Arteriovenous malformation is a condition that not many are familiar with. But for writer and composer William Finn, this condition was more than just a plot point. His musical A New Brain is a semi-autobiographical piece, showing the true healing effects of art on the body and soul at a time of great trauma, with most songs being written after Finn’s own discharge from the hospital. With music and lyrics by Finn and a book co-written with James Lapine (of Into the Woods and Sunday in the Park with George fame), A New Brain is one of Finn’s lesser known works. It was this train of thought that brought me to my main question when I was given the opportunity to interview Ben Giraud, the director of A New Brain, the upcoming collaboration of The Popular Mechanicals and their partners The Camberwell Grammarians’ Theatre Company (CGTC) – why this show?
Giraud and The Popular Mechanicals are no strangers to Finn’s work, having created a production of, what is arguably Finn’s most well-known work, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee in 2015. Originally produced by their partners at CGTC, this production received critical acclaim before being remounted by the Vic Theatre Company at the MTC for a second season. The subject matter of the two shows could not be more different, although musically they may share hints of what makes a William Finn show so special – authenticity. Every moment, whether comical or dramatic, seems real and raw; and considering most of Finn’s ideas were drawn from his own personal experiences, it is clear that he cares so much about fostering genuine feelings in his work. And this, along with their unique style of staging, is what The Popular Mechanicals and CGTC are bringing to the independent theatre scene with their upcoming production of A New Brain.
I suppose I’ll start off with the burning question – why did you choose A New Brain?
Well, we did Spelling Bee [in 2015 & 2016] and we loved working with William Finn’s material because it’s so actable. We’re always on the look-out for things that have interesting staging opportunities as well – Spelling Bee definitely did, and this does as well. It’s a bit of a feature of his writing. The quick moving and complex interplay between Gordon’s reality and his hallucinations certainly make for interesting staging possibilities in A New Brain. But this also means the album by itself isn’t super accessible. We always say that musicals are made to be watched, they’re not really made to be read or just listened to. Our choice to stage A New Brain was to create a really unique musical theatre experience for audiences that they can’t get close to with just the album alone. Also, on a more personal level, I can associate myself with the circumstances of the show. It’s biographical, this one, so personal to Finn and I had a similar experience in my life, so the music is special to me. His other shows are too, in other ways (like his experiences with being Gay) but with A New Brain there’s something even more deeply personal and vulnerable about the music. It’s obvious, for example, that he’s felt what it’s like to be in an MRI machine because musically the claustrophobic “cuttyhunk, cuttyhunk, hey/hey/hey” [during “Sitting becalmed in the lee of Cuttyhunk”] is what an MRI machine sounds like to be in.
How is your production bringing something new to the show?
We’ve gone down the route of having doctors involved already. We’ve had a number of workshops with them, so all of the staging and choreography has borrowed directly from medical procedures. Lots of the show centres around Gordon’s hospital experience, so we’ve really gone straight to the source. I think the main thing we have done, apart from the staging and choreography being specific and authentic, is seat the audience in thrust. This means that the audience surrounds the action on stage from 3 sides, rather than just from the front, like in a conventional proscenium style set up. This’ll be pretty unique to most music theatre goers. We’ll have the audience sitting on stage around us, which will help them feel closer to the action of the play, but also to feel much more a part of Gordon’s hallucinations, like they’re right in his brain. It’s a true ensemble piece of music theatre too, which is pretty rare, so it didn’t feel right to do in a conventional way.
Can you tell me a bit about The Popular Mechanicals and CGTC?
Yes, I think it’s a really unique partnership and one I’m very proud of.
Adam Porrett, a great friend of mine (and fellow Camberwell Grammar Old Boy), and I set up The Camberwell Grammarians Theatre Company back in 2014 with the school’s generous support. I was lucky enough to enjoy a great artistic and theatrical grounding at Camberwell Grammar from which I went on to train at WAAPA and work professionally. Camberwell Grammar have an incredibly strong arts program, which I’m very proud of and when the school gave us their support, Adam and I wanted CGTC to be able to offer its theatre program, students and old boys a link to the Melbourne theatre industry by connecting them directly with independent theatre being made by some of the most talented graduates this country has on offer.
With that in mind, CGTC produced two shows. One of those shows was, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee in 2015. That production was then remounted in 2016 [by Vic Theatre Company at MTC’s Lawler Theatre] with myself and the other two members of what is now The Popular Mechanicals – we created both the 2015 and 2016 versions, but neither production was produced by us. At the Lawler, we had an experience where we found ourselves working, essentially, not under CGTC, but on a production we had created for their 2015 season. So, when we were asked to create A New Brain, we thought we’d put together a company name and co-produce it with CGTC so that people would know who we are.
