Remembering flight: a journey toward the black box

By Arne Sjostedt

Anyone who has ever tried to study the stars or looked inside the complex and beautiful structures of nature knows that there is art in science, just as much as there is science in art.


Bringing together two creative artists who are in control of the technical aspects of their practice is at the heart of The Street Theatre’s latest in house production, Flight Memory. It’s the story of David Warren, creator of the black box flight recorder, who worked throughout his life to realise a vision that would change the world of aviation.


Based around a song cycle that tells of the tensions and troubles he encountered, The Street’s artistic director Caroline Stacey says that there are parallels in Warren’s story to the artistic process.

Director Caroline Stacey

“It’s a creative thing, and it takes a focus and purity of vision that you really have to believe in and go after,” Stacey says of Warren’s work.


With funding through the ANZAC Centenary Art and Culture Fund, Stacey, who also directs this work, was interested in the nexus between art and science, and began to look for a story somewhere in defence science over the last 100 years. This led to a partnership with the Department of Defence, Science and Technology.


Running in parallel with this, Stacey had wanted to commission successful Canberra based composer Sandra France to write a new work. In 2013 France had composed an opera on the 2003 Canberra bush fires, From a Black Sky, that opened at The Street in 2013 and was shortlisted for an Art Music Award in the Work of the Year: Vocal category.


A tireless developer of artists and promotor of new work in Canberra, after that experience Stacey committed to commissioning France to compose a work for The Street that would premiere there, as part of her development as a composer.


The defence science project became the vehicle, and Stacey brought in playwright Alana Valentine, who is responsible for plays like Barbara and the Camp Dogs, Letters to Lindy and Parramatta Girls.


“Both Sandra and Alana are quality artists. It’s quite a unique collaboration and there is a very distinctive voice in the works. And obviously, we were really interested in seeing these two women create something that could sit on the national stage.”

Stacey, France and Valentine were all passionate about the story of David Warren and the invention of the black box flight recorder, and have created a production told primarily through songs that span a breadth of musical genres.


“All in the mix was the idea of jazz and jazz as an art form. The strength of it in Canberra, the wonderful artists that we have here, and in terms of the music form, using that medium to tell the story,” Stacey says.


“I wouldn’t say it’s specifically jazz. It mixes up a whole lot of genres. There is blues in there, there is gospel in there, there is funk, there’s latin, right through to more minimalism and contemporary classical.”


While telling Warren’s story mostly through song, Flight Memory is not a bio piece. “It brings together that act of imagination and invention through a series of live incidents. It works by montage,” says Stacey.


And there is plenty in Warren’s story to capture the imagination. Warren’s father died in one of the earliest commercial flight disasters in Australia when Warren was a child. Signalling his future path, the last gift his father gave him was a kit to build a simple radio receiver.


“So it’s all about sound and sound waves and hearing voices and that gift really put him on a path toward science,” says Stacey.


As an adult working at the Scientist, Aeronautical Research Laboratories, when he presented his flight recorder idea, Warren was told that he could work on the project, but in his lunchtime.


“There is a few lines in this story. The grief of childhood trauma, how that drives the scientific enquiry, but also the parochialism of the Australian working context, the difficulty in that and the rage in that, and the frustration,” Stacey explains. “What is experienced in that story is just about what every artist in Australia experiences and many, many in our scientific community. That constant frustration in terms of funding and in terms of getting support and investment for the work that is done.”


Featuring Liam Budge, Leisa Keen and Michelle Nicolle delivering a powerful emotional experience, people going to see Flight Memory will be entertained by a concert of quality music performed by amazing musicians that will transport them up into this interesting narrative.


“The emotional experiences are really intense and the visual pictures in the work are incredibly beautiful,” says Stacey. “So it’s like moving pictures with music.”


Flight Memory opens on 14 November at The Street. Details at thestreet.org.au

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