Highly lauded, and multi award winning, writer, producer and performer, Steve Vizard, brings his latest work, Vigil, to the Arts Centre stage early next month. With a score by internationally acclaimed and award winning, pianist, composer and arranger, Joe Chindamo and starring the amazingly talented Christie Whelan Browne, it is a moving, confronting, bold and honest one-woman musical theatrical tour de force.
After a fortuitous meet of three brilliant minds, the show had its debut run at the Adelaide Comedy Festival and has never looked back. According to Vizard, its very existence relied on the drawing of another big three: Fate, coffee and chewing the fat.
“Late last year I ran into Joe Chindamo, a brilliant musician and composer whom I had long admired, at the tail end of a steak and chips with Bernaise sauce lunch at a French cafe,” explains Vizard. “We chewed the fat and Joe mentioned in passing that Eddie Perfect , co -artistic director of the Adelaide Cabaret Festival, had only the day before generously asked him, over a cup of coffee, to create a new work for his Festival. Joe asked whether I might be interested in working with him. A couple of days later, Christie Whelan Browne and I were killing time, chewing the fat, on set in a location caravan, and I happened to mention our Joe/Eddie chinwag. “Might Christie be interested in working with us to develop a show for her?” Our dedicated little creative team of three and our unidentified project was borne.”
Vizard acknowledges his vision and ambitions for the show were apparent. “I really wanted to showcase Christie’s massive talents,” he says. “So the show needed to be one person, compact and intimate enough to travel from a cabaret to a theatrical setting. More importantly, Joe and I wanted the work to showcase the brilliantly diverse talents of Christie…..from monologues, a diversity of voices, and imagined characters and characterisations, a range of musical forms, from up tempo to balladic – we have 12 original songs in all – to showcase her remarkable voice. But more importantly, it should also enable Christie to display not only her acclaimed comedic and musical talents, but her deep dramatic and emotional range. Christie is a superb dramatic actress, and I really wanted to provide her with a work and a character which would let her demonstrate her rare ability to transition from comedy to drama and back seamlessly. Just as in real life. I don’t think we’ve seen enough of her dramatic skills. And I really wanted to provide a character who would allow her to demonstrate her great emotional depth. For all my theatrical contrivances, I wanted the character to have a real honesty. That’s what we set out to do.”
Vizard’s body of work is both impressive and extensive. From the early days of The Eleventh Hour, Fast Forward, Tonight Live With Steve Vizard, establishing independent production company, Artist Services, and all the bits in-between, Vizard’s talent at creating resonating and challenging theatrical experiences is evident. Two recent definitive works are MTC’s The Last Man Standing and the highly Chamber Opera, Banquet of Secrets, composed with Paul Grabowsky. But what is the creative process like for Vizard?
“Every show is different. For Vigil, my, our creative process was a kind of spontaneous outpouring,” he says. “The entire development, writing, rehearsal process, from our first meeting to opening night in June 2017, took about eight months. I think that’s moving as fast as humanly possible when one considers that it’s a complex story with numerous monologues, twelve original songs with fabulous orchestrations , all underscored. That’s a lot of cups of coffee and a lot of chewing the fat. This has been a happy and generous collaboration. I start with my own version of research. Of a sort. Looking at old family photos. Ancient family movies and videos. Talking to my friends who’ve visited their aging parents. Annoying my brothers and sisters and kids and wife, picking over their memories. Remembering my encounters with Mum. Looking at nursing homes. Listening to old time radio stations. Searching out old time Christmas tunes on Spotify. Listening to Sinatra. Reading Mamamia online.”
“For the spoken text, the character, I was keen to work closely with Christie to find a vernacular and emotional anchor for her character, Liz. I would write some monologue, get Christie around to have a read, and then get her reactions to what we had done. She was smart and generous with her feedback and soon we had a tone and voice and attitude for Liz that seemed both real yet hopefully theatrically engrossing. For the overarching character, story, action and situation, I was searching for a story arc that could some how keep an audience – keep me – entertained, guessing, challenged, blindsided, empathising, even though we have only one performer and one small room on stage.”
