The story behind the storyteller: Sally Richardson

6 October 2017

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Sally Richardson’s work defies simple definition. Bringing together circus, theatre, puppetry and clowning, her latest production, Fearless, is no exception. She talks to Nina Levy about how and why she came to work across performing art forms.

Sally Richardson

It’s 2006 and I’m at the Playhouse Theatre (RIP), watching Sally Richardson’s The Drover’s Wives at the Perth International Arts Festival. Taking Henry Lawson’s famous poem “The Drover’s Wife” as its starting point, this mesmerising work weaves together original dance, theatre, photography and music. Ashley de Prazer’s projected imagery captures the harsh beauty of the Australian bush and Iain Grandage’s score is a rich blend of strings and birdsong. Against this visual and aural backdrop are five dancers,  Claudia Alessi, Felicity Bott, Shannon Bott, Jane Diamond and Danielle Micich (also the choreographic team). They tell a story of solitude and community, of joy and sorrow, of the lives of 19th century bush women.

This is my first experience of the magic of Sally Richardson. It’s hard to pin Richardson down in a single word – she is a director, writer, dramaturg, producer and consultant, and works across a range of artistic disciplines, including dance, circus, physical theatre and theatre. She is, however, first and foremost, a story-teller… and she is one of WA’s best.

“That desire to work across disciplines is a combination of invitation, circumstance and curiosity.”

The desire to tell stories goes back a long way, says Richardson. “I used to like making shows with the kids from the neighbourhood, putting little shows together for our parents that were probably quite appalling. We used to do a lot of lip-synching to ABBA. We’d set up stages and have a little gym mat and bounce around. My mother took me and my brother to see performances from quite a young age and the escape into the imagination was always magical and attractive to me. When I was at school I got actively involved in drama, making work. I was at a school that encouraged us to take all sorts of roles, beyond simply playing parts. We directed things, we adapted things.”

After finishing school, Richardson completed a Bachelor of Arts at the University of Western Australia, majoring in theatre and English, and it was during this time that she was first exposed to the world of professional theatre. “The whole postmodern European wave, in terms of directors’ theatre and things like that, were very much a part of what we were invited to participate in,” she remembers.” The training was very much about the idea of the ensemble, devising adaptations and so on.”

‘Fearless’, Richardson’s current project, blends circus, theatre, puppetry and clowning, and is being presented at Mandurah Performing Arts Centre as part of the WA Regional Arts Summit. Photo: John Marshall.

It was SWY Theatre that gave Richardson her first major break as a writer, director and actor, picking up her show Five Fingers and presenting it at the Festival of Perth in 1993. “It was an incredible experience,” she remembers. “I would have been only 26, maybe 27 years old. The work was described by a visiting British critic as one of the little gems of the Festival. It was an incredible context to be in as a young artist.”

So Richardson began her professional life firmly in theatre… but it wouldn’t be long before she began working in other disciplines. “I think it’s an Australian thing that we are quite comfortable with non-traditional approaches to form,” she remarks. “What I mean by that is, if a puppet can tell one part of a story, if choreography can tell another part, if someone’s on stilts [for another part] – it can all come into the same performance. That fluidity in terms of hybridisation – think of companies like Stalker, Legs on the Wall where playwrights work with physical performers, aerialists – there’s a real tradition of that in Australia and we do it really well. Circa, now, are also form breakers in terms of circus. I think that’s an exciting thing about the performing arts [in Australia].”

What would it be if your entire life was in one suitcase? ‘Fearless’ opens at Mandurah Performing Arts Centre 12 October.

For Richardson, the move away from traditional theatre was about finding her tribe. “I felt like a lot of text-based theatre was trapped in a particular tradition,” she recalls. “I worked at Sydney Theatre Company for a while and then I worked in various script development organisations. They’re very connected with the idea of the well-made play, which is not uninteresting to me but tends to be found in a traditional theatre environment – hierarchical, patriarchal and predominantly white. As a woman I found that the artists I admired, who were making work that interested me, were elsewhere at that time. They were running companies like Legs on the Wall… or they were involved in Circus Oz, or they were choreographers like Meryl Tankard, Chrissie Parrott. You tend to look where your heroes are.”

Another reason for working across genres? “People asked me to,” she says, simply. “People approached me with a view that I could make a contribution in terms of contemporary dance. I ended up in working in circus because Kim Walker from Flying Fruit Fly circus approached me and said, ‘Why don’t you consider circus?’ And I said, ‘Yeah! Why not!’ And so I went and spent time with the company in a dramaturgical role… and then they offered me a commission.

“So that desire to work across disciplines is a combination of invitation, circumstance and curiosity,” she concludes. “I’m interested in how we tell stories for the performing arts. That a body might do that, or music might do that, or a circus performer might do that, feels, to me, all part of the same thing.”

“We’ve been able to grow a theme and embody it in a much richer way. That’s a fantastic opportunity as a maker.”

The diversity that characterises Richardson’s work isn’t just about working across genres, but also about the roles she takes. That’s partly about practicality, she explains. “It’s about making things happen. So the producing side, the writing side, and the directing side is about making things possible, being proactive. Artistically and creatively in this country if you wait around for people to provide you with opportunity it’ll be a very long wait.”

Richardson isn’t complaining though. “It’s an incredible privilege to be able to work in the performing arts and with the artists that I’m working with,” she reflects. “There are days that I pinch myself. Watching people’s creativity and artistry, I just think, ‘What a glorious life!’ At the moment [working on Fearless] I’m watching these incredible aerialists fly. Yesterday we had a three-high [human tower] of stacked performers – all women – that’s an incredible achievement for them, their strength, courage and tenacity. They inspire me.”

We watch the journey of a family of foxes who travel across the ocean to try and find a place to call home. Photo: Adam Wayre.

Fearless, Richardson’s current project, blends circus, theatre, puppetry and clowning, and premiered at the 2017 Perth Fringe Festival in February. This new version, which is being presented at Mandurah Performing Arts Centre as part of the WA Regional Arts Summit, is a development of that production and it’s undergone some significant changes since Fringe, says Richardson. “It’s more of a spectacle. It’s at the Boardwalk Theatre, so it’s a big proscenium arch theatre, compared to the tiny little runway [used for Fringe]. And the story telling has shifted, although the theme is still the same. It’s very much about the need of the community to ‘fear less’ but we’ve created a stronger narrative line. So we watch the journey of a family of foxes who travel across the ocean to try and find a place to call home. It’s a storytelling framework of the refugee experience.”

“We’ve also built the skills, continues Richardson. “There’s a double trapeze routine which was a highlight in the first production – we’ve kept that but we’ve enhanced it. We’ve brought in an aerial ladder, which flies around. There is harness and stilts. There is much more puppetry. So that’s all been really exciting. The a whole journey motif is told through suitcases, which we didn’t even have in the first iteration. There’s a whole choreography of the suitcase – what would it be if your entire life was in one suitcase? So we’ve been able to grow a theme and embody it in a much richer way. That’s a fantastic opportunity as a maker. We don’t get enough chances to do that, particularly in areas like dance and physical theatre. So this opportunity to present Fearless at the WA Regional Arts Summit in Mandurah is just fantastic.”

Fearless plays the Mandurah Performing Arts Centre 12-15 October.

Top photo: Gibson Nolte

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