Janet Frame was a “rebel, a seeker of freedom and a passionate champion of the imagination”, according to the theatremakers who adapted her modernist masterpiece Owls Do Cry. I caught up with Artistic Director of Red Leap Theatre Julie Nolan, and director of Owls Do Cry Malia Johnson, to chat about the method behind the madness and magic of their new production.
How did you go about adapting Frame’s famous novel?
“Our main priority was paying homage to Janet’s work, and upholding it by challenging our cast to embody the book”, Johnson says. “We didn’t want to create a direct or literal version of the book but to use the book as the source of the performance. We wanted to make a show that represented the feeling of reading the book; the feeling of the poetic voice in the work”. They aimed to find the balance between upholding Frame’s words, while acknowledging what exists underneath them. “We had a desire to make something visceral, that was felt emotionally rather than thought logically,” Nolan says, “as an antidote to inertia and the constant barrage of modern life.”
How relevant is Owls Do Cry to audiences today?
“The relevance of the work became increasingly apparent, even visionary [as we worked on the adaptation], not only as the critical conscience of 1950’s New Zealand but also today,” Nolan says. Whether or not people have read the book before, the play aims to “encourage an interest in looking at this book again and to reassess its meanings and its form,” Johnson says.
Janet Frame has such a distinctive poetic writing style. How did you go about translating her style for the stage?
Instead of confining themselves to recreating the novel, they allowed “the metaphor and depth to exist as a subterranean layer, to exist as a space that was felt rather than over thought,” Nolan says. They threaded Frame’s stylistic essence throughout the design, soundtrack, lights and AV, and the largely empty theatre space itself. “We were conscious of making a piece of art that feels more like a dream scape than a narrative,” Johnson says. “Its ephemerality is purposeful.”
What were your biggest challenges in working on this adaptation?
There were numerous challenges to working on an adaptation of such an iconic piece of New Zealand literature. “We had to navigate an awareness of an audience’s expectation of a Janet Frame novel,” Nolan says. As “an advocate of creativity” Nolan hopes Frame would’ve “loved our process and the bravery of the show itself”.
Have you made any changes to the show following the Auckland premiere/for your upcoming tour? If yes, why did you make those changes?
“This is the nature of a devised piece,” says Nolan, “your first season gets by on a great rush of adrenaline and then the work gets to settle and deepen. It’s so important to be allowed a season beyond a premiere, that’s the only way to get work to an international standard, it shouldn’t be a luxury or rare thing.”
Following a sold-out premiere season in Auckland last year, Red Leap is performing their show in a three-centre tour to Whangarei (12-13th March), Hawke’s Bay (20-21st March) and Hamilton (25th-26th March) later this month. More information can be found here.Support Villainesse