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Interview with Libby Hathorn and J Andrew Johnstone

Libby Hathorn has written over forty books and won a host of awards for her work in literature, including the Centenary Medal in 2003 and an AWGIE for her libretto of the children’s opera based on her book, Grandma’s Shoes.

J Andrew Johnstone is a successful author and playwright.

The two worked together to adapt Libby’s celebrated children’s book, The Tram to Bondi Beach, for the stage.

We asked them about the importance of theatre for young people, about the challenges of adapting a picture book for the stage, and what they think Bondi Beach means for the Australian psyche.

Libby, what inspired you to write a children’s story set in 1930s Sydney?

Libby: One night I was listening to a program on the ABC and they played a recording of the actual sound of the tram, metal on metal. It brought back a sharp memory of travelling to and from school on the Sydney trams myself. Then I remembered a story my father had told me about being so proud to be a paperboy on the Bondi tram and the tough times of the Depression – that was the beginning of the story, The Tram to Bondi Beach.

The Tram to Bondi Beach has become an Australian children’s classic – how did the idea come about to adapt it for the stage?

Libby: When it first came out with Julie Vivas’s gorgeous illustrations the then NSW Film and Television Corporation wanted to make it an animated movie and I wrote a screenplay. One of the stories I’d heard many times was of when my father was not allowed to go to the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge in 1932 for some misdemeanour. Most of the people of Sydney gathered together for a huge ceremony, and walked across for the first time. He never forgave his mother and, although that’s not in the original story, I thought it could be a useful addition. The movie didn’t come to pass but I always thought a story set in the Depression would make a good drama. As Andrew had already written several plays I approached him with the idea of co-writing. Andrew had wonderful ideas for it and a high level of enthusiasm.

The Tram to Bondi Beach is a picture book with very limited dialogue – how difficult was it to rewrite the story as a stage play? What new things do you have to consider when writing for the stage?

Andrew: The original book is fantastic, and provided the overarching framework for the play. It was a great privilege to work with Libby on adapting the book to commemorate its 25th year of publication. When adapting a piece for the stage, especially for children, it is important that the words and actions provide a foundation for a rich verbal and visual telling of the story. Action and movement is critical for children and enacting an event rather than speaking about it is a great way to bring the audience into the experience – for example the scene where a Bondi rescue is performed. If you think about your childhood, and what you remember from reading and literature, most people will remember nursery rhymes. Rhyming is another powerful way to conceptualise a story, image or experience which is accessible for children, and makes a performance piece more interesting and possibly easier to learn. Like poetry it is economical in form, but brimming with meaning and imagery. The introduction of the Bondi Beach Chorus and rhyming chants provided an opportunity to create text that illuminated the plot, but also gives children the opportunity to use words and movement to create a picture of the amazing, invigorating and diverse elements of Bondi Beach. This is where theatre must rely on performance and spoken word to ‘visualise’ a story and convey meaning, which is theatre’s significant challenge.

Researching historical photographs and documents helped greatly in inspiring the ideas for dialogue, especially shots in the State Library of NSW archives showing carnivals at Bondi Beach in the 1930’s and people doing all sorts of quirky things – gymnastics, jujitsu tournaments, contests, Wild West shows – all celebrating the magic and diversity of beach life. Then there were shocking pictures – women and children being thrown out of their homes in the height of the Great Depression with what little they owned in bags and no shoes on their feet. Dialogue was inspired by a significant emotional response to the historical stimuli – the magic and excitement, and the pathos of suffering – all within the setting of ‘…flamin’ perfect Bondi Beach’.

The Tram to Bondi Beach is set in 1932, in a Sydney very different from today. The stage adaptation was first performed at the Bondi Pavilion in 2006. How did the children in the audience relate to Keiran’s story?

Libby: Because it was the story of a young boy trying to help his family who were ‘up against it’ in the Depression, it was clear the children in the audience very much identified with Keiran’s struggle. They were immersed in the story and especially liked the chorus work.

What was it like to see your characters come alive on stage?

Libby: Genevieve Lemon was an amazing director and seemed to bring the best out in the actors. Writing a book and having it published is a long, long process. It’s wonderful to see your play and live people taking a role you’ve helped create, speaking words you put in their mouth, in fact your characters ‘coming to life’ in close-up!

Andrew: Seeing characters alive on the stage is thrilling, and nerve-wracking, because it has all the risk and electricity of live performance. Performers bring an incredible range of nuances to a line of dialogue that often challenge what you think is the purpose of a line, and in fact the nuances can significantly alter a character from what the playwright thinks is written. That is what is so exciting about the collaborative magic of theatre: performers collaborate with the writer to give a character life and with the audience to complete the work through collaboratively engaging with their experience. When things go well, the performance ultimately exceeds the ambition of the text and something special has occurred in the experience of all the players – writer, performer, audience, and production team.

What do you find special about writing for young people?

Libby: I wrote poetry as a very young child myself to amuse my siblings and others. When I had children of my own, I not only had an audience but an inspiration. As a young librarian in a school I was also struck by the small collection of Australian stories and determined to write some of my own.

