When director Sarah Goodes and designer Elizabeth Gadsby first imagined the world of Lucy Kirkwood’s play The Children, they saw water, water, everywhere. A house without walls surrounded by the ocean.
But production teams tend to freak out when there’s the possibility of a lot of water on stage. And Kirkwood’s script, focused on three retired nuclear scientists in the aftermath of a catastrophe, called for an atmosphere more stifling than expansive.
“Lucy wrote quite a claustrophobic piece where the action is in real time between three people in a room,” says Goodes. “So in order to serve that and achieve the right kind of tension, we needed walls to contain it.”
Goodes and Gadsby set to developing a more naturalistic look for The Children, one featuring a working kitchen and a temperamental toilet (more on that later) and a lived-in space in which actors Pamela Rabe, William Zappa and Sarah Peirse could create a vivid domestic drama.
“The biggest design decision we made was to make everything slightly off kilter,” says Gadsby. “Part of that is scripted. For example, there’s a slight rake in the set, so when an apple is placed on a table, it will roll. It’s insanely detailed. We also slightly twisted the set on an angle and raked it on one side. We created a space that, depending on where you sit in the audience, it gives you a very different experience. You see different corners and different moments.”
Goodes says the pair wanted the world of The Children to “shimmer”.
“We wanted it to be like light on water,” Goodes explains. “Elizabeth wanted to make everything in the space react to light. So we talked to Paul Jackson, our lighting designer, about creating a space that would vibrate or twinkle with the tension in there.
“On top of that we also had to create a space for Pam [Rabe] – who is an extraordinarily detailed actor – so she could build her performance in that room and really burrow down. It’s a contested space between the two women in the play, so we had to give Pam what she wanted and needed.”
Rabe’s character Hazel spends much of the play in the kitchen making cups of tea, preparing meals and tidying up. In the world of the play electricity is strictly rationed and there is no running water. Hazel relies on basic fresh foods she can keep in a cooler and recycles as much as she can.
Rabe is big on detail. “She wanted particular knives and forks and was very specific about what went in the salad and how she made the salad dressing,” says Gadsby. “We had very long conversations about what this woman would keep in the cooler versus what she would keep in the fridge, because of the left over coolness from when the generator was on the night before.
“The audience doesn’t really pick up on any of that stuff. But it’s really important stuff to her and to us. We know why that food is in the cooler and why the other stuff is in the fridge.”
What did she want in the salad, exactly?
“Olives in the salad,” says Gadsby.
“Then I cut them!” laughs Goodes. “I said, ‘Pam, the olives have to go!’”
“Well, there was a lot of stuff in that kitchen, something had to go,” Goodes says. “Pam is the type of actor who is incredibly talented but also her skill and technique is extraordinary. She will never make an easy choice and she builds her character from the details. Whereas Sarah’s character [Rose] is written to be the complete opposite. Rose moves differently in the space, she has a looseness about her. She barely touches any props.”
Not so Rabe’s Hazel, who, for example, is very particular about her ziplock plastic bags. She cleans them all, wipes them, and strings them on a wire hanger by the sink.
Is all that in the script?
“No, I suggested that,” says Goodes. “When I did Switzerland with Sarah, in all the research photos of Patricia Highsmith, there were plastic bags drying in the background, and when I mentioned it to Andrew Upton [the former co-artistic director of the Sydney Theatre Company], he said, ‘yeah, Cate [Blanchett] does that’. It’s a real greenie thing, you wash them out and reuse them.”
Goodes and Gadsby have been working together for two years.
Goodes first emerged as a director in the independent theatre scene in Sydney with productions at the Old Fitzroy Theatre and Downstairs Belvoir. She joined the Sydney Theatre Company as a resident artist in 2013, where she has directed Sarah Ruhl’s Orlando, Kylie Coolwell’s Battle of Waterloo, the Australian premiere of The Effect by Lucy Prebble and the world premiere of Joanna Murray Smith’s Switzerland.
