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TURNING The Snow Goose into a play was originally the brainchild of Simon Cooper (of Kalk Bay Theatre Productions). He was the one who approached James Cairns to adapt it, but he and director Jenine Collocott and actress Taryn Bennett ended up changing it completely from what was originally proposed.
“It’s very much an ensemble piece,” said Cairns.
Snow Goose debuted at last year’s National Arts Festival to very positive reviews and feedback, and returns to Grahamstown after this June run at the Kalk Bay Theatre.
Cairns is going to be busy at this year’s festival, since he will also be on stage in Tara Notcutt’s sardonic black comedy Three Little Pigs and Jenine Collocott’s physical theatre piece Hamlet!
He has been travelling the world’s big Fringe Festivals with Three Little Pigs, which goes to Joburg and New York later this year after one last Grahamstown run.
Cairns thinks last year’s Edinburgh Festival was fantastic because he got to see international productions, which exposed him to “amazing stuff and horrific stuff”.
“We realised we’re not that c**p, we’re actually great,” he said.
He and fellow actors Rob van Vuuren and Albert Pretorius became quite adept at setting up and striking their own set, so now they can all count that skill on their CVs.
While he was acting in that particular comedy he also wrote his own material (like Sie Weiss Alles for which he won a 2011 Silver Ovation Award at the festival), though he calls himself too much of a control freak to ever really like directing. The meticulous nature helps, though, when it comes to setting up backstage for Snow Goose, in which they use several masks which have to be lined up just so behind the scenes.
“You are screwed if you line them up wrong,” he says. Cairns vaguely recalls reading Paul Gallico’s novella, The Snow Goose: A Story of Dunkirk, as a child but re-reading it now as an adult was to adapt it so he paid special attention to the mechanics of the book, not just the story.
He describes the way Gallico wrote it as “sparse prose” and said adapting the efficiently written story which spans 10 years was an incredible challenge.
“He’ll go something like, ‘and three years later’ and if you’re doing it on stage, you can’t just say... well, you can, but it’s lazy to just go, ‘and then this happened’ and just narrate it.
“For example, in the book, the community around where the story takes place doesn’t like the protagonist and in the book there’s very little mention of them, but you’ve got to see the people, see them going, ‘we hate so and so’,” said Cairns.
(Snow Goose is set on the desolate Essex marshes. A young girl brings a wounded snow goose to a reclusive artist living in a lighthouse and the two become friends. They nurse the bird back to health and it revisits the lighthouse on its migratory flight every year.)
“You need to create the same world visually that the writer achieved textually. “That means filling in the blanks, because the blanks you leave in theatre are different to what you leave in literature and we decided to go with mask style because it forces us as performers to strip things down in the same way that the prose is quite stripped down.
“Masks can only do one thing at a time, it forces you to be pointed and deliberate with the actions the audience sees. It allows for the same kind of sentimentality Gallico put into the novella, to be on the stage.
“If a mask goes through emotional turmoil, it’s a lot more sentimental than if an actor on their face goes through the emotion.
“It’s an incredibly sentimental story. It is not a ‘get the girl, kill the baddie’ kind of story. It’s there to engage the emotions specifically and it makes no bones about it, it’s not by accident.”