Thoughts from the Director – Minefields and Miniskirts Part 1

For a production to be successful, it requires an enormous amount of talented teamwork to take place. When you attend a play it is easy to find out who is responsible for each of the elements that contribute to that success by simply reading the programme.

The Actors take pride of place, and rightly so, because ultimately they are the people entertaining you from the stage. But it is also obvious that the Lighting and Sound, as well as the Set and Costumes play a large part to make the show both beautiful and believable. And never forget that the stage crew are on hand to ensure everything runs smoothly every performance.

But also listed in the programme, taking pride of place, is the Director, and it isn’t always obvious to the audience member, what he or she has contributed to the production. So today I will give you an insight into what this director contributed to “Minefields and Miniskirts”.

The process starts with a play, or a book or sometimes a film.  In the case of “Minefields and Miniskirts” (henceforth, abbreviated to M&M), it all started with a social history commentator, Siobhan McHugh, receiving a grant from the Government to produce a book about how the Vietnam War affected women who were caught up both in Vietnam and back at home when their war-effected husbands returned to Australia.

Her book received national acclaim and the attention of Terence O’Connell, an Australian playwright of some renown, who sought and was given permission to use the material to write a play. He was so moved by the words of the women that most of the play is written in their own words and therefore produces dialogue that is both powerful and moving because of its truth. These stories are not fictional they are facts and as such provide many evocative moments in which we become involved. He first presented the play on 14th July, 2004.

I have been directing for over 30 years and when I first read the play I was overwhelmed by the simple yet exceptionally moving content that was interspersed with everyday Australian humour. Immediately I wanted to direct this piece and when Javeenbah asked for submissions I decided to seek their permission to have it placed in their 2016 playbill.  They enthusiastically responded that they also loved the play and would like me to direct it for the company.

This, my dear readers, is the first part of the process.  The company will from this point forward take on the role of the producer. This means that they are responsible for the financial side of the production, but more importantly, they will ensue that the resources the Director requires are available to her. They will also make sure that the general public are aware of the production and sell the tickets that you the audience will buy to experience the magic of live theatre. But before the magic comes the hard work.  And this starts with the Director.

As the Director of M&M, I have read this play well over a hundred times.  Why?  Well that one is an easy question to answer.  It is the responsibility of the Director to understand the Playwright’s reasons for writing this play in the first place.  I analyse the play scene by scene, paragraph by paragraph and word by word to ensure that when you hear he dialogue from the stage you also will grasp the deeper meaning of these simple words.  In other words I examine the subtext.

And as I read the words over and over again, I create in my mind a picture of the play coming to life. I hear the words, I see the lighting, I imagine the setting and find the characters coming to life in my imagination.  I hear music, and I see colours.  Mind you, at this point some people might think I should be in an asylum hearing voices in my head, but to a director of theatre, this is the Vision coming together that will carry everyone through to the final performance.

When I was happy that I had a grip on the words, I decided that I really needed to know more about the Vietnam War.  What followed, were many hours on the Web and in the Library researching the history of Vietnam and the so called “Vietnam War”.  In particular, I obviously tried to find as much information about women and the role they played in this war. Together with the marvellous book that Siobhan McHugh wrote, I believed that I could indeed understand the dialogue – the subtext of the play.

I then approached Colin Crow to discuss the ways we could use lighting to create a special kind of magic necessary for the many different moments of the play.  Even though I have some ideas, his contribution and realisation of the lighting enhances the production. His creativity is part of the basis from which we develop the final product. He is also amazing in finding the right sound effect to add to the atmosphere of the moment. We talk at quite some length about Gobos, spots, helicopters and things too numerous with which to bore you before I move on to my next important area.

Costumes for M&M have to be made and while Gillian Butcher and Theresa Palmby, our incredible costume ladies, cannot start to make each item, because they do not have measurements of the characters as yet, they also have a little work to do. They search high and low along the coast from Tweed to Brisbane looking for the fabrics required to produce the authentic costume. Considering that they have a budget beyond which they cannot spend, you will marvel when you see the finished product on stage.