Andrew: Writing for young people is exciting because they imagine and experience more. Children are more open to ideas and to taking a journey within a story. They really do have a sense of play that is so important for the creation of an energetic and vibrant theatre experience. And they are capable of far more than we can imagine. When we first presented the script to the students at Bondi Beach Public School I wondered whether they would be able to learn all the lines, and deal with the script. When we arrived for the first reading many had already memorised the lines of their favourite characters, and a few had learned the lines of more than one character. That was brilliant: they’d only had the play for a couple of days.

Why do you think theatre is important for young people?

Libby: Apart from the fact that the theatre is a vivid and memorable way of ‘telling a story’, the experience of the play, both watching plays and taking part in them, engages children with drama in a strong and meaningful way. After all, an audience of children becomes an audience of adults and as Australians we need to be telling and performing, watching and reacting to a wide range of our own stories and cultivating discerning audiences of the future.

Andrew: Theatre is critical for young people primarily because in its execution it is a social and collaborative endeavour. You can only learn a language if you speak with people and freely make mistakes. Theatre is the same – it provides powerful psychological, social, and physical interaction between people that comes with great benefits: developing confidence; understanding different perspectives; learning about the diversity of humankind; self expression and developing a personal voice; group expression and developing a group voice; the ability to listen to others; becoming someone with the attributes of sharing; and learning that with others you can develop something new through shared endeavour. By its very nature, and broken down to its basics, theatre demands more from people in order to deliver a sensory and meaningful experience.

Libby, you founded the 100 Views project, encouraging schools and their students to celebrate an ‘icon’ in their community through poetry, artwork and a festival. Tell us what the project is about and what inspired it.

Libby: 100 Views is about engaging the school community though a celebration of the arts, and then linking communities in this way. It was planned as an inspirational approach to literacy learning. Children and teachers are encouraged to celebrate their community through a selected ‘icon’ (geographical or architectural) with a 100 Views, just as artist Hokusai celebrated and gave a snapshot of Japanese life in 1840’s through his inspiring 100 Views of Mt Fuji. Students write about their chosen ‘icon’, draw it and model it, research it and upload 100 examples of their work to share with their community. Then through the technology available to us, they share their work with other communities, taking it to ‘the world’.

The program has been run successfully in two Sydney primary schools and is soon to run in Nepal. We’re inservicing teachers in poetry and arts at a small school in Kathmandu run by a remarkable Foundation. Mount Everest will be their icon. We’re hoping very much to ‘build a bridge’ between Nepalese and Australian school children through the celebration of their own community. [For more information see:]

You both grew up in the Eastern suburbs of Sydney, what part do you think Bondi Beach plays in the Australian character?

Libby: I feel Bondi Beach is iconic. As a traveller in other parts of the world, the Sydney Opera House, Bondi Beach and Uluru are often cited as places people would like to visit. And I think that beaches play a particular part to Australians in that most of our big cities cling to the coast and the idea of surf, sand and sun pervades images of Australia.

Andrew: Having grown up in the East, and surfed for many years at Bondi, it is apparent that Bondi is often the place where things start, or are first seen. Women swimming at the beach in the early twentieth century, the advent of the bikini, Bondi’s part in the development of surfing in Australia, the first and possibly the most famous surf club in the world, and of course the Bondi Tram. Bondi is an icon of innocent Australian hedonism. More recently the counter-culture and the multicultural mix of urban life means Bondi attracts many alternative views, and often sees the first of emerging fashions, styles and trends. Of course the beach plays a central role in the psyche of the Australian character because most of us live on the coast, and have been dislodged by urbanisation from the original Australian bush character typified by the likes of Banjo Patterson. Photographers such as the Dupains and the Hoods have added to Bondi’s mythic status through their iconic images of Australian beach life, often taken during periods of great change, economic upheaval and uncertainty. More recently think of the image of two Aussie cops gunning down Roni Levy – a Frenchman on holiday who was suffering a psychiatric episode on the golden sands of Bondi, or episodes of Bondi Rescue showing tourists being brought back from the dead by Bondi Lifesavers – the myth and tragedy of the icon grows. Bondi has a magical light. Most mornings and evenings the sky is ablaze with amazing sunrises and sunsets of burning yellows, pastel oranges, blues, violets, greys and deep purples. The 1920s and 30s pastel facades of the buildings that line Campbell Parade blend with this light to create an amphitheatre of urban beauty that is unique and breathtaking. As the play says, ‘there’s nothing like saltwater to wash your troubles away…’ and perhaps Bondi is iconic because of this simple joy and healing it has given generation upon generation of punters and sun worshippers. What would Bondi have meant to the Gadigal people of Sydney before the arrival of Europeans? The great tragedy is that we will never know.

What are your current projects?

Libby: I have an Australian historical novel Georgiana: Woman of Flowers coming out this year with Hachette; and a collection of poetry All Along the River with ABC Books. I’d like to see a favourite book of mine The Lenski Kids and Dracula come to life on the stage. It’s been in print many a long year and it’s terrific that a new generation of kids get to read it. But I’d love the idea of those naughty kids being seen on stage!

Andrew: I am working on a new play for adults and two novels. The three of them are coming along well, but one will take over shortly and dominate until it is finished. In the meantime I try to catch as many Bondi waves as I can.

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