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

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Front Page - Battle of Water­loo runs at Syd­ney Theatre Com­pany from June 1 to 27.

RE­VIEW

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

AN­DREW UP­TON

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

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