Picture this: It's a balmy Australian summer's evening and you're sitting in the theatre as a mesmerizing five-hour-long production comes to a close. Suddenly, the back wall of the theatre opens to reveal the glorious night sky and the Indian Ocean lapping at the rear of the stage. One of the main characters throws himself into the water: With a single splash and a snap blackout a moment of pure magic is created. This is the evocative image that captivated audiences at the conclusion of Cloudstreet, an epic production spanning two decades in the lives of two Australian families.
Cloudstreet is the latest offering from the Western Australia-based Black Swan Theatre Company, which has produced over 40 works since its inception in 1990, attracting the collaboration of Australia's premier directors, writers, performers, and designers. With a commitment to Australian works and a special emphasis on the work of Aboriginal writers and artists, the company (under artistic director Andrew Ross) has established a reputation for producing memorable and innovative theatre.
Lighting designer Mark Howett, who is himself of Aboriginal descent, has worked with Black Swan on numerous productions over the years and was responsible for the lighting on Cloudstreet, a co-production with Sydney-based Company B Belvoir. Acclaimed director Neil Armfield was at the helm on this occasion, guiding the design team and 14-strong cast into creating an evocative and heartfelt adaptation of acclaimed Australian author Tim Winton's novel of the same name. The story follows the unfolding lives of the Lamb and Pickle families over a 20-year period tinged with tragedy, joy, and hardship.
Cloudstreet was staged in a huge vacant boatshed in Fremantle, host city for Australia's 1987 defense of the America's Cup. The boatshed had previously housed one of the America's Cup defense yachts prior to becoming the building site for a replica of HM Bark Endeavour, the ship that carried Captain James Cook to Australia in 1770. The shed had sat empty since 1996 when the Endeavour replica embarked on its world voyage.
Black Swan's production manager Desrae Ngatai had the mammoth challenge of transforming the boatshed into a functioning theatre, a task she can now look back on with satisfaction. "It was the biggest project we as a company had ever undertaken. Before we could do anything else we had to remove the huge timbers used to slip the Endeavour, then level the concrete floor with 380 cu. yds [291 cu. m] of sand and limestone. The performance surface was then laid using 55 tons [50 metric tons] of builder's sand and 1,100 sq. ft. [99 sq. m] of tongue-and-groove timber flooring." A temporary lighting grid was then installed, as was seating for 400 people.
Unfortunately the next-door boatshed, which the company was using as dressing rooms and rehearsal space, burned down one week before Cloudstreet bumped in. Ngatai said it was fortunate that the costumes and props hadn't arrived, but the company was forced to hire transportable construction huts for dressing rooms and storage areas.
Fire was not the only misfortune to strike Cloudstreet. LD Howett fell while focusing the backlight truss for the Sydney season of the production; he dropped 20' (6m) onto the concrete stage floor. Howett spent four days in the hospital with a badly injured arm and ankle but says at no point did he want to give up doing the show. On his release he went straight back to the theatre; as he wasn't able to walk, the crew carried him out to the production desk where he immediately set about making up for lost plotting time.
Howett displayed his sense of humor in recalling the way the cast and crew fussed over him after his fall. "It was very interesting, as the cast had started the process of submerging themselves in their characters through method acting. There are two families in the play, one of which really strives to get on with life in the face of adversity. The actors portraying this family became my surrogate parents; always making sure I was OK and telling me how we had to go on with the show and keep pushing forward. The actors playing the other family, who where always having trouble, basically said to me, 'Oh well, your accident was just bad luck,' and left it at that. It was very amusing."
Howett is full of praise for Armfield's directing style. "Neil is a great director to work with, as he knows how to get the best out of people. There's no sense of hierarchy with him and he's always open to suggestions. He'll take what you have to say and think about it carefully, even if it's the opposite of what he currently has in mind. If he thinks your idea is better for the show, then he'll go with it. He really cares about all of the fine details and I believe I've actually done my best work collaborating with him on this and previous productions."
The set for Cloudstreet was originally going to be covered in red desert dirt, an image that is often used to signify the Australian landscape, but Howett felt that it would be better to go with the whiteness of Western Australianlimestone, a suggestion Armfield liked. "There's more to our landscape than red dirt; the whiteness of the sand is just as representative of Australia and it's much easier to light, as red dirt tends to absorb every color you throw at it."
Cloudstreet is a stylized production set in the 20 years after World War II, at times taking a romantic view of the past. But Howett didn't want to be too literal with his design and color the stage with romantic hues, so he opted for a palette based around open white (no color). "Open white at a high level gives you a harshness and intensity that reflects the Australian light, but at low levels you can get some very soft, warm looks out of it. I also used Lee 201 (full CTB) and Lee 161 (Slate Blue) to add some coolness when I needed it."
Howett's design approach was to use low sidelight to sculpt the images out of the space while filling from his two-color front wash. A white cyclorama at the rear of the stage gave him the flexibility to suggest the many locations that Cloudstreet encompasses. His rig was a mixture of PAR-64s, Selecon fresnels, CCT profiles, and Strand fresnels. For control he chose a venerable Strand Gemini, partly because he is familiar with the desk and partly for budgetary reasons.
Cloudstreet was a huge hit with audiences and critics alike and the company hopes to tour it overseas next year, to festivals in England, Israel, and Ireland. It's not the only hit production in the company's repertoire--its highly successful 1996 musical Corrugation Road is currently enjoying a successful Australian national tour. Corrugation Road is a collaboration between artistic director Andrew Ross and Aboriginal writer/musician Jimmy Chi, based on Chi's experiences in institutions and hospitals as a result of the mental illness he has suffered from most of his life. The play is set in a mental asylum but is an upbeat musical celebration of life.
Howett was also the LD for Corrugation Road and had rather strict guidelines to adhere to, as he knew the production was destined for extensive touring into regional venues with limited equipment. "I based my design around a standard four-color wash scenario and then added six Clay Paky Golden Scan HPEs to use as specials, gobo washes, and to supplement the color washes if necessary. We toured the Scans and a Jands Hog 250 desk, as the schedule includes a lot of one-night stands with severely limited set-up time." Corrugation Road is slated to tour Southeast Asia and possibly South Africa.
Over the last eight years Black Swan Theatre Company has established itself as a vital element in the Australian theatre scene, premiering works that reflect the richness of Australia's heritage and providing audiences with the opportunity to experience a theatre that reveals a changing society. With productions such as Cloudstreet, Corrugation Road, and the critically acclaimed The-Merry-Go-Round-In-The-Sea, Black Swan is a company that is certainly making its unique Australian voice heard.
Jacqueline Molloy is an Australia-based freelance writer with a background in lighting and production management.