Award-winning director Sara Brodie drew on her experience of brain injury to depict the inner world of an autistic teenager in Auckland Theatre Company's production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, opening this Saturday.
1. Why do you think Mark Haddon's novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time was a worldwide hit?
It's an accessible window into the mind of a 15-year-old boy with autism and it's also a bloody good detective story. It cleverly juxtaposes the action with his internal world. A great piece of literature can enable you to look at the world differently and to walk away feeling it's changed you or broadened your viewpoint.
2. How does the play capture Christopher's unique perspective?
We use video and lighting changes to help the audience see things in the incredibly detailed way that he does and provide a sense of what it feels like when he gets sensory overload. I know what it's like because of a head injury I got in a car crash eight years ago which caused regular seizures - 20 a day at one point. When I'd get overloaded it's like my brain would say, "Enough's enough" and switch off. I'd lose consciousness and hit the deck. I'd quite often have a seizure at the train station because it's so busy - patterns and shapes would loom, I'd lose my sense of spatial distance and everything would seem to move and detach. So I could relate to Christopher's experience at the London train station. For him to leave his secure world and go on that massive journey is like climbing Mt Everest for him.
3. The book was translated into an award-winning West End and Broadway production. How faithful was the play to the book?
British playwright Simon Stephens stayed incredibly true to the book. About a quarter of the discourse is original language and the rest is uplifted directly from the page. He did break up Christopher's narrative and share it with his teacher Siobhan so it's not all from one perspective. The play really examines all human behaviour, for example the way Christopher's parents and neighbours have coped - or not coped - with their own situations.
4. What have you done differently to the iconic National Theatre production?
I deliberately didn't see it because I didn't want to consciously repeat what they did. The play lends itself well to physical theatre so they had a lot of tumbling and lifting but I've pulled that back because we're in a more intimate space and I don't want to detract from the core relationships. The play often transforms place and time which we manage fluidly with choreographed sequences and an ensemble cast of 10 actors who play multiple roles.
5. You've got a star-studded cast - Rima Te Wiata, Siobhan Marshall - how are rehearsals going?
Great! I love them to bits. Tim Earle is incredibly convincing as Christopher. He's 22 but very petite and a wonderfully sensitive actor. Audiences will connect with Siobhan his teacher and with his parents. I've just changed some of the staging to make sure that his father Ed, played by Wesley Dowdell, doesn't come across as the villain because he loves that boy to bits and is going to stick with him through thick and thin. He's just a human under pressure.
6. Did the cast and crew do any research into autism spectrum disorders?
We've done workshops with Sue Haldane who runs Mind Over Manner, an organisation which uses drama to help young people with differently wired brains. She's been great answering all our questions. Authenticity will be key for an audience who probably know more than we do.
7. Do you have any personal experience with autism spectrum disorders?
When I was 16 I taught a young boy with autism in a drama school holiday programme. He spent a lot of time rocking under a chair. I was told he didn't speak so I cast him as the witch's cat and one day he spontaneously meowed. All the kids were yelling, "He meowed, he meowed!" The adults didn't believe us at first but he kept meowing. It was a triumphant moment that's stayed with me. Recently I worked with a professional performer with Asperger's. He was very obsessive about his role and I loved that - bring it on!
8. Did you always want to work in theatre?
Both my parents were involved in amateur theatre in Christchurch. It seemed like such a magical place. I announced I wanted to be an actress when I was about 4. My parents tried to dissuade me from such a silly career choice.
9. You moved to London to pursue your theatre dreams. How did you make your break?
Door knocking. The first show I worked on was Miss Saigon as props girl. The way productions get done on the West End is no different to here, apart from more money. I saw a production of Steel Magnolias on the West End and found I much preferred the Court Theatre's version in Christchurch - so that shattered my illusions about the West End being the Holy Grail.
10. Why did you return home after nearly eight years in London's theatre industry?
I married a man who wanted to live here. The marriage was short-lived but I stayed. The great thing about this profession is that when crap happens, you gain insights that you can apply in your work. When I was 13 I was incredibly highly strung and had something close to a nervous breakdown. That was also a useful learning experience. I'll often look at a young student and think, 'Just go and live a little - you'll be a much better actor'.
11 You've directed major operas including Nixon in China and The Magic Flute this year. What is your proudest opera moment?
Taking opera to the streets for Wellington's Cuba Dupa festival. We had singers leaping out of windows of high buildings on to three big gantries performing Bizet's Lakme duet. I love making opera accessible to those who don't know it so well. I got into opera through my work as a choreographer and movement director.
12. You've won a New Zealand Arts Foundation Laureate Award. What's next on your agenda?
I'm directing a one-woman opera in London called Iris Dreaming about New Zealand author Robin Hyde. I'm 45 now and have made the decision not to have children because it wouldn't be fair. My home is near Wellington but I'm often working overseas for six months of a year. My shows are my children really. I can't imagine doing anything else.
• The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is on at Q Theatre from July 21 to August 14. www.atc.co.nz