I think The Popular Mechanicals are doing something really interesting in terms of creating independent theatre in Melbourne. Following in the footsteps of great institutions like Melbourne University, Camberwell Grammar’s entrepreneurship allows the shows we make with CGTC to have time to develop. Grads from some of the best theatre academies in the country (NIDA, WAAPA, VCA to name a few) work with us and foster the artistic skills of the schools’ students and old-boys by connecting them with theatre being made in Melbourne on a whole other level. We give ourselves time to really wrap our heads around the main messages of the show, consider what we want to make, take risks, scrap ideas and try something new and grow the show organically. We think that’s what’s missing from independent theatre. The time and freedom for artists to explore their work properly. We don’t expend all of our energy struggling to fund the production and throw it together in the least amount of time possible, which means we can put our pool of expertise into the quality of the work.
Do you have a favourite moment or song from the show?
Well, I’m really enjoying putting together the opening moments of the show when Gordon falls unconscious and essentially the whole ensemble are involved creating the world of the hospital around him. It sort of comes from nothing into building the hospital world all within the space of 3 or 4 minutes of songs, choreography and set transformation. I think it’ll be a really special moment. And of course, I do really love the “Sailing” song. I think everyone loves that song but we’re doing something really quite special with it, which you’ll have to see for yourself.
The show tackles several different issues, including that of sexuality. Do you think it’s important for new theatre to address these?
Yeah, absolutely. What I love about this show is that yes, it’s a gay musical, but unlike something like Spring Awakening where the gay characters are the comic relief or in others where they are dying or struggling to come out, in this musical, the fact that Gordon happens to be gay is not a feature. The story is about someone who’s learning to let go of an idea of the life he wants, and concentrate on what is actually real, what he has right in front of him, and that’s universal. The fact that he’s gay isn’t the main event, so your watching a much more authentic representation of a gay character up on stage. A character with universal problems whose partner love’s and supports him through his transformation. A couple you can get on board with because their love is honest, not because they are odd or outrageously fabulous together. You want Gordon to figure things out and get better so that he can live his life with this person without inhibition. I guess it’s a bit of a metaphor for what our country is going through at the moment with gay marriage. It’s a reminder of how much gay relationships can be just as loving as any other without being different or odd and it’s nice to see a couple like that represented up on stage. I love that aspect of Finn’s work, the point is not “Look at me, I’m gay!” but rather “I just happen to be gay, and aren’t we all just people struggling to figure out life together?”
What, in your opinion, is the most important message of the show?
I think that the most important message in the show is to appreciate the things you have right in front of you, rather than looking for all the things you think you should have in life. I think Gordon’s a great example of that. He’s someone who’s extremely talented, but doesn’t see it. He has a pretty good career, he’s an artist who is being paid to do what he does, but he’s unhappy with that situation and wants to be writing other things. He has a beautiful partner that he decides to never spend time with because he’s too busy going after that fantasy life of being a famous Broadway writer. His mum just wants to spend time with him and he’s not interested in her. He doesn’t appreciate the wonderful things he has, and it takes this experience to teach him that all he needs to do is just stop and look around him and he’ll find all the things he needs right in front of him.
Are there any surprises for the audience?
We’re doing something really interesting with Mr. Bungee, who torments Gordon throughout his time in hospital. In keeping with the message of the show and because he is sort of the outward manifestation of Gordon’s own blocks in life we decided not to do the “frog” idea. We’ve made a more symbolic gesture. In our production, he’ll be a children’s entertainer that which matches the mint green hospital aesthetic we’ve gone for and torments Gordon by popping out of some unexpected places. There’s some wonderful visual spectacles involved thanks to our talented set and costume department. At one, point Bungee comes out of the walls of the hospital itself but he’s never fully revealed until the climax of the show. It’s an exciting build up.
How do you, as a director, handle the serious subject matter of the show?
We treat the scenes as honestly as we can of course but I think what’s really important when you work with any serious subject matter, to keep it playful. That’s where the really good work comes from. There are moments of anxiety, ambition, loss, heartbreak and the promise of death lingering above A New Brain, but there’s a lot of humour involved. Inherently in William Finn’s work he often tackles quite difficult or heartbreaking moments, but he does it in a way that’s humorous, sarcastic and witty. There’s an incongruity in his work which makes this kind of subject matter much easier to take in, balances it out. I think that’s why people gravitate towards his work. No one wants to go to the theatre and be stuck watching misery and tears from start to finish. Yes, climactic moments that moves audiences are important, and we all love a tragedy; but to get to a tragedy you have to come at it from place of fun and you have to surround those moments with playfulness so that the audience are pleasantly surprised when they arrive.
A New Brain opens in January 2018 for 4 shows only.
Tickets are available now at https://chook.as/cgtc/a-new-brain