This week A Ghost in My Suitcase opens at the Melbourne International Arts Festival (lovely review from The Age here). The play has taken three years for us to develop at Barking Gecko, from the first impulse to a series of world premiere seasons in capital cities around the country. It has been an epic journey for myself, my co-director Ching Ching Ho, playwright Vanessa Bates and our brilliant team of creatives as we have painstakingly transformed Gabrielle Wang’s beautiful book into a stage play.
There has been a contractual need for secrecy around these upcoming seasons with national festivals, including soon-to-be announced dates in 2019. So until now I haven’t been able to give updates about what we’re up to in the same way I usually would. Today I’m making up for lost time!
A big, beautiful Australian fantasy
The child of a librarian, I grew up devouring fantasy books, my spare hours spent in strange worlds created by the likes of Ursula Le Guin and Philip Pullman. So when I found Gabrielle Wang’s book, a ghost fighting epic set in an ancient Chinese water town, with a brave young Australian protagonist, I was excited to share it with our young audience.
A Ghost in My Suitcase is the story of Celeste, a twelve year old Aussie girl with French and Chinese heritage, who travels to China for the first time to scatter her mother’s ashes. There she learns that her Grandmother is a ghost hunter and the power is passed down the female side of the family…
The story is a thrilling supernatural adventure, pivoting around a series of increasingly high-stakes ghost battles, as family secrets are uncovered and loyalties tested. But alongside the adventure plot, the story also works as a subtle meditation on grief, family, and embracing your gifts.
Almost everyone living in Australia has roots elsewhere. Many of us feel the pull of this history very strongly. So although the story is set entirely in China and full of the fantastical, it is also quintessentially Australian in its exploration of diaspora and belonging. And as such it’s an important work for us as an Australian children’s theatre company.
Begin as you mean to continue, is a useful maxim in art as well as in life. So a big question in adapting A Ghost in My Suitcase was: Who has a seat at the table in the very first development? When our creative team first met in early 2016, there were five of us. Ching Ching and I had already chatted about our ideas on the book and how we wanted to proceed.
What seemed vital was that alongside novelist Gabrielle Wang (who read us Lao Tzu’s Daoist philosophy and taught us Tai Chi and later ink painting) and playwright Vanessa Bates (who filled butchers paper with themes, locations and plot points) we also had designer Zoë Atkinson, dreaming up possibilities around space, time, architecture and imagery. On many new projects designers are not part of these initial conversations and are poorer for it. What a gift to have Zoë there from the start! This beginning has imprinted itself on the way Vanessa has written and the way Ching Ching and I have directed this work. The show has continued in this spirit for three years with investigations of design and use of space given equal weight to explorations of text and the body of the actor.
This has been a busy three years. Among our several creative developments across various cities, the team has travelled to the story’s locations in China. This has allowed us time and space to think deeply about questions of cultural representation in the work, a process in which Ching Ching Ho has led the entire team. Media Artist Sohan Ariel Hayes came on board early and part of his job has been to collect and select imagery for the show from these Chinese field trips. The sound design and has been lovingly crafted by Perth composer Rachel Dease and features her hauntingly beautiful compositions which bring Celeste’s ghost songs to life. Matt Marshall has effortlessly sculpted light to give each ghost its own unique energy and ambiance. And amongst all this, we’ve had multiple rounds of nationwide casting over two years to find five extraordinary, mulit-talented performers: Amanda Ma, Frieda Lee, Yilin Kong, Imanuel Dado and Alice Keohavong.
Literature and Theatre
A novel is by definition a literary form. Film is usually thought of as primarily a visual medium. Scripted theatre sits somewhere in the middle. Great theatre performances are often elegant combinations literary and visual languages – both artfully combined and each contributing to the overall meaning of the play in different moments.
