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An interview with Emma Wood

OVERCAST AND empty was the mood in Warrandyte when I met Emma Wood on Referendum day in the local Now and Not Yet Café to chat to her about her plays, directing, her writing processes, A Hit and Miss Christmas, and a variety of other topics too personal to make it into this article.
As I await Emma’s arrival, I order a loose-leaf oat chai and look through my research notes for a last bit of preparation. Emma has written and published three 15-minute one-act plays: Real World 101, Voices, and Women of the World, and five full-length plays: Water Child, Mr Bennet’s Bride, A Hit and Miss Christmas, The Third Act, and Piece of Mind — which incidentally is being performed in February next year at Lilydale Atheneum, directed by Susan Rundle.
She also recently collaborated with Warrandyte Theatre Company and Ballarat National Theatre Company, producing A 2020 Vision — an online curation of lockdown experiences “constructed entirely from the words of local residents” and wrote a verbatim script called Turning Points in collaboration with stroke survivors, performed in 2019.
Before she moved to Warrandyte, Emma worked, lived, and wrote in Newcastle, New South Wales, where her play Water Child won Best New Play at the 2012 City of Newcastle Drama Awards.
Women of the World won the Audience Choice award at Short and Sweet Manila 2017, and A Hit and Miss Christmas and The Third Act have been finalists in UK and US competitions.
Not a bad feat for someone who wasn’t planning on being a writer.

I’ve chosen a seat at the window near the door, and I take Emma by surprise when she enters and looks around.
I’m sitting there like a gremlin, grinning up at her.
“Hi!” I say with a wave as she takes a step back to get me in focus.
She gives me a big smile and hug and joins me at the table.
She orders a turmeric latte, and we share a raspberry, apple, and white chocolate muffin.
What strikes me about Emma the most — apart from us being tall lady buddies — is her reflective nature in her writing and her personality.
She is always interested in making sure she’s creating a safe and open environment for people to share and feel comfortable, especially in the acting and directing space.
Perhaps that is a monocle of her high school Drama teaching style, but I feel it’s an intrinsic element in her general, good-humoured nature.
A Hit and Miss Christmas will be the first time Emma has directed one of her own scripts.
During their first table reading at the hall, Emma was sure to make the distinction to her cast that she wanted them to see her as the director and not the writer.
“I don’t think it’s fair to the cast to be going here’s the script, and then next week, so here’s the script, and I’ve just got these changes.
“No one is ever in a play and doesn’t have some things where they are like, ‘ugh, this is hard to work with’.
“I want them to be able to say to me as a director so I can put aside my writer feelings and go ‘okay, cool, let’s work this as director and actor’.”
Emma went on to say co-directing with her friend Anika Means allowed her to focus on directing.
“You can sometimes have blind spots in your own work, and we’ve known each other long enough that she can be quite frank with me.”
Emma wrote her first play, Water Child, when she was 35 with a one-year-old.
“I woke up one morning with an idea.
“It was burning enough to get me out of bed at 4am and start writing.
“You know, when you’re in a flow, it just feels really good; I was absolutely in the zone.”
Emma credits ideas as “just coming to her”.
However, as she talks, it’s clear that her unconscious and conscious observations of subjects and experiences that ignite her passions seem to ruminate around in her mind until a story starts to form.
Playwriting is her way of expressing what she sees in the world.
She shares them as plots and characters on a journey of transformation that an audience can relate to.
Allowing for a contemplation of the watcher’s own life through the lens of a relatable or un-relatable character and being entertained by it.
And that’s exactly how A Hit and Miss Christmas “dawned on” her.
It was a combination of “being around community theatre companies long enough to realise that there’s quite often a bit of a scramble for a festive feeling play [at the end of the year], and there just aren’t that many to choose from.”
She said that while looking at the American community theatre scene, she noticed that many theatre companies would just do A Christmas Carol every year — and that’s where the idea came from.
She said there is always tension in theatre companies between people who want to bring something more contemporary and edgy, and the champions of the bums-on-seats classic who don’t care if it has been seen 10 times; they need to fill the coffers.
“When I wrote A Hit and Miss Christmas, my intention was to write just a laugh-out-loud comedy with absolutely no meaning, and I couldn’t do it! [Laughs]
“So eventually what came through was a desire to write something that was genuinely festive, but I suppose in a way it’s also a bit of a love letter to community theatre.
“There’s always argy-bargy, but there’s also friendship, and there’s sometimes potential for transformation.
“And I’ve always thought that was a beautiful thing about theatre, so I just thought I’d explore that a bit too.”
I’m pleased to say that Emma’s passion and energy for writing, our drinks, and the warmth of Now and Not Yet Café effortlessly cast out the surrounding gloom of the day.
I hope you have been as uplifted as I was by her humour, insights, and willingness to share so deeply and frankly about her process.
A Hit and Miss Christmas is premiering for the first time in Victoria later this month at Warrandyte Theatre Company, with eight performances over six evenings and two matinees between November 17 and December 2,
www.trybooking.com/CKUUF.

