Director Christian Leavesley with Jacob Williams, Ashlea Pyke and Christopher Bunworth. Image: Jolyon James

From the Reading Room | Over land or sea or foam

Marlin is a show grandparents can share with their grandchildren, says director Christian Leavesley.

The instigating spark for the forthcoming family show Marlin was the curious behaviour of Christian Leavesley’s father.

‘It was interesting to see how my father responded to my first child,’ says Christian. ‘He was a very different person. I didn’t know my grandfathers, so I was seeing that relationship up close for the first time. And I felt that in some ways my daughter was closer to my father than she was to me. They had an understanding between them. So that’s where I began, with wanting to do a show about the relationship between grandparents and grandchildren.’

Christian became the Artistic Director of Arena Theatre Company eighteen months ago and has set out to continue the company’s fifty-year tradition of creating exciting and artistically innovative storytelling for young people. He began his association with the company as a freelance director more than a decade ago, continuing with a stint as the company’s Artistic Associate. He admits frankly that youth theatre was never in his original career plan, but he was drawn to the genre’s artistic innovation, and, at Arena, the long lead times that allow for full research and development of ideas.

‘You come to appreciate the flexibility that you have here at Arena,’ he says. ‘There are not structures constantly managing you. When you want to do a show, you have the time to develop it.’

The creation process for a show at Arena seems the opposite of how a mainstream theatre company such as MTC goes about it. At MTC, a playwright writes a play and a creative team work out how to best present it. At Arena, you begin with a kernel of an idea and explore themes and modes of presentation first. Only later is a writer brought in to write the script. With Marlin, the first co-production between Arena and MTC for twenty-five years, Christian’s early thoughts about grandfathers was followed by a completely unrelated idea about foam, the possibility of setting a story amid mountains of soapy suds.

‘I really like making shows that have a dynamic, transformative playing space,’ he says. ‘I like shows where the kids can see the world change before their eyes. So at an outdoor party at the Myer Music Bowl one afternoon I saw a big foam-filled pit that the children were playing in. And I thought, that foam could be moulded into any number of things and places. So we began to experiment.’

Once preliminary tests with an industrial blower, garden mesh and washing-up liquid showed that the idea had possibilities, Christian started thinking about likely stories. ‘It happens that my father was a master mariner and a ship’s captain and the foam suggested a tale of the sea, some nautical adventure. So we began to look at the literature. Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea was a key early inspiration. The problem with it is that it’s about the Old Man. The relationship with the Boy is a minor part of it. But the powerful aspect of the story for me was that he doesn’t succeed in bringing the fish home. And I thought that for young people learning that a quest can end in failure is a really valuable thing to understand. So our story and characters turned out very differently, but the shadow of the Hemmingway drifts about somewhere.’

Christian and writer Damien Millar went up to Townsville, spending time with game fishermen and exploring the town and its surrounds. So far three drafts have been written, with each of the previous drafts Christian held creative development workshops, a process he is reluctant to call ‘luxurious’ but in the usually straitened theatre world certainly feels that way.

‘We are so lucky here to have the time we need to develop a show, rather than having to work out solutions on the run during rehearsals. This third draft now looks very ready.’

Marlin by Damien Millar, runs at Southbank Theatre, The Lawler from 25 September to 11 October.

Published on 15 September 2014