Gadsby is a set and costume design with a background in installation and performance art. She most recently designed The Dinner, Cloud Nine and The Testament of Mary, all for the Sydney Theatre Company, where she is resident designer.
Their first show as a director-designer partnership was the STC’s 2016 production of Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced, quickly followed by The Hanging by Angela Betzien.
When Goodes moved to Melbourne, Gadsby flew down to join her for the production of Annie Baker’s John at the Melbourne Theatre Company in 2017.
“It was a big thing getting her down,” says Goodes. “But we have become good friends so we spend a bit of time together.”
“We’re constantly emailing and texting each other with ideas … I’ve just read this thing! What do you think about that?” adds Gadsby. “We read a lot and talk about ideas a lot.”
Gadsby’s background in installation art can bring in “ideas bigger than the play,” says Goodes. “But she always does this remarkable dance with the text. Her ideas can be big but she always makes sure they serve the play, whereas I’m drawn to the poetry of the everyday. For me it’s often about the small things. We keep each other in check.”
Goodes is an avid reader and researcher, Gadsby says. “She feeds her reading material into the emotional and psychological life of the play. We spend a lot of time having conversations about life, and what it feels like when you are in this situation or when you feel compromised by something, or what it means when you are faced with a very uncomfortable challenge. We talk about the underlying psychology, because without delving into that together you don’t know what the space then has to do.”
“You can’t create the universe,” adds Goodes. “I think the thing we really enjoy creating is a little world that exists on its own for a period of time and then it’s dismantled.”
In The Children, many of the production’s complexities reside in simple-seeming details.
Like creating a reliably overflowing toilet. That was a journey in itself, says Gadsby.
“For example, because the water is on stage with actors and is recycled, it has to be chlorinated,” she explains. “Then we realised the chlorine was eating one of the colours of the dye that goes into the water to make it a dirty-looking colour. It was turning this lurid green.”
A complex water management system sits under the stage to collect the raw sewage spilling from the offstage toilet – Hazel’s worst nightmare.
Getting the water to flow where it’s supposed to flow – down a set of steps into the lounge room of the set and nowhere else – is a major logistical exercise.
“It comes out of a sprinkler system attached to the back of the bathroom door,” Gadsby explains. “The floor is raked coming out of the bathroom door, then raked going down the step and then the larger space is raked to make the water pool into that corner. Then the floor underneath the lino is slightly indented to help it create its puddle shape.”
Then there’s the issue of … how to put this … viscosity.
“We talked a lot about the texture,” says Goodes. “At one of the donor events in Melbourne there was a gastroenterologist who came up to us and said ‘I loved the play … but you needed a bit of texture in there.”
Both women laugh.
“We thought, there is a fine line between the audience being outraged and being completely grossed out and distracted for the rest of the play,” says Gadsby. “So we couldn’t have lumps, we couldn’t have floaters.”
“No, no,” says Goodes.
“And Pam goes to sit on the step and have this really intimate moment and we don’t want the audience to go, ‘they’re sitting in shit!’” says Gadsby.
The Children plays at the Sydney Opera House until May 19 but Goodes and Gadsby have already moved on to other productions.
Goodes is directing The Sugar House, a new play by Alana Valentine at Belvoir. Gadsby is creating sets and costumes for Nakkiah Lui’s Blackie Blackie Brown for STC.
Both are passionate about Australian stories.
“I think audiences are ready,” Goodes says. “We have to make more Australian stories. Working on plays by Lucy Kirkwood [a British playwright] and Annie Baker [American] can be life-changing in terms of exploring the craft, and we should stage these plays as part of our programs. But in terms of our theatre community right now, there is so much going on.
“I think we are living through a period of social change that is as profound as the 1960s and we need to be responding to it as a community and not just telling other people’s stories. We need to tell our version of what it is we’re going through.”
“You read a really great script from the States or the UK but you get to the end of it and think why would we do this? It’s not like the ideas in that script are not relevant in some way, but we want to hear it from our community, the Australian experience in its myriad forms and the variety of experience that exists here, rather than reading it through another lens.”
The Children is playing at the Sydney Opera House until May 19.