“White, a blank page or canvas. The challenge, bring order to the whole through design, composition, tension, balance, light, and harmony…”
Stephen Sondheim’s Tony, Olivier, Drama Desk and Pulitzer Prize winning musical Sunday In The Park With George is, without a doubt, artistry in its purest form. A masterfully crafted show following the life of painter George Seurat and his iconic pointillist work “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.”
Watch This is Australia’s only Sondheim repertory company, and have made a huge mark in the independent theatre scene since their debut production in 2013. Beginning with Assassins, they have had consecutively successful seasons with Pacific Overtures, Company, Merrily We Roll Along and A Little Night Music. As a company, they have amassed 15 Green Room nominations and two wins (Best Supporting Actor – Adrian Li Donni, Pacific Overtures; and Best Supporting Actress – Johanna Allen, A Little Night Music).
Sonya Suares is the company’s Artistic Director, and has stepped into the shoes of Co-Director for Sunday In The Park With George alongside Dean Drieberg. An accomplished performer herself, Sonya has performed across stage and screen. Film and television highlights include Wil, The Last Ride, Legally Brown and Romper Stomper. Some recent stage credits include the Helpmann and GRA-nominated Cerita Anak and MTC’s Melbourne Talam. For Watch This, she has performed in the first five out of their seven productions to date.
With Sunday In The Park With George opening next week, I had a quick chat with Sonya about what we can expect from this very exciting production.
Can you tell me a bit about Watch This as a company?
Watch This is a grass-roots independent theatre company dedicated to the work of Stephen Sondheim. We’re Australia’s only Sondheim repertory company and right now we’re officially into our eighth year of operation, rehearsing our eighth full-scale musical production: Pulitzer, Tony and Olivier award-winning, Sunday in the Park With George.
You are the company’s artistic director and have also taken on the role of co-director for this show. How have you found this experience?
Energising! I love directing this show with Dean. It’s such an effortless collaboration – it feels like we’ve done this dance before. We have a shared sensibility and complimentary skill-set, so it’s been a really fluid process. I suppose I come at this work as an actor-director, so I find great joy in unpacking these characters, their psychological motivation and the subtext with our cast. I’m also a giant art history nerd and a mother, and I think both of these are helpful in approaching this particular piece.
Are you doing anything different with the show?
That’s our job, isn’t it? If we aren’t “trying to get through to something new” as the Georges of both acts iterate, then what on earth are we doing? I’m not a believer in remounting work for the sake of it/ one’s own enjoyment. It has to resonate with an intersectional, twenty-first century audience. And there is a lot in this piece about representation – who is included ‘on the canvas’/ who is erased, what is distorted for effect, glossed over or is rendered invisible. So I think there will be many subtleties in the text that are likely to be amplified in the realisation of this work because of our (Dean and my) particular lens/ instincts.
In terms of what is immediately apparent, audiences will probably notice our decision about accents in Act 1 (or rather, 1884). We are going with what we jokingly refer to as the ‘BBC convention’, whereby dramas set ‘on the continent’ starring English-speaking actors are presented in English accents. This convention gives us wonderful scope re: the plurality of characters on the Island of La Grande Jatte – audiences will be able to hook into a variety of signifiers like class – and even politics – aurally, as this mode of storytelling is immediately familiar to us. It references our Australian colonial legacy, which is differently configured to that of the US playwrights. This choice also gives us a more profound sense of the geographic sweep between each act, weighting it more equally with the temporal leap. Dot crosses to the other side of the world, and the shift to an American accent/ idiom in Act 2 really serves to underline the enormity of that journey. There’s also animation, which is a bit of a departure! Our design effectively establishes part of the stage as the artist’s psychological space; and we can actually see George’s sketches evolve into his finished work. We remain playful and metaphoric with how we use this part of the stage, mind you – rather than it all being strictly literal. Theatre is metaphor, after all!
Why do you think people are drawn to this story?
Oooft! Because it’s such a deeply humanist work. On the surface, it’s about art and artistry. But why do we sketch, create, compose, write, make theatre? It’s always about our need to connect and communicate, right? To work out who we are in reference to our world, and to leave something behind when we depart it. So the larger ideas under the surface of the play are mortality, immortality, impermanence and legacy. These are its primary colours (pardon the pun) and they are connected to primal emotional responses. Most primal, of course, is the link that is made between children and art – the only two things that, in Dot’s words, really matter. (Cue the floodgates!)
Historically, Sondheim shows have been cast with predominantly white actors but the casting of this show seems to break that pattern – why do you think it’s important to have this diverse representation in musical theatre?
Inclusive theatre practice is a feature of all our productions, and it serves this story in so many ways. Just as the choice we have made with accents offers our audience an immediate ‘in’ to characters, having different bodies on stage deepens and adds complexity/ relevance to the story layers. For example, we more instantly understand 1884 Paris as a time of great cultural change and an influx of migration (or in the words of the Old Lady “foreigners”) and we can draw parallels to contemporary cultural anxieties. And it dials up the thematic re: representation/ erasure/ distortion/ visibility and invisibility considerably, which is why we sought to cast our Dot/ Marie as a woman of colour from the outset. FYI, Vidya Makan is absolutely outstanding in this demanding double role.
Do you have a favourite song or moment in the show?
That’s a bit like asking which child is your favourite, isn’t it? So many moments! Some of the songs (We Do Not Belong Together, Beautiful, Children and Art) so intensely moving, you have to park your tears to keep directing. And then in the very next moment we swing into high comedy! We have such a cast of comedians that all of the scenes in between/ around our lead characters are deliciously funny.
Why should people come and see Sunday in the Park with George?
It’s an extraordinary work. It shimmers, like Seurat’s painting. And it is so profound, I think it has the power not just to enrich, but to change its audience. We can’t wait to share it.
Watch This’ Sunday In The Park With George runs for a limited season across Melbourne. For ticket bookings, please click one of the locations below.
9 and 10 August – Whitehorse Centre
15 – 17 August – Geelong Performing Arts Centre
21 – 24 August – Lawler Theatre, Southbank Theatre