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May 29, 2014

Little Bird

Weaving a modern, dark fairytale world, The State Theatre Company’s new one-man show Little Bird draws you in with its familiar once-upon-a-time story and then takes you to strange and unsettling places.

  • Words: Farrin Foster
  • Pictures: Shane Reid

As a project, Little Bird had many beginnings. It is at once a partnership between the State Theatre Company and Cabaret Festival, a collaboration between a bunch of old friends who always hoped to work together, and a story that had been brewing in the mind of playwright Nicki Bloom for years.

But what changed Little Bird from a collection of disparate ideas and interrelationships into a solid project was one man.

“The project kind of started around Paul Capsis,” says director Geordie Brookman. “Part of what we talked about and part of what Nicki thought was interesting was the idea of writing specifically for a performer.”

Paul is one of Australia’s premier theatre actors and singers, with an enormous vocal range and the ability to convincingly inhabit multiple personas. Until he was brought onboard Nicki had been speaking with Geordie about writing a piece for the State Theatre Comp­any, while Geordie was having separate conversations with the Cabaret Festival about working in partnership on a show. The two conversations became one when Nicki identified Paul and his musicality as potential inspiration for her script.

Paul’s versatility was the perfect medium for the themes Nicki had already been looking to explore.

“He’s such an extraordinary performer with an incredible voice and a whole lot of stories he wants to tell,” says Nicki. “He brings all of this wealth of knowledge, background and experience, so I try to link that with what I’m doing.”

“When we started talking, what we wanted to look at was gender and the amorphous nature of gender,” adds Geordie. “That is something that informs Paul’s performance, and is something that he’s always really interested in exploring. We thought this sort of strange cabaret, vaudevillian world was a great place to talk about that.”

“Fairytales are all about transformation and people can accept wild acts of transformation in a fairytale.”– Nicki Bloom

Nicki set about creating the world of the play in Paul’s image, and found her-self increasingly drawn to the fantastical. Her storyline plotted a path that saw main character – Wren – leaving the world of his isolated family home and heading to the city, moving through many stages of transformation along the way.

Maintaining the magic of a fantasy world live onstage is notoriously difficult, but Nicki drew on the fairytale tradition to help the audience make leaps of faith.

“Fairytales are all about transform­ation and people can accept wild acts of transformation in a fairytale that they wouldn’t be able to come to if you were using a different frame for what you were doing, so it was the right material to explore with that,” says Nicki.

Director Geordie Brookman and playwright Nicki Bloom

Director Geordie Brookman and playwright Nicki Bloom

The musical elements of Little Bird – which Nicki describes as a “play with songs” – also help the audience to suspend disbelief and connect with Wren. For this side of the production Geordie and Nicki worked with Cam Goodall and Quincy Grant, both long-term friends.

The songs – which are written by Cam and Quincy with direction from Nicki – help guide the plot and will be performed live onstage by a five-piece band. At the time of CityMag’s interview Cam and Quincy were still developing the score, but what they had created already looked to be entertainingly diverse.

“Quincy’s natural style is this almost cyclic, Philip Glass-esque piano work while Cam is this great structural pop writer,” says Geordie. “So you get them making a song that sounds for all money like Augie March or The National one minute, but then what they’re getting together to write tonight is a sort of Mary J. Blige blues number. That’s exciting,
but you need a performer like Paul to pull it off.”

The musical nature of the show adds an extra challenge to Geordie’s job as director. But Geordie seems remarkably cheerful about adding choreography and clarity of lyrics to the mind-bogglingly long list of challenges faced by the direct­or (especially one mounting a show set in a fairytale universe).

“It’s a different approach,” he says. “What is normally a one-on-one relationship between the director and the perform­er becomes sort of three-way relationship between the performer, the director and the music director.

“You have to balance both demands because the lyrics in this kind of piece will tend to carry a lot of the plot and a lot of necessary character development. So you have to make sure the lyrics are crystal clear but there is still emotion in the voice. The thing I often have a problem with in commercial musical theatre is that everything gets so auto-tuned and vanilla so that you’ve got no real feeling behind it.”

Whatever else it may be, CityMag is sure that Little Bird won’t be vanilla or lacking in emotion. Between the dark fairytale universe sketched by Nicki, the charisma of its inhabitant as enlivened by Paul, and the guiding hands of Geordie, Cam and Quincy – there’s more chance of the whole audience turning into mythical creatures than there is of this show being boring.

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