25 October 2010

A Wonderfully Observed Comedy of Manners: The Birthday Boy

Director Jane Waddell and Designer Andrew Foster take drama on the waterfront behind-the-scenes of The Birthday Boy, discussing the ins and outs of Carl Nixon’s hilariously relatable play and the challenges involved in staging it.
DOTW: What is the basic story of The Birthday Boy?
JW: The basic story traces the relationship between two men who have been friends since sixth form, it traces their friendship over a period of 25 years; it starts in 2010 and finishes in 2035.  They both take different journeys and what happens to them both is a result of the decisions they make and how these impact on them individually but also on their friendship.
AF: In a strange way, there’s a coming of age element to it. Their relationship is so solidly that kind of joking, playful, adolescent male bond, and it is questioned by those responsibilities that life throws at you, responsibilities which both of them have sort of chosen not to accept, really.
JW: Peter’s [Hambleton] character, David, says, “The choices I made piled up on my shoulder,” that’s how he explains what happens to him. When he asks Stuart [Phil Vaughan] what happened to him, he says, “You’re exactly the same.” In a way, even though David’s journey is much more chaotic and has some pretty awful consequences, his journey is much more challenging and therefore when he comes out the other end of it, he’s the richer for it. And he’s right when he says to Stuart, “you’re exactly the same as when you were 18.”
AF: At which point people will be saying, “Now hang on, I thought this was a comedy.” And I guess we should point out it is a wonderfully observed comedy of manners.  It’s a recognition of things that are so universally human that make it a really witty and light play as well as one with depth and that evolution of the relationship.
JW:  There’s something quite Shakespearean about the way Peter plays that drunk scene [in Act II], it’s quite extraordinary and very, very fine acting.
AF: It’s one of those great moments in theatre, isn’t it? And done amazingly by Peter.

(left to right) Peter Hambleton and Phil Vaughan in The Birthday Boy. Photo by Stephen A'Court.
DOTW: The set design is really intriguing for The Birthday Boy; can you tell us about the concept?
AF: It was born out of form following function, in a way. When we first started talking about the show, Jane was really aware that it was really tricky. It’s quite satisfying, because it has a structure very much like a sitcom or TV comedy, but in actual fact that makes it quite difficult to stage because it takes place in more than one location and over 25 years. So we were aware that we had to make something that had fluidity,  that could make the transformations really quickly, because with a comedy you don’t want to keep your audience waiting on the next bit to unfold. And we also wanted to do something that was a little unexpected in our approach. We actually picked up on a technology that we worked with last year in The Vertical Hour, which is a printing technology that prints onto billboard skins. We’ve been printing on the backs of these; it is a translucent skin that when you light through it, it has a fantastic glow. It is a really interesting effect and with it we created quite a naturalistic landscape of a tree in The Vertical Hour. When we got together with Ulli [Briese], the lighting designer, we suddenly thought, “Well, what else could we do with that?” Then we came up with the idea of panels that light up that could spell out different years, different times zones, and create a little bit of atmosphere. In a way, it’s a complicated way of working around a play that probably should have had a revolve. Although I’m really happy it doesn’t.
JW: I’m really happy it doesn’t too! I think this is much more interesting. I don’t know if this is correct, but personally, my expectations of a revolve is that the set has to be completely different every time it comes around. So it actually involves a lot more dressing and a lot more furniture. It also seemed to me like quite an old-fashioned solution to a play that in terms of its style – it is a two-act play – in spite of the fact that it spans 25 years, is actually an old-fashioned structure. 
AF: We really wanted it to be easy to watch and unfold quickly, like film, like television. And in a strange way, in order to do that you have to be quite clever and minimal. So the changes and shifts are apparent, but not huge and not distracting. Geri [Geraldine Brophy] said at the forum [first Tuesday performance of every Circa production], that something that is engaging about theatre is that it is a medium that requires the audience to read. You have to participate, to figure a few things out, and by participating in that way, it’s all the richer. It’s like the joy of reading a good book, it engages your imagination. I think quite consciously we were trying to do something like that, to be suggestive rather than completely realistic.

