On remounts

You rehearse a play. Then it goes on in front of a group of people. Hopefully they like it. The work grows and changes through the season as actors overcome nerves and settle into their roles. Then on closing night, it disappears forever. And that’s that. It exists in reviews and memories. The artists move on to the next project, lessons learned.

So it’s a fascinating experience remounting a work after a long absence. Particularly if you quite like what you did with it the first time around.

I’ve been taking time out from Barking Gecko to remount two shows in Sydney this last week and a half. It’s not every show that works, but both of these seemed to strike a chord with audiences in their earlier incarnations – The Unknown Soldier (Monkey Baa Theatre, written by Sandie Eldridge) won a Glug Award last year for Best Production for Children and is due to be published by Playlab, and Death In Bowengabbie (Shaman Productions, written by Caleb Lewis) received warm reviews around the country in its previous seasons at The Blue Room and La Mama.

So I anticipated that the remounts for each would be simple: a question of rediscovering what we found last time and recreating it. But watching the archival footage of each, it was immediately clear to me that there were many things to work on. Elements of staging felt clunky or self-conscious. Scenes needed more dimension. Characters needed to be less “nice”. Themes and ideas needed to be communicated with greater simplicity or more complexity. In short, I had a lot of work to do!

A remount gives you an ability to look at work as a whole. This lets you be more objective in assessing its aesthetic effect – something very hard to do the first time around. In the first incarnation of a show, a work is coalescing as it moves towards becoming the thing that it is for opening night and beyond.  So as a director you are holding in tension what you are seeing on the floor and the potential final form the work may possibly take. Remounting a show, you already have a complete template to work from, and it becomes easier to assess what is intrinsic to the work and what is not.

You are also wiser the second time around because you have listened to the audience. Returning to work you are equipped with a wealth of knowledge from how the first audience responded moment-to-moment. It becomes clear from their responses when an idea is too obscure or too obvious, when a moment is tedious or trite. And crucially, you know where you can get a reaction from the audience and can choose whether this helps or hinders the entire story you are telling.

Finally, your ego is less involved remounting a work that has already “succeeded”. The first time around, there’s a tendency to hang onto your favourite ideas to prove they are right. In fact it can be hard to gauge whether these are visionary artistic impulses or just stubbornness! After time, there is a loosening of ego as you let go of ideas that once seemed precious and important. It becomes more about the audience and the work, as it should be.

So I am hoping that audiences agree that the work has improved! The Unknown Soldier certainly seems to have struck a chord last week – it has been getting warm responses from audiences in Sydney, including this response from a high school teacher who brought her 40 students for their first theatrical experience:

The Unknown Soldier was better than I could have ever imagined! It was beautifully written, with excellent production elements and superbly performed. Coming from a school in South Western Sydney where students generally have very little money this production was an absolute gift… as a first piece of theatre for students to be exposed to it was absolutely perfect. I have never seen students so interested or enthused in History.

Responses like the one above are why children’s theatre companies like Monkey Baa and Barking Gecko are so important. Creating these powerful first experiences of theatre are why we all work so passionately and meticulously – and this feedback makes the many hours of effort worthwhile. There is never a fixed and perfect version of any play, but it feels like we deepened and improved The Unknown Soldier a huge amount this time around. The remount felt objectively better than the original. If we continue to think hard about the work we make, if we consider how to be better every time we make or return to a show, then generations of young people will develop a love for the theatre and our ancient art of storytelling will continue to flourish.

Death In Bowengabbie starts its national tour in a month’s time in WA at Gosnells and His Majesty’s Theatre. I can’t wait to see how audiences respond.