So how do you choose what to use and when? Part of the secret to a good adaptation seems to lie in somehow capturing the spirit of the original in its new form. Our season is at The Playhouse at the Arts Centre Melbourne. The week before the same stage hosted another play based on a novel – Watt, adapted and performed by the brilliant Barry McGovern from Samuel Beckett’s book of the same name (pictured above). I was so impressed by the adaptation that I saw it twice. McGovern’s is a virtuosic performance – almost entirely focused on narrative from a single voice and perspective, full of dexterous use of intricate text combined with carefully selected gesture, used sparely and effectively. It’s an effective adaptation because it captures the spirit of a novel full of wordy, ambiguously-plotted existential philosophy. This approach, brilliant for Watt, would have been entirely inappropriate for us. For A Ghost in My Suitcase we have needed to pare back the words, to find the essential action and conflict and to be especially mindful of ‘negative space’.
The uses of not
Thirty spokes meet in the hub.
Where the wheel isn’t is where it’s useful.
Hollowed out, clay makes a pot.
Where the pot’s not is where it’s useful.
Cut doors and windows to make a room.
Where the room isn’t, there’s room for you.
So the profit in what is is in the use of what isn’t.
Lao Tzu, from Tao Te Ching, translated by Ursuala Le Guin
One of the ideas we have played with strongly in this adaptation is ‘negative space’. As you can see in the above daoist meditation, this is something that poet-philosopher Lao Tzu understood 2500 years ago. It is not always easy to define in the theatre, but I like to think of it as space left intentionally empty for an audience to fill. This is vital if an audience is to be truly engaged.
When and how to use negative space is a big question in particular when creating a work of fantasy like this one. There are times to lean into the literal depiction of spectacle and fantastical imagery and, vitally, times to leave space free for the imagination of the audience.
As you would imagine for a work of fantasy, in our show there are elements which are pure spectacle: a kabuki drop where a silky fabric descends from the heavens as night falls over a haunted house, cloaking the stage in darkness; or a highly detailed filmed ‘tracking shot’ down the canal of a water town, projected on every vertical surface in the space; or the cacophony of real-world image that is Shanghai Airport, or the climactic martial-arts style battle with two ghosts.
But then there are scenes where very little is illustrated. One of our young test-audience’s favourite scenes was our depiction of a bus full of frogs, created only with the artful composition of actors’ bodies and sound. Here the audience enlisted to create the image with us – the frogs, the bus and the world of rural china beyond the foggy windows. Or we have the ghost of the French Chef, who never appears on stage but whose earthquake-like energy manifest in actors bodies and in sound.
Negative space can exist in text itself: language constructed in a way that invites interpretation via omissions, inferences, ambiguity and mystery. Or it can be seen in the way a we use light: in a ghost story it is vital to choose carefully what parts of actors, objects and the stage are illuminated and what parts are left dark. And perhaps most clearly, it manifests in the use of physical space: for example in how actors and objects are arranged and what use is made of the offstage space.
Show or tell?
One of the challenges when we first tested this play in front of children in Perth, was that too often we were using both these techniques at once: we were showing and telling. How you strike the balance for a young audience is particularly delicate – children need enough information to make sense of what they are seeing for themselves. But they don’t need images over-explained to them. The worst and most condescending kind of children’s theatre spells everything out.
So for our opening in Melbourne we have cut at least five minutes worth of text including two pages of dialogue from the scene pictured above. Beautiful ideas and descriptions that work so well in their original context, but are not needed alongside the visual language in a theatrical context – whether those visuals are of canals in the watertown of Wuzhen or narrow streets in the French Colonial district in Shanghai or of bodies performing martial arts.
A book has no inherent tempo – it is as quick or as slow at the reader. One reader may want to linger over each word, another may want to rush to the end barely pausing for breath. But for a performance the tempo is fixed. Each moment in each show has a specific speed and the entire performance has a specific duration for everyone who watches it. These rhythms are selected with care – a silence, a piece of action slowed down to allow it to be considered more fully, or simply a juxtaposition of speeds which makes us aware of the space between moments. For this ghost story we’ve tried to stretch the extremes of tempo, to build suspense and then release into frantic action.
After all of our exploration, we have landed on a specific style of storytelling that we defined in our rehearsals as “Poor theatre, with selective use of exquisite technology”. Poor theatre is a term made famous by Polish director Jerzy Grotowski to describe a theatre centred on the voice and body of the actor. Ching Ching and I have been very demanding and specific with what we’ve needed from the exceptionally talented cast in this regard. But alongside this focus on precision of body and voice, we are also exploring an abstract and (for me) an entirely new style of visual storytelling.
