March 24, 2022
Arts & Culture

Behind the scenes of Girl from the North Country

A few months ahead of this weekend's Adelaide opening of Girl from the North Country, SALIFE caught up with South Australian theatre-makers to follow the process from concept to stage.

Gavin Norris, Kellie Jones, Sandra Anderson, Areste Nicola and Stuart Crane have created another time and place for audiences of Girl from the North Country.

Before the curtains can open on Girl from the North Country, the team at the State Theatre Company must construct every single element that will transport audiences 15,000 kilometres away and 88 years ago.

The State Theatre Company of South Australia has never attempted a musical before, but it seems a good way to mark the company’s 50th year.

The production is described as “a play with songs”, rather than a traditional musical – and there is a distinction. You won’t find the high energy all-singing, all-dancing glitzy numbers normally associated with musicals, but something more soulful and heartfelt.

The production features the songs of Bob Dylan, reimagined, but it’s not a musical about Dylan. Hits such as Slow Train Coming and Like a Rolling Stone are the soundtrack for the story of life in a Minnesota guest house in 1934, where the community is living on a knife-edge.

The scene will be set in every tiny detail, from scuff marks on shoes to aged furniture, and it all begins with the skeleton of the set.

State Theatre Company workshop supervisor Areste Nicola outstretches his arms, unfurling a set of plans. The intricate pencil lines detail towering beams and minute details of how it’s all going to come together. About a kilometre and a half of timber and nearly 150 sheets of plywood will be cut, shaped and nailed together to create the floors and walls of the guest house.

Once Areste and his team have finished construction, the whole jigsaw puzzle will be packed up, trucked to Sydney, and assembled on the stage of the Theatre Royal. The set stretches to heights of more than seven metres and was created in a warehouse that strongly resembles a hardware store. Just metres away, the process that takes the timber to the next level is beginning.

Sandra Anderson is a master of adding flesh to bones. She takes what Areste and his team construct and turns naked timber into luxurious marble, textured plasterwork, beautiful woodgrain, classic linoleum, detailed terrazzo and all manner of other materials.

Authentic props have been sourced from all over the world; Kellie Jones with her take on the outfits of 1934 Minnesota.
Multiple shoes have to be purchased for each character in case an understudy gets the call-up; the wardrobe department often makes costumes from scratch.

She’s reproduced silk wallpaper with intricate depictions of birds and trailing vines and has mocked up the tiles of a 1970s RSL.

The scenic artist chats about technique as she cracks open a big bucket of purple goop and begins to spread the sticky substance.

“You slop it on thick with a plaster trowel and get really messy,” Sandra says.

It’s a mess now, but in not so long, it’s going to be a faux plaster wall, fashioned from a plastic compound.

“I’ve used real plaster before when it’s not a touring show. This is more expensive, but it’s not going to chip,” she explains.

For The Girl from the North Country, Sandra will go through six 20-litre tubs to create texture and at least 10 litres of paint stain to woodgrain the base of the set.

Sandra, who has worked with the Sydney Theatre Company, Sydney Opera, English National Opera and Scottish National Opera, has designed for productions of Peter Grimes, Faust and The Magic Flute – in which there was a real snake on stage.

Whatever each designer imagines in their head, it’s Sandra’s job to create that illusion. For this production, it’s all about breaking down the materials and creating a realistic interpretation of a guest house during the Depression.

Walking towards the doors to a shed area, a buzzing sound intensifies.

“HELLO,” yells Stuart Crane, the props coordinator. The buzzing ceases and tiny particles that have just been sanded off a dining table slowly begin to settle.

Beside the table, a choir of chairs sit in wait, ready for Stuart to put some life into them; inject time into the timber, ageing them ready for the stage.

The chairs were laboriously gathered from all over the state, from Burra to Victor Harbor. “We covered miles and miles to get the right sort of look and style,” Stuart says.

“It’s been a fairly big undertaking.”

The planning is so precise that each chair has a sticky note marked with its intended position on stage. Before they get there though, they’ll be scraped with steel wool, stained and maybe even hit with chains to put a few dents in them.

A book of props shows 300 pages of items that will dress the set and add richness to the world of 1930s Minnesota. There are cans of mushy peas, old magazines, tools, picture frames, medical implements and each and every piece of glassware.

“There’s a lot of weird and wonderful things to find.”

State Theatre Company workshop supervisor Areste Nicola has a plan for how it will all come together.

The mannequins lined up in Kellie Jones’s workshop wear dresses and skirts in flattering, yet understated slim fits. They exemplify the era and socioeconomic status of the characters to a tee – pretty details, but nothing flashy.

Kellie, the head of wardrobe, will create hundreds of costumes for the cast of 23; 13 principals, six ensemble members and four musicians.

Each principal wears up to three costumes, but each one has to be made for the understudies, then there are the chorus members’ costumes on top of those.

Stepping into the costumes will be stage and screen icon Lisa McCune, Zahra Newman (The Book of Mormon) and James Smith (Euphoria, Hibernation).

Some of the costumes were found in the State Theatre Company’s costume store or even sourced from Etsy, while the wardrobe department made others. The team has also been busy with the knitting needles, crafting cardigans.

As with the sets, nothing is pristine or particularly beautiful. “They live in a boarding house. The people who come through either don’t have a lot of money, or the garments they do have, they’ve had for a number of years.”

Stuart Crane adds age to furniture for the production.
Scenic artist Sandra Anderson can turn plywood into just about any material.

Seams are roughed up with sandpaper and shoes are scuffed – no detail is too small.

While they’ve been referencing the productions of the show already held around the world – London’s West End, Broadway and Toronto – they’ve put their own flair on it.

“Ours will have our own texture, our own flavour,” Kellie says. “And there’s something really nice about that.

“We’re not following a strict recipe to create the show and it will have its own life.”

Kellie describes the show as the pinnacle of more than three decades in the business. “This is something I’ve always wanted to do, tour with a musical and create it from scratch.”

While almost every part of what is being created has a South Australian stamp on it, production manager Gavin Norris says there is one element they sourced from the United Kingdom.

The production features large-scale printed back projection cloths that require large format printers and a special welding technique.

The team’s talents all come together for the final production. The show was at Theatre Royal Sydney and is ready to open in Adelaide this month. Photograph Daniel Boud.

“Before we print anything, we have to send samples to make sure that the colour is correct and we don’t have that time,” Gavin says.

“And there’s a delay in freight and post at the moment. So, it made sense to use the company that printed the Broadway cloths.”

Gavin says an upside of being the fourth production of the show is that it gets a little more ironed out each time.

“It’s a big show and we’re very fortunate to be involved with it and be able to show off the theatre-making skills we have in SA.

“We’ve got a theatre company that’s got all these facilities in the one place, they’re becoming rarer and rarer.”

 Girl from the North Country is on at Her Majesty’s Theatre from March 25 to April 10.

This story first appeared in the March 22 issue of SALIFE magazine

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