Donna Akersten and Phil Vaughan in The Birthday Boy. Photo by Stephen A'Court.
DOTW: What is the process between the director and the designer in developing a design concept for a play?
JW: The first time we met was back in May, and I had read it a couple of times and to be honest, I didn’t know how we were going to do it. But I know how talented Andrew is, so I was quite confident that he would come up with a brilliant solution! We talked about how to approach it and we talked about how we didn’t want huge, long scene changes, but at that time we didn’t know exactly what we were going to do.
AF: I think we were all aware that there were simple solutions and we wanted simple solutions. But we were also aware that the dynamics of the script were so complicated, that the solutions were going to need some road testing and trialling and erroring.  And so over the next few months, we threw different ideas at it.
JW: Yes, we had quite a few meetings, and Ulli joined us in June.
AF: And you research concepts, you start looking for clues by looking online – I looked at architecture sites and sites that look at designs for the future. We looked at how the other production – there’s only ever been one other production - how that company addressed problems.  And we followed a few ideas down the path long enough to recognize whether or not they were going to work.
DOTW: How similar is the design here at Circa to that used in the Court production?
AF: Well, I’ve only seen fragments of the one at the Court; Geri, I think, saw the production. I think we use some similar solutions, in that apparently they used projections to paint some of the scenes. But we don’t use projections, we use a series of light boxes and actually we’ve gone with a patterning, so our scenes are painted with abstract pictorial elements, while I think they used quite realistic elements. So I think the starting point for both was similar, that recognition of trying to do something that was very essential rather than super naturalistic. But I think they ended up being quite different.
JW: The bed was the last thing that Andrew resolved – and I think brilliantly, it’s innovative and unexpected – but I trust Andrew implicitly and I knew that he would find resolutions for every problem.
AF: It was like a big puzzle. It was really great, fitting in the pieces as we went – which is how it is to work with Jane – and I suppose, the more you work in theatre, the more you recognize that the people who approach stuff in this way, are really satisfying to work with. To make a credible allusion, it comes from a book I read by Edward de Bono, who wrote Six Thinking Hats, he’s a philosopher who’s been really embraced by the business world because a lot of his philosophical ideas sit really well as business ideas. But he wrote this book called Po, in which he said that in 2000 years, mankind has made technological advances that are just amazing but the system of thinking, the technology of how you solves a problem, hasn’t changed since the ancient Greeks. In that book he investigates whether or not there is anything other than binary logic in thinking processes. And the closest he comes is that he analyses artists, and he says that artists use a creative process that has a third stage, which is a kind of sit on the fence, where you allow yes and no to be possible for long enough that you get a feeling for which way to go. And that’s what it’s like working with Jane, she recognizes that you’re not going to know all the solutions to start with, but as long as you’ve got the skeleton in place, things may fall one way or the other, but if you put your faith in creative people, those problems get solved as you go along, and sometimes to the surprise of everyone.

Jude Gibson in The Birthday Boy. Photo by Stephen A'Court.
DOTW: You’ve already touched on some, but were there any particular challenges in terms of staging the play?
AF: Thousands! Every scene has its challenges. Some scenes will start after a huge party, and we had to determine how we were going to litter the stage in the aftermath of a party. A baby is brought on in one scene. In the future scene, people talk on futuristic video telephone devices. It’s challenging in that way that playwrights always talk about where they say, “I’ll just write it and they can figure out how to do it.” And he [Carl Nixon] has certainly written a lot of difficult staging elements.
JW: He has. And also in terms of the playing of it, it’s deceptively difficult. It’s a much more difficult play than it appears to be. It’s more challenging in terms of staging than it appears to be. You don’t want it to be hard, the aim is to make it look easy.
AF: A two hour arc, in real time, has to have a shape for the audience. But the actors are having to block it in 5 or 10-year blocks. And so that natural pitch that he is showing with the characters, that progression where they have to bring in the notion of aging and the huge blocks of life experience that happens in between the scenes to the stage is a tough challenge. But I think the cast do marvellously.
JW: I do too. One of the things I really like about this script is the role reversal, how the two women behave more in the way that you expect men to behave, and I think that is really interesting.
AF: For a comedy, there are a lot of thematics that are actually incredibly on the nose and current and questioning. I remember Peter said that his brother or someone came to one of the shows and found the whole role reversal between the parents just a little bit too close to home, because they recognize it’s happening in their own lives.

Peter Hambleton in The Birthday Boy. Photo by Stephen A'Court. 
DOTW: The Circa Theatre Meetup Group came to opening night, and after the show were discussing how everyone had something they could relate to in the play, whether in their own lives or that of someone they knew, there’s something for everyone.
Finally, how do you feel about the end result? What should audiences know in particular about the Circa Theatre The Birthday Boy?
JW: I’m really pleased with the way it’s evolved and what we’re presenting to the audience.
AF: I think it’s incredibly rich. It’s engaging as comedy and it makes you think.

The Birthday Boy runs in Circa One until 6 November. Get your tickets by calling the Circa Box Office at 801-7992 or going online at www.circa.co.nz

Celebrate your birthday at The Birthday Boy! Group packages available, for more information visit The Birthday Boy or call Cara Hill, Audience Development Director, at 801-8137.

Peter Hambleton and Geraldine Brophy in The Birthday Boy. Photo by Stephen A'Court.

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