Features, News, Performing arts, Theatre

Innocence and experience

Roslyn Oades is at the forefront of headphone-verbatim theatre – an innovative form that fuses real life and drama. Xan Ashbury spoke to Oades on the eve of a national tour bringing her award-winning show, Hello, Goodbye & Happy Birthday, to the Mandurah Performing Arts Centre, August 25 and 26.

Who’s the love of your life? What’s the closest you’ve been to death? When do you feel free?

Roslyn Oades

These were among dozens of questions asked of 80 interviewees – half celebrating their 18th birthday and others turning 80 or older. Their responses are woven into a tapestry of innocence and experience in Hello, Goodbye & Happy Birthday, the latest award-winning work by Roslyn Oades and collaborators.

The idea for the production – created for the Melbourne Festival in 2014 – was sparked when Oades attended an 80th birthday party, followed shortly after by an 18th.

“During the birthday speeches it occurred to me that while the former felt like a farewell party, the 18th was like a ‘hello-world-here-I-come’ type event,” recalls Oades. “There is drama in thresholds and this felt innately theatrical.”

She also learnt a lot about gallows humour in her interviews with aged people. “They take every day as it comes,” she says. “It was amazing to me and quite hilarious.”

And so began a two-year exploration about the entrances and exits into adulthood. Oades became immersed in the institutions at the bookends of adult life: high schools and nursing homes. Both are essentially gated communities, she notes, with interesting parallels. “I felt like an alien in these foreign worlds,” she elaborates. “As a documentary maker, I wanted to be witness to the world – to take audiences to people they wouldn’t necessarily get to meet.”

The same set of questions was asked of each group. In total, Oades recorded 80 long-form interviews. “You need a rich catalogue to draw on,” she explains.

A source of inspiration for Oades is documentary maker Frederick Wiseman, who made the ground-breaking Titicut Follies, shot in a prison for the “criminally insane” 50 years ago. He has since made 40 films in community and cultural institutions such as libraries, hospitals, galleries and sporting clubs. Rather than going into the process with preconceived notions, he tried to “make films about what I’ve learned while making them”.

Oades’ theatre-making follows much the same principle. “In recording these interviews, I learnt that the elderly are often out of sight and out of mind and that questions need to be asked about how well we look after the vulnerable,” she remarks.

“As a documentary maker, I wanted to be witness to the world – to take audiences to people they wouldn’t necessarily get to meet.” Photo: Amy Brown.

She also learnt a lot about gallows humour in her interviews with aged people. “They take every day as it comes,” she reflects. “It was amazing to me and quite hilarious.”

She says she also discovered that many 18-year-olds are burdened by financial and social pressures. Oades said about half of her young interviewees voluntarily divulged they struggled with either depression or anxiety. “I was shocked by how many people were affected,” she comments.

By meticulously preserving the vocal print of real-life interviews in performance, her cast mines the rich nuances of conversational speech, like musicians following a score.

The script of Hello, Goodbye & Happy Birthday – composed of the edited audio interviews – was designed to replicate the narrative arc of a birthday party. Oades says she looked for incidental poetry in the words during the extensive editing process.

As a theatre-maker, Oades believes there is as much information embedded in the way someone speaks as in what they are saying. By meticulously preserving the vocal print of real-life interviews in performance, her cast mines the rich nuances of conversational speech, like musicians following a score.

The play’s six performers directly address the audience and, instead of reciting memorised lines, wear headphones and speak along to the audio script, including every inflection, cough, stumble, breath and overlap. This creates a curious, hyper-real performance. “Casting was really important,” notes Oades. “I was looking for performers who could really hear a voice and reproduce it. There is no interpretation – they had to turn off their interpretive muscle.”

The headphone-verbatim technique has been popular with critics and audiences alike. Oades says that praise about the play’s authenticity and accessibility was especially gratifying. “They usually comment that the dialogue is naturalistic – usually people on stage don’t speak like people in the real life.”

Oades is passionate about bringing her work to new audiences, especially those in regional areas who don’t normally go the theatre. “Although it is contemporary theatre, it is a crossover show, because essentially it is a documentary,” she remarks. “For this reason, audiences find it accessible. It could be your grandmother or your aunty or sister or brother’s story on stage.”

While often poignant and moving, Hello, Goodbye & Happy Birthday is full of laughter and levity. “People find it really funny – not in a way that we are laughing at them but with them,” she observes. In part, humour is created by having the three younger performers speak the parts of older interviewees and vice versa.

But while this is deliberately playful, a deeper message is intended. “The audience is reminded that the old man whose voice we hear was once a young man,” says Oades.  “And that the young performer will one day be an 80 year-old-woman. It makes you reflect on the fact that these people were young once.”

Xan Ashbury

Hello, Goodbye & Happy Birthday will be performed at the Mandurah Performing Arts Centre on August 25 and 26. It is being toured nationally by Performing Lines.

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