THE RISE OF THEATRE DIRECTOR SARAH GOODES
Sarah Goodes’s star is on the rise as a resident director at Sydney’s premier theatre company, writes Penny Durham
Does a theatre director’s job start when the script has been finished and fired, or should she get her hands on it while the clay is still wet? For Sarah Goodes, a co-resident director and rising star at Sydney Theatre Company, the earlier a director gets involved, the better. “The writers I’ve worked with are incredible writers,” she says. “It’s their work, it’s their ideas, but it has to be brought to life on stage. That translation from page to stage is often not given enough time and it’s the one a play will benefit from the most.”
After last year’s successful productions of Switzerland and The Effect, Goodes is directing Battle of Waterloo, opening on June 5. While it coincides with the bicentenary a week later of the battle between Napoleon’s French army and the Seventh Coalition under the command of the Duke of Wellington, this battle is about a very different Waterloo.
It’s a love story set in the social housing towers in the eponymous inner-Sydney suburb by first-time playwright and Waterloo resident Kylie Coolwell, with young indigenous stars Shari Sebbens ( The Sapphires) and Luke Carroll ( Redfern Now).
Goodes has been involved since the play’s genesis about two years ago, when she was asked by Playwriting Australia to direct at a workshop dubbed the Redfern Salon. “There were six actors and four writers and a week, with a reading at the end of it, so it was an enormous thing … and it was one of the most enjoyable weeks I’ve ever had,” Goodes says. She took the resulting script to STC’s literary manager, Polly Rowe, who put it forward for Rough Draft, the company’s creative development program. Artistic director Andrew Upton watched a reading of the finished play and offered it a main-stage production slot. There were rival expressions of interest and Coolwell consulted her community about where to take it.
“I said, ‘You need to think whether you want an indigenous director,’ ” says Goodes. “But theatre is collaborative, and quite often it’s about the language you’re using, and I feel Kylie and I have a really good language.
“You can usually tell how good a script is when you get it on the floor, and there are moments when you just say, ‘Damn she’s written a good play.’ ”
Later this year Goodes will direct Orlando, Sarah Ruhl’s adaptation of the Woolf novel, starring Jacqueline McKenzie. She will be working again with resident designer Renee Mulder, whose clean sets have helped her productions achieve a notable clarity — a word that recurs in connection with her work.
It will be her seventh production for Sydney’s premier theatre company. Goodes, who studied at the Victorian College of the Arts, worked in independent theatre in Sydney for a decade before cracking her first main-stage production at STC in 2011, the metatheatrical Edward Gant’s Amazing Feats of Loneliness by Anthony Neilson. In 2012 she directed Hilary Bell’s spooky The Splinter and in 2013 John Doyle’s wordy and contemplative Vere.
Directing, especially intuiting what kind of communication will work with each actor, is a difficult set of skills that mostly cannot be taught, Goodes says, but found only through practice. And practice is almost impossible to come by because of all the machinery it takes to mount a production. If acting jobs are rare, directing jobs are rarer.
“If you get only one show a year, your fear is higher and your desire to do too much is there because it’s your only opportunity. I found when I was working independently, sometimes it was about what I wanted to do rather than serving the piece as a whole.” Now her attitude is, “I’m realising the writer’s vision here and I will use my ideas only when they’re warranted in the service of the play.” Sometimes being a good director means “doing less, to find that clarity”.
While there are things Goodes misses about indy theatre, it’s a hard slog, and it’s her ap- pointment in 2012 as an STC resident that ensured her survival as a director. “It’s amazing. It was a complete surprise,” Goodes says. “I’d done a couple of shows here, then Andrew offered me the position and I didn’t know what to say. Well, I said yes, obviously. I would have had to stop if it hadn’t happened. And I don’t think anyone else would have offered it to me.”
Upton says this lack of stability and opportunity for directors to develop their skills was a key reason he and then co-artistic director Cate Blanchett appointed the three residents — Goodes, Kip Williams and Sarah Giles. Upton and Blanchett also were pursuing better opportunities for women, amid debate about the male domination of the theatre scene.
“One of the great obstacles we saw for the ongoing making of theatre work was the development of directors and the need to create space for directors that was relatively perma- nent — so that they could take risks but also so they could plan effectively, not rolling quite so hand to mouth,” Upton says.
Goodes is “a very good director in that she knows how to lead but also how to listen”.
“There’s a beautiful clarity to Sarah’s work, it’s very elegant and there’s an openness — it doesn’t tell you what to think but it’s still really clear.
“She’s also very interested in and very good with developing new work as a director. In Kylie (Coolwell)’s case there’s a natural dramatist there, but teasing out the theatricality is the director’s job. And she’s great at that.”
