Show artwork for A sense of place
Anna Cordingley (centre) in rehearsal with Ben Cooper and Alexander Rothnie. Photo by Deryk McAlpin.

A sense of place

Capturing the essence of the Australian landscape on stage is a challenge award-winning designer Anna Cordingley relishes.

By Sarah Corridon

Every once in a while, a story comes along that captures the spirit of an entire generation. Colin Thiele’s beloved novel Storm Boy – about a ten-year-old boy and his orphaned pelican Mr. Percival – became that story in 1964 and has maintained its cultural grip ever since.

In 2019, Set and Costume Designer Anna Cordingley will transport the beguiling coastal setting of Storm Boy – South Australia’s fragile lagoon system, the Coorong – to Southbank Theatre.

For Cordingley, her first memory of Storm Boy was when her father dug through his VHS recordings and encouraged her to watch the film adaptation. ‘The Coorong anchors the film so beautifully and so honestly, that it doesn’t seem to suffer the “book-to-film injustice” that most adaptations do,’ she says. Today, the story evokes nostalgia and melancholia for Cordingley, who has been reading, and re-reading Thiele’s original text, and Tom Holloway’s stage adaptation ahead of MTC’s 2019 production. ‘It evokes endless space and a richness and spectacle of the landscape, but equally its loneliness.’

Many tactile and kinaesthetic ideas jump out at her with every new read. ‘The wind when it carries gritty sand across the beach and you need to shut your eyes to protect them…The sharpness of the needle grass along that coast line and how the clusters follow the crests of dunes and lunettes.’ It’s a world that is somewhat similar to Cordingley’s home in Victoria’s Wimmera region, which makes researching that stretch of coastline a total pleasure, she says.

Cordingley’s imagination is unsurprisingly visual and uninhibited in its ability to fantasise how a remote and rugged coastline could be transported to a theatre. Less predictable is her meticulous attention to detail in researching. ‘I am a little OCD with my documentation,’ she says, ‘particularly the preparation of my provocation images. I hunt and gather my references and then format them with notes about their provenance and why they have been included. In part, this is my rejection of blanket image searches wherein the author or creator often disappears from the work. And only when that research is formatted, can I pick up a pencil and start to sketch.’

The most exciting and joyful stage in her design process is usually about eight months out from a production commencing rehearsals. It’s the preliminary period of creativity where imaginations are allowed to run wild without the reality of budget or technical restraints being enforced. It’s a stage Cordingley refers to as ‘the dreaming’. ‘I love throwing sketches to a director and hearing his or her thoughts before throwing across another bunch. I love landing on a really strong idea – the idea that forms the nexus of all that you’re creating – and basking in that with a director. That is the very best moment. A friend of mine, designer Romanie Harper, calls that moment ‘the click’ after Tennessee Williams, and I think that’s totally apt.’

Working on MTC’s production of Jasper Jones in 2016 saw ‘the click’ happen early on for Cordingley and Director Sam Strong. They established that the fictional town of Corrigan, in Western Australia’s wheatbelt, should be treated as a character in itself. ‘Corrigan oppresses its inhabitants with its relentlessly dry heat, rough field stubble and flat, vast monotony. The space breeds despondency… it’s a town rife with parochial attitudes that the protagonists need to rally against.’

MTC JASPER JONES photo Jeff Busby 1127

Nicholas Denton, Rachel Gordon, Ian Bliss and Harry Tseng in Jasper Jones (2016). Photo by Jeff Busby.

It became clear to Cordingley that Corrigan needed as much attention to detail as she would approach a finicky costume. Together her and Strong wandered around wheatbelt towns in remote and regional Victoria, which, although nowhere near as punishing as Corrigan, had suffered from decade-long droughts and the economic downfall that succeeded them. They photographed and ‘forensically’ catalogued, in Cordingley’s typical style, details of cracked and peeling paint on exterior sills, ant-caps on rotten stumps, weeds growing around fence-posts, and then recreated those details with MTC’s scenic art team for the stage. Cordingley’s design for Jasper Jones earned her the highest performing arts honour in Australia, a Helpmann Award.

Storm Boy reunites the creative team behind MTC's award-winning production of Jasper Jones, along with acclaimed puppet makers, Dead Puppet Society, who will bring the menagerie of animals in the Coorong to life.

Storm Boy presents similar challenges to Jasper Jones. They are both novels-turned-stage productions, which rely on place as a central character. The setting of Storm Boy is as pivotal to the progression of its narrative as the arc of the play’s characters; characters whose lives and ambitions are intrinsically, and inexplicably, linked with the physical environment they find themselves in.

It’s a challenge Cordingley is up for and excited by. ‘It feels obvious,’ she says, ‘but the joyful danger and the excellent risk of theatre is that it alters in uncountable ways night after night. Each evening the work is unique, responsive and wholly depends upon its relationship with an audience, whereas a film is indifferent. The medium of theatre is perfect for a work with as much heart and pathos as Storm Boy.’

See Anna Cordingley’s set and costume design in Storm Boy at Southbank Theatre from 17 June, 2019.

Published on 24 May 2019

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