Best known for their wonderfully innovative performances in parks and gardens, the Australian Shakespeare Company returns this summer for an exciting double-bill of feel-good fun – Alice in Wonderland and The Wind in the Willows are family favourites guaranteed to make you smile!
The Wind in the Willows is Australia’s longest running annual stage show having been Melbourne’s constant and reliable summer entertainment in the park for 30 years. Alice in Wonderland is ASC’s Artistic Director Glenn Elston’s highly acclaimed production that was awarded Best Stage Play by London’s Entertainment Views in 2018, and brings to life all of Lewis Carroll’s crazy characters.
And the magic is in the characters according to director of both plays (and Director of Family Theatre for ASC), Otis Elston. ” They are so colourful and larger than life, and the dynamic they share with each other allows me to express the story in a myriad of ways,” he says.
Elston explains that you could make a spin off play with any one of the parts for The Wind in the Willows because they each have their own rich worlds and as Alice meets each of the inhabitants of Wonderland, it’s like a stand-alone vignette. The characters have a magnetic pull over older and younger audiences alike.
ASC is based proudly on family values and family traditions, and, for Elston, a long standing history and connection to Grahame and Carroll’s work that has settled in his blood.
“I was exposed to the stories well before I could read because our backyard at home doubled up as storage for the Alice set, so I guess I kind of grew up in Wonderland,” he says. “When I was a bit older, I shared the role of Portly in Wind in the Willows with my brother, a cheeky otter who becomes lost in the Wild Woods. Later in life, reading the stories was a surreal experience, knowing half the words verbatim from the hundreds of shows I’d already experienced!”
Completely immersive and interactive, both shows are always mindful of audiences and their journey through the imaginary worlds.
Elston says that both are a rendition of the story that stays faithful to the original texts but introduces many interactive elements to make the show fully immersive for the audience. “The audience is never ignored, characters address you directly when turning you into rabbits or the Queen of Heart’s cards,” he says. “We leave our picnics behind when we search the Wild Wood for Portly or become the hedgehogs for the royal croquet game. There is no other adaptation that I’m aware of that has this level of immersion into the stories. ”
Challenges of outdoor theatrical experiences are also dependent on weather – and we are in Melbourne, after all – but the surrounds are the thing!
“The weather gods aren’t always on our side, but when they are it’s hard to compare the backdrop of the Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria to some flimsy set in a theatre,” says Elston. “Having Ratty actually row into view, or Toad fall into the lake: priceless.”
The ASC was founded in 1982 by British actor and director Neale Warrington but, in its current, form began life as Shakespeare Under the Stars in 1987, under the direction of Glenn Elston. According to Otis Elston, the company’s main mission of exposing kids to theatre from an early age to get that theatre bug going is essential. “So many people who now work for the ASC saw one of our family productions as a child and it planted the seed of pursuing a career in the theatre industry,” he says.
Elston also suggests that that loyalty is essential in the performance space as well because adhering to ASC’s busy schedule is only possible with returning cast members who you can trust. “Without them I’m not sure we could produce shows of the same quality every year in such a short amount of time,” he says.”
Elston loves what he does, but concedes it might appear more glamorous from the outside. “Directing the show is a very small portion of what I do because I spend a lot of time painting, building, prop hunting, costume sourcing, planning tours, buying merchandise and preparing dressing rooms to name a few…. if you were to drop in while I’m working it’s more likely you’d find me washing Mad Hatter’s socks than rehearsing!”
And the fun for all involved at ASC does not stop there with work shopping beginning for a new Peter Pan play very soon which comes with its own challenges – how to make Pan and gang fly outdoors!
ASC invite your family to join theirs as they bring all the fun of Grahame and Carroll’s classic characters to life under Melbourne’s big sky.
“There’s a good reason why we’ve been successfully producing non-funded independent theatre for over 30 years,” says Elston, “because families make it a tradition to see our shows every year. But you’ll need to experience it for yourself to see why!”
THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS – The Australian Shakespeare Company
December 24 – January 26
Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria, Melbourne Gardens. Enter through F Gate on Birdwood Avenue.
Visit www.willowslive.com.au , call 03 8676 7511 or via Ticketmaster
ALICE IN WONDERLAND – The Australian Shakespeare Company
January 7 – 26
Rippon Lea House and Gardens, 192 Hotham Street, Elsternwick
Visit www.alicelive.com.au , call 03 8676 7511 or via Ticketmaster