Country, city, present tense

Clare Grant

Wide Open Road

Wide Open Road

Wide Open Road

From the centre of a wide screen, images of telephone poles split and flip right to the edges of the performing space, rhythmically evoking the small markers of a long journey. The video invites memories of childhood trips from farm to city while the repeated sequences and the softly pulsing soundtrack echo the flashing centre-lines of the road, drawing the viewer across the distances between the 2 ‘centres’ of the Wide Open Road project.

Outback Theatre from Hay in the far west of NSW and PACT Youth Theatre in inner city Sydney worked together over several months with a strong creative team to make this powerful and elegant performance. The final workshops were held in a woolshed at Tupra station on the Hay Plains where the first presentation took place. Together the 2 groups created an imaginative landscape that encompassed the breadth of both city and country spaces while remaining strongly located in the present performance space. This is one of the few productions I have seen that has managed this difficult transition.

Perhaps some of the incongruities of the creative process helped. One of the participants described making theatre at one end of the woolshed while at the other end a mob of ewes were being artificially inseminated.

The training processes, held separately but at crucial stages together in both Sydney and Hay, produced a steady focus, an easy physical presence and a common sense of place and relationship to the performance material in the widely divergent group of performing personalities. The show’s montage style and intelligent construction accommodated a range of aesthetics within its theme of movement across place and time. The idea of direction, whether towards or away from the country/city or more abstractly into an ambiguous future was heightened by the ‘diary ‘ form of much of the verbal material—we are in someone’s journal, inside both a memory as well as a kind of present experience.

As we enter, a young woman searches the air for mobile phone contact, groups hang out on hay bales and sometimes we hear a voice calling ‘hello, hello’, reaching for an ‘elsewhere’ while the audience is captured very clearly in the here and now. The confident and present bodies of the performers create a milieu that is immediately transporting. Surrounding us are the opening segments of the soundscape of light rhythmic sounds, cut across with mobile interference, and the diverging and melding telephone poles.

A back wall of corrugated iron makes a wide horizon and a long streak of light running diagonally across the stage activates another plane. Seamless shifts of place and delicately orchestrated movement through song, simple actions and clear strong voices harmonising fill the performance area and bring an experience of the bush to the city. Perhaps in Tupra it may have seemed like the city going to the bush. It’s here (and there) in the imagination of the audience and performers. The dissolves are almost filmic as sounds of the wind cut across images of both city and country. The time is the present.

Samuel James’ camera is equally comfortable sweeping through urban space or hovering above some minute detail in a wide, “empty” landscape. The images neither illustrate nor explain the actions on stage but sometimes lead and sometimes follow the stage action. The depth of field in much of the camera work brings the breadth of the geography into the awkward length of The Studio space to help create beautifully seamless and sweeping transitions.

Sound and light echo the movement of the camera and create a space that exists in the sensibilities of the young performers, anchored in place through their lyrics, spoken text, the use of icons of the outback (Akubras, hay bales) along with key objects (mobile phones, handbags). These are almost incidental on stage, products of reverie and contemplation in the space itself, as itself, and not part of a pretend place.

Through collages of imagery, we learn more of the lives of these performers than would be possible in a conventional narrative. The structure of images creates constant movement in the physical staging—there’s a stillness that is never static; voices come from all corners.

While the video images are powerful, we are never allowed to forget the presence of the performers in the space. In one of the strongest transitions, the live voices of the performers ‘hanging out’ on stage evoke the sounds of outback space. An Akubra is discovered on the ‘roadway,’ an ironic light flashing on it. We become slowly aware of a tiny figure far away on the deep-red-to-blue horizon on the screen. He is wearing an Akubra ‘for real,’ walking slowly towards us and growing, like a mirage, becoming the farmer whose slow-mo walk declares his certainty in the place. He moves steadily forward till he walks larger-than-life off the top edge of the screen, leaving only the horizon of red earth against the soft blue of the sky. Maybe it’s my memory of my farmer father, but the image is one of the most evocative I have seen in a while, its effect heightened by the precision and humour of the return to the physical presence of the performers.

Thirty or so disparate personalities working across large distances have found a common performance language and created a dense and vivid work.

Wide Open Road, direction Regina Heilmann, co-direction Alicen Waugh (Outback Theatre), Chris Murphy (PACT), video Samuel James, sound Nik Wishart, lighting Shane Stevens; PACT Youth Theatre and Outback Theatre produced by The Studio, Sydney Opera House, Dec 4-7 2002

RealTime issue #53 Feb-March 2003 pg. 35

© Clare Grant; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 February 2003