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In rehearsals with Tim McGarry

Sneak into the rehearsal room for Trent Dalton's BOY SWALLOWS UNIVERSE with the playwright charged with adapting this beloved story for the stage.


Week one

19 July. Rehearsals. Day One.

“One day you’ll know why I am not speaking, Eli. Today is not that day.”

Three years, two months and one day after first reading Trent’s remarkable story. Nine drafts. A lifetime ago. Seems like just yesterday. In the rehearsal room. Day one. Disguised under my mask, a grin from ear to ear. Room slowly fills. A Welcome to Country instantly reminds me of the entire team's dedication to story. The power of story. A heartfelt welcome by the lovely Lee Lewis. A whip around the room, and a whip around the quarantined folk joining on Zoom. Everyone introduces themselves. All 42 of us. Masked ‘creative bandits’ determined to play it safe.

The work begins. A first read. Actors pumped with emotion and connection. Each word lands with total commitment. What a cast! Trent’s awe overflows. He speaks words of much deserved praise. Sam Strong acknowledges the collective contribution of all who have contributed to the work thus far. He gives a massive thanks to the three orgs spearheading the BSU juggernaut – Queensland Theatre, QPAC and Brisbane Festival. We hear from designer Renée Mulder. Witness her meticulously detailed set and costume design, Steve Francis plays a piece of music for the dream sequence leaving us all mesmerised. Nerida talks movement.

‘Show stopping’ moment of the day — Sam invites Trent to share his story — captivated and overwhelmed as he described his early life, we are reminded of the mighty task ahead. He never fails to inspire. What a kind and generous spirit is Trent Dalton.

And he reminds us, “It’s easy to hate from a distance, it's harder to hate close up”.

3-word headline: Journey Continues Tomorrow

Here we go

21 July. Wednesday. Day Three.

“I have a question. I always have a question. I have too many of them.”

Big first two days in the rehearsal room. Mornings begin with movement. Warm up. Nerida gently encourages all to the floor. Huffing and puffing. But feel great after a stretch. Energised. Slows time down. Makes the long day last longer. Time spent on text. Peeling back the layers. Moving into draft 10. Refining, shifting moments. Shifting lines. Action replaces words. Meanings become sharper. Relationships clearer. Grappling with Time in every sense of the word. What a great ensemble of actors. Inquisitive. Generous. Honest. Open. Caring about the work. Caring about each other. Trust. Costume fittings underway. Movement rehearsals. Publicity calls. Production meetings.

3-word headline: Moving Forward Beautifully

Tim finds corner

24 July. Saturday. End of Week One.

“Don’t forget to be specific. Details. Put in all the details, kid.”

End of week one. BEST DAY YET with their release from hotel quarantine, Hoa Xuande and Anthony Phelan arrive in the physical space. Their energy and physical presence lifting the room to new heights. Just Renée to go – still doing the hard yards. Moving the story around the space. Working on the set with its moving parts. Characters begin to emerge. Questions are posed. Some answered. Fight choreography begins. Time slows down. Time speeds up. Art takes time.

3-word headline: Director Creates Theatre

Sam steers ship

Week two

28 July. Tuesday. Week Two.

“Mum – Keeper of lightning. Goddess of fire and war and Winfield Reds.”

The daily rigour of a physical warms up continue. Am I groaning less? Do I have more energy? I can’t tell. On the set scenes unfold, furniture swirls. Set pieces appear. Knives are drawn. The stage moves, re-sets and moves again. Renee STILL in lockdown but joins daily via Zoom. Tonight we head off to Que Huong Vietnamese Restaurant at Darra – a sensational meal of seafood and XXXX beer. The perfect night before the team work on Bich Dang’s sumptuous meal at Mama Pham’s for Tytus’ 80th birthday celebrations – the timing couldn’t be more perfect!

3-word headline: Food Tastes GREAT!

