In conversation: Sophie Wright and Claire Simonis

‘The cast do a fantastic job of embodying both the omnipresent, and the specific individual terror.’

‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’ focuses on the disappearance of three Australian schoolgirls in 1900, and the mystery that subsequently envelopes their vanishing. Here, Director Sophie Wright (SW) and Assistant Director Claire Simonis (CS) discuss the challenge of making the cult classic unique and bringing it to the Assembly Rooms Theatre.

 

SW: Claire, the time has come. We need to talk semi-seriously about ‘Picnic’ in a creatively aware and grown-up manner.

CS: Right, this is the part where we talk about our ‘coherent vision’ and act like we’ve had a plan from the get-go?

SW: To be fair, we did kind of have a plan. This show has turned into a completely different beast than I imagined, though. I thought it would be essentially a black and white psychological thriller, but that’s not it at all. There’s a humanity to it, you start to like and feel for the characters, which I think makes the weird and eerie bits all the more frightening. I don’t know what you thought when you came on board?

CS: I knew there would be darkness and dialect work, which are two key areas of interest to me. I just didn’t expect this show to stretch me as much as it has done. The good kind of stretch, though. The kind of creative stretching that is scary, but ultimately really exhilarating. I went into this willing to experiment with a more stylized theatricality, and we even tried pushing into physical theatre, something we were both inexperienced with.

SW: Oh, for sure. We’ve played with methods and styles, using bespoke exercises to create movement and character in ways I certainly have never done before. This is such a grown-up piece of theatre, for a ghost story about missing girls. We’ve tried really hard to design it to play with the mind of the audience. The cast do a fantastic job of embodying both the omnipresent, and the specific individual terror.

CS:  We got deep into research about ‘Picnic’, and all its subsequent manifestations, to support decisions we were making – Sofia Coppola’s ‘The Virgin Suicides’ as an example.

SW: Claire loves ‘The Virgin Suicides’. We sent a lot of screenshots to each other, and aesthetically on-point old photos of school girls dancing in circles.

CS: It is always thrilling for me to witness the cross-pollination of certain pieces. ‘Picnic’ is one of these works with far-reaching influence, and it has been really wonderful to weave in little nods to not only Peter Weir’s acclaimed film adaptation of ‘Picnic’, but also subsequent ‘Picnic’-inspired pieces and productions.

SW: That has been really interesting. ‘Picnic’ is the archetype for the dead Victorian virgin that inspires a moral panic, a trope that’s visibly repeated throughout cultural history. Also, the notion of white people not belonging or meshing with the land, until they do in weird, unknowable, frightening ways. This production, we wanted to bring in a kind of viciousness to the girls to reflect that dichotomy. It says a lot about the constructions of girlhood in culture, too. It’ll be interesting to see if the audience picks up how idealised and objectified the girls are, how that turns them into a kind of wild animal that can never be fully understood. I think the cast do a fantastic job of trying to bring that into their performances.

CS: The cast has been fabulous! This is a real ensemble piece and each girl brings something different not only with their performances, but also with their interests outside of the play which in turn have given us some wonderful creative input. The cast has been so generous, open, and receptive to the experimental feel of the rehearsal process. I hope that in rehearsals we have created a safe, creative space where everyone feels totally comfortable asking questions, suggesting things and trying them out. For example, Francesca’s Classics background allowed us to include certain Latin phrases (pertinent to the story) which act as a disquieting motif throughout the play.

SW: They’re super creepy.

CS: Then Layla’s work with National Youth Theatre and her experience of learning mime in Paris added a wonderful element to warm-ups and helped to workshop the physicality of the characters and stylized, physical moments throughout the play.

SW: And the production team and crew have worked so hard. Not only do we have a brilliant cast, but everything from the beautifully designed set and the technical elements, down to the skirts, everything has been done with the best creative spirit. It’s been a ridiculously short time period to create a show of this calibre, and everyone has done their best work.

CS: Discovering what is theatrically effective is a collaborative effort! I’m a big believer in this.

SW: I’m proud of what we’ve done. We’ve put together a really fantastic show, and I believe that with frightening strength.

CS: It’s disquieting and unusual, and I hope the audience feels that.

SW: I hope it’s surprising. I don’t think people will expect what they see.

 

‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’ is on at 19:30 from 2nd November- 4th November at the Assembly Rooms Theatre.

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