Attention: NSW Caretaker Period has commenced

The caretaker period for the NSW Election commenced on 3 March 2023.

Accordingly, no ministerial press releases or related information issued by the Government from this date will be available on this website. For copies of recently issued ministerial press releases or information on the election policies of any political party as they relate to this department/agency or its portfolio area, please go directly to the website of the relevant political party.

Video transcript
Tales from the Wild Bush – 03. Director's interview

>> Back to video

[intro music]

EMMA PALMER: Where do you start? Well, I suppose the place that we started was we had this brief that we had to create a show for Stage 1. And Rob actually came up with the terrific idea of asking our cast, so a group of teenagers, to bring in their favourite children's story. Which I think was such a terrific way of immediately getting our cast in the headspace of their audience. So into the headspace of that stage of life.

And in many ways, and we know this ourselves because we've got our own six-year-old, in many ways, the favourite children's stories from when our cast were kids actually haven't changed. So there was a lot of Possum Magic. There was a lot of Josephine Loves to Dance. Or things like that. Books that were set in iconically Australian settings. And I think even just from that first session, we knew that we had to create a show that was really texturally and narratively Australian.

ROBERT JAGO: I think it's really, really important when you start a process like this that you're very clear with the cast about what the devising process means. And the fact that you're not trying to create something just for you, you're creating a show. You're creating something bigger than yourself. So it was a matter of really reinforcing to the students that you might come up with a character that you might not play. And that's OK, because what you're contributing to the story is moving us forward as an ensemble.

So we did some fantastic things like animal work, for example, where some of those characters ended up in the show, but the person that would create that character didn't end up playing it. And it was really fantastic to see the students really embrace that and really have a sense of pride of going, oh, gosh, I created that character. That's part of me that's going to end up in that show.

EMMA PALMER: Generally speaking, the process was we would go in with an idea of how we wanted to spend the 2 and 1/2 hour rehearsal and the types of devising techniques we wanted to use. So it might have been animal work or it might have been giving them a scenario and saying, go away and come up with a scene. And then we would all present it back and share. We would often record those just so we had a record of it.

Then we would brainstorm and go, what were the commonalities? What were the things that we liked? Theatrically what was interesting? And most of the time, we were all on the same page. Particularly since the students that we were working with are at the top of their game. So they've got theatrical instincts that are on the money. So we would tease out the common themes or the commonalities.

And then usually what would happen would be then Rob and I would go away and we'd nut it out and talk about it a little bit more. And I would maybe come up with a scene that stemmed from there. So it was really about piecing the puzzle together. And in many ways, we had the opening 3 scenes. And then we jumped ahead into the tails and then we went back and plugged in gaps in between. So the actual compilation of the script was quite-- it wasn't a linear process at all. By week 3, we knew the world. And we knew that we were going to have this central character who we thought might be a girl.

ROBERT JAGO: Inspiration comes from a number of different places. Some of the inspiration came from the cast itself. So one of the exercises we got them to do was to take themselves back to a time in their early childhood that had a really, really big impact on them. So for some people, it was moving countries. For some people, it was starting school and how big and scary older-- everyone talked about the perspective of what it was like to be a young person and how an office person can seem really scary to you when you're a six-year-old.

And so finding the commonalities in those stories was a great inspiration. And sharing those with each other was great. Other inspiration came from-- we've got a six-year-old daughter ourself and some of the experiences that she's been going through lately. She's had a friend move house or a couple of friends move that were really close neighbours. She just started school recently and negotiating that minefield of a new kind of social structure and things like that. So inspirations of things that are around us.

EMMA PALMER: But also sometimes I think creativity can come from the restrictions of a devising process or the restrictions that are put on you with theatre, which can be budgetary or, in our instance, was that we needed 18 characters. And because of that, we knew that we couldn't just tell a story about a family or a group of friends. We had to have a theatrical device that allowed for everybody to have a go and everybody to get a good go and a good character. And I think that the fable structure allowed for 3 separate pieces almost with hero characters of their own.

ROBERT JAGO: I'd say it was a good 5 or 6 weeks before we had a first scene. And we were doing lots of devising and exercises. And certainly there would be things that would happen in week 3 that would end up in the script. But in terms of actually starting to form the story, it was about week 5 or 6. I mean, we came up with the idea of fables and animal fables in the Australian bush by about week 3 or 4. But what those fables were took a while to form.