No half measures on timeless tale

REVIEW

TWO THINGS will forever define Arthur Miller.
The first is his marriage with Marilyn Monroe, which for some overshadows the second: that Miller is considered one of the greatest dramatists of the twentieth century.
A View from the Bridge sits proudly among his string of works, such as Death of a Salesman and The Crucible, staged and studied for their brilliant, insightful and timeless texts.
So much so that Miller was awarded The Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize, one of the richest prizes in the arts, given annually to “a man or woman who has made an outstanding contribution to the beauty of the world and to mankind’s enjoyment and understanding of life”. Warrandyte Theatre Company has presented Miller’s precious gift with an uncompromising flair.
The first thing that hits you is the beautiful staging, with the Brooklyn apartment building, the docks and the lawyer’s office blending seamlessly to support the action.
The seasoned principal cast grasped their characters by the horns and made mastering the iconic Brooklyn, and Italian accents look effortless.
Playing the narrator/lawyer Alfieri, WTC regular Don Nicholson was engaging and measured in his performance, leading the audience through the fateful events with a persona that exudes 1950s New York small-time lawyer, reminiscent of something from a Bogart film noir. Also, familiar faces on the Warrandyte stage, Tony Clayton and Simone Kiefer produced some powerful performances as Eddie and Beatrice.
The beauty of this text is the light and shade, explored deftly by Tony and Simone, hitting just the right notes at just the right time, Eddie’s anger and frustration were at times visceral, and Bea’s heartbreak at the deterioration of her family was likewise palpable.
Newcomers Kiera Edelstein and James Banger played Catherine and Rodolpho, whose romance enrages Catherine’s over-protective uncle Eddie.
Kiera expertly explored the light and shade of Catherine and her complex relationship with Eddie, while James’ Rodolpho as the new immigrant provided some much-needed laugh-out-loud moments amidst moments that made the audience audibly gasp.
Paul Wanis makes his Warrandyte debut as Marco, Rodolpho’s brother, who stands up to Eddie when he takes his objections to the young ones’ relationship too far.
His confrontation with Eddie at the close of act one could be considered among the most powerful performances to grace the Warrandyte stage in many years.
The supporting cast was a mixture of new and returning faces playing minor walk-on roles with as much thoughtfulness as the lead cast.
In these roles, David Tynan, Adrian Rice, Jack Stringer, Michael Swann, Lara King and Kerry Walsh provided a depth to the production that cannot be underestimated.
Director Grant Purdy staged this classic without compromise, there are no rough edges, and the innovative set design draws the audience into the action.
The audience cabaret seating has been retained for this production as a sensible COVID measure, but I, for one, find it lovely and hope it is kept in the future.
Opening night was sold out, and, as we go to print, tickets are getting scarce for the remainder of the run, so make sure to book yourself a seat for the final week at trybooking.com/BYZKR before it closes on August 13 – you don’t want to miss this one.

Coming up

The light and shade continue in the next production with Calendar Girls, at times titillating but with a sobering undercurrent, which hits the boards from September 23 for nine performances.
Then the much-anticipated return of The Follies in November. This year’s production is still forming, so if you want to be part of it, head to the writers’ meeting on August 19 or the “induction” in early October, both at the Mechanics’ Institute Hall.

