After I visited the Pyjama Girl at the cemetery in Melbourne, I jumped on a train and napped all the way to Albury. Then, it was straight to rehearsals in preparation for the staged reading that was happening two days later. Being in the theatre, and seeing the immense amount of work that the director, Travis, and cast had done while I’d been away in Italy was really exciting, not in the least because I’d made some script revisions before I left Australia and this was my first opportunity to see the changes.
On Thursday 5 September HotHouse presented a public staged reading as part of the Write Around the Murray festival. This was followed by a Q and A session. I, of course, was still jet-lagged, and arrived at the theatre an hour and a half before the actor’s call, because I got the time wrong. Continuing my habit of sleeping in things that are not beds: planes, trains, my Mum’s Winnebago, I had a kip on a couch in the dressing rooms, which as it turns out, is an excellent place for napping, especially when the delightful production manager turned off the lights and put on the gentle blue backstage lights instead.
Everything moved quickly after that and before I knew it, audience members were appearing in the foyer. My Mum and sister came along, as did my Dad, who by amazing coincidence was in Albury that week. That was an exciting moment for me personally, as he has never seen a play I’ve written because he doesn’t live near me. (And also, he’s not really a theatre type. When I was 18 and told him I was going to university to study a Bachelor of Arts he said, ‘Why Emma? You can’t draw.’)
The reading went very well—except for a technical hiccup.
While the first reading held in December last year had been quite static, with actors sitting or standing in a row and reading from a script, this time, movement was included, and even live music. Travis read a few stage directions as needed, for example, when scenes hadn’t yet been fully choreographed, or set pieces (like a magician’s box) weren’t on stage. A few songs were even performed live, and keyboard and drums were used to underscore parts of the performance.
The keyboard, which had worked in rehearsal and when it was tested 10 minutes before the performance, stopped working. The actors, kept going, as good actors should, and the MC even began singing the first song a capella before the technical director called a halt to the show.
The pianist brought out a second keyboard—but this one didn’t connect to the same power supply. Rapidly, another keyboard was brought out (I think it might have been the first one coming back again) and there was some amusing slapstick as the two keyboards were swapped around) and then finally, a third, much smaller keyboard came out, which had the audience in hysterics. A lady sitting behind me whispered to her friend ‘Oh, I think this is part of the show.’
Finally the keyboard was connected, and technical director Rob took a bow to uproarious laughter and applause.
(As we all know, techs usually spent their time sitting in confined spaces in the dark, so I think Rob enjoyed his moment on stage).
The MC made a few jokes as laughter subsided and the show resumed from the start of the song.
From there on in, everything went smoothly. Pleasingly, some audience members even joined in singing an old musical hall sing-a-long called ‘Oh Oh Antonio’ (link), which was exactly what I’d hoped for. People laughed in places we hadn’t expected, as well as places we had expected.
After this, I joined Travis, HotHouse Artistic Direct Jon, local historian Bruce, and some cast members on stage for a Q and A facilitated by Jenni Munday. We spoke about the development process and got some good feedback from the audience. We were even able to ask a few of our own questions to see what worked for the audience.
My Dad had asked me, the day before, why I was writing the play, and I said that I had remembered hearing him and Mum talk about it in the car when we were driving along the Howlong road when I was a small child. He said he didn’t think so.
So either I misremember, or he does, but my Dad doesn’t think he was ever aware of the spot on the road where the Pyjama Girl was found.
This means that much-used answer I give when people ask me while I’m writing this play may not be true after all. This is strangely fitting in a play that throughout its development, has led me to observe how our memories are so vulnerable to being eroded by mythology.