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SARAH GOODES AND THE LEAP OF FAITH

This interview was first published online at thespellofwakinghours in November 2015.

When John Doyle’s play Vere (Faith) was announced as part of Sydney Theatre Company’s 2013 season, I leapt at the chance to become acquainted with director Sarah Goodes’ work. I had heard positive reviews from her previous productions at STC – Anthony Neilson’s Edward Gant's Amazing Feats of Loneliness in 2011, and Hilary Bell’s The Splinter in 2012 – so although I had been unable to see both those productions, I knew of her work’s reputation as being generous-spirited, inquisitive, and compassionate pieces of theatre.

Since 2013, I’ve had the pleasure to see four of her productions, with a fifth – Orlando – about to open. Following the end of Battle of Waterloo’s run, I sat down with Goodes for a discussion about her work as an independent theatre-maker and as a Resident Director at STC, the importance of new work, the role of a director, and the seriousness of playing.

While Sarah Goodes has been a director for the better part of fifteen years, it was acting that set her on the road to a career in the theatre. Acting “was something that I’d always done, and I’d loved it, but [I] just did it at school and stuff.” But when she went to San Diego on exchange in the final year of her English literature degree at UNSW, she landed the main role “in their big final production – a Marguerite Duras play called India Song, directed by a well-known American director called Les Waters.” It was this role that led her to be cast in the San Diego Repertory Theatre’s The Whole World Is Watching, a contemporary setting of the Oedipus trilogy.

In America, Goodes met a great woman who said, ‘don’t wait to be cast in a play, put on your own shows,’ so after spending time in New York and London, she came back to Australia and hired the Kirk Gallery with a friend, co-directing, producing, and acting in Cigarettes and Chocolate, an Anthony Minghella radio play for four nights. From there, she applied to VCA and NIDA as a director, before graduating from VCA in 1998 and returning to Sydney where she has been directing work ever since. “[When] I came back to Sydney, [I] had to figure out a way of earning money so I could then put on my own shows. I found it a real struggle – how do you earn your money and be an independent theatre director? I could never figure it out; other people figured it out, but I could never figure it out, so I always had to work other jobs and stuff.

“I’d do one or two shows a year, independently, which meant that you had to produce it, raise the money, all of that stuff. I did about five [shows at] the Old Fitz, and about four or five at Downstairs Belvoir Street,” over a ten year period from 2001 through to 2010. From 1998 to 2010, Belvoir (or Company B Belvoir, as it was then known) developed a year-long season of independent productions known as B Sharp in their Downstairs theatre, in much the same way that Griffin Theatre Company’s independent season now works. Inaugurated and initially curated by Lyn Wallis, B Sharp became home to the Boiler Room initiative in 2005, responsible for nurturing and mentoring a group of ‘emerging’ theatre directors. Goodes was part of this program along with Wayne Blair, Joseph Couch, Tanya Denny, Chris Kohn, and Lee Lewis, and while she is proud of the work she did during this period, at the time she felt like nothing came from it – a result of seemingly-entrenched artistic directorships – and “sort of felt like I was going to stop.”    

It was only when Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton, as co-artistic directors at STC, appointed Polly Rowe as the literary manager at STC that things began to change. Goodes had worked with Rowe on The Small Things at B Sharp, and believes this was integral to being asked to be assistant director on Elling in 2009, and Honour in 2010. Later that year, “[Cate and Andrew] said ‘We’d like you to come in and pitch for a play. You can choose between one or two, but you have to come in in three days.’ So they couriered them to me, and I read one and I went ‘I love it, I’m not even going to read the second one,’ and then they rang and said ‘Can you come in tomorrow?’ So I only had a chance to read it once, and then I had to go into the office with Cate and pitch my ideas.”

That play was Anthony Neilson’s Edward Gant’s Amazing Feats of Loneliness, and resulted in a co-production between STC and Brisbane’s La Boite, with costumes by eclectic fashion designers Romance Was Born. I wonder if the involvement of Romance Was Born was part of Goodes’ pitch, but she says it wasn’t. “I pitched to Cate that I wanted it to be a costume piece, and I wanted the costumes to kind of come out of the set. I remember in the meeting her going, ‘So you imagine the costumes are born out of the set?’ and I went ‘Yeah,’ and didn’t think anything of it [until] she rang with the idea that I collaborate with them.” While it was a great experience it was “a very complex scenario, because La Boite doesn’t have a costume department, and Romance Was Born had never done theatre before.” It was also the first time Goodes worked with theatre-designer Renée Mulder, a partnership which has flourished over the past four years, and they have been working at STC ever since.

“Renée is my preferred designer, and we have [a] process that I could never put into words as it involves lots of conversations, interrogation of ideas, back and forth, ploughing through scripts, playing with model boxes but what we have now is a wonderful confidence in our process that even when we feel completely stuck we know we will come through with something, we always do, so we now trust our weird process, our short hand. I honestly think this is why people work together again and again.”