Challenging but well executed

DRAMA AND UNCOMFORTABLE ideas are centre stage in the Little Green Hall for Season 2, as Warrandyte Theatre Company tackle David Harrower’s Blackbird.
The play was originally written for the 2005 Edinburgh Festival and inspired by the real-life action of US Marine Toby Studebaker (32), who met a 12-year-old British girl online and convinced her to fly to Paris, where they met and had sex.
Toby was jailed in both the UK and the US for his crime.
But, that is where the similarity ends.
Blackbird witnesses an encounter between Ray — now known as Peter (Bruce Hardie) — and Una (Erin Brass).
Some 15 years earlier, when Una was 12, they had a relationship that culminated in a room in a guesthouse on an island, where they had sex.
Following intercourse, Ray goes out for cigarettes and appears not to come back; when young Una, convinced she has been abandoned, goes looking for him, she is eventually found by a couple.
Consequently, Ray is arrested and convicted of sex with a minor.
Even writing this review now — it is always going to be a confronting and challenging topic — but the script is well written, the actors are convincing in their emotions, and the incident is discussed by the characters through the lens of time, with the mechanics of the relationship and the sexual acts described with the required emotion, but handled maturely.
Coming back to the present, set in the “break room” of the factory where Peter now works, surrounded by the garbage of workers who do not care for the space they occupy, Una confronts Peter seeking answers to a question neither herself nor the audience knows.
At first, one believes she is after payback, vengeance perhaps.
We learn that following the incident at the guesthouse, she never saw Ray again — only spotting his picture in a trade magazine she reads in a waiting room somewhere.

“I asked to speak to Peter and Ray appeared”

Shock and anger — shock by Una at the mess in the room, shock and disgust as she recounts an incident in the street where some intentionally and unthinkingly littered:

“That man who dropped the litter, it’s not the litter; it wasn’t the litter, the dirtying.
It was the man, the person doing that.
Because he hasn’t been, been schooled educated civilised enough.
And I thought, and it’s if I walked into his house and dropped litter on his carpet.
But the streets, the pavements, they’re not my house, so I don’t care about the streets.
I just thought ‘you are a beast’.
No one has ever cared for you properly and you’re too stupid, too stupid to even know that, or you wouldn’t let other people see just what a see what you are.”

Peter/Ray expresses similar shock and disgust about how his colleagues treat the space and anger as to why Una has sought him out, to create a situation where they can see just who he is.
Over 90 minutes, we listen to conversations and arguments about the reasons for Ray’s actions and how their lives were impacted following his conviction.
Peter, who denies he is a paedophile, never actually bringing up the word but arguing semantics and circumstance and explaining how he has spent the last 15 years deflecting that label and trying to move on, move away from what he describes as “the most stupid mistake of my life”.
We hear a harrowing account of Una’s life, where she was made an effigy of the family’s shame — pointed at, “slapped in the street”, and made to feel like a ghost.
What one begins to wonder is if this garbage-strewn space represents the society that has failed both of them, or is it the shit of their life laid out for all to witness.
Two people whose lives were destroyed by a three-month encounter are emotionally and mentally still dealing with the detritus over a decade later.
Shock as Una recounts 83 as the number of men she has slept with since, and shock when it feels like Una and Peter may reach an uncomfortable and confronting form of closure — once again drawn back together, we witness the entrance of Peter’s wife’s 12-years-old daughter (Kate Barley), whose entrance brings the original incident back to the front of our minds, bookending the shock.

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Given it is only two actors on stage the entire time and this is a play with no interval, the acting for this performance was fantastic; both actors delivered lengthy monologues.
The pace of the performance is good, it is a quick 90 minutes and the audience is invested in the conversation — Una’s challenging and emotional account of the guesthouse runs for six pages and conveys joy, love, fear and anger — in all the right places — yet, as an audience member, the way the topics are addressed never feels inappropriate.
Kudos too to the performance of Kate Barley — who may only have one or two lines — for taking on the role of the symbolic Girl and to the Company, who managed to adeptly shield Kate from the more adult dialogue — without disrupting the flow of the piece.
Warrandyte Theatre Company is on a roll with its professional execution of challenging scripts.
If you are interested in watching good drama on the local stage, get yourself along to Blackbird.
This play does tackle uncomfortable themes and does contain harsh language and ideas so go in knowing this.
Also, note that it may be cash-only at the drinks bar for this season, and stick around for the “meet the cast” post-show.

