“In the middle of a fire you suddenly get a whiff of apple pie”:
Nancy Black interviewed by Marguerite Boland (August 17, 2018)
Nancy Black directed the Victoria Opera’s double bill of Manuel de Falla’s Master Peter’s Puppet Show and Elliott Carter’s What Next? at the Melbourne Recital Centre, Elisabeth Murdoch Hall, 15-22 August, 2012. Born and educated in the U.S., she has lived in Australia since graduating from university in 1970. She has worked widely in Melbourne as writer, director, dramaturge, performer, and teacher in theatre, TV, video, and film. She is currently the Artistic Director of Black Hole Theatre, a visual puppetry-based theatre company in Melbourne.
[ 1 ] Marguerite Boland: It’s hard in a way because the opera is kind of about nothing, but obviously it’s about something too.
[ 2 ] Nancy Black: I know, but for me it became, it kind of grew out of what were the dynamics in there [between the characters] and what was going on. And it was kind of about family, family dynamics. It actually, for me, became about… kind of dialectic between a family trying to find what they were doing with themselves and the wider world that was completely destroyed, or in an act of destruction. And so they were falling back on old tropes, you know, pulling up laundry and trying to remember that they used to be in love, or that they weren’t any more and why had that happened and what had gone wrong. So we really teased out – or tried to – what was happening with these people. And it centred a bit around the boy [Kid], who is such an innocent…
[ 3 ] Yes, he says almost nothing.
[ 4 ] He says nothing except “What?” or “And then?” “What next?” and you know it is kind of like that is the cry of the innocent – who has been betrayed by the wider world structures and ultimately by these silly adults who cannot get their act together.
[ 5 ] And he notices that doesn’t he, because he says that thing like “Why did you finally agree now” and then they start bickering again.
[ 6 ] Which is what children do all the time…. I think one of the things is that the opera gives you these images and it has this little voice of that child puncturing everybody’s bubbles. But the audience, in asking “What is this about?,” has to come to some sort of a thing. And so we develped a kind of visual dramaturgy that moved between crazy world, and shapes, and domesticity.
[ 7 ] Yes, because to communicate what the characters are about – the music is difficult, the dialogue is actually quite difficult, even though it’s not complicated. So you obviously worked with movement and gesture on stage?
[ 8 ] Absolutely!
[ 9 ] And costuming?
[ 10 ] Yes. Yes, and costuming too. One of the things that I as a theatre maker always work with is that – unlike certain naturalistic, realistic approaches to theatre – I work on what the dynamic is between the characters on stage, and get them to play that and let the words take care of it. The words are going to be shaped by your dynamic. And in this case it worked very well. And people are not admitting that they are feeling insecure or worried but you can see that they are talking about something else because they are too afraid to talk about it. And so you actually get a double thing going on. You understand a character much more deeply and much more, in a way, empathetically.
[ 11 ] Yes, because words are only such a tiny fraction of communcation, aren’t they?
[ 12 ] And we usually lie! [laughter]
[ 13 ] And so the cast, then, did quite a lot of work in understanding these relationships?
[ 14 ] Yes, and they went along with it. Just whoosh. And they were wonderful. I just loved working with them. It was such a pleasure for me.
[ 15 ] We all kind of think Rose is the embodiment of music on stage, because she’s singing all the time and everything is coming through this kind of vocal expression that isn’t about words but it’s kind of about music…
[ 16 ] All that sound! She's an amazing singer! Totally amazing!(1)Jessica Aszodi, who played Rose in the Victoria Opera production. And then I also had this idea with the orchestra. Because we wanted them up and around. So for me they were the jailers. These people were all in, kind of Sartre, No Exit: they were in a kind of purgatory. And you know, orchestra members are just infamous for being so conservative, you know you have to have their sconces on full bright and everything. But we had the members of Speak Percussion, and they would do anything.(2)Speak Percussion is an Australian percussion ensemble; see speakpercussion.com And they were happy to wear costumes and happy to wear hard hats. And if I had asked them to get up and act they would have. They are astonishing.
[ 17 ] You had them coming up onto the scaffolds…
[ 18 ] Yes, yes.
[ 19 ] …which was just phenomenal becasue it enclosed the characters down there.
[ 20 ] And that’s what I wanted, that’s why I wanted that.
[ 21 ] What really took me about the double bill was the pairing of What Next? with Manuel de Falla’s Master Peter’s Puppet Show.
[ 22 ] Well, one of the reasons why I did that is because at the end of Master Peter’s... everything has been torn down, and at the beginning of What Next? there is this catastrophe. So we had almost all the set distroyed by Don Quixote except for one wall, and it’s that last wall that comes down [at the beginning of What Next?]. So the beginning of one completes the finish of the other.
[ 23 ] It was beautifully done. And I think you got more of the back of the stage in What Next?
[ 24 ] That’s right.
[ 25 ] More…
[ 26 ] Depth. Yes, and it was a very shallow stage anyway, the Recital Centre. It was never meant to be used the way we did it…
[ 27 ] But it was so effective.
[ 28 ] …but it worked.
[ 29 ] And I thought that the two pieces just connected in so many different ways. The whole puppet idea of this other fairy tale world going on inside another reality, which to me related again to the Carter.
[ 30 ] And then I got the boy [Kid in What Next?] to do shadow puppetry with his hand. Which I think a lot of people probably didn’t see. But I needed to entertain the kids [backstage] so I got them to learn how to do Cat’s Cradle so they could do that endlessly when they were sitting back there and then also to use the shadow puppets to make a little rat.
