A Writer’s first lesson in the odds.
Theory was left swiftly behind during my third year at NIDA, and we were on show in a series of productions, the budgets for which were so high I have never worked on any theatre so richly supported since.
I got to work with a great director – Lindy Davies – on a production of Gotthold Lessing’s Miss Sara Sampson, a story akin to Dangerous Liaisons, and set in the same period.
Lindy encouraged me in a ‘less is more’ approach, and we co-created a very simple design which evoked the period through costume, but didn’t belt the audience over the head in terms of the set.
This was mainly achieved through the use of fabric, rope, and shadows, sketching a sense of the beams and walls of an English coastal town in the late 18th Century.
I will forever remember Lindy fondly for being the first person to break through my reserve, by demanding, assertively, yet with respect, that I not shut-down and internalise my thought process when we encountered an issue during the technical rehearsal.
It was a refreshing shock, prefacing the kind of collaborator I would eventually become. In some ways it was the greatest lesson I got at NIDA, and it took about 30 seconds to impart.
I was then designated the set design for Stephen Sondheim’s rarely-staged Merrily We Roll Along, with the late Tom Lingwood mentoring me through what was a massive undertaking.
Tom was originally from Britain, designer of the first production at the Sydney Opera House. One of the first things I ever learnt about him was how he survived the bombing of his home during The Blitz. When describing the worst moment of fear he’d ever experienced, Tom recalled having to leap an entire flight of steps in one go, bursting with adrenalin.
Not surprisingly, there was something very grounded about Tom. He championed my ideas, helped get my head around a massive list of scenes, and guided me in taking a positive approach to mopping up the mess made of our work after the director put his stamp on the show’s design.
Tom also responded when my mother started chemotherapy in the midst of that production, not with commiserations, but with action. He covered for me when I needed to get on the train and go home, by painting the entire theatre floor with a detailed texture for me, and saying I’d done it!
In the end I didn’t hit the mark with this show, as a ‘less is more’ designer. I was criticised because the expected level of detail was not there. I suppose it takes passion to reach that level. It also takes emotional involvement, and probably a greater sense of security than I had at the time.
I caused frustration, because I was not open to creative whims at the ‘right’ time, or in the ‘right’ way. I just wanted to cover all the bases. If they wanted icing on the cake, they needed to look elsewhere.
But Tom was always an ally – he’d been in the trenches with me, after all.
My last NIDA production saw me tackling the design of costumes for Spring Awakening by Frank Wedekind, a truly wonderful play which I should have paid more attention to at the time, since it spoke of the kind of experiences I was going through in my life.
By that time I just hid myself away in the wardrobe department and just put it all together as best I could, counting down the days until I could leave and see to my family.
I also had my eyes on another option. I think working with Lindy was the catalyst – surely there was a way to be creative like her, but perhaps not in Australia? I was about to graduate as a designer, and that was all that was expected of me. The NIDA ‘brand’ was fairly limiting in that regard. Being only 21 I wanted to explore more options, so I looked to England, found a course at a place called ARTTS International, and applied for a scholarship to get myself over there.
Thinking about it now, I can’t believe I had my head together to make such a big plan at that time. Mum was getting sicker, and yet none of us were really talking about it. There may be a kind of ‘future instinct’ when the death of a loved-one is imminent, where you leap-frog, in your imagination, past the death and start creating a new life.
I was successful in getting into ARTTS, and secured a scholarship to get me there. I finished my NIDA course by working in the art department of a feature film as my secondment, and then went home. What I found was about as real as it gets.
NIDA graduate Jeremy Sims once described the Australian Theatre as a ‘cottage industry’, which I thought was very apt. It doesn’t disparage us, but it puts our industriousness into the correct commercial context.
At the time I was at NIDA, we must have been amongst the most funded students in the country, yet we graduated into a world in which the scope did not match the numbers of qualified workers, not by a very, very long shot.
Yes, they tell you that 99% of you will be out of work 99% of the time. Where, in a dream factory like NIDA, did they think they were going to find anyone to listen to odds like that?
© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.