Union House Theatre’s 2018 production Ida follows the story of the first female students at the University of Melbourne. Earlier this week, I spoke with cast members Lucy Seale and Emily White to hear about the show and their experience with the production.
So just tell me about Ida
E: So, it’s a remount of a 1994 musical that was done here in 1994
L: In the Guild Theatre, called The Princess Ida Parlour
E: But when they pulled it out of the archives, they only had the script and no music. So we’ve rewritten the music as an ensemble…Led by our musical director Ashlee Clapp, who is a genius
What else have you done to adapt the script? When you got it out, were you just like ‘this is great, we’re going to put it on the way it is’, or did you go through it and break it down…what was the process?
L: So there’s a lot of new text, or changing of text, based on the influences of what this ensemble wanted to put on stage. Emily, for example, came up with a bunch of new gags and jokes that suited her interpretation of one of her characters.
E: And a lot of the text changed based on the lyrics that we wrote, so we had to change things in dialogue scenes to fit the songs we’ve written.
L: A lot of the changes were just for ease of narrative or character development over the show. But then there are a few things we tried to draw out more so to make it relevant in a 2018 context. Obviously there are natural parallels, but we wanted to highlight things, especially that are still relevant today. Like there’s a song where a woman is walking home in the dark after a university lecture because they didn’t have colleges for females. And we’ve used that song to sort of show that yes, times have changed, but there’s still some issues like safety for women at night which are…
E: Still a biggie
L: Still need to be resolved, and we want people to really be sitting there thinking about the parallels and thinking ‘Oh my goodness, we still have so much work to do’. We’ve come far, but we don’t live in a society where everyone’s equal.
Was there anything that you felt ‘this needs to be changed’, or ‘this is really different now, and we should think about this thing differently’? Were there any big changes that you made to the text that you felt were needed to update it?
E: Not really. I think it definitely takes the piss out of the role of the church more. Just because… they have a song about the nuns that teach the women in high school, and I don’t know what the original song was like. But now it’s like a huge satire of the role that the church played in oppressing women.
L: It went from what we imagine was sort of a start of The Sound of Music song, to now more of a Book of Mormon type satire.
What about the music – are you all from musical backgrounds, or is it quite mixed? If there is a range, how have you approached the range of experiences?
E: Well it’s basically because Ashlee, the composer and musical director, is a genius. She facilitated group discussions where we would brainstorm things, and she would just take all of the offers and ideas and just make a song out of it somehow. People who have done more musical stuff could obviously use that kind of language and have more musical ideas, and then people who don’t have a musical background are more [about] the big picture, or more what sort of vibe we’re going for.
L: Yeah, there’s such an awesome cast, with a mix of backgrounds as Emily said. Some people have done more acting, like myself, and some people have done a lot more music. For me personally, I’ve done music but only playing instruments, so I found singing to be such a challenge. But Ashlee has been great in facilitating that in the writing process and helping us… I guess giving parts that would suit people’s voices, and helping us to feed in words and lyrics that we felt our characters wanted to sing, so I could approach it from an acting point of view. And that’s made it so much easier. But yeah, it’s been such a fun challenge to sort of mix people’s backgrounds and experiences into this amazing show that’s come together.
What do you think is the appeal to a contemporary audience?
E: I think the parallels that it draws to issues that we still have today, and issues that are either still the same today or steps that we have taken, so you can step back and be like ‘well we’ve come pretty far, but what do we still need to work on.’ Petra [Kalive, director] was saying at the end of our dress rehearsal, it is actually quite a timely moment to put this show back on, because we’ve come out of a time where there’s things like the Me Too moment, and women’s voices are really getting heard. There’s a lot of momentum on that sort of front.
L: I think she said ‘the planets have aligned for us to put this show on at this point in time’. Which I think is really interesting to think about because there’s a lot of discussion within the text about these women making history, but now we get to feel like we’re making history. It’s an important show to put on right now.
E: History? More like Herstory
L: That’s a little quote. But yeah I think as much as it is dramatic and historical and makes you think and feel it’s also just a lot of fun, so I think a contemporary audience will enjoy learning a bit about Melbourne Uni, perhaps learning stories that haven’t been told. We normally hear a straight white male history of Melbourne Uni. So it’s interesting for them to learn about this story of women and their history, but in a very fun way. It’s an enjoyable show.
Lastly, one thing that you’ve gotten out of the process personally or learnt?
E: I thought it was a really magical experience being part of collaboratively writing music, because I thought there’s absolutely no way I would ever have anything to offer in that sort of discussion. Like I failed year 12 music (and that’s the only thing I’ve ever failed in my whole life). And then the way Ashlee facilitated those rehearsals and made it really clear that everyone has something to offer, and everyone felt valuable in those rehearsals.
L: Similarly to Emily, I think I’ve just learnt so much from being around such a great creative team. We have an incredible group of women on our production team – it’s entirely led by these strong, capable women who are setting such an awesome example of women making art together. At the same time, in the rehearsal room, we obviously do have four men in the show, and they have been really great to work with as well. I think you need to include all perspectives… we have taken or tried to take an intersectional approach to tell this story, which has been great because we have people from all different backgrounds, and were able to learn and share and create art together. So that’s been awesome.
E: Also it is important to note that Petra has directed some of these rehearsals literally with an infant strapped to her chest and that is the most powerful image I have ever seen…and I’ll take that to my grave.
L: She is a wonder, just had her child and she comes into rehearsal and she’s like ‘let’s do this we’ve got a show to put on’. Yeah, but it’s been such an awesome learning opportunity on many specific levels but just in general to be around these amazing people.
Martin Fatmaja Hoggart
Union House Theatre’s production of Ida runs from the 10th – 20th of October in the Guild Theatre.