And so I suppose it was about working out-- the first thing we had to work out was, who was our hero? And what were the obstacles that they were encountering in their life that they had to overcome? And how could the fables in the animal world help that person through that journey? To the cast's credit, they were really honest with us. So they thought we had-- something really resonated, they would share that. But if they felt something wasn't quite right, they would be really honest with us and go, this doesn't really ring true to the school environment. So that was a really big help.

EMMA PALMER: I think this setting in and of itself allowed us to make it a uniquely Australian show. It was the bush, so it obviously had all of our wonderful flora and fauna, which are uniquely Australian. But also not just the bush, we also had Australian public school setting, which is such a shared experience for so many Australians. Even though we have a private and a public education system, a lot of students end up doing their primary education through your local school because we've got such fantastic local public schools.

And so that world, the world of the bush. And then I think the one that I loved the most was just the Australian backyard. Is we all know those endless summers set in an Australian backyard, where the world is your oyster and every day is a new adventure. So I think the setting very much helped us create that Australian texture. And then the universality of the experience that Electra goes through at school I think is something that would happen here and on the other side of the world. They're social themes of acceptance, of belonging, of inclusivity, and that kind of thing.

Yeah, so for me, whenever I'm either teaching story or telling a story or creating a story from scratch, for me, it's always about the basic elements, 4 basic elements of, you've got to have a really clear set of characters, you've got to have a very clear setting-- and I've talked to some extent about those things. And then ultimately the most important thing for any story is to have a conflict, a central conflict that our character has to overcome.

And when we have a character that we care about, that the audience cares about enough, as soon as that character encounters conflict, they're going to be on the edge of their seat rooting for them, you know? Barracking from the sidelines to hope that Electra and overcome those things. And then ultimately, every great story has a resolution, some kind of outcome. And for us, in this story, it was very much we had to create those elements in not just Electra's real world, but also in each of the fables themselves.

So we followed that structure of character, setting, conflict, and resolution in each of the 3 fables, and then throughout the overarching arc of the story. And Rob mentioned that I write a lot for playschool and I'm also a presenter on playschool. And so one of the things that I spend a lot of my time doing is the live show around the country. And so our target audience, it was just a year older, I suppose, than the audience that I'm quite used to performing for.

And the key thing for that age group is interactivity. Is really making it a shared experience so that they don't feel like they have to come in and be quiet and well behaved. That they can really engage and they can vocalise what they're enjoying. So that means asking them closed questions so they can say yes or no. Asking them things like, where's such and such? Oh, they're behind me. That age-old convention.

So it's really about getting them engaged and interactive. And the first time that we saw our audience answering those questions and engaging, it was just such a buzz to know that we created something that they were really, really listening to. And then I think the other element of children's theatre I want to be really, really mindful of was that I wanted to create children's theatre that respected the intelligence of our audience and really spoke to their experience as opposed to us speaking down to them.

I didn't want it to be too didactic. I didn't want it to have too much of a lesson shoved down their throats. I wanted them to be able to enjoy the story. And if they walk away with those rich lessons as well, then fantastic. And certainly, I think there's enough in there that there's a conversation starter for teachers heading back to the classroom.

The other element of children's theatre that I really wanted to play with was puppetry. So I've got a bit of an experience in my own career as an actor working with puppets. I worked on Warhorse, which was a big production with beautiful, large scale, adult-sized horses. And I puppeteered the baby horse. And that was a really rich experience because puppeteering's not an easy thing. I know a lot of puppeteers who are professional puppeteers. So it's very much a skill that you need to acquire.

And we had this idea of Snuffles, this dog. And that came out of one of the improvisations of the kids. They had created a little scenario, a vignette that had an animal in it. And everyone said, oh yeah, we love that, we love that. So we had this idea. Then Jane from the art scene that said, oh, we've got a puppet. Then I think the name Snuffles came to me through another channel. And all of these things culminated in what eventually became the character of Snuffles.

It was interesting, though, because Snuffles had to-- was a bit of a late bloomer in terms of the evolution of the show. Because so often we just had to get the scene up on its feet. And Snuffles had to be added in later. We also knew that we had to have a puppetry team, because different actors were going to have to be going off to play another role. And that was fine, because puppetry's very much about the puppet, the character of the puppet, as opposed to the person playing it.

But even our own puppetry team went through its own evolution partly due to availability, partly due to different levels of interest. But the team we ended up with were two wonderful puppeteers who really rose to the occasion and did a wonderful job of making Snuffles maybe one of the most endearing characters of the whole show.

