Directing “Wolf Lullaby”
By Annie Lotocki
When directing an episodic contemporary piece like “Wolf Lullaby” by Hilary Bell there are many elements that need to be considered. Each of the elements discussed here are irrevocably intertwined but I have attempted to discuss each of them separately. Here I have highlighted some of the most important processes and theatrical considerations that were used in forming this production.
Directorial passion for a theatrical piece underpins any director’s view to creation. At the same time that passion must be guided by:
1. The objective deconstruction of time and place to create a suitable framing that enhances and visually stimulates audiences and the participants in the drama
– creating the space
2. The thorough exploration of the playwright’s intention by evaluation of the scripted elements to create the overall dramatic movement and flow
– creating the meaning.
3. The analysis and creation of the human elements in the drama through workshopping and extensive discussion of subtext
– creating the human element
4. The highlighting of the thematic purpose of the piece.
- creating the symbolism
7. The exploration of the sensory elements that create the mood
- creating the sensory
CREATING THE SPACE
“Wolf Lullaby” is an episodic piece of 17 short scenes. Each scene reveals a microscopic world of people in their daily lives – people who are isolated, separated and alone and often living in family dysfunctional circumstances. My overall intention was to create a lasting impression of each scene with significant visual impact and emphasis. Each sequential emotional experience adds together to tell the story and create emotional tension. Every picture created added together forms the overall story of the drama. I have called this process -“sequential portrait staging”. As the lights rise and fade, on the entry and exit to each microscopic world the audience is left with a retinal image of that scene whether it be the wasteland, the salon, the police station and cell, Lizzie’s World, the Wolf’s Domain or the Gael family home and garage. Each scene then becomes a sequential experience of emotion. Within each scene the drama then unfolds. Movement between scenes has to flow quickly to ensure flow of the production and this was achieved by carefully designing a series of spaces linked by a road. The wasteland and Lizzie’s domain were given central focus centre stage with the town – police station/salon to the stage right and the Gael house to stage left the other side of the wasteland – Lizzie’s way home as she wandered unattended after school. The father lives on the other side of town in the distance symbolically separated from his ex-wife and daughter. The abandoned railway tracks run along behind upstage.
Set in an isolated north western Tasmanian town this image was created by 4 scenic backdrops of Tasmanian Forrest and bush with an abandoned railway line running behind and a cyclone fence at the back of the wasteland becoming the Wall in a crucial scene.
The playwright’s instructions are clear – minimum set, furnishings and props, the meaning is the most important element of this play. After some research and evaluation it was decided that boxes made out of recycled pallet timbers would work functionally and symbolically in a number of ways. They acted as the basic furniture and could be used in each scene, the bed in the police cell and bedroom providing space within for special effects foggers and led lights. The bedroom bed could also become the storage box in the garage. This solved a number of staging difficulties and enabled quick movement from scene to scene - absolutely crucial. They also became symbolic of the nature versus nurture themes – natural beautiful timber scorched by a blow torch or scarred. The box in the garage is symbolic of memories stored and secrets revealed. Both boxes were designed so that backs could be removed and hinged lids lifted or opened. Our lives become like storage boxes with memories that are locked away sometimes for many years. Locked in the garage of our minds or old boxes in the attics of our lives, suppressed and hidden - the sudden emergence of painful past events can be unexpectedly tragic and emotionally consuming.
One of the most important staging elements is the symbolic wolf. How do you create this? Of course, you need to determine what the wolf actually represents. More about this later
CREATING THE MEANING
The understanding of the author’s intent is highly significant. This play is not about the murder of Toby Chester but about why it happened and what happens to the families and lawmakers involved afterwards and the resulting societal actions and reactions. A number of questions immediately became apparent to me as a director.
What happens to children suspected of a murderous crime? What do we do to these children?
How is a child murderer created? Can children be born evil? Can a child murderer be created by parental neglect, abuse, or a seemingly crazy desire for attention? Can a child murder another child accidentally? Who is ultimately responsible for the crime? And the questions go on and on.
This type of crime is unfathomable to many and the most important aspect of this play is to create a conversation about this. The questions need to be asked and critically the way this production is staged must ensure that the answers are not readily provided. There is no simple answer. During the rehearsal process the cast were continually asked if they considered Lizzie Gael guilty of this crime.
