional tour, no special funding from the Arts Council so no UK performances could go ahead.

Therefore no AICC funding for airfares as this was tied to London. To say nothing of the effect to the budget as 5 weeks of rehearsal/pre-production amortisation was lost. Lucy Neal swung into action and a few weeks later the tour was back on. A very well known artist had lost his booking in Oxford and Tish Francis, who runs the Oxford Playhouse was fitting Sita onto her rather small stage. Plus the Aldeburgh Festival in Benjamin Britten country would slot us in, but only for half a week. What repercussions did this have to the finances? Manageable.

Meantime, the trusty Heather Clarke took a production management job with Cloudstreet. She had been Sita’s production manager from the beginning and could still do the tour if she could pick us up in New York. We were lucky that Simon Wise would stand in for Sydney and get the freight on the plane to New York. The turn-arounds were very tight and the nightmares are not about forgetting the lines but whether the company turns up and the set and props don’t.

And then September 11 happened, and suddenly the usual problems associated with touring became completely insignificant. What was happening? Should we go? Was the Next Wave Down Under program to be cancelled? Letters flew backwards and forwards between BAM and the Australia Council, with Foreign Affairs giving political updates on the situation and the media replaying the coverage of the horrifying attacks until they were etched into the psyche. The telephone rang hot. Agents protecting their clients or offering replacements, artists wanting information which we didn’t have, niggling questions about safety and ultimate responsibility. Paul Grabowsky had been trapped in Toronto at a Film Festival on September 11, and had experienced first hand the problems of flight systems that had completely closed down leaving no escape routes.

Joseph Melillo and everyone at BAM urged us to go. We would be safe and well looked after, and it was important that the BAM Festival continue. “Although we have experienced a tragedy in our City, all New Yorkers are united that we shall take the time to mourn, recover and rebuild our lives and the City.”

So the original members of the company arrived in Sydney to rehearse, introducing Sang Nyoman Putra Arsawijaya, the new musician from Bali, and Katie Noonan from Brisbane who would take over from Shelley Scown after London. They were happy to see each other after a break of almost a year, and rehearsals and the Sydney season passed pleasantly. Audiences were down on expectations. Was it reaction to world events, the lack of tourists, the demise of Ansett, the looming election? The feeling that if someone was going to let off a bomb the Opera House would be the target? Who knows?

The season finished on the Friday and on Saturday we were on a plane to New York with the set and props following the next day. There had been much deliberation as everyone you spoke to had a different story. If the freight had to change planes onto a domestic flight in Los Angeles it could take 48 hours to be searched and then would be sent overland by truck. By the time it reached New York the performances would be over. To combat this scenario we were advised to put the 437 kilos of screens, puppets and musical instruments into a 1670 kilo pallet, and though this was expensive we were assured of delivery in time to bump in. It arrived!

Joe Melillo was right. We were greeted with open arms, wined and dined and what was even more wonderful played every show to capacity (900) audiences. We even put 30 cushions on the orchestra pit and these were also taken. The hotel where the Australian contingent were to be accommodated had gone, so we were housed in the very comfortable Brooklyn Marriott. This was only a 10 minute walk to the BAM Harvey theatre so even internal travel was manageable.

The New York Times critic had some problems with puppets that were 2-dimensional, which was unfortunate with a shadow puppet play. One rather felt that he spent a lot of time reviewing the movies, and he did indeed admit that he had never been to the BAM Harvey before. But he loved the “dazzling musical accompaniment composed by Paul Grabowsky and I Wayan Gde Yudane and featuring two knockout vocalists, Shelley Scown and I Gusti Putu Sudarta.”

Congratulations must go to the marketing department as it was very impressive for the entire festival. It was also impressive that LIFT would fly over Lyn Gardiner from the Guardian and Paul Taylor from The Independent to see the show in New York and write large articles about it prior to the London opening.

We played our final performance on the Sunday and were on a plane to London at 9 o’clock the next morning. Many of the Company had travelled in to Manhattan to look at the rubble of the World Trade Centre and were very affected. A heaviness hung in the air which affected people’s sleep patterns and the artists were tired. Australians living in New York were talking of going home. In spite of the warmth of the hospitality and enthusiasm of the audiences we were pleased to be on our way.

Lucy Neal and Rose Fenton had been unable to book a large venue owing to the Dance Umbrella Festival, so from a 900 seater we were reduced to the Riverside Studios which seated only 400. For me, there were memories of taking No Sugar to the Riverside in 1988. This semi-promenade production had used both studios with audiences trailing the actors from one side of the building to the other. Now we were confined to Studio 2 but again each performance was sold out with people clamouring for tickets.

Michael Billington from The Guardian reviewed the show with 4 stars. Michael has visited Australia and understands the politics behind the story. He said “The heartening thing is that two cultures combine to produce both a celebration of theatrical craft and a scathing attack on unrestrained market forces and environmental destruction. This is puppetry with politics and heart.”

The other reviews were equally supportive and the week whizzed by. There were functions with the Indonesian and Australian High Commissioners, workshops for puppeteers led by Peter Wilson and I Made Sidia, forums and seminars with director Nigel Jamieson who was enjoying being home and able to visit his parents. We caught up with designer Julian Crouch, who had worked with us initially but hadn’t toured since Adelaide. Julian noticed big improvements in the show since those early days and it was good to have him joining in the audience discussion groups. People were interested to know how the show had been created and everyone acknowledged how lucky we were to have had enormous financial support from the Major Festivals Initiative.

The UK regional tour followed. Warwick, the Belfast Festival, Oxford and the Aldeburgh Festival. As normal on tour there was a vast difference in venues and accommodation, and the usual ups and downs of planes being over-booked, the weather freezing which makes life uncomfortable for the Indonesians, and the odd problem of the prop coconut going missing. We didn’t mind if someone was hungry but where to get another in wintry Warwick? I had left the tour after London, handing over to our very competent Associate Producer, Karen Rodgers. She arrived home recently and we will be allowed to visit her in the nursing home shortly.

Our thanks to Wendy Blacklock and Performing Lines for allowing us to reproduce this report from the company newsletter.

RealTime issue #47 Feb-March 2002 pg.

© Wendy Blacklock; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 February 2002
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