ROBERT JAGO: The conversations are happening with the designers reasonably early. So we knew that we wanted a set that could suggest we were in an urban modern day environment. But they could very easily transition to turning into the Australian bush.

EMMA PALMER: I think design also really influences staging. Rob was really specific from the outset when we spoke to Tom that we wanted a stage with lots of levels just to make it as dynamic as possible. And when you've got 18 people on stage, you really need those levels. And also it just immediately lent itself to the bush so that we could have animals up in trees, on branches, hiding behind logs, and things like that.

ROBERT JAGO: And Suze, our costume designer, had a massive task. She had to do costumes for the 16, 18 cast members. And 18 costumes that had to be able to get changed in and out of reasonably quickly as well. What we were really, really certain about is that we didn't want-- we wanted to be able to see their faces. We didn't want masks covering them and things like that.

And I think what Suze did perfectly was really create a costume that really reminded you of those early-- a really, really good version of those early school plays that you do as a kid growing up. So just having those conversations with our designers the whole way through the process was really, really vital to making sure we got the vision that we wanted.

EMMA PALMER: Hopefully what that gives any schools who are looking at this and who decide that maybe they want to have a crack at putting on Tales from the Wild Bush, hopefully it means for them that they go, oh, it doesn't have to be a full kangaroo suit. It can just be something that's suggestive of that.

ROBERT JAGO: As a directing team, we really just played to our strengths. So at the start of the devising process, a lot of the exercises and activities that we did were driven by me. I've got a lot of experience working with young people in new theatre and devising. Emma's as an incredible writer and has been writing for playschool for a number of years. So a lot of the early writing and scripting stages were focused on-- that was Emma's main responsibility.

But having said that, we both-- I did some writing, and Emma did some of the exercises and devising as well. So it was all still collaborative and a team effort. But the person that led those efforts were playing on their strengths. But then once we had the script, what Emma and I did was I would say, I'll do scene 1, Emma go away and do scene 3. So we could work quickly and efficiently.

But then it was that thing about making sure that we showed our work, A, to the cast so they could see what was happening, but also to each other and just make sure we were on the same page. And just have those open and honest conversations with each other about what we thought was working and what we thought wasn't working.

EMMA PALMER: Once we got into the Theatre and once we started directing, we both took the reins in different ways. In a way, we split up the world. So I worked with the family a lot, Rob worked with the tails a lot. And then just due to our own availability, we had to swap that at one point. Then we got into the Theatre. And even though Rob and I hadn't worked creatively together, we are partners. So we have probably a shared-- well, A, we have a shared love of the Theatre, but we also have quite similar-- what would you call it?

INTERVIEWER: Standards, but also tastes in terms of the way we like Theatre to be created. And so I think it was quite complementary in that regard. We were quite often finishing each other's sentences or flagging things that, yep, I'm on that. I've got a solution for that, so.

ROBERT JAGO: The exciting thing about getting to the Theatre is that you realise you've only got about 60% of the storytelling done. And the great thing is that a whole bunch of other elements start to come in to help you tell this story. It also can be quite a stressful time and a time where you have to be very, very flexible. Certain design elements that you thought were possible all of a sudden aren't possible. Or technical things that you thought might be achievable become clear once you get into the Theatre are not achievable. So it's about being open and adaptable when those kind of problems arise.

But then the exciting thing is that you get your lighting design, you get to actually see that. You've got an idea of what that's going to be when you actually see that. You realise how much that adds to the story. And then you add your music to those really, really pivotal and moving moments that you need accented and just how much that helps. It's also just such a massive buzz for the students, especially when you get to a venue like the Theatre we had in NIDA, where they're performing in a professional space with students who are of a professional quality.

And they're getting to do work of a standard that they've perhaps not been exposed to before. And it's just they start to lift and rise to that scenario, and that gets really, really exciting.

EMMA PALMER: It's a case of problem solving, I think, once you're in the Theatre, because, yes, things don't always necessarily end up the way you think that they're going to. But you arrive at a solution that everyone's happy with. Yeah, it was fantastic. It was really fun as well coming at it as a director. Rob and I both went to NIDA as acting students. And when you're working with technical production students at NIDA, you're really working with people who are almost professional.