At each rehearsal the cast and director continually changed their minds. And it is interesting that the audiences have left the theatre debating this and many other aspects of the play in the same way. If, for example, you approached this production to emphasize that Lizzie Gael is a child murderer you would certainly miss the creation of the emotional tension as we travel through the experience with the suspected Lizzie. Likewise, the journey with the tormented mother, the estranged father and the dutiful cop must be travelled as an emotional journey to a sad and poignant revelation of uncertainty. Above all the actors need to access real human emotions within themselves to prevent cameo performances within highly charged very short scenes. Some of the words are subtle expressions of a normal human response in unthinkable situations and we must be able to sympathise with each of these characters. However, the actors and audience need to ask the questions – How would we deal with this if we were suddenly placed in this situation? How would we react?
The central constant in this play is the wolf. What is the wolf? In nature the wolf is a stunningly beautiful creature, seemingly playful yet dangerously violent, who has had to fight ferociously at times for its survival in the wild. Traditionally it is also the stuff of scary children’s nursery rhymes and fairy tales. The wolf visits Lizzie and becomes a nightmarish fear in this play. How this is staged with limited budget can be challenging. We have emphasized the wolf through special effects – lighting, sound and fog. I decided to also use children symbolically as wolfs – they start as children playing seemingly innocent skipping and ball games with those traditional lyrics that we all laugh about and that children have sung and chanted for hundreds of years. They form a chanting, taunting chorus – reminiscent of bullies in a child’s playground. They materialise into the wolf of Lizzie’s nightmare in a creative movement piece in Scene 8. Whatever the wolf represents – by the end of the play Lizzie is totally consumed by “it”. The wolf can be many things and ultimately it is left to the audience to decide what it represents.
CREATING THE HUMAN ELEMENT
Rehearsals were held over a ten week period three times a week for this production. During the rehearsal period discussion was paramount about the text and subtext of this emotional piece. The understanding of the words of Wolf Lullaby and the delivery of significant lines to emphasize the meaning was accentuated. Blocking necessarily was economical because of the nature of small confined spaces designated for each scene. Tight positioning was necessary particularly with the central focusing of the characters to ensure audiences in a theatre, with very wide sight lines, always captured the changing facial emotions of the journey. This was further accentuated by the tight lighting focus necessary to create the mood for each scene – the wasteland at night, the bars in prison cell, the hairdressing salon, Lizzie’s bedroom, the Wolf’s Domain etc.
There is a demand for balance between the naturalism required to portray these characters realistically within very short scenes, the possibility of an excessive emotional intensity of delivery which can be overwhelming for the actor and audience members alike, and the necessary awareness of developing greater intensity as the work progresses. Each of the 4 main characters are complex and at times demonstrate inherent contradictions – the loving/unloving mother who cannot bear the thought that her daughter is a murderer; the loving but exploitive and inattentive father who cannot face the situation; the beautiful innocent child who hides deep and impenetrable secrets; and the dutiful caring cop who hides a frustrating temper and a carefully gauged sensitivity to the whole situation. Each however must be played as realistic human beings so that we believe their story.
CREATING THE SYMBOLISM
There are so many complex elements to this seemingly simple play and the further we explored the script the more layers we unpeeled. Attention to detail is necessary to ensure that all these elements highlight the themes of the play. The symbols form signalling devices to the audience and are so important in creating the thematic importance of the piece. It became very important to me as a director to make sure that we got this right.
The symbols enhanced or emphasized in this production all create hidden messages and often present diametrically opposed images of beauty and ugliness.
Just some of the issues dealt with in this play are listed here:
The murder of Children by Children; Nature v Nurture; Children and their fears; Human isolation and separation; Dysfunctional families; Natural beauty and its inherent dangers; The Walls and Bars of Society; Children in custody; Genetic inheritance; Parental responsibility; Societal responsibility; The human psyche and its unfathomable depths; and so on.