Dinner at Darra

29 July. Wednesday. Day 11.

“Welcome people, I hope you brought your appetites”

Mama Pham’s restaurant builds … a treat with everyone on stage. An epic scene builds in an epic play… Another highlight of the day, visit to set by Matilda (actually we are the visitors — Matilda comes to the workshop with her papa John, every day!)

3-word headline: Matilda Steals Hearts

Matilda in charge

31 July. Saturday. End of Week Two.

“This could really upset the plan”

Today the cast valiantly staggered through all the scenes of the week – in fact all of Act One. Often a scary and overwhelming moment piecing it all together – everyone wonders if their sections are going to work. Actors remembering entrances, exits, props, intentions and everything in between. A test for the director to see if the vision is holding, despite the inevitable chaos that’s all part of a first stagger through. Designer sees set pieces, furniture, notes quick costume change timings. Writer worries about the words. Everybody looking via their own ‘prism’. By 1.55pm the stagger was complete. A triumphant morning – yes it all works! More than works!! Everybody sighs, then Covid rears its tentacles in the suburbs and a word slips from the stage manager’s mouth that we all dread — LOCKDOWN.

3-word headline: Team Shines Bright.

Week three

3 August. Tuesday. Day 17.

“I need to sleep. I’m tired. I must be dreaming”

Today marks day two of rehearsals via Zoom. We start with movement, all stretching on our respective home floors. Shoving coffee tables to the side. Angling computer so I can see Nerida’s moments. Grappling with my glasses to focus on the stretches. Then scene-by-scene, Sam and cast work through detailed analysis of each scene – and what we all dreaded seems to work surprisingly well. Although nothing beats a rehearsal room. Nothing.

3-word headline: Team Forges On

Zoom zoom zoom

5 August Friday. Day 19.

Back to front and upside down. Like the universe, hey Eli?”

It’s Friday. Still locked down. Still Zooming. It’s tiring, a long week on Zoom. Sore eyes but very detailed script work. Everything crossed that we come out of lockdown on Sunday. Can’t imagine another day, let alone another week on Zoom. Acting is a ‘doing’ thing – not so much a ‘talking about’ thing. Time on the floor is precious time. Roll on Sunday! Come on Brisvegas, you got this!

3-word headline: Zoom Wears Thin

7 August. Sunday. End of Week Three.

“Fuck this shit. New plan!”

Halleluiah! Lockdown ends. For the moment. A Zoom get together to discuss the week ahead. Great news. Back in the rehearsal room tomorrow! Everyone practically jumping for joy through the Zoom. So tomorrow… Act 2 blocking begins!

3-word headline: Free At Last

On-set rehearsal images by David Kelly

Week four

10 August. Tuesday. Day 24.

“Time is the answer to everything.”

Second day back in the rehearsal room after lockdown and, pardon the pun, zooming through Act 2 scenes. Eyes on Premier’s daily 10am press conference – only three Covid cases all linked, all in isolation – phew… another day free. A day-by-day prospect.

New movement, crime war, train rides – and two nuns appear at Sister Patricia’s!

3-word headline: Nuns Move World

12 August. Thursday. Day 26.

“I have seen the future”

Despite lockdown the play is oh-so-close to running. Entrances and exits fly … sometimes in and out the wrong door, with which couch? Revolve gets momentarily temperamental learning its moves – swings and roundabouts. It feels like it’s getting serious when the photographer arrives to snap some rehearsal shots.

3-word headline: Snapper Snaps Show

Snapping the snapper

14 August. Saturday. End of week four.

Suburban warriors in singlets, thongs and shorts before battle.”

Saturday means it’s fight day – well, fight choreography day. Slaps, punishes, kicks and falls. Knives, guns, words and screaming. The extremities of the drama raise their head this morning. The domestic violence is frighteningly real, but when the phone rings everything seems eerily OK.

3-word headline: Shit Gets Real

THE red phone

Week five

17 August. Tuesday. Day 31.

It’s still the same old me. Nothing changes me. Nothing changes you.”

