The Red Tree was produced as a puppet-based theatre production in June 2004, as part of the Queensland Performing Arts Centre’s ‘Out of the Box’ festival for children. This had interesting origins in a Brisbane symposium the previous year, which was concerned with the notion that many artistic productions for children are overly sanitised and avoid confronting childhood experiences such as fear, confusion, pain and depression. Perhaps not surprisingly, my picture book ‘The Red Tree’ was flagged as an example of a narrative that deals with those very issues by the festival director, Susan Richer.
I agreed to be involved as a design and story consultant, and work with a creative team (ie. theatre people who actually knew what they were doing!) to adapt the ideas, themes and imagery of the book to a fairly large scale performance involving black theatre puppetry (where the puppeteers are invisible, and puppets and props illuminated by focused lighting). The show was directed by Peter Wilson, designed by Richard Jeziorny (who also worked on The Lost Thing for Jigsaw Theatre), written by Janis Balodis, with sound by Brett Collery and Lighting by David Walters.
It was a very challenging proposition from the outset, because the book does not lend itself directly to dramatisation. It has no particular storyline, little in the way of characterisation, and the setting is constantly shifting as it describes a psychological journey of an unhappy girl through surrealistic landscapes. The solution was to break the book down into components, and then reassemble them as a new kind of creation, as well as introducing many new ideas, rather than trying to recreate the book. I was particularly interested in a number of scenes devised by the Peter, Richard and Janis which involved the girl interacting with different puppet versions of herself, and how she tries to ‘escape’ certain nightmarish situations.
The final production was quite spectacular, not least because of the scale of some of the puppets (such as an enormous fish), and sufficiently weird and open to interpretation given that there were no spoken words throughout the 55 minute performance. The use of black theatre, where objects magically appear, disappear and transform on stage also gave the feeling of a strange dream, in some ways reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland. It was interesting to see that children seemed to respond most strongly to the fluttering red leaf that appears throughout, as well as the red tree that illuminates at the end of the show.
In addition to the performance, the festival also included a full exhibition of original paintings from the book, and an excellent kinetic sculpture filled with doorways opening onto miniature ‘emotional landscapes’ by Brisbane artist Jonathan Oxlade.
A giant fish, with moving mouth and fins, haunts the girl on a tricycle (naturally, wearing a diving helmet). The object in the back of the tricycle is a smaller version of herself, also in a diving helmet, which she has just rescued from the ocean floor.
The ‘Girl’, played by Lorrain Dalu-Ali, contemplates the problem of being stranded on the back of a giant snail.
Playing a strange game of ‘terrible fates’ with a die (dice) that won’t stop rolling – and always rolls a six. Eventually the board the girl is standing upon folds up around her, and itself becomes a die as a puppet version of herself is eaten by a monster.
A quite accurate recreation of the ‘stage scene’ from The Red Tree, which seemed even more bizarre when brought to life. Many of the puppets were built by Marion Hoad and Christopher Lane, a model-maker who works mostly in the film industry (also one of the puppeteers – inside the green guy here).
The red tree which appears as the final scene in the show.
Visitors to the Out of the Box Festival look and an exhibition of paintings from The Red Tree, and have a go at making their own collages.