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Ava Stangherlin
Written by Paul Andrew   
Thursday, 06 September 2012 07:38

New theatre company Gretel in Darkness will present Grimm Tales as their debut stage work for the upcoming Sydney Fringe Festival. An adaptation of some of the original Grimm Brothers' fairytales, including: Hansel and Gretel, Ashputtel and The Golden Goose presented by the company's creators, co-director's and mainstays, both recent graduates of the Australian Academy of Dramatic Art (AADA), Sepy Baghaei and Ava Stangherlin.

Paul Andrew speaks with company co-director Ava Stangherlin.



Ava StangherlinAn early and most memorable theatre experience Ava?
One of my earliest theatrical experiences was performing a scene from Macbeth in a local eisteddfod. It was Act 1 Scene 3, Macbeth and Banquo's first encounter the witches on the heath and I played all five characters using changes in the way I draped this enormous black cloak to shift between them all. I would have been about twelve at the time and I distinctly remember being under that black cloak on stage and thinking how brilliant it was. The language was very transmutational too, "So foul and fair a day ..." I really felt like I was being entrusted with something precious and there was no other feeling like being in that story at that time. I don't think I scored very well, too wrapped up in my own fabulousness and forgot half the lines I think, but I was in the shops with my mum later that afternoon and a man approached us just to tell me that he and his family thought I was wonderful. That was very special. It was the first time it ever occurred to me that I could 'entertain', move an audience (screw the eisteddfod scores) ... not sure if that's a calling but that moment was such a buzz, it really stuck with me.

Tell me about Gretel in Darkness, what inspired you to start a new theatre company?
Gretel in Darkness is a company that my friend, Sepy Baghaei, and I created. Sepy and I studied the Bachelor of performance together at the Australian Academy of Dramatic Art and the underpinning of that course, from day one, was really the deeply engrained nature of mythology, stories really. In our final semester we worked closely as dramaturge and assistant director to Iain Sinclair as part of our graduating production. Iain's work really blew us away. He was always focused on telling the story, or not really just 'telling' it but 'sharing' the story. Working with Iain sort of helped crystallise for me where I stood. I mean I'm all for work that is complex and challenging, work that makes you struggle, but somehow it has to strike that deeply familiar chord too. As an audience member you have to be able to keep extrapolating the story long after the performance is over and to do that, you have to find the familiar in it as well as the stuff that shakes you up and turns you upside-down. And I think Sepy and I wanted to put our knowledge and our passion into practice!

It's also a great moniker; tell me the story behind your theatre company's name?
So glad you like it. Sepy and I worked hard on finding a name; it's such a big deal to find the right. The name comes from a poem by the same name, 'Gretel in Darkness' (by Louise Gluck). The poem is sort of a chillingly real, psychological account of Grimm's Hansel and Gretel. It really cuts through that 'happy ever after' stuff which we have come to associate with fairytales. It is an extrapolation of what a future might look like for these characters but in a very contemporary way where Gretel is haunted by the past, still in another kind of darkness and where the "black forest" is still "real, real". I mean who hasn't read Hansel and Gretel and felt disturbed by the parent's horrific betrayal but sort of swept along - the tale doesn't really allow much reflection on that aspect but this poem is sort of a marriage of the two. The frame of fantasy is still strong but the characters have become familiar - so it was just a perfect expression really of what me and Sepy wanted to do.

Were you inspired by another theatre company in particular?
I'm not sure if a particular company inspired me, but there is a particular production that has stayed with me ever since I saw it last year. Edward Gant's Amazing Feats of Loneliness, at STC, it was one of the most outstanding shows I have seen in Sydney. The story alone was beautiful but the entire production was everything I love about theatre; it was engaging, heartfelt and truthful. Part of that performance felt like it was mine and no other show has made me feel like that. I still have a pearl that I caught when it flew off the stage and it's my good luck charm! Sepy and I might seem like a bit of paradox in some ways being so young and dealing with such ancient material but our focus will always be about a reverence for the stories but sort of trying to make them very real as well as fantastical. We don't want to just do period pieces and we don't want to be contemporary for the sake of it either. Finding the heart in the narrative is what we are all about.

Tell me a bit about your adaptation of Grimm's Tales?
This adaptation of some of the Grimm brothers' tales by Carol Ann Duffy has transformed them into theatrical pieces for stage, and they retain all of their magic and all of their violence and darkness too. Something about the fact that there are a number of stories forces you to consider a context for the storytelling and this is what intrigued us. Who is telling these stories and why? When we first read the book we had one copy and we swapped back and forth for weeks; we just kept on reading them and discussing all the different ways to conjure up the essence of this text. Our goal was to thread the stories together in a way that achieved exactly what the poem "Gretel in Darkness" achieves - a blending of the fantastical and the real. That is so, so much scarier.


The Sydney Fringe Festival is NSW's largest alternative arts event, popping up in locations all across Sydney. With Sepy hailing from Parramatta and Ava from Leichhardt, the Fringe provides an excellent opportunity for artists from all over Sydney to come together to network and present work. Grimm Tales will play a short season at the TAP Art Gallery & Theatre in Darlinghurst from September 11-15. Tickets are $20/$15 and are on sale now from http://www.trybooking.com/BTNQ.



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