Blackbird is being performed Fridays and Saturday at 8pm until June 11.
A 2:30pm matinee performance will take place on Sunday, June 5.
Tickets can be purchase at: trybooking.com/BYBOA
This is a play with adult themes, 16+ only.

A warm welcome back to the theatre for Visitors

REVIEW

IT IS A GLORIOUS return to the stage at the Mechanics’ Institute as Warrandyte Theatre Company presents Visitors by Barney Norris.
Nerves were frayed a little as the already-COVID-delayed opening night was threatened by yet another setback in the form of a massive thunderstorm, and its companion blackout, in the hours before curtain call.
However, the storm passed, and we were welcomed into the theatre, with a gentle, poignant, witty production, about love, family, relationships, and aging.
The auditorium was thoughtfully, socially distanced with café style seating, with candles at each couplet — there was no bad seat in the house, even with additional release of seats as the lockdown rules eased.
The deft hand of the Director, Grant Purdy, guided the four performers to weave a beautiful, if heart-aching tale, taking us on a journey through the light and shade of our autumn years.
Some cast members are well-known to audiences, and others are new to the Warrandyte stage.
Carol Keating, as Edie, spends almost the whole two hours on stage, where we watch her slide slowly into dementia.
We are with her through the ebb and flow of her battle with her deteriorating mind, as her adoring husband (played by Reg Ellery) supports her as best as he can as his own body begins to fail him, and he battles to keep the family farm running.
As the dysfunctional, distant son, Stephen, Don Nicholson nails his character as a man who doesn’t fully understand how to relate to people.
The ensemble family perfectly paints the prickly relationship formed when parent and child don’t see eye-to-eye, especially when it comes to life’s big decisions.
But the biggest bouquet must go to newcomer Meg Davies, she gives a masterful performance, transitioning from awkward interloper to tender carer and then turns on a dime to unleash her fury as a woman scorned.
The simple set, the understated lighting and uncluttered audio (with the well-choreographed squeaky floorboard a standout moment) supported the beautifully written script and thoughtful direction.
Visitors runs until December 10, so head to trybooking to scoop up a couple of the few remaining tickets of the 2021 season.
WTC returns for 2022 with Follies Goes off the Rails in March, a season of One-Act Plays in May, Blackbird in July, the long-awaited Calendar Girls in September, before Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge in November.

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Nine twisted tales of love at WTC

The spotlights are back on at the Warrandyte Mechanics’ Institute, as Warrandyte Theatre Company presented Love/Sick, as collection of short plays. As we hit the streets, the production still has a week to run, so we have resisted the temptation to spoil the twists in the tail.

By BRIONY BOTTARELLI

JOHN CARIANI, actor/playwright and great observer of the human condition, brings to the stage a contemporary play about love in the form of nine vignettes, more specifically, nine ten-minute plays. But as the title Love/Sick suggests, it is also about dysfunctional love. It is a poignant portrayal of nine different relationships with the common thread of love or the lack of it. All the characters within this quirky, compassionate, funny, sad, devastating, but uplifting and very insightful work, reflect all that is encompassed within modern relationships. Although the characters are dealing with serious issues, they are presented to the audience in a comedic and palatable way. Clever, clever, clever! Not only the script, but the directors, the innovative and interchangeable sets, costuming and the transition from one play to another. I could not select one actor over another for their performances, they were all brilliant. Each actor played several roles, but their characters were never confused. If I had to sum up the whole production was polished and professional.