Celebrating these wonderful peeps today – the Stage Management team – the hidden ingredient of any successful show. Every day should be Stage Managers’ Day. The unsung heroes! EVERY. DAY.

3-word headline: Stage Managers Rock

21 August. Saturday. End of week five.

Remember the plan. That’s me.”

Today is our final day in the rehearsal space with the set and the revolve. I decided to close my computer. Forget the script. Just watch. Cast did a wonderful run. It feels like it’s all working well. Story feels clear. Ready for QPAC tech week. And before signing off, celebrating these champion actors amongst a cast of champions – Anthony Phelan and Joss McWilliams.

3-word headline: Play Looks Grand

Iwan (Joss) and Tytus (Anthony)

Week six

23 August. Monday. Day 37.

Good. Bad. It’s just a choice.”

I felt guilty. Took the morning off away from the room. Cutting the cord is tough. I wonder how it’s going in there? I succumb and end up heading in at 2.30pm. Watch scenes continue to detail in the rehearsal room, sans revolve. We wander down to QPAC for Queensland Theatre’s Play Briefing. So many of us on stage with a great crowd asking brilliant questions — and we have the answers to the questions. All the while we were watched over by Tom Yaxley’s son, young Felix Woods-Yaxley keeping a keen eye on his dad and his motley crew.

3-word headline: Audience Asks Questions

Joe talks Eli

24 August. Tuesday. Day 38.

This part of ya ‘big secret plan’? Gus scribbled it in the air.”

Final day at Queensland Theatre before tech begins at QPAC. More detailing in the room. Checking and reworking moves and motivations. The cast film bits for the website. A circle read of the play with Sam and cast. The next chapter is about to begin.

3-word headline: Cast Cement Moments

26 August. Thursday. Day 40.

“Time stops, Slim. Time does not exist. Time is frozen.”

First day of the tech run at QPAC. Set built. Sound, lights, audio-visual bumped in. Locked and loaded. Safety briefing. Everyone pumped. Oodles of goodies backstage for moments of hunger and energy. The story transforms with costumes and wigs and tattoos and images and lights and sound. Precision reigns with scenes, and stage traffic worked and reworked, until it’s oh so smooth. Reset revolve and run again.

3-word headline: Boy Finds Light

Joe meets Joe

27 August. Friday. Day 41.

Infinite angles of a single moment.

Tech rehearsals roll on. All on track. All on schedule. Media interviews. Cafeteria meals. Trent and family visit the theatre with a massive gift — and a massive infusion of enthusiasm and a great reminder of why we are all doing this. He walks into a room with his family and HOPE walks in right beside him. An extraordinary human being. Back to tech in the evening and time marches on and we hit Act 2 and make a good go of it before tech continues on Saturday.

3-word headline: Team Makes Magic

28 August. Saturday. Day 42.

Tomorrow is coming

Final tech day and we finish technical rehearsal with about 15 seconds to spare. Now to put it all together for the first time. Exciting times. Dress rehearsal. A few audience members from the Company brings a little bit more excitement — from here to packed previews (COVID-willing). We complete dress with no stops, minimal slip ups — just the odd joyful moment of doors not opening, doors not closing — and who IS helping Sharon move that Courier-Mail door? Relieved. It feels like it all works. We all enjoy a drop of fine champagne compliments of Mr Dalton. Now for the most important ingredient of all — AUDIENCE. See you on the flip side boys!

3-word headline: Boy Stays Safe

This is my final blog entry. Thanks to all who read these ramblings. This project has been a most exhilarating and rewarding ride.

Warmest regards,

Boy stays safe

Tickets are flying out the door faster than Slim Halliday escaping Boggo Road Jail! Don’t miss out when Trent Dalton's Boy Swallows Universe makes its world premiere at the Playhouse, QPAC from 30 August to 3 October as part of Brisbane Festival 2021.

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