‘When I was at drama school, I didn’t think my life would turn out like this,’ says actor Drew Livingston, pulling on a pantomime horse head. James Elliot, the horse’s back legs, agrees. ‘I imagined myself doing Chekov, sitting in an armchair talking about Moscow.’
In a couple of weeks we’ll be in the Sydney Opera House, performing our live version of the best-selling Australian book of 2014, The 52-Storey Treehouse. Though we’re well into rehearsals I’m still tinkering with the script, trying to make scenes run smoothly, cutting jokes that are falling flat, ‘killing my darlings’.
It’s tricky to stage a caterpillar eating two speeding steamrollers, an epic trek by Ninja snails and detectives Andy and Terry zooming around in their Flying Fried Egg Car. Somehow, we’ll manage it. It always comes right on the night.
Andy Griffiths’ and Terry Denton’s children’s books are world bestsellers, and the Treehouse series is a publishing phenomenon in Australia.The stage adaptations of the first books in the series, The 13-Storey Treehouse and The 26-Storey Treehouse, have toured Australia for the past two years, playing to packed houses of enthusiastic young fans. They’ve delivered around 500 performances, a tribute to the stamina, enthusiasm and professionalism of the talented casts and crews.
Meanwhile with a new cast we’re rehearsing the third play. We’re feeling the weight of responsibility to deliver a show above and beyond already high expectations. The Opera House season is selling fast and a 2016 national tour is planned.
The plot is, well, ridiculous. The main characters of the story, Andy and Terry, fictional alter egos of the books’ writer and illustrator, have to rescue their publisher Mr Big Nose from a horde of killer vegetables, wake their friend Jill from a 100-year sleep and fire an enchanted carrot into the Greenwich Observatory to stop time, so that Ninja Snails can deliver the manuscript of their book before the 5pm deadline. It’s challenging to fit all that into a one-hour play with a cast of four!
Fortunately, I don’t have to solve the staging problems myself. Director Liesel Badorrek runs operations, designer Mark Thompson has provided us with a set full of surprises and secret trapdoors and sound designer Ross Johnstone’s orchestration is converting the basic tunes I tapped out on the piano last year into show-stopping earworm numbers.
Actors James Elliott (Andy), Drew Livingston (Terry), Sophie Kesteven (Jill) and Johnny Nasser (everybody else) contribute thoughtful script editing and improvise funny gems of lines and stage business; people will think I invented them.
There are costume fittings for the Giant Talking Tomato and serious discussions about how best to disguise pink feather dusters as razor sharp machetes.
The Ninja Snails’ song is choreographed and rehearsed. There are design adjustments made to the Very Hungry Caterpillar, the Enchanted Carrot and the Disguise-o-Matic 5000. Yep, perhaps Chekov would have been easier.
The rehearsal room is still my favourite part of the entire theatre-making process. Writing the script can be a lonely chore; watching performances always makes me anxious. In the rehearsal room, there’s a wonderful feeling of people with divergent personalities and disparate skills working together to create something greater than the sum of its parts.
There are despairing days when it all seems to be falling apart; then suddenly we’ll have a breakthrough as reworked scenes take off and leave us howling with laughter.
We’re nearly there. Let’s hope the thousands of Treehouse fans who’ll see the show will enjoy the craziness as much as we do.
The 52-Storey Treehouse plays in the Sydney Opera House from September 20th – October 4th.
For bookings, click HERE.