Dionne Christian talks to the team dramatising one of New Zealand's greatest novels
"Sometimes in rehearsals, we play a little game where we imagine if she was sitting on a couch watching us, what would she think?"
Julie Nolan, artistic director of Red Leap, is kicking back following a Friday afternoon of intense rehearsals – guests came to watch a run of the theatre company's adaptation of Owls Do Cry – and considering how Janet Frame might feel about the transformation of her debut novel into a stage production.
Naturally Nolan thinks Frame would be thrilled.
"I feel like the wilder we get with it, the more she would be like, 'Yes, just go for it!' I think if we got stuck in feeling like we have to be safe, it would be so disappointing to her. She never wanted things to be conventional or for things to have to suit everybody and this is the same with our work."
At times things have become pretty wild as Red Leap and Owls Do Cry director/ choreographer Malia Johnston have wrestled with taking the 62-year-old book into the theatre. It is the first time Frame's writing has been adapted for the stage and it is one of the most ambitious productions Red Leap – who aren't short on ambition – have created.
After 11 years of making highly visual and physical theatre, often without words, Nolan last year decided the company would champion women's stories and talents. She was outraged by the continuing lack of roles for women – behind the scenes and on stage – so decided to be part of the solution.
"I felt really sick about feeling outraged and powerless so, as a company, we just made a decision with a really clear mandate for us to support women's talents and stories. I was pondering the next project and thought, 'I really want it to be a New Zealand writer, a female writer.' So for me, it was a fairly obvious to go to Janet Frame, who I have loved for so long."
Owls Do Cry, winner of the 1958 NZ Literary Fund Award for Achievement, is one of the first great Kiwi classics . When it was re-issued in 2016, The Guardian labelled it a "modernist masterpiece"; Neil Hegarty, writing in The Irish Times, described it as "a devastating reflection on conventional society and the dangers for those who reject its narrowness; a vivid social document; and a heartbreaking, lyrical evocation of childhood".
Fans of the book talk about it as dazzling, poetic, visceral, shocking, beautiful, rich, imaginative and life-changing. To be brave enough to adapt it surely comes with a responsibility and listening to Nolan talk confirms that. She stresses every decision made has been taken with respect, that it is homage to Frame and her remarkable story, and of the need to honour its essence.
The book is about the Withers family who live – endure - in the fictional town of Waimaru in the South Island visited by tragedy upon tragedy. It is also an ode to the power of imagination and language with its tragic story made bearable and beautiful by the poetry and musicality of Frame's writing.
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Of reading Owls Do Cry at university, Nolan recalls: "It made me feel melancholic but it was like I had someone who understood me. I always remember that feeling; a sense of melancholy but also a glittering sense of what the words did – that there was something beautiful that glittered over the top of that dark feeling.
"I love her voice, the energy and the rhythm of her words but also how they are incredibly crafted and beautiful. I think her writing is genius; I don't think there is anything that touches it. It is completely unique but it has this incredible ability to really touch on the human condition."
A female-led creative team was assembled, including Toi Whakaari's director of actor training, Heather Timms, as dramaturg and Penny Fitt leading design. But when they tried to take the story to the stage, using Red Leap's characteristic style, it did not work. It felt dated and irrelevant so the conclusion was reached that the book, already exquisitely written, had been done and it was their job to find a fresh approach.
It became not a direct or literal re-telling of the story; rather Nolan emphasises it is a contemporary response to the novel and that has made it easier for her, Johnston and their remarkable cast to do their wild work. Actors Ross McCormack, Margaret Mary Hollins, Ella Becroft, Hannah Lynch, Comfrey Sanders and Arlo Gibson were sent away to write songs; they spent hours improvising, not knowing what they were trying to find.
Becroft, with Red Leap since their first show in 2008, says she'd never worked like that before: "Initially we tried some of the classic Red Leap stuff but that didn't work because the images are so profound so we stripped everything back so there weren't any props on stage, it was just us. We had to be constantly inquisitive and willing to keep going at it and trusting our intuition and trusting that it would come and that we didn't need to close it in with some facts or some narrative or some safe things but just keep rolling with."
The adaptation now uses live music, songs, including some of those written by the cast, poetry, movement and audio-visual put together by renowned sound artist Eden Mulholland to celebrate Frame's book and capture its insights.
"I think she made a big comment on materialism and consumerism – that materialism and consumerism are the ruin of things," says Nolan. "I think she talked a lot about treasure and what is 'treasure' to people. For us, it's the imagination and the creative spirit.
"She talks to us a lot about the state of family, of how we treat people with difference, about small towns and there is contemporary politics that you can read into it. I guess it's a warning against a small life and small-mindedness; a song to open-mindedness and, again, that word – imagination - and the creative spirit ...
"I think a really great measure of success will be whether it [the production] engenders a lot of conversation and debate. The measure of success doesn't have to be how many people like it, but it's how much conversation it sparks afterwards and how long the ripples of that conversation go out … I guess we kind of hope this show will have some resonance and ripples for people."
Owls Do Cry is at Rangatira at Q Theatre, October 17 - November 2.