Following Edward Gant, most of the plays Goodes has directed at STC have been new Australian works – Hilary Bell’s The Splinter, John Doyle’s Vere (Faith), Joanna Murray-Smith’s Switzerland, Kylie Coolwell’s Battle of Waterloo – or new international plays in their Australian premieres, like Lucy Prebble’s The Effect and the forthcoming production of Orlando, adapted by Sarah Ruhl from Virginia Woolf’s love letter-cum-novel.

Our discussion takes place in the week following the Helpmann Awards (where Goodes was nominated for Best Direction of a Play, for Switzerland), and she cannot help but bring them into the conversation. “I was sitting there, [and] I just couldn’t believe why there isn’t more [new] Australian work [being recognised.]” In terms of the investment in new Australian stories, “it takes a huge risk, but we should invest in it; we should believe in it, we should program it, we should go and see it.”

For Goodes, perhaps somewhere inside this lack of recognition is “a lack of confidence – you can tell a classic [text] in a really elaborate way, and I think a director’s voice is really developed through telling classics… but when you work on a new work, it’s really about serving the story [and] serving the writer. The more you collaborate with the writer, the more it becomes this very intensely collaborative theatre-making, where the writer, the director – some of the actors – are involved in those final stages of finishing the play.” This is where Goodes’ strength and passion as a director shines, where our discussion really takes wing.

Switzerland was “an example of that working really really well… Joanna [Murray-Smith] listened to what actors were saying [and was] able to go ‘I don’t like that idea but I like this one,’” and incorporate their ideas into the script to develop it further. “That’s why each show – each collaboration you do on a new work – is different, because it depends on your level of experience, [your collaborators’] level of experience, the actual story you’re telling, and so no process is the same.

“You have to find ways to make it work on stage for the first time; you’ve got no previous productions to think ‘how did they do it?’ You’ve got to bring it to life, and if the writer trusts you, they’ll trust that what you’re attempting to do [as a director] is tell their story in the best possible way, in a theatrical way in a theatrical space; [that we’re] not trying to fuck with [their] writing.” What you don’t want as a playwright, is “the clash of a director going ‘Yeah, I’ll do the play, but it’s my opportunity to show how clever I am.’ That’s the danger with new work.

“Sometimes the work you do on new work is enormous,” in a different way to working on the classics, or older, more established plays; “sometimes it feels like it’s more work to work on a new play. You don’t have a sure thing on your hands that you can then do what you want with; it’s a huge leap – if it’s going to work on stage, I don’t know – but that is the core of theatre; that should be the core of where everyone’s at on the first day of rehearsal. ‘Is this going to work?’ ‘Who knows?’ It’s a leap of faith, and it’s got to have that in it for the magic to happen.”

It is this leap of faith which should be inherent in all work – regardless of whether it’s new or centuries old – and it very much forms the centrepiece of our discussion. But the leap is not just limited to the way writers, actors, and directors should trust each other to create a production; it also informs the way a director works, the way a rehearsal room runs. “I feel there’s a bit of expectation sometimes that people like someone in the room to have all the answers. People want to believe ‘Are you the leader? Are you going to lead us into the light? Great!’ but that’s not the way I work, and I don’t agree that it always has to be like that… Theatre is so collaborative, so that when [it] stops being collaborative or when one person in the room has all the answers, you don’t sort of enjoy it as much.”

Since 2013, Goodes has been one of STC’s Resident Directors. Along with fellow Resident Director Kip Williams, Goodes is involved in the artistic life of the company in a dramaturgical and programming capacity, fostering artistic development and the public’s interaction with the company, as well as directing mainstage productions. From the beginning of the Resident Director program, there has appeared to be a clear distinction between Williams’ work with the classics, and Goodes’ work with new plays, but this was never intentional. “It certainly hasn’t been a conscious decision,” Goodes says, believing it “just sort of happened. I come across plays in a very organic way – sometimes I find things, sometimes Polly will give me a play to read; it’s much more random and stepping-stone…

“Either way there has to be some thing at the core of them – a question, an idea, a social dilemma that sparks enough of a fire for me to pursue it – even though a play usually has a four to five week rehearsal period, I usually work on a play for a good year part-time before rehearsals start so my interest in the idea needs to be bigger enough to sustain me through this period.”

While the role of the Resident Director(s) was established by Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton in 2013 as part of their final season as co-artistic directors, its continuation has been a particular strength of Upton’s (recently-concluded) tenure as artistic director, and it is a program Goodes hopes will continue to grow in one form or another in the coming years. “You can’t get to the level you’re meant to be at without mainstage work; you just have to be getting it. To have visions big enough to fill things like the Roslyn Packer Theatre or the Drama Theatre or [Wharf 1], you have to be working; if you only get an opportunity to work once a year or once every couple of years, you’re not match-fit.”