By DAVID HOGG

THIS VERY CLEVER and entertaining play by American playwright John Cariani brought to us by the Warrandyte Theatre Company (WTC) marks the next step forward in what will hopefully be a return to live theatre with full audiences. The Company had taken great care to comply with COVID restrictions, and the 25% capacity audience was seated in small groups booked at separate tables cleverly candle-lit. The first and last weeks were a sellout, with only a few tickets remaining for the middle week as we go to press. Love/Sick consists of nine funny and unconnected vignettes about the many dimensions of love. We were treated to an evening of superlative acting by the talented cast of eight, most of whom were familiar faces. Each act involved two people, and whilst most involved a male/female relationship one included a gay couple and another a lesbian couple. The plays themselves revolved around totally dysfunctional couples and throughout these acts I had a mental urge to bang the characters’ heads together. We could all see where they were going wrong, as they mostly portrayed the insensitivity of one partner to the feelings of the other, usually and ashamedly insensitivity of the male to the needs of the female. Yet despite our concerns with the annoying plots, in every case the acting was brilliant. To review each vignette would take too long; however, I must single out the Singing Telegram act for special praise. Lochie Laffin-Vines succinctly captures the part of a Singing Telegram Man who is reluctant to deliver his message. Simone Kiefer plays Louise, the recipient of the message, who is anticipating a proposal from her boyfriend. When she learns the actual contents of the message she portrays amazing versatility, turning quickly from the absolute joy of having the performer arrive to abject misery when she realises the message. David Tynan and Lisa MacGibbon are the accomplished directors. Lighting is excellent, as usual, and special mention must be made of the simple minimalistic set with a very cleverly designed doorway which can be turned to show a blank wall, an interior door, an ornate front door, or completely laid on its side to form a double bed. Thank you, WTC, for a most enjoyable night. Next up on the WTC stage will be Visitors by Barney Norris which runs in August. The long-awaited Calendar Girls by Tim Firth will finally be coming to our stage in late September. And the much-loved Follies returns in late November.

Watching Big Brother

The easy way for an amateur theatre group to go is to put on a nice comedy. Preferably one that you’ve already heard of. “Allo, Allo,” I’m told, is a sure-fire bet around the amateur traps at the moment.

It’s pleasing then to see our local thespians tackling something more serious. Especially when this brave new direction is initiated by its juvenile arm, the Warrandyte Youth Theatre, and all the more satisfying to see it attracting such strong audiences.

Orwell’s 1984, of course, is an important work, still chillingly relevant, which is why it is remains firmly on the school syllabus.

Although penned in 1949, and set in a far-flung future we have long since overtaken, we don’t have to look far abroad to see thriving examples of institutionalised hatred, rigid party control, brainwashing, citizen spies, re-education programs and all the insidious manifestations of totalitarianism so vividly imagined here. The debasement of language into shallow slogans and soundbites has become de rigueur even within our own political system – and don’t get me started on email and Twitter-speak. OMG!

So the storyline was immediately compelling and guaranteed to provide that much-vaunted ‘something to think about long after the final curtain’. It unfolded

smoothly under sure-footed direction from Adrian Rice and crisply effective staging as party apparatchiks pivoted a sequence of stark backdrops into position like flipping through the pages of the book itself.

Our doomed innocent, Winston Smith, was excellently portrayed by Matthew Freeman whose passion and control provided a convincing journey from subversive to submissive. Nicola De Rosbo-Davies was equally strong as the seductively rebellious Julia, playing the part with innocence and restraint. Nick Vanderhaar in the demanding role of O’Brien managed to suck the audience in as effectively as he did the young couple until unleashing his true colours with frightening force. Matt Wallace as Syme, Lydia Phelan as Parsons, Georgina Topp as the Landlady, Emma Withoff and Renata Levin-Buckland in multiple roles and Jaz Harwood as the fanatical 14-year-old played their roles for the team with good effect.

I was also impressed to hear that the evocative background score was an original effort from the multi-talented Matt Wallace.

Warrandyte’s Youth Theatre is one of the most exciting theatrical developments we have seen in recent years and we can only hope the momentum established can be maintained. It’s a difficult challenge as the first wave of exceptional talent we enjoyed in the first four years is already outgrowing the youth label. But if 1984 is any indication, the next crop of young performers is well up to the task.

Next up for the company is Speaking in Tongues on which the highly-acclaimed movie Lantana was based. It opens on 18 October.

PHOTOS: STEPHEN REYNOLDS

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