A fugue for voices – Terence O’Connell directs The Graduates in Cruising Paradise

In the lead up to the opening of Cruising Paradise – tales by Sam Shepard on 25 April, Aussie Theatre’s Brendan McCallum managed to catch up with director Terence O’Connell for a chat.

Cruising Paradise
Cruising Paradise

For a man who has had so much on his plate over the last few months, accomplished director Terence O’Connell (two hundred plus shows under his belt and counting) sounds remarkably relaxed.

In addition to Empire, a circus theatre show playing on the roof of Crown Casino, and a production of Neil Simon’s musical They’re Playing Our Song currently touring the country, Terence has somehow found the time to adapt for the stage the short fiction of one of modern theatre’s heavyweights, Sam Shepard.

Best known here in Australia as the author of plays such as True West and A Lie of the Mind, Shepard is in fact an engine of cross-discipline creativity, much admired by O’Connell.

“Sam’s a short story writer, and a musician and a cowboy – Sam’s got it all… he’s one of my great heroes,” says Terence during a break in rehearsals for Cruising Paradise – tales by Sam Shepard opening at fortyfivedownstairs on April 25th – a venue which, given its subterranean locale and battered, austere bones, should prove a fitting venue for the vaguely gothic underworld of Shepard’s writing.

“It’s a fantastic venue. The show is set in a sort of bar or beer barn out in the middle of nowhere and it’s performed in front of a massive backdrop of a tattered poster of the Western Bad Day at Blackrock… so it looks surreal. It’s going to be great at fortyfivedownstairs.”

Terence is also eager to point out that Cruising Paradise is not your standard piece of theatre but rather, as the press release states, a ‘fugue for voices’. “It’s not a play, it’s sort of a Sam Shepard concept show”, he reveals.

“It features short stories from about four of his collections that have been put together to create an evening of theatre. It features his poetry … set to music by Paul Norton, some recurring characters, but it’s full of the Sam Shepard themes.”

Given that, what were the challenges he faced when it came to adapting the pieces, knowing that ultimately the words would have to be given form, ‘made flesh’ as it were? For Terence it is simply about letting Shepard’s writing take to the stage from the page with as little intervention as possible.

“I haven’t tried to hammer the short stories into being any sort of a play,” he says. However “there are actually some scenes in it, because some of the short stories have two people talking to each other and they’re written like dialogue.”

[pull_left]It doesn’t have a plot per se, but you meet a lot of the great Sam Shepard-style characters: loners and losers and cowboys and movie stars, all of whom hang out in this bar and talk to the audience[/pull_left]

As expected, the work treads the sort of ground that Shepard has almost made his own – “The American West, fathers and sons, and the allure of the highway… and also it has a sort of theme about the movie industry running through it”, Terence says.

In many ways the show seeks to capture the free-wheeling, slightly unhinged feel of a run-down drinking hole between the dark and the dawn, where words and feelings flow like the mesmerizing trickle of honeyed bourbon.

“It doesn’t have a plot per se, but you meet a lot of the great Sam Shepard-style characters: loners and losers and cowboys and movie stars, all of whom hang out in this bar and talk to the audience.” Given that Shepard is such a quintessentially American voice, his enduring popularity in this country speaks volumes for the regard in which he is held in by the theatre world here and overseas.

Indeed, as Terence states, “he’s a great dramatist and he’s a great poet. His characters are so wonderfully gothic and extreme”. They are also deeply human and it’s the universal aspect of their travails that transcends the geographical, despite Shepard’s deep connection to the American West “a lot of the short stories and books are really about him and his life and how he observes other people.”

Cruising Paradise Cast
Cruising Paradise Cast

In bringing these tales to life O’Connell is ably assisted by an ensemble consisting of National Theatre alumni, named (fittingly enough) The Graduates.

Given the gifts that Shepard, an actor himself, bestows on performers through the muscular, poetic writing he is known for, how have the troupe taken to the work?

“This is a mixture of monologues, duologues, it’s a great mixture of stuff – ninety minutes of terrific Sam Shepard – most of the show is spoken directly to the audience. We’re enjoying it very much.”

Cruising Paradise – tales by Sam Shepard opens on 25th April, at fortyfivedownstairs, 45 Flinders Lane, Melbourne, and runs until 12th May.

Tuesday to Friday 8pm, Saturday 5pm & 8pm (Saturday matinee 4 & 11 April only), Sunday 5pm Tickets: Full $36, Concession $28, Group 10+ $25, Student Group 10+ $20, Preview $25

Bookings: 03 9662 9966 or fortyfivedownstairs.com

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