Last year Goodes received one of five Gloria Payten travelling fellowships for actors and directors, which finally allowed her to see plays overseas. (She had lived in London as a 20-yearold, “working for £3.50 an hour”, not a theatregoer’s budget.) At Berlin’s Schaubuehne she watched Lillian Hellman’s Little Foxes in German, without surtitles, and found it revelatory. “I was totally gripped — I didn’t even know the story, but every picture was so clear, where they were standing, looking, the spatial relationships in the storytelling were everything. I walked out thinking, that’s it: you have to be able to know what’s going on even if you can’t understand a word they’re saying.”
Long immersion is the key to finding the heart of a play, she says, and how to make it beat.
“If you’re just given a play and four weeks’ rehearsals, it’s very hard to know the play that well. You don’t get to spend time with it and let it bubble away, have thoughts about it in the middle of the night or while you’re doing the dishes. That’s when you’re able to offer insights to the writer that maybe the writer hadn’t seen.”
Last year’s production of Switzerland by
Joanna Murray-Smith was a great advertisement for this approach. An imagined encounter between Patricia Highsmith, writer of the Ripley thrillers, and an ambitious young representative from her publisher, it starts as a battle of wits but takes a hair-raising lurch towards the end. If the performances, script and design weren’t in perfect unison, it wouldn’t work.
Sarah Peirse (who played Highsmith) was involved for a year before it opened and Goodes took part in three workshops.
“It was a great experience … we worked a lot on (Highsmith’s) final journey,” Goodes says. “In one workshop we said maybe there needs to be something a bit more sexual in there, a bit more unknown. Then Joanna came out here (the Bar at the End of the Wharf) and wrote this scene and came back in half an hour later and read it, and we were like ‘Oh my god’ ” — here she mimes chills — “and I think it really happened there and then.”
Murray-Smith, Australia’s most produced, bankable, in-demand dramatist, could be forgiven for thinking she could write an effective play on her own. Instead she is very conscious of a writer’s limitations.
“There are plenty of playwrights who firmly believe that the written script is possessed by them and that they know best,” Murray-Smith says. “Sometimes I feel I know best, but often I feel I know the work less well than the director and the actors towards the end of the rehearsal period. That freeing of the play from the page to the stage (is) an entirely different job. As a playwright I have struggled for years to understand that, that it’s not a piece of literature; it’s a living, breathing, three-dimensional, constantly shifting experience and to make it work you have to have an excellent director, excellent actors and excellent design. It’s only half a thing when it’s on the page.”
With a new work, a writer is especially dependent on the director, she says. That’s why she was hesitant when Upton, who had been slated to direct Switzerland, had to take over
Cyrano de Bergerac and put forward Goodes. But the experience proved to be “a revelation”.
“I talked to her and thought, she’s such an intelligent woman, and everyone speaks highly of her, so if a mid-career female playwright like me doesn’t give other women like her a go, who will? Then once I was in the rehearsal room with Sarah I began to understand the way in which she thinks — she has an unusually open and unthreatened brain. What this means is that everyone in the room feels genuinely able to contribute to the conversation … she’s not remotely threatened by people with a different interpretation.
“But what’s crucial for a director is that if you have that spirit of inquiry that you also have the authority to make a decision, or to reject. She had both. Every time I was in the room there were revelations, things I didn’t know about the play, and yet there was a very sure hand at the helm. That combination I think really paid off in the finished production.”
Upton, asked whether he can see her as a future artistic director of the company — a position he is vacating after eight years — says warmly that he can. “I have every confidence in her as a director and a leader, so one time or another — absolutely, she’s got all those capacities.”
Goodes has two young children. To introduce the inevitable subject of juggling motherhood with work, I ask whether a production can feel like a second family to look after, a question that gets a swift dispatch.
“No. When I was younger I used to feel like that but I don’t now at all. Parenting’s much harder.
“Any woman that’s working full time with children has the same juggle. And I love what I do … If you’re juggling and your work is stressing you out and giving you no joy, that would be really tough. The fact that I enjoy my work, I think, negates my right to bitch about it.”
That said, the industry could be more supportive of actors and directors with young families. “I know plenty of people who have had to say no to work because there was no way they could make it work with children — especially interstate work,” she says.
She does see parallels between what she does and the imaginative play of children, and notes that often what a child wants most from a parent is to sit and share an experience, “so they can look at you and say ‘What did you think?’ ”
That is the essence of theatre and the reason it has survived film, television and now online entertainment. “What can we offer that no other medium can offer? It’s this shared experience. It’s the same with music — when everything went online people thought that was the end, but live music is huge because people want to stand next to someone in a big crowd and experience the same thing together. That’s one of the joys of being human. And being part of that collective chorus response to an experience — that’s what theatre still offers.
“Because of this, theatre is a place where we can and should ask questions and reflect on who we are and how we live — while theatre can entertain it also should challenge us.”
THERE’S A BEAUTIFUL CLARITY TO SARAH’S WORK, IT’S VERY ELEGANT AND THERE’S AN OPENNESS
Director Sarah Goodes has been involved intimately in the genesis of her latest production
Shari Sebbens and Luke Carroll, far left, who will star in Battle of Waterloo; Eamon Farren and Sarah Peirse in
Switzerland, which Goodes directed last year