Goodes believes one of the intentions behind the creation of the Resident Directors program was that they would “really be involved in each others’ work, and support each other, go and see each others’ work and give notes,” and it was something Upton actively encouraged – “an incredibly generous, caring kind of environment between us which I think is so important. In an industry where people, through lack of work, have to be so focused on their own, having a bit of generosity in this industry really bears great fruit. And I know that I have that with other female directors as well, just having that thing where you know you can ask a fellow director in to look at your work and they’re going to be generally supportive and give really good notes.”

When she was growing up, Goodes’ family moved around as a result of her father being in the army. “You have to exist in a world where something happens, and then you pack it all up and create it somewhere else. Contrast is a really amazing thing, especially when you’re very young. We went from Canberra to Germany in the late 1970s, and from there to Ocean Grove, [next] to Geelong… It’s a great little beachy town, [but] the cultural kind of shock of those two places was incredible.” Goodes also believes that when you’re younger, “you like the fact that suddenly you’re with a group of people you don’t know, you get to know them, you all have a great time, and then you move on… You learn to just meet people and be open and engage.”

It is this openness to new ideas and places that she tries to carry through into the rehearsal room as a director. This is in turn compounded by having a young family, and by observing the seriousness with which her children play. “What it opened up for me was how when you say ‘play’ [as an adult] it always sounds flippant and silly, but what I loved was the absolute commitment you have to make to bring an imaginary world into being.” She describes an instance of her children playing with remarkable accuracy, yet while it may sound glib or seem funny, it is “two people going ‘what is the imaginary world? Is there a bridge here or is there not a bridge here? Because if I say there is and you say there isn’t, we can’t keep playing. Because you’ll walk there and there should be a bridge there…’ I think that’s really important to acknowledge – you’ve got to be playful, but you’ve also got to take the play seriously.

“The other big thing for me was storytelling. Every night they want a story told, and it helps make sense of their day, and of who they are, and the stage of life they are, the fear of growing up, the fear of their big emotions… [But] the thing they kept saying to me was ‘Can you watch it with us?’ Like, they can watch a movie on their own or read a book on their own, but they want you to do it with them, because then they look at you and go ‘Did you think that was funny? Mummy laughed, she thought it was funny!’ and then we talk about it.” Like theatre, the act of watching it, as much as being in one is a shared experience – “a shared story, a connection that binds a group of people together. And that’s what theatre does – you’re all sitting in there together, and you laugh, you look at each other, maybe someone’s crying.”

One of the highlights of her work thus far at STC was the community show for Battle of Waterloo. “We got a big group from Waterloo to come, and I stood up the back of the theatre so I could see people’s faces, and the look of recognition on some of the faces of the people watching – of seeing their own lives as performed in front of them – was just one of those moments when you go ‘that’s why theatre’s important. That’s why theatre exists. That’s why I do theatre.’”

At the 2014 Sydney Writers’ Festival, Goodes hosted a selection of readings from Helen Garner’s work, both fiction and non-fiction. As we come to the end of our discussion, I ask if this was merely a standalone event, or if it is indicative of a project Goodes might be exploring in years to come. “I hope so,” Goodes enthuses. “I wish! A lot of people feel that Helen Garner would not be dramatic enough on stage because she’s so psychologically internal, but I disagree, and I desperately want to try and get one of her stories on stage.”

While Helen Garner’s work might not be overly outwardly dramatic, Virginia Woolf’s Orlando is a “wild epic celebration of both time and gender,” as Goodes said in an article on STC’s online magazine. Using little more than Woolf’s own words, playwright Sarah Ruhl has fashioned a play that shimmers and sparkles in a way that captures both the novel’s literary delight and its breadth of theatrical possibility in one deft touch, traversing the breadth of a three-hundred-year life in under two hours.

Alongside Orlando, Goodes’ productions for 2016 seem like the perfect complement to her reputation for clear-sighted and elegant productions. Angela Betzien’s The Hanging tackles the Australian Gothic genre and teenage darkness, a Picnic at Hanging Rock for the twenty-first century, while Ayad Akhtar’s play Disgraced is a powerful discussion about race, and the politics of identity and belonging in a post 9/11 world. As with all Goodes’ work, “at the core of [these plays is] a question – an idea, a social dilemma – that sparks enough of a fire for me to pursue it... The central theme is [always] how we interact with each other, how we form our own sense of self, but [it] is also active – theatre is all about action,” and interaction between people (or characters) to create conflict, tension, and how they affect us and those around us.

Only time will tell how these productions will come to life on stage, but you can be sure they will be like Woolf’s Orlando – “filled with life – exquisitely… bursting with it.”