I must admit that I had a very simple setting in mind for M&M.  Lots of plays have a Box Set or a Composite Set, but I really wanted to let the characters together with atmospheric Lighting speak to the audience. So my husband Grant and I devised an acting space that required little by way of solid flats and instead used the softness of black curtains. A few chairs and a bar, some fans and a broom and your imagination, as the characters on stage create in your mind whatever they are talking about is all that is required to add to the scene.

M&M has a musical component, which greatly adds to the magic.  As part of my research I looked around for the sheet music for these iconic songs of the era.  Guess what?  Gone are the days when one can walk into Allans Music Store and pick up these sheets.  The world of the computer has struck again. I was able to download most of the sheet music from the Internet, except for one very important song.  But I did not despair and finally discovered that I could in fact get a second hand copy sent from the good old USA for a price! The company can take a collective sigh of relief when I tell them that it did not break the budget!!!

It was suggested to me that a very talented young man, Hayden Bech, was very good in the music department and if I asked nicely he might assist with coaching the actors with their singing. I sat down with Hayden a few months before the auditions and we discussed his involvement.  The most exciting part of the discussion was Hayden’s commitment to not only coaching the girls, but also playing the live music in the production. When you hear the haunting melodies surrounding you as you listen to the songs, remember it is Hayden’s contribution.

Do you realise that you have been reading this for some time and we haven’t come to the actors’ involvement yet?    Well, there is one more thing I have to do before we get to Auditions.

I have to “move the play”. By this I mean I have to decide how to get actors on and off the stage, and what to do with them while they are on the stage.  I hope you didn’t think that actors could decide this for themselves?  In Ballet, it is the responsibility of the Choreographer to move the dancers around the stage.  Well in M&M, that is my job.  This Vision that has been in my head for some time gives me a head start. However, I spend many, many hours deciding where my actors will be delivering their lines from.  Some scripts, with a more traditional story line, often have directions (usually written by the first director/stage manager) to assist in this area.  However I have to be very creative in moving M&M, so that you don’t get too bored from listening to the actors tell their stories.  This play is also different from most plays, in that actors will be talking to you the audience and not to each other.  They will be sharing some of their most intimate moments with you.

It is now time to introduce the actors into the equation.  We hold auditions.  Directors have different opinions on how to do this.  There really is no right or wrong way.  It is just a matter of personal preference.  I choose to hold “open auditions”.  This means that everyone will be in the auditorium together and will one by one audition before the Director and everyone else.

I favour this method because I am a firm believer that we should exit any theatrical experience better equipped than when we entered.  I believe that we can all learn a little more about our craft from the audition process. One thing that was reinforced to me during this audition was that it never ceases to amaze me how many different ways we can say or sing something.  Let me give you an example;   the auditionees were all expected to show their singing ability by singing “Amazing Grace”.  I sat there not quite believing that this simple hymn was sung by each one of the women auditioning in totally different ways.  Each rendition was full of truth, but no two renditions were even slightly alike. It blew everyone away. Great News though - I have successfully assembled a wonderful cast!!!!

Time Management takes hold now.  I have to create a Rehearsal Schedule that will ensure that I, the actors and Hayden will be able to manage. Somehow we find a routine that allows all of us to work within our everyday lives and rehearsals begin.

I will leave you here today, because I would really like to handle the Rehearsal process another time.

I hope I have conveyed to you some of the things that a Director handles in each production. Much of our work is done before we even start rehearsals.  We are sometimes a crazy bunch of people who are passionate about what we want to achieve on the stage for an audience, and most of the time you don’t even see us.

12752122_10156530687465072_873096993_oWritten by Gaye Gay
Director of Minefields and Miniskirts 2016.

Stay tuned for Part 2!