By Arne Sjostedt
Author, librettist and playwright Nigel Featherstone understands that quality takes time. More time, perhaps, then he had for the first public reading of his latest work, The Story of the Oars.
Not one or four, but more like 40 drafts is about the right recipe for this gentleman of letters before he is ready to show the world his works. Not so for his trip about The Street’s development program First Seen, where his first full play was performed via Zoom.
“Usually my projects take six or seven years to go from go to woe, so we’re only a year in,” Featherstone says. “As a novelist I would never expose my drafts to anyone until it gets to my agent. But with theatre it is much more of a collaborative process.”
A nervous prospect for the Goulburn resident, where he found himself updating his draft as late as two days before the sell out reading was set to happen. Yet it has been a process he has cherished.
“Kudos to The Street Theatre for one remaining committed to new work, and then also giving us paid work,” a grateful Featherstone says. “And also using this down time to explore brand new work. Because without the theatre, something like this would never ever get off the ground.”
Though he is a man of many words, music is one of his passions.
“My teenage obsession has carried through, and a my favourite thing to do on a Friday is go to Landspeed Records,” Featherstone says.
Listing My Bloody Valentine, Four Tet, The Cinematic Orchestra, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, The Chemical Bros, Peaches, Muse, Talking Heads, and minimalist like Nills Frans, Arvo Pärt and Jóhann Jóhannsson, his tastes are eclectic and diverse.
So it is not surprising that Featherstone jumped at the opportunity to dabble in the dark arts of writing for music when he was given the opportunity to write the libretto for a work called Weight of Light, by James Humberstone.
Saying he wrote this piece by mistake, in that he was commissioned to do it and had never planned to work in that space, he was rewarded when songs from that piece were lined up to be performed at none other than Carnegie Hall later this year, pending COVID-19 restrictions.
For The Story of the Oars, however, Featherstone didn’t just write the lyrics, but has ventured into writing his first full-length play. The motivation to do so coming after he attended a master class with Broadway expert David Sisco.
“Weight of Light really turned me on to want to do more of this,” he says. “And the thing is, I don’t actually like musicals. Maybe Pink Floyd’s The Wall would be a classic obviously, and also The War of the Worlds. But I don’t go in for the whole singing and dancing, chorus line sort of stuff. But when I was in this master class, I thought ‘What would I do if I was to write another work.’ So I started to think about Lake George because I drive past it a lot. What sort of mysteries does it hide.”
Recalling a story where in 1957 five Duntroon cadets drowned while sailing on a then watery landmark, Featherstone decided to move that story into the 80s when the lake was again full, and make it about three brothers who go for a sail and are never found.
Not just a novelist who loves music, Featherstone is an avid theatre goer, and wanted to make sure this work reflected his ideas on what the perfect night at the theatre would entail. In his view, this involved a brooding story, and great music. But not in a tradition musical theatre way.
“I wrote a draft of this story and I gave it to Caroline Stacey who directed my earlier piece. And she said this is definitely worth pursuing. The form is a play with songs, rather than a musical.”
Next receiving some funding from Create NSW to do a two day development at The Street, he then submitted the work for development through First Seen.
“I recon we are only a quarter of the way through it. But the idea of this is that we get the text right, we get the drama of it right and we get the characters right before we start talking to composers,” Featherstone says of the process.
“With the earlier project I was writing the text and the composer was writing the score at the same time. And then we got to a certain point, and I was like, ‘I hate half of it. I’m going to scrap it,’ and then the composer said 'If you scrap half of your words, I have to scrap half of my music.’ So this time I said to Caroline, ‘Let’s get the text right this year and then fingers crossed we can bring a composer in. And he or she can actually rest assured that I’m not going to change stuff around'.
With the Zoom reading now out of the way, reflecting on his post graduate studies and previous residences, Featherstone says that the two weeks that he worked on the project were amazingly intense. Though they provided many insights.
“One of the benefits of doing the work over Zoom was that audiences were able to ask questions and provided feedback in real time,” he says. “There was a lot of thinking that went into it.”
Wanting to support writers to progress their works during isolation, speaking about maintaining an engagement with artists, The Street’s Artistic Director Caroline Stacey says, “After we managed to get some understanding of the impact of COVID-19 and what as an organisation we needed to remain committed to, the First Seen program we decided to run just as intended, and we decided use the Zoom platform to do the creative development.”
With the program in its ninth year, Stacey is passionate about helping make sure Canberran’s have an opportunity to be get interested in new writing, and curating “really great collection of voices that speak to our experiences.” And she was overjoyed with how running her First Seen agenda worked as an on line vehicle to achieve that. As was Featherstone.
“It was great. The four actors were fantastic. The director was great. The Street were fantastic. The audience were wonderful,” he says.
“It was really a special evening,” he says. And one Stacey is sure will happen again in a similar format.