There are so many symbols used to create meaning in this play that all cannot be discussed in a short piece. The wolf becomes the central fear and mystery of the production. What is this consuming darkness? The beautiful inanimate smiling doll and plaything that is used for the fearful interrogation of a child and also a Christmas present from the father is alarming. The prison bars and the clanging of cell and bedroom doors represent a frightening adult world filled with cruelty. The switching on and off of lights also emphasizes the dark fear of a child’s world. We have used a single light as the symbol of this in both the bedroom and cell. It also represents the history of interrogation and human terror when we are deprived of light. The bare rooms with timber pallet boxes as furniture represent the rawness of life in extreme circumstances. The families here are stripped bare. The boxes also become symbols of hidden secrets boxed away. The fog in varying colours represents the wolf, the nightmares, the fear and mental confusion drifting through the lives of the characters but it is beautiful as it drifts through the Tasmanian bush lingering and sitting within the exterior and interior settings.
The police station and its forms represent a dehumanisation of our police practises particularly when dealing with children. The Xmas tree and Xmas present become sad reminders that there will be no salvation for this family caught in a terrible situation. The chants and rhymes with balls and skipping ropes create the fearful tension of inescapability through innocent children’s games. The persistent sound of the crickets at night is a warning system. The flowers and teddy bears at the grave site are beautiful but cover an awful truth. There is a further subtext here as the secret of death and the failure of western society to discuss “death’ with its children is subtly highlighted. The beat – the sound of a single beat each time a significant distortion of the truth is revealed emphasizes the lies told to cover human frailties in both children and adults. The beats stress the inability to face reality and to share this reality with others. Keeping up the pretence that everything is all right and everything will return to normal is another repeated theme.
CREATING THE SENSORY
The emotional impact of this play is enhanced by stimulating the senses through visual and aural theatrical devices intermixed and interwoven through the production.
LIGHTING AND SOUND
Each scene was lit very specifically to frame the action within that scene. The first scene in the cell was very dark with a gobo created to simulate the bars of a cell and faces moved in and out of the light. The night scenes in the wasteland were also very dark with reds creating background effect with a gobo creating the effect of moonlight breaking through in some scenes and lighting the forest scenes behind. In the Garage scene at night, we used blackout with a torch beam weaving its way along the roads and a green light was used at a low intensity for the very dark scene in the garage.
In each scene we created a silhouetting effect as the lights went up and different colours were used to create different feelings of intensity.
The wolf was represented with red LED lights on strobe effect – both lights confined within the box beds of the prison and the bedroom. The first appearance also came with white fog - the fogger also set within the bed so that the fog would emerge from the bed itself. Low multi coloured lights were also used from above. The second and third appearances in Lizzie’s bedroom also used the strobe red LED lights within the box bed but a shooting red fogger placed behind the bed was used to give greater intensity as the experience became more frightening. The scene was intensified by adding red overheads. A special fogger device was built to create a very high fog wall for the last appearance of the wolf and the wolf image slowly appears through the fog and also on Lizzie’s back as she exits at the end of the play. The white fog rises into red LED lights which create a soft red floating high haze at the conclusion. Varying temperatures and humidity did create problems with the distribution of the fog in the final scene and we had to continually adjust fogger levels. Scene 17, Lizzie’s World became a beautiful scene with revolving white lights spinning above in the darkness while Lizzie was captured in red footlights in a very small space.
Sound effects are crucial particularly with the wolf and we used a growling snarling effect that grew louder as the play progressed. We also used soft haunting music at interval with wolfs singing in the background. At the end of the show a beautiful piece called “Lone Wolf Violin” was played as the audience exited. Other sound effects are necessary in a contemporary piece with no doors and no light switches – the opening and closing of the doors and the light switch sound. The crickets and Xmas music were added to create atmosphere in other scenes and I have discussed the BEATS above. The voice of Toby was a live performance every night with the vocal effects enhanced with microphone stereo and echoing effects.
“Wolf Lullaby’ is an exciting and challenging piece that deals with a quite horrifying subject. It is however, a relevant contemporary drama that actually intrigues, horrifies and saddens audiences. The audiences have sat in the theatre after this production mostly in silence and not left the theatre. Then there has been a quiet buzz of discussion which has continued into the foyer afterwards – this play has audience impact. It is a wonderful vehicle for directors, actors and technical crews to explore their creative abilities.