Interview with Janine Oliver, director of The Family Frying Pan

Tell us a little about your background with Valley Artists

I am a founding member of VA which all began in 1997 from a Pencil Orchids script-writing workshop with Australian playwright Timothy Daly, funded by NSW Writers’ Centre and OZCO. We then decided to perform the short scripts. The original group was a total of seven. We started by putting in $100 each. Somehow we broke even and decided we were good at this and should become an incorporated company and get serious. In those days we all wrote, performed, produced and marketed. So due to necessity, I have experience in all aspects of theatre and have learnt a lot from my fellow thespians. VA also sent me to NIDA to complete a short director’s course. This will be the fifth play I have directed for the company.

What drew you to Bryce Courtenay’s novel The Family Frying Pan in the first place?

I read the novel in the late 1990’s and realised what a great story it was. It’s a very descriptive novel and always in the back of my mind. I knew it would make a great piece of theatre. I work from a visual perspective when I approach a play and The Family Frying Pan is full of colourful characters with varying backgrounds who are now “all in the same boat”, so to speak, fleeing country in turmoil. The gathering together of people around a camp fire, sharing history and stories, is a culture shared by many countries and appealed to me. Everyone loves a good story.

The setting of The Family Frying Pan is Russia but there are issues that eerily resonate with what is happening around the world today.

Yes there certainly are. I have been asked if I planned the timing of this play to coincide with the current state of the world’s refugee crisis. My answer to that is no, but I can’t really remember a time in my life when there haven’t been refugees fleeing from war or tyranny. And I expect that if I ever found myself in that situation – fleeing a country for a new life of freedom – I would certainly be asking questions of my fellow refugees and sharing stories of the past and my hopes for the future.

The Family Frying Pan contains personal stories of hardship and struggle from people of all walks of life, differing social status and educational background. Can you expand on this?

To have had the stuffing ripped out of your soul, by witnessing your family murdered, your house burned to the ground, and having no control over these situations is, I imagine, indeed something that people find it hard to recover from. If you manage to find freedom by escaping tyranny and remain unscathed and able to share your memories then you’re lucky and that comes from pure courage. This story has all of these elements. From hard-working peasants to educated professors, there is a range of social class, thrown together with one goal in mind: freedom and peace of mind.

Adapting this story for stage has been an epic journey for you as well. Tell us about it

I ran my idea past a friend who, it turns out, had a connection with Bryce Courtenay. I first approached Bryce in early 2011 asking for permission to adapt the story. I kept my fingers crossed and several weeks later I received confirmation and blessings for my project from Bryce and his wife Christine. During that year I directed A Streetcar Named Desire, and at the end of 2011 I became ill. Early 2012, I began treatment for my illness but it got worse and I was in and out of hospital until, late in 2012, I was diagnosed with liver failure. I had already started the adaptation, but writing was put on hold.

Mid 2013, I moved to Sydney to be closer to Royal Prince Alfred Hospital and went on a waiting list for a liver transplant. Fortunately for me, I received a liver in August 2013. My partner Col Philip, (who became my carer) and the amazing transplant team from RPA are the reason I am here today. As with all transplants, rejection is imminent at all times. A regime of daily medication is necessary to keep this at bay. I have gradually gained energy and managed to finalise the script. I have also pulled together a great crew and wonderful cast. Current acting workshops have helped to fuel the enthusiasm. I thank my old friend and colleague Wayne Van Keren and also Chris Davey for running these workshops.

We are now well into rehearsals and I guarantee that with this world premiere, VA will deliver a classic piece of outdoor theatre. I hope one day to be able to publish this work and see other theatre companies perform it.

The Family Frying Pan is also innovative in some technical aspects. My great friend and technical director, Peter Fewtrell, has been designing for this production for the past four years. I am pleased to say that this outdoor production will be lit using LED lights powered by solar charged batteries. This is a first for lighting and sound in theatre. Valley Artists are ahead in the carbon points stakes!

You must have been inspired by Bryce’s whole-hearted support of your project.

