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‘Birdsong at Dusk’ – a Creative Director’s notes



LRT’s Artistic Director, Michelle St Anne gives us an insight into her creative rationale for the upcoming collaboration with Ensemble Offspring’s concert ‘Birdsong at Dusk’ at Q Station for the Sydney Festival. The concert is sold out.

‘Quarantine’ verb: To exclude, detail or isolate for political, social or hygiene reasons

When I approach a ’work’ I always see place first and ask questions of the venue. Where am I? What was here before? What stories are stored underneath its layers of paint. Under the niceties. This allows me a lens through which to receive the space.

Being at the Quarantine Station now, it seems stripped of this history and crafted into something palatable for weddings and parties or in this case a concert. On the day of my site visit, the Station was still, without life but for a few maintenance workers. The air thick and heavy with smoke from recent fires.

As I stood in the venue, the Men’s Smoking Room, I was drawn to the political and social implications of a place like this, then and now.

Layering these thoughts with the title of the concert ‘Birdsong at Dusk’ I found a beautiful allegory together with Edwardes’ evocative programming. Each work is an ode to place or birdlife that,

“sounds both familiar and intriguing –– a journey into nature via the concert hall”. Claire Edwardes

Given that the world is suffering, the country is on fire; my design is an ode to that pain. I have coded a world that is about containment.

The room contains the players and the audience in a shared space.

Unlike my usual works where there is no boundary between player and audience, here I have chosen to create a false quarantine. The players on risers slightly elevated, in stark light but for the bleeds of colours on the back wall. These bleeds being the colours of the Lorikeet picked up in the players costumes.

Outside on the verandah hang an installation by Lisa Kotoulas of birdcages and her flyscreen crow heads that dance in whatever breeze that may visit. The light shifting from the gentle morning sun to an apocalyptic sky that we have all been experiencing. The gum in the distance a reminder again of a country under threat.

From the audience view, they see three layers of image, whilst being soothed or stirred by the music performed inside. The comfort of sound and the need for respite from the real world. The program brings us closer to nature by isolating it into an aural experience. My design here is to allow the imagination to fly and take us places where we don’t readily access. To concentrate the mind and give us something to see on context of the sound. Felicity Wilcox‘s solo piece People of this place for bass clarinet sees Jason Noble caged in his detainment with the shadow of the rungs of a wooden ladder.

“Yurabirong is an expression of my interest in finding ways that allow the separate, yet coexisting cultures present in my experience of ‘place’ to connect and resonate more deeply” Felicity Wilcox

Here I am making the political statement, that we as a country remain caged in our own needs for separation, our own ideals that stops us from moving forward as a nation.

The turning point for me is with Taylor/Rose’s Bitter Springs Creek  which asks us to sit in stillness with a recording of birdsongs before it is joined by the musicians. Light does not move here but waits abated for Claire Edwardes to break the fourth wall (the quarantine) in the next piece, her own work Screechers & Sorrows  which she performs within the audience.

It is from here where my lighting design unpacks for final denuded scene of Gerard Brophy’s – Beautiful Birds (2019). The colours of the lorikeets that have stained the walls become a ghostly white as a bird in decline. The costumes a reminder of a bird that once was. A tribute to the 500 million + animals and plants that have been lost in the fires. This stark contrast with the music I hope brings us to hear the beauty in this work as a way to healing and to garner courage for real action in a warming world.

As we near the end of the concert the crows echo the colour of the burning sun. The natural beauty drowned out by the anthropogenic mismanagement of the environment.

Telling stories with musicians is not entirely new for me. What is new is that this collaboration with Ensemble Offspring has allowed me to design simply with a smaller palette to tell story with the unspoken, with my intricate use of space, light, source and staging.

‘Birdsong at Dusk’ will be performed at three different times from 3pm through to an 8pm. With this changing of light I have chosen to play with the natural light outside with the hyper-construction of the light inside.

Dusk traditionally presents a romantic palette, but given the current firestorms we are forced to confront a new kind of palette, one of a sunlit noir rather than the gentle northern hemisphere tones of the ‘Masters’.

Michelle St Anne is the Artistic Director of The Living Room Theatre which she founded in 2000. She also the Deputy Director of the Sydney Environment Institute –  a cross-disciplinary research hub at the University of Sydney, which provides a platform to inform public discourse and decision-making in relation to the impact of climate change on society and the environment.