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Exploration . . . The cast rehearses for the world premiere of Owls Do Cry. PHOTO: SUPPLIED

Janet Frame’s novel Owls Do Cry has never been adapted for the stage. But that’s about to change, with a performance based on the landmark New Zealand novel set to premiere in Frame’s childhood hometown of Oamaru next month. Rebecca Ryan talks to director Julie Nolan who is bringing the novel to life.

Julie Nolan has always Janet Frame’s work.

The Auckland-based director studied the Oamaru writer at university and when she decided to focus on a female writer for her next theatre project, Frame immediately came to mind.

Her original pitch was an adaption of Frame’s An Angel at My Table for the stage.

“As a New Zealand writer of absolute brilliance I thought ‘oh my God, I would love to do that’, so I got hold of the Janet Frame Trust.

“We had some long, long chats and [they] kept saying Owls Do Cry has never been done . . . and spoke to me really clearly and specifically about why no-one had been granted the rights before.

“It was really around the way people assumed they could put Janet Frame into the centre of the narrative, particularly around the issue of mental health . . . it was so tedious to the family and kind of demeaning, really, that they’d just never given the rights. They were really protective of this novel.”

By the end of the conversation, Nolan decided she would send the Janet Frame Trust a vision pitch for Owls do Cry

“I had to be really honest about how we’d approach it, and we’d approach it in a visual, physical style, really talking to the metaphor of the book, really talking to the beauty and it would be non-narrative.

“It wouldn’t be nostalgic or timepiece or literal.”

Her pitch was accepted and Red Leap Theatre set out to bring the novel to life.

Owls Do Cry tells the story of the Withers siblings – Daphne, Chicks, Toby and Francie – and their lives in small town New Zealand following a family tragedy.

The challenge was making Read Leap Theatre’s own contemporary adaption in a way that was respectful to an “incredible book and incredible writer”.

“The book itself has been written so beautifully. It’s not our job to rewrite the book, so all we can do is bring our personal response to it now, in a contemporary environment,” Nolan said.

Frame herself considered Owls Do Cry to be an exploration rather than a novel – and that was Red Leap Theatre’s approach, too.

Julie Nolan

For Nolan, the real beauty of the novel was what was not said, especially around the issues of grief, family, small town life and mental health.

“The work on the floor is to keep digging into what’s not being said, because at the end of the day that’s kind of the heart of it.

“That’s the rich gold that we’re mining for in this work.”

The cast has been working with dramaturge Heather Timms to develop the script.

“We’re using the book as our anchor point . . . and we’re kind of writing the script off the floor,” Nolan said.

“So as we go along we’re improvising and making scenes and . . . we’re interspersing it with passages from the book as well.

“That’s the balance of getting bits of the language that’s specific to the book and how we weave that into what essentially will be a physical script.”

Nothing Red Leap Theatre did was traditional, Nolan said.

Rather than creating a direct narrative staging of Owls Do Cry, the company has utilised Frame’s approach to character, imagery and poetry to create a multi-disciplinary work.

“It’s not abstract theatre for abstract theatre’s sake, we’re really trying to get the essence of it, the feeling of it.

“We’re also using song . . . we found that, as a tool, to be a really great way that you could actually hear the words of the book itself.”

There was pressure that came with adapting the novel for the stage for the first time, but Nolan said the cast had chosen to see it as a “really beautiful opportunity” rather than a weight or burden.

Red Leap Theatre also decided to make its world premiere of Owls Do Cry in Frame’s childhood hometown of Oamaru.

Financially, it didn’t stack up – but intuitively, it felt right, Nolan said.

“We could premiere it anywhere . . . but we thought it’d be amazing to premiere it in Oamaru.

“Plus you’ve got a beautiful opera house, so that was a real drawcard for us as well.”

The cast and crew arrive in Oamaru a week before opening night.

“We’ve got quite a luxurious production week, so we’re really keen to invite people into our process, set up some time for people to meet the company and it’ll be really great to chat with the community,” she said.

“Theatre is all about community . . . and we wanted to have a sense that we can engage with the community in a somewhat meaningful way and see how that affects the work as well. There’s room for the work to be affected by what people come and talk to us about.”

The creative team is female-led, with award-winning choreographer Malia Johnston and Penny Fitt leading design, working alongside Nolan and Timms.

The cast is made up of: Ross McCormack, Margaret-Mary Hollins, Hannah Lynch, Ella Becroft, Arlo Gibson and Comfrey Sanders.

After performances in Oamaru on October 4 and 5, during the second Waitaki Arts Festival, the cast will head back to Auckland for a full season at Q Theatre, from October 17 to November 2.