Almost from the first moments we met, designer Zoë Atkinson was drawn to the idea of boxes. Boxes recur again and again in the novel from mama’s ash box and camphor chest to secret rooms with their hidden treasures. We explored many design possibilities, but returned to this idea eighteen months later. Our entire set is now a series of different-sized boxes that the actors can climb on and through – places where things can be concealed and revealed – a perfect performer’s playground and a great setting for story of secrets and of ghosts. It’s an abstract set, so we felt that the visual storytelling of the work would be best served with highly detailed projection mapping of images onto the moving surfaces of these boxes. Our ensemble of “shadowy movers” arrange and re-arrange the configuration of the set, as we move fluidly and instantly in time and space.
I love stage magic. The show is all about ghost battles, so we were also determined to include some genuinely thrilling moments as well as moments of wonder. I don’t want to talk too much about how we achieve it all, but one especially satisfying sequence involved designers Zoë Atkinson and Matt Marshall creating a ‘black light theatre’ setup, to bring our ghost-bed to life in a carefully controlled channel of light. For this season, puppetry guru Michael Barlow has helped us tweak the choreography to make the bed especially terrifying. It has been wonderful to sit near children and hear them react to this scene in particular, as well as hear them confidently describe “how we did it” afterwards, in lots of very imaginative ways!
Responses from Children
Already our trial audiences in Perth have loved the story, from the child who wrote us a poem about his newfound love for kabuki drops, to the one who said “it made me feel completely void from reality”, to the child who told us “It was my first time attending the theatre… it made me feel like I was in China”. We hope there are many more young people who see the work and have such powerful reactions! And we can’t wait to bring it home to Perth after our seasons her and at the Sydney Opera House.
Finally, the process of inspiration can travel in unexpected directions. After our first development, Gabi began work a sequel to her novel Ting Ting the Ghosthunter. The novel is dedicated to that first group of creatives that met in Melbourne Arts Centre way back at the start of 2016:
Matt, Felix [Ching Ching], Vanessa and Zoe – fellow ghost travellers and play makers
It is a deeply satisfying thought to feel that we have somehow contributed to Gabi’s next novel which I am currently in the middle of reading. It seems that in pulling the original work apart to adapt it unleashed some of the latent potential in the character of Ting Ting. In the acknowledgements, Gabi says:
I would like to thank Matt Edgerton, creative director of Barking Gecko Theatre Company for the initial inspiration. During the process of adapting A Ghost in My Suitcase to the stage, he helped me realise just how strong the character of Ting Ting was, even though she was the antagonist in that story. She called out for a book of her own. And so it came to be.
It has been a genuine privilege to work alongside our remarkable creative team on this project – one of my real career highlights so far. Nothing in theatre gets made without great producers. I do want to particularly thank our Executive producer Helen Hristofski whose belief in this project has made it possible. And also our Production Manager Andrew Portwine who has been the backbone of our team. Case in point: Porty shipped not one but two stage floors across the Nullabor so we could screw our actual stage floor into a warehouse rehearsal room, and rehearse with our own markup here in the east.
Thanks to the visionary AD’s on our national festivals who believed and invested in the work: Wendy Martin, Jonathan Holloway and Wesley Enoch.
And thank you to everyone who I have not yet mentioned who has helped to make this possible – Michael Maclean, Jessica Rogerson, Emily Stokoe, Tim Collins, Matt McCabe, Jake Bamford, Andy Fraser, Michael Barlow, Sara Walker, Nicole Marrington, Libby Klysz, St John Cowcher, Rhiannon Petersen, Hannah Smith, Sue Stepatschuk, Joy Crocker, Aimee Hughes, Ziyin Gantner, Carillo Gantner, Stephen Armstrong, Anna Kosky, Tim Watts, Rachel Macdonald, Arielle Gray, Joe Lui, Taryn Ryan, Courtney Stewart, Sue Fenty, Tim McGarry, our amazing production team creatives cast and crew, and everyone else who has advised and helped us along the way. Thank you!