Publication: Perth Arts Live
Author: Cicely Binford
Good things are on the horizon for Spare Parts Puppet Theatre, and they’re kicking off their 2016 season with a flourish of feathery fun with associate director Michael Barlow’s production of Miss Lily’s Fabulous Feather Boa. It’s currently running at the theatre twice a day until the end of January, providing families with plenty of laughs over the summer holidays. Beyond January, Spare Parts has a jam-packed year planned, and artistic director Philip Mitchell takes us through it all, but first, Michael Barlow takes a moment to chat about producing a work like Miss Lily.
PART 1: MISS LILY’S FABULOUS FEATHER BOA
First of all, tell us how you go about choosing a book or story to adapt?
We look for stories or material that can offer something to audiences of all ages, that children can relate to at their level of experience in the world and also has something for adults. We look for material that has an idea to express about what it means for us to be alive, what human experience is like; even if it’s in the guise of a crocodile, we’re basically exploring human nature. We look for things that have something positive to say about that. We’re big believers in the power of joyfulness.
How does a book come to your attention? How did you come across Miss Lily?
For me it’s generally a case of hunting them out. I go to bookshops and libraries – I always like to go into children’s libraries to see which books are being featured by librarians. I’ve had conversations with staff at The Literature Centre in Fremantle, sometimes it’s a recommendation from another artist, or sometimes a family member, which is the case with Miss Lily.
My nieces had borrowed it from the library and I was reading them some bedside stories one evening, and that was one of the books they had chosen. I just found it delightful, particularly in seeing their response to the story, because it is this slightly silly, slightly over-the-top situation.
And there’s something kind of ridiculous about this glamorous crocodile that dances the tango and the potoroo; the whole world that Margaret Wild created in that book has a particular flavour. And I can remember the girls with these smiles of pleasure at the fun. That’s what I really hoped to translate onto the production, the spirit of that enjoyment, that fun.
That was the guiding idea in casting the production. This season is a remount, and the original cast weren’t available for the production, so I was looking very specifically for performers who had puppet experience and could act, but particularly who had feeling and experience for comedy, which Nick, Shane and Bec all bring to the show.
Do you try to recreate the book’s artwork as best you can?
It varies by production. The previous production, Fox, used elements of the original book in projection so it was about as close to some of the imagery from the original book as it could be. The puppets themselves were very different from the images in the book, but there was some of the flavour of the original artwork.
With Miss Lily, Iona McAuley, who designed the show, has created puppet designs that are inspired by the original, but they’re her own designs, so it’s an interpretation.
The adaptation of the story follows the original story reasonably closely, but there are some sections which have our own original material. For instance, the sequence of the potoroo having a nightmare about the boa coming back for revenge, and the whole idea of the boa having a life of its own, are not in the book; that came in the process of adapting it.
How do you go about adapting material that deals with subject matter, such as loss and grief, that adults might perceive as difficult for children to understand?
Fox, our previous production, which is also based on a Margaret Wild book, is at the other end of the spectrum from Miss Lily. It’s much more dramatic and darker in tone. Something that really good storytellers have always known is that children are not unable to engage with that material at all.
We do a question and answer session after each performance now. It’s nice for both sides to have that extra engagement between us and the audience, but the opportunity for children to speak and ask their questions in a public way really respects them as individuals and developing identities within our communities. When a child has the opportunity to ask what it’s concern is, and be treated the same as any adult would be, I think something really special happens. I think that’s one of the loveliest things about Spare Parts.