Bryce was a very generous. He gave me total freedom on the writing of the script. During our correspondence we talked about payment for rights for the use of his story and he told me that he had heard that the wombats in the Wollombi Valley had a hard time and could I please donate what I thought was a reasonable amount for rights to WIRES. I was overwhelmed with his and Christine’s generosity and assured him that this would happen and that I would do him and his family proud in my adaptation. I am sorry Bryce is no longer with us and will not be able to witness his story come alive on stage. However, I hear that his wife Christine may be attending.

Butterfly Dandy – Review

Miss Mirabella is an ageing vaudeville soubrette in 1905.  She yearns to be part of Mr Harry Rickards’s Tivoli group; yet she knows, deep down, that she will need to do something new and different to attract his attention.

She would rather not take advice from her accompanist Tommy; but she will.

Fiona Migan-Philip is a perfect Miss Mirabella.  She is all soubrette, but one who faces reality:  soubrettes are “all 16” these days, and she … isn’t.

With great reluctance, she agrees to Tommy’s suggestion that she change her spots, and become a “pantomime boy” … or a male impersonator …

There are a number of quick changes as Mirabella tries on her new persona.  Tommy offers his own trousers, and the mime sequence of Mirabella attempting to get into them, and walk in them, is priceless.

Tommy could have been played as a simple foil for Miss M.  Darren Philip does much more with the part.  Tommy has depth and subtlety; indeed, his quiet determination (which achieves his aim of turning Miss Mirabella into the Butterfly Dandy) has almost feminine qualities:  he is understated but determined, he persists, he gets his way.  He looks well in a red satin skirt, too.

This is Fiona’s first stage role, and she is outstanding.  Her voice is a delight.  She is funny, confident, then insecure; determined, then self-doubting.  She asks Tommy for ideas, spurns them, returns to them.  It’s not an easy part; she masters it.

Underlying the discussion of how to change and re-invent Miss Mirabella, is the question of the period:  the place of women in society.  In 1905, women have just achieved the vote … but who are they?  Does the women’s vote mean no more than “two votes for a married man” – or does it rock the previously solid foundations of men’s belief that women are decorative, useful, and not much else.  Do they “cogitate”?  Miss Mirabella explores the concept – among others.

Costumes are critical; Mirabella changes often, Tommy less but occasionally.  There are some quick changes, which can be tricky.  Lynda Marsh (Costume Design & Wardrobe) has created not only lovely and period-perfect costumes, but has made them (when required) easy to shed and replace.  Sounds simple?  It isn’t.  Careful design and attention to the smallest detail makes it work.

The play as written has lyrics to the fifteen songs, but no music.  Here Valley Artists have exceeded themselves.  Clare DiNatale (Song Development & Vocal Coach), Jason Tyler (Song Development & Lead Piano) and Andrew Ross (Musical Consultant) have created the music which is essential to this production, and which perfectly supports the story, the period and the characters.  It’s a tour de force, this music; a remarkable job which deserves to be a permanent part of this musical comedy.

This is Dain Southwell’s debut as director.  The production is thoughtful, witty, often hilarious – and there is depth, and a conscious look at the matter of women’s place in society.  The ability to weave this discussion into a musical comedy is a feat.  An excellent debut.

Gail Scott

Can’t Pay? Wont Pay Setbuild Timelapse Video

In November 2014, Valley Artists performed “Can’t Pay? Won’t Pay” a farcical comedy by famous Italian playwrights Dario Fo and Franca Rame.

Can’t Pay? Won’t Pay!” is a fun-filled, twisted, comical farce of lies, deception and conception. The setting of Can’t Pay! Won’t Pay! is Milan 1971 where, caught in the midst of an impromptu rebellion at the local supermarket, put-upon housewives Antonia and Margherita are swept along in a protest against the escalating cost of living. The problems are all too desperately familiar to us in Australia in 2014; rapidly rising food prices, closing manufacturing industries, increasing powers afforded to those in authority and unfair pressures on the lower income earners. Sound familiar? This, however, is no gloomy political agitation!

This video shows the work performed by the stage crew and actors as they transformed the Laguna Hall from an empty hall to a fantastic performance space.