“I began with a list of all that can go wrong and right between a mother and a daughter. Fortunately I have a large family to draw on. I stole from all our lives . Then I imagined the worst. The best. I started to think about everything that a grown child does, might conceivably do, when trapped in a room with an aging parent – from begging for money, stealing clothes, fighting, blaming, apologising, threatening….. And I began to consider what hidden, unsaid debris and damage and clutter and secrets might litter their relationship. What does she want to say or get that she can’t? What does she need to say or get ? What will she say or get? What are their unspoken truths? Animosities? And I then began to place my increasingly fleshed out character into something resembling an active story line……What will she do? How will she surprise? Steal? Whine? Soothe? Berate? Pacify? Ignite? Mollify? Intimidate?. Mock? Provoke? Cherish? Who is this Liz and what is she after? How will she change? Why tonight? Slowly Liz started do things in her mothers room.”
“Early on, it became apparent to me that a one woman show presents real challenges for a conventional narrative arc, and more so for a traditional musical arc. For a start, the antagonist can only come to life through the character and performance of the only person on stage, the protagonist. The sole character Liz alone must breathe life into both her own character and that of all the antagonists, including her own mother. This presented both a problem and a chance to explore the traditional narrative arc – but also an immense demand on the performer, Christie. Christie must breathe life not only the daughter, but the mother, and indeed, everyone. This was true not only for the spoken word, but particularly for each of twelve songs. Liz must sing songs from every perspective, all perspectives. How might this work?” A device I settled on early as both a trigger for Liz’s memories and as a de facto antagonist, was a Photo memory Board. In my Mum’s room, my sister had filled a pine framed cork pin board with photographs from Mums past. My character Liz’s photograph board is a trigger for several monologues and encounters with her own past and self – and has its own recurring song Thirty Seven Photographs.”
“A directly related task was to identify which narrative and emotional moments of our intimate story should best be conveyed – might only be conveyed – by song. Some revealed themselves immediately. Liz’s disclosure of her marriage and the terrible reasons for its breakdown, for example, was more powerfully told, I thought, in a haunting ballad, Tying Knots. This is a mid point song at which Liz’s real character is revealed, and we now begin to see Liz for the first time as a more complex, broken soul; and we begin to understand why she behaves as she does. When Christie sang the ballad for the first time, we all cried! The tears seemed to cement that one.”
“With the songs, I tend to write the lyrics first, which establishes the metre and tone and scansion as well as the function of the song lyrically, narratively and emotionally.. Joe would then respond with a melody, and we finally would get together and modify it, to finish it. I think of the 12 or so songs, 9 were written lyrics first, and the others written music first. In those cases I said to Joe, we need the feel of this sort of a song here – an up tempo travel, Brazilian number for example–… so we sat around the piano while he brilliantly improvised a melody into existence. One of the most difficult numbers was the Opening number – Its You Know Who……It was a long process trying to find a song that opened the show with energy, yet captured and foreshadowed the moods and tone of the character and the work. Too comedic would send the wrong signals. And set up false expectations for the audience. Too poignant would pre-empt the story arc and give us nowhere to go. Finding lyrics and music which condensed the essence of our show, but conveyed a sense of upbeat expectation, took several rewrites. I’m delighted with the unity of music and lyric that we’ve managed to achieve. The recurring songs, One More Breath, and Pretty Little Thing, particularly ground the work, and give the character a melodic and lyrical anchor point. And Christie really does breathe life into them. Joe has orchestrated the music for piano, violin and cello with the most beautiful arrangements. There is an intimate chamber-like quality to the music that is resonant with emotion. I’m in deep admiration of Joe’s music and talent.”
“Equally, its a real testament to the brilliant skills of Christie that she can get her head around this complex and emotionally, intellectually and physically demanding character, in such a short time, whilst also performing in several MTC show and shooting a TV series! She breathes such life into her performances. Even in the read throughs we are all crying. She is a powerful and engaging and generous performer.”
Vizard’s passion for Vigil is unmistakable and palpable. The project is hewn from the marble of many contributors, but Vizard’s personal experience makes it as universal as it is private.
