Under Sedation: Canberra verse remixed takes on a curated collection of compositions from the 1940s to the present day, weaving together the old, the new, sung, spoken, published, drafted, applauded, unknown, the earnest, irreverent—and turns them into a new theatre work. The Street talked to Adele Chynoweth, almost a year after interviewing her about her commission and less than a fortnight away from Under Sedation: Canberra verse remixed opening on the stage on the 30th of September.
Why are you creating a theatrical work from Canberra verse?
Canberra verse has moved me—off the page, and in bars by songwriters—it’s an enormous contribution that moves hearts and minds. Poetry has always gone to the theatre but we need to keep evolving the aesthetic. There’s nothing wrong with the way that poetry has greeted the stage before, but part of professional arts practice is to keep developing the art form. So there’s Shakespeare, Thomas’ Milkwood and there are poetry readings but I wanted to take poems and theatricalise them beyond the voice of a single poet writing verse for the theatre and past poets reading their work in public. Under Sedation is about plurality—many works, many voices – all in one performance.
How did you select the poems to be turned into a theatre production?
With agony and ecstasy—not necessarily in that order! I mean, seriously, last year when I spent a month at the National Library of Australia, it was not out of order for me to read 400 poems a day that had been written by poets who had been/are living in Canberra. How huge is that? So I chose Canberra poems with great difficulty because there is so much brilliant work—truly. I’m not even being polite!
But in the end, as difficult as it was, my choice was based on two over-arching criteria. The poems had to have potential to be theatricalised. There had to be room in the work for an actor to enter. Secondly, I chose a title poem—A. D. Hope’s Under Sedation. Once I stumbled on that, I found a premise that informed my lens for selection. But above and beyond all that, if a poem moved me then I assumed that there was a chance that it would move an audience as well. The piercing of the heart also became my litmus test.
But I did not limit my choice to published works. There are many unpublished works in Under Sedation that I sourced directly from poets. Good poetry is everywhere, neither confined to the publishing houses nor on the bookshelves of the elite.
What about the selection of songs?
I refused the hierarchy of written verse over sung. It was important for me to also acknowledge the extraordinary songwriters from Canberra. Steve Kilbey who fronted The Church hailed from Canberra. Tim Rogers, from You Am I, studied at the Australian National University. Local band Sidewinder resonated nationally. Suzie Higgie was the creative strength behind the legendary band the Falling Joys. Today, I am blown away, for example by current acts Burrows and Cracked Actor. The songs also enhance the theatricality of Under Sedation—to enrich an existing array of spoken verse.
What have been some of the challenges?
The challenge in bringing audiences to Under Sedation: Canberra Verse Remixed, is dealing with preconceived ideas that poetry is an elitist literary genre that is only brought to performance when poets read their own work in public. I have come across this when interviewed by journalists. The production of Under Sedation is physical and playful as well as consciously political and poignant.
The other challenge is discovering ways to theatricalize poems without obviously acting them out. When I was training to be a theatre director we were encouraged not to ‘double up on the semiotics’. In other words, not to show an audience what they are told through the text or vice versa. Of course, an accomplished scriptwriter is fluent in the capabilities of a director and so will automatically create room in a performance text for the creativity of other performance artists. However, a poet, understandably, does not necessarily, nor should, write a poem with performance in mind and so I have to find that chink, where the actors can enter. I am working with, creative, engaged and talented actors Ruth Pieloor and Ben Drysdale to bring a juxtaposition of varied verse and song to life. And so any challenge is much assuaged by the brilliance of Ben and Ruth! The creative team including movement director Emma Strapps and designers Imogen Keen (set), Shoeb Ahmad (sound) and Linda Buck (lighting) have contributed to taking words off the page by adding their experienced and varying layering of meaning to the work.
What can audiences expect?
I think that the audience may be moved through the juxtaposition of poems from different eras and with the addition of choreography and song. We’re even rapping the work of Dorothy Auchterlonie Green—is that literary sacrilege? But the power of the rhythm and political commentary of her work just called out for beat with attitude!
But my intention in Under Sedation is not simply to theatricalise poems as an artistic exercise. In its own right but to bring to life what poetry does best—to bring an empathetic simplicity to those predicaments that we may surmise as being too complex or difficult to face. This is about inviting people to sit in communion with one another for 70 minutes or so and to experience true feeling through the work of two actors who inhabit, through a range of settings and personas, Canberra verse.
If you want the theatrical equivalent of a cup of lukewarm Milo on the sofa on a school night, then stay home. Under Sedation is a rich, physicalized, emotive work. Strap yourself in for this one!
Read more about the development of Under Sedation in The Street Theatre’s blog series ‘Street Talk’.
Tickets can be booked HERE.
Adele Chynoweth is a theatre director, curator and researcher. Adele trained as a theatre director at the Flinders University Drama Centre and also has a PhD in contemporary Australian drama. Her directing credits include State Theatre SA, Vitalstatistix – National Women’s Theatre, the 3rd International Women’s Playwrights Conference and the Adelaide College of the Arts. Adele has also directed new work as part of the Street’s Hive and First Seen programmes. Adele is a Visitor within the Centre for Heritage and Museum Studies at the Australian National University where, in 2012, she received a Vice-Chancellor’s Award. Adele has curated exhibitions for the National Museum of Australia, the Bob Hawke Prime Ministerial Centre at the University of South Australia and as part of the official celebrations for the Centenary of Federation. Adele is also an international consultant for Welfare Stories: from the Edge of Society, a social history and justice project undertaken in Denmark, in collaboration between the Welfare Museum, Svendborg, the Prison Museum, Horsens, and the Centre for Welfare State Research, University of Southern Denmark.