‘Growing Pains’ – Peter Maple chats with Director of Thai-riffic!, Lisa Freshwater – TALKING ARTS

Chatting with director, Lisa Freshwater, re the (creative) wrestle in adapting and bringing (up!) to the stage a much-lauded coming of age children’s book, Thai-riffic!, by Oliver Phommavanh.

“Author, Oliver Phommavanh was involved from the selecting the playwright, right through to giving Jemwel (the actor who plays Lengy) a workshop in stand-up comedy. He’s been incredibly gracious in allowing us to take his material and adapt and change it.

I do have to say I loved watching his face when he attended the staged reading last year and saw his characters come to life for the first time on stage – priceless.”

Heya, Lisa. What drew you to this project?

I directed and Oliver featured in a production called About Face for Theatre 4A (now CAAP) in 2012 and he’d recently published Thai-riffic!. He gave me a copy for my son who was 11 at the time and he loved it! Both my son and I were really drawn to the humour, the multiple writing styles and the way Oliver told a story about diversity while speaking universally.

When my co-producer in TTD Alistair Thomson and I were looking for a project for this age group we agreed Thai-riffic! was current, vibrant and topical and the perfect vehicle for TTD to step into ‘theatre for young people’ territory.

Do you feel the need to ‘adjust’ any storytelling conventions you utilise in order to tell and express a story aimed for a younger/child’s mind of understanding?

Young people communicate on multiple platforms. We really thought about this during the development of the show and Oliver’s and Evi O’s (the illustrator for the book) comic strips provided the clues! We’ve even taken these drawings as inspiration for projected animation in the show; sometimes during the transitions, sometimes within a scene. We also created a set that’s not only interesting and adaptable on its own, but likewise provides a projection space for some truly fantastic projected back drops that transition in a beautifully filmic way – younger audiences have a great, natural in-built understanding of ‘screen language’. And – Comedy! – comedy is a great way to connect with young people. It’s the dry, deadpan humour, the slapstick and pop culture references that both Oliver and Nathan write so well that speaks directly to the heart of this demographic. And we’ve got some fun live physical things happening like water fights and real cooking to ensure we ignite all the senses!

Full spectrum of stimulus and shenanigans on display!

Tell me about the process involved in the adaptation for stage.

It’s taken over three years from page to stage. We began by looking for the right playwright. Nathan (Luff) came to mind as he’s written plays and novels for young people of this age. He and Oliver know each other from school tours, they share the same humour and, and awfully-importantly so, Oliver trusted him with his work.

Nathan presented us with his thoughts on the adaptation. The novel is episodic – almost chapters of short stories of Lengy’s (our Hero’s) life. We wanted to find the narrative arc. We also wanted to reduce the number of characters so five actors could play them, for practical reasons.

Nathan and I worked closely together to identify the main theme and character journeys, then developed a story board which he took away him to develop a first draft. We had a table reading with some really capable actors – who also provided us some really valuable, insightful feedback.

Then, it was Riverside Theatres Parramatta in 2016 who supported a workshop of the production, where we had the opportunity to present a staged reading. This was to an audience of years 5-8 – and we implement their feedback within the current draft. Further to this, I was working with the design team to come up with the visual language which is absolutely paramount to the telling of this story.

You personally have a solid background in Movement. Is something you (always, instinctually) like to incorporate into the outcomes of your shows?

Definitely, yes.

I generally put the piece on the floor and work back from there.

Moving it helps me find the rhythm and meaning of the words.

There’s always some physical action and/or montage in my work.

Are there many Movement elements incorporated in the staged telling of this production of Thai-riffic!? If so, how?

Seeing as the piece is a ‘comedy’, we’ve included a lot of physical comedy and playfulness into the performances – especially Lengy’s teacher Mr. Winfree, who has to handle multiple stuffed toys for example. We also use Thai shadow puppets to help tell a folk tale, and have riffed further thematically on the movement technique that comes with using these puppets. There’s also a scene where Grandma tells Lengy about his Dad’s sporting ambitions as a Takraw champion – Takraw being a combination of soccer and volleyball, and extremely physical and dynamic. That’s positively an exciting physicalised moment in the show!

Your cast. What were your main focuses for cast, when on the hunt?

Firstly, finding an actor who is the right cultural background for the role. Then, someone who can deliver the comedy and, as three of the roles are thirteen year olds played by adults, ensuring they have an innate sense of youthfulness. I also like to work with actors who mine the depths of the role, who like to play and explore and most importantly take risks and make mistakes so we can find the best solutions and gold nuggets in their performances. 

What has playwright Nathan Luff’s approach been to adapting someone else’s material (for a completely different medium)?

Nathan naturally connects with the source material as he also writes novels for this age group. Apart from creating a narrative with actions, obstacles and objectives for each character and an overall arc he’s taken some really potent concepts in the book and heightened and theatricalised them. For instance, there’s a chapter in the book where Lengy is irritated by a mosquito. The idea is self-contained in the novel and pays off in a comic strip but Nathan’s taken this singular idea and included it within a scene where Grandma measures Lengy for his Songkram (Thai New Year) outfit. It gives Lengy a physical action, makes him active in the scene and creates tension between the two characters while ensuring we’re staying connected to the source material .  

What are the Universal themes of the piece do you think?

Identity, Family and Belonging, and, embarrassing families.

What are the Personal/Intimate themes?

Each character explores their own family identity and unique quirks.

From cross-cultural families, to single parent families, to an adult teacher who still lives with his mum!

What do you hope children will glean from the production?

Being true to yourself is pretty cool. 

What do you think parents will take away with them?

I think this is really important – Even though your children most definitely need and require the space to find out who they are, they still need you, to set the boundaries, and remind them who they are, who we all are, and where they came from.

I for one see myself as an ‘outcast’, and always have – and I seem to be drawn strongly to, and connect greatly with stories about Identity. Do you think, deep down, this is something that is in all of us? Some sense of ‘not belonging’, and deeply wanting to? Whether we’re conscious of it, or not?

Absolutely. Especially when you’re thirteen. And I think as an adult you just get better at hiding it.

We all find what mask to wear to protect ourselves. Some of us are: the smart ones; some the pretty ones; some the popular ones; some the ‘outcast’. In Lengy’s case here – he’s the ‘funny one’, ‘the comedian’, that makes people laugh (so they don’t see his self-doubt and fear of not being like everyone else) …

Peter Maple – Theatre Now and Talking Arts
Original publish date, July 3, 2017.