[ 31 ] That’s so good.
[ 32 ] Yeah, it was fun!
[ 33 ] Did you relate to the music in any particular kind of way?
[ 34 ] You know, it’s really difficult. So I listened to it a lot. It grew on me, which I never expected it to do. And I started hearing bits and pieces of American music and tropes coming through it. And so I loved it. That for me was just kind of underpinning that whole sense that things had fragmented but there are bits and pieces that are still there. In the middle of a fire you suddenly get a whiff of apple pie. Do you know what I mean? And that smell takes you back to something else.
[ 35 ] You know when I would say to people [“I’m doing an opera.”] “Oh you’re doing an opera Nancy, that’s wonderful, I love the opera, which one are you doing?” And I would say Elliott Carter’s What Next? and there would be this wince. But we just had a ball.
[ 36 ] And because I had been in communication with Paul Griffiths. I’d written to him to ask, you know, “What is this about?” And he never answered that question. [laughs]
[ 37 ] He’s a very delightful man. And I went to visit him and his wife Anne in Wales. And I had a lovely three days with him wandering around these castles and walking along the cliffs. He is such an extraordinaty writer. He really is. He’s written a beautiful book about Ophelia from Ophelia’s point of view.(3)Griffiths’s Let Me Tell You (Reality Street Editions, 2008) uses only the words spoken by Ophelia in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. He’s a great writer.
[ 38 ] And did he talk at all about the collaboration with Carter? Because you know he puts a “journal” in the CD liner notes, a diary of the creation of this thing.(4)Paul Griffiths, “What Next? – A Journal,” in Elliott Carter, What Next?/Asko Concerto (ECM New Series 1817, 2003), pp. 24–33. And to be a writer and then to collaborate…. I mean he knew Carter well, but that kind of collaboration is a whole challenge in itself.
[ 39 ] I think he did find it challenging but they are both, well I just gathered that they are both kind of as eccentric as each other. And I think it just kind of worked.
[ 40 ] I suppose the big question is how to communicate what the characters are actually about, theatrically, because theatre is so much about relationships between characters and these characters sort of miss the connection for so much of the opera.
[ 41 ] That, for me of course – and that’s right, they do – that’s the point. They keep coming up with the wrong things. And they don’t understand one another because they don’t listen. And so I set up for the cast, not exactly games, but sort of spatial and physical interactions that were about them trying to reach the other person, saying the wrong thing, and therefore missing. And [Jessica Aszodi’s] character Rose, ends up donning a hard hat. You know, she goes to the wedding.(5)Although a wedding never occurs on stage in What Next?, the characters occasionally speculate that they may have been on their way to one when the accident that precedes the opening curtain took place. It’s a disaster: she tears her wedding clothes, takes her wig off, puts on a hard hat, and more or less joins the guards at the end of it – I mean image-wise.
[ 42 ] And so it was really like, don’t try… Work with what he’s giving you and think about what that is and how often in our daily lives when we are talking to people… Or think of situations that we’ve all gone through where you see someone coming and desparately don’t want to engage with them. And you and I both, I’m sure, know people who talk at you but who aren’t actually talking with you. And I thought, this opera is full of that. The only one who is actually in there grounded is the child, whose questions are never answered and to whom nobody pays any real attention. And the rest of them all engage in kind of human games and break-downs and things that they are trying out, to get themselves heard… and they don’t.
[ 43 ] And they don’t!
[ 44 ] No, because there is never any empathy. There were a couple of little moments between the boy and Rose but it doesn’t last long because she is so self-centred.
[ 45 ] And there aren't any stage directions in the score.
[ 46 ] No, not a skerrick. No, you desparately go through it looking for something, anything… nothing.(6)Griffiths’s libretto contains detailed stage directions, but they are not reproduced in the score.
[ 47 ] So it’s entirely your choice.
[ 48 ] It’s entirely your choice. And that’s why, you know, when I ended up with this last day of rehearsal and it was kind of like a deserted broken down old school room or a bus station or somewhere. And I just said you can just move around… you know, whatever you want to do, just do it. And it just worked.
[ 49 ] So did the actors naturally move in a way that implied their missed connections?
[ 50 ] Yes, well not right at the be beginning. Because, you know, for them the whole notion of playing something and singing something else was foreign. But that’s what we eventually did. And then they got into it.
[ 51 ] And we also – and you problably wouldn’t have noticed this – but there were bits and pieces of broken things from the first opera that got re-introduced in the second one: a sword… There were just little bits and pieces of things. And there had been a laundry line that was in the first opera and it came back again in the second in a slightly different way.
[ 52 ] That’s clever.
[ 53 ] It was enormously statifying. When I finally realised what we were doing [laughs]… I thought, “Ooh, now that’s were we are.” And it was such a moment of satisfaction. It was a real sense of “Oh, now I can really trust what we’re doing.” And when you get to that – you hope you always will but sometimes you never do – but it was such a pleasure to get there.
5. Although a wedding never occurs on stage in What Next?, the characters occasionally speculate that they may have been on their way to one when the accident that precedes the opening curtain took place.
Griffiths, Paul. Let Me Tell You. Hastings: Reality Street Editions, 2008.
________. “What Next? – A Journal.” In Elliott Carter, What Next?/Asko Concerto. ECM New Series 1817, 2003, pp. 24–33.