Nicola Bowman on The Red Tree, a new musical adaptation

Shaun Tan’s The Red Tree has been celebrated around the world.

Winning numerous awards globally, the book is just one of Tan’s succession of quirky, dark, picture books – other novels include The Rabbits (adapted into an opera by Kate Miller-Heidke), The Arrival, and The Lost Thing (adapted into an Academy Award-winning short film). His unique style of both artwork and storytelling makes him a pioneer of his craft, and rightfully so.

A story of imagination, fear, and hope, The Red Tree may be a children’s story, but its roots go much deeper. The well-loved novel was recently adapted into a musical by award-winning playwright Hilary Bell, award-winning songwriter and composer Greta Gertler Gold, production designer James Browne and director Neil Gooding. The show has previously had a season at the National Theatre of Paramatta, and will be performed at Arts Centre Melbourne for 5 shows only this August.

Nicola Bowman

Nicola Bowman plays the lead role of Ava, a young girl whose anxieties act as her biggest threats. I spoke to Nicola ahead of the show’s Melbourne season about her experience working on a new musical.

Could you tell me a bit about your performance history?

I am a graduate of Music theatre from the Victorian College of the Arts where I was awarded the Ron and Margaret Dobell Award for excellence in the field. Thanks to this generous scholarship I was able to travel to London to study a Diploma of Classical Acting at LAMDA. My professional credits include Ava in the original season of The Red Tree (National Theatre of Parramatta), Bridget in Bring it On (Stage Masters), Deb in Ordinary Days (Pursued by Bear), Dromio of Syracuse in Comedy of Errors (Melbourne Shakespeare Company), Feste/Dance Captain in Twelfth Night (Melbourne Shakespeare Company). I am also an enthusiastic theatre director with a production of Blackrock currently playing at St Martins Youth Centre with EbbFlow Theatre Company.

How have you found working on a new musical adaptation?

Working on this new musical adaptation has been one of the best experiences of my career so far. The opportunity to be a part of shaping Ava’s world has taught me so much about creating and collaborating. The writers Hilary Bell and Greta Gertler Gold are power house female writers and I find them endlessly inspiring.

How has this experience differed from other shows you’ve worked on?

The Red Tree differs from other shows that I have worked on because it is an original text that is changing and developing all the time. Particularly in the original season, I would get thrown a new lyric or line to work into the next show. For me, this makes the show fun, fresh and exciting.

Nicola Bowman as Ava | Photo by Noni Carroll

Did you find anything challenging during this process?

I think this show has been the perfect storm because I truly have not run into any challenges yet. I’m sure there have been challenging times through the process but not for me. One thing I find challenging within the show itself is having to set props before my character finds them. There are a couple of spots in the show where things appear as if from nowhere. This means it was probably me or one of the Assistant Stage Managers who put them there without the audience noticing.

Shaun Tan is one of Australia’s most celebrated artists – what do you think it is about his work that people love so much?

The thing that I love about Shaun Tan’s work is its truth and contemporary relevance. He explores such important subject matter in a medium usually reserved for light colourful bedtime stories. With themes of colonisation, depression and anxiety present in his work he tells us a lot about the Australia that we live in now and has the magical ability to invite in people of all ages.

Photo by Noni Carroll

How has the show adapted Shaun’s unique art style for the stage?

We have had the privilege of using a lot of his work in the Audio Visual design of the show. Our set and costume designer James Browne has created a moveable set that unfolds the story, just like a picture book. He has also echoed Shaun Tan’s drawing style in the heightened costumes and wigs.

What do you think is the most important message of The Red Tree?

By far the most important message of the Red Tree is that even when sadness feels inescapable you always have the strength inside to set yourself free.

Why should people come and see The Red Tree?

People should come to see the Red Tree because it is a fun and powerful afternoon of storytelling. Also there are amazing puppets!

Arts Centre Melbourne and National Theatre of Paramatta present The Red Tree

August 3rd & 4th, 2019 – Fairfax Studio, Arts Centre Melbourne

For tickets and more information please visit Arts Centre Melbourne’s website or call the box office on 1300 182 183

Gabi Bergman

Gabi Bergman is a Melbourne-based performer and educator, and is the current Deputy Editor-in-Chief of She holds a Double Arts degree in Theatre Studies and Film/Screen Studies and a Master of Teaching (Secondary Education). Gabi has always been an avid lover of theatre, specifically musicals, and spends way too much money than she’d like to admit on tickets. Her most prized possession is her crate of theatre programs.

Gabi Bergman

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