“Three months earlier. Winter last year. I’m in a compact beige room in an age care facility in Camberwell, sitting next to my aged Mother who lies shrouded, shrunken in the outsize bed,” says Vizard. “She struggles for breathe and lapses in and out of consciousness. My sister and I talk to her. For hours. Remembering great times, ordinary moments, life, stuff. Chewing the fat. We share coffees, steal gifted chocolates, reminiscences, the sounds of our voices. At 12.17am, I remember the moment exactly, the small shape in the bed, whose movements had already grown imperceptibly smaller and smaller, now moves no longer. Mum is gone. Joe, it turned out, had recently lost his father; Christie, close relatives and friends. For Christie Joe and I, family are at the heart of our lives.”
“Vigil is an immensely personal piece, for all of us. How do you say goodbye when you have come to say hello? How do you share, in one short visit, the doubt and regret and fear and blame and love you’ve been unable to share in a lifetime? What do you say when life is reduced to One More Breath?”
“One of the central questions I’m seeking to explore in Vigil is “ How do I live with myself?” “How do I face myself every day?” “How do I go on?” “How do I take – in the words of a recurring lyric – One More Breath?”
“In the central protagonist, Liz, I have tried to create a woman struggling to reconcile the woman she hoped to become and the woman she has become. How do I face disappointment? Guilt? Remorse? Her modus operandi is to run. Forever on the move , she avoids self examination. Blame replaces reflection. Guilt and remorse stalk her.”
“In her Mother, Liz sees, a different, and to her, abhorrent, way of reconciling the failings of ones own life – the escapism of constructing a false version of ones life. On her Mother’s Photograph Memory Board – in the play, a touchstone for the main song of the work ,“Thirty Seven Photographs”, and the trigger for most of Liz’s re-enacted memories – is a idealised, perfected version of her Mother. As Liz remarks, perhaps we all have to create a version of ourselves full of sunny days and happy endings, obliterating the darkness and the pain, simply so we can face ourselves in the mirror each day. Which is the real me? Which the true story of me?”
“From a performance point of view, the character arc I wanted to chart for the protagonist Liz was intended to be one of increasing complexity. When we first meet Liz, she appears simple, almost two dimensional, self absorbed, perhaps narcissistic, inattentive ; and I was keen to explore the idea that an audience should quickly “judge” her superficiality and though entertained by her, should be largely unsympathetic to her.”
“As we, the audience, unlock more of Liz’s life’s story, of her failed relationships, the disasters in her life, the unresolved issues between her and her Mother, I wanted to leaven her perceived superficiality with compassion, understanding, empathy. Liz is revealed as a suffering, caring, fragile, compassionate, troubled daughter. In doing this, I wanted to explore how the audience preconceptions could be completely changed by a series of disclosures. I’m interested in the hidden person revealed. How the superficial judgements we instantly make, can be turned on their heads by revelations. Dismissal gives way to caring. Empathy.”
“By setting Liz’s entire encounter with her Mother in a small room, I was keen to heighten the confrontation. For a runner, there is nowhere to run or hide. From her Mother. From the past. From herself. In this room are the most confronting of all things – the past and a mirror. This gradual revelation of an increasing complexity of character is such a challenge for the performer. And Christie moves through these phases – unaided by anyone else on stage – masterfully. She moves from a slightly heightened cartoonesque version of a self centred daughter – with all the comedy possibilities that go with that – to a more rounded, troubled real daughter with whom we must empathise. I’m amazed how brilliantly and seemingly effortlessly, Christie traverses this character arc – seamlessly – always carrying us with her. I believe her when she asks of us ”Who will love me?”
Vigil is a must see piece of art that will inspire, move and question. It challenges and reveals not only the humanity within us all but also the dark and ugly half which, also, strangely reveals that humanity.
Vizard asked his clever daughter for her description of Vigil:
“A beautiful woman arrives at a door. Tonight, inside this room,, she will lie, steal, entertain, confront, drink, sing, remember, laugh, cry, cheat, look death square in the eyes……and finally confront a hidden truth from which she has run her whole life.
Twelve lingering songs. A lingering, mesmerising performance. Laugh out loud. Bring tissues.
You know her.”
July 4 – 8