Certainly our production manager was one step away from being in the industry. And our lighting and our sound designers are halfway through. So they're very, very close to being our colleagues in the professional industry. So it's fantastic to see what they can come up with. And sometimes they'll be playing to their strengths. They'll be designing or working in an area that they think that they're going to actually then go and specialise in, and other times they're sitting outside of probably their area of strength. But it's just wonderful to collaborate with people who are creatures of the Theatre as well and people who understand our theatrical language.

And I think the other really important thing to mention is that working with those technical production students gives our cast from the Arts Unit that really professional experience. Because they are working with people who are so very nearly out there in the industry. And so it elevates them. It sets the experience apart from something that they would do at their own high school and does make it really feel like a professional experience, because they're working with people at the top of their game.

From the young people I saw who watched it, I think they loved the world. They loved Electra and Will and those characters. I think that what made me so happy was to see how many of them saw themselves in those two characters. And I think largely what happened was they just loved the world, they loved the animal characters in the bush. And I think what many of them didn't realise was that they were watching real life issues and sticky human situations play out in front of their eyes in this fantastical world.

And what I really hope was that that was a stepping stone, then, for teachers and schools to go home and really draw those connections from our play to what's happening in the schoolyard maybe for them. I think that by getting the kids to buy into the world as much as they did, the learning hopefully that will then happen as a result of those conversations will be all the more rich.

ROBERT JAGO: The really terrifying thing about a new work that you've both written and directed is that you don't really know what works and what doesn't until you get that audience in the room experiencing in this story. So you think a joke is funny. The cast has laughed at the joke. But until you actually get that age group in the room watching the show, you don't know what's going to land. So I think, A, when the laughter started to happen, that was a massive relief.

And I think as well what I was just so thrilled was how the audience held their focus. Having the focus for an age group of kindergarten through year 2 is not an easy thing to say, hey, can we have your attention for 45 to 50 minutes? And the fact that they were engaged and involved in the story the entire time, it was a really rewarding experience.

EMMA PALMER: I absolutely loved the first moment that we had an audience and I heard them answer the questions. I loved how much they would commentate. I always think that's a fantastic indication that people are enjoying themselves. It harks back to the penny gallery in Shakespeare's time where there would be literally live commentary of, this is good, this is not good. And young audiences don't lie. And so we did. We got those really live commentaries from the audience, which I think were wonderful.

ROBERT JAGO: This is the second time I've had the privilege of directing for the Arts Unit. And it is always a rewarding experience. I think what this organisation provides to public school students and the opportunities it gives them that they otherwise wouldn't have, that alone, to be part of that, is a rewarding experience. But in this project and particularly the fact that I got to work with Emma, who's my partner, and we'd actually never worked creatively together, to have that opportunity was really, really exciting.

To be part of the writing and creating-- part of the writing and directing process and creating something from nothing. Literally walking into a room with 18 other souls and going, hey, what do we think we're going to do here? And then coming up with and creating something that would become Tales of the Wild Bush is a hugely rewarding experience and something that I will never forget.

But I think one of the-- the greatest thing that I get from this experience is seeing the students and them knowing, oh, we've done something special here. We've done something that we probably didn't even know we could do ourselves when we started this process. And seeing the pride and the ownership they get at the end of this process-- that's enough for me every day of the week.

EMMA PALMER: I really loved working with the students and just watching them take ownership of this show. Watching them go through those various different phases of being excited by it, being challenged by it, and challenged by the standard that we were demanding of them. And then as Rob said, just being surprised by what they were capable of creating because it really was-- it was a show of really, really professional standard that was ready to tour around the country.

ROBERT JAGO: My favourite moment always in this process is that as a director, Emma and I would ride the students quite hard. We expect a lot, and we demand a lot from them. But I think my favourite moment always is when they realise that hard work that they've put in has paid off, and that they have created something really, really special here. And the fact that they get to share that with their families, their friends, and the school students we have come in and the sense of pride that they get over that, it's always incredibly special.

Favourite moment from the show I think is when Will has to leave. I think it's such a delicate and tender moment and something that so many people can relate to.

EMMA PALMER: I think it was the moment that the lights came down on the run where I knew that the kids own the show now, not us.

INTERVIEWER: And did you have a Favourite moment in the play?

EMMA PALMER: Yeah. Mine was a bit like Rob's. My Favourite moment was when Will was leaving and Electra comes out and she goes, Will, wait. And they turned and they looked at each other. And then they came and hugged. And every night, without fail, whether it was an adult audience or a children's audience, everyone went, aww. And I think that's when you know you've made characters that people care about.

End of transcript