What is Paul Bunyan about?
Paul Bunyan is about the folklore legend and giant lumberjack, Paul Bunyan. Paul Bunyan's mission is leading a team of pioneers (alongside his pet, Babe the blue ox) to cut down the virgin forests of America, making way for civilisation. It is about man's conquest of nature. Paul Bunyan essentially represents America as the new and emerging empire of the early 1900s, the nation that was built on dreams and in particular the 'American Dream'.
Why should people come and see it?
Paul Bunyan can only be described as a treasure chest of wonders. This is Britten's Broadway piece and has a vast array of music genres: from musical numbers, to folk, to blues, to opera, to hymns, etc. It is hugely entertaining and full of wit through Auden's rich poetry. Alongside the eclectic mix of music, there are approximately thirty-five named characters that explode out of the piece, all with different dreams, narratives and tangents. It makes for a perfect night of entertainment, especially in Wilton's Music Hall where everything is performed in such close proximity to the audience.
What do you think staging Paul Bunyan at Wilton’s brings to the production?
Staging this large-scale opera in a beautiful, but small-scale theatre, means that this production is going to make the audience feel fully immersed in the music and the story. Powered by a twenty-three manned orchestra and a forty manned chorus, the waves of sound are going to be immense and thrilling with regards to intensity. The opera won't have been heard like this before. It will be like opera's version of a rock concert or the Imax. Not only will the sound be so powerful, but Wilton's allows for us to break the fourth wall and play action from all over the theatre. We are creating a surround sound production that is hopefully full of surprises.
How would you describe your approach and process as a director?
This is always a very difficult question to answer, because it shifts per piece and could be an essay of an answer. In brief I, as a director, am particularly interested in the 'world' of a piece and how/why all of the characters belong to this world/narrative. My process involves a lot of initial research about the piece and around the piece, often deconstructing it to discover if there are any exciting possibilities. I then work very closely with my designer (Camilla Clarke) in discovering the world in which we want to play the story, making sure to marry in what we want to say with the piece. The next stage is working with my movement director (Jasmine Ricketts), to build the physical language of what we want to create. Finally, when we begin rehearsals, I work thoroughly with the cast on character biogs/histories as it all has to be rooted in truth. We then play a lot, especially on an opera such as this, to work out the tangible arcs and objectives. I'm very particular about stage pictures and so this is a key part of my rehearsal process too.
Paul Bunyan was written in 1941; how to do you think this piece is relevant to the world in which we live in today?
What I find so exciting about this opera, is that despite being written and performed in 1941, it is so relevant and holds great resonance to the world that we live in today. As I mentioned above, this piece is about man's conquest of nature. In the early 1900s, conquest and growth was exciting! We'd experienced the Industrial Revolution and the world was always changing and evolving. Everyone was full of the 'American Dream'. But what does man's continued conquest of nature mean to us today? We are beginning to see the dangers of continued conquest and growth. Deforestation. Over Farming. Climate Change. Waste. Capitalism. Consumerism. Materialism. Progression. These problems are not only American, but Universal. Britten and Auden at the end of the piece have the chorus repeatedly sing "Save animals and men". This is a very powerful message to us today. It calls for radical change in man's relation to the land and the animals and plants which grow upon it. The opera is concerned with collective action and it culminates in a ritual feast, but the emphasis shifts to the "life of choice" and the importance of individual action. It's a wake up moment for the audience.
What inspires you as a director?
There are many things that inspire me, but I would first and foremost say that it's 'people' that inspire me. My reasoning for joining theatre as a child was because I loved collaborating with people and belonging to a company. This is still my main inspiration today. There is no adrenalin like collaboration. Everyone has different stories, different backgrounds and it is so exciting to work in rehearsal rooms that are so full of different perspectives and ideas. This can also be the intimidating part too!
Do you have a favourite moment from Paul Bunyan?
My favourite moment has been shifting day by day, because there are so many wonderful moments. Right now and at this very second, I would say that it has to be The Quartet of the Defeated (The Blues). At the top of Act 1 we go through a series of numbers where we witness all of the new recruits, all full of dreams, joining Paul Bunyan's camp. At the end of this series, Paul Bunyan leaves them all with a "dream of warning" and this is The Quartet of the Defeated. This is his way of instilling fear in the men of holding to large a dreams. The music is sensual, possessing a dark chill that weaves it’s way through the space. It is like a ghostly spirit working its way through what was a warm and joyful pub, only moments ago. "America can break your